To close out this crazy and unprecedented year, I wanted to take some time to highlight my fellow kidlit creators who are working their tails off to birth their beautiful book babies into the world. These interviews will cast a light on the wonderful work of these pre-published, unagented authors and author-illustrators who are destined to be stars!
Meet Rising Star
Author-Illustrator Dez Sargeant-Blair
Dez Sargeant-Blair lives in Ontario, Canada with her really nice husband and one stubborn french bulldog. She also has one tall step-son (who's nice too, thank you very much!), and four silly, adventurous grandkids. Dez has been a professional storyteller for almost 30 years and enjoys telling her tales during school visits. She also facilitates writing, illustration, storytelling, and diversity workshops during her school visits. Making sure that adults get in on the fun, she performs one-woman shows for them about relationships, parenting, and life's odd moments. Dez is currently translating her imagination to book form, writing and illustrating picture books as well as middle-grade graphic novels. All with one very opinionated french bulldog watching her every move.
Dez is currently seeking agent representation.
Welcome, Dez! I'm so excited to have you here on the blog and learn more about your fun and fabulous stories and art! Your work is so multifaceted Readers are in for a treat! I also must say that your pup is adorable! Those eyes! I think I'd get very distracted having that cutie as my writing partner.
Alrighty, let's jump into it!
AD: Let’s start with a speed round…
AD: A bee playing a bassoon sounds wonderful, ha! I'll have to check that one out. I also love that your safe place is your imagination but I'm wondering how you function with only 3.5 hours of sleep?!? Oh my goodness! I think curiosity is key as well. I love to ask questions and learn, and I feel that has helped me continue on even when times get tough in this industry. There is always something new to learn and that motivates me to keep moving forward and growing.
AD: Please dish us the dirt on who you are and your journey into the fabulous world of children’s books.
DSB: I started this journey nearly 30 years ago as an accidental professional storyteller. I was asked by a friend to fill in for her story time session with a kindergarten class. I immediately said, "No." She asked again, and I said, “No” again. She promised that it would be fun. I hung up the phone and found myself standing in the school library with 18 pairs of beautiful, creative, intelligent eyes looking up at me. The librarian asked what book I wanted to read. I had no idea. So, I asked if I could just make up a story. The adventurous librarian cheerful said, "Sure." I sat down and before I knew it, I was telling a story. My friend was right; it was fun! The next week the librarian then went to a conference and spread the word about my storytelling ways. Hit fast forward, and I've now done hundreds of school visits in front of hundreds of thousands of kids, and I couldn't be happier. I love saying, "Let me see your beautiful, creative, intelligent eyes!" during whole school assemblies to get the kids' attention. There is nothing like having hundreds of eyes turning your way, no doubt in their mind that you're talking to them.
Last year, I decided that I wanted to introduce 3D animation into my school workshop programming. I took a hiatus from doing school visits last December, so I could learn about the fantastic world of animation. Then, the world went topsy turvy and well, our days haven't been the same. Realizing that I wouldn't be returning to doing whole school assemblies and divisional workshops any time soon. I thought that this would be a perfect time to jump fully (I had done the odd querying over the years) into the world of children's book publishing.
Presently, I am also a professional photographer. I capture weddings, families, and my absolute love is black and white fine art photography. I have a bespoke stationery line that is sold in retailers. Although it may seem like I do a lot of different things, it all stems from the art of storytelling.
AD: The beauty of happy accidents and taking chances. Good thing for that persistent friend! How fun about your new adventure into animation as well. I can definitely see hints of that in your own illustration style.
AD: Did you always know you wanted to be an author-illustrator? Have you explored other paths or had/have other jobs?
DSB: I've always written stories. Thanks to my dear Momsie, I still have some of the stories that I wrote in grades 5-8. Looking at the favourable reviews that my teachers gave me, it's not surprising that I've had a love of writing. Boy, did I have a wild imagination back then. ;) Yes, I've apologized to my mother for what must have been quite the memorable task of raising me.
I wanted to be a journalist and was still headed that way when my storytelling ways demanded that I change course. A hero of mine is a Black journalist by the name of Ed Bradley. Mr. Bradley entered my world every Sunday night via 60 minutes. I started watching him when I was 9 years old. I loved his interviewing style, he would talk to fascinating people, and I would wonder about why they did/didn't do something. The next thing I knew, Mr Bradley was asking them 'my question!' Not only that, he would often end up laughing with his guest.
Watching a Black man on television interviewing such an array of interesting people and clearly loving what he was doing, helped me see that was a possible career path for me. In my high school yearbook under ambition, I wrote: To replace Ed Bradley or marry him. LOL I can't tell you the number of kids who came up to me and asked, "Who in the world is Ed Bradley?" I happily educated them. Unfortunately, Mr. Bradley passed away a few years ago. One of the gifts I feel the universe gave me was during a televised tribute to him, they included him saying, "I consider myself to be a storyteller, first." My mother called and said, “Did you hear that?”
AD: I love browsing through old art or writing that my Mom kept. It's continues to remind me that I'm on the right path. I love how you describe your hero Ed Bradley and how he inspired and validated your career as a storyteller. To me, your story also highlights the importance of visibility in mainstream American culture. Our mainstream media needs to mirror our nation's diverse demographics. If you never saw Ed Bradley on television, you may never have thought that career path was possible for you. Visibility matters and your story is a perfect example of that! Thank you for sharing.
AD: What topics or themes do you tend to focus on in your writing/art? Favorite genres you like to write in or favorite art materials/techniques?
DSB: Representation has always mattered to me. The story that I made up that started my career is called "Did God Run Out of Paint?" which is a tale that explores why people are different colours from one another. Since then, I 've facilitated a diversity workshop in schools. I believe it's essential to instill a sense of self-worth in kids and that a big part of that is encouraging them to see the worth in others. It's one thing to tell a child that they matter, it will be life-changing to them to show it. In the kidlit world, it is said that to have a successful book you "Don't tell, show." That lesson goes well beyond the kidlit world.
The other theme that I focus on when writing is humour. It has to have laughter in it somewhere. I love writing humour, mystery, and magical realism.
When illustrating picture books: I use mixed media and Photoshop. My art always starts with a pencil sketch. I then play around creating acrylic, pastels, collages, watercolour, inks, pencil textures. These textures are then scanned into Photoshop, where I finalize the illustrations. At times I also like to fully illustrate my stories without using the computer.
For graphic novels: I use pencil sketches first and then into Photoshop for inking and colour. I add textures to the mock-up covers only.
AD: Yes! As the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words! I love the concept of the book you described above. It reminds me of a lesson I do with my high school art students where we paint hand portraits. The lesson is mainly about identity and the things that make us who we are, but I weave painting skin tones into the lesson as well. I completely agree, when you give kids the opportunity to share, create, and voice the things about them that are unique and special, such as their background or interests, you are showing them that you care. And, at the same time, other kids get to learn about their classmates, which creates a sense of understanding, connection, and community. It's win-win! I LOVE all the different textures in your art and was wondering about your materials. So fun to learn about the mixed media techniques you use! I also loved checking out your sketches on your website. It's fun to see these loose drawings and get a peek into what your pencil sketches look like. Be sure to check out Dez's sketchbook drawings HERE!
AD: Breaking into the publishing industry is not easy! What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far? What have you done to persevere?
DSB: Before this year, I didn't really write any of my stories down. A story would pop into my head, and I'd perform it. For me, revising happens in the telling. Well, I quickly found out that this is a very different approach from how the publishing world works! At first, I found the idea of writing revisions tough to understand.
Then, I had a lightbulb moment. I decided to approach it like I approach my performances. One thing that I'm known for is that I can create an on-the-spot improvised story using 10 words from the audience. I love the challenge of doing this. It keeps me on my toes because I have to make sure that no one can guess the ending. That's harder to do with hundreds of people listening in.
Well, I now approach revising that way. I've only got X amount of words, and I have to surprise my reader with the ending, but it still has to make sense.
AD: Wow! That's quite the talent! Maybe you have a career in improv as well! That's pretty cool that you were able to take those skills and translate them into your revision process. I'm always looking for new techniques for revision. Maybe I need to give this one a try :)
AD: As creators (and humans), we tend to focus on the flaws of our creations or areas for improvement. This helps us grow and develop, but we need not forget the many things we are doing well. With this in mind, what has been your biggest accomplishment or something you are most proud of thus far on your writing/illustration journey?
DSB: My biggest accomplishment has been being able to make kids laugh. I laugh every day. Even during some of the darkest times in my life (I mean not a star is seen in the sky dark), I was still able to hold onto the faint memory of joy. I think that's really important. Especially now, as we all (adults and especially kids) are going through a time of complete uncertainty. There is power in laughter. Funny enough, my grandkids (all four!) will tell you that I can be quite serious when Need Be! But--after that, it's a return to laughter.
What I'm most proud of is developing programming that has effectively helped kids to celebrate people's differences while embracing our similarities. I grew up hearing my mother use the phrase 'God-given talent.' Thinking back to my first story, 'Did God Run Out of Paint?', there is no question in my mind that I am doing exactly what I'm meant to do. There's also no question that I should continuously be laughing while doing it!
AD: Wohooo! Kids can be a tough audience so kudos to you for making them laugh. Laughter is such an important part of life and so powerful as you said. Thank you for the work you've done to help kids celebrate differences and embrace our similarities. I'm sure your programs have positively impacted many, many children and in ways you may never even know.
AD: In a similar vein, what do you feel are your strengths as an author/illustrator? What makes your art/writing unique to you?
DSB: I think my writing and illustrating has really benefited by my being a storyteller first. I've spent decades painting a picture for others of what was in my mind. So now, the ideas seem to come quickly. Although not always complete, I've got a good sense of where it's going. I believe that's the secret of being a good storyteller. You've got to take your listeners on a journey, make sure you don't leave anyone behind, leave them wondering where you're going to next and be happy upon arrival.
Time management is also a strength of mine. Then again, maybe I only sleep 3.5 hours because that's all the time I have for it. LOL
AD: What inspires your work?
DSB: Kids, overheard moments of conversations are a big inspiration, writers and illustrators, art, tv shows, and movies.
AD: Tell us about your creative process and what you do to keep ideas flowing or what you do when feeling stuck?
DSB: When performing, I am usually in my car before sunrise headed to a school visit in another city. Now, I'm sitting in my home writing/illustrating at 4 a.m. I take mini-breaks and hop onto Twitter to see what's happening across the pond. (The UK's 5 hours ahead). These mini-breaks help me 'get away from my work' for a bit. I also read online newspapers and publishing blogs and book reviews. Although, I have to be careful picking up an actual book when I'm working in case it's a real page-turner!
I'm currently working on two middle-grade graphic novel projects. So I've been dividing my time between scriptwriting and illustrating. I love the world-building opportunities in graphic novels. Because I always told my stories, they naturally have been picture book-length. (I perform a hour-long assembly of 3 tales and one on-the-spot improvised story.)
AD: What sorts of things have been most integral in your growth as an author-illustrator?
DSB: Settle in, this is a long list of awesomeness!
Lastly, follow publishing professionals on social media, such as:
AD: Wow! So many great resources! Thank you, Dez!
AD: What advice do you have for fellow kidlit creatives?
DSB: Creating books for children is serious work, but don't take yourself too seriously. You should love what you're doing. One of my favourite sayings is "If you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life." I've been happily unemployed since 1991. ;)
AD: Where can readers find out more about you and your work?
Illustration website: www.dezsillustration.com
Stationery website: www.stilldez.com
Fine Art Photography website: www.dezblair.com
Wow, Dez! I'm so impressed by your many talents and your drive to learn and teach through your stories. I'm sure readers are, too! I hope one day I'll get to see a live, in-person Dez Sargeant-Blair storyteller performance! For now, I'll just imagine :) Thank you so much for joining me and for sharing a bit about yourself and your work! Congrats on all your wonderful accomplishments. We can’t wait to follow along on your kidlit journey! Best of luck! Feel free to drop a comment below to support Dez and her work.
Don't forget, this week is a "Double Feature" week so stay tuned for another special Rising Star feature this Friday! Be sure to subscribe to the blog so you don't miss out and follow along on Twitter at #RisingStarsinKidlit.
If you're interested in being featured in the Rising Stars in KidLit series, please complete the following Getting to Know You form to be considered. Thank you!
Who Am I?
Hello! My name is Amanda Davis. I am a teacher, artist, writer, and innovator. I've been writing and creating art in all forms since I was young. Writing and art have always been powerful outlets of expression for me. This is one of the many reasons I was inspired to teach art and pursue my passion for writing and illustrating children's books. You can usually find me hanging out in nature, petting dogs, and immersed in all things creative. I'm inspired by my students, life experiences, and small acts of kindness. I live in the Boston area with my husband and rescue pup, Cora.