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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Lisa Robinson and Lauren Simkin Berke

Lisa Robinson is a psychiatrist who works with children, teens, and adults and a children's book author. She has an MFA in Creative Writing for Young People from Lesley University where she now teaches an elective course, Creativity and the Unconscious Mind. When she's not working or writing, she's wire walking or flying through the air with her daughters on aerial silks. She lives in Massachusetts.

For additional information on Lisa, see our earlier interviews (here) and (here).

Lauren Simkin Berke is a Brooklyn based artist, illustrator, educator, and, when time allows, publisher of art books, zines, and utilitarian ephemera, under the name Captain Sears Press. Lauren draws for clients such as The New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, Virginia Quarterly Review, and has illustrated book covers including Katie Rain Hill's Rethinking Normal, the Paris Review's The Writer's Chapbook, and the first edition of Susan Stryker's Transgender History. Lauren teaches in the MFA in Illustration program at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Lisa's newest picture book and Lauren's debut picture book, Were I Not A Girl: The Inspiring and True Story of Dr. James Barry, released October 20th.

Welcome Lisa & Lauren.

Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write and illustrate? How long have you been writing and illustrating?)

LISA: I write whenever I can—in the interstices of the many different responsibilities I juggle: my professional work as a psychiatrist, teaching an online writing class for an MFA program, and parenting two teens. Some weeks I have no time to write, other weeks I find 5-10 hours to write. I’ve been writing since 2007.

LAUREN: I consider drawing to be my first language, and making images and things has always been a part of my life. I have been working as an editorial and book illustrator since around 2005, having graduated from SVA's Illustration as Visual Essay program in 2003. My normal working hours are between 11am and 6pm, though I'm often working much of my other waking hours. Tasks I am doing during these designated hours includes clerical work, drawing for clients and for myself, as well as planning, plotting, and playing.

What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

LISA: When I was in college, my parents were working as diplomats in the American Embassy in Moscow . . . one winter break, I cross country skied through Gorky Park. It was an amazing outing!

LAUREN: Jon Sciezka was my 5th and 6th grade history teacher. I recall his class being very interactive. While studying the American Revolution I recall doing a video project, as though we were tv news reporters covering the war, which we filmed in Central Park. The True Story of the Three Little Pigs came out when I was in 6th grade, and I believe that was the last year he taught.

Oh my goodness! What amazing life experiences. Thank you so much for sharing. Lisa, what was the inspiration for Were I Not A Girl: The Inspiring and True Story of Dr. James Barry?

I first learned about James Barry from a book review of a biography about his life. I was intrigued by the struggles of his childhood, his public health advocacy, his outspoken nature, his nomadic lifestyle. The more I learned, the more I wanted to take on the challenge of telling his story to young readers.

It's fun to see where stories come from. Lauren, what about the Were I Not A Girl manuscript appealed to you as an illustrator?

There are lots of reasons this manuscript was appealing to me: I like doing research, creating accurate period illustrations, and as a trans illustrator I felt it was an important project to be a part of…not to mention it was the first time I was asked to illustrate a picture book, which I have always wanted to be a part of my illustration practice. There is so much of trans history that has yet to be presented to a general audience and having the opportunity to create the way James is introduced to young minds was pretty irresistible.

I am so glad you got the chance to illustrate a picture book. You did an amazing job. Lisa, what's something you want your readers to know about Were I Not A Girl?

I hope that readers will feel inspired by James Barry’s courage to live his truth and speak up for his ideals at a time when it was extraordinarily difficult for him to do so.

Lauren, many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in Were I Not A Girl? Could you share one or more with us?

My mother collected furniture made in Portsmouth, NH in the mid to late 1700s. I was working from the house she lived in when I was creating the illustrations for the book, which gave me the opportunity to use her collection as reference, to augment the research I’d done on Late-Georgian interiors. This shows up in two places: the sideboard on the cover, and the chair with the woven seat in the two spreads that take place in James’ childhood bedroom. The vegetable bins in the background of the grocery store spread are based on the produce market I went to with my grandmother as a child. In the library spread, there is a book that’s open and on display in the bookshelves, which are two pages from Dessine d'Apres Nature by N. H. Jacob, which I had hoped to be a more prominent element of the illustration early on. While the text in the book mentions James’ uncle, whose name he took as his own, I don’t think it mentions he was a painter. The painting on the wall on the page where James is looking for governess jobs is by James Barry, the painter (“A Portrait of Christopher Nugent”). In the section of my website devoted to James, I have diagrams that include these details, as well as notes on reference material used throughout.

Wow. I can't wait to go back and look for these items. As a child, who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book?

LISA: I lived in London during 5th-7th grade and was a big reader of fantasy novels. I particularly loved reading E. Nesbit’s stories.

LAUREN: My favorite author, illustrator, and book have been the same since I was a child. My favorite author is Ursula K. Le Guin. My favorite book is The Alien Diaries, which is by my favorite illustrator, Maris Bishofs.

What is the hardest thing for you about writing or illustrating picture books? How about with Were I Not A Girl? Was ‘Own Voices’ an issue for you in writing or illustrating this biography?

LISA: Hmmm, there are so many challenging aspects to writing a picture book! For this nonfiction picture book, I found it hard to simplify a complex life into a straightforward and sensitive story.

As regards the #ownvoices issue, I first approached James Barry’s story from the perspective of a woman physician, thinking (incorrectly) that his story was a piece of history about women being barred from practicing medicine. However, as I researched, it soon became clear that Barry was not a woman but a transgender man. So, I sought out feedback from individuals in the transgender community. Several transgender writer acquaintances read the story with care and thoughtfulness and gave me their ideas and advice about the text. In addition, I asked my editor to try to find an illustrator in the LGBTQ+ community (and was thrilled when the editor and art director showed me Lauren Simkin Berke’s art and told me they were willing to illustrate the story!)

LAUREN: I have spent the bulk of my career working as an editorial illustrator, which is an area of illustration that works with fairly tight deadlines. Getting used to the pace of the picture book publishing has been challenging, but I'm sure at some point I will get used to it.

Being the only person working on a book who shares the identity of the book's subject can be complicated, as it requires clearly understanding why certain things are inappropriate, which often means having to investigate why something makes you feel bad, and being able to clearly explain your feelings to those you are working with. I did my best at this as I could, but I was not always successful, either because I was unable to recognize or fully unpack certain reactions I had, or because I was unable to communicate about them effectively.

It's obvious that you both took great care to portray James Barry’s life accurately and sensitively. Lisa, where you surprised by anything in the illustrations when you first got to see them? What is your favorite spread?

I was delighted and thrilled when I first saw Lauren’s art for the book. The illustrations struck me as sophisticated and brilliant and thoughtful. Lauren had done their own meticulous research for the images and that attention to detail was immediately apparent.

Text © Lisa Robinson, 2020. Image © Lauren Simkin Berke, 2020.

My first favorite spread is the medical amphitheater at the University of Edinburgh. I love the circular sweep of the theater and how the images fill the page. My second favorite is the last page with the drawing of James’ fancy shoes. I love it.

Lauren, is there a spread that you were especially excited about or proud of? What is your favorite spread?

Text © Lisa Robinson, 2020. Image © Lauren Simkin Berke, 2020.

I tend to prefer images in sequence, or juxtaposition, so my favorite spread is what I think of as James' adult life montage: delivering babies, fighting in a duel, and falling in love.

What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (either as a child, now as a writer, or both.)

LISA: My greatest source of inspiration comes from being a voracious reader. I read the newspaper, novels, online articles, children’s books, magazines—whatever I can, whenever I can. Most of my ideas are sparked by tidbits that I read.

LAUREN: I don’t really believe in inspiration. I believe in extreme curiosity, observation of the beauty in life, an openness to the unexpected, a dedication to rigorous research and one’s personal creative process, and then, just getting to work.

Even though approached differently, I think curiosity seems to be at the root of your creativity for both of you. Is there anything about writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started?

LISA: I wish I’d known how much patience, persistence, and rejection-tolerance I’d need. Although, perhaps if I’d known, I might not have persisted! You never know how much rejection you can handle until you’re in the thick of it and persevering in spite of it.

LAUREN: From a very technical standpoint, I wish I had found a way to understand clearly how my art director and editor were viewing the work I sent in, so I could understand their feedback with more context. We might have had fewer rounds of revisions if I had done this.

So, how are you staying creative these days? What are you doing to “prime the well”?

LISA: It was particularly hard for me to be creative at the beginning of the pandemic. I was so focused on taking care of my family, my patients, and my morale that I had no energy left for creativity. This resulted what felt like a crisis: I stopped writing altogether. I forced myself to resume writing with 10-15 minutes of freewriting every morning. That ritual led me back to a more regular writing routine. But the current crises we all face (political and public health) continue to intermittently paralyze my writing life. Now I know to find my way back with the 10-minute freewriting routine.

LAUREN: I do not have the time to do all the things I would like to do, and I don't really take breaks. I live and work in the same space, and my life is more about drawing, creativity, and making things, than it is about anything else. I am currently: working on materials for my spring and summer courses, as well as doing material explorations in preparation for spring 2022, co-organizing A.I.R. Gallery's participation in Printed Matter's Virtual Art Book Fair, producing merchandise that will be for sale in various places, and preparing a pandemic edition of my annual New Year's mailer, which goes out to art directors and designers.

Great suggestion Lisa. Wow Lauren, it doesn't sound like you've been slowed down at all. Are there any new projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

LISA: I’m always working on a variety of picture books, nonfiction and fiction. In addition, I completed 50,000 words for Nanowrimo this November; I was worldbuilding and brainstorming for a middle grade novel I’m considering writing.

LAUREN: I have a lot of book projects I am developing, some further along than others, and I'm in the process of seeking representation, so I can't really share any tidbits, but hopefully that will change soon.

I wish you both luck with these endeavors and will keep an eye out for future projects. What is your favorite animal? Why?

LISA: I confess I’m a cat person. I love dogs, too, (I grew up with border collies) but I’ve always owned a cat (or two or three). Although others might disagree, I find them to be loving, cuddly, and sociable.

LAUREN: I like most animals (humans not always though), but my favorite animals to draw are alpacas.

Lauren, that's awesome. No one's mentioned alpacas before. Thank you both for stopping by to share about yourselves and your newest picture book.

Be sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Were I Not A Girl: The Inspiring and True Story of Dr. James Barry.

To find out more about Lisa Robinson, or get in touch with her:

To find out more about Lauren Simkin Berke, or get in touch with them:


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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