SCBWI Canada East Blog

December 19, 2014

Wishing everyone a safe and happy holiday season.

May your muse be kind,
your poems be relished,
stories be published,
and your artwork enshrined.

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December 1, 2014
Interview with Illustrator Sue Todd


I am excited to feature an interview with talented illustrator Sue Todd. Sue is a graduate of the Ontario College of Art. She has created art for a wide range of clients from advertising and corporate to editorial and publishing. In children's publishing, Sue has illustrated many folktales and legends from around the world, and has fully illustrated five picture books and contributed to many educational collections.

Sue has a wonderful bold and graphic illustration style that she achieves using a linocut process. I asked her some questions about her illustration process, and on her experiences as an illustrator:

1. Have you always wanted to be an illustrator? And how did you enter the children’s book world?

I did! But originally I wanted to be a fashion illustrator. I had a very loose drawing style and not a lot of patience, so fashion suited me very well. Unfortunately my timing was a little off as the early 80’s brought a revolution of fashion photography that killed pretty much all fashion drawing. I was a retail layout artist for several years before turning to lino carving for a creative outlet and that led to a career in illustration. My illustrations were commissioned by a wide range of clients in all sectors but my favourite work has always been for children. I began to target my style to children’s publishers and that has been my main focus for about a decade.

2. Can you describe your studio set up and tell us about some of the tools that you use to create your work

I have a yellow studio in the basement of our Toronto home. I call it the main floor because that's where I spend most of my time, and it’s quite cozy with radiant floor heat. My studio consists of a computer desk, flat file unit that is pretty disorganized, a few tool cabinets, a large bookshelf full of inspiring reference, and a drafting board. I have a small tabletop printmaking press that is suitable for most of my work and larger pieces are hand printed using lots of muscle.

Sue's Studio

Computer work area

Love the yellow walls and red storage cabinets!

3. Your linocut style is very unique. Can you describe your process you go through when working on your illustrations?

I never studied printmaking at art college so in that area I am self-taught. Once my rough sketch is approved, I transfer it to the linoleum with carbon paper, clamp it to my desk and start carving, keeping in mind that the areas I do not carve will be the printed line or shapes. I have never injured myself because I always carve away from my body. I use disposable Speedball carving gouges in three sizes. When the carving is complete, water soluble printing ink is rolled onto the linoleum. I place it on the press, cover with a sheet of Maidstone paper, and run it through the press. I always use scrap paper for the first print and then typically create three good prints to choose from.  I usually print with black ink and colourize digitally but occasionally I’ll print in colour depending on the nature of the assignment. Once the print is dry I scan it at 1200 dpi and reduce it for colouring in Photoshop.

Photos of Sue's linocut process:

4. You've illustrated in a wide range of areas - corporate, editorial, book covers, and children's  - which area do you enjoy the most?

That’s a no-brainer – children’s publishing, hands down! I get to think like a kid, and the subject matter is always fun and interesting, and I often learn something too. Sometimes research is involved which I quite enjoy, and it’s a pleasure to visually interpret the world the author has described in the story.

5. When working on an illustration, what aspect do you find the most challenging? And which part of the process do you enjoy the most?

Undoubtedly the most challenging part of any assignment is the conceptual stage before the rough sketches have gelled. I sometimes call it the ‘drowsy rough stage’ because I feel an overwhelming desire to take a nap. Even after all these years there is still the nagging fear that the muses will abandon me in my hour of need. I do enjoy every aspect of my process and like the variety that comes with this technique. I am working in an ancient analog medium one minute and modern digital the next. Carving is a bit like knitting and that allows me to catch up on the news, listen to podcasts or think about the next assignment while working. My favourite task is adding colour in Photoshop. It’s a thrill to watch what has been a black and white process transform into full colour!

6. How do you manage balancing work/life?

It’s difficult, in this line of work, to maintain a balance because of deadline pressures and the feast or famine nature of the business. To keep myself going on a tight schedule I make time every day for exercise, including cycling and/or yoga. It keeps me walking upright and prevents repetitive strain injuries. I often hop on my bike at the conceptual stage and keep a notebook to jot down ideas while riding along the path. I am not one of those people who can make a clean separation between work and life. I find it more efficient to run errands in the middle of the day and have a habit of working until midnight. If I don’t have specific plans, I can usually be found in my studio not cooking and cleaning. Six hours sleep seems to do the trick for me. There are so many things on my to-do and want-to-do list that I wish I didn’t have to sleep at all! We creatives are fortunate that we don’t have to fear Monday mornings.

7. Whose work do you admire? Who or what inspires you from outside your own medium of work?

I am a huge fan of the art of Steve Simpson, Jim Flora, Jane Ray, and woodcut artist, Jose Francisco Borges, to mention only a few. For something completely different, I am learning to paint in oils and find inspiration from brilliant painters like Amanda Hall, Maira Kalman, Jody Hewgill, Anita Kunz and Wallace Edwards.

8. What advice would you give an aspiring illustrator? -In hindsight, would you have done anything differently?

Do your research. Learn about the business of children’s illustration, connect with organizations like SCBWI and CANSCAIP, go to conferences, network with colleagues and share ideas and information. This is not always easy for creatures that tend to work in isolation but it’s the best way to grow and keep up with industry changes.

Hindsight being 20/20 I sometimes wish I had started on the illustration track sooner and not spent years as a layout artist. On the other hand, I did learn to work on deadline, draw daily under pressure and work with typography giving me a solid foundation for a career in illustration. I do wish had taken more time to play and explore new ideas and techniques. Time scarcity consciousness is the bane of my existence and it can be difficult to strike a balance when you are both the creative and marketing departments!

9.  What do you like most about your career?

The freedom to make my own hours (which usually means all of them) and the ability to make a living doing what I did in kindergarten.

10. Where would you like your work to lead you? Have you any aspirations or plans for the future?

I have a gazillion aspirations but two main tracks I am following now. First, I am learning to write and am working on my first graphic novel, a historical biography. I love distilling mountains of research into a coherent story and have plans for a whole series. Second, I am learning to paint portraits in oils and aspire to some day paint like Anita Kunz or Wallace Edwards, but this is the beginning of a very long journey. My next goal is to paint enough that it becomes fun and not agonizingly stress inducing.

Thank you Sue, for taking the time for this interview!
For more of Sue's work, please visit:

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November 27, 2014
Interview with Caroline Pignat


I had the opportunity to meet and discuss my writing with Caroline Pignat at the SCBWI Canada East Fall 2014 Conference.  I thought it only fair that she have the opportunity to discuss her work.  

Thanks again Caroline for taking the time to answer my questions.

·      What inspired you to write your first book?

I was at at the Highlights Foundation Chatauqua Workshop in 2003. Jerry Spinelli’s workshop got us starting with “an emotionally charged memory” and, for whatever reason, I wrote about being a bystander to bullying back in grade 7. That prompt and the wonderful inspiration and support I got at that conference was the catalyst for Egghead, though it took me five more years to write it.

·      What are your new titles and can you give us a hint of what they are about?

The Gospel Truth - is a free verse novel told in the voices of six characters living at Whitehaven Plantation in 1858. Seen through the eyes of the master, his daughter, her maid Phoebe, the cook, the kitchen boy and a mysterious man from Canada -- truth is not so black and white.
Unspeakable is a fictional story about the historic sinking of the Empress of Ireland on May 29, 1914 -- Canada’s worst maritime disaster -- with more passengers lost, than the Titanic. Seen through Ellie’s eyes the sole surviving stewardess finds the courage to tell the story she’d never say, to the man she’d never tell, and discovers hope and healing in sharing the unspeakable.

·      What books/authors have influenced your writing?

As a tween, I loved Judy Blume’s books. Her characters were so real to me. The first book that I remember being amazed by was Heidi. I am drawn to historical fiction -- in particular, Philippa Gregory, Ann Rinaldi, Diana Gabaldon -- because they have found that sweet spot of engaging characters in fascinating times. I also love Sue Monk Kidd, Markus Zusak, Wally Lamb and Anita Diamant because they write lines that make me stop and say “wow.”

·      What books are you reading now?

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
Escape from Killarney  by Angela Graham

·      Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

I wrote poems in elementary school. My grade 3 teacher was someone other than my parents who said what I wrote was good. It amazed me how finding the right words really caught my feelings -- and helped other people get it, too. Journalling and writing letters to my granny in Ireland also helped me find a love of written expression.

·      Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?

I don’t have a favourite, actually. What strikes me about a book is if the author is able to draw me in to the point that I’ve forgotten to analyze the work. That’s the sign of a great book, to me. Regardless of genre, if I am swept up and taken along for the ride, if I miss the characters when I’m done reading, then I know what I’ve read is a keeper. John Green does it really well -- I still can’t figure out how. :)

·      Have you ever hated something you wrote?

I have things that make me cringe when I reread them. It’s like hearing my voice on the answering machine. Really? I sound like that? Ew. But I’ve come to look at those cringe-worthy drafts as a sign that my writing has improved. Yes, that sucks. But, hey, at least now I know it does.

·      While you were writing, did you ever feel as if you were one of the characters?

Absolutely. All the time, actually. Because of the Spinelli advice to start with an “emotionally charged memory” -- the emotion in my main characters is most definitely me. I put myself in their situation -- but lean on their strengths and personalities to get us out.

·      Do you see writing as a career?

That’s a tough question.

Okay, I actually looked up the definition of career -- #Englishteacher #nerd  -- and it says:

a career is an occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person's life and with opportunities for progress.

As a product, my writing is a career. I’ve spent almost 20 years developing my skills to make a product that is marketable and helps me pay my bills. But, as you know, writing is SO much more than that.

Writing is art. It’s the voice of the soul. It’s where and how I find and fix myself. I would still write even if no one wanted it. That part of the writing journey is much, much larger than “career”.

Teaching is like that. So is parenting.

Still, it took me a long time to even call myself a writer. Like I wasn’t worthy of it because I wasn’t published, I wasn’t (and still am not) living off my books, or I wasn’t “successful” -- however I defined success at the time.

So yes, a part of it is career -- a lot of is soul searching -- but writing for me is a kind of unfolding.

·      Have you any other ideas for any more books

Yes. I’m always worried the last one was the LAST one. But I usually get an a-ha that sets me off on another treasure hunt.

·      Where do you find inspirations and ideas for your plots and characters? 

I get inspired by what I read, by challenges I’ve faced, and through people I’ve known. Historical events are a great source (just visit a museum -- there’s a million stories in there.) The more I stay open to, the richer the story becomes. It’s like a stew. Throw it all in there (with a bit of Guinness) let it simmer, and see what happens.
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November 17, 2014
Rough Monday?


Dear daughter threw a tantrum today because she needed to paint using my paintbrush and palette. We compromised, I kept my paintbrush and she got to use my palette with supervision. I somehow managed to finish the painting. Probably because she got into my masking fluid and had a fine time decorating her paper with that. Kids are happiest (and quietest) when making a mess.

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October 31, 2014
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I am not sure if anyone one else suffers from scattered thinking, but I do.  And it makes it way to my office to the point that I can't even use my office.  Well, Marcy McKay has written some suggestions to help us organize our way to a better writing career.  

By Marcy McKay

Your Messy Desk is Hurting Your Writing Career. Here’s How to Declutter

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October 29, 2014
An Interview with Christie Harkin


I had the great pleasure of interviewing Christie Harkin.  She and Solange Messier have opened their own publishing house, Clockwise Press.  I find her answers enlightening and encouraging.  Please enjoy.

Congratulations on the creation of your new publishing house, Clockwise Press, with Ms. Solange Messier.  What motivated you to create Clockwise Press?

I went away for a weekend at a cottage with my daughter this summer and had some time to stare at a lake and really reflect on what I wanted to do with my career. I started fantasizing about starting my own press, imagining what I’d like to do, and who I’d like to work with. I thought, “It would be great to get Solange to help with non-fiction.” When I got back, I received a text from Solange – out of the blue – saying, “I want to quit my job and try branching out on my own. Am I crazy?” It’s like the universe was telling us to take the leap at the exact same time.

How did you get your first break in publishing and what important lessons have you learned along the way?
After many years as a teacher and tutor, I went back to university for a year in my late 30s and then enrolled in the publishing program at Ryerson. At the end of my first semester, I landed an internship at Fitzhenry & Whiteside which turned into a full-time job. I’d say my first big break came when I was handed a manuscript for a non-fiction book about hockey: “Hockey Talk: The Language of Hockey from A-Z”. I’m a long-time hockey mom so I think the other “non-hockey” folks were relieved that there was someone in the office who could do something with the manuscript. It was a chance for me to prove that I could handle the job of looking after a project, from the substantive stage to the final proof, even finding and directing the illustrator. It was quite an experience.
As for what I’ve learned along the way…whew. That first year was an incredibly steep learning curve, that’s for sure. I learned about acquisitions and editing. Then I learned about cover and interior design, and about art direction. My first picture book, Kiss Me, I’m a Prince! by Heather McLeod and Brooke Kerrigan was a real trial by fire – I had no idea what I was doing, to be honest – but it turned out beautifully and was a Blue Spruce Honour Book.
Over the years, I was given the chance to work with contracts, grant proposals, foreign rights sales, translations, and other aspects of the publishing industry outside of the nuts-and-bolts of editorial. I know that I was very lucky to have had that sort of opportunity to grow as an editor and publisher in such a short period of time.
After 5.5 years at Fitzhenry & Whiteside, I moved to James Lorimer & Co. where I learned a lot about editing hi-lo novels and about marketing, especially as it pertains to schools and libraries. It was a completely different skill set.

Who have been some of your most significant mentors?
Gail Winskill, Ann Featherstone, and Cathy Sandusky were my mentors at Fitzhenry & Whiteside. I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am today without them. This will be a total surprise if she ever reads this piece, but Shelley Tanaka (the editor at Groundwood) has been a huge influence as well, even though we’ve barely met. When I went back to university, I took Deirdre Baker’s seminar course in Canadian Children’s Literature and we studied a whole whack of Groundwood books. Shelley even came in to speak to our class. I wanted to be HER and I wanted to edit and produce books that were as good as the ones we studied in class. That’s a bar I’m always reaching for.

Which books from your childhood do you still have on your shelf today?
OK – that question made me laugh. Were it not for a flood that destroyed a huge number of my books when I was 16, I’d be able to say ALL of them. As it is, I still have a couple hundred of my childhood books. Some are a little water-damaged but I’ve got LOTS. I didn’t own many picture books as a child but I do still have my copy of Disney’s Cinderella. And I have the Frog & Toad books and a biography of Helen Keller with the braille on the back cover that I pretty much learned to read from. I also have my mom’s childhood copies of A House at Pooh Corner, Bambi, and Peter Pan.

Name some of your favourite children’s book characters and explain what makes them so memorable.
Growing up, I loved Anne of Green Gables, Emily of New Moon, and Laura Ingalls. Those were the characters I wanted most as best friends. I identified with Anne and Emily’s imagination and ambitions. And I admired the resourcefulness and practicality of Laura’s pioneer life in the Little House books. When I was older, I really liked Meg Murray in A Wrinkle in Time. That was one of the first female characters that I read who had to overcome her insecurities and embrace her role as a smart, strong girl on a mission to save the world. Those angels were pretty cool too.

Describe the process of creating a children’s book at Clockwise Press. What are the various stages involved in the journey?

Well, we haven’t actually created any books at Clockwise Press yet! But when Solange and I were at Fitzhenry & Whiteside, we worked together acquiring and publishing books. Now, we decide jointly on what to accept, although Solange is primarily responsible for non-fiction and I look after fiction. The key for us is making sure that the project fits with our mandate and that it is well-written. We are both going to be doing the bulk of the editorial work on our own projects and then probably proofreading each other’s work. We have enlisted the talents of some excellent designers, including Tanya St. Amand, whom we’ve both worked with in the past.
Clockwise Press will be publishing one teen novel in the spring of 2015, followed by a hi-lo fantasy novel, a work of creative non-fiction, and a picture book and in the fall. As far as the process is concerned thus far: We acquired the fantasy and the non-fiction by approaching the authors with some concepts and then working with them to develop the proposals. The other two were projects that the authors and I were sort of having conversations about long before Clockwise was a twinkle in our eyes.

What does your workspace look like?
I shuffled a few things around in my home and took over my older son’s bedroom as an office, actually. There is still some of his hockey paraphernalia on the walls. But I’ve also got a corkboard with lots of illustrator promo postcards, artwork and book covers from many of the books I’ve worked on, a little bamboo skink, original art by Francesco Paonessa, Suzanne Del Rizzo (Skink on the Brink) and Peggy Collins (Tooter’s Stinky Wish), and some kidlit characters on the bookshelf. I also have a reading nook with lots of pillows, inspired by Helaine Becker’s back-deck reading nook. And my desk and chair (so far) are an old-timey wooden pair that you can actually see on the cover of The Glory Wind by Valerie Sherrard.

Tell us a little about the projects you are working on now.
I can only tell you about one project right now because the others are still in the contract stage. But our first non-fiction book will introduce a series that will focus on recent immigrant success stories. Natalie Hyde is an award-winning author with a long history of writing excellent books for young people, both fiction and non-fiction. She was a natural fit for our vision for this series since we want the story of our first subject to be told like a story. So many people who come to Canada face incredible challenges, both before and after they immigrate. Both my parents are immigrants themselves. CWP’s mandate is to promote diversity and global awareness. We hope that this series will also encourage empathy and tolerance among young people for newcomers who are trying to put down roots in a strange new land. And we hope that young immigrants will be able to see themselves and their struggles in our stories, and be encouraged that they too can succeed.
As for our next few projects, stay tuned! There will be some press releases in the near future.

Are you interested in author/illustrators or do you prefer to marry up a manuscript with an illustrator of your choice?
I don’t really give that a whole lot of thought. I’ve worked with author/illustrators and with pairings. The important questions that have to be considered are (a) is the story good and (b) are the illustrations good for the story? Sometimes I’ll get an author/illustrator submission and love the art but not the story, so I’ll keep the illustrations on file in case another suitable project comes up. Or the story is good but the illustrations don’t work, so I’ll take the story but not the illustrations. It’s hard to be a “double threat,” I think, but it certainly is wonderful when someone can pull it off. I know that a growing number of agents and editors, especially in the US, prefer to have one person take care of both jobs, but that’s not really all that important to me.

May you please let our readers know how they may submit to Clockwise Press?
Solange and I spent a good deal of time working on our “Submissions” page on the Clockwise Press website. It has its own tab and everything! We STRONGLY recommend that anyone who wants to submit a proposal to us should go to the Submissions page and read it very carefully. As a small, emerging press, we have a limited list at the moment ― only four books per year ― so we are having to be extremely selective.

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October 27, 2014
Using a Graphic Tablet

I have always drawn traditionally and loved every bit of the experience. Traditionally drawn art is still appreciated but when I started freelancing my work, I learned that many clients demanded digital art.
I work with a group of freelance artists on different children’s educational tools and my art director sent me a graphic tablet. I knew he had promised to send me one a while ago but I was still surprised when it came in the mail. I guess I wasn’t expecting it at the time. 

This is the Intuos Pro Medium Professional Pen Tablet. You can get access to more info about it by clicking on this link.

Today was my first time using it. I used Adobe Photoshop to paint a drawing that I have been meaning to draw for a week or two. Although I didn’t use several tools making this drawing, I can imagine what a vast field to explore this should be, especially using a graphic tablet.

How was my experience? Let’s just say it was mind blowing!   

I had heard it took 2-3 weeks getting use to it, but I can see myself using it comfortably even now. The hand and eye coordination is not too hard.
I always thought using a tablet would not give me the satisfaction I get drawing by hand but it’s not true. It gives the same feel.
A stylus (pen) is provided with the tablet, which is used just like any tool (a brush, a pen or a pencil) you would use to draw by hand. It even touches on the tablet’s surface the same way a pencil would on paper. It produces the same sound. The texture is very similar. The stylus has an eraser look-alike at the back just as a pencil does, and you can go in settings to set it to be used as an eraser to fulfill the same purpose. I thought that was really neat!

There are tabs on the left side of the tablet that are used for navigation and formatting the drawing. You can also navigate by natural gestures on the multi-touch screen.
The size of the tablet is just perfect. It’s not too small but also not too large to handle. It’s very light and can easily fit in a laptop bag for travel purposes. The best feature is that you have the freedom of working wirelessly, incase you don’t want to carry the cord everywhere you go.

This is a highly recommended piece of technology for illustrators. I am having a lot of fun with it! It is compatible with both operating systems, Windows and MAC OS.   

Here is an image of what I drew using my Intuos Pro. It has been inspired by one of my favourite TV series, Bates Motel. 

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October 20, 2014
SCBWI Canada East Fall Conference 2014


I had the honour and priviledge of spending this past weekend (October 17-19 2014)  at SCBWI Canada East Conference in Ottawa, Ontario.  And all I can say WOW!

I had the opportunity to meet with some of the movers and shakers of the Children's Literature World.  I wish I could have split myself in two so that I could be at all the presentations.

Caroline Pignat, a Governor General Award winning author, gave a stellar message of the creative process.  Although, I am sure as artists we all have our own way of writing, she seemed to know me better than I know myself.  It was comforting to see that a writer of her calibre shares the same challenges as I do, except that my procrastinating takes the form of procrastiknitting.  But I suspect we all have a procrasti-something.

Lin Oliver, a co-founder and present executive director of SCBWI, gave a quick synopsis of its birth. I have known that I am part of an exceptional organization, but now I know that I am also in the company of some of the trailblazers in this precarious business.

Lin shared her knowledge of screenwriting and adapted it so that it can be applied to writing a novel.  As all intelligent people do, she took a seemly complicated process and made it simple.  I learned that some of the strange things I do, such as eavesdropping on the conversations of my teens, is actually good and important for my novel.  And I thought I was just being an overprotective mother.

Kelsey Murphy, of Balzer + Bray of Harper Collins, shared her insight on developing a strong character, be it protagonist or villain. I learned how knowing and understanding my characters wants and emotions, allows me to create someone believable.  Also that including subtext and consistent reactions give a character complexity.  Such a character could gain a enthusiastic following from his or her readers.

Ruben Pfeffer, of Pfeffer Content, LLC, taught his audience the keys  to a successful submission.  Although we may all be in a rush to get our manuscript in the hands of an agent or publisher, it is important to make your work as good as it can get.  Show a commitment to your craft.  Also, as writers, we must know what we are writing.  Is it a picture book or a novel, or something in between?

Reuben also shared, from an agent point of view, that a manuscript may be rejected, not because it was bad and that the rejection should not be taken personally.  It may not be what the house wants at the time.  There can be logistical issues.  Do not be discouraged. 

I almost forgot Laura Whitaker from Boomsbury Children's Book. She presented a way to make an editor fall in love with you. She taught us the important parts of a query with her whimsical uniqueness. With a handout that mimicked an on line dating form, we learned how to concisely but effectively get ourselves and thus our manuscript noticed. Let's all avoid the dreaded slush pile. 

These were just the formal parts of the conference.  If you missed it, there was a pub crawl and a "Come as your Favourite Children's Literature Character" costume party.  Both were opportunities to meet all of these people not just professionally but to get to know them as people.

I cannot encourage any writer enough to join us at our next conference in Montreal in the Spring of 2015.  It is a chance to share your strengths and learn how to push through your challenges.  No matter if you are a published author, new to writing with the goal of publication, or like me, still looking for that first "YES" to your manuscript, there is something for you to learn and teach.

I look forward to meeting you in Montreal 2015.
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