The Rhode Island Festival of Children’s Books and Authors took place at the Lincoln School in Providence on October 14. The festival encourages children to read, write, draw, and tell stories in their own voice, and meeting the authors and illustrators of their favorite books is a way to form a lasting connection and memory that supports the message: reading can be fun.
The festival was packed with artists, including Barrington-based writer Jamie Michalak and illustrator Kelly Murphy, who lives in Providence and teaches at Rhode Island School of Design. Both are award-winning bestsellers who not only have an abundance of their own works, but have also worked together on the Dakota Crumb picture book series. The duo was eager to share their origin stories in the hopes that they can inspire readers, writers, and artists of all ages to follow their creative dreams.
Michalak started her career as a children’s book editor at Putnam Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin Random House, and read hundreds of manuscripts a week – some represented by agents, others from the slush pile. This thankless work (now often done by interns, sometimes assistants) was “the best education for becoming an author” Michalak recalls, because she “read so many stories and learned what stuck out, what worked, and what didn’t work.” Publishing is a highly competitive industry, and even good books are often rejected; by reading a high volume of manuscripts, she considered the work a crash course in both writing for children and learning what publishers were looking for.
Eventually Michalak started writing herself. She considers her first book to be Joe and Sparky Get New Wheels (published 2009) because it was an original story that came from the heart, and didn’t follow the board book format – her “true debut” was a board book, and this format is often seen as an easier path to publication because there is an established arrangement and style that publishers are already looking for. Joe and Sparky provided Michalak with an important realization and lifelong mantra: “it’s okay to write for yourself, and you will find your own audience along the way as long as you are true to your own voice.”
Writing is an organic process, and authors write at different paces, Michalak is quick to remind. The first draft of Joe and Sparky took about a day, but revising the book took a few months; even the character concepts changed. Other books took much longer. Dakota Crumb took 10 years from idea to publication.
Often, writers and illustrators of children’s books never meet – with the publisher acting as a mediator – which was the case for the Dakota Crumb series that Murphy illustrated, even though they live in the same state. For Michalak, “getting the art back is one of the best parts of writing a book. It’s like a present.” For Murphy, adapting an author’s story into illustration is “a way to honor the specificity of the words the author gave me” and the completed story is a mark of 'true collaboration',” she reflects.
Murphy walked the path of an illustrator since her childhood. With six siblings, drawing was a bonding activity they could do together and “illustrating and coming up with worlds was a way to escape,” Murphy remembers. In art school, her illustrated worlds opened gateways for others to escape; fellow students would ask her questions like “What happens next?” or “Who is that?” This exercise, the foundation of storytelling, led Murphy to writing and illustrating her first book, The Boll Weevil Ball (2002).
Murphy has illustrated 49 books to date, created the character designs for Esme and Roy, for Sesame Street Workshop on HBO, and even has had one of her books she illustrated optioned for film.
Although they work in different media, Michalak and Murphy agree upon the importance of the festival. “It’s just an awesome opportunity to meet kids,” Murphy insists, and jokes that it’s the best way to get out of her “troll hole,” the quiet room where she works. For her, art is a symbiotic relationship; to create, you also have to connect with your audience. The festival turns often recluse artists into “rockstars,” according to Michalak, and it makes “writing and illustrating seem accessible and achievable.”
Each October, the festival seeks to encourage young writers across the region through more than just author/illustrator talks and meet-and-greets. Write Rhode Island, an annual short fiction competition open to all in-state students grades 7-12, also made an appearance at the festival. Entrants who write a story that incorporates the Ocean State in some way have a chance at cash prizes and publication (deadline in December). Learn more about the Rhode Island Festival of Children’s Books & Authors at LincolnSchool.org
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