“Picture Books & Justice: Interview with Jamie Deenihan and Lorraine Rocha creators of “When Grandma Gives you a Lemon Tree.”
Note from Author Jamie L. Deenihan:
One aspect of “When Grandpa Gives you a Toolbox” that was not mentioned in this interview but is deeply important to the purpose of this book is, “addressing the stigma of dolls and boys and and the male role model not only accepting but taking action and getting involved and the community coming together because individual projects/skills can help benefit a few others which can turn into something much larger and so much more!!”
0:45 Ale: Welcome back to another episode of picture books and justice, the interview series of the picture bookstagang podcast. Today i am here getting a chance to chat with author Jamie Deenihan and illustrator Lorraine Rocha, these two have recently released their second book “When Grandpa Gives you a Tool Box” which is the follow up sequel to last year’s very popular “When Grandma Gives you a Lemon Tree.” Welcome to you both! How are you doing tonight?
Can you tell us a little bit about what brought you to your current work of writing and illustrating respectively? Was it always your dream Jamie?
Jamie 1:31 when I was younger I never thought “I’m gonna grow up and be an author” although I always did love reading and writing which I think is what led me to becoming an elementary education teacher and getting my masters degree as a reading specialist. So literacy was always very much a part of my child hood and very much a part of my educational career I taught first grade from 2005 to 2015 during that time I also became a mom so my love of picture books just exploded as I worked with my students and grew my collection with my kids at home. I never thought seriously about pursuing publishing a picture book until 2014 and I remember the day I was in my first grade classroom encouraging my kids to be brave writers and I had this idea kind of rolling around in my head of a picture book about turning lemons into lemonade. And that concept just stuck with me and I loved it and I thought, what a great motto and way of looking at life, and I thought how can I turn this into a picture book? So I started talking about that with my students, and we had our writer’s notebooks and I still have the notebook and all of my messy lists and words and little diagrams and sketches of all of my thoughts and I grew that into a manuscript and I continued working on that for a year in my spare time all while having two kids fifteen months apart, and within that year between 2014 and 2015 I dove into researching the publishing industry at night after my kids were sleeping and after all my schoolwork was done and learning about the publishing process and I kept polishing that manuscript. And it was getting to a point when it was almost ready but I knew it needed a lot of work and I had joined a critique group and done a bunch of other things to learn about publishing. But in 2015 my husband was diagnosed with brain cancer, so I resigned from teaching almost immediately to be home with my two young kids and help him through surgeries and treatments and what was interesting was the writing did not get put on the back burner that was almost like my therapy. I dove into that almost harder than I was than when I was teaching it was a positive outlet for me, it became a labour of love for my entire family. The kids were so excited to talk about it and give their input and since Ricky, my husband wasn’t working anymore with everything he was going through he kind of took it on as a fun project to do together and we worked on it and I finally sold it independently to Sterling publishing in 2016 I should rephrase that. I got an offer, on my own from Sterling in 2016 and that is when I used that offer as leverage to reach out to publishing agents and say, “hey I have this offer but I want representation do you want to work with me?” So that’s when I started working with my agent who I”m still working with Lindia Commacio from Gall and Zachary Agency and then Sterling owns the manuscript. And that is when Lorraine enters the picture because they hired her to do the pictures.
4:58 Ale Wow, that was a lot, you’ve been through a lot to get to where you are, I’m really surprised first that you hadn’t always planned on being an author because most people are like “yes it was my dream my whole life and, and, “ no yours just like evolved from something you did with your class.
5:15 Jamie Some people might say it’s just a picture book, but for me it’s really a lesson on how my family is going to handle this very difficult lemon we were handed. And we continue to use this phrase even after my husband passed away in January. So to answer your question I don’t know I really don’t know and from going through hardship I’ve kind of embraced the unknown and I’m really more mindful of just living my life as it comes. So. I’m not sure, I would like to think so but a lot of the motivation and drive to accomplish this came from my husband getting sick I wanted to do it before we didn’t have him here he was able to be with us for the writing, for the sale, for the publication, for the launch and we were able to do a lot of community events surrounding the book that brought people together and did good things for other people and he was able to be a part of that and that was a big driving force of my motivation. So I don’t know I’m not sure.
6:26 that’s very hard and I was so sorry to hear about his passing
But it’s wonderful he was able to see you accomplish all of this I am wondering was he here when they decided to do a sequel with you for the toolbox?
6:44 Jamie; Yes, so again when you have someone facing terminal illness you know that your time is limited and you don’t have the option to waste any time so for the first book I dedicated the book to my mom because she was a very big part of you know just encouraging me my whole life and I had plans of dedicating the second book to my dad because you know it was a grandma and a grandpa. I always thought I’d have time to dedicate a book to Ricky and the boys, but that changed with his diagnosis, so I really wanted to get a sequel in there and I wanted him to be in the dedication which he is. And both books have an authors’ note that honours his journey and honours all Brain Cancer patients and childhood cancer patients journeys because we’ve gotten involved with several groups in fundraising for certain people and charities so it was really important to incorporate that. And I wanted him to see that and he did and we have pictures of him pointing to the dedication with the boys and holding the book, and, he did not make it to the launch of Toolbox but he saw everything leading up. ‘’
7:54 Ale: When I was reading both of them, and I really love both of them, I found the Toolbox one “When Grandpa Gives You a Toolbox” it was more about the relationship about the boy and his grandfather where as the Lemon Tree was more about the girl’s own journey. And I’m wondering if that has something to do with your relationship with your husband?
8:16 Jamie: It might have subconsciously, but honestly that shift in relationship or the shift in dynamic between the characters stemmed originally from a safety standpoint. I mean the kid was going to be using tools. So I was like, we need to make sure that there’s safety aspect here, and Grandpa, it was passing down his love of building and he just kind of got woven in there more and now that you mention it that’s a big piece that our family is going to be missing so it would make sense if I was trying to weave that relationship in there more. But originally it was not.
9:05 Ale: I was wondering but that is actually a very sensible reason, thank you for telling us that, I’m kind of a little teary right now. Lorraine could you please tell us about your journey to becoming an illustrator?
9:19 Lorraine: Yeah! I’m so glad I got that story from Jamie, for two books. So my journey to becoming an illustrator?
Lorraine: Okay I always loved drawing always, I always wanted to be an artist but I didn’t know what it was called so I remember seeing bewitched and Darren was a comercial artist? THe Husband? And I remember saying “Oh I can make art and have a job!” I told my dad I wanted to do that and I just alwys gravitated to the art book section in libraries or in bookstores and any chance I could get, it was pre internet, so I’d have to be ripping pages out of magazines, not magazines. So. And copying drawings of the masters as I was growing up. And that was my plan, to do art. And. My dad told me “No” that wasn’t gonna happen I was either gonna study economics or architecture. So architecture was closer? So I went to architecture school and I wasn’t really into it, but I graduated because I just had to do it for dad. And. You know? He had the best intentions he didn’t think that a person could make a living tthrough art. I was working in architecture for a while and I was always drawing my coworkers during meetings, just like whatever I could get a chance to and then finally my younger sister did get to go to art school.
Ale: oh! That’s not fair!
11:04 L: I know! It’s not fair. But she was dating my now Brother in law, and they were studying illustration animation and they were in the field making a living so my Brother in law told me “you better just quit, just quit and go back to school” So I did. Which was pretty scary. Just dumping everything and going back to school and starting over. Yeah it was tough. But, then I got a job right out of school at “Industrial Magic” which is a George Lucas, well it was George Lucas’s company, you know for Star Wars? And I was in the art department and I got to contribute a small amount to a couple of the movies. And then I moved to Las Vegas with my husband so I worked remotely for some Video Game COmpanies, and then we moved again, So all this moving kind of made me change my plans here and there. But then I became a mom! And, I was doing art it was more whimsical and less video gamey, I put it on blogs or wherever online and I guess somebody took a bunch of it and put it onto a website that featured artists and I didn’t know that. And then Igot an email from someone who worked for Holiday House publishers and she wondered if I ever illustrated picturebooks, and she gave ma shot to, to pitch a book to her and I’d never done it before and I didn’tk now what I was doing. And she said “Oh I see some potential here but you should join SCBWI, the Society of Childrens Books Writers and Illustrators. So I did and one of the first challenges they had was for a manuscript that wasn’t attached to an illustrator yet, Zebra on the Go, So I did the story for the challenge for that and a bunch of other people did too. And they ended up hiring me to do that, and that was my first bok. And my editor for “Zebra on the Go” ended up leaving, and becoming an agent, and she wanted me to become her first client. So my agency is “Red Fox Agency” and Stephanie Hill is my agent, and you know things were kind of happening and not happening, I would do tests for books and, the one that finally came in the first one with my agent was “When Grandma GIves you a Lemon Tree” and I just loved it, I was so happy because other manuscripts came by and maybe timing didn’t work out or this and that didn’t work out and I was okay with it, but when I read “When Grandma GIves you a Lemon Tree” I was instantly inspired and I was thinking about things and I just loved it and I also loved “When Grandpa GIves you a Tool Box” I just really love Jamie’s writing so I feel like we’re a good fit.
14:26 Ale: Well, So I gotta ask, when you first got that manuscript and you had that vision, what were you imagining and how is it sort of different from what we see now?
14:39 Lorraine:Ohh I don’t know that it’s that different!
Lorraine: When I was reading I twas thinking about the environment that the protagonist would live in and I lived in San Francisco for years and there was no greenspace, I lived in an apartment I always longed for a garden, and sometimes there would be pocket parks or community gardens and I would woke by and it would be like ahh it’s like a relief when you’re in this dense urban environment to see this little oasis of life. So I thought, I wanted the character to be in a similar setting where things needed life injected into them so that’s kind of how I envisioned the environment part of the illustrations. And then, also, just for the characters we live in, I happen to live in an area that’s really diverse and San Francisco was too when I lived there. Now we live in the suburbs of San Francisco. So I just wanted to have the people around me in the book in terms of the the characters. And then, in terms of the main character and her grandma, I know that there’s a need for representation in picture books so I just wanted to characters to be Black characters.
16:16 Ale: Jamie when you were sending out this manuscript, before it got to Lorraine, how were you envisioning the final product and is it sort of like how it turned out? Or what were you thinking?
16:31 Jamie: So one of the things all my more experienced author friends warned me about was, when you sell this manuscript you need to remember, or evern when you write this manuscript. You job is the story and the visual representation is going to be in the hands of the illustrator. IT’s going to be out of your hands the publisher may or may not invite you to give your input, which they did and it was great, and I didn’t really have to give any input I was like “I love it keep it coming!” But it’s really out of the writer’s hands and I did, I did mention to my agent and to my editor at Sterling that I did not need or want the character to look like me. It did not it should not be a white character because right now that is not what is needed in the industry and I don’t know if they talked to you…
Lorraine: no, no.
Jamie: I said we need diverse books so let’s do our job here. And I was wondering because Lorraine and I had not talked about this, if they gave that comment to you at all? And how that all evolved..
Jamie: So going back to not having a vision I tried really hard not to. And I was really nervous because I didn’t really know Lorraine, she had one book out that featured animals and I loved the human characters in her book but you never know. Styles change and so when I got the first Black and White art I just melted, I fell in love with everything and it felt like, it was exactly,
Lorraine:That’s so sweet.
Jamie: It felt like it was exactly like it needed to be, it made me see my words and my story and my vision in a whole new light so ti could not have worked out more perfectly and I was so happy that they wanted to do a second book with us.
Jamie: Hopefully there will be more.
Ale: Hopefully? Do you have any secrets to share with me, any ideas on the backburner there?
Jamie: I hate to jinx ourselves but I also really believe when you are passionate about something and when you believe in your work its sometiems ok to put it out in the universe so I have been working on the third manuscript for the series. And I don’t know exactly what it will be but it will feature a character who gets put into possibly a story where they discover their love of baking and possibly, turn that into a community project to support a local soup kitchen…I don’tk now what might happen, but we’ll see I will keep you posted and just fingers crossed.
19:23 Ale: That sounds amazing I am here for that a hundred percent.
Lorraine: Me too
19:30 Thank you for sharing that with us. So you guys never really spoke during the actual process of Lorraine illustrating your books
Lorraine: No I was just gonna say Jamie I don’t think they told you this, I didn’t want to communicate with you. And I think in terms of industry standards, they don’t communicate, but I didn’t want to communicate with you because I was afraid you would be attached to ideas and say “No it has to be this way” but I’m so glad we both were thinking the same things.
20:12 Jamie: Yeah and I think that’s something that if you’re just the author and I don’t mean that in a negative way but if you don’t have the talent and the experience to actually bring a book to life and it is a real talent, you have to respect the process and I knew that going into it and I avoided communication with you too at the beginning because I didn’t want you to feel like I was fishing around for permission to talk about the book I didn’t want to interfere and I had worked so hard to not have a vision for the book I didn’t want to interfere. So it was good that we were on the same page and now it’s good to know we are touching base here and there just through online presence and these kinds of things but we have that respect for each other where I’m coming up with the words and then it’s truly in her hands. And it’s so much fun now because it’s not just my book it’s both of our books, and we’re both doing our jobs and hopefully we’ll continue to produce product for families and kids that enhance their bookshelves.
21:20 Ale: That’s lovely have you guys ever met in real life?
21:26 Lorraine: No.
21:27 Jamie: I’m in Connecticut so I joke I write the words over here on the East coast and they get sent out to California on the West Coast and somewhere in the middle this book just appears.
21:39 Ale: okay! Wow you guys seem like you know each other though, you got like that vibe, that friend vibe!
21:45 Lorraine: Aww that’s a good thing thing I like that that’s good.
21:49 Jamie: I think Social Media and having an online presence has helped us because we comment, we try to comment and be very responsive when people take the time to talk about our book online or post a picture of our book with their students or whatever we’re doing with our book online we really wanna honour that so I think we’ve both become really good in tagging eachother on things and really being responsive if we’re putting this book out and it’s touching somebody’s life or heart we wanna be a part of that as much as we can social media kind of allows us to do that.
22:27 Lorraine: It’s such a wonderful reward when people are enjoying our book It makes everything wonderful I just love it.
22:40 Ale: I think actually, I was talking about this with someone the other day, how new authors, people who are just putting out the first or their second picture book are much more involved on social media than the people who have been doing this for a long time. It’s like a whole new I don’t want to say expectation but a different idea of author and illustrator and what their part is as part of the community of book lovers you know it’s more like, less of some hermit on a mountaintop that is kind of like semi god like and more like a person that you can talk to and that you kind of know. Like when we talk about your book we’re like “oh yeah Jamie and Lorraine’s book” and we’ve never met you. So one more question for you guys tonight. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors or illustrators looking to get into the children’s book world, that you can take from your experience of making these books?
23:40 Jamie: My first book took my five years from jotting down ideas in a writer’s journal with my first grade students to hitting the shelves. That’s a long time. And I had a lot going on in my life during that period of time I had two young kids, I had a husband going through brain cancer, if this is something that someone wants to do, it is, it is totally doable. But. The way that the industry and that the kid lit community has come together to do justice to their readers, you really have to be willing to put the time in you have to do a lot of research and as a new author I suggest hopping on all the Social Media platforms that you can and connecting with people, educators, and librarians ,and families and parents and grandparents often time who are raising theri grandkids and just get to know them on a personal level even as you are writing your book and launching your book and you learn a lot a bout the people you’re writing your books for, that’s one of the biggest pieces of advices somebody gave me and I’ve connected with so many amazing people and I’ve heard so many amazing stories that are now inspiring my writing and future projects. I also think you need to get involved in a writing community as a new author right away, don’t wait to find an in person or now with everything going on, probably an online critique group. I did that almost instantly and that was one of the best things I ever did and I still work with those people today, both in person, we’re online now, but there used to be an in person group, but I also have online critique partners all over the country. Like Lorraine said you need to join SCBWI that’s all online now, there’s courses offered and meet ups offered and it’s such an important way to connect with other writers. Judy Headland is another group I wanted to mentioned because they were integral in honing my craft, she runs, a forum online it’s called “Judy Headland’s 12 by 12 Picture Book Challenge” it’s a paid membership thing, but it’s incredible, it challenges you to write 12 picture book manuscripts once a month and it gives you access you might not get like editors and agents that you otherwise might not get access too. I did a picture book boot camp with Jamie Stemple? I don’t know if they’re doing anything like that again but, things like that where you have time with experts in the industry it builds your confidence it hones your craft you just learn about mistakes made along the way, you just learn a lot when you immerse yourself with people in the kidlit community. There’s a lot of great people in the community.
26:37 Ale: Wow that was some amazing and practical advice, so I will be finding the details on that and putting them in the show notes for all you listeners who are interested in that. Lorraine do you have any advice for aspiring illustrators?
26:50 L: Yes! Again joining SCBWI was really valuable because I had a drawing foundation but when you illustrate a picture book it’s different than just creating one image that stands on it’s own. I also looked at so many picture books leading up to this mostly, well in part because my daughter is little and we would just go to the library and I would not only get new picture but also old picture books and find out what I liked about them, and when I would see illustrations that were pleasing to me I would try to figure out why they were pleasing to me. One thing that I really loved was when there would be a secondary story going on and my daughter would really respond to that too, so that I think allows for different ages of kids and even parents to appreciate the same book at different times in their development so I tried to do that too with the cat in “When Grandma Gives you a Lemon Tree” or just have some other things going on, not just what Jamie wrote down. I would try to include a littel extra story that people can follow along with.
28:15 Ale: I was just going to say I hundred percent agree with you when we talk about what we love, us reviewers, we always go for the illustrated books that add to the story, they’re not just the story the expand and they elaborate and there’s just so much to discover with the little easter eggs, I love it.
28:38 Lorraine: Yeah I try to do the Easter eggs I try to come up with back stories for characters like the grandma in “When grandma…
28:45 Jamie: Wait you never told me about the special details tonight
28:50 Lorraine: She drives a car that looks like a lemon, I just thought about her and wondered what kind of person is she? And I made some illustrations that didn’t make it into the book, like I have one it’s somewhere on my Instagram of her lemon car and this big crazy garden also just the other thing that I think is important is for illustrators to think about, what is missing? When you are looking at all of these books, what needs to happen and right now it’s maybe repressentation of different kinds of people? So…I wanted to include that.
29:32 Ale: So can you guys maybe tell us one thing that you can tell us about this or both of these books that we might not know that you guys have got going on?
29:43 Jamie: Yeah! So one of the things that I was very pleasantly surprised with was that Lorraine decided to use the end papers, or the end pages in the front and back of the book so often times when you open a picture book you have the paste down page and the first flip page and it’s either like a repetitious pattern or just a solid colour but what Lorraine did that I am absolutely obsessed with is that she told a little bit more of the story before the text starts and after the text ends and if you look at hte front page looks like you can see what the neighbourhood looks like and without even reading the story and flip to the end of the book, you can automatically see the full transformation of not only the neighbour hood but of the main character and I think that was really really special and also on the back end pages Lorraine hid, a, detail that leads us into the next book in the series. So in “When Grandma Gievs you a Lemon Tree” if you look under the back flap you’ll notice a truck with a tool box in the back so it’s a wink to readers that the next book would be “When Grandpa Gives you a Tool Box” so the same thing “When Grandpa Gives you a Tool box” if you open up the the front end pages you get a glimpse of the neighbourhood and you see the main character waiting for grandpa to pull in and he’s all alone nobody it outside and you can flip to the back without reading the story to glimpse the fill transformation of the story of the neighbourhood and the character and under the back flap there may or may not be a little clue hinting to what will hopefully one day be a third book in the series.
31:39 A: Amazing, Lorraine what is one of your favourite things?
31:39 Lorraine: One of my favourite things is that I’ve been able to sneak in people I know and love into both of these books, so, when people are lined up to get lemonade from the lemonade stand I include my friend Tom and his family he was the best man at my wedding. And my friend and her sons, and they end up making it into “When Grandpa Gives you a Tool Box” You see the children handing over their toys, to the protagonist of When Grandpa GIves you a Tool box including the ship, and thats’ the family, so I do that I also do include I try to include a lot of details frome Lemon tree in Tool Box, so the end of Lemon tree you can see that there’s a little lemon tree in the end pages on the stoop and that’s the lemon tree number two that probably the protagonist grew from one of her seeds. It’s in that red can, and then you see her in Tool Box, walking her little lemon tree sapling around the neighbourhood in the little stroller. So, she is in both and also the cat makes it into both books.
33:08 Ale: Wonderful. Thank you for sharing with us, Wonderful.
Jamie: Ale, Can I say one more thing?
Ale: You absolutely can!
33:13 Jamie: This was important too because people don’t know that when I wrote “When Grandma GIves you a Lemon Tree” and I was submitting it like crazy, I got almost 30 rejections from agents and editors. It was either like a hard no, like basically ‘we can’t stand this’ no in those words, but a hard no you know they just don’t like it, what’s called the ‘form rejection’ or they sometimes give you feedback. And sometimes the feedback was an entire shift of the story line of an entire shift of who knows what, the vision. And I really believed in this book and I was willing to revise and edit appropriately, but, I wasn’t willing to change the vision it was a book of my heart and when I was at Jane and Heidi Stemple’s boot camp, Jane said “Write the book of your heart.” And it just stuck with me, and this was and is the book of my heart and I’d never change the vision, the vision for this book and eventually this series was meant to represent and individual struggle with something and how their attitude and actions can not only shift and their individual struggle but can also make a positive impact in their community. And I was not willing to change that vision, and I did try to revise and edit but it was never as strong, and I’m so glad I stuck with it as long as I did because Sterling loved it and here we are now two books out and I really I believe in the vision and I hope that we can keep going with it, so there is a time to listen to other’s input and everything like that but as far as totally giving up on a concept if it’s a book of the heart you should stick with it even if it takes years make it happen.
35:07 Ale: Well on that note, that’s lovely thank you so much for that encouragement. And thank you both so much for being here, for all you listeners if you’re not already following Jamie and Lorraine you can find them on Instagram and you can buy their books wherever books are sold, and you should please go buy them immediately! So thanks everybody for tuning in to another episode of Picture Books and Justice, and I’m Ale, and goodnight! Oh and also, Subscribe! Please, please subscribe! Goodnight!