#MakersMonday: An interview with Kristina Tartara

I’m more than usually excited about this #MondayMakers interview because Kristina Tartara is the illustrator for St Ia Rides a Leaf, the board book we just contracted with St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press! Kristina and I met at a conference, bonded over our shared love of guinea pigs (because all right-thinking people love these little creatures), and we are truly enjoying our first professional collaboration. Kristina works hard. She’s always learning, always polishing her work, always growing in her art. I respect that. As always on #MakersMonday, I’m asking 5 questions. Here’s Kristina, with her answers!

Tell us about your work. What do you create?

I am a children’s book author, illustrator, and graphic designer. In the Orthodox world, I authored two board books (What Do You See at Liturgy & What Can I Do at Divine Liturgy) as well as a matching game (My Orthodox Matching Game). The illustrations were photographs because I wanted children to see other kids participating in the Divine Liturgy. If children are able to practice how to do things at home, then they will be better able to participate at church. The books also show things that they would see around the church to help them learn church vocabulary and spark interest in the world around them. In the near future, I’m hoping to create other Orthodox things to sell on my Etsy shop, such as gifts and greeting cards with my illustrations. I have a blog where I post activities for young children that have an Orthodox lesson. 

In the secular world, I’ve illustrated four books that were authored by someone else. These will be published in the late spring/early summer. I’m also scheduled to illustrate 2 Orthodox books this year, so keep an eye out for those.

How did you learn to do this kind of work?

Ever since I was in elementary school, I’ve wanted to write and illustrate children’s books! When I went to college, I ended up studying early childhood education, even though I always wanted to write and illustrate. That might seem backwards to some people, but having training in education helps me understand how to support readers through the illustrations and text. I’m so glad I did it. 

In the past, I would research publishing, and I thought I would never be able to do it. Everything seemed too difficult and too competitive. Then life took a turn I didn’t expect. I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that left me struggling to use my hands, and my brain was a mess. As part of my recovery, I read that it helps to learn something new to retrain the brain. I took a colored pencil class at a local art studio, and I haven’t stopped creating since then. Getting sick was the most difficult thing I’ve been through, but it motivated me to do what makes me feel fulfilled – draw. Be grateful for the struggles you are faced with and find ways to use them to glorify God. We only live once, so go for it. Do what you always wanted to do even if you might fail or it seems difficult. 

What do you find satisfying about being a “maker”?

In every job I’ve had, all I could think about was creating. I love being able to say – I have to work which means I’m drawing all day. I want to create things that have a positive message and help kids learn about the world around them. 

What’s your favorite memory associated with practicing your craft?

My favorite memory is probably with my grandma. She’d buy crafts and have them waiting for me when I visited. She also had a bunch of DIY craft magazines from the 50s that showed how to upcycle used items into something else. I loved looking at them and trying to make things out of nothing. She knew I loved crafts and always encouraged me to be creative. 

Share a photo of a favorite piece, and tell us the story that goes with it.

[Melinda’s note: Kristina gave me several pieces to choose from, and I did – I chose all of them!]

Here is some art from my colored pencil class. This one is actually graphite. It is of my Papou. My grandparents suffered a lot during WWII in Greece, yet they never stopped praying and believing in God. Their example is what carried me through my illness. 


And here is one of St. Basil’s in Russia. It is such a beautiful church and maybe one day I will get to see it in person. 🙂 

The jaguar is looking to the future with hope in his eyes. There’s always hope even when you think you’re lost. 

Thank you, Kristina!

You can see more of Kristina’s art, including her adorable illustrations for children, by viewing her portfolio HERE.

I’ll be sharing Kristina’s work as the illustrations for St. Ia Rides a Leaf develop. She’s crafting the storyboard this week, and I can’t wait to see it!

Corgi Seven Leaf: Book Projects Update

This is a happy year in my writing life. I have three books coming out in three genres, from two publishers. I love that!

Corgi

The first book out is actually a third book – it’s the third book in the #SamandSaucer trilogy. The first two, Shepherding Sam and The Barn and the Book, introduced us to Sam, his corgi friend Saucer, and his friends and adventures at the Monastery of St. Gerasim. Sam struggles hard. Sometimes he’s angry, sometimes he’s happy, sometimes he wants to be left. alone. please. Saucer, corgi that he is, loves Sam and follows Sam around and barks at him and pats his foot and even, when occasion demands, takes a good mouthful of Sam’s pant leg and hauls him along where he needs to go.

Corgi standing under a blooming cherry tree
Photo by Alvan Nee on Unsplash

I just handed in my second round of revisions for this third book, and most of what’s left now will be copy-edits and minor adjustments. This book happened in layers, more than the last one did. I originally thought there wasn’t a third book, but with some prodding from my editor, I discovered there was indeed a third book. Like all my books, it fell out of the sky and hit me on the head. This is perhaps not the most dignified writing process, but it works for me! I wrote the story all in one gasp, so to speak, and then set it aside because there was time before the release date. The editor read through her pile and got to my story, and we started in on her first round of big-picture suggestions. The book gained several chapters, the characters gained depth, and it went back to her again for another round. She pointed out a few other adjustments, and that’s what I sent back to her last Sunday night.

I liked working on the characters this time around. They’re two years older than they were in the first book, and I did a little research to help me build out Sam. At no point in the books do we have a name for Sam’s particular kind of struggle. Many people have suggested that he’s on the autism spectrum, and my researched honored that suggestion. However, life has taught me that people with labels and people without labels have more in common than they think. This third book puts Sam together with Macrina, his arch-nemesis. Macrina would be the first to tell you that there is NOTHING the matter with her. But as the story developed, I realized, along with one of their mutual friends, that Macrina and Sam have more in common than either of them would like to admit. Perhaps we all do. For that reason, Sam still does not have a label. Macrina doesn’t either. There’s something in each of their struggles that most of us can relate to.

This book, like the first two in the series, will have a cover and three interior illustrations by the friendly and talented Clare Freeman! And that means I’ve also sent in a detailed list of information for the illustrations – listing scenes I hope will be chosen for pictures, and details of setting, clothing, facial expression, etc, Clare will need to create those pictures.

Seven

Seven Holy Women is a story-telling devotional I’m writing with a group of friends. All told, there are eight of us involved, but our math still works because the book focuses on seven women saints. It’s unique in my experience, for two reasons. First, I’ve never written a book with a group of friends before! Second, I’ve never run across a book like this one. Perhaps one exists somewhere, but it hasn’t popped up yet. Our book is unique because it uses short stories written in the second person to help our readers grapple with their own connections to these saints. “You are Morwenna,” the book begins. YOU. Your brain is wired to read those words and drop your imagination into the story, gazing out at the events as if they were your experiences, in your life. You aren’t Morwenna, of course. You are several centuries too late for that, but when I started writing the four short stories that were the root of this book, I loved the mental and spiritual exercise of trying to stand in these holy shoes, for a few moments only.

I needed help to make this book all that it should be, and that’s where my friends come in. Each of them took one of the seven saints, befriended her, and wrote about her. Each section includes personal surveys and a journaling opportunity, and as of this month, all seven sections are in the manuscript. The only remaining task is for me to write the final chapter, and that’s what I’m pondering now. I’ll wander back through the sections written by my friends and then I’ll have to make up my mind just what that final chapter needs to contribute to finish the book neatly and completely.

Leaf

St. Ia Rides a Leaf, the board book just contracted with SVS Press, is now in the storyboard stage! Kristina Tartara, the illustrator, has sent me the first illustration of Ia, and we’re talking over the color of her dress. This is a story set by the Irish Sea, so nearly every illustration will include shades of blue and green. Ia is a red-head, good Irish girl that she is, and we’ve tried four dress colors, drawn from our research on the dyes available to her in her place and time, and social class. Ia was a princess, so her clothes would be more colorful than those of neighboring peasants.

Meanwhile, Kristina has the final text, and this week she’s breaking it into pages and sketching the rough outlines of the scenes that will appear on each one.

I truly love watching the illustration process. I’d enjoy it for anyone’s book, and to watch my own story appear in pictures is one of my favorite parts of the writing life. It will never grow old! It’s especially delightful when I get to work so closely with the illustrator. Kristina communicates with me often and kindly sends me sketches and snatches at every stage. It makes me happy.

BLOG

And of course, my other writing project is this blog! I am so glad I came back to blogging. I’m finding all kinds of interesting people here in the blogosphere. I enjoy your words and pictures, and the ways they stretch my mind. Thank you for being here!

Our Board Book: St. Ia Rides a Leaf

As you know, illustrator Kristina Tartara and I have contracted with St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press for a board book. Earlier, I shared this photograph as a hint about the book.

Where is this place? It’s St. Ives in Cornwall! This charming seaside town, and the parish church that watches over it, are named for St. Ia of Cornwall (Ives is an Anglicized version of her Irish name).

I discovered St. Ia’s story while researching another book (coming out this Fall), and although it fit beautifully with the women’s devotional I had in mind when I found it, the story stayed with me until I realized it makes an excellent book for little ones as well.

St. Ia was an Irish missionary to Cornwall in the 5th or 6th century. England owes much of its Christianity to Irish missionaries who crossed the Irish Sea to save those heathen English.

Ia expected to travel with a group, but unbeknownst to her, her fellow missionaries decided she wasn’t old enough to come along. (Is there a child anywhere who can’t relate to this?)

Ia’s group left without her, and without telling her. She ran down to the beach, expecting to board the ship with them, and instead, she saw it disappearing over the horizon.

Ia was heartbroken. She stood on the shore for a while, being sad and praying, and she saw a leaf floating on the water. She touched it with her staff, the way you do when you are busy being sad and you start fiddling with something around you. The leaf began to grow, and Ia realized something special was happening.

The leaf grew large enough to be a seaworthy boat, and Ia rode her leaf to Cornwall. In one version of the story, she arrives before the people who had left her behind. (That must have been just the least little bit satisfying.)

Our book is a simple, lyrical 300-word retelling of this story. With contracts signed, Kristina and I are venturing into the world of story-boards and sketches. I love this. I will never get over the enchantment of seeing my stories illustrated, and Kristina is a great partner. We talk over the time and place, the probable age of Ia (our guess is very early teens), and the layout. When it’s ready, I’ll be sharing Kristina’s work here, both in development and finished.

Meanwhile, here is some of the other artwork we’ve found that shows Ia’s voyage, each interesting in its own way.

Land, trees, illustrated books

In the snowy yard with our corgi, I am the X at the center of a joyful, galloping figure 8. You can see the map of his progress like the marks of a skater on the ice. Happy corgis always run in circles.

Sniffing, woofing, galloping like a bunny while his bat-ears flapped in the breeze, Ferdinand enjoyed our yard at nose-and-paw level. I did what I have done ever since the day we moved in – reveled in the amazing enchantment of owning LAND. Land with dirt and birds and twigs and ferns. Land with slope and streamlet. Land with trees older than I am. It will never grow old. The enchantment will survive mowing and weeding and shoveling. I love it under my feet and before my eyes.

Recounting this joy to my husband after dinner, I heard myself saying that it’s like writing a book and having it illustrated. These are two joys that never grow dim. I wondered briefly why they came together in my mind, and I realized they are the same. Both are something ethereal made tangible. Dream made visible. Wish made palpable. And both are full of their own beauty.

Glory!

My Literary Life in 2018

If you don’t have a ladder and you want fruit from a tree, you can lean your whole weight on its slender trunk and shake the tree. If you shake patiently, the fruit will tumble down to you.

This is the year the fruit has tumbled down to me! Almost daily, something encouraging happens, and no sooner have I picked up the gift and savored it, but another gift drops into my hands. In honor of these many blessings, I’ve decided to write a list of all the good things that have happened to me, Melinda Johnson, Writing, this year.

The Barn and the Book: The second book in the Sam and Saucer series just released this month! This is the sequel to Shepherding Sam and follows the boy and his corgi as Christmas approaches. You can read more about it here.

Painting Angels: At the publisher’s request, I drafted the third Sam and Saucer book, and it’s scheduled for release in June 2019! In Painting Angels, Sam and his nemesis, Macrina, square off.

Piggy in Heaven: Paraclete Press decided to publish the story I wrote about our guinea pig. It’s coming out on January 8, and I can’t wait! Read all about it. This book is available for preorder.

More to the Story: I launched my own picture-book review site, and within a few weeks, four publishers had requested reviews! That was exciting. I love writing about books, and I love books with pictures. Follow me here.

Letters to Saint Lydia audiobook edition: I’ve already shared this good news! I’m working with a wonderful young woman to create the Audible edition of my first book, and she’s amazing! This book is already available in paperback and Kindle editions.

The Book Project That Shall Not Be Named: This is a secret. Shhhhh. It’s an awesome project I’m working on with friends.

Abigail Counts Her Way Home: I wrote another board book (I like board books! I like pictures!) and it’s through the first round with a publisher, and I’ve got two more publishers to try for if need be.

Attributed Endorsement on Lights on the Mountain and The Dog in the Dentist Chair: Book reviewing is fun! I wrote advance reviews of both books, and you’ll find me in the “Editorial Review” section for these two!

First-ever Ancient Faith Women’s Retreat: This is an exciting accomplishment at work. I didn’t write it, but I did organize it. In fact, I invented it! I’m very excited to be hosting this national women’s gathering in just a few weeks. We sold out – filled the venue to the gills. It’s going to be wonderful.

Romanian edition of Letters to Saint Lydia: My first novel has been translated and just released in a beautiful Romanian edition from Editura Sophia! You can order it here. It’s exciting to be contributing to Orthodox Christian literature in Romania!

There are other projects percolating in my mind. I am so happy in the world of words that has been given to me!

Photo by Ian Baldwin on Unsplash

Illustrating the Story

Several colors of paint and a paint brush in a dish on a paint splattered drop cloth

My next book, Shepherding Sam, is coming out in October of this year. Hooray! The words are finished and out of editing. Conversations with the illustrator have begun. I love this part, but it also prompts a brain dance with me, and the brain dance goes like this.

When I wrote the story, I saw it all in my mind’s eye. I didn’t see it as pictures drawn by an artist. I saw it the same way I see the deck, the Japanese maple, and the telephone wires outside my window. I saw it as real. More real than a photograph, which only has two dimensions. I wrote the story that I saw, but of course, I didn’t describe every person, place, puppy, and tree leaf in exact detail. I didn’t describe much at all. I just told the story. So every reader will have to fill in the faces, the leaves, and the puppy, and the illustrator will help them.

But wait!

The illustrator hasn’t SEEN what I saw. Nobody has. Only me! Continue reading