The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Tziporah Cohen and Steven Salerno
I love chocolate, so I was excited to read the upcoming picture book biography of Milton Hershey. And doubly excited to interview the author and the illustrator of this wonderful book.
Tziporah Cohen was born and raised in New York, then spent eighteen years in Boston before landing in Toronto, where she lives with her husband, three kids, two cats, and one dog. She has an MD from Harvard Medical School and an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Tziporah splits her time between working as a psychiatrist in oncology/palliative care and writing, interspersed with parenting, indoor rock climbing, and lots of walking the dog.
Tziporah’s the author of the middle grade novel No Vacancy (2020) which was a Junior Library Guild selection and won a Sydney Taylor Book Award Honor.
Steven Salerno is a NYC based author/illustrator. He’s a graduate of Parsons School of Design in NYC (where Steven studied under famed picture book author/artist Maurice Sendak).
Steven Salerno also creates illustrations for advertising, magazines, product packaging, retail graphics, and publishing. Originally from Vermont, Steven lives and works in New York City. His picture books have received industry starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal, Children's Literature, The New York Times Review of Books and have been displayed by the Society of Illustrators (NYC) in their annual children's picture book art exhibition. 8 of Steven's picture books are Junior Library Guild selections.
Steven’s the author/illustrator of 5 popular picture books, including Tim's Goodbye (2018), and Wild Child (2015). He’s also illustrated 36 books, including The Secret Code Inside You by Rajani LaRocca, MD (2021), Gizmos, Gadgets and Guitars: The Story of Leo Fender, by Michael Mahin (2021), The Crayon Man by Natascha Biebow (2019), Wild Horse Annie -Friend of Mustangs by Tracey Fern (2019), PRIDE The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag by Rob Sanders (2018), Pass Go and Collect $200: The Real Story of How Monopoly Was Invented by Tanya Lee Stone (2018), Goldenlocks and the Three Pirates by April Jones Prince (2017), and The Kid from Diamond Street: The Extraordinary Story of Baseball Legend Edith Houghton by Audrey Vernick (2016).
Their newest picture book, On the Corner of Chocolate Avenue: How Milton Hershey Brought Milk Chocolate to America, releases December 13th.
Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write or illustrate? How long have you been writing and illustrating? What is your favorite type of book to write or illustrate? )
TZIPORAH – I came to writing on the late side, as a second career. I took a few Adult Ed courses in picture book writing when my kids were little, then a few online courses, and ultimately did an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts from 2013 to 2015. My first book was published the day after my 53rd birthday! It’s never too late to try something new! Pre-pandemic I wrote in coffee shops with a friend, but now I write with my writing partner, either at her dining room table or mine. (My table comes with a cat!) As for favorite types of books to write, while my first published book was a middle grade novel, I’m a picture book writer at heart. All kinds!
STEVEN - I’ve been drawing every day since I was 4 years old, and knew at that early age I was destined to be an artist my whole life. Now I’m 64 years old and have been creating art images daily for 60 years -with 42 of them as a professional illustrator! At age 18 I attended Parsons School of Design in New York City (studying illustration, animation, printmaking and art history). Considering I grew up in very small towns suddenly being in a top design school in NYC combined with having access to all the major art museums the city has to offer, it had the intensity of being launched in a rocket ship! While a student at Parsons I had many high level instructors all accomplished in their respective fields, including Maurice Sendak, the author/illustrator of the groundbreaking picture book Where the Wild Things Are. [Wow!]
Upon graduating from Parsons I began my long career as a freelance illustrator initially creating illustrations mostly for magazine and newspaper clients, then eventually also for advertising, packaging, and publishing clients. But for the first 20 years of my career I didn’t illustrate any picture books at all. Then in 1999 I expressed to my illustration agent the desire to get into illustrating picture books, too. So, we geared some of my promotional ads toward picture book editors and picture book art directors, and very soon began getting offers from publishers to illustrate picture books. My first illustrated picture book was published in 2000. And next year in 2024 my 38th picture book will be released! (Of the 38 titles 10 are nonfiction stories, 28 are fiction stories. And for 5 of the titles I'm both the author & the illustrator) Visit my web site to view all my picture books published to date: https://www.stevensalerno.com/published-picturebooks. Readers can see my extended bio version here: https://www.stevensalerno.com/blog-posts/2019/3/3/steven-salerno-illustrator-amp-picture-book-author-full-bio.
For many years I had my studio separate from my home -but now my studio is set up in my home, which is really convenient when working late into the night… which is often! My favorite type of picture book to illustrate? I equally enjoy illustrating both fiction and nonfiction stories, though because I'm a writer too getting to illustrate my own stories has the most satisfaction. Thus far my picture book stories have all been fiction, but currently I'm working on writing my very first nonfiction picture book story.
Thank you both for giving a great peek into your creative lives. What do you both like to do outside?
TZIPORAH – Garden, hike, bike, walk the dog. I have a tracking app and have walked over 2600 miles with my dog since we adopted her not quite seven years ago! I’d like to someday add rock climbing to this list, but for now I’m only climbing indoors.
STEVEN -Travel, walking city streets exploring, road trips, golfing, biking, outdoor dining.
Such fun activities. I have to admit I chuckled at "outdoor dinning"! Can you share the name of an author, illustrator, and/or perhaps a book that made an impact on you as a child?
TZIPORAH – I was a big fan of Madeleine L’Engle and read just about everything she wrote multiple times. Judy Blume was a biggie too. In picture books, I loved Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings. My grandmother lived in Boston and we’d go to the Boston Public Garden when we visited her and ride on the Swan Boats and I was sure I saw Mr. and Mrs. Mallard and their ducklings there on the island in the lagoon every time.
STEVEN - In my collection of picture books, I still have some from when I was as a young child… and a couple I really loved come immediately to mind (and because I'm a picture book author and illustrator myself I admire them even more): The Story About Ping by Marjorie Flack & illustrated by Kurt Wiese, and also Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel written & illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton. But I also loved the Homer Price books written & illustrated by Robert McCloskey and his other picture books, too. The Pooh books written by A.A.Milne & illustrated by the great E.H.Shepard are so beautiful. But the one particular illustrated book from my childhood that impacted me the most artistically is probably The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, wonderfully illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren. (Golden Press 1961).
Those two books go so well together! Tziporah, what was your inspiration for On the Corner of Chocolate Avenue: How Milton Hershey Brought Milk Chocolate to America?
TZIPORAH – In the summer of 2013, I went to Hershey, PA for a mini-vacation with my family. I had been there as a kid, but this time we took a historical trolley tour and I learned more about Milton Hershey’s life and work, his poor beginnings, his many failures before his big success, and his significant philanthropy. I knew right then I wanted to write a picture book biography about him. I was right in the middle of my MFA at that time so it became one of the projects I worked on there.
Sounds it had been the perfect time for that trolley trip. Steven, what about On the Corner of Chocolate Avenue: How Milton Hershey Brought Milk Chocolate to America manuscript appealed to you as an illustrator?
STEVEN - When I first read Tziporah’s story On the Corner of Chocolate Avenue, it was obviously well structured and styled and I was immediately attracted to its ultimate message of finding your interest in life, pouring all your energy and heart into it, and never, ever giving up! The story about Milton Hershey straddles the period of time from about the 1870’s through the 1920’s -a period of time in the American Industrial Age, which I find fascinating anyway -so depicting the fashions, objects, automobiles, machinery, etc, from that era was stimulating and fun for me.
With all the fiction picture books I have illustrated my visual approach for the illustrations is quite stylized and whimsical. But when I illustrate historical nonfiction stories, like On the Corner of Chocolate Avenue, the visual approach I take for the illustrations is decidedly more realistic in style all so that the young readers can precisely see what the fashions and architecture and objects actually looked like in the story’s time period. Then of course there was also the chocolate element in this particular story. And as every one knows eating chocolate is sublime -but getting to draw & paint chocolate is pretty great, too! I definitely had fun rendering the oozing chocolate in some of the scenes!
And you got to create an entire title page from a chocolate bar! Anyone else hingry for chocolate now? What's something you want your readers to know about On the Corner of Chocolate Avenue?
TZIPORAH – What stood out to me about Milton Hershey was how he embodied two very important characteristics—he dreamed big and he worked extremely hard. It was the combination of these two things that made him successful; without one or the other, we wouldn’t enjoy Hershey’s milk chocolate today. Don’t be afraid to have big dreams, even if others think they aren’t achievable, but know that you will need to work hard, and may fail many times before you achieve your own sweet success.
STEVEN - The art on the cover of On the Corner of Chocolate Avenue depicts Milton Hershey as a young boy standing amongst vats of chocolate, trays of chocolate bars, and a conveyor with hundreds of chocolate bars passing by. Milton did first start learning how to make candies and ice cream as a young boy - but he didn’t actually begin manufacturing chocolate bars until he was an adult in his 40’s! So the cover image purposely visually manipulates the proper time line by depicting a young Milton making chocolate bars!
Great inspiration, Tziporah. And really good information to know, Steven. Thank you both! Tziporah, your first book was a middle grade novel. What did you find most challenging about writing On the Corner of Chocolate Avenue? How long did it take from the idea to publication?
TZIPORAH – It took over ten years from that vacation in Hershey, PA to publication date tomorrow. (I can’t believe that even as I type it!) I think it’s always hard when writing a picture book biography to figure out what to leave out, because everything is so fascinating (or you wouldn’t be interested in writing about that person in the first place.) But probably the most challenging aspect of this book was how long it took to find a publisher for it. In my heart, I knew this book would be of interest to kids but there were many, many rejections and many, many revisions before the wonderful Ann Rider said yes to the manuscript in March of 2020, just one week before Toronto went into lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the anxiety of what was going on in the world, that was one very happy day for me!
I'm sure I wont be the only one glad you believed in the story and fought for it. Steven, what is the hardest or most challenging thing for you about illustrating children’s books? What was the most challenging aspect of On the Corner of Chocolate Avenue? Why?
STEVEN - For me, the real challenge in illustrating a story (fiction or nonfiction) is always in the creation of the preliminary thumbnails, storyboards, rough sketches and refined final sketches. Creating all the final illustrations is not difficult at all. Time consuming of course, but not difficult. The sketches on the other hand are difficult and stressful to complete simply due to the myriad of decisions regarding which actions and events within the story to depict and then figuring out what is the best manner to depict them, all while orchestrating the variation and flow of the all art images including how to integrate the placement of the text in relationship to the art images. The labor comes from all the trial and error during these sketch stages, of the honing down and weeding out of the choices that don’t work, and eventually refining everything down to the point where I feel my choices are the very best ones to illuminate the story for the reader. Once I’ve finalized the entire sketch stage, the next step of creating the corresponding final illustrations is a relief, like seeing a long street ahead of you and all the traffic lights are GREEN! Visit the process section on my web site to see the stages involved in creating the sketches and illustrations for some of the nonfiction picture books I've illustrated: https://www.stevensalerno.com/process-picturebooks.
I really encourage you all to check out these videos Steven created. He not only shows you his rough tumbnails, but breaks down an image (individual photoshop layers) to show how it was constructed. Tziporah, when you first saw Steven’s illustrations did anything surprise, amaze, or delight you? Which is your favorite spread?
Text © Tziporah Cohen, 2022. Image © Steven Salerno, 2022.
TZIPORAH – I’m guessing it doesn’t ever get old to see your words come alive in pictures, but this being my first picture book, it was extra-special for me. I loved seeing which scenes Steven decided to illustrate and was amazed by his attention to detail. My favorite spread is the second of two related spreads. In the first, near the beginning of the book, we see Milton as a child, barefoot and wearing patched clothing, staring wistfully into a bakery window at treats he can’t afford. In the second, towards the end of the book, Milton, now a successful and wealthy man, watches some less fortunate children stare at the same bakery window, remembering what it was like to be poor. The illustration says so much you almost don’t need the words.
That is a powerful image. Steven, many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own elements into the illustrations. Even though it’s nonfiction, did you do this in On the Corner of Chocolate Avenue? If so, can you share a couple with us? What is your favorite spreads or one you are most proud of?
STEVEN - No, I didn’t add anything personal within any of the illustrations for this book, like placing myself within a crowd scene, or hiding a secret image within an image.
Text © Tziporah Cohen, 2022. Image © Steven Salerno, 2022.
One of my favorite illustrations I created was the scene near the end of the book which depicts Milton Hershey and his wife (as well as an architect and an engineer) standing at an overlook on the side of a road looking down into a valley below surveying the town of Hershey, Pennsylvania -which Milton had constructed for his factory workers. There is something elegant and a bit magical about this scene in a practical way, I guess because it subconsciously causes the reader to momentarily imagine people from that period in time living their lives in this town....
It is captivating. Is there any advice that you’ve received along the way either for writing, illustrating, or life that you’d like to share with us?
TZIPORAH – I heard someone say once that the only difference between a published writer and an unpublished one is that the unpublished one stopped trying. I realize it’s not that simple, as access and privilege play a role here too, but I tried to take that to heart and, like Hershey, refused to give up. I reframed each rejection as another step closer to success, because it meant I was still trying.
STEVEN - Just as in Milton Hershey’s own life, find what interests you (better yet, find what you love!) and throw your heart and soul into it. Never give up on trying to accomplish your goals. Remember, the best measure is not that you get knocked down (it's inevitable). The better measure is that after being knocked down having the will and perseverance to keep getting back up again and again.
Thank you both so much. Are there any new projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
TZIPORAH – I’m happy to say that I have two picture books coming out in March 2023: Afikomen, illustrated by Yaara Eshet (Groundwood Books) and City Beet, illustrated by Udayana Lugo (Sleeping Bear Press). As for works-in-progress, I’m revising another picture book biography and working hard to finish another middle-grade novel.
STEVEN - A few years ago I was approached by the executive art director at publisher Viking/Penguin-Random House, and asked if I wanted to illustrate the next 5 new Madeline picture books! (Yes, that famous Madeline from Paris in the yellow hat!) But the publisher’s requirement was that I must illustrate these books by mimicking the distinctive illustration style of the originator of Madeline, Ludwig Bemelmans (b.1898 - d.1962). [Wow, what an honor and a challenge.]
My career has never been about imitating someone else’s style, but in this unique instance I said yes to the project, mostly for the challenge of it, but also knowing I could do a great job creating the illustrations, plus I felt a kind of obligation to be the guardian of the Madeline character. View a posting about this project with these links: https://www.stevensalerno.com/blog-posts/2022/6/9/love-from-madeline-just-received-my-copies and https://www.stevensalerno.com/madeline-series.
Last question, what is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?
TZIPORAH – Sequoia National Park in California, hands down. Standing in front of the giant Sequoia trees, some of which are thousands of years old, was a humbling experience. It made me aware of the small significance of my life in the course of history, but in a way that felt reassuring, not sad or scary. I hope to go back again someday.
STEVEN - I live in NYC’s Manhattan island, so I'm going to say the city’s famed Central Park - the 900 acre park right in the middle of Manhattan that's a wonderful reprieve from all the intense hustle and bustle of the city!
Thank you Tziporah & Steven for sharing with us a bit about yourself and your newest picture book.
Be sure to back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post for On The Corner of Chocolate Avenue: How Milton Hershey Brought Milk Chocolate to America
To find out more about Tziporah Cohen, or contact her:
To find out more about Steven Salerno, or contact him: