Rhyming well in picture books has to be done just right. Otherwise, you land up with inverted phrases, misplaced stress on words, and/or difficult rhythm. (For more on this read Ruth Beach’s “A Word About Rhyme: What Goes Wrong and How to Fix It” in SCBWI’s Sept./Oct. 2014 Bulletin.) My heart is happy when I encounter a picture book where the rhyming is just right. Sequoia is that kind of book.
I fell so in love with Tony Johnston and Wendell Minor’s Sequoia, which will be released on September 23rd, that I interviewed both of them. This is only my second time interviewing an author and illustrator for a blog post, which I hope shows you how much I hope you’ll adopt this book as a mentor text in your classroom. (Thus, you can share Johnston and Minor’s insights with your students.) If you’ve never stood beneath a sequoia, then you must read this book. It’s the next-best thing to visiting the giant sequoia trees in California.
Sequoia is a lyrical text that teaches children about these enormous trees in a unique way. It tells the story of the giant sequoia trees by helping readers understand the things the sequoia sees, hears, feels, and witnesses. There’s an excellent author’s note in the back f the book that provides readers with more information about sequoias, as well as a bibliography of other books you can read about these incredible trees.
I have concerns with poetry getting short shrift in writing workshop since it was excluded from the Common Core (in writing). One way I think you can use this text is by encouraging students to craft informational poems about a topic they’re researching (i.e., in lieu of a research report or all-about book). In a way, this is more challenging since you have to teach your students how to research and write about their topic lyrically. However, it’s a way to bring the beauty of poetry into your classroom while still working towards meeting the standards.
INTERVIEW WITH WENDELL MINOR
SAS: How did you get started with children’s book illustrating?
WM: After arriving in New York from Illinois, I worked for the legendary book jacket designer, Paul Bacon (Paul Bacon Studio) from late 1968 thru the summer of 1970, then started my own studio in October of 1970. I never worked at a publishing house, but I did freelance for several of the biggest publishing houses in New York and Boston. My first book, Mojave, was published in 1988. I was fortunate to work with very accomplished writers initially: Diane Siebert, Charlotte Zolotow, and Jean Craighead George, just to name a few.
SAS: How did you collaborate with Tony Johnston?
WM: We’ve known each other for years. (We did Cat Was That? years ago.) Occasionally she’ll come up with an idea or a manuscript she wants me to consider.
Tony has a spiritual sensuality when she writes about nature – much like John Muir. Today, Children are so over-managed and so cloistered that many of them never have the opportunity to experience a true natural environment. If a book like SEQUOIA can inspire kids to encourage their family to go and see these trees or even a nature preserve near their home, then we’ve accomplished our goal: seeing is believing!
SAS: I noticed in the artist’s acknowledgments that you thanked two people from Humboldt State University for the use of their photographs of the upper stories of Sequoias and Redwoods where few have ventured. Aside from using photographs, how else did you prepare to illustrate this book about the giant Sequoias?
WM: I saw them when I was in California years ago, so I had my own files and my memory. It is my preference to spend time traveling to a specific sight to get a true sense of the place. I’ve hiked the high Sierras and have seen the Coastal Redwoods and Kings Canyon. Once you’re there you never forget it.
Dr. Stephen C. Sillett and Marie E. Antoine and their team used an ascending camera to photograph the entire height of one of the tallest trees, which gives you an incredible sense of scale. The camera runs straight up on a cable (rolling camera), taking continuous exposures that are pieced together.
SAS: Would you talk more about the sketches on the endpapers?
WM: These are very typical of the preliminary drawings I do for paintings, but I liked them enough to use as endpaper art. The first spread is a Sequoia ground squirrel that eats the seeds and disperses them. The back endpaper is one of fully grown trees perhaps 3000 years old, with a boy and girl marveling at the immensity of these ancient giants. The endpapers promote the passage of many centuries to the young reader.
SAS: Who decides which text pairs with which illustration?
WM: When I’m assigned a manuscript I’m pretty much given free rein. I do a complete design, so I present a dummy with the text in place and in consort with the art. As far as I’m concerned, the book is an art form that should be a complete marriage of words and pictures. Once I submit my completed dummy, I work with an in-house designer who will continue to refine the design and follow through with production specification all the way to final color proofs. I have had the good fortune of working with some great designers and enjoy working with them.
The end result of these collaborative efforts make for most attractive picture book possible! It’s something the average reader might not be aware of. You can usually tell when something works as a complete unit and when it doesn’t.
SAS: What advice can you give to children who want to become an illustrator when they grow up?
WM: Never give up. If you have a passion to do something, then you owe it to yourself to pursue that as hard and as long as you can to get the answer. My high school counselor advised me that I couldn’t survive as an artist, but my art teachers were always very supportive. The prevailing wisdom in our modern culture is that you can’t make a living in the arts. It’s hard to imagine now that I came from the Midwest to New York City with just a suitcase and a portfolio and find myself where I am today.
SAS: What are you working on now?
WM: This is the Earth by Diane Z. Shore and Jessica Alexander is a picture book that is written in beautiful poetic prose. The text takes in the sweep of “in the beginning, when the planet was wild,” then to man’s presence, and the continuing demand on the earth’s resources. This is the Earth addresses the stresses that have been put on the planet, and how we can all live a “greener” life through conservation. I plan to have the book done late this fall.
I just finished (as author/illustrator) Daylight, Starlight, Wildlife for Nancy Paulsen. It’s a book about the creatures you may find in your backyard, whether it be in a small town, or suburb or city. I’ve seen every critter in the book on our property in Connecticut through the years. It shows the young reader that all kinds of wild things are around you every day, if you only take the time to notice.
INTERVIEW WITH TONY JOHNSTON
SAS: When I spoke with Wendell, he said you have “almost spiritual sensuality about writing about nature… like John Muir.” That being said, what inspired you to write Sequoia?
TJ: I went back through my file. I wrote this in 1993. I’m not exactly sure what inspired me… it’s a lifelong culmination of all of the things I love. I grew up in the country, collecting bugs as a child. I collected images. Some of the books I can remember exactly what set it off, but this one I really don’t know.
SAS: What would you like readers to get from reading Sequoia?
TJ: For me, it’s a hymn to nature. I’d love if people were able to stand back and look around them and see the beauty wherever they are. Not just in this one place, but everywhere.
SAS: Can you talk about your research process?
TJ: I usually don’t research. For me, it’s very visceral and emotional.
The only research for Sequoia, was the back matter. I talked with Jim Folsom (Head of Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, CA). We jumped in his truck and looked at sequoias and redwoods. He’d grab a piece off and showed what a piece looked like. We’d sit down and talk about the problems a particular tree faced and its future.
SAS: You’ve published over 75 books. What’s your secret to finding new things to write about? How do you come up with new book ideas?
TJ: As N.C. Wyeth said, “Keep alive to everything.” You can be cooking or singing… If you’re really paying attention, there’s never a day that goes by where an idea doesn’t come along that you can fiddle around with.
These days I get interesting ideas from my grandchildren. Noah came home from Kindergarten and said “They didn’t teach us how to read.” “We’re learning the letters, but what do they do?” This led to the MAGIC OF LETTERS. The ideas are just there if you’re paying attention.
It’s about what the letters do in a convoluted way.
Sometimes I hear a song at the dentist’s office and I think, “Well, maybe that would be a story.” Sometime it is and sometimes it isn’t. If you’re walking through the world with your eyes open, you have a much better chance of creating whatever you want to create.
SAS: What are you working on now?
TJ: I want to do a counting book about owies (like a hurt), like how children call their many bumps and bruises.
I do a lot of my writing in my head. Everything is kind of spooled around before I ever get to the paper. A lot of writing is internal. Eventually it gets somewhere else.
TAKE A LOOK INSIDE OF SEQUOIA
Images courtesy of Roaring Brook Press/A Neal Porter Book. Sketches courtesy of Wendell Minor.
This giveaway is for a copy of Sequoia. Many thanks to Roaring Brook Press for donating a copy for one reader. For a chance to win this copy of Sequoia, please leave a comment about this post by Sunday, September 21st at 11:59 p.m. EDT. I’ll use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names I will announce at the bottom of this post, by Tuesday, September 23rd. Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, my contact at Roaring Brook Press will ship your book out to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
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Thanks to everyone who left a comment on this post. Julie’s commenter number was selected so she’ll receive a copy of Sequoia. Here’s what she wrote:
Thanks for this share. Given recent work in writing group this summer, my eyes perked up at rhyme. I have been amidst the Sequoias many many times. It is an otherworldly experience. And yet those towering giants are fragile too. I can’t wait to add this book to my collection, Stacey. Thanks for the recommendation. I loved the interview as well.
I am a literacy consultant who has spent over a decade working with teachers to improve the teaching of writing in their classrooms. While I work with teachers and students in grade K-6, I'm a former fourth and fifth-grade teacher so I have a passion for working with upper elementary students.
I'm the author of Craft Moves (Stenhouse Publishers, 2016) and the co-author of Jump Into Writing (Zaner-Bloser, 2021), Welcome to Writing Workshop (Stenhouse Publishers, 2019), and Day By Day (Stenhouse, 2010).