Monday, December 10, 2018

Meg Fleming and Diana Sudyka's Collaboration on 'Sometimes Rain'

Sometimes you come across a book that hits you just exactly, precisely, square-on right. Maybe it's a particular word choice that thrills you. Maybe it's an image that delights. When I picked up Sometimes Rain (October 2018, Beach Lane/Simon & Schuster), written by Meg Fleming and illustrated by Diana Sudyka, what struck me was the way the language and illustration so perfectly combine to complement each other and make for a powerful, evocative reading experience.

A celebration of the four seasons, Sometimes Rain takes young readers through the natural world's changing rhythms: snowfall, storms, sunny days, and turning leaves. There are endless launching points for discussion — focusing attention on what's happening outdoors in the natural world as well as indoors with our clothing choices, explorations of the calendar, celebrating holidays, how we deal with change, and how we interact with nature.

Diana Sudyka
The bio for Meg (I Heart You; Ready, Set, Build!) says she's a voice teacher, and her obvious love of language comes through with each word she's selected. And Diana's distinctive style (she's done the covers for Trenton Lee Stewart's Secret Keepers and The Mysterious Benedict Society series, Tricia Springstubb's Every Single Second, Gail Carson Levine's Writing Magic) makes you linger over every page.

This book will appeal to nature enthusiasts, the animal obsessed, STEM fans, the umbrella-and-boots crowd, poetry lovers — you name it. In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews calls it a "celebration of the impermanence and unpredictability of seasons" and "a delight for pluviophiles and heliophiles alike." Add word-lovers to the list too.

I asked both author and illustrator to stop by for a chat, and they were kind enough to collaborate on this interview. I'm so grateful to Meg and Diana for taking time out of busy schedules to share a bit about the making of Sometimes Rain. And as an aside: I'm so happy to cheer on authors from my former hometown of San Francisco (Meg) and my current hometown of Chicago (fist-bumps to Diana).

Question: What struck me about Sometimes Rain and made it seem like a real standout from the pack is the perfect combination of lyrical language and evocative illustration. Each word, each image seem so well thought out. What's your creative process like? Does it come to you fully formed? Or do you labor over months and months for just the right detail?

 Meg Fleming: Thank you! Well, my creative process is a little different for every project. I’d say that most of my ideas begin with a whisper— one or two words maybe. Next, I get a strong emotional pull. Finally, whether in rhyme or prose, there’s some kind of pulse where I actually feel a beat, or a rhythm. While the whisper is like a subtle invitation or reminder, the emotion is harder to ignore. Emotion is persistent. It winds the strings of an idea until it’s so taught, I need a pen like a dog needs a bone. And once the pulse shows up— I can’t contain myself.

After that, it’s a pretty spastic and messy process. But it’s more fun than anything I know. I roll out a wasteful amount of butcher block paper and grab whatever writing utensil I can get my hands on and I start spewing stanzas until I’ve exhausted all possibilities. And then I piece the puzzle together—circling my favorite images and turns-of-phrase, and reordering words in exchange for a more satisfying rhyme or stronger emotion. And yes, I take words to the woodshed like you wouldn’t believe. I don’t like to waste them. I’m a firm believer in economy of words. So… you’re probably thinking… you sure said "sometimes" a lot.

I did. Sometimes was my whisper. It was my invitation. It’s the part that made me wonder more. And so, I let myself use it. A lot.

Diana Sudyka: Thank you! Meg’s words so beautifully evoke the essence of each season, and when I read the manuscript it made me think of my time as a child spent playing outdoors in every season here in the Midwest. Settling on what to specifically depict and visual motifs, though, was initially kind of messy. I was given complete creative freedom, and initially that’s wonderful, but when you have a more open-ended manuscript (i.e. something that doesn’t have a clear narrative, or based on a historical figure) it can become daunting. So…sometimes ideas do come to me more fully formed, but this was more a case of start sketching without a clear direction, and the themes will eventually take shape.

There were just so many directions I could have taken! I was undecided if my illustrations should be a series of vignettes, or if there would be definite characters and narrative that we follow through the seasons. I eventually settled on four children as characters we follow playing through the seasons, then the images grew organically from there. The swirling line motif that you see throughout the book grew from being able to see the vapor from one’s breath when it gets cold, but me and Beach Lane liked it so much, we decided to make it recurring. I submitted some early roughs that ultimately we didn’t feel like were hitting the right mark aesthetically, so that was a little setback. But in hindsight, I am glad that we started over. I learned so much in making these illustrations.

Q: Typically, authors and illustrators aren't in much communication as the book goes through the publishing pipeline. Did you offer suggestions or comments to each other? Did you communicate at all?

Meg: I don’t think Diana and I had direct contact with each other until the whole creative process was complete, did we? I mean… we met in the usual way— I was crazy about Diana’s work and I stalked her Instagram account like any good writer should!

But there were a few times when Andrea Welch and Lauren Rille, our Editor and Art Director over at Beach Lane, reached out to me for clarification. Turns out, when you say "sometimes" a lot, there’s a vast amount of room for interpretation! Anyway. Andrea and Lauren asked me to describe what a few of those stanzas meant to me with the hope that it might inspire an image or idea for the story. I still can’t get over Diana’s beautiful interpretation of this story. I've said it before, and I'll say it a million times more: her work is magic!

Diana: Yes, that is typical. Having a go-between in the form of an art director in the initial stages of a project like this can be helpful in streamlining art direction and feedback, though. For Sometimes Rain I wasn’t directly in contact with Meg until she reached out after, I think, Beach Lane had shown her the second round of revisions I had made? Prior to this, there were a couple spreads I was really stuck on coming up with the right image, and Beach Lane reached out to Meg for some ideas. It was very helpful to have that input from Meg. Overall, it’s been so great to have contact with Meg. She has been so wonderfully supportive of what I created for Sometimes Rain. I often never hear what an author thinks of the work I did for their manuscript.

Q: I see this book as having staying power — teaching kids to recognize the seasons, what's happening in nature, how we interact with the natural world throughout the year, as well as offering a soothing, cozy reading experience. I wanted a cup of hot cocoa and a warm blanket when I read this! How do you hope kids and adults experience your book?

Meg: I am so glad to hear that this book got you all cozy and cuppa cocoa-y!

I really hope that Sometimes Rain inspires both children and adults to go outside and play. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, but it offers brilliant insight on how our connection to the outside world is slipping and what kind of impact that slip-up has on our relationships with each other and the environment. Diana’s illustrations in this book are nothing short of a magnificent romp through the seasons and I’m hoping it will give kids (and parents) a chance to unplug and listen, smell and feel the outside world in an everyday way.

Diana: That’s exactly what I wanted my illustrations to inspire: to recognize the changing seasons, to observe those changes throughout the year, and feel that there is beauty and opportunity to play in every season. That we are part of this cycle too. I often think of the book Last Child in the Woods and the massive shift we have seen in the way children play and a disconnection to nature. Adults too. How can we address climate change and be good stewards of the earth if we don’t support this critical, early bond children have with the natural world?

Side note from Kate: I had Last Child in the Woods on my mind when I wrote my Cupcake Cousins series — I was very interested in portraying kids interacting with nature during all seasons. Clearly there's something going on here!

Q: Reading Sometime Rain, I was reminded of a few other delightful books that have us in boots and out exploring the world. Specifically Ezra Jack Keats' The Snowy Day. Do you see other classic or contemporary books that Sometimes Rain fits on the shelf with? Or books that inspired you as you wrote/illustrated?

Meg: I adore The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, and it makes me so happy to hear that Sometimes Rain provided an opportunity to pause and think on life in that way… dragging a slow stick through the snow. 

I'm happy to see Sometimes Rain on any child's bookshelf! I've heard a few reviewers note that they would set it on the shelf with Red Sings From the Treetops by Joyce Sidman as well as All The World by Liz Garton Scanlon and Marla Frazee.

Diana: Oh, I love Ezra Jack Keats. The Snowy Day is so elegant and brilliant. When I was creating my illustrations for Sometimes Rain, the book that was in the back of my mind most. So was I Am a Bunny by Ole Rison and illustrated by Richard Scarry. I love this early era of Richard Scarry’s work. The detail he gave to the flora and fauna in Bunny’s world are field-guide worthy, and of course each season is beautifully represented. There is a painting of Bunny surrounded by butterflies, and in Sometimes Rain my illustration of the dog chasing butterflies was sort of my homage to that scene by Scarry.

Q: You're both so talented, it's exciting to think of what else we'll see coming from you. What's in the works?

Meg: I do have a few projects in the pipeline — one I can talk about, one I can’t talk about, and others that that are still seedlings. I am thrilled about my next book that will hit the shelves in Spring 2020. It’s called Here Comes Ocean, illustrated by Paola Zakimi and published by Beach Lane Books, and it follows a child who discovers that along with every rolling wave comes a new ocean creature and with that another possibility for adventure. And I have another book after that… but it’s still top secret!

Diana: It was such a great experience working with such a talented writer as Meg. In May 2019 Abrams will be releasing When Sue Found Sue about paleontologist and explorer Sue Hendrickson who found the most complete T-rex skeleton. It’s written by Toni Buzzeo and illustrated by me. And then I illustrated What Miss Mitchell Saw by Hayley Barrette about astronomer Maria Mitchell. It should be out in Fall of 2019 also with Beach Lane. Beyond this I am really hoping to publish my own author/illustrator project.

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