The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Serena Gingold Allen and Teagan White
Today I have the privilege of interview the author and the illustrator of two adorable board books.
Serena Gingold Allen is a debut author who grew up in the foothills outside of Yosemite and spent her childhood observing the natural world. She now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, but she still spends a lot of time in the great outdoors hiking and rock climbing with her husband and their two children.
Teagan White is the illustrator behind Tiny Moth Studios, a world of magical forests and brave animal friends. Through books, stationery, puzzles, fabric, toys, and beyond, Tiny Moth invites kids and adults alike into playful watercolor scenes where they can explore the wonders of the natural world and meet the friendly creatures who live there. Teagan lives in Oregon with their partner and stepdaughter and a cat named Bug. Teagan is the author/illustrator of Counting with Barefoot Critters (2016), and Adventures with Barefoot Critters (2014). And the illustrator of Bunny Roo and Duckling Too by Melissa Marr (2021), Snow Sisters! by Kerri Kokias (2018), Mice Skating by Annie Silvestro (2017), That's Me Loving You by Amy Krouse Rosenthal (2016), and Bunny Roo, I Love You by Melissa Marr (2015).
Their joint novelty books Moonlight Prance and Sunrise Dance, release April 5th.
Welcome Serena and Teagan. 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?)
SERENA - I write whenever I can squeeze it in. I have a two-year-old and a six-year-old so I usually only have time to write when they’re at daycare/school or when they’re sleeping. I’ve been writing children’s books since 2013, but I’ve been a writer for most of my life. I was homeschooled until high school and my family published a monthly newsletter that focused on social justice/history themes so I was constantly writing for that. I also liked to write fiction stories and when I was in high school I sold a couple of articles to Cobblestone Magazine. I really like writing rhyming board books because I enjoy the challenge of telling a story within the confines of meter and rhyme.
TEAGAN – Hi Maria! I’m an artist, illustrator, and naturalist living in Portland Oregon. I grew up in Chicago and spent most of my adult life in Minnesota, where I attended the Minneapolis College of Art & Design.
Though I’ve been an artist my entire life, I didn’t start making work for children until sometime in college when I scribbled a cute chipmunk on a whim, in an art style that was totally different from anything I’d ever done before. From there I started to practice watercolor, a medium I’d always hated working with, until I arrived at a style similar to the one I use for my picture books today.
Watercolor is my favorite medium nowadays (I mix it with gouache, which has made it much more agreeable for me personally), and I’ve illustrated nine picture books so far. Every book I’ve worked on celebrates nature in some way; I especially love working with manuscripts that honor seasonal transitions, or allow me to incorporate my bioregion into the artwork.
It's so nice to get to know a little about you both. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or your favorite book as a child?
SERENA - Oh I can’t pick just one! Here are some that I loved then and continue to love now: The Bunny Book (Richard Scarry), Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (Judith Viorst and Ray Cruz), and Trixie Belden books (Julie Campbell).
TEAGAN – I wanted to read anything and everything I could get my hands on as a child, though strangely I don’t recall any particular picture books that led me to become such an enthusiastic reader; though one of my earliest memories is of begging my mom to read The Giving Tree (Shel Silverstein) to me over and over. Once I could read on my own, all my early favorites books were about rodents… I was particularly taken with Brian Floca’s illustrations for Avi’s Poppy series, and with Kenneth Oppel’s Silverwing.
Serena, what was your inspiration for Moonlight Prance? And what about Sunrise Dance?
SERENA - I was inspired to write Moonlight Prance because I didn’t have many good board books to read to my son. I wanted to write something that wasn’t boring and that was fun to read aloud. I was awake one night breastfeeding my son, when I had the idea to write about nocturnal animals and the first couplet popped into my head.
While you sleep, nighttime animals play.
They wake at dusk with sun's last ray.
My editor requested that I write Sunrise Dance as a companion to Moonlight Prance. She wanted it to take place during the day and have lots of movement. I decided it should be a morning book because my son loved being read to when he woke up. I was inspired to use dancing as the movement because I had used “boogie-woogie” in Moonlight Prance and when I did some research, there were lots more fun dance names and moves to incorporate.
Teagan, what about the manuscripts for Moonlight Prance and Sunrise Dance appealed to you as an illustrator?
TEAGAN – Say “skunk” or “opossum” and I’m there, and Serena’s manuscript for what was originally called Nighttime Boogie had both!
What became Sunrise Dance originally featured farm animals, which was incredibly sweet, but not a great fit for me as a vegan who worries about the gulf between how farms are depicted in culture, and the horrific ways most of them operate in the real world. (Of course, totally idyllic farms that are kind to their animals do still exist, and I deeply respect the people running things that way! But it’s far from the norm these days, and I’m careful not to participate in any propaganda on behalf of factory farms.) Serena was kind enough to agree to write the second book with a focus on daytime wildlife instead, which put my mind at ease!
Totally understandable and that compromise created a beautiful book. Was it a joint effort or did one of you come up with the ideas of wheels, sliding cut-outs, and pull tabs?
SERENA - I wish I could say I had anything to do with the novelty aspects of the books, but I didn’t. However, this allows me the chance to rave over how amazing they turned out without feeling too much like I’m bragging! [*smiling*]
TEAGAN – I’m not sure if the idea came from Serena or from Chronicle? But the designers over at Chronicle were very helpful in the early stages. They even mailed me a blank board book with functioning moving parts, so that I could understand how the mechanics would work and what the possibilities were.
Teagan, they are all the more impressive as your first foray into novelty books! Serena, how many drafts did it take for you to perfect the rhyme and alliteration for Moonlight Prance and Sunrise Dance? Was the second one easier?
SERENA - Moonlight Prance was five drafts, but Sunrise Dance was twelve. The first draft of Moonlight Prance was in pretty good shape and just needed an extra couplet, a couple of animal substitutions, and a little bit of additional tweaking.
Sunrise Dance on the other hand, went through many completely different versions: the animals, setting, and overall tone changed several times. So actually, Moonlight Prance was way easier, even though I was better at rhyming and meter when I wrote Sunrise Dance.
Interesting. Teagan, how many revisions did it take to create the illustrations and novelty aspects for Moonlight Prance and Sunrise Dance? Did you find it easier with the second book?
TEAGAN – Most of the revisions were minor… I’m not even sure anymore which I illustrated first; I was thinking about them both at the same time. We had to make some adjustments at every stage to make sure that the novelty elements functioned correctly, which was a new challenge for me, but a fun one.
They turned out beautifully. Is there something you both want your readers to know about, or take away from, Moonlight Prance and Sunrise Dance?
SERENA - I hope that readers of both books learn some fun new movement words and are inspired to dance and prance themselves.
TEAGAN – What I love most about these books is how they remind us that we share this Earth with all sorts of amazing creatures, big and small, whether they’re in plain sight, hidden in the darkest corners of the forest while we sleep, or lurking under the surface of rippling water as it catches the starlight. In real life the crickets may not pull out a piano to serenade you, but they’re absolutely out there singing to you if you care to listen. I think there is so much opportunity in these books for connecting kids with Nature – what animals have they noticed out in the world lately? What particular ways do those animals like to dance and play?
I like the whimsy of the animals with instruments, interspersed with more natural actions. Teagan, many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in Moonlight Prance and Sunrise Dance? Could you share one or more with us?
TEAGAN – The house in Moonlight Prance is loosely based on the house I live in with my partner and their daughter Luna (though I wish ours was as remote as the one in the book!). We started renting this house around the same time I began sketches for the books, and as I was working on the drawings we were delighted to find out that a family of raccoons and at least one skunk are frequent visitors to the backyard. We leave a motion-activated trail cam out at night sometimes to take pictures of all the backyard visitors and find out what they get up to, which includes stealing food from the compost pile and going for a swim in the kiddie pool in the summer.
The sleeping girl on the last page of Moonlight is 5-year-old Luna (she’s 7 now), with her favorite opossum stuffed animal. There is a drawing of a flamingo on the wall of her bedroom in the illustration, because she has a little crew of favorite stuffies that includes the opossum, a skunk, a fox, a bat, a rat, a raccoon, and a flamingo, and she insisted that I find a way to put the flamingo in the book so that no one was left out.
Thank you for sharing these treasures. Serena, what is the hardest or most challenging thing for you about writing children’s books? How about for either or both Moonlight Prance and Sunrise Dance in particular?
SERENA - With rhyming board books, the most challenging part is figuring out how to say what I want to say in rhyme and with good meter—it’s a total puzzle most of the time and when I have to revise, it’s usually not as straightforward as just changing one word. With both Moonlight Prance and Sunrise Dance, the hardest part was getting the alliteration and the meter to work together—I would make a great match with an animal and a movement, but then the meter would be off and I’d have to start over again.
Rhyme can be SO tough. Teagan, what was the hardest part about illustrating Moonlight Prance and/or Sunrise Dance?
TEAGAN – The hardest thing for me is always getting the work done on time. Deadlines are a blessing in some ways, because without them I’d be a slave to my own perfectionism, trapped in an endless cycle of drawing and re-drawing, or getting so detailed that all the magic of the hand painted media disappears.
But time was more of a struggle than usual with these books; I was working on them when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, which radically changed my life in so many ways. I’m very lucky that I already worked from home to begin with, but I do so in a corner of our kitchen, and being cooped up inside our tiny house for two years with my partner out of work and homeschooling our daughter through kindergarten and first grade to keep us all healthy and safe has not been the most relaxing or creative period of my life. I’m really grateful to have had a publisher who was patient with my trainwreck of a schedule and repeated delays throughout the turbulent past couple of years.
It definitely has been an interesting couple of years. And your illustrations are amazing. Serena, did anything surprise or amaze you when you first got to see Teagan’s illustrations? What is your favorite spread?
Text © Serena Gingold Allen, 2022. Image © Teagan White, 2022.
SERENA – I was amazed at all the little details Teagan added that turned my spare words into a fleshed-out story. Each spread has so much happening and expresses such great movement. For Sunrise Dance, I was stunned by how the colors change from spread to spread to show the light from dawn to full sunlight—it’s just beautiful. For Moonlight Prance my favorite spread is the one with the hedgehogs and the raccoons—cheers!
I love the activity and the racoon on the swing. Teagan, is there a spread that you were especially excited about or proud of? Which is your favorite spread?
Text © Serena Gingold Allen, 2022. Image © Teagan White, 2022.
TEAGAN – I really love the spread with the bear cubs in Sunrise Dance! Since Moonlight Prance was influenced by the flora and fauna in my urban neighborhood, I went for somewhat wilder settings in Sunrise, basing the scenes on specific places I like to visit in Oregon – rocky riverbanks lined with willows and rose spirea, upland prairies dotted with camas, lupine, and checkermallow, and the bears’ mossy hemlock-alder forest and its carpet of false lily of the valley, starry false Solomon’s seal, salal, and mushrooms.
I was just marveling over your details and love learning they are based on real places. How are you, or have you been, staying creative these days?
SERENA - I’ve been staying creative by listening to how my kids talk (and what they talk about) and watching them play with their friends—I try my best to remember what it was like to be a kid and channel that into my writing.
TEAGAN – I spend my rare bits of free time biking to my favorite natural areas to look for woodpeckers and take reference photos of plants, researching practical uses for native plants (though I read/daydream about foraging more than I practice it), gardening badly, and reading books about surrealism, anarchy, Taoism, and the conflict between Nature and civilization. All of this feeds back into my creative work, and makes me feel a little less crazy for caring about the things I care about, even when no one else seems to.
It's never crazy to care about nature. Are there any new projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
SERENA – I’m in the revising and submitting trenches right now, so unfortunately not anything I can share yet.
TEAGAN – I recently illustrated a huge volume of marine life, called Oceanarium: Welcome to the Museum by Loveday Trinick, which will be out in the US on April 5th from Big Picture Press. It’s already available in Europe and Asia in several languages.
For those more interested in my work for children, I’m illustrating another nature-themed interactive board book called Peek-A-Boo Haiku by Danna Smith, coming in 2023.
WOW! That cover is amazing. We'll have to keep our eyes open for the others. Last question, what is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?
SERENA - Yosemite National Park is my favorite because I grew up not far from there and it still feels like home.
TEAGAN – I love having such a diversity of ecosystems close-by in Oregon, and I spend a lot of time admiring washed up seabirds and kelp on the coast, hiking through lichen-draped rainforests, and picking my way through clusters of poison oak to sit in eldritch groves of white oak and licorice fern.
But at the moment I’m feeling really nostalgic for the wildest place I’ve ever been - the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness back in northern Minnesota. I’ve visited several times but only done one short portaging trip with my partner, during which beavers swam beside our canoe; loons surrounded us with their eerie, echoing calls; we discovered mysterious lilac-colored mushrooms sprouting from the footprint-free lichen-crusted understory; and we woke up in the world’s smallest tent, shivering, sore, and happy in the lonely, misty dawn.
Such beautiful places. Thank you Serna & Teagan for sharing with us a bit about yourselves and your new novelty books.
Be sure to come back Friday for a Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Moonlight Prance and Sunrise Dance.
To find out more about Serena Gingold Allen, or to contact her:
To find out more about Teagan White, or contact them: