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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Melissa Christina Marquez and Devin Elle Kurtz

I am excited to share with you my interview with the amazing scientist Melissa Cristina Márquez and phenomenal illustrator Devin Elle Kurtz about their stunning and magical debut picture book - Mother of Sharks.

Author photo of Melissa Cristina Márquez

Melissa Cristina Márquez -Known as the "Mother of Sharks," Melissa Cristina Márquez is a Latina marine biologist who has a lot of labels: science communicator, conservationist, author, educator, podcaster, television presenter. You might have seen her on Discovery Channel's Shark Week, National Geographic, BBC Wildlife, heard her TEDx talk or read her Scholastic books.

She often writes about sharks, the diverse people who work with them, and why both matter. As founder of The Fins United Initiative, a program that teaches audiences shark conservation and education, Márquez finds it vital that we learn to co-exist with these oceanic predators. That's why her research and outreach efforts largely revolve around human-wildlife interactions.

Collection of book covers for the three books in the Wild Survival series.

She is the author of the middle grade series Chasing Jaguars (Wild Survival #3) (2022), Swimming With Sharks (Wild Survival #2) (2021), and Crocodile Rescue! (Wild Survival #1)(2021).

Devin Elle Kurtz photo

Devin Elle Kurtz is a digital illustrator, visual development artist, and background painter working in Photoshop CC. Her focus is magical scenes that combine fantasy elements with environments that feel visceral and real. She has worked in the animation industry as a background painter/designer and visual development artist since 2017. She was the lead background painter on “Disenchantment” at Rough Draft Studios from 2019-2021.

She has illustrated for a number of publications including Dark Horse (Beasts of the Four Nations), HarperCollins (Breda’s Island, How to Heal a Gryphon), and Simon and Schuster (Escape from Atlantis series). Other past clients include Netflix, Disney, and SyFy.

Book cover image for Windows to Worlds.

Devin is the author/illustrator of Windows To Worlds - The Art Of Devin Elle Kurtz (2022).

Melissa and Devin’s debut picture book, Mother of Sharks, releases on May 30th.

Welcome Melissa and Devin,

Tell us a little about yourselves. (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? )

MELISSA - If you asked my mom, she would tell you I started writing as soon as I learned to! Whenever I have had the chance, I have always had a pen or pencil in my hand, finding joy in creating my own worlds filled with characters that I had come up with on my own, bringing them to life. Nowadays, I'm mostly busy with writing academic papers, but I still manage to find some time to sneak away and write here and there when I'm not too swamped. There are few things I enjoy more than writing about books that are inspired by nature and wildlife.

DEVIN - I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember! My earliest inspirations were the animated movies I watched in my childhood, like “The Lion King” and “My Neighbor Totoro.” I used to sit cross-legged on the floor in front of our boxy 90s TV with pencils and printer paper, pausing the movies to draw the characters over and over again. In my tweens and teens, comics and graphic novels really stole my heart. I got my professional start in the animation industry but always wanted to work on books too. I’m really happy to have stepped into the world of picture books! Regardless of what kind of story I’m working on, be it in animation or illustration, I always love to paint for stories with real “heart.” Mother of Sharks definitely falls into that category.

It's wonderful to get to know you both a little better. What is one of the most fun or unusual places where you’ve written or illustrated a manuscript?

MELISSA - As someone who frequently rides public transportation, I have written many stories on scraps of paper, napkins, and the notes app on my phone. I have written my books in many strange places, but probably the strangest is on a boat in the Arctic circle, surrounded by puffins, beluga whales, walruses, and polar bears.

DEVIN - Unfortunately, my workstation is pretty bulky and hard to travel with, as I work on a 24-inch Cintiq pen display. But I’ve lived all up and down the state of California, and the views outside my window while I work have ranged from the forests of the Santa Cruz mountains to the beautiful (and beautifully smoggy) city sunsets of Los Angeles.

Both the boat in the Arctic and the California coast sound like magical places to be creative. Melissa, what was your inspiration or spark of interest for Mother of Sharks?

Cover image for Mother of Sharks

MELISSA - The importance of representation for kids when it comes to being able to see themselves in a career has been proved time and time again. In order to help kids take a more positive and encouraging view of studying science themselves, it is essential that they think beyond stereotypes of what a scientist "is" based on what has been portrayed in the past. The goal of this book is to show kids from underrepresented backgrounds - including Latine kids - around the world that they can do whatever they dream of doing, no matter what. It will show them that their dreams are achievable, no matter where they come from.

That is such a wonderful gift to give kids (and adults)! Devin, what about the Mother of Sharks manuscript appealed to you as an illustrator?

Title page for Mother of Sharks. Meli jumping across rocks as the sunsets and a variety of sharks swim the in ocean below.

DEVIN - I grew up in Santa Cruz, California, and have spent hundreds of hours by the beach. The ocean was one of my earliest inspirations. I used to pass afternoons wading in tide pools just like little Meli in the book. My favorite thinking spot as a teenager was perched on the concrete tetrapods by the shore of Seabright Beach. Illustrating a book about a child’s love and passion for the ocean felt like a perfect fit. It’s a beautiful story, and I know it’s going to inspire so many kids, and especially Latine kids who don’t often get to see themselves represented in STEM.

Your love of the ocean is so evident in your luminous illustrations. Melissa, what was the hardest or most challenging thing for you about writing Mother of Sharks? How did this compare to writing your middle grade series?

MELISSA - I found writing about myself to be the hardest - and easiest - part of writing this book! As I wrote my previous books, the characters had traits similar to myself and my friends, but they were not me. This is who I am. In this story, I write about the little girl who still lives in my heart. Being so vulnerable and telling her story was not easy.

I can just imagine. But thank you for bravely tackling Meli's story. Devin, as your debut picture book, what was the hardest or most challenging thing for you about illustrating Mother of Sharks?

DEVIN - Coming from the world of animation, the most important shift I had to make for picture book illustration was thinking about page flow and the page-to-page reading experience. I spent weeks pouring over contemporary picture books and taking note of the way illustrators maintained flow, energy, and clarity. A picture book is working with a limited page count, and frequently a lot of information needs to be portrayed in each spread without it becoming overwhelming or losing the momentum. Kids need to immediately comprehend the action and information being portrayed on each page. This means working with clear silhouettes and calculated value structures. These are all skills that I was able to carry over from the animation industry too, just reconfigured for the page.

I think you did a fantastic job! How many revisions did Mother of Sharks take for the text or illustrations from first draft to publication?

MELISSA - It didn't take as many as I anticipated! My heart melted when I saw Devin's first draft of little Meli and her world.

DEVIN - Honestly, not a lot! I was pleasantly surprised by how few revisions were needed. It’s a welcome surprise, as I’m coming from an industry that frequently requires a lot of time-intensive changes. I think we made three, maybe four small changes to the final artwork after I completed the paintings. I’m really pleased that the team was happy with what I delivered!

Devin, many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in Mother of Sharks? If so, could you share one or more with us?

Internal spread of Meli and crab in auditorium seats.

Text © Melissa Cristina Márquez, 2023. Image © Devin Elle Kurtz, 2023.

DEVIN - In the spread with little Meli doing a cannonball into the sea, I included my favorite tropical fish in the coral reef! There’s also a crowd scene when older Melissa is giving a speech, and I included a number of people I know – including myself– in the crowd! I’m three seats over from little Meli, on the edge of the shadows, wearing a black shirt!

How fun to be able to be in the book! What's something you want your readers to know about Mother of Sharks?

MELISSA - There are a lot of success stories in the science world, and little Meli's is just one of them. This is one of many in the field of wild conservation. One of many in the shark scientist world. The readers can also add their stories there, if they wish.

DEVIN - I shot a lot of the references that I used for painting the ocean scenes myself, here in California! My dad is a professional photographer, and one of our lifelong hobbies together has been going out into nature to take pictures. He and I went to four different beaches all over the west coast, from Santa Cruz to San Diego, to shoot references of tide pools and crashing ocean waves.

Thank you both for sharing these. Melissa, when you first saw Devin’s illustrations in Mother of Sharks, did anything surprise, amaze, or delight you? Which is your favorite spread?

Internal spread of Meli meeting Melissa on the boat.

Text © Melissa Cristina Márquez, 2023. Image © Devin Elle Kurtz, 2023.

MELISSA - Devin captured the light and fantasy of the ocean world beautifully. It was clear throughout this entire book that Devin creates pieces with a sense of magic. While it's hard to pick just one spread, I think Meli and her special someone meeting is the one that made me sob. I think she captured the moment perfectly; she nailed it.

That is such a gorgeous and powerful spread. Devin, is there a spread that you were especially excited about or proud of? Which is your favorite spread?

Internal spread of Melissa noticing Meli on the boat.

Text © Melissa Cristina Márquez, 2023. Image © Devin Elle Kurtz, 2023.

DEVIN - The coral reef scenes definitely stand out, but even more so than those, I think I’m proud of the spread where older Melissa first notices little Meli, and then the following spread where they have a heart to heart. These meaningful character moments are always a joy to paint.

It's interesting you both chose the same spread. I'm glad to be able to share both spreads of this poignant moment! Can you think of something you wish you’d known before you started the publication journey with Mother of Sharks?

MELISSA - I had no idea how emotional this book would be! Catharsis was the best way to describe it.

DEVIN - I definitely wish I’d recorded more of the painting process for the book – the few little process videos I filmed and edited have been a really great way to show off the art for the book and connect with potential readers. Next time I illustrate a book, I’ll record enough clips to make a longer YouTube video!

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

MELISSA - Having the opportunity to work on another Penguin picture book is super exciting, but I cannot share any more details at this time.

DEVIN - I can’t say much yet, but I’m working on another children’s book, and I think it’s one that my own online audience is going to be really excited for!

That's so exciting, we'll have to keep our eyes open for these projects. Last question, what is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?

My photo of Mount Rainier

MELISSA - I’ve got a lot of National Parks on my list – Yosemite, Yellowstone, Joshua Tree, Mount Rainier, Glacier Bay… one of my goals is to visit every single USA National Park! © Maria Marshall

Sunlit photo looking up into the Redwoods in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. Photo © Visit Santa Cruz

DEVIN - I’ll have to go with the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in Santa Cruz. I grew up mainly in the mountains outside Santa Cruz, and my family used to go to this state park all the time. I have so many memories of wading in the river with my friends and having picnics on the river shore in the shade of redwoods. It will always feel like home to me. © Visit Santa Cruz

Thank you Melissa & Devin for sharing with us a bit about yourselves and your debut picture book.

To find out more about Melissa Christina Márquez, or to contact her:

To find out more about Devin Elle Kurtz, or to contact her:


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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