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Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, Coretta Scott King winner, librarian, and writing hero, recently received the Boston Globe Horn Book award for fiction for No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller. What’s a person to do to honor someone as fantastic as Vaunda? (1)

You start by asking another fantastic person for help. Author/illustrator Jan Thomas (Let’s Sing a Lullaby with the Brave Cowboy, Rhyming Dust Bunnies, Pumpkin Trouble, and many more) did a hilarious presentation at my library for Dia de los Ninos in April, and a lovely interview right here (2). I asked Jan if she would apply her unique skills and vision to a portrait of Vaunda, who has herself been a Very Brave Cowgirl.

Here’s the do-it-yourself Read poster I made of Vaunda back in 2009, using ALA Graphics Read software (3).

Vaun read poster

And here’s Jan’s take on that poster.

cowgirl vaunda-001

Wow. All I can say is, wow. I don’t know about you, but I see another classic picture book in the making.

Thanks, Jan and Vaunda for being such good sports! And congratulations, Vaunda.

1. Read an interview with Vaunda here. No Crystal Stair has since made PW’s Best books list for 2012.

2. Read an interview with Jan here.

3. Graphic design elements of ALA Graphics Read software are (c) ALA Graphics, for nonprofit use in promoting literacy.


This is part of a series of interviews with New Mexico children’s writers–and now illustrators–in celebration of the 2012 state centennial.

Lesson for the day, and possibly for all time: you never know what you’ll get unless you ask. In that spirit, I’m very happy to present an interview with an artist I like to call the Queen of Toddler Time, Jan Thomas. Jan ThomasJan’s books are hardly ever on the shelf at my library, and when they do come back, you can tell they’ve been read within an inch of their lives. With bright colors and simple layouts, foolish yet earnest characters, and interactive fun, these are the books that will bring 2022’s teens furtively into the picture book section and send them giggling into a corner, the way they do today with The Stinky Cheese Man. Welcome, Jan!

I know next to nothing about visual art (forgive me). Can you describe your style and media to me, so that I don’t make some embarrasing gaffe?

I start off by doing lots and lots of sketches.  (I have stacks of sketchbooks piled high in my studio..)  Then I take the sketches that look like they might have potential and redraw them several times (ten times seems to be the magic number). Next I scan them into my computer and do more finished drawings using a drawing program (Adobe Illustrator).  I send the files off to my editor and she makes comments and we go though many revisions that way.  

I do love the saturated colors that you can get with digital art. It makes every so super-cartoony.

Like Mo Willems’s Elephant and Piggie, your characters have a sort of green-screen existence: they might be anywhere, with those solid color backgrounds. Is it a purposeful choice, to allow readers to imagine their own settings, or to concentrate on the characters more?

Let's count goatsI have a real ‘less is more’ approach to my books.  My goal is to create books that are light and fun and not at all intimidating.  I’m striving for a toy-like quality that hopefully will make kids think reading=fun. I also like the idea of using my books for story time and the green-screen look works well for that.  I really emphasize facial expressions and I think much of that emphasis would be lost if I had too much detail.  I do appreciate children’s books that have great amounts of detail, but that’s not what I’m after.

It wasn’t done in a laboratory or anything, but I have evidence that your observation about storytime books is absolutely true. It really draws kids into the action.

It’s easy to recognize a Jan Thomas book at a hundred paces, but I bet it’s not easy to come up with such a distinctive style. How did you develop the JT look?what will fat cat sit on

I’m not exactly sure how I developed it, but I can’t seem to undevelop it.  I think I’ve been drawing this way since I was 3 years old.
If it ain’t broke…

What’s your background or training?

I studied graphic arts at Oregon State University.  I worked as an illustrator at the NM Natural History Museum and as a cartographer and graphic artist at NM Tech.  I also did a syndicated comic strip with my husband for a while. I think doing the comic strip made me focus on simplifying things and stripping things down to the most essential parts.

can you make a scary faceThe choreographer Twyla Tharp called art “a vast democracy of habit.” I love this because it points out the side of art that people
(non-artists, let’s say) tend to overlook: at some point, you have to sit down and actually do the thing. What are some important features of your creative process?

I like going on long walks or runs or bike rides when I’m in the idea stage of a book.  It may seen like I’m goofing off, but the ideas flow much more effortlessly than when I’m sitting at my desk. When I’m in the drawing stage, I listen to music.  I tend to stay in my seat much longer if there are great songs that I want to hear.   

Working in picture books is truly interdisciplinary, since a picture
book has to be a perfect match of text and image. What are your thoughts on picture book creation? Favorite picture books & creators?let's sing a lullaby with the brave cowboy

I guess I’m drawn to books that are very simple but have great (often interactive) concepts.  Some of my favorite picture books are: THE MONSTER AT THE END OF THIS BOOK, PRESS HERE, TICKLE THE DUCK, I WANT MY HAT BACK,  CAPS FOR SALE and BARK GEORGE.  

Since this is part of a series on New Mexico children’s writers (and now illustrators), do you have any  favorite books set in New Mexico?

I think Tony Hillerman books made me move to New Mexico (I LOVED them.).  Neecy Twinem’s picture book E IS FOR ENCHANTMENT is wonderful too.     

here comes the big mean dust bunnyThe professor’s question (in honor of Vaunda Nelson’s great-uncle): If you were to start a bookstore with 5 books, which would you choose? They aren’t necessarily going to be your five favorite, desert-island-style books, but the 5 books that you would most want to spread to the world.

It would have to be 5 Pippi Longstocking books.  I read Pippi books over and over as a child.  She is my hero.

Suddenly I want nothing more than to see a Jan Thomas Pippi. I liked Lauren Child’s, but I have the feeling that yours would show the appropriate amount of insanity.

You’re a SCBWI-NM success story. Do you have words of hope, inspiration, or warning for the rest of us?

I guess . . . keep plugging away . . . and cross your fingers!  (It was pure luck that I submitted my first book to the right editor at the right time.)a birthday for cow

When is the new Jan Thomas book “Daisy the Librarian Cow” coming out? Will it come out any faster if I give you some Pringles?

Pringles??!!!  I’ll get get cracking on the book right away!

They’re in the mail.

Thank you so much, Jan!

Visit Jan’s website here. Read her books anywhere.

For a wonderful in-depth interview, read 7-Imp’s interview with Jan.