The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Vivian Kirkfield and Gilbert Ford
Writer for children—reader forever…that’s Vivian Kirkfield in five words. She can be found writing picture books in the picturesque village of Bedford, NH. A retired kindergarten teacher, With a Masters in Early Childhood Education, Vivian inspires budding writers during classroom visits and shares insights with aspiring authors at conferences and on her blog, Picture Books Help Kids Soar where she hosts the #50PreciousWords International Writing Contest and the #50PreciousWordsforKids Challenge.
She is the author of many picture books, including Making Their Voices Heard: The Inspiring Friendship Of Ella Fitzgerald And Marilyn Monroe (2020), Sweet Dreams, Sarah (2019), and Four Otters Toboggan: An Animal Counting Book (2019).
For additional information on Vivian, see our earlier interviews (here) and (here).
Gilbert Ford is an author and illustrator of books for children. After graduating from the Pratt Institute, Gilbert worked as a busboy, a scanner operator, and a vintage movie poster dealer until becoming a designer and illustrator of educational toys. In addition to writing and illustrating, he also teaches a book club after school for The National Book Foundation.
Since 1996, Gilbert’s lived in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. He’s the author/illustrator of picture books How The Cookie Crumbled (2017), The Marvelous Thing That Came From A Spring (2016), Flying Lessons (2010), as well as the debut middle grade novel, The Mysterious Messenger (2020). Additionally, he’s also the illustrator of numerous New York Times best-selling middle grade novels and also award-winning picture books, including Alice Across America: The Story of the First Women's Cross-Country Road Trip (2020), Rotten!: Vultures, Beetles, Slime, and Nature’s Other Decomposers (2019), Itch!: Everything You Didn't Want to Know About What Makes You Scratch (2018), The Ambrose Deception (2018), Soldier Song: A True Story of the Civil War (2017), Moonpenny Island (2016), and Mr. Ferris and His Wheel (2014).
Their newest collaboration, From Here To There: Inventions That Changed The Way The World Moves, releases TOMORROW!
Welcome Vivian & Gilbert, tell us a little about yourselves. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing?)
VIVIAN: First of all, thank you so much, Maria, for having us on your blog! And for being an amazing critique buddy, a dear friend, a wonderful traveling companion, and a stellar judge for #50PreciousWords – I’m grateful for all that you do for me and for the kid-lit community. [Aww, thanks Vivian]
I think I’ve been writing since I was old enough to hold a pencil. In fact, I recently found a little spiral notepad from when I was ten years old where I scribbled little poems. But I never seriously considered becoming an author until my kids were grown and had kids of their own. That’s when my husband encouraged me to write the book I always said I wished I’d had when I was teaching kindergarten and when my kids were growing up. So, in 2010 I self-published Show Me How! Build Your Child’s Self-Esteem Through Reading, Crafting, and Cooking – a compendium of 100 picture book summaries with a cooking activity and a craft project for each title. The next year, my son gave me a very unusual gift for my 64th birthday – he took me skydiving – and when my feet touched the ground, I knew that if I could do that, I could do anything. And when Julie Hedlund announced that she was starting a new challenge called 12x12 to write 12 picture book manuscripts in 12 months, I hopped on board and never looked back.
GILBERT: I’ve written and illustrated children’s books professionally since 2007. Before the pandemic, I wrote new material or drew my challenging sketches in the mornings. I re-read what I’d written at lunch and either edited or colored in the artwork in the afternoon. At 4pm, I’d exercise. By 8:30, I would have cooked dinner and eaten, then the rest of the night was spent reading or studying other people’s books. This schedule would be interrupted occasionally by school visits or teaching a book club to middle school kids, but otherwise, it was the same every day.
Wow! What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
VIVIAN: I suppose many of us have pet names or names we wish our parents had given us. I always wanted to be Victoria or Virginia…and when I fell in love with those chapter book mysteries like the Trixie Belden and Ginny Gordon series, the dye was cast. But I was also a big fan of Bonanza, that western TV series that started in 1959 (I was 12) and starred Michael Landon – I had the biggest crush on him. I’d dream that I was living back in time and part of Little Joe’s family. My name?
Victoria Virginia Cartwright Gordon. And I don’t think I’ve ever shared that with anyone. 😊
GILBERT: I don’t know that I have any secrets. I love anything story related—not just books and movies, but also reading tarot cards, diviners, mythology, astrology, spirituality, history and dramatic plays. Most people know I also love wearing hats, and I collect all things vintage.
Thank you both. I love your chosen name Vivian and even if not secret, I'll bet some of us didn't know this about you Gilbert. So, Vivian, what was the inspiration for From Here To There: Inventions That Changed The Way The World Moves?
At conference presentations and in blog posts for STORYSTORM, everyone mentions that ideas come from everywhere – and that is totally true. The inspiration for From Here to There came from something my sister told me about a friend of a friend who was the granddaughter of the founder of the Greyhound Bus Company. My initial research made me curious to find out more. I wrote the story and my agent sent it out on submission.
But the idea for the compilation came from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt editor Ann Rider. She loved my story about Eric Wickman and how he grew a tiny car shuttle service in Hibbing, Minnesota into a world-wide bus company. However, she worried that the topic wasn’t strong enough to be a stand-alone picture book and she asked if I’d be willing to write several more manuscripts about visionaries who invented things that move. Ann gave me lots of leeway in choosing the other topics and I tried to think out-of-the-box to create a compilation that had diversity.
That's a bit of a different evolution. But it is a different type of book. Gilbert, what about the From Here To There manuscript appealed to you as an illustrator?
In grad school, I’d written a manuscript about the Montgolfier brothers, but did nothing with it. I think there were several hot air balloon picture books out already, so I didn’t pursue it. But I had always wanted to illustrate the balloon floating over Paris. So… when I was offered that story with the other eight, I was already sold on it.
Serendipity? It's funny how some things just line up. Vivian, what's something you want your readers to know about From Here To There?
These were ordinary people who did extraordinary things: Joseph Montgolfier had ADHD and ran away from home for a year because school was so painful for him – but he invented the first hot-air balloon which provided the world’s first manned flight. Robert Goddard was mocked by the New York Times when his first attempts to fly rockets were unsuccessful – but today he is known as the Father of Rocketry and our space program is founded on the work he did with liquid fuel and multistage rockets. Herbert Everest had been a track and field star athlete in college, but when a mining accident paralyzed him, he was imprisoned in his wheelchair.
Determined to be more mobile and get out for rides in his beloved jalopy, Herbert, and a friend who was a mechanical engineer, designed and built the first folding wheelchair. And Raye Montague knew she was going to be an engineer, even though in the 1950s, African Americans were barred from taking engineering classes in southern colleges. Graduating with a degree in business, Raye hopped on a train to Washington DC and got a job as a typist for the Navy where she took computer classes at night and watched the Ivy League naval officers run the wall of UNIVAC computers until one day, they all called in sick – and Raye jumped up and kept everything running smoothly.
I think that each story is a testament to the creativity and perseverance of people. All of the inventors thought outside the box – all of the inventors stepped outside the prescribed thought process of their times – and all of the inventors believed that nothing is impossible if you can imagine it. THAT is the takeaway I hope my readers will embrace when they close the book.
I know that "nothing is impossible if you can imagine it," is not only the 'message' of your book, but of your own life as well. Gilbert, many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in FROM HERE TO THERE? Could you share one or more with us?
I had a beagle named Harper at the time. I would add the dog somewhere in the illustrations of my books. In this case, the title page has a boy and his beagle on it.
What a cute dog, thanks for sharing this. For both of you, as a child, who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or what was favorite book?
VIVIAN: As a young child, I loved fairy tales and folk tales. All the Brothers Grimm stories…Baba Yaga with the house on the chicken legs that turned around…I could sit and read for hours. And then, when I got into Nancy Drew, Ginny Gordon, Trixie Belden, and all the Walter Farley Black Stallion books. I remember walking home from the library with a stack…I must have looked like a pile of books with legs because I couldn’t see over the top of the books. I’d sit down in the backyard and read, one book after another. I also loved Louise May Alcott’s Little Women, Little Men, and that whole series. And I still love them!
GILBERT: I loved picture books illustrated by Tomi Ungerer, Chris Van Allsburg, James Marshall, and Barbara Cooney. I loved Greek mythology, fairy tales, and folklore. I also loved middle grade novels written by Roald Dahl and Louis Sacher.
Such great books & creatives! What is the hardest thing for you about writing or illustrating picture books? How about with From Here To There?
VIVIAN: The hardest thing about writing picture books for me is finding the way into the story…the focus…and weaving that core/heart into every page.
The hardest thing about writing From Here to There was finding a way to make each story unique, yet similar in tone and energy. Oh, and the research…and keeping track of the research because there were nine separate nonfiction stories. Oh, and not getting distracted as I researched because I discovered so many other interesting people that I wanted to find out more about. Oh, and getting everything completed by the deadline because I had about nine months to finish all nine manuscripts. Oh, did you only want ONE hardest thing? 😊
GILBERT: I think it was the pacing. There were over 100 pages to illustrate, and I had a few months to do it, which meant every day I needed to produce a certain number of finished pieces, without time for re-dos. I had already illustrated two 100 page non-fiction chapter books for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt before this one (Itch! and Rotten! by Anita Sanchez), so I had some practice behind me. Ann Rider, the editor for this book, had worked with me on the picture book, Mr. Ferris and His Wheel by Kathryn Gibbs Davis, which had been successful, so she wanted this book in that style.
Seems like it involved short deadlines for both of you. As an illustrated collection of nine stories, is From Here To There a picture book or a chapter book?
VIVIAN: When I first got the nod from the editor to do the compilation, it was originally supposed to be geared to grades K-2. But several months into the project, she decided that a book geared to grades 3-6 might have a wider appeal…and would give us more leeway regarding the inventions because she wanted to include robotics and rocketry. I believe that the publisher is marketing the book as a middle grade chapter book and I think that makes good sense, although I know that each story is still appropriate and would be enjoyed by a kid in grades K-2.
GILBERT: It’s technically a chapter book, but I had illustrated other non-fiction chapter books for HMH that fell somewhere between a picture book and a chapter book and HMH seemed to like that format because kids respond well to heavily illustrated books.
I think it's a great format; one that offers a lot to a wide range of ages (including adults). A wonderful segue between the concisely written, art focused picture book and the longer text of chapter books. Do you each have a favorite story? Or one that’s special to you for some reason? [Aside - isn't this a great table of contents page!]
VIVIAN: A few people have asked me which is my favorite story and that’s a hard question to answer – kind of like when you ask a parent which child is their favorite. 😊 I love them all! But the one about Bertha Benz: Black Forest or Bust – that’s such a lot of fun! And I love how absolutely ingenious Bertha was…and brave! I’m thrilled that she was finally recognized for her contribution to the automobile industry when she was inducted into the Detroit Motor Hall of Fame in 2012.
Text © Vivian Kirkfield, 2021. Image © Gilbert Ford, 2021.
GILBERT: My favorite stories are the Montgolfier brothers and their hot air balloon, and Bertha Benz’s drive in Germany.
So what were the odds that of the nine chapters you both picked out Bertha Benz's story? Vivian, where you surprised by anything in the illustrations when you first got to see them? What is your favorite spread?
Surprised? I don’t think I was surprised…more like ELATED! I loved everything Gilbert did – he brought the stories to life. Most of all, I love the color palette he chose – the vivid pinks and purples just pop off the pages – and then he has sections where greens and blues predominate…just spectacular!
Text © Vivian Kirkfield, 2021. Image © Gilbert Ford, 2021.
Favorite spread? Hmmm…here we go again…picking that favorite child. 😉 I guess it’s a toss-up between the opening spread for Black Forest or Bust, with Bertha in the car with her sons and the opening spread for Raye Draws Her Own Lines where we see 7-year-old Raye just mesmerized by the dials and gears on that submarine tour that changed the course of her life.
How great that both your "favorite" chapter and spread highlight the two color palettes that Gilbert used. Gilbert, is there a spread that you were especially excited about or proud of? Which is your favorite spread?
Text © Vivian Kirkfield, 2021. Image © Gilbert Ford, 2021.
Whenever I illustrate something text heavy, I have to creatively incorporate white space in the illustrations for the text. On the Bertha Benz chapter, I had to use a bunch of my tricks in order to spread the text out, while making it visually appealing. But my most challenging was pages 28-29, where George Stevenson studies with his child and they work on the first steam locomotive. It was hard because it had a lot of text, with many things happening in a short space that needed to be illustrated, and there were tabs! The trick was to do various spots in a similar color palette across a spread. That kind of stuff is more challenging than to do a full page spread of just one image.
I am in awe of how you created this spread. But honestly, ALL of the illustrations in the book are masterful and amazing. Can you both share what/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (either as a child, now as a writer, or both.)
VIVIAN: I’m not sure – but I know that a lot of my inspiration comes from loving stories about real people who overcame obstacles to fill a need and/or live their dream. As a child, I loved books – you could leave me for hours as long as I had a book to read. In fact, when my sister was graduating from junior high, we went to a big department store so she could find the perfect dress. It was Abraham & Straus in Brooklyn, New York…and there were eight floors in the store. We took the elevator to the 8th floor which was ALL BOOKS! Shelves and tables full of books! My mother told me to find a book and sit and read and she and my sister would be back soon. Of course, this was 1957…you wouldn’t leave a little girl alone in a department store these days. I found a book, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I sat down on the floor in a little alcove created by the kneehole of a big desk. And when I turned the last page and stood up (probably 3 hours later), there was my mother and sister and the store security guard, running up and down the stacks of books, searching for me. Did I mention that I was pretty tiny? And that when I get engrossed in a book, I don’t hear anything? 😊 So, I guess you could say that my inspiration comes from the books that I read.
GILBERT: There is no one person, I guess. I tend to follow artists that have tried a lot of things, to see how their work translates over a variety of media and understand what their “thumbprint” is—the single thing that drives them to create. For instance, the artist Miranda July inspires me because she has done performance art, spoken word, written novels, written, directed, and starred in her own movies, etc. I love that the thing that ties her work together are these “unlikely relationships” between things or people. I see that in children’s books too, in any early reader where two opposite characters are placed together in a chapter—Elephant and Piggy (Mo Willems) or Frog and Toad (Arnold Lobel).
Vivian, thank you for sharing that great story. Books (as well as other media) are definitely great places to find inspiration. How are you both staying creative these days? What are you doing to “prime the well”?
VIVIAN: I’ve been very fortunate throughout this COVID-19 health crisis. I’m kind of in the loveliest bubble you could imagine, living in a big house on six acres in a small town in New Hampshire with my daughter and son-in-law and 12-year-old grandson. And even though I don’t get out a lot (because of COVID), I feel like the world is at my fingertips (because of the internet). I interact with other writers and participate in webinars and I never seem to run out of things I want to write about. What I do run out of is time, and I tend to try to stretch the day by staying up till 2 or 3am. I’m energized and inspired by the hard work and efforts of my critique buddies and all the people in the kid-lit world. It’s a unique community – and I feel blessed to be part of it.
GILBERT: Since the Pandemic, I have been tending to family matters with my parents and my 94-year-old grandmother, so less time to write or create artwork. I’ve had to cut out museums and flea markets, but I’ve discovered cooking old Sicilian family recipes, reading discarded library books, and watching YouTube videos on astrology. I was very excited to discover the Grand Conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter this past December not only brought in the new age of Aquarius but has historically signified the beginning of past new ages. The conjunction is thought to be the same Star of Bethlehem that led the three wise men to the baby Jesus.
Wow Gilbert, I had not heard that. Isn't that food for thought. Are there any new projects you both are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
VIVIAN: New projects? Well, I have one book in the pipeline for Spring 2023. Pedal, Balance, Steer: Annie Londonderry, First Woman to Bike Around the World will be illustrated by Jana Christy and published by Calkins Creek/Boyds Mills & Kane. And I also have two other manuscripts that are R&Rs with that same editor – so fingers crossed I can revise them appropriately so that she will want to acquire them. One manuscript is about a contemporary of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton who really hasn’t gotten the recognition she deserves. And the other manuscript is about an author-illustrator duo who created an iconic character. I’m hoping that once the launch of From Here to There: Inventions That Changed the Way the World Moves has passed, I’ll be able to concentrate on those revisions.
GILBERT: My next project is my 2nd middle grade novel I have written called The Cutting Edge. The first novel I wrote and illustrated, The Mysterious Messenger, came out in the height of the Pandemic last summer, and was the culmination of all my skills so far as a writer, a cover artist, and an interior artist. The rough draft for The Cutting Edge is sitting on my editor’s desk ready to be read and edited and I’m looking forward to releasing that book in 2022 after everyone is vaccinated.
I wish you both the best with this virtual launch and with these upcoming books! What is your favorite animal? Or one you are enamored with at the moment. Why?
VIVIAN: I am definitely a lover of animals. We always had dogs, cats, rabbits and gerbils when our kids were growing up. My dad had amazing tropical fish. And my first teaching mentor had a snake in her kindergarten classroom that was forever escaping and terrorizing the principal who would find it wrapped around the base of his radiator in the morning (he probably had the warmest room in the school).
But I was always a lover of horses, read every horse adventure book I could find, and dreamed of having a pony of my own. I drew pretty bad sketches of horses (you’ll notice I am NOT an illustrator) and one of my first poems – I think I was eight years old – was about a horse. I haven’t written a picture book about a horse yet, but, as Scarlett O’Hara said in Gone With The Wind (one of my all-time favorite novels), tomorrow is another day.
GILBERT: As far as pets, I love dogs and miss my beagle. As far as wild animals, I’m intrigued by owls, because they mean something different in every culture and are often misunderstood. Some people see them as spooky-- as if they are an omen for death, but other cultures see them as wise and well read. They’re out at night and can see under the dim starlight, so popular culture portrays them as a psychic animal. They’re also beautiful and represent change. In fact, illustrations of owls took the giftware industry by storm in the mid-20th century during a time of political and social change.
Yeah, horses! No wonder we're such great travel buddies, Vivian. I am sorry that Harper is no longer with you Gilbert, but I love your musing on owls.
Thank you Vivian & Gilbert for stopping by to share about yourself and your newest chapter book.
And thank you so much, Maria, for making room on your blog to help us spread the word about the new book! I always love visiting on your fabulous blog!
Be sure to stop back by on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on From Here to There: Inventions That Changed The Way The World Moves.
To find out more about Vivian Kirkfield, or get in touch with her:
To find out more about Gilbert Ford, or get in touch with him: