Jennifer K. Mann is the author of the new children's picture book The Camping Trip. Her other books include Josie's Lost Tooth and Sam and Jump. A former architect, she lives near Seattle.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Camping Trip, and for your character Ernestine?
A: My family and I love to car camp here where we live in the Pacific Northwest. We go every summer with a couple of other families, and have done so for the past 18 years!
A few summers ago I met a little boy who was on his first camping trip ever, and his excitement for and worries about all of his new experiences were so evident and relatable. I knew after that weekend that his was an experience that lots of kids could appreciate and empathize with.
And, because I love to camp so much, it was easy to imagine and create the words and images to capture the feeling of camping and all of its ups and downs.
Q: Did you work on the text first or the illustrations first--or both simultaneously?
A: For this book, I worked on both the text and the illustrations at the same time, mostly. I wrote out the story and explored the characters and the setting together right away. If you were to see those early sketches and words, though, they might not resemble the book The Camping Trip!
At first it was a 32-page traditional picture book, but when it became clear that it would benefit from a comic format and a lot of breathing room for the big moments, it changed into a 54-page book with lots and lots of art. The characters changed slightly, the setting emerged more clearly, the story focused itself a little more, and I went on to develop the text and the art pretty much simultaneously.
Q: You've also worked as an architect--how does that experience inform your work as a creator of children's picture books?
A: I think I went into architecture mostly because I loved to draw, and architecture seemed like an employable way to harness that interest. I really didn’t even get that people who liked to draw might be people who create picture books.
I maybe felt a little constrained in the years that I practiced architecture, because that kind of drawing is only sometimes illustrative and emotive. But when it dawned on me that I could draw for picture books, I had the advantage of already being able to draw, understanding what it means to work on a deadline, being professional, and thinking visually.
I did retail design, which is almost like stage design, which is narrative and experiential in nature. This creative process also helped me understand the way a book could contain a complete sequence of experience.
The hardest thing has been un-learning the way I learned to draw architecture. Muscle memory is powerful. I did not want my children’s book art to look anything like the drawings that an architect makes, and so I have had to try lots of different ways of seeing and drawing from life and from my imagination. I am still working on that!
I loved being an architect, and I am happy that I chose that route to becoming a children’s book author and illustrator, which I love even more.
Q: What are some of your favorite picture books?
A: I have so many favorite picture books. In fact they are currently stacked in tall wobbling piles on a couple of chairs in my studio.
A tiny sampling of my favorites: Borka, Seasons, and Come Away from the Water Shirley, by John Burningham, Jane the Fox and Me by Isabel Arsenault, Emmanuel’s Dream by Laurie Thompson and Sean Qualls, The Bus Ride by Marianne Dubuc, On a Magical Do Nothing Day by Beatrice Alemagne, Mad at Mama by Komoko Sakai, The Funeral by Matt James, Laila’s Happiness by Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie and Ashleigh Corrin, The Old Truck by Jarret Pumphrey and Jerome Pumphrey.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Right now I am working on illustrations for a chapter book series, by Carter Higgins, called Audrey L and Audrey W—Best Friends-ish. I am also working on a few new picture books of my own, and will hopefully have news to share about those sometime in the near future.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I feel incredibly grateful to be able to create children’s books and see them head out into the world to find their way into the hands of kids who really appreciate them. It is a true privilege, and one I do not take for granted.
Kids are the best and most discerning audience I can think of for the art and words that I want to put on the page. To reach them and positively impact their lives with my books is really the best work I can imagine doing.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb