Hi Math is Everywhere Readers,
I’m excited to kick off 2021 blog interviews with talented author-illustrator Skylaar Amann! We’ll be chatting about her picture book Lloyd Finds His Whalesong that’s out with Page Street Kids, her next book that was just recently announced, all kinds of writing and illustrating fun, and of course, STEM!
Kaitlyn: Hi Skylaar, it’s so wonderful to have you and your lovely work on the blog, thanks for joining us!
Skylaar: Thank you so much for having me, Kaitlyn!
Kaitlyn: My pleasure! So far, both of your books Lloyd Finds His Whalesong and Smile, Sophia have STEM components, is that something you aim to have in your books? If so, why?
Skylaar: I don’t really try to do it, it just happens! I do love science though, so I think it permeates everything I do and think about. Just like you say “math is everywhere,” I kinda feel like “everything is science.”
I find a lot of joy and personal fulfillment in marveling at — and being in — nature, in the way Rachel Carson describes it in her essay The Sense of Wonder. There’s a mix of sublime magic and science in the natural world that I feel very connected to.
More specifically — I grew up on the Oregon Coast, and a big part of both my education and recreation involved the ocean. This included walks on the beach, whale watching, studying turbidity of the bay, exploring tide pools, learning about estuaries and how saltwater and freshwater mix, and valuing the interconnectedness of the forest, rivers, and sea. It also included learning about conservation, animal endangerment, the relationship between commercial fishing and sustainability, and how our communities are intertwined with the natural world. So … all of that definitely informed my young mind and stays with me today!
Kaitlyn: I agree, science IS everthing! It’s so awesome how much your upbringing on the beautiful coast drives your creativity. I’m always extra curious about the process of author-illustrators. For you, does the story come first, the art, a mix of both?
Skylaar: It’s a mix of both. With Lloyd, I was drawing a whale doodle for years before I had any idea how to write a picture book. I started toying around with story ideas and went back and forth quite a bit in those early years.
Now that I have a little more experience with making picture books, I sometimes develop characters as sketches, but more often I have a line or phrase that I want to build a story from and I write a rough draft. Then I put it on my little picture book template to help visualize and pace it. I change the text a bunch at that stage but also start throwing in thumbnail sketches.
Once I have a more firm draft from that process, I make bigger, more complete (but still rough) sketches. At that point, I can see where I’ve included too many ideas on one spread, left out valuable info, paced it too fast, or been repetitive. So I go back and forth with the words and images to figure out how to best tell the story. They work together so I can cut words and add an image or vice versa.
Then, once it’s pretty clean storywise, I’ll fix up the sketches and maybe color a few to get a feel for the world and what I’d want the imagery to look like in a more final state. And that end product is what I would call a draft that’s ready to submit to an agent or editor.
Kaitlyn: Wow, I love that! I think this process also shows how authors can benefit from this too when they do dummies, check out Debbie Ohi’s site, my friends. If you lose this link, her website is on my resources page. Can you share how Lloyd Finds His Whalesong came to be published by Page Street Kids?
Skylaar: A few years ago I was trying to find my feet in the industry as an illustrator, and I sent a promotional illustration postcard to Kristen Nobles at Page Street Kids. She responded with a very nice email about my work (and our shared love of the ocean) and asked to see a picture book dummy. Soon after, I submitted Lloyd to her. I did many revisions for the team there before it sold. But eventually the manuscript got to a solid place, and I finally got that “yes” from Courtney Burke, who was an editor at Page Street Kids at the time.
Kaitlyn: That’s so wonderful, your persistence, dedication, and talent got you there, along with Kristen’s great eye! What process did you use to study whales to create the art for this book?
Skylaar: I’m not an expert in humpback whales, but I was pretty familiar with them before I started writing Lloyd. I grew up in a town with an incredible research-based marine science center (shoutout to the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon!), so I started learning about whales as a little kid. (One year, my class got to figure out the right order of whale vertebrae by moving the actual bones around on the floor of the science center!)
When I was working on the book, I did some research on humpback whale songs and communication, mostly reading information from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) and NOAA. MBARI has a pretty incredible whale song library! I also like to pull up photos for reference when I draw, even though I have more of a cartoony style. It’s a good reminder of how their tails are shaped, how long their pectoral fins are, what their heads look like, and so on.
Kaitlyn: Hands on science is so fun, and Monterey Bay is amazing! We got to go for field trips and family when I was a kid–thanks for reminding me how lucky I am to live so close! Why did you want to include an instrument in Lloyd’s story?
Skylaar: At the time that I was doodling Lloyd, I was learning to play the ukulele. I didn’t have the opportunity to pursue music education as a kid, so picking up the uke as an adult was a really big experience for me (that sense of wonder again).
I guess, in a sense, learning to play the ukulele gave me a bigger voice (at least in terms of expressing myself, as I can NOT sing, lol). And that’s how it helps Lloyd, too. The original title of the story was Lonely Lloyd and the Little Ukulele, and I liked the idea of how if you have a musical instrument, you’re never really alone — it’s empowering.
I also liked the idea of a giant animal like a humpback whale using a tiny thing like a ukulele and thought it would be fun to draw.
Kaitlyn: OMG I love that. Every story we write always has part of us, and this is such a beautiful way to include yourself, and you’re right, so empowering! I was just talking to one of my lovely author-illustrator critique partners about how I still have the sheet music for Taps (the version that my music teacher lowered an octave for me in middle school so I could honor my grandpa and play it at his funeral) in my trumpet case. It’s such a special connection I always have to him and the sacrifices he made for our country during WWII, and my daughter who’s four, likes to hear me play it now and then; it makes me feel like they’re connected, too. Skylaar, can you tell us a bit about the book you just announced, Smile, Sophia?
Skylaar: Yes! Sophia is a young girl who loves dinosaurs and paleontology. And she’s really good at it. But a lot of grownups in her life focus on the wrong thing — her smile. Sophia doesn’t smile when others tell her to though. She only smiles when she wants to. So, the story is about science, but it’s also about the unfair expectation placed on girls and women to smile on command. And it’s about how your special skills make you who you are, and they’re valuable.
Plus, if you read the book when it comes out, you might just find out what’s a good enough reason for Sophia to smile! Smile, Sophia was acquired by Holly West at Feiwel and Friends, and it’s scheduled to come out in 2022!
Kaitlyn: Readers, I can tell you, because I got a sneak peak, you’re going to love this book! And those who follow me know the first book deal I got to help with as an agent is with Feiwel and Friends (they’re pretty awesome!) Can you share how you got your agent?
Skylaar: I was submitting projects to agents off and on for two or three years, including while I was working on Lloyd. I tested the waters with lots of story types, but I was also really trying to get better at writing picture books during that time. I put together six or so dummies (and had tons of finished/half-finished manuscripts that didn’t make the cut). I’d gotten some good bites and close calls from agents on a few of them but no takers.
When I wrote the draft of Smile, Sophia, it all happened really quick. The draft came together fast. And as soon as I started submitting it, I got positive responses. So I knew I had something there (and that I’d made some big leaps in my learning.)
A short while later, I heard back from Jessica Watterson at Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. She shared what she liked about my story and we connected right away. I was really nervous to take the plunge into representation, but at the same time, it felt like the right move! Jess has already helped make the publishing process easier for me, and it was incredible that Smile, Sophia found the right home so fast!
Kaitlyn: Happening quickly doesn’t happen often. It goes to show that you were in the right place and that you have a very knowledgeable and talented teammate in Jessica! Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
Skylaar: I recommend having a specific goal and working toward it. I know that sounds obvious, but it’s easy to get distracted by open-ended dreams. Dreams are great, but if you have a specific goal in mind like “I want to get an agent who represents nonfiction science books for kids” or “I want to publish a picture book through a traditional publishing house,” it’s easier to figure out the steps that will move you toward that goal. It also makes it easier to ignore other things that don’t support the goal (like random free work, entering contests for story types that aren’t related to the goal, or whatever else that can be hard to resist when you don’t have a clear plan). We all only have so much time and are juggling so much, so that narrow focus really helped me with both writing and illustration.
Along the same lines, I think it’s important to learn technical skills. For me, plotting and pacing are hard, so those are things I try to study, seek out new approaches for, or ask my critique partners to give advice about. As an illustrator, I find this even more true. Working on composition, color and light, character design and so on (technical fundamentals of art) in the years leading up to selling Lloyd definitely helped me pitch that and other projects. The creative side of style and voice are of course important too, but developing your fundamentals and craft can help give you an edge and also prepare you for understanding the industry.
Kaitlyn: So well said! Knowing the basics and well as yourself. Can’t get better advice than that. I love that you keep working on plotting–I’m the same, I pants so much that sometimes I wonder, is this a good plot? LOL. So glad I’m not the only one. Can share a bit about what you’re working on now?
Skylaar: I am about to start working on the illustrations for Smile, Sophia, so that is my top priority. I’m also finishing up a number of manuscripts to pitch to my agent soon. A bunch are picture books, but I’ve also been working on a couple of middle grade projects over the last few years. Both of those have science themes too (I guess I can’t get away from it!). I’m not sure which will go the distance, but I’m hopeful some of them will!
I also need to find time to work on my own illustrations this year. And I make it a point to devote a small amount of time each year to continuing education. For me, that’s usually taking art classes through Schoolism.com, which I highly recommend!
Kaitlyn: Can’t wait to see all your next illustrations and stories! Finally, if you could spend a day with your favorite author or illustrator, would you sit by a fireside and chat or go out on an adventure together?
Skylaar: It’s impossible for me to pick a single favorite author or illustrator! As much as I would love to go on an adventure with any of my faves, I think I’d have too many questions and would rather sit and chat with them.
Kaitlyn: Haha sounds awesome! Thanks so much for joining me today and sharing all this amazing insight!
Skylaar: Thanks so much for having me on the blog. It was a pleasure talking with you!
Lloyd can’t sing. The rhythm of the whalesong guides the whales through danger and connects them to each other. But Lloyd is too quiet to join in. If he can’t sing, how can he be a part of the pod?
One day he finds a magical, mysterious object with supersonic seaweed strings! This could be his chance to be part of the song. He practices and practices, nervously preparing to show the other whales. But before he can perform for them, a disruptive, noisy boat approaches and scatters the pod. Lloyd’s powerful new instrument may be the only thing that can reunite them―if he can find the courage to share his unique song.
Get your hands on this book!
Skylaar Amnna’s Bio
Skylaar Amann is the author-illustrator of Lloyd Finds His Whalesong, (Page Street Kids, 2020). Her next book, Smile, Sophia, is forthcoming from Feiwel and Friends in 2022. She is a member of SCBWI and Women Who Draw, as well as a picture book mentor for WriteMentor. Skylaar specializes in children’s and science-themed art, with clients including Surfrider, Pinna, Sitka Sound Science Center, Kaiser Permanente Northwest, 826 Seattle, Adventure! Children’s Museum, Scientific American, and Paxton Gate. Skylaar has fifteen years of experience in communications and now works as a freelance illustrator, editor, and instructor. She is represented by Jessica Watterson of Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. You can learn more about her at skylaaramann.com.
Youtube (including me poorly playing Lloyd’s Song on ukulele, lol — and some other Lloyd videos): https://tinyurl.com/skylaarvideos
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Kaitlyn review of Lloyd Finds His Whalesong
Lloyd Finds His Whaleson is a beautifully illustrated story that follows Lloyd as he tries to find himself. With a little magic and more confidence, this whale helps his family in way he never thought he could. Definitely a book for all classroom, home, and public library to help kids (and adults) find their voice.
Do you want to win a copy of Lloyd Finds His Whalesong?
Here are all the ways to get into the giveaway (each one is an extra entry):
- Comment on this post
- Share in the comments below that you added Lloyd Finds His Whalesong to your Goodreads “Want to Read” list and/or your Amazon Wishlist
- Share in the comments that you ordered a copy of Lloyd Finds His Whalesong
- Share in the comments that you did a purchase request for Lloyd Finds His Whalesong at your library.
- Quote retweet Kaitlyn’s tweet about this post and tag three friends in the QRT.
Thank you all for reading and supporting authors and illustrators! I hope you’re having tons of fun with Tara Lazar’s Storystorm, you’re getting ready for Susanna Hill’s Valentiny Contest, Vivian Kirkfield’s 50 Precious Words Contest, and of course, Ciara O’Neal and my contest Spring Fling Kidlit which will open on April 1st (but of course we’ll be doing fun stuff before then, so watch our Twitters and blogs!)
Kaitlyn Leann Sanchez