More Than Sunny: A Conversation (+ Giveaway) with Shelley Johannes
More Than Sunny, Shelley Johannes’s first picture book, arrives today.
To mark the occasion, I’m giving away some copies. But first, I wanted to ask Shelley a bit about the book . . .
Travis: Hi Shelley! After your chapter book series Beatrice Zinker, More Than Sunny is your first foray into picture books. Was that always the plan?
Shelley Johannes: It was always the hope. When I first dreamed of making books, picture books were the only thing on my mind. Beatrice even originated as a picture book character. I’m immensely grateful she evolved into the longer format, especially because I wasn’t quite ready to tackle a picture book back then. Creating a chapter book series gave me more treasured time with Beatrice, and the opportunity to find my voice artistically. Now I’m thrilled to finally jump into the world of picture books with More Than Sunny.
Travis: What was the spark of inspiration behind More Than Sunny?
Shelley: My son Matthew’s superpower is transforming the mundane into something more. His brain rejects boredom almost ruthlessly and automatically shapeshifts monotony into something smile-inducing.
Back in first grade, his school assigned a daily weather chart as part of his science unit. The graph included all the standard weather options—sunny, windy, cloudy, rainy, and snowy—and I viewed it as a quick chore on our to-do list. On the chart’s inaugural first day, Matthew pointed out our front window and proclaimed, “Hey, it’s sunny and birdy today!” His playful observation turned the task into a moment of wonder as we watched the funny birds gathered around our feeders. The following day he announced that it was “windy and squirrelly,” and we spent the rest of the afternoon amusing ourselves with other weather-animal combinations. I wasn’t sure what form it would take, but the idea felt destined to become a book someday. Thankfully seven-year-old Matthew granted me the rights to his idea for a mere five bucks and the promise of a future book dedication.
Travis: Coming off chapter books, what was the biggest challenge or adjustment in writing a picture book?
Shelley: Truthfully making this book went magically well. In the midst of Beatrice deadlines, working on More Than Sunny was an oasis where I could play with no pressure of being productive. I’m a slow processer—and I love process—so having endless time to play my way into something is my happy place.
With this book, I really trusted and relied upon the creative back-and-forth process with my agent Stephen, and leaned into the mentality that each revision was just another iteration of the idea, not necessarily a solution or end point.
The biggest challenge was figuring out how to clearly communicate the narrative of the story with only playful dialogue and word pairings. The process involved lots of expanding and contracting. The text toggled between too little/too much, too tight/too casual, narrative/no narrative until everything eventually meandered into place. I’m sure I’ll forever be chasing the joyful, carefree feeling of making this book.
Travis: You know how people use those sun lamps in the winter to lift their mood? I feel like this book will have the same effect. How did you illustrate it? How was it different from Beatrice Zinker?
Shelley: Aw, thank you. I love thinking of this book as a mood-lifting sun lamp. Working on it was definitely a daily dose of vitamin D for me.
The illustrations were made on tracing paper with a mixture of graphite, colored pencil, marker and different types of pastels. Pretty much anything that felt right in the moment. To prevent myself from feeling too precious about one giant piece of finished artwork and to encourage myself to continue experimenting throughout the process, I made each illustration in multiple pieces.
I penciled my main linework on one drawing, and then played with colors, textures and details on separate scraps of paper. All the pieces were eventually scanned and layered together in Photoshop. My Beatrice Zinker artwork is mostly two-color spot illustrations inked in felt-tip pen, but I created it in a very similar manner. Though the basic method for More Than Sunny was familiar, working with more expansive compositions and a full color palette felt vastly different. Once I got over the intimidation of it all, it ended up being ridiculously fun. And who doesn’t love a good excuse to buy a bunch of new art supplies?
Travis: The Important Question: What snack puts you in peak creativity mode?
Shelley: My most effective creative fuel is cold and caffeinated. Nothing puts my brain in overdrive like iced coffee in the morning, and then—because some college habits never die—Mountain Dew carries me through the rest of the day. Recently I’ve also been snacking on a mix of almonds, chocolate chips, and coconut flakes that Matthew has dubbed Deconstructed Almond Joy. Working on books while snacking on joy is a pretty great gig.
Travis: Thank you, Shelley!
Shelley: Thank you, Travis! It’s always a joy to chat bookmaking with you.
I’m giving away two copies of More Than Sunny. Click here to enter the giveaway!
About Travis Jonker
Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.
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