Snow Day with Gus

Yesterday, a blizzard was anticipated here in Colorado. Many schools and businesses shut down for a snow day. Here’s how that went from my dog’s point of view:


A Peek at the Creative Space of Matt Taveres

Matt Tavares is the author-illustrator of numerous books including Crossing NiagaraZachary’s Ball, and Becoming Babe Ruth. He is also the illustrator of Lighter than Air, written by Matthew Clark Smith, The Gingerbread Pirates, written by Kristin Kladstrup, and many more.

His most recent picture book is Red & Lulu. Gorgeously illustrated, the story is set in New York City during the holiday season. It’s my latest favorite holiday read, although I think it’s a book that can be read year-round too. The story is tender, the illustrations have the feel of an enduring classic, and I loved learning something new about the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.

I love Red and Lulu so much, in fact, that I’m giving away a copy along with a $25 gift card to the independent bookstore of your choice. (US entries only.) You’ll find more information about the giveaway and how to enter at the end of this interview.

To learn more about Matt Tavares, visit his website, or follow him on Facebook and Twitter. His artwork is also available for sale on Society 6.





Describe your workspace.

My studio consists of two rooms in my house. The room where I spend most of my time was designed as sort of a 3-season room (though I use it year-round). It’s in the back corner of the house, and two of the walls have nice big windows. So it’s nice and bright, which is great for painting. The other two walls feature built-in bookcases which are filled with books and art supplies. The original owners of the house called this room the library, which seems fitting.

The other room of my studio is mostly storage- boxes of books, flat files filled with artwork, stuff like that.

Describe a typical workday.

I usually start my day with a walk. This has become an important part of my work day, especially when I’m writing. Seems like whenever I’m stuck on something, the best way for me to get unstuck is just to take a walk and let my mind wander. I rarely solve writing problems sitting at my laptop.

What media do you use and which is your favorite? (If you do digital art, what software do you use?)

I do all my preliminary sketches digitally, using Sketchbook Pro. Working digitally allows me to move things around, save different ideas, and place the text on the page to see how the words and images work together. But then once I get to the final art, I still work the old-fashioned way, with watercolor, gouache, pencil and ink on paper. Watercolor is the medium I use most often, and I usually use Arches 300 lb hot press paper. It’s nice and thick so it doesn’t buckle even when I really soak it.

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

My drawing table. It was a birthday gift from my parents when I turned 10 years old. It’s still my favorite place to draw. Oddly, it still has the price tag on it. I’d say I’ve gotten my $119.99 out of it!

The windows. On warm days I can open all the windows and it feels almost like I’m working outside. They keep my studio nice and bright. I spend a lot of time in here, so it’s nice to not have to feel like I’m cooped inside up all day.

The picture book wall. This is a relatively new addition to my studio, an idea I stole from my friend, author-illustrator Scott Magoon. I keep a rotating display of some of my favorite picture books up o the wall. It helps keep me inspired.

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

I guess I have a few. I pretty much always arrive at my studio with a cup of coffee and a glass of water, which I keep to the left of my drawing table (paint, brushes, and other drawing supplies are to the right). I usually start the day by going through whatever paperwork or other non-creative nitty-gritty stuff I need to get through, so once I get to the creative stuff, I can just get lost in my own little world and not worry about sending invoices or replying to emails. I also keep all of the pages up on my wall (in the room with the flat files) as I’m working on a book, so I can see the whole thing as it’s developing.

What do you listen to while you work?

When I’m writing, I don’t listen to anything. When I’m illustrating, it varies. Sometimes I zero in on one playlist, or one type of music for a certain book. For Red & Lulu, I listened mostly to a playlist of instrumental music from Pixar movies. I know it might sound weird, but there is something about that music that really lends itself to storytelling. It felt like the soundtrack to my book. And sometimes I’ll listen to audiobooks and podcasts.

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

Coffee, water.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

That can be a challenge, especially lately. Seems like every day, there are so many things going on in the world that are far more important than the book I’m working on. But I try my best to set aside a good chunk of the day when I ignore social media and tune out the outside world. I find that it’s much easier to focus once I get to the final art of a book, where there are long stretches of time when I can get lost in the picture I’m working on. In the earlier phases of a project, it’s much easier to get distracted.

What aspect of illustrating do you find most challenging and why?

The very beginning of a project is always tough. There are too many variables, and too many unknowns. I have an easier time once I start filling in some of the gaps, then it becomes more a matter of finding the right pieces to complete the puzzle. But at first, I sometimes have a hard time knowing what to do. Also, crowd scenes.

Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?

Both. I start out in a notebook, then eventually move to the laptop

How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?

I usually make a series of vague outlines. Honestly, I don’t have a clear writing process. Seems like it’s different for every book. For some, it’s pretty straightforward, linear process, from outline to rough draft, etc. But for others, it’s just a big confusing mess until it’s done.

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

David Wiesner. I could watch a master at work, and pick his brain. Plus he’s a nice, mellow guy and seems like he’d be pretty easy to share a studio with.

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

The best advice I’ve gotten came from my college painting and drawing professor, Joe Nicoletti. His advice was this: “Sweep the floor!” His point was that being an artist is work, and you need to be productive every day, even if you’re not feeling inspired every day. If you’re having a day when the art just isn’t going well, you can’t just wait around. Sweep the floor. Clean your studio. Do something else. Pay bills, reply to emails, or whatever. That is advice that has stayed with me. This is a job, and I need to be productive every day, even on days when I forget how to draw.

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A Peek at the Creative Space of Susan Cunningham

Susan Cunningham’s debut novel, Crow Flightpublishes December 11. In Crow Flight, the curious flight patterns of crows leads a teen computer programmer down a path of mystery and romance. Sounds intriguing, doesn’t it?

Susan lives in the Colorado Rocky Mountains with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys science nearly as much as writing: she’s traveled to the bottom of the ocean via submarine to observe life at hydrothermal vents, camped out on an island of birds to study tern behavior, and now spends time in an office analyzing data on wool apparel. She blogs about writing and science at You can learn more about her and her writing on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

Describe your workspace.
I write in my bedroom, which has great light and big trees out the windows that keep me inspired. I used to write while sitting cross-legged on my bed, but have since started using an actual desk. But I can tuck everything away when I’m not working: my desk chair wheels into the closet, my laptop slides under the bed and my writing desk transforms into a nightstand.

Describe a typical workday.
I try to start most days with journaling (technically “morning pages” as recommended by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way). Then I get the kids ready for school and depending on the day, either analyze data (my “pay-the-bills” job that I also enjoy) or write.

List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.
A crow statue that was a birthday present from my husband. It reminds me of how important research is to my writing process, and of how lucky I am to have a partner who supports my writing.

Our dog, Cricket, who is a fun writing buddy and is always ready for a walk if I need a break.

And photos of backpacking trips – when I’m out in the mountains with everything I need on my back, I am most happy.

Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them. 
Morning pages first! I always journal in inexpensive spiral notebooks: they’re so plain, I don’t feel any pressure to fill them with brilliant words. When I’m working on a book, that journaling often includes a lot of brainstorming. I’m pretty motivated when I’m writing a first draft: the success of seeing words pile up keeps me going. But if I’m revising, I have to reward myself with sticker charts (a trick I picked up from author Laura Resau) and prizes.

What do you listen to while you work?
Though I have different playlists that inspire each story, I mostly listen to my white noise app while writing. Typically, I’m typing away to the cozy sounds of crickets chirping or rain falling.

What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?
Hot tea or hot cocoa. And for snacks: chocolate, popcorn and gum.

What keeps you focused while you’re working? 
I set loose goals (finish half a rough draft before an upcoming vacation, wrap up another set of edits before a holiday) and then plod along towards those goals. If I have a hard time getting started, I’ll set very small goals – write for 20 minutes or revise two pages. Basically, I find lots of ways to trick myself into actually writing.

Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?
I’ve tried both and found that writing on my laptop worked best for me. But my brainstorming is all done longhand.

How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?
My stories tend to start with one image – for Crow Flight, it was a boy and girl on a wintry field, with trained crows flying around them.

Once I have that initial idea, I write a first draft. It’s pretty terrible, but it helps me narrow the story down.

And then I revise. Through revisions, the story really comes to life – but revisions are hard for me as I don’t always feel productive. Often I’m deleting words, not adding them. Hence the need for external motivation: stickers, a pastry from the local coffeeshop, a trip to the movies… My artist self is not above being bribed.

If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?
That’s a tough one, because I write best alone. But if I had to choose, I’d share my workspace with my husband. He’s a musician, though, so I’d likely be wearing noise-cancelling headphones.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard or received? 
One of my favorites was from the author Ron Rash, who spoke about how he spent years trying to learn to write. Nothing he wrote at first was good, but he just kept going and going. And now he’s a master. But he didn’t regret those initial years at all. They’re helpful for a writer, because you learn what techniques work for you, and you learn that you’re committed to it. So for all the aspiring writers out there who write and write, with no idea of what will come of it, keep going!

Visiting the Wave Organ

When I was in San Francisco this past spring for the The Alcatraz Escape tour, I met a class at the wave organ as the last destination on their Book Scavenger-themed scavenger hunt planned for them by their teacher (how cool is that??!!) after they had read Book Scavenger and The Unbreakable Code as a class. We ate It’s-Its, I signed books, and we explored one of my favorite spots in San Francisco. My media escort, Patty Stanton, surprised me by taking this video of the students talking about why they like my books. Watch the video and you can travel vicariously to the wave organ too!

Happy Three Year Anniversary Book Scavenger!

Book Scavenger was published 3 years ago. Somehow it feels like it was only yesterday, and also much, much longer at the same time.

I worked on Book Scavenger for 12 years before it was published and wrote 8 different drafts with lots and lots of revising within each draft. Over those years there were 5 critique groups that helped me hone my ideas and writing, 2 paid critiques at SCBWI conferences that were influential, writing workshops with Lighthouse Writers, and so many friends and family who encouraged and supported me along the way.

Now there are three Book Scavenger books in the world, soon to be published in twelve languages. (I still can’t believe stories I’ve written are being read in other languages by readers around the world.) I’ve been lucky to connect with so many educators and booksellers who are using my books in wonderful, inspiring ways. Every young reader I meet reminds me of myself when I was a young bookworm, and how much stories meant to me back then. It makes me feel lucky to be doing what I’m doing and excited to return to my imagination and write more books.

It’s been a wild, wonderful ride and I’m grateful I kept writing, grateful to everyone who encouraged me along the way, and grateful to every reader who has picked up one of my books. Here are way too many pictures (but there are so many more special moments than these too!) in random order capturing some memories from the past three years.