I am so thrilled to have My Bibi Always Remembers author Toni Buzzeo and illustrator Mike Wohnoutka on the blog today! I recently read their newest release, which I highly recommend picking up, and LOVED it! As in, this book is on my 2014 favorites list for children's books. I recently had the chance to ask Toni and Mike a little bit about their book, and here's what they had to say:
Hi Toni and Mike, welcome to Mundie Moms / Mundie Kids!
I am a school librarian by profession, though I write full time now, so for me, research is always the first step in writing. I did both primary and secondary research. First, I’ve visited Kenya twice and spent time with the elephants of Amboseli National Park. I have truly have fallen in love with these magnificent, huge creatures.
They live in families, nurture their babies, and work as a group to ensure the safety of all members. They are led by grandmothers, matriarchs who carry the wisdom of the family with them. In addition to visiting them in person, I read every single thing I could about elephant families and watched video after video. I love research!
And how could a girl like me not fall in love with a family led by a grandmother? My own Grandma Mae was the single most important person in my life.
From the day I was born, she loved me, cared for me, nurtured me and gave me all the time and attention she had to give. We walked for miles, we read for hours, we played for days. So when I saw the grandmother elephants leading their families, memories of my own loving grandma flooded me and I knew how I would tell the story!
Mike, your artwork is amazing! I absolutely loved the way you were able to capture and bring to life Toni's story. What was your illustration process like for My Bibi Always Remembers? Do you read the book, and visualize certain moments, or do you collaborate with Toni, and ask her how she would like you to illustrate each page?
Thank you! As the illustrator for a picture book all I get is the text. No art suggestions are given. Most people are surprised to learn that the author does not get a say in what the illustrations will look like, and the author and illustrator do not work together. The publisher wants the illustrator to bring their unique vision to the story. However, with Toni it was a little different since she’s an expert on her subject, and it’s a more realistic book. After reading the story many, many times I started with very rough thumbnail sketches. When I felt like the sketches were ready I sent them to the publisher. This was where Toni got involved, but, only talking to the publisher. Toni always had very keen observations, like in my original sketches I had the elephants tusks going up rather than down. I generally don’t look at reference material when I start the sketches for a book. I feel if you use too much photo reference when working on those first rough sketches the drawings can get rather stiff and the photos start dictating poses and scenes. After seeing the comments from the editor (and Toni) I made revisions (now using lots of reference material) and once those sketches were approved, I did color studies and then the final paintings.
Tembo and her Grandmother. Those were the two characters I wanted you to know, and so I studied elephants, both little and big, young and old, during the research process. But as you say, I also wanted to tell a STORY. So I needed to find a compelling problem for the elephant family as a whole. A drought is, unfortunately, not an uncommon problem for the animals of Kenya, which is why I chose it. It would then be important for Bibi, the grandmother, to get her family to water in a distant place she remembered from the last drought.
But little Tembo would continue to be her cute, playful, curious self, unconcerned about the necessity of finding that water, just like any young child would be.
I DID set out to introduce my young readers to elephants while telling a story they could relate to because it is likely they have been as curious and playful as Tembo!
Mike, what was one of your favorite pages to illustrate?
Every time I start the paintings for a new book I feel like I can’t do it. But with every book there’s always one painting that stands out for me and makes me feel like, yes, I can do it. For this book it’s the painting of Tembo following her mother on page 13, which was also used on the Title Page.
Toni and Mike, what is one of your favorite pictures books you'd recommend to our readers to pick up?
Toni: I just adore picture books, so it’s hard to choose just one! I hope your readers will read the other two companion books to My Bibi Always Remembers, of course,
but I also hope that they’ll read Mama Built a Little Nest by Jennifer Ward, illustrated by Steve Jenkins, to learn more about animals—this time birds!
Mike: I have two children (Franklin, 9 and Olivia, 6). We read together a lot - mostly picture books. We have something we call “Battle of the Books”, where I read 4 or 5 picture books per night. Each night we do a secret ballot ranking them. The winner of each “battle” goes into a bracket where they will eventually face off in a picture book tournament, not unlike the NCAA basketball tournament. This is a great springboard for conversations about what we like in a book. After reading more than 275 picture books the winner was “The Salamander Room” by Anne Mazer and illustrated by Steve Johnson, which is one of my all-time favorites. Toni’s “One Cool Friend”, another favorite, made it to the Final Four.