Author & Illustrator Spotlight: Heidi McKinnon
Happy Thursday, everyone! I've really enjoyed sharing our interviews, and I'm so pumped for what we have lined up! Next Monday, February 18th we've got an Agent Spotlight on Jennifer March Soloway with Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Thursday, February 21st we feature Querying Author, Justin Colón! But first, today's Author & Illustrator Spotlight is on Australian native, Heidi McKinnon.
Not many picture books jump out and grab my attention so vividly that I immediately find the author's website and rave to them about their book...but with Heidi McKinnon's, I Just Ate My Friend, I couldn't help myself. Simply put, if you haven't read it...you are wrong. Do yourself a favor and correct this egregious error. Alright, alright. Let's get into the interview.
If you had to paint with only one color for the rest of your life...what would it be and why?
Gah! This question is so tricky! Can I skip this one? I love all the colours for all the many reasons : )
Name three things you can’t do your job without.
Laptop, ipad, & time to dream.
Where do you feel most inspired and why?
The city. I love walking around the city with headphones on playing loud music. There’s something about the hustle and bustle and creative energy offered by a city that I couldn’t live without.
Also, anywhere with my five-year-old daughter Ava. She is hilarious. Most of my material has been stolen/ inspired from her excellent view of the world.
Tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into creating picture books.
I studied art and design at university then fell in to working as a graphic designer – which I still do. When Ava came into our lives, I fell in love with picture books so I began working on some ideas - not really thinking they would actually become anything. I did a workshop about making picture books where I met the incredible creator Sally Rippin who encouraged me to pursue it.
I’ve noticed a theme of recent picture books in which characters eat (or want to eat) other characters. We Don’t Eat Our Classmates and Eat Pete! come to mind. It’s honestly one of my favorite story conventions. It feels so silly but we know it happens every day in nature. We eat other animals too! How did you approach this integral part of the story in I Just Ate My Friend, and what was the initial idea for the story?
Initially I had an idea of a story about kids getting lost in the forest and eaten by a monster, but then realized the story was a bit boring. I think I just wanted to draw forests and monsters? Anyway, the pictures were ok, but the story wasn’t really ‘me’. Then one morning I woke up and the title I Just Ate My Friend literally just popped in my head! I thought it was a funny title and after that story and pictures fell in to place.
Your artwork in this book is so rich. It leaps off the page in the way that every effective picture book should. I wanted to know more about the medium(s) you used to create it.
Thanks! That’s a lovely thing to say.
It was lots of fun making the illustrations for this book. I really wanted them to be bold and graphical as I felt that suited the simplicity of the story. I created everything with ink on paper – then scanned them into my computer. I then added colour and texture using Photoshop.
Now I use an iPad Pro to draw with, which is much and faster and gives me more freedom. It’s completely changed the way I work for the better. Thanks technology!
When you look at the story at the word level it’s extremely simple. And that’s what makes it work so well! There are only 99 words but they’re paired so effectively with the images that we don’t need anything else. Talk to us about the revision process with this book from its earliest iteration to finished form.
The story used quite simple language from the start. My daughter was a toddler when I wrote it, so perhaps I used words in a way that she was engaging with at that time. Also I was aware that I’m from more of a visual background, so I thought it would be best to keep the words simple!
I think one of the reasons I responded so strongly to your book is because I have a genuinely dark sense of humor. There is a dangerous, mischievous side to the story that I found so playful. And the ending. Oh my goodness. I really want more people to read this book, so I won’t spoil it. The ending was such a nice twist, but it really couldn’t have ended any other way. Is this style of humor something you have always enjoyed, and is it always received well? What kind of reactions do you get from kids and adults who experience your book for the first time?
Yes! I am a total dark child too, and have always loved weird off-centre humour.
I was a bit worried about making a book for kids that had a fatality (or two!), but I figured there were far more horrific kids stories out there – especially some of the old fairy tales (which I love).
People have responded really positively to I Just Ate My Friend. I think the twist at the end is such a surprise that you can’t help but find it funny. Someone did say they thought it was a good book about being vegetarian – which is fine …vegetables are great!
I get tired of safe picture books. Predictable and cute stories that feel fluffy. This one wasn’t that at all. Your book felt fun and fresh, trusting kids to handle a darker topic with a lighthearted touch. Why do you think it’s important for kids to experience stories like this, which may be riskier than others?
I feel that kids love dark stories as much as they love fluffy ones and presenting darker themes within a picture book format can really help kids to grasp some of life’s tougher realities. Especially when they’re read by adults who they love, again and again in the comfort and of their homes.
Despite the fun of this story, there is an under-girding message that drives it. A need for friendship and the struggle every kid has to find a playmate that will accept them in return. I think a lot of writers struggle to communicate a theme or message in their story without it coming across too strongly. Talk to us about how you ensure a theme is delivered through the story without making the reader feel bludgeoned by it.
Thank you, that’s the best compliment ever!
If something is too preachy I tend to lose interest, so I really try to make things fun and engaging. I also keep in mind that picture books are generally read by parents at bedtime, and who could be bothered with a big long serious story about a very serious issue at the end of a really long day?
Walk us through an average day for you.
I’m not a morning person. I’ve never been a morning person and I’m so much happier not trying or pretending to be a morning person. That being said my daughter loves to wake up really early! My partner and I make breakfast, lunches and other ‘life stuff’ then drop Ava off to Kinder (pre-school). I then get a coffee and go to my studio.
During the day I’ll work on whatever projects I have on the go. Some days are filled with design projects for clients, and other days it’s lots of drawing and writing ideas. I enjoy mixing my time up like this and switching from different projects during the day. Although I tend to get distracted by emails and internet stuff! something which is on my list of things to improve this year (it’s going ok so far).
I also do lots of drawing in the evening after Ava has gone to sleep. It’s one of my favourite times to draw without any daytime distractions. I’m definitely a night-owl and love to work at night, but being a parent of a young child does make that tricky with early starts.
I often wonder if I would be better at things if I worked from a cabin in the woods overlooking a beautiful lake with no distractions… though I’m not sure I’d like it. I think I need all the fuss in life to draw creative energy from, or I have somehow made all the fuss work with being creative.
Talk to us a little about your process as a storyteller. What comes first to you, words or images?
When I get an idea, I begin writing. It’s random stuff at first and then I try to refine things. At the same time I keep in mind how pictures will work with the words. So I guess it’s kind of simultaneous. I also begin a storyboard early in the process because it’s the best way to see how the words and pictures work together.
I so want your main character in I Just Ate My Friend to be a recurring character. Is there any possibility our monster friend can come back for more adventures?
Um… you’ve read how the story ends, right? I’m not sure he can come back? I mean, maybe he could come back… But that’s taking things to a very different level of spookiness! It could be fun though?
I just saw on your publisher’s website that you have a new book coming out this March! Congrats! What will we experience with Baz & Benz? When will this title be available in the United States?
Thanks! Yes, Baz and Benz will be released in Australia early March. I’m ridiculously excited about this book! It also has a friendship theme, but it’s a little softer than I Just Ate My Friend (spoiler: there are no fatalities!).
It’s really fun to read and I hope that both big and little people will enjoy this book. I’m not sure of the exact release date in America, but hopefully you’ll see it on shelves soon!
What are some picture books that have come out recently that inspire you?
There are so many incredible picture books that I love! I’m a huge fan of everything that Oliver Jeffers has made – he is remarkable. How does he do it?
Some other books:
Oh No George! by Chris Haughton
I Want my Hat Back by Jon Klassen
Go Go and the Silver Shoes by Jane Goodwin & Anna Walker
All the Ways to Be Smart by Davina Bell & Alison Collpolys (This picture book is absolute PERFECTION).
What challenges are you currently working through as an author/illustrator?
Actually believing that I’m an author/ illustrator!
Also: what if I run out of ideas? what if I’m not as funny as I think I am? Etc etc.
What types of promotional work or events do you do to make sure your books get into kid’s hands?
Connecting with my local bookshops and libraries has been the best thing I’ve done. They’ve been an incredible support and a wealth of knowledge.
I’ve also read at Storytime sessions for shops, libraries and schools which has been a great experience. It’s the BEST feedback when kids know the words to my book!
How do you ensure you maintain a healthy work-life-balance?
A supportive partner helps! Though it’s so tricky to maintain balance. I feel really lucky that I have the ability to be flexible during my day, but some weeks are way more challenging to juggle everything.
What is a message you think kids today desperately need to hear?
Be nice to your friend and try not to eat them.
What do you think of the state of kid lit in the world today?
Super exciting and important!! Stories are everything.
What advice or encouragement do you have to offer writers and illustrators just starting out or that are on the fence about sharing their stories?
Share your work with people who you admire and open yourself up to (constructive) criticism. Don’t be afraid to change things (in your words or pics). Make mistakes, and read books to little people (kids know awesome stuff).
What is something upcoming you are excited about or would like to promote?
Thank you so much for the interview, Heidi. Looking forward to seeing more of your books pop up in the US! Super jealous of Australia!
That's a wrap for today, folks. See you Monday! Enjoying these interviews? Like picture books and kid lit in general? Not a robot? THEN DON'T MISS AN INTERVIEW! Why wait for Twitter to tell you about a post? What if Twitter fails you? What then!? Help champion picture books alongside us and subscribe to receive emails every time a post drops.
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ABOUT HEIDI McKinnon
I grew up in Tamworth, NSW and in the early 90’s I moved to Melbourne to study art at RMIT. After graduating, I had lots of ‘character building’ jobs, until I fell into working as a Graphic Designer. I live in sunny Fitzroy with my partner Seamus and our wonderfully loud daughter, Ava.
I Just Ate My Friend is my first book, and I have never eaten a good friend (or recommend it).
Other Interviews featuring Heidi McKinnon
Brian Gehrlein is an educator and youth services librarian living in Kansas City with his wife, Katherine, and son, Peter. He is currently querying picture books and actively seeking literary representation. He thanks you for reading this post. He thanks the sun for not exploding. He thanks the moon for the tides. He thanks the void for not yet swallowing him whole. While he enjoys writing in the third person, he thinks it's time to be done with this post and that he should maybe put his creative efforts into other endeavors, like writing exceptionally hilarious picture books that make children ages 0-100 shoot milk out of their noses.