Stories That Bring You Joy: An Interview with Jennifer Morris

On Saturday, January 20th, Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative will be hosting the award-winning writer and illustrator Jennifers Morris for the workshop, Writing Wtih Pictures: The Role of Illustrations in Picture Books. Jennifer has illustrated numerous picture books, children’s magazines, greeting cards, and educational materials, and is the author of four books for Scholastic, including the best selling, May I Please Have a Cookie?, which sold over one million copies. Jennifer also illustrated The Lemonade Hurricane, written by Licia Morelli, “A Story of Mindfulness and Meditation,”  selected as a Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People by the National Council for the Social Studies and the Children’s Book Council.

Jennifer Morris
(Hollis Shore) What is your background as an artist, and how did you come to illustrating and writing for children?
(Jennifer Morris) Ever since I was a little kid I wanted to be an illustrator. But when I grew up, I put away those dreams and became a software developer. I still daydreamed about becoming an illustrator, but I was making good money in high tech. When my daughter was born I needed a job that I could do part-time at home. I thought freelance illustrating might be the answer, so I started sending out art samples to companies. One of the first jobs I landed was for Amscan (the parent company of Party City) I enjoyed designing characters for paper plates and Mylar balloons, but I ultimately had my sights set on illustrating books for children.

(HS) Were you a reader as a child? What books from your childhood stand out in your memory?
(JM) I was not a reader as a child. I was a looker. I don’t remember reading many books, but I remember pouring over the illustrations for hours. I loved books with detailed illustrations like Beatrix Potter. I also loved horses and in first grade I checked out Billy and Blaze books by C.W. Anderson every week from my school library.
(HS) Could you explain the difference between a picture book and a story book?
 The terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but I feel that a picture book tells the story through both the words and the pictures. They play off of each other. In a story book the text carries the story and the pictures are there to add visual interest. You could read a storybook over the phone and not lose any of the nuance of the story. Not so with a picture book.
(HS) In the forward to Show Me A Story: Why Picture Books Matter, by Leonard Marcus, David Wiesner noted that, “In picture books, the illustrations work in concert with the text in a way that is unique among art forms.” How do words and images interact in picture books?
(JM) Picture books are short, less than 1,000 words. Because the text is short, pictures take on some of the work of conveying the story. This happens to varying degrees depending on the book. Let’s take an example: The first page of a book may say, “Max was raring to go.” That doesn’t tell us much, but if we pair that with an illustration of a kitchen scene with a basset hound snoozing in his bed… Maybe there is a food bowl nearby with the name Max on it. Now we have established that Max is a dog, he has a home and he probably isn’t quite as eager to go as the narrator is leading us to believe. We conveyed all of that information with just five words and a picture, neither of which tell the whole story without the other. Pictures can contradict the text, like in this example, for comic effect. Or they can flesh out details, introduce supporting characters and even introduce subplots.
(HS) What differentiates picture books from early readers and easy-to-read books?
(JM) Picture books are meant to be read by an adult to a child. Easy-readers are meant to be read by a child. Easy-readers need to have vocabulary and sentence structures that are appropriate for the level of the reader.
(HS) Could you talk a little about writing and illustrating your own stories? How do you know when you’ve found the seed for a good story, and do these ideas come to you first in words or images?
(JM) I try to write stuff that I find funny. If I find it funny, hopefully someone else will too. Usually the ideas come to me as movies playing in my head, so I guess they come mostly as images and dialog.
(HS) Taking a picture book from idea to printed page is complex. Could you tell us how you approach a project? What are the primary steps? Do you get input from editors along the way? And how do you handle revision?
(JM) When I get a manuscript, I read through it a few times to picture the scenes in my head. I create a storyboard to figure out the best way to spread the story over 32 pages. Next, I create several mock-ups (or dummies) of the book with the illustrations penciled in. Once I settle on a final pencil dummy, I send it to the art director for feedback. Revisions at this stage are to be expected. Editors and art directors see the work from a different perspective and can provide good insight. Sometimes we go back and forth three or four times before everyone is happy with the sketches and I can create the final color art work.
(HS) In addition to writing and illustrating your own stories, you illustrate the work of other authors. What is it like to create the visual language for someone else’s story?
(JM) I am very aware that I’m being given responsibility for someone else’s book baby. I’m sure my illustrations will not be exactly what the author envisioned. But I hope my art adds new energy to the story that the author will ultimately be pleased with. I would hate to have an author disappointed with the illustrations in their book.
(HS) What mediums do you use for illustration and what role does technology play?
 (JM) All of my final art is created using Photoshop. It allows me to play with color and composition quickly and easily.
(HS) People are often surprised to discover that it is the editors, art directors and designers who decide on an illustrator for a picture book, not the author. Can you describe the mechanics of this process and the relationship between author, publisher, and illustrator?
I usually receive an inquiry from an art director along with a manuscript. If I read the manuscript and I don’t think the story is right for me or my art, I don’t take the project. I don’t think it’s fair to all the others involved, because I know it won’t be my best work.
If we go ahead, the art director becomes my point person throughout the project. Usually any comments—feedback from the editor or the author— come to me through the art director. Most authors I’ve spoken to said they had very little say in the illustration process. I usually don’t speak to the authors until the books have gone to press. At that time, we may connect and discuss marketing ideas and strategies.
(HS) May I Please Have A Cookie, a beginning reader you published with Scholastic, is a best seller. How did the idea for this book come about?

(JM) I never thought of myself as an author. I wanted to illustrate books. But when I was starting out, I didn’t have any book samples in my portfolio. I felt the best showcase for my work would be to create a wordless picture book sample. I figured creating a story about saying “please” and “thank you” would be easy enough. It turned out to be harder than I thought! But after several months, I finished a version of “May I Please Have a Cookie?” that just contained three words: “please” and “thank you.” A friend of a friend knew an editor at Scholastic (contacts are important!) and sent them my book. The editor liked it and wanted to add my story to Scholastic’s Easy Reader series. They asked me to add a few more words, and that’s how I became an author.
(HS) What writers and illustrators have influenced your own work? What is the best advice you received as you began your career?
(JM) Children’s book authors and illustrators are a great bunch of people. Joining SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) and meeting people at all stages of their careers has been a great influence on me and my work.
The best advice I ever got was, create stories that bring you joy. It’s easy to fall into the trap of writing to please others and it doesn’t work. The stories always fall flat. Yes, you are writing for children, but if you don’t enjoy your stories and find them interesting no one else will either.
(HS) What first steps would you recommend for someone interested in writing and illustrating for children?
 (JM) Creating picture books is awesome and fun, but publishing is a business. There are thousands of picture books printed every year. If you want to publish your story, you need to consider what makes your book special. What makes your book stand out on a very crowded shelf?
Please join SBWC and Jennifer Morris for,
Writing With Pictures: The Role of Illustrations in Picture Books
Saturday, January 20, 2018
Thayer Memorial Library, Lancaster
10:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.
Free and Open to the Public