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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Ryan G. Van Cleave

Ryan G. Van Cleave is the author of 20+ books of his own. And through his ghostwriting, coaching, teaching, and consulting, he's responsible for dozens more.

Currently, he runs the Creative Writing major at Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, FL. As the Picture Book Whisperer, he helps celebrity and executive clients write and publish kidlit books.

His newest picture book, The Witness Trees: Historic Moments and the Trees Who Watched Them Happen, releases next month - on May 9th.

Welcome Ryan, thank you so much for coming by to talk about yourself and your newest picture book.

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

My official author/illustrator debut happened at age five when I released a limited edition (1!) unauthorized The Muppets: Pigs in Space story in a spiral notebook, complete with crayon spot art. I somehow got off that track for a couple of decades but have in the past few years returned to my roots—picture books.

These days, I run the Creative Writing major at Ringling College of Art and Design where I might be called on to teach video game writing, screenplays, poetry, horror, or magazine writing. Over the years, I’ve had a wide range of writing experiences, so being part of a wide-ranging program suits me pretty well.

Though between you and me and the 24-count box of Crayolas on my desk, I might like picture books best of all.

I'll never tell. What do you like to do outside?

During the COVID lockdown, I became a relatively unsuccessful amateur papaya grower. Prior to that, I’ve been known to play golf. I once rode my bike to the local library—a 15-minute hoof—and the 90-degree Florida heat nearly did me in, so I can’t say that I bike all that much anymore.

I do insist on mowing my own lawn every two weeks, though. That ought to count for something!

Definitely. Counts for steps, right? Can you share the name of an author, illustrator, and/or a book that made an impact on you as a child?

Like nearly every kid of the 70s and 80s, I loved Shel Silverstein’s books. Who didn’t see themselves as the child faking it in “Sick”? Witnessing the fun one can have with words might’ve played some role in me becoming an English major in college and going on to earn a Ph.D. in poetry, too.

In terms of a more traditional picture book that had an early influence on me, I’ll say that it was The Saggy Baggy Elephant. I can’t say why, though at the time, I couldn’t hear that book enough (so claim my folks).

Ooh, I remember that one and the Poky Little Puppy! Now that we know a bit about you, what was your inspiration or spark of curiosity for The Witness Trees: Historic Moments and the Trees Who Watched Them Happen?

Here’s what I wrote in the Author’s Note: “When I was ten, my father took me to California to seek out a hidden 4,800-year-old Great Basin bristlecone pine called Methuselah. We searched but didn’t find it, though we did see plenty of towering redwoods in Hendy Woods State Park—some of them were 2,000 years old. Ancient, but not by Methuselah’s standards!

Still, I never forgot the sense of history embedded within their gnarled trunks. Those trees were tangible historical memory. Even at my young age, I felt their awesome power.”

I’m sure that at some level, this project is a variation on that phrase we’ve heard so many times—“If only these walls could talk!” Well, if you pick the right trees and give them a well-deserved voice, a lot of interesting things can emerge indeed!

This is such a cool and enticing premise. What is the most fun or unusual place where you’ve written a manuscript?

I wish I had a flashier answer to this question, and maybe someday I will, but at the moment, the most unusual writing situation was in the car. I was moving from Wisconsin to South Carolina for a job, and the job came about at the last second, which bumped right up against a book deadline I had for a big textbook. With all the packing and planning, I just didn’t have the time to get the work done in advance of the move, so when it was my wife’s turn to drive, I sat in the passenger seat of the rented U-Haul and I worked on my laptop.

The book got done and it’s still being used today in classrooms, but there are lines there where I can tell we had some bumps in the road.

No need for flashy. That's a pretty impressive feat. How long did it take from the first draft to publication for The Witness Trees? Was this similar to your other books?

Like most authors, it felt like forever to go from idea to that book-in-hand moment. But honestly, it was maybe two years. I went back and checked to ensure this answer wasn’t the result of my fallible memory or revisionist history. I began writing it at the start of the COVID lockdown, so March 2020 or thereabouts.

Is there something you want your readers to know about The Witness Trees?

The Callery pear tree that’s featured in this book is also the star of Sean Rubin’s picture book This Very Tree: A Story of 9/11, Resilience, and Regrowth. I didn’t run across this until I was on draft two or three of my book, but I think these picture books—and the trees—speak to each other in interesting ways.

It is interesting how many books were written about that tree, yet each one is so unique. What was the hardest, or most challenging part of writing and/or researching The Witness Trees?

It’s hard to write about these magnificent trees without feeling a sense of communal shame at how many of them have been mistreated, damaged, or destroyed by human action. We’re not too kind to the environment. I really wanted to focus on the living ones so readers could visit each one in a massive worldwide tree-focused field trip, but too many important ones needed to be honored in these pages, too, even if their roots are long gone.

Wonder if you have to write a second book to cover the others? When you first saw Đốm Đốm’s illustrations did anything surprise or amaze you? What is your favorite spread?

There were plans for a different cover, but when David Miles [the press owner and a fabulous art director] saw that blue spread with Abe Lincoln on it, he said, “This is it.” As usual, he was correct.

Text © Ryan G. Van Cleave, 2023. Image © Đốm Đốm, 2023.

I like the art throughout, but I’m especially charmed by the map at the beginning which shows where these trees are/were located.

I can see why you like this image. It's absolutely amazing. What was the most rewarding part of the publishing process for The Witness Trees?

Working with Vietnamese illustrator Đốm Đốm. Not only is he stunningly good, but he’s also fast! What a combo for an artmaker.

No kidding! Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

I’ve been working as The Picture Book Whisperer for some time now, with my focus being celebrity clients who want to work in the kidlit world. So much of what I did is forever buried under NDAs, but I recently decided to change that policy and insist that my name is on the cover of any celebrity books I create. As a result, I can now openly declare that I co-authored Stronger Than She Thinks with Nancy Kerrigan. That comes out in October 2023.

I also coauthored a poetry book entitled Body Music with Jane Yolen, who we all know is a literary treasure of the kidlit industry. Body Music thumps its way onto bookshelves in July 2023.

These are two books I'm very interested in seeing. What is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?

In my teen years, I had a very memorable time at Ha Ha Tonka State Park (Camdenton, MO). In terms of what I want to see but haven’t? That’s easy. Mount Rushmore National Memorial. I just finished a picture book manuscript that offers a fresh take on this controversial site, and it’s in poems, no less. I’d love to confirm how many liberties I took with the descriptions and details.

Wow, what a fascinating park - amazing trails and an abandoned castle! Thank you so much for coming to talk with me Ryan and for sharing your newest picture book.

Thanks for having me, Maria!

Be sure to come back Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on The Witness Trees: Historic Moments and the Trees Who Watched Them Happen.

To find out more about Ryan G. Van Cleave, or contact him:


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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