The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Margaret Aitken and Lenny Wen
I'm excited to bring you my interview with two amazing women who teamed up to create a truly delightful picture book.
Debut author, Margaret Aitken is a Scottish writer for children. As a child, she could often be found outside hoping to stumble upon the characters of Brambly Hedge and Beatrix Potter. After studying medicine at the University of Glasgow, she worked as a doctor in the village of Doune, a filming location for Outlander and Game of Thrones.
Along with her husband and three sons, Margaret is currently enjoying life in a New England-style farmhouse in Maine. When she isn’t writing she can mostly be found at the beach, in the garden, or baking something gluten-free.
Lenny Wen is a children’s book illustrator and author born and raised in Indonesia. She currently lives in the countryside of Austria, surrounded by nature and a castle.
She loves to draw whimsical, spooky, funny, and nostalgic childhood illustrations, possessing a mixture of storytelling, imagination, and emotion. When not illustrating or writing, you might find her staring at the trees, doodling hundreds of bears in her sketchbook, filling up her cup with coffee, or hugging her dog a bit too much.
She’s the illustrator of 9 books including, My Little Golden Book About Philadelphia by Jennifer Dussling (2022), How We Say I Love You by Nicole Chen (2022), Better Together! by Amy Robach (2021), Halloween Is Coming! by Cal Everett (2021), and Brave Bessie: Queen of the Sky by Roda Ahmed (2021).
Their newest picture book collaboration, Old Friends, releases tomorrow.
Welcome Margaret and Lenny,
Hi Maria, thank you for having us. I’m excited to be here!
Hi Maria, so happy to be here! Thanks for having us.
Tell us a little about how you got started writing or illustrating? Where/when do you work? What is your favorite type of book to write or illustrate?
MARGARET – I fell in love with children’s books after the birth of my eldest son. As a baby, he was a bookworm who demanded to be read a constant stream of stories. As I read more and more picture books, a voice inside me wondered if I could write one myself. It wasn’t until several years later, in January 2019, that I listened to the voice, sat down, and did my research. I joined Julie Hedlund’s 12x12 challenge and immersed myself in the Kidlit community online. I quickly realized that I had found my passion and my people!
I work at my desk, tucked away in the corner of our living room, looking over a grassy meadow. If I’m lucky, I can watch deer munching the wildflowers while I work. With three kids under 9-years-old, I squeeze in writing time whenever I can.
LENNY – My story is cliché; I started illustrating when I was a kid. My childhood was challenging, so drawing and storytelling were my escape. I felt less alone while doodling and making up random stories on paper.
I work at my desk in my tiny yet messy room. And my favorite type of book to write or illustrate changes from time to time. I like to be able to work on a different range of stories since I quickly get bored. My ultimate dream for the near future is to illustrate /write a horror or detective story for kids.
Margaret, I am impressed - 3 kids under 9! What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
MARGARET – At school, English was the subject I struggled with most. I had a strong sense that I wasn’t good at it and so I concentrated on sciences and math. Looking back, we did very little creative writing and lots of writing analytical essays, which I didn’t particularly enjoy. At age 14, I would have been shocked to discover that I’d be author one day!
LENNY – When I was a kid, I was obsessed with horror stories. I read a bunch of horror manga and Rl.Stine’s books. Don’t get me wrong, I was very fearful (and still is). I used to write many horror stories when I was a kid.
Lenny, that certainly explains the previous comment! Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or your favorite book as a child?
MARGARET – This is the hardest question! I will give a few: Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Beatrix Potter, Jill Barklem, A.A.Milne, and as I got older I loved Ann. M. Martin, Roald Dahl, and Enid Blyton.
LENNY – Grew up in Indonesia, in a low-income family, I barely read children's books. The stories I read were mostly classic tales from Hans Christian Andersen or Brothers Grimm. My favorite illustrator was Marcel Marlier. As I got older, I loved RL. Stine and mostly read Japanese comic books (Manga).
I love asking this question because I get to discover authors and illustrators I was unfamiliar with. Margaret, what was your inspirations for Old Friends?
MARGARET – One morning, an idea came to me about a child who was an “old soul”—someone who liked doing things often associated with older people e.g. gardening, knitting. I thought it could be a great opportunity to address the stereotypes of older people we often see in books and the media.
From my reading, I knew there were lots of picture books about the grandchild/grandparent relationship but not as many about friendship between a child and a senior. I had experienced first-hand the benefits of young children socializing with seniors through my son’s preschool trips to the local care home (pre-COVID, of course!) It was a message I thought was important and underrepresented in picture books.
As I wrote my first draft, I remembered my brother who, at eight years old, dressed up as an elderly lady for Halloween one year (he won first prize!) It sparked the idea for Marjorie, my main character, to disguise herself as a senior. My story idea was born!
It's so cool how ideas and memories merged into the inspiration for the story. Lenny, what was it about the manuscript of Old Friends which initially intrigued you?
LENNY – I mean, which illustrator wouldn’t be intrigued by a story about a kid disguised as an elderly and sneaking into the senior club?
I instantly fell in love with Margaret's story from the first read. The balance of humor and heart is what makes this story so brilliant.
And your cover captures that fun and humor beautifully. Margaret, how many drafts did Old Friends take? And how long did it take to go from idea to publication?
MARGARET – It’s tough to remember exactly, but I know it was relatively quick! Things seem MUCH slower these days. I wrote the initial draft in February 2020, and signed with my agent in March 2020. We worked on several drafts of the story before it went out on submission. Erin Siu, the editor at Feiwel & Friends, asked for an R&R in April 2020, and the offer came in the summer of 2020.
Wow, that's lightning fast! Lenny, how many revisions did it take to create the illustrations for Old Friends?
LENNY – It's hard to tell exactly how many revisions; for each phase (from character designs to final), there were several rounds of revisions. The process wasn't always linear. We went back and forth to tweak things.
Is there something you both want your readers to know about, or take away from, Old Friends?
MARGARET – I want readers to know that the best kind of friends are those you can be yourself around. There are like-minded people out in the world who will ‘get you,’ but sometimes it takes being true to yourself to find them.
LENNY – I hope the readers can see that youngsters and seniors aren’t always what people usually think. Young doesn’t mean you only enjoy playing with toys or can’t sit still; Old doesn't mean you can't have fun or become dull. Most importantly, I hope the readers have a fun read and laugh.
Remembering to be ourselves and take the time to see others for who they are is something we definitely need right now. Lenny, many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in Old Friends? Could you share one or more with us?
LENNY – In the scene where Marjorie was introduced to the group, there’s a photo of Granny (who wore the same cardigan as Marjorie) between Arthur and Patrick. I secretly thought, how wonderful if Granny actually belonged to the group.
Lenny, that's the perfect! I also love the "shelter's" cat you added to the illustrations. Margaret, what is the hardest or most challenging thing for you about writing children’s books? How about writing Old Friends in particular?
MARGARET – Generally, I think it is tough to make a story ‘stand out’. There are so many wonderful books out there already. To sell a story in today’s market, it must add something to children’s literature that isn’t there already. Not an easy feat!
In terms of Old Friends, I think the biggest challenge was balancing the heart and humor. In the story, Marjorie has recently lost her Granny, but I didn’t want the book to feel melancholy. My editor, Erin Siu, helped me to fine-tune this balance during the editing process.
Interesting, I just thought Granny was living far away - maybe b/c she "didn't" let knots ruin her knitting. You did an amazing job at being subtle. Lenny, you’ve illustrated three books in 2021 and now three books for 2023, was any one more challenging than the others? Was there anything particularly challenging about the illustrations for Old Friends?
LENNY – There actually will be four books for 2023, including my debut author/illustrator book: Spicy Spicy Hot! Since I wrote and illustrated it, that book has been the most challenging so far. The process of making that book was so intense.
[No cover, yet. But isn't this a great teaser image?]
Since I fell in love instantly with Old Friends, I didn’t have much problem with the illustration process. The most challenging part was probably drawing the dancing scenes. I looked at several references and watched dancing videos to get it right.
Congrats on your author/illustrator debut! And that sounds like fun research. Margaret, did anything surprise or amaze you when you first got to see Lenny’s illustrations? What is your favorite spread?
MARGARET – It was such a memorable moment, opening up the file and seeing Lenny’s sketches for the first time. I was blown away! I was delighted that Lenny captured the spirit of the story that I wanted to tell. The seniors in the story are diverse, vibrant, and full of fun—exactly what I had hoped for.
One surprise was the addition of a little cat friend—now named Cha-cha—who wasn’t in the text.
Text © Margaret Aitken. 2022. Image © Lenny Wen, 2022.
My favorite spread shows Marjorie’s transformation into “Undercover Granny." Lenny has such a talent for capturing expressions and humor. It was exactly how I had pictured the scene.
Lenny, is there a spread that you were especially excited about or proud of? Which is your favorite spread?
Text © Margaret Aitken. 2022. Image © Lenny Wen, 2022.
LENNY – My favorite spread is the dancing scene where Marjorie tries to escape. Types are always an element of the composition, so I was so satisfied when I could incorporate the types into the layout and make it fun.
These are both such great spreads. Have you both found anything particularly helpful in keeping you inspired and writing or illustrating these past couple of years?
MARGARET – I have been incredibly grateful for writing these past couple of years. It has been a lifeline for me to have something that is my own, that I can immerse myself in and ‘escape.’ Without writing, I would have found the past few years much more challenging.
LENNY – In these past couple of years, I have learned that it is ok to take a break, to slow down, do something unnecessary to keep me sane, be unproductive, or do things that have nothing to do with illustrating or writing. Giving myself permission and being deeply aware of my feelings helps me find a new story and unique perspective.
Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
MARGARET – I don’t have any specifics that I can share at the moment, but I have a couple of picture book projects that I am working on and a middle-grade fantasy novel that I am desperate to finish.
LENNY – I’m illustrating two picture books (Empanadas for Everyone written by Jackie Azua Kramer and Smiling Eyes written by Linda Sue Park) and one chapter book (unannounced yet) at the moment. I also hope to share the news of my second author/illustrator picture book soon!
We'll have to keep our eyes open for future announcements and these books. Last question, what is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or one you’re longing to visit. Why?
MARGARET – Living in Maine, my favorite National Park is Acadia in Bar Harbor. I visited with my family in 2020, and it was soothing for my soul to wander along the forest trails discovering secret beaches and incredible panoramic views.
Image © Sargent Penobscot, 2016.
LENNY – My favorite park is Grüner See in Styria, Austria. During summer, it’s a lake, but in winter, the surrounding area is used as a county park.
Image © Martin Dunst, 2014.
Thank you Margaret and Lenny for stopping by and sharing a bit about yourselves and your new book. It was delightful to chat with you both.
Be sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF review of Old Friends.
To find out more about Margaret Aitken, or contact her:
To find out more about Lenny Wen, or contact her: