Cynthia Cliff is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book The Wild Garden. She also has written and illustrated the picture book Pie for Breakfast. She lives near Washington, D.C.
Q: For The Wild Garden, did you work on the art first or the text first, or both simultaneously?
A: I worked on the text first and what surprised me was how incredibly hard it is to write a picture book story for children! It’s like catching lightening in a bottle, at least for me it was. There were many, many drafts before the story felt right.
The most enjoyable part for me was making the artwork. I didn’t start making the art until the story was mostly complete. Then, as I made the art, the words were tweaked a bit and both art and story were worked on at the same time.
Q: What do you hope kids take away from the story?
A: I hope that any lessons are learned through the enjoyment of discovering the wild places with [my character] Jilly. Just like being out in nature, I wanted the book to show children how rich and exciting nature can be if you take the time to look.
I think the main lesson is about understanding why the wild landscape is important. Those wildflowers, nuts, berries, and mushrooms are food for wild creatures. It is their garden in a sense. And those little saplings, rocky hillsides, and mossy ponds are their homes. Often, when children are outside, they might not take the time to look around and think about that connection.
I think on another level, a second lesson might be about speaking up to protect what you value and not be afraid to do so. And probably a third lesson is about living your life with respect for the wild places.
Q: How did you first get interested in creating children's picture books?
A: I grew up in a sparsely populated farming community. Our house was in the middle of corn fields and my mother did not drive. So, my world in many ways was very small.
My parents had a friend who was an elementary teacher or maybe a school librarian, I’m not sure now, but he would bring us the most incredible books. African folk tales, beautifully illustrated children’s poetry books, the history of flowers in world culture for children…to name a few that I remember and still have.
Those books introduced me to a much bigger world and all kinds of possibilities. I vividly remember the feelings I had as I looked at them. They are strong and powerful memories of excitement and wonder. As a little girl I knew that one day I wanted to be part of creating those same feelings for children. It only took me close to 50 years to do it!
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I recently won a puzzle commission from a large puzzle company, so I’m working on that now. I’m also in talks with Prestel for a new authored/illustrated book and am hoping that I can start working on that soon. As I wait for that to come about, I’m tweaking some other story ideas that I’m bouncing off my agent.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I started drawing in 2016 as a hobby. I had been an arty/crafty kid but put those things aside in my youth to become a graphic designer because that seemed like a way to make a living. I didn’t see art and crafting as a way to make money, they seemed like hobby territory, and I figured I could always come back to those.
But life got in the way and some 35 years or so went by without making art or crafts of any kind. When I started to draw for fun a few years ago, I got hooked and became obsessed. All those positive feelings of excitement and wonder I’d had as a young child when surrounded by beautifully illustrated books came back to me.
So, I kept working at it, driven to get better and infatuated with the positive energy it gave me. At first, I practiced by drawing the things I saw around me, but I found that “just” drawing what I saw was not enough. My art evolved into story telling.
Eventually I found the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). SCBWI and its members became my biggest resource and inspiration. In 2019 I launched my “professional” career when I got my first paid illustration job from a children’s magazine, and in 2020 I got my first book offer.
So, I still feel very new to this world, but I’m so very excited to finally be here!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb