A Peek at the Creative Space of Ruth McNally Barshaw

Today we’re stepping inside the creative space of author and illustrator Ruth McNally Barshaw. Ruth is the creator of the Ellie McDoodle series of books which include Ellie McDoodle: Have Pen, Will Travel; Ellie McDoodle: New Kid in School; and the latest Ellie McDoodle book (just out this week!) Best Friends Fur-Ever. These books are the sketchbook diaries of the Ellie McDoodle (McDougal, really, but she was given the nickname because she can always be found drawing.) Of the first Ellie McDoodle book, Kirkus Reviews said; “Part journal, part graphic novel, all fun (with echoes of Harriet the Spy), this is a clever account of a growing-up experience that will be familiar to middle-grade readers.”

Bloomsbury’s description of the latest book, Best Friends Fur-Ever:

“When her teacher assigns a report about animals and all the popular animals get snatched up, Ellie McDoodle is stumped for a topic. Then a neighbor goes on vacation and asks Ellie to watch her African gray parrot, and it seems her problem is solved. Unfortunately, a new problem pops up almost immediately when the parrot flies the coop—literally. With help from a librarian, a zookeeper, some good friends, and Ellie’s own pet-obsessed family, the bird comes home—but will Ellie finish her report in time?

Filled with cartoons, diagrams, lists, games, and plenty of witty asides, Ellie’s newest adventure is a perfect pet primer and just might inspire some creative doodling, too.”

You can learn more about Ruth McNally Barshaw, her books, and her art at her website and blog.

Describe your workspace.

Well, I have several. The one at Schuler Books & Music is very nice. Small tables that can be pushed together. Great company, yummy lunch, plenty of books for inspiration and research.

The one inside my head is a bit more cluttered.

The one inside my house is a mess! My studio is too small and it needs more shelves. Projects pile up and I don’t organize it all often enough.

On very windy days I work outside, on the deck, under an umbrella. It’s good aerobic exercise, chasing papers across the garden.

Describe a typical workday.

Ah, this depends on the time of year.

In March I’m in front of a different school audience every day, trying to get the kids to laugh at the right times and remember the right things.

In summer a typical day finds me waking up late (8-10am), scarfing down breakfast which my writer-husband Charlie makes, pulling out the writing projects (currently a novel and another Ellie McDoodle book), writing for 2 to 7 hours either at home or at a bookstore, and also spending too much time on the internet playing in email, discussion boards, and Facebook, researching a few dozen things (today: special needs kids, Special Olympics, soccer, articles for writers, marketing options, inspiring YouTube videos, the Hero’s Journey, creativity, religion, organization, and do-it-yourself home improvements and crafts–most for my books but some just for fun).

Sometimes my kids (ages 27, 24, 21 and 13) want to hang out.

Sometimes I get bored and cut my hair. Late at night I crawl into bed and read or write.

List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.

I have some cool harmonicas. My favorite’s a really long one that plays two keys. I usually bring it to school visits. I taught myself to play harmonica years ago, and treasure memories of duets with my father-in-law who was a very talented player.

I went on a quest a few years ago to find a Horsman Ruthie doll like the one from my childhood. I found one on Ebay–with the original dress!–but switched the dress for one my great-grandma made. The toys in my studio remind me to connect with kids.

I have lots of heart rocks in my studio. I started finding them everywhere after a close friend died. Sometimes my grandson brings hearts he’s found. (This red stone is from my driveway.)

Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.

Usually I start with a character illustration and a simple plotline. I write in long hand and type the manuscript later. If I get stuck I sketch and then write. Sometimes I stop in mid-paragraph for the night so I know where to start when I get back to work the next day.

On deadline I wear the most comfortable shirt and pants available and I don’t care if it makes my family want to nominate me for What Not To Wear.

My favorite writing pen is the BIC Ultra Round Stic Grip (smooth, cheap).

For drawing, the best pen varies with the project. (Ellie McDoodle: Uni-ball. Sketchbook: Zebra F-301 ballpoint.)

If it’s not too tight a deadline I play Snood until I get a good score.

What do you listen to while you work?

Sometimes I listen to classical music on the local public radio station. When I’m working on illustration and craving human company I work in the living room and watch endless reality shows, comedies, and Pixar movies on TV. But usually all I listen to is the hum of my computer’s fan, the songbirds outside, and the clatter in my head.

What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?

Green tea and very dark chocolate and mints.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

Deadlines and the mortgage company.

If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?

A long-lost rich and generous cousin. Or, if he could come back to life (no zombies), Abraham Lincoln. Otherwise, I pick anyone alive who’s better than me at writing or illustration, which leaves a pretty wide selection.

What is the best piece of writing/illustrating advice you’ve heard or received?

“Come to New York!” said by Tomie dePaola back in 2004 when I showed him my work and said I was getting personal rejections and wanted to know what it would take to get published. I went to New York, to the national SCBWI conference the following February (incidentally, that 180-page sketchbook is still on my website). Two weeks later I had a brand new manuscript in a new genre, a month after that I had an agent, and six months later we had a publisher. That was my first Ellie McDoodle book. To me what Tomie said translates to this: Sometimes you have to spend money to make money; listen to the experts; study your craft; don’t give up; find your unique voice, mingle and share with other writers and illustrators. And, when you succeed, pay forward the help you were given.

6 Responses to “A Peek at the Creative Space of Ruth McNally Barshaw”

  1. Kieren

    That's great advice! I was at that same NYC conference…and remember the buzz of her blog….
    ps my first book came out this past April, however NYC helped me in different ways-like seeing what's out there.

  2. Jeannie

    I love Ruth's work. I love, too, that her workspace shown is cluttered. Now I feel better that mine's always a mess too! Can't wait to read the new Ellie McDoodle book that just came out!

  3. olugbemisola

    What a delightful interview! I'm not surprised — Ruth and her work have so much heart and personality. I am really looking forward to the latest Ellie treat!

  4. Shoshana

    I especially like that last piece of advice! One thing I love about the children's lit world is that people tend to see each other more as friends and colleagues than as competition to be thwarted.