Today, author and illustrator Janeen Mason joins Read, Write, Repeat.
And our converstion covers a wide range of topics from her recent books to the projects she’s working on now and how her youthful fascination with girdles helped her discover her talent as an artist.
Janeen has written and illustrated several books, including:
She’s also illustrated books by other authors, including several with Jan Day.
Now, on to Janeen!
You’re a wonderful artist, who also writes. How did you make the transition from illustrating to writing and illustrating?
It has always been easier for me to tell a story with pictures. I COULD write, but it felt a lot like algebra … you know? Work … work … work … work … The stories I’d written and sent around didn’t sell – so it was just easier to concentrate on illustrating, my first love anyway.
I’d finished the art for my seventh book when a group of philanthropic women formed in Stuart, my little town on the east coast of south Florida. Each decided to donate a certain amount of money annually to create a pool of funds they could use to support art in our community. So, I wrote for a grant from Women Supporting the Arts, and I was among the recipients in their first granting cycle.
South Florida is one of two places in the world where loggerhead sea turtles nest, and the story of their migration is simply astonishing. I believe kids think nothing important ever happens in their own backyards. I wanted our kids to know how unique in the entire world our sea turtle nesting beaches are – how impossible the journey of the female loggerheads who crawl out of the ocean to dig their nests under the sand on the very beaches where we play every day.
But I had to write the story. And I needed the comfort of freedom from overhead to do so. It was an enormous honor to have Women Supporting the Arts believe in me enough to fund my living expenses while I wrote the book.
It’s powerful when someone believes in you. I met the scientists, I did the research, I wrote the book. My critique group helped me polish it up, and by that time in my career I had relationships with a couple publishers where the editors knew my name and were willing to consider my material. I sold it!
When it was time to make the art my paintbrushes practically rattled every morning when I walked into my studio. The illustrations were calling, “Paint me today! I need blue! Right here, right here! Dab a little yellow!”
Ocean Commotion: Sea Turtles!was hatched, and I was hooked. I’m willing to do the algebra, the work … work …work …work … work … to write the
manuscript, because I’ve discovered one of life’s greatest luxuries is to paint
the artwork for a book I’ve written. Ahhhh.
Many of your books have ocean themes. What are your favorite things to draw?
Well … I love color. Always have. When I looked underwater at a living coral reef for the first time I was about 13 years old. It changed the direction of my
life. To see such a dazzling display of brilliant color, and to swim over this
neighborhood populated by astonishing and unlikely creatures … each one
perfect and perfectly unaware of our human civilization just above, I was
I fell in love with the life in the sea and knew then that by studying it I could learn the use of color. I’ve never looked back. Saltwater flows in my veins.
Which picture books or illustrators have influenced you most?
This is such a good question because I’m helpless in the children’s department of the bookstore. I’ve developed a pretty substantial collection of picture books over the years, and I’d be hard pressed to name my favorite illustrators.
The list is ever changing. Here are some that I’m perpetually crazy about:
Henry Cole, Floyd Cooper, Betsy Lewin, Ted Lewin, David Shannon, Mark Teague, David Diaz, Maurice Sendak, Anik McGrory, James Dean, Mark Buehner, Carter Goodrich, Mini Grey, Jerry Pinkney, Judy Schachner, Erin Stead and Peter Brown, and I’m sure I’ve left off names of others I’ll feelbad about tomorrow.
When did you first realize you could draw and that you liked it?
Oh, I’ve always, always, always been attracted to a new box of crayons! Ahhh! The smell! The colors! The possibilities! Then when I went to kindergarten I got in serious trouble for drawing on the floor with a fat red crayon when we were supposed to be napping after lunch.
I was just trying to figure out what the teacher had going on under her dress – such an odd contraption, I could see when she passed by and I looked up. I’d never seen a girdle before. Fascinating.
Boy, did that sketch cause some commotion. Later, after I’d scrubbed the wax off the wood floor and the proverbial dust had settled, I handed in a drawing of my mom waiting at a bus stop (I don’t know why the bus stop … Mom had a car.) But my drawing was clearly my mom – everyone else drew their mothers with huge heads shaped like a piece of toast and little tiny bodies. I couldn’t see the sense in that.
Perhaps for that reason alone, a proportionate head, my career was launched at such a tender age.
What have you learned about illustrating books as your career has progressed? What advice would you give someone just starting out?
To someone just starting out I would say “pace yourself.” The nature of this business is fraught with disappointment. It is a tricky field. Know your client – the young reader who is going to stare at your work open mouthed in rapt attention.
Children’s picture books are a primary source of inspiration which have enormous consequence in our culture. They provide the introduction to a lifetime of creative imagination and appreciation for the arts. This is powerful juju in a landscape of ever-accelerating technology. It can be tough to navigate the world of laying your heart and your talent on the line for the
business people in publishing to march across on their way to the bottom line.
Do your best artwork, remember the children you may never meet but whom you may influence in ways that cannot be quantified, and be gentle with yourself when the accountants and attorneys and editors stare at you with one eyebrow raised. To prosper they need the creative visionaries, but it can be hard to be the one who has to have one foot in each world.
What are you working on now?
I’ve been on a really busy schedule lately. I just finished serving four years on the Florida Council on Arts and Culture. (You know how tough state budgets have been on the arts! If you’ve got money in your state budget for the arts, I guarantee someone has been actively advocating with your legislators, and that’s the job of members of State Arts Councils). Florida’s Secretary of State appointed me two weeks ago to serve now on a board of Citizens for Florida Arts.
It’s more work, but I can’t think of a cause more important to me. Sir Ken Robinson said it best, I think: “Creativity is as important as literacy, and must be nurtured.” Legislators tend to treat the arts like they are only for the elite. It takes time to teach them that, “NO! THE ARTS ARE FUNDAMENTAL.” I live my life in columns, its eems. That is one important column.
In my career column, which is also important, I’ve been promoting my newest books. Last fall, Ocean Commotion: Life on the Reef came out, then in January Gift of the Magpie was released. (Hooray, it got rave reviews from Kirkus!) In March I finished the artwork for a 48-page nonfiction picture book
written by the curator of fish at the National Museum of Scotland. It’s titled Fish Facts and is due for a fall 2011 release.
Then I took a short breath for another important column. (One daughter is getting married in the fall and our son and his wife just had their first child, a baby boy. I’m also involved in the lives of our other five grandchildren, whom I adore.)
And now back to column number two, I’ve just sent off a manuscript for my mentor, Joyce Sweeney, to read, before it goes to my editor – this is the third in my Ocean Commotion series, titled Ocean Commotion: Caught in the Currents!
While waiting for Caught in the Currents to come back, I’m finishing up a spectacular room divider for a patron of mine. It measures 6 feet, 8 inches tall and 7 feet wide. I’m using Japanese paints and gold leaf on wood laminate. My husband is a master cabinetmaker, and he created the most magnificent, manly frame for it. The paint has dried, and I’ve got to get back to work on it right now, actually!
Thanks, Pat, for asking me out to play with you on your blog. It’s been a pleasure.
To learn more about Janeen’s artwork and stories, visit her website.
You also can read this interview that Elizabeth O. Dulemba conducted with Janeen on her blog.