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Children’s book illustrator and author Tracy Subisak discusses Jenny Mei Is Sad, a picture book about the support friends can offer in times of sadness. Subisak shares the genesis of this story, how she became a children’s book author and illustrator, the connection between creativity and vulnerability, how illustrators work with an agents, a preview of some of her forthcoming books, and her advice for young artists.
Jenny Mei Is Sad is the Ohio Center for the Book’s 2022 Great Reads from Great Places children’s book selection and will represent Ohio’s literary heritage at the 2022 National Book Festival on September 3.
Books mentioned in this episode:
- Jenny Mei Is Sad, written and illustrated by Tracy Subisak
- Amah Faraway, written by Margaret Chiu Greanias and illustrated by Tracy Subisak
- Sorry, Snail, written and illustrated by Tracy Subisak, is forthcoming in 2023
- Mixed-Up Mooncakes, written by Erica Lyons and Christina Matula and illustrated by Tracy Subisak, is forthcoming in 2024
Learn about Subisak’s other books at http://tracysubisak.com.
Tracy Subisak: When you're going through grief or something really tough, there's so many things going on where you're like in survival mode, like everything is fine, I'm going to school, I'm living my life, but there's this little cloud or big cloud that grows and shrinks whenever it wants to. And it's really confusing. Laura Maylene Walter: Welcome to Page Count presented by the Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library. This podcast celebrates authors, illustrators, librarians, booksellers, literary advocates, and readers in and from the state of Ohio. Laura Maylene Walter: I'm your host, Laura Maylene Walter, the Ohio Center for the Book Fellow and author of the novel BODY OF STARS. In today's episode, we're speaking with Tracy Subisak, the author and illustrator of JENNY MEI IS SAD, which is the Ohio Benter for the Book's 2022 Great Reads from Great Places children's book selection. JENNY MEI IS SAD will represent Ohio's literary heritage at our Great Reads from Great Places booth at the National Book Festival on September 3. In honor of this news, we're so pleased to have Tracy Subisak with us today, to talk about writing illustration, grief, creativity, and more. Tracy, welcome to the podcast. Tracy Subisak: Thank you so much for having me. Laura Maylene Walter: I always open this podcast by asking my guest about their Ohio connection. So can you tell us a bit about where you're from and where you've ended up? Tracy Subisak: I was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio. I lived there from age zero <laugh> until I was 25. I went to school at University of Cincinnati in industrial design, and then after that, I moved to Taiwan for a year and then I moved to Portland, Oregon. Laura Maylene Walter: Well, thanks for joining us today remotely from the west coast. I definitely want to ask you later about your work in industrial design, but first let's start talking about your beautiful book, JENNY MEI IS SAD. This is a picture book about the complexities of sadness, as told from a friend's point of view. The first line in your bio on the back of the book says, "There was a time when Tracy Subisak was very, very sad." So as much as you're willing or able to talk about it, what drove you to write about this topic, and to write about grief and sadness and friendship in this way. Tracy Subisak: I started writing this book about a month after my mom passed away. She had about a eight-month battle with lung cancer and it was rough. I don't know if you know much about lung cancer, but often it goes undetected because you can't see anything going on, especially for non-smokers. There's not a lot of signs. So by the time she discovered it, the cancer had moved into her spine and she couldn't walk very well and into her brain. So it was just a very tough time and I was grieving a lot. And before that, you know, I had a very mellow life <laugh> and I think this happens to a lot of people when they have a friend or an acquaintance who is going through something really tough, it's hard to know what to say or how to support. And I think often there's an awkwardness that is felt like, you know, you can't fix grief, you can't fix cancer or someone going through something really rough. So it was through my own experience that I saw how my friends reacted and supported me through all of that. And it helped me so much. They gave me space to be able to express everything I was feeling, which was a huge range of emotions sometimes is really nice to not want to grieve and like just live normal life. Laura Maylene Walter: Just have fun with your friends sometimes. Tracy Subisak: Yeah, exactly. But at the same time, it's always nice to know that if you start burst out crying, that they're like, it's okay. You know, it's okay. It makes sense that you're sad right now. So when I wrote this book, I was, you know, thinking about my own experience, but mostly wanting to share the support of friendship and how important that role is. Laura Maylene Walter: Well, I'm so sorry about your mother. It's really hard. I also lost my mother to cancer, a different kind of cancer, it was ovarian, when I was 20. And so reading this book, I mean, obviously I was an adult, even though I was very young, so I was much older than Jenny Mei. And I think children have unique considerations of trying to process and understand grief, these things that are so hard for us, just as adults to do as well. But when my mother died, I was a sophomore in college and it was somewhat unexpected. It was a very rapid death, but I didn't have a lot of warning. And at that time friendship, you know, when you're in college, it's such an all-encompassing part of your life. You're living with your friends, you're with your friends all the time. And so when I read JENNY MEI IS SAD, it really, it took me back to that time in my life and how I had some friends who were, they didn't understand. Laura Maylene Walter: And, you know, they had never gone through something like that, but they were still really supportive and really helped me. And I also think sadly about the one close friend I had at that time, I did not feel she was there for me in some pretty big ways. And I think that ultimately damaged the friendship in huge ways. So I think this book, you know, when I sat down with it, it's a picture book and it was so surprising how much it flooded me with memories and just thoughts of grief and what friends can do. So I'm curious about that. The book is told not through Jenny Mei's point of view, but through the friend's point of view, can you talk a bit about that and what made you decide to tell the story from that angle? Tracy Subisak: I think that my intention, when I wrote the book was to teach how to support a friend who's going through sadness. And the best way I knew how to do that was to have the perspective be from the person who's like, I don't know exactly what's going on. Or maybe in this case, the friend does know, or, you know, their classmates kind of aren't as aware. And this friend has learned how to let Jenny Mei know that she can express what she needs to express and it's all okay. And they can have fun and they can, you know, have a nice hug when needed. So that was my main purpose. And I think there's a lot of books out there that deal with sadness from the perspective of the person who sad. So I think that was my angle was that yes, there are a lot of feeling books and there can't ever be too many, however, yeah, that was my purpose. Laura Maylene Walter: I also appreciated how the book is really subtle. It doesn't come out and say, here's why exactly JENNY Mei is sad, here is what is happening in her life. But there are these clues in the ways that you're writing is interacting with the illustration. For example, one of the first times we see Jenny Mei acting out and getting upset when the teacher is asking them to draw a picture and write down some details about the student's families. So that's kind of the first indication that maybe family is triggering her sadness in a way near the end of the book. We see her going to her house and there's a woman standing there with a head scarf and a cane, which might suggest maybe to me, a mother with cancer. But I would love to hear more about that, especially for our audience who might be working on picture books and, you know, both illustrating and writing them because I know that's a different process from illustrating another author's work. So can you talk about how the illustrations and the text, how did you bring those together to tell the story fully? Tracy Subisak: Oh my gosh. Okay. So I have a lot more experience as an illustrator and if I could show you, I would, but <laugh>, I did start out writing, however, because I have more practice in storytelling visually, I was more practiced in that support of the story. So I would write maybe, you know, "Jenny Mei is sad, but you might not be able to tell," and showing that she's really actually fine. People don't know that she's sad. She has something really hard going on in her life. So it's almost as if this illustration portion is like, what is the rest of the story? What is her personality? What is her friend noticing throughout all of this? And you know, the quiet support that can happen as well. Also, I did a lot of iterations. I'm sure as, you know, as a writer, you just like do so many versions of the same thing and you try and try to find the best version that communicates exactly what you need to. Tracy Subisak: And the focus was the support of a friend, not of why is she sad? The honest truth is sometimes, especially if you're a kiddo, you don't know why you're sad or what's going on. And I'm sure from your experience too, is like, when you're going through grief or something really tough, there's so many things going on where you're like in survival mode, like everything is fine. I'm going to school, I'm living my life, but there's this little cloud or big cloud that grows and shrinks whenever it wants to. And it's really confusing. It's a confusing experience and it's hard to express as an adult. So I think I wanted to express that because it could just be a sad day for someone. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah. You don't need a rationalization for why you're sad. Always, you know? Yeah. Especially the last couple years, I think I love that the thought of a cloud growing or shrinking on its own. I think that's a really good description. What can you tell us about the reactions once the book has been out in the world? I know it came out during the pandemic. I also put out a book during the pandemic, so I know what that's like, but I know you've done a lot of virtual things. It sounds like you've connected with a lot of kids. How have children reacted to the book? Have they said anything or maybe even taught you something new about grief based on their reactions? Tracy Subisak: Gosh, I think, you know, it's always really special when kids are able to share, especially for a more serious book, their connection. I will say I've had a lot of reactions from adults who have written me long letters about their connection with the book. And that's really special to me because adults can articulate a little bit more. Yeah. What grief they've gone through. I think the special thing that I've seen from kids who've reacted to the book is how they comfort someone and what they've learned from them. So some of my kiddo friends they'll like, hold hands. If they see like their parent or their friend is sad, they'll like pat them on the back. So it's really special to see that is teaching something. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah, absolutely. And the friend in the book seems like such a great friend, you know, very patient and kind of willing to stand back or to do something fun with Jenny Mei, like get popsicles, which I thought was fun that Jenny Mei likes blue popsicles. That was a great detail. Is there anything you would like to share about what your friends did that was so helpful when you were going through your own really tough time? I think we all struggle with that. When we know someone in our lives, who's going through something really hard. It can be hard to know what to do sometimes. Tracy Subisak: Well, I'll try to keep it together. The first thing that comes to mind is just the check in to say like, how are you doing? And that is like opening the door. And that doesn't mean that you have to tell me everything. And I thought that was really helpful. I have one friend who shared studio space with me. She read me like a book and she'd come in and she'd be like, "What's wrong?" <Laugh> I'd start crying. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah. It's a good friend when they can tell with one look at you. Tracy Subisak: Yeah. Right. It's that permission. That is really helpful because I think we're taught to zip everything up because life keeps moving. There's no space for grief. So that was really helpful to just have friends who were okay with me, like bursting tears randomly. And I have a friend who would bring me mangoes <laugh> Laura Maylene Walter: Oh my gosh. That, that would be my dream. Just any friends of mine who are listening. I don't care if I'm sad or not bring me mangoes at all times. Thank you. <laugh> Tracy Subisak: It's just like a little sunshine that is like healthy for you. <laugh> it's like, I see that you need some vitamins <laugh> so that was really nice. And the hugs, the hugs were nice because sometimes you just don't want to talk about it and hugs can show a lot of support, but yeah, there's also the friends who were like, Hey, I can see you're tired of talking about this. Let's go watch a movie or let's go have a picnic. There's a lot. There's so many ways. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah, there really are. And you, you mentioned that we're in many ways conditioned to keep it all zipped up inside. And I mean, one of my questions was about vulnerability. I saw in another interview, you had talked about the vulnerability of being sad with people and you had said, "It's hard to be open to speak about how you really feel, to even know it within yourself," which I thought was really true, a true statement. And it made me think about also the ties between vulnerability and being sad and vulnerability and the creative process as well. And so I was wondering if you'd like to speak to that in terms of this book or your work in general, how vulnerability impacts your work or how you think of it as you're drawing or as you're writing. Tracy Subisak: That is a wonderful question. I think that it's very easy and I'd love to know your thoughts on it too. It is a special vulnerability to creatively share yourself, especially when it's really personal. And it seems like a lot of people and myself included use the creative process to let it out either as a guise or in truth or both. And it's also really nice to let your whole personality shine through writing. Right now, I'm looking at my latest proofs for my other authored book, which is very different. <laugh> very silly and it's very goofy. And I think they've always wanted to show that side. I think a lot of creative people can agree that it's hard to show all of that until you find your other creative weirdos to be weird with. Yeah. There's so many ways to do it. The JENNY MEI IS SAD book is definitely, it was hard. I would lay on the floor <laugh> between each spread that I worked on, because I was just like, this is like so much of me and so much of my grief and so much of like my own personal pain that I've gone through and also gratitude for what I have because a lot of it was the gratitude I have for my friendships, which somehow is also very emotional Laura Maylene Walter: <laugh> It definitely is. Yeah. I think, I think being vulnerable in your work is so important and necessary, but it's so hard and I always find it interesting if I'm writing something, whether I've, you know, published them, personal essays that are very personal or even in fiction, which it might not be autobiographical at all, but there's still somehow a part of yourself in there. I just imagine when it goes out into the world that only strangers will read it. And isn't that funny that I seem to have no problem with strangers reading it, but the thought of the closest people in my life is always tougher? It's always a little harder. Which is interesting because we do these things we're trying to express and to communicate and to maybe show parts of ourselves. And then sometimes, I mean, I don't know about you, but I'm a classic introverted writer. And so then I just think, okay, there's enough of the world looking at me now, let me just go back and hide <laugh> . Well, can you tell us about this sillier project? What other projects are you working on right now? What books do you have coming out in the future? Tracy Subisak: So I just wrapped up my next author illustrated book called, SORRY, SNAIL. And it is about a girl who is angry and she takes out her anger on an innocent snail. Who's just munching on a leaf and to find that that snail demands or requests politely in apology and gets a rather insincere one. So the book kind of goes through this more and more extreme ask for sincere apology. It gets a little silly, it was so much fun to write and I would say a way different experience working on the artwork because it's really easy to draw goofy snails, apparently <laugh> Laura Maylene Walter: It sounds like a lot of fun. I can't draw very well at all. I've learned from a friend, I met at an artist residency. I went for writing. She was there for visual art. I learned not to say, say I can't draw because I can. I just, in my opinion, it doesn't look great and I've never worked at it also. But the one thing I love to draw is a snail. I feel they can be a lot of fun because they have that kind of quirky shape and they're so round. And so I bet that was a really fun one to illustrate. Did you have another project you'd like to mention? Tracy Subisak: MIXED UP MOON CAKES is a book that I just am in the works of starting to work on. It is about a girl of Jewish and Chinese descent who celebrates Sukkot and the mid autumn festival and makes her own dessert for the festival. So I'm excited to start working on that. Laura Maylene Walter: I always love anything about food. You know, <laugh> reading about food is always a joy. I would like to talk a bit about how you got to this point of being a children's book illustrator and author. So you studied industrial design. Can you talk a bit about that? What does that entail, and what kind of projects were you working on and how did that inform your art? Tracy Subisak: All of high school, I knew that I wanted to go into design and I was in this very career nurturing atmosphere that my parents created, where I went and I basically like interviewed all these different designers. And I was considering which design to go into. I went into industrial design because it was a huge range of what could be done. I was always more of a math and sciences person, math and sciences and art, and that kind of married those, interests really well. So I went to school at University of Cincinnati, which has an awesome co-op program. I highly recommend it, but the awesome thing about industrial design is that it's very drawing focused. So I drew tons of products from, you know, furniture to faucets, to computers, and we just drew all the time. Everything in different angles, got to know the object and know the story of the product. Tracy Subisak: Like where did it come from? Who's it for? And I think in many ways, that is how you develop a story. You think about every aspect of that product. And I ended up working at Intel in Portland, in Hillsborough, Oregon. And when I was there, I did a lot of storyboarding. And what that means in the industrial design sense is that when we're working on a product to pitch to the higher ups or to clients, you draw out how that product will be used. So the daily, the life of a product and its user, it was almost as if I was story boarding for a film or a comic strip kind of form. And that was always really helpful in explaining the usage model. And I loved it so much that more and more people kept asking me to do storyboards for them. And when I was doing that, I thought maybe I should take a class so I can get better. And I took a class, a children's book class, <laugh> Tracy Subisak: a continuing ed children's book class at PNCA, Pacific Northwest College of Arts, that was taught by Victoria Jamieson, who is a amazing author in illustrator of middle grade graphic novels. And she told me, you know, if you want to, you could do this as a profession. And I was like, what? <laugh> I didn't know that was an option. I didn't know that people did that <laugh> so she kind of planted that seed in me. And as I was working in industrial design, my group shifted a lot and it became a little different than what I enjoyed. And I had no one relying on me. I had money saved up and I got contacted by an agent and I thought, well, I'm gonna become a freelancer and freelance design and try to make books. And that was eight years ago. So I've been doing this for eight years. Laura Maylene Walter: That's amazing. I love that. I love that you entered into it through work and through what you were doing already. It must have sounded like such a dream at first to think, oh, I could write books and illustrate them as a job. That's great. So you said an agent found you, is it a literary agent for your illustration work as well? Do you have one agent? How does that work since you do both writing and illustrating? Tracy Subisak: You know, I was really lucky <laugh> that Victoria had suggested to Julie from Seven Important Things Before Breakfast, which is a blog that features children's book illustrators. She suggested that I be featured as an up-and-coming illustrator, and that's how my literary agent found me. And since then I've changed agents to Lori Kilkelly. Hey, Lori <laugh>. So I was very lucky for my first agent. I did not have to do any submissions, but I did do that for Lori. Laura Maylene Walter: We're talking about traditional publishing here, in case everyone's curious. So not self-publishing. But if another author has written the book, you would be contracted through the publisher and dealing with the editor and the publisher, not the author directly necessarily. And so for your first book, was your agent pitching you broadly to publishers that you were able to illustrate books, or was there a specific project in mind that your agent put you up for? I'm just curious how that works. Tracy Subisak: The really cool thing about being an illustrator is that you have a portfolio of your work. I would say 11 to 15 pieces of the strongest work that you've got, that represents how you tell stories through illustration. Ideally, when you're starting out having a couple of character sheets, so showing one or two characters that are from different angles have different expressions. So not only just the face, but also expressions through the whole body and showing that you can consistently draw that character and create it in the final artwork, because if you haven't had any book experience before being able to draw the similar scenes from different angles and similar characters from different angles is a really important piece to creating a picture book. And that's the proof that you can do it to any art directors or editors who are keeping their eyes up in, on, up-and-coming illustrators. Tracy Subisak: It's also important to have a couple stories in mind. So you might have two or three images of that same story to show that you can have that consistency as well of spot images of full spreads. And what happens is you put all this work together in a PDF and ideally you have an agent. So if you don't have an agent yet, this is what you'll do with an agent is you'll submit to an agent with your portfolio. A lot of literary agencies say are looking for illustrators who also are aspiring to write. So ideally you might have a story to pitch with a manuscript and a dummy. A dummy is a rough draft, rough <laugh> rough draft... Laura Maylene Walter: <laugh> That's okay. You're editing on the fly. That's how it works. Tracy Subisak: Yes. <laugh> A rough draft of the book sketched out with a couple of final images and a query letter, which is basically a love letter to whoever you would like to be your agent, why it might be a good fit for both of you, what you want to do, why you are interested in that agent, having the agent help with sharing your work is also important. So once you are agent, you will give your portfolio to the agent. They will give it to the network. And a big part of this is patience <laugh> because picture books take about a year to create, and that's not all work it's I would say it's about six months. If you're illustrating only it's about six months of work and then a lot of waiting and then you'll do some random proof reading and looking at prints, and then the book will come out and then you're like, huh? I worked on this thing. Laura Maylene Walter: <laugh> Right. Cause it's by now years in the past, by the time it actually hits the shelve. So yeah, that's really interesting. It's similar in a lot of ways to say, getting an agent for a novel, but also very different. If an agent is pitching you as an illustrator, a little more broadly, perhaps than always having one project in mind, which is really interesting. So you mentioned that a lot of agents are looking for illustrators who are also interested in writing and might have their own story ideas. And even though I know you're coming at this as an illustrator first, perhaps, but do you have any advice for someone who might not be an illustrator, but have a picture book idea or a manuscript that they've been working on? Do you have any tips or suggestions for how they can go into this process? Tracy Subisak: First off, just an advice for writers only is do not look for an illustrator. And I think a lot of authors do not know this, oh, I need to get this illustrated before I submit it to a publisher. No, no, <laugh> the publisher has this huge network of illustrators. They're gonna find the illustrators that match the manuscript the most. And what happens is the illustrator and the author do not talk. The manuscript is submitted and bought by the publisher and the publisher finds the illustrator and the publisher or editor is the middleman. So they protect the manuscript from being changed by the illustrator, they protect the illustrator's artwork from being changed by the author. And sometimes the author illustrator will collaborate on book releases when it comes to that point, what happens is that editors will have me on their radar. And if they find a manuscript that fits my work, they'll contact me and they'll usually share the manuscript and say, here's a manuscript. Are you interested? And then I'll say yes or no. And then we'll go from there. Laura Maylene Walter: That's really helpful. And thank you for pointing out that writers, hoping to be traditionally published in this space should not get their own illustrator because that is something the publisher will take care of and will have the control over who is illustrating. And so you don't interact with the author during the process of creation, but I believe you've done some events with the authors of books. You've illustrated. What is that like after the book is all done and it comes out and it's gorgeous, what is that like doing events or speaking with the author afterwards? Tracy Subisak: It's pretty special. <laugh> Yeah, it's super nice. It's especially super nice when the author is very happy and you know, I cannot imagine what it's like to be an author. Who's like, take my words, do what you will with the illustrations and to see what comes out of it. The hope is that it's always a delight, but I don't know. <laugh>, I'll talk about this book that came out in January. AMAH FARAWAY by Margaret Chiu Greanias. I've done a lot of events with the author and it's been such a blast. I've got to meet her at the Tucson book festival and, and we did events together. We'll be doing events together in the Portland book festival later this year, AMAH FARAWAY is about a girl who visits her Amah, or grandma in Taiwanese, for the first time in Taiwan. And it was also one of those very personal stories to the author, Tracy Subisak: who's Taiwanese American. And to me; my mother is Taiwanese. So I've had the opportunity to live in Taiwan and take my brother's family and kiddos to Taiwan as well. And it was so awesome to bring in so much personal experience and love into this book. And it's been really special to know that Margaret has told me, she feels like I was there with her because this was also her experience to have loved ones so far away, especially as a kid, you're like, are you, I don't really know, but how quickly you can just grow on this and familiarity with loved ones when you go visit. So yeah, this was so fun to work on. Laura Maylene Walter: Well, since you lived in Taiwan, do you have maybe one example from that book, something in one of your illustrations, a detail, a setting food, something that you did experience when you lived there that made it into the book in some way? Tracy Subisak: Oh my gosh, you know, every single scene <laugh> yeah. Tracy Subisak: There's a scene where Amah brings them,I'll show you, to her favorite park. And this park is near my grandma's house. It's called Daan Forest Park. And it's this beautiful oasis in the middle of this bustling city. There's this island in the middle of the park that is just full of birds. And you can hear them just like <bird sounds>. <laugh> and it has tons of different species. I brought my brother's kids there, and we just stood there and washed all the birds fly around. And that was really fun. And when I first lived there, I was studying Chinese and I lived in a night market. Laura Maylene Walter: Oh, the night market. Tracy Subisak: I knew the back streets. So I could go around it because it's really crowded. But I included every one of my favorite food stalls, the games that you can play. And when I was younger, I was obsessed with like the pet stores <laugh> and the bubble tea. And they just have so many cute little plushies and outfits that you can get. So that's what I tried to put in there for Kylie, the main character. Laura Maylene Walter: I love that. I love that. Thank you for sharing that. Well, we should probably start to wrap up, but before we go, I just wanted ask you one more question about any advice you would have for young people or children, just anyone young, who is creative and who dreams of being an artist, what advice would you give them? Tracy Subisak: My advice would be to draw what you want to draw. And if you really love doing it, just keep going, play around with different materials. If you are an aspiring storyteller, you can make your own stories. You can take some paper, staple it together, and challenge yourself to write a story and read it to your family. Bring it to your closest friends and have fun with it. I think having fun is a huge part of this. Laura Maylene Walter: Absolutely. Tracy, thank you so much. Thank you for being here. Thank you for answering questions and being vulnerable with us and sharing some of your beautiful drawings, which I will be linking to your books in the show notes and just thank you for your work and for being here. We're proud to have you as our great reads from great places, selection. Tracy Subisak: Thank you so much. I am very honored to be part of this. Laura Maylene Walter: Thank you so much to our guest, Tracy Subisak. Buy JENNY MEI IS SAD at Cover to Cover in Columbus, Green Bean Books in Portland, or anywhere books are sold, preferably an independent bookstore. Page Count is presented by the Ohio Center of the Book at Cleveland Public Library. Learn more online at ohiocenterforthebook.org. Follow us on Twitter @cplocfb, or find us on Facebook. If you'd like to get in touch, email email@example.com and put "podcast" in the subject line. Finally, follow me on Twitter and Instagram @LauraMaylene. Thanks for listening, and we'll be back in two weeks for another chapter of Page Count.
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