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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Matt Forrest Esenwine and Patricia Pessoa

I have the distinct pleasure, not only to interview a good friend - Matt Forest Esenwine, but to also interview the talented illustrator - Patricia Pessoa about their creativity and creation of the stunning rhyming picture book I Am Today. Which true to form for much of 2021, has had its launch date moved a few times. So, instead of a "day before" post, I get to offer you a special sneak peek at their book coming in January.

Matt Forrest Esenwine is a poet, author, voice actor, a professional radio broadcaster, and commercial producer. While numerous adult-oriented poems have been published in various journals and books, it's Matt’s love of children's poetry - writing it and teaching it - that truly motivates him.

He’s the author of Flashlight Night (Boyds Mills & Kane, 2017) and Elliot the Heart-Shaped Frog (Rainstorm, 1/2021), and co-author of Once Upon Another Time (Beaming Books 3/2021) with Charles Ghigna and Don't Ask a Dinosaur (POW! Kids, 2018) with Deborah Bruss.

One can find his children’s poems in numerous anthologies including Lee Bennett Hopkins’ Construction People and School People (Wordsong, 2020/2018), J. Patrick Lewis’ The Poetry of US and The National Geographic Book of Nature Poetry (National Geographic Children's Books, 2018/2015), and 'Highlights for Children' magazine.

Patricia Pessoa grew up in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where as a child she began her illustration career by making free drawings for friends in school. Years later she graduated from The Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro with a degree in Fine Arts, focusing on what she enjoyed the most, children’s book illustrations. Currently Patricia lives in England, and her hobbies include embroidery, ceramics, video games and annoying her cat, Blue.

Their newest picture book I Am Today, will be available January 23rd.

Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write or illustrate? How long have you been writing or illustrating? What is your favorite type of book to write or illustrate?)

MATT: As a stay-at-home dad, I write whenever I have the opportunity – this usually means whenever the kids are at school, in-between chores like dishes, laundry, and wood-chopping. I’d love to be able to have a regular schedule, but it’s just not possible.

I feel like I’ve been writing forever. While cleaning out my parents’ house a couple years ago I came across several boxes of old paperwork and drawings from school, and one of the items was a 4-page book of poetry I wrote for my mom when I was about 10! I began learning more about poetry in high school and continued writing; eventually I had several adult-themed poems published in various anthologies and journals, but I didn’t get serious about writing for children until 2009 when I joined my first SCBWI critique group. I love writing poetry and have several poetry collection manuscripts I’m subbing, but so far editors seem to prefer my picture books!

PATRICIA: I share a tiny studio with my husband in our flat in England, and it is full of plants, paint tubes, paper, brushes, yarn, colored pencils, crayons...and every day I feel like I need a bit more of all of these things. The first story I ever illustrated was The Princess and the Pea for my Illustration classes in University, back in 2013 or 14. It wasn’t even a fully colored version of it, I only created the compositions and finished the linework, but it was enough to make me decide what I wanted to be. When I’m making a book for someone, I like to be able to show what I can do as an illustrator, to show what I see beyond the words. I love fairy tales, magical adventures and crazy creatures, and when you’re working for kids you can bring all of these things to the narrative, even if the story is about an ordinary event in life.

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

MATT: Having spent years in radio before leaving to be a work-from-home dad, I had the opportunity to meet all sorts of cool, interesting people. I’ve taken Alice Cooper to the movies; I’ve hung out on one of Def Leppard’s tour buses; I’ve discussed NAFTA with Bernie Sanders; and have interviewed all sorts of cool folks, from astronauts to former terrorists!

PATRICIA: I am addicted to Raspberry jam on toast. This has been my breakfast for months! Also, I’m fulfilling my teenage dream of learning how to play drums. Right now I only know a handful of beats, but ask me again in a few years!

Wow! Matt, what was the inspiration for I Am Today?

MATT: Back in late summer 2020, I decided I wanted to write something to help empower kids during the pandemic; so many, including my own, felt they had no control over what was happening. School was at home, play dates were via computer, vacations were halted. It occurred to me: kids are always being told they are "the Future" - but what if a child doesn't want to wait, to make a difference?

So I began brainstorming ideas by doing something unusual: attempting to come up with a non-grammatical title. I figured a non-grammatical title could be potentially very poetic and thought-provoking – and could likely lead to an attention-getting cover! I thought about it for quite a while and eventually the phrase, "I am today" popped into my head. I loved it! Once I had that to hold onto, the concept for the book - that kids are always being told they are "the Future" - came together pretty quickly. What if a child doesn't want to wait to be "the Future," in order to make a difference in the world?

What a cool way to take a premise (or hook) and create a book. I love that it came when you got the title, instead of the title coming from the manuscript. Patricia, what about the I Am Today manuscript appealed to you as an illustrator?

PATRICIA: When I read it for the first time I saw a chance to go in so many directions! I spent a few days thinking about the narrative, and it felt so good that it was up to me to decide everything. I was trusted with an amazing story by an author that didn’t even know me but believed in my work! I saw that I Am Today had the potential to tell kids how important they are and I wanted to be part of it.

I adore the story you created in your illustrations. What's something you each want your readers to know about I Am Today?

MATT: Aside from my hope that kids will find a little bit of strength from reading it, I think it’s important for readers, and especially children’s lit authors, to note that Patricia is really the one telling the story, not me.

I love writing loose narratives, poetic text that creates a structure by which an illustrator can take over and really have fun. I did that with Flashlight Night and Once Upon Another Time, and I do the same thing here, albeit using a different tone. I Am Today is a story about a little girl who discovers that sea turtles (and the environment in general) are threatened due to pollution, she contemplates what to do, hatches a plan, gets the town to respond, everyone pitches in, the beach is cleaned up, and at the end she is happy and satisfied that she did her part to make the world a better place…yet, I don’t say any of that! Literally NONE of that is my text – Patricia came up with the entire narrative!

What I did was create what I call a ‘story skeleton’: a loose narrative arc that begins with a young person recognizing their desire to make a difference, understanding their life experiences and what they’ve been taught, deciding they can take action, getting excited about the changes they want to see made, and being happy and confident in their decision. In my text, there are no turtles, no pollution, no factory, no names, no origami. The story I wrote is simply a narrative arc that Patricia was able to seize upon to tell her story. And I absolutely love creating picture books like this, that really need both text and art working together in harmony.

PATRICIA: I want the kids to know that it is all true. Maybe not the fantastic things we see happening to the girl and her dog, but that the things they have to say are important and they can make a big difference even with small actions. Maybe even the fantastic things are true too, just saying… Hopefully, the adults will see these things too. When I was a kid, I thought adults knew how to sort every problem in a very adult way. And now as an adult, I can say that I feel lost sometimes. I overthink things that could be sorted with a little bit of creativity. To do my work, I try my best to see the world as a kid. I wish I could simplify things like they do.

You have both created a very special book that is a humorous and poignant call to action for kids. Patricia, many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in I Am Today? Could you share one or more with us?

PATRICIA: Yes, I did! On the spread with the family photos on the wall I found a chance to use the work of some of my favourite artists as reference to illustrate the family’s life. One of them is “ The Crown of Daisies,” from Maurice Denis. The Origami idea is inspired by my dad. He used to sit for hours making little Origami animals and flowers. Also, pasta with meatballs was one of the first things I learned how to cook, and was a favourite for a long time in my house.

Thank you for sharing these treasures. It made me take a closer look at the photographs. Matt, what is the hardest or most challenging thing for you about writing children’s books? Since I Am Today is a more serious book than Elliot the Heart-Shaped Frog or Don't Ask a Dinosaur, did you find it more challenging?

MATT: I honestly find fun, cheerful books like those harder to write! I don’t know why, either – I think I have a really good sense of humor and I love comedy. But when it comes to picture books, most are very quiet, lyrical, and thoughtful. Perhaps it has to do with my poetic background?

That could be. While I like your cheerful books, Flashlight Night is still my favorite. Though I have to say I Am Today is a close second. Patricia, what is your favorite medium to work with? Your least favorite or maybe one you’re itching to try? What was the hardest part about illustrating I Am Today?

PATRICIA: I’ve been working digitally for a few years now, and even though I love painting that way and spending hours testing new digital brushes, at the moment I’m kinda obsessed with gouache and any traditional media. Back when I was studying Fine Arts in university I tried so many different mediums, even made my own paints with egg whites and beeswax, painted with oils, watercolors and colored pencils. It’s been nice going back to those. I Am Today is 100% digital, but I wanted to give it a traditional “loose sketch” kind of look, that was very different from my painting style at the time but felt right for the book.

The hardest part is always creating the compositions and deciding what stays and what doesn’t work for the narrative, and I have to say, I was really lucky to work with Jordan Nielsen from Pow Kids Books. I would email her a couple of ideas and she would make me think a bit more about it and come back with something better. I learned a lot, and I’m very thankful for that.

I'm still back at you made your own paints. Wow! Okay, as a child, who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book?

MATT: My first book of poetry was A Secret Place and Other Poems by Dorothy Aldis, a gift from my parents when I was very young. I realize now the enormous impact that one book had on my love of poetry as well as my writing style. I also loved the picture book Mr. Snitzel’s Cookies by Jane Flory, The Land of Noom by Johnny Gruelle (of Raggedy Ann fame), and all the Hardy Boys books, along with just about anything written by Isaac Asimov.

In high school, I was introduced to folks like Shakespeare, Frost, Poe, and others – and that was when I became drawn to classic poetic forms like sonnets and villanelles. As I got older and began reading to my kids I discovered Chris Van Allsburg, Steven Kellogg, and my former neighbor, Tomie dePaola. I remember one of my kids’ favorite books from 20+ years ago was “C is for City” by someone I’d never heard of named Nikki Grimes. The fact that Nikki and I are now friends and have actually written together is just mind-blowing to me.

PATRICIA: I grew up reading a lot of Brazilian literature in school. There’s this book named Chapeuzinho Amarelo by Chico Buarque, illustrated by Ziraldo, about a girl who overcomes her fear of everything in a very curious way that I love. I haven’t seen this book in ages, but just by looking at the cover on google I can see so much similarity with the work I do today! I also loved classic stories, my favourite one until this day is Pinocchio.

Those both look like they are fun books! Matt, did anything surprise or amaze you when you first got to see Patricia’s illustrations? What is your favorite spread?

MATT: The first thing I saw of Patricia’s was her portfolio, which our editor had shared with me. I had been sent portfolios of several illustrators and was asked whose work I preferred – for which I’m grateful, as that is something most authors don’t get to do. When I told the editor I felt Patricia’s style was the best, she told me she had thought the same thing! So she contacted Patricia and they set to work.

The first part of the book I recall seeing was the cover, which blew me away. It was striking, because the primary image isn’t the girl, it’s her reflection! But something didn’t seem quite right – and after a couple of weeks I realized the water was flowing from right to left, which made it seem like it was moving backwards. I asked the editor what she thought and she agreed, so they flipped it to have the water flowing left to right, and here we are! People wonder why it takes so long to make a book – because it takes several people looking over things with a fine-tooth comb to make sure everything is perfect!

Text © Matt Forrest Esenwine, 2021. Image © Patricia Pessoa, 2021.

Oh, and as far as my favorite spread, I think it’s her dreaming of all the sea animals – that blue background with the colorful creatures is stunning.

I definitely agree. Patricia, is there a spread that you were especially excited about or proud of? What is your favorite spread?

Text © Matt Forrest Esenwine, 2021. Image © Patricia Pessoa, 2021.

PATRICIA: I really like the family dinner one. I love looking at the initial sketches, seeing how many versions of it I made and how it ended up being. I mean, there’s a baby eating spaghetti and I get to put a little cat in the scene. Love it!

And I love that "sharing" is with the dog. How are you, or have you been, staying creative these days?

MATT: Last year was tough because we were homeschooling our two young kids and I was the one primarily at home handling that. Now that the kids are back in school, I have more time to focus on my writing and marketing. And it’s been a busy year for me, actually, with two books that had gotten delayed due to the pandemic, Elliot the Heart-Shaped Frog (Rainstorm Pub.) and Once Upon Another Time (Beaming Books), both finally coming out earlier this year. So promoting and marketing them took a significant amount of time, plus we’ve been preparing for I Am Today, of course! But just having the time to think, to ponder, without having to plan a lesson or grade paperwork is a huge load of my shoulders.

PATRICIA: I’ve been drawing almost every day these last years, it’s crazy! I have to make at least a little messy sketch on a piece of paper daily. These last 2 months I felt the need to have a break after working non-stop on long, big projects. Of course, that didn’t stop me from sketching here and there while I recharge my creativity by buying books from illustrators I love, like Maise Paradise Shearring, reading about some illustrator’s work journey on their blogs, and learning new crafts like Punch Needle.

Are there any new projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

MATT: I sold two books this year, which are due out either next year or 2023, and a major project I sold last year is coming together nicely – I hope to be able to share the news publicly soon! I also have several PBs in various states of progress (one is ready to send out!), a MG verse novel in its infancy, and another PB from Beaming Books, A Beginner’s Guide to Being Human, due out next fall. There might also be a poetry anthology to which I contributed coming out next year, too!

PATRICIA: Hopefully, next year will be the year I finally start illustrating my own stories. It’s something I wanted for so long and I’d like to make time for it. I have a few stories written down everywhere, it is time to give these a face.

Matt, I can't wait to see these next books. And Patricia, I wish you lots of luck with your stories! Last question, what is your favorite animal? Or one that you are especially enamored with. Why?

MATT: We have five dogs of our own and have fostered nearly a dozen and a half, but I’m actually very much a cat person, ha! Grey tigers and Siamese are my favorites. [My writing buddy purred when he heard this!]

PATRICIA: Cats! I have two cats here with me, Blue and Moz and a little old one in Brazil named Sassy. The first two mentioned broke my TV a few days ago but I still love them! [Oh no! Good thing they're loveable.]

Thank you Matt & Patricia for sharing with us a bit about yourselves and your newest picture book.

Be sure to come back on Friday for a sneak peek Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on I Am Today.

To find out more about Matt Forrest Esenwine, or to contact him:

To find out more about Patricia Pessoa, or contact her:


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Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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