Monday Interview: Lea Lyon, Award-winning Illustrator & Teacher

Hi, everyone! First, thank you all for the wishes of prompt recovery. I’m doing much better, though I still have to be careful. 🙂

Now the good stuff: I first got introduced to Lea’s work thanks to SCBWI. I fell in love with it right away, and I still can’t figure out why her paintings made me think she was Black. 😀 Lea Lyon is an award-winning illustrator, an art teacher, and she organizes SCBWI events for illustrators. Hope you’ll enjoy this interview!

Lea, it is a great joy and honor to interview you on Multiculturalism Rocks! Thank you for joining us. You’ve been drawing and painting since you were a child. When did you know that illustrator was the profession that you wanted to embrace? Was there a defining moment?

Lea lyon: I know that I wanted to be a children’s book illustrator when I grew up, but I can’t remember what book sparked that dream or at what age. I do remember having the dream when I was a teenager, though. And I remember getting discouraged by one high school art class. By the time I went to college, although I took some art classes there, I had forgotten my desire to be a children’s book illustrator.

I always did love to draw and paint as a child and took a wonderful art class for children from the ages of 10 – 13. Fortunately, my mother kept all my paintings from that time. Starting next week (note from MR: week of March 29, 2010) one of these childhood paintings will be on display in the Now and Then Exhibit of children’s book illustration at MOCHA (Museum of Children’s Art in Oakland, CA).

For a while, as an adult, I had a cottage industry making dolls, puppets and soft sculpture mannequins which I sold to stores. That was my creative outlet. And I took a figure drawing class every 10 years or so whether I needed it or not.

About 12 years ago I found a class on Illustrating Children’s Books at UC Extension and my dream was reignited. I took that class, joined SCBWI and finally fulfilled my dream. What I’m so pleased about is that even though I forgot about my dream for many years, and did a variety of other things with my life, I am now doing what I always wanted and loving it. Which goes to show it’s never too late!

Which artists did you admire growing up?

I always have loved the Impressionists. And an artist named Franz Marc inspired me to do at least one painting of colorful horses as a child. I have it hanging on one of the walls in my house now. I had many favorite children’s book illustrators while I was a parent of a young child – I remember Brian Wildsmith especially. And even more now. The difference is that now, as Illustrator Coordinator for SCBWI, I am getting to meet my illustrator heroes personally. What a thrill!

Indeed. It must be fun to shadow you! 🙂 One of the elements that struck me in your paintings is how incredibly multi-ethnic your characters are. I was in awe of your work and focus before I got to know you personally. Could you share with us what cultural diversity means to you and how it has impacted your life?

Thank you so much for the compliment.

Living in the San Francisco Bay Area I am fortunate to be surrounded by people of many ethnicities and backgrounds. Aside from that making me happy on a life-enriching basis, it has been wonderful artistically as well. As a painter of people, I really notice faces. I find the variety of faces around here a delight. There are so many beautiful faces in the Bay Area with such rich cultural diversity and history. Having been raised in West Los Angeles in a largely un-diverse community, I find the Bay Area wonderfully alive and inspiring.

I love painting people, especially children, and was thrilled when the publisher of my first book, “Say Something,” by Peggy Moss, requested that the children in the school be multi-cultural. I would have done that anyway. Variety makes life so much more interesting for me and, I would hope, for the children who read my books.

In the books I’ve illustrated the race or nationality of the characters was not mentioned and was not part of the story. The fact that they vary illustrates that people are people. Only in one of the books, “Playing War,” is it important that one of the characters is from another country. This is because he was in a war – torn place and knows about war first hand. The specific country he is from, though, is never mentioned. The universality of war, unfortunately, meant that he could have been from any of a number of countries.

Note from MR 4/13/2010: Adding Lea’s comment here as well:

“I realize that I didn’t mention two other benefits of using people from different races and backgrounds in my books. One is that more children can identify with the characters in the books –see “themselves.” Another is for children across the country to see children from all backgrounds in these books – kids who are not fortunate enough to live in multi-cultural communities.”

Though you use several media, watercolor is your medium of predilection. What about it won you over? 🙂

As a child I painted in oils. After many years of not painting much at all, I started again by taking a watercolor class. That led to other classes and I found it a very satisfying medium. About 10 years ago I had a breakthrough and learned how to paint faces in watercolor. I love the luminosity and looseness that watercolor allows in painting people.

I recently took an oil painting class and thought it would be like going home – but it wasn’t. The technique is so much the opposite of watercolor that it will take me a bit of time to get used to it again. I am tempted, though.

You have illustrated several books–The Miracle Jar (Audrey Penn, also author of the Kissing Hand), Keep Your Ear on the Ball (Genevieve Petrillo), Playing War (Kathy Beckwith) and Say Something (Peggy Moss). If I may ask, do you visualize the illustrations of the story as soon as you read the manuscript?

Interesting question. I get a general feel for what the book will look like when I read the manuscript. It isn’t until I find models and take many photos of them acting out the story that I really know what the characters will look like. The final images on each page develop from how I want to interpret the action and feelings, and add to the words in the book, along with the specific people in my photos.

For the neophyte, do you interact with the author as well as the editor during the illustration process?

In general the illustrator and author have no interaction at all. In fact, I hear that many publishers don’t even want them to meet each other. In the case of my books, I did get to meet and/or email the authors, but they really didn’t participate in what I put on each page. We just became “mutual admiration societies.” As the illustrator I work with the editor and the art director.

Lea, congratulations on the personal note you received from the President of the United States, thanking you for the portrait you made of him and his daughter. I wish I had been a fly on your wall when you receive it! What was your reaction when you read his letter?

Well, I got a lovely, cream color, high quality envelope in the mail with the return address of “The White House, Washington DC” with my name and address typed. At first my heart skipped the proverbial beat, but then I told myself not to get my hopes up, that it might be just a fund raising letter.

When I saw that it was, in fact, a thank you note and had two signatures, “Barack Obama” and “Michelle Obama,” I was overjoyed. In fact I could hardly breathe. I had been waiting a long time to find out if they had actually received the painting.

I immediately emailed my contact, a friend of a friend who had helped me get the framed painting to the First Family, and shared with him what the note said. He said that they only sign thank you notes for gifts that are very meaningful and that they received personally. He also promised to find out, on a future trip to DC, “where the President’s painting is” and told me that he, himself, was hanging the copy I gave him in the American Embassy in Canberra Australia. I was fortunate to be connected with a man on the transition team who ended up being our Ambassador to Australia. It’s been quite an adventure.

I gotta ask: you work in the corporate world (though I am not sure that part is still current, you seem already so busy as is ), you work as an illustrator, and art teacher, and you are a SCBWI event coordinator– one of the upcoming events you set up is a workshop with none other than the award-winning illustrator E.B. Lewis!
How do you do it all? Do you have any time management tips (I was going to add “for the rest of us, mere mortals”) ?

For starters, I don’t work in the corporate world any more. Now I use what I learned there and while getting an MBA to market myself in this new field of Children’s Book Publishing. And now I wonder how I ever had time to work a 40+ hour week in the corporate world.

I am very busy with teaching painting and coordinating SCBWI events, and spending time with a recently retired husband. Lately I haven’t been making enough time for my own creating, which is frustrating. I’m working on writing and illustrating a few picture books that I want to submit to publishers in the near future, but before I know it another week has passed. So, I’m concentrating on scheduling my time more carefully, including setting limits on email and Facebook – it’s amazing how much time we can spend there. If I had the time problem figured out I’d be very rich J

A word of advice for aspiring illustrators?

I strongly advise aspiring children’s book illustrators to join SCBWI and go to as many conferences and workshops as possible. I have learned so much about this field and what it takes to illustrate a picture book through workshops. I’ve also made a new circle of friends and colleagues who share my love for children’s books.

Also read and study many many picture books. I often leave the library with over a dozen picture books in my arms – and I don’t even have a toddler in the house!

And draw and paint and continue improving your craft. They always talk about “voice” in writing, but we illustrators definitely have a voice in our painting. Cherish that voice and keep making it stronger. You can learn much by analyzing other artists’ styles to see what makes them so strong and appealing. Then find a way to put elements into your own art to make it strong and appealing in its own way.

Last but not least, what is your favorite color? 🙂

Pink – I mean blue!

(That’s from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, actually. I don’t really have a favorite color.)

Dear Lea, thank you so much for your time and for sharing your experience with us. I look forward to your next projects and when that will be possible, to attending one of your workshops.

For more information on Lea Lyon:
Lea’s Upcoming Events

Lea’s Books:
Thanks for reading & merry Monday! 🙂

Monday Interview: Author Ann Martin Bowler

Today I’m excited to interview Ann Martin Bowler, whose books have received rave reviews from American and Asian press alike. Annie has written multicultural, non-multicultural and non-fiction books, as well as anthologies. In addition, Ann Martin Bowler is a school presenter, songwriter, teacher and editor.

MR: Annie, thank you for joining us! Gecko’s Complaint is set in the Indonesian island of Bali. What inspired that story?

AMB: My oldest son, Jocean, lives in Indonesia. In fact, he’s married to a wonderful Indonesian woman and they have two very amazing children. (Well, I’m their grandma, so what do you expect??….) He first went to Indonesia as an exchange student after high school. He fell in love with the place, the food, the culture but mostly the people. He did his junior year in college in Singapore but spent much of that year in Indonesia.  At that point, I had a strong feeling he would move there permanently. So at the end of his college exchange year, I went to visit him. During that first visit, I was struck by how beautiful Indonesian artwork was and by Indonesians’ remarkably rich oral tradition. I knew how little our family knew about the country before Jocean went there. I came home from that trip inspired to share some of the Indonesian culture with Americans: the seed for Gecko’s Complaint was planted. *Note from MR: Gecko’s Complaint was recently released in a bilingual edition as well, English/Indonesian.*

MR: In your biography and regarding your trip to Indonesia, we read that you were “struck by the country’s amazing art and incredible storytelling tradition.” Please, share with us aspects of the Indonesian tradition of storytelling that impressed you.

AMB: I’ve enjoyed the fact that Indonesians tell lots of stories at home, as a regular form of family entertainment. I have also enjoyed Indonesian shadow puppet shows, called “Wayang.” During Wayang shows, puppeteers use beautiful and intricate shadow puppets to tell elaborate stories. These shows sometimes last all night and are very entertaining. Some Wayang shows are shorter but those are religious in nature. Almost all performances are accompanied by lovely gamelan music.  If you ever go to Indonesia, you don’t want to miss a Wayang show!

MR: How did you “meet” Balinese illustrator I Gusti Made Sukanada? Did you often interact during the illustration process?

AMB: Thanks for asking! This is honestly one of my favorite experiences as a writer!
Jocean and I went back to Indonesia a year or so after my first visit in hopes of finding an illustrator for Gecko’s Complaint. (I was too new to writing to know that finding your own illustrator was a no-no to American publishers.) Jo and I trooped around Ubud, a very artsy town on Bali, for a number of days looking for “just the right illustrator.”  We were sitting in our hotel’s garden cooling off after a long day of looking when our hotel’s porter handed me a piece of artwork.  It was just the style I had been looking for!

The next day the porter took us out to see his friend, I Gusti Made Sukanada. We sat on Gusti’s small porch in the middle of a rice field and sipped tea and very soon, Gusti agreed to illustrate Gecko’s Complaint. An expat who lived in Ubud facilitated communication between Gusti and my family.

It was quite a treat for me to go to the post office and open packages filled with illustrations! I was amazed, but within a year, all of the book’s illustrations were in my hands!

Gecko’s Complaint sells very well in Bali, thus illustrating the book has had many positive effects for Gusti.  That makes me really happy!

MR: Gecko’s Complaint was your first multicultural book. Did you have any apprehension about writing it, having been raised in a Western culture? 🙂

AMB: No, not at all.  My whole life has been filled with multicultural experiences. My parents loved to travel to foreign countries. I got to travel with them sometimes and their friends from a wide range of places stayed with us from time to time. My family hosted a number of exchange students, too.

My adult life has been blessed by many cultures: my husband was born and raised in the Middle East; his father was from in the Philippines.  We spent the first summer after we were married in the Middle East, now that was a fascinating experience!   As an adult, I’ve traveled to various countries whenever I was able.

Today, our family is very multicultural. Our two youngest children were born in Korea. This experience has broadened all of us so much.  As I mentioned, our oldest son and his family live in Indonesia. And now, our second son, Fran, is dating a young woman from Columbia.

Our family is just one example of the many ways that our world is shrinking. I believe that it is more important than ever to understand one another, especially people from cultures different from our own. People from around the world need to work together to solve serious world problems like global warming and chronic hunger. If my books help folks have a bit of insight or enjoy another culture, awesome!

All that said, I am very careful when I write about a culture that isn’t my own. One of my next books is a cultural anthology titled: All about Korean, Stories, Songs, Crafts and More. As much as I know and have experienced the Korean culture, I would never have written the book without lots of help from knowledgeable Koreans!  I am very grateful to my Korean friends for their support with this project.

MR: I learned so much about China’s historical expedition when I read your latest book, Adventures of the Treasure Fleet. I was surprised to read about their arrival to Africa as early as the fifteenth century. What inspired you to write it?

AMB: I love to learn; it’s honestly one of my favorite parts about being a writer. I enjoy history, especially learning about interesting individuals from a different time and place.  I had just finished writing another history book, The History of the Paso Robles Inn, when Eric Oey, Periplus‘ publisher, asked me to search for some good pieces of Asian history that would appeal to children. He suggested writing about the Treasure Fleet voyages; I thought it was a fabulous idea!

MR: Could you share with us tidbits about the research process?

AMB: I use original sources whenever possible. I used the diaries that were written on board the ships as my main information source when I wrote Adventures of the Treasure Fleet. I used many old documents and books when I wrote The History of the Paso Robles Inn. As I’ve done research for my books, I’ve been amazed at how many historians and reports just copy other people’s writing, rather than doing their homework!

MR: Annie, I recently discovered that in addition to being an author, teacher and editor, you are also a songwriter! Are your songs companions to your books?

AMB: Yes, my songs very much compliment my books.  I sing them with kids in schools after reading my books. Sing-alongs are lots of fun!  My songs are fairly simple so the whole crowd seems to enjoy them. You can find some of my songs on my website.

MR: You are an ambassador for Room to Read, a non-profit organization that builds schools and libraries in some of the poorest parts of the world. As such, what are your functions?

AMB: I’ve visited some very poor parts of the world. Some places I visited don’t have a school for their children. In other places, kids attend school for just an hour or two a day because there are so few classrooms and in these schools, there are usually just a few books!

I believe an education is an individual’s best chance to rise out of poverty.  So you can imagine that visiting these poorly equipped and overcrowded schools disturbed me greatly.  I learned about Room to Read about 4 years ago, right after I had traveled through some really poor parts of Indonesia.  I’ve been working with Room to Read ever since.

Here’s the deal- whenever I speak, I set aside a part of my speaking fee to help a build a Room to Read school. It took me a few years but I successfully fundraised for my first school. This school is in rural Vietnam; 183 kids are now attending school in a community that had no school last year.  I’m fundraising for a second school now, though the exact location has not been decided upon.

I’ve had a very positive response to my project. Schools have done their own fundraising drives to support Room to Read and me. One school held a penny drive! A good friend of mine, Carol vonBorstal, is donating the money she makes when she teaches yoga toward my next school. This kind of support warms my heart!

My youngest son, Jacob, and I visited some Room to Read schools this last summer. You can read about our experiences at

MR: How can people who are interested also help build schools and libraries in developing nations

AMB: I would encourage people to check out Room to Read at their website,!

Of course, I would love to have help with my school project.  I would encourage people to email me at if they would like me to visit a school near to them.

A word or two about Room to Read: It is practical, honest and effective organization. Room to Read doesn’t go in and take over when planning a new school; they listen to the locals to be sure the school will meets the community’s needs. In fact, local communities provide most of the funds for each school, which insures the community will support “their school” for years to come.  I call that a good investment!

MR: You’re an environmentalist as well. Do you talk about environmental issues when you visit schools?

AMB: I don’t address environmental issues directly during school visits at this point. But my book, Gecko’s Complaint is set in a rainforest. We have a lot of fun considering rainforests during Gecko story readings; kids play instruments from around the world to make the jungle sounds. Rainforests are noisy places, you know!

I am working on an environment book right now. I hope very much to be talking with students about the environment soon!

Annie, thank you very much for your time and for sharing your experience. I look forward to your next project! 🙂

For more information on Ann Martin Bowler, visit
Annie’s Website
Annie’s Blog
Follow Annie on Twitter

Annie & Room to Read
To learn more about Room to Read literacy programs and school building projects:
To read about Annie’s work with Room to Read:

Read an additional interview of Annie here, by Aline Pereira @
Annie’s books were mentioned in a former post!

Some of Annie’s Books mentioned during the interview:
Adventures of the Treasure Fleet
Gecko’s Complaint: a Balinese Folktale
Gecko’s Complaint, Bilingual Edition: English & Indonesian Text
The History of the Paso Robles Inn: More than a Centurey of Pride