Rising Stars continues in 2021! Hooray! The goal of this series is 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 authors and author-illustrators who are destined to be stars!
Meet Rising Star
LaTonya R. Jackson is the mother of one, a portrait artist, author-illustrator, and a member of SCBWI. She has served as an elementary school teacher in Shreveport, Louisiana for approaching twelve years (ten years of which she has taught art). LaTonya has been writing for over fifteen years, but her greatest wealth of creative inspiration was discovered after her son’s autism diagnosis in 2015: He has upturned her world and now it is a place where they exist outside of pediatric timelines, where small steps are celebrated, and where the ordinary is either wondrous or monstrous. He is the energetic and whimsical soul behind many of her stories’ themes and behind her character, Buddy.
Hi LaTonya, and welcome to the blog! Fellow art teachers unite! :) I'm so excited to have you here and to learn more about who you are and the work you create for kids. Rising Stars are on fire, and you are are no exception with your own recent good news, please tell us all about it...
LJ: I sent out my first query in December 2019 directly to a publisher in response to an open call. In retrospect, I know that I jumped the gun on that: After taking some writing classes with Storyteller Academy, I realized—although the story had good bones—the query letter and manuscript that I submitted were not even close to being submission-ready.
Most of my querying has centered around Twitter pitch events: In 2020, I participated in #PBPitch, #PitMad, and #DVpit. I was sending out about 3-4 queries quarterly based on the hearts I received during those events. Getting my agent was somewhat serendipitous. After Twitter’s #DVpit event in October 2020, an editor reached out to me in December and said that she and her team were excited about my story and were interested in publishing it. She said that she would be in contact with me after the holidays. I knew that I didn’t want to navigate the contractual process alone. So, in December, I added “Seeking agent representation” in my Twitter bio, and began working more intently on researching agents via Twitter and MSWL. In my Twitter research, I was mainly seeking out writers and illustrators whose work was similar to mine; and, I followed the trails that led to their agents. In January, that trail led to Storm Literary Agency. I followed their Twitter page, but I wasn’t expecting anything to come of hitting that follow button (because I’d done that countless times before). Shortly thereafter (maybe a few hours), I received a message from Storm Literary Agency saying check your email. Essie White had sent me a lovely email saying how she loved my art style and would love to see it in picture books someday. We talked back and forth via email for several hours that day. The conversation then spilled over into several days. During that time, I sent her some of my manuscripts and story summaries to read and she answered all of my questions about Storm Agency and her role as a literary agent. Essie was excited about my writings and my art, she gave some detailed feedback, and subsequently offered representation. And that is the beginning.
AD: That is AMAZING! Serendipitous, for sure! Huge congratulations! Now that you found your match with Essie, what are you looking forward to most?
LJ: I am looking forward to a long career in writing and illustrating picture books that are bridges into new worlds and new joys for all children—with a special place in my heart for children who lack the means to physically travel beyond their own neighborhoods. I am also looking forward to making my publishing debut with the story that is near and dear to my heart, BUDDY’S MISSING PIECE. I wrote this story ten years ago in anticipation of the delayed grief that my son might experience when he was older and more aware of his father’s physical absence. As a teacher, I have always been inclined to use books to anchor my lessons, so I decided to write a grief story that would help me breach the difficult conversation about death with my young son to help him process it in a healthy way and to offer him hope. BUDDY’S MISSING PIECE is about a little boy who is an avid collector who has everything—except memories of his dad. As a tribute to his late father, he dons one of his dad’s old shirts and sets out to weave together memories from those who knew him best. He stuffs those memories in his front pocket. On his way home, things unravel when he finds his pocket is suddenly empty. Will he fall apart or will hope be the string that keeps him together?
AD: Oh my goodness, LaTonya, BUDDY'S MISSING PIECE sounds like it will tug at our heart strings. I love the metaphors you use with the weaving and string. I have a story about grief and memory as well. These stories can be tough to tell but so necessary for our children (and the adults). I am looking forward to seeing this story when it's published.
Onto the speed round…
AD: Love your three words. Especially, VILLAGE. So true--it takes a village!
AD: Okay, now down to the serious stuff….Please dish us the dirt on who you are and your journey into the fabulous world of children’s books.
LJ: I am a country girl from a small community outside of Jonesboro, LA called Pleasant Hill. There were not a lot of happenings in Pleasant Hill so there was plenty of time and open space to imagine—whether through outdoor/indoor play with my siblings and cousins or through drawing and writing. I come from a family of artists and have always loved to draw and write . My dad guided my early years of honing my drawing skills. There were no art classes in my school, so I began my formal art studies at the university level—studying Visual Arts at Dillard University in New Orleans, LA; and, subsequently, Modern Art History at The Graduate Center of CUNY in New York City, NY. For the past twelve years, I have been teaching elementary and middle school students in Shreveport, LA and practicing my craft as a fine artist in my spare time.
Publishing picture books is a lifelong dream that combines two things that bring me joy—writing and drawing. If you would have asked me at 8 years old what I wanted to be when I grow up, an author and illustrator would have definitely been on the list. I actually still have copies of the “books” that I wrote back then—a unicorn trilogy (because I was obsessed with them). It is only recently—in the past two years that I’ve rediscovered the courage of the 8-year-old girl who still lives in me. She drives me to actively pursue the publication of all the stories that I’ve been quietly jotting down in notebooks and clinching to my chest for all these years. I think that’s why I love the book What Do You Do With An Idea? : It is the story of my life. And, I, too, am ready to give my ideas wings.
AD: I think the 8-year-old you would be jumping for joy to know that you're allowing your ideas to take flight. Also, a unicorn trilogy sounds very intriguing, ha!
AD: Did you always know you wanted to be an author-illustrator? Have you explored other paths or had/have other jobs?
LJ: Yes! and Yes...le sigh. When I completed my undergraduate studies, I must admit, I got scared of the idea of becoming a proverbial starving artist. Therefore, instead of pursuing my M.F.A. in illustration, I decided to study art history so that I could get a job at a museum or teach at a university. After completing all of my doctoral coursework hours and my first qualifying exam, I soon realized how preposterous it was that I was collecting debt doing something that was not fulfilling for me. So, I left the doctoral program after getting my Master’s En-Route, and returned home. I then became an elementary school teacher. I’ve been on this alternate path for the past twelve years. Although it wasn’t my plan A, the blessing in all of it is that I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with children who inspire me everyday. However, much like the little boy in What Do You Do With An Idea?, my ideas wouldn’t leave me alone. They continue to follow me. And here I am.
AD: Glad you made it here :)
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?
LJ: My favorite writing genre is fiction picture books. I tend to focus on children overcoming adversities and on identity/self-affirmation (especially for Black children). As serious of a topic as these could be, I vary the tone from playful and funny to sentimental and heartfelt. I also write about the many quirky things that my son says and does. In my art, I tend to focus on portraits. (My son has been my muse for the past nine years; he probably has at least one portrait for every year of his life.) My favorite art materials/techniques are pencil and collage—especially on wood. Digital drawing is growing on me as I learn more about it.
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?
LJ: The biggest challenge for me has been TIME. I am a single-mother of an autistic son and I work full-time as an elementary/middle school art teacher. Time is a limited and highly-coveted commodity around these parts. During the pandemic lockdown, life slowed down quite a bit for me: My son’s swimming and horseback riding lessons were canceled, his therapy went virtual (so there was also no physical traveling to those sessions), and I was working from home for the last few months of the 2019-2020 school year. I started a routine of getting up early (“at the edges of day” as the venerable Toni Morrison once called it) to write for a couple hours, and I enrolled in classes with the Storyteller Academy. Now that I am back to my somewhat usual work routine, I continue to get up early on the weekends to work on my writing and on drawings to build my illustration portfolio. During the week, I carry a small notebook or my iPad to take advantage of the few vacant minutes here and there during the day. To persevere, I have made use of the little time that I have, established writing habits, and made peace with a slower progression toward my children’s book publication goals.
AD: I admire you perseverance, LaTonya and your ability to dedicate time to your practice amidst the chaos of life. It's clear you are passionate and determined in all your roles as mother, teacher, and creator. Inspiring!
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?
LJ: My biggest accomplishment that I am most proud of so far is finally completing the story of my heart, BUDDY’S MISSING PIECE. It is about a little boy who is an avid collector who has everything—except memories of his Dad. This story is inspired by my own son’s life. His father died suddenly when he was three months old. I pitched this story at Twitter’s #DVpit event in October 2020, and I received a heart from an editor from an award-winning publishing company who, in December, contacted me to let me know that she and her team are interested in publishing it!
AD: I'm so sorry to hear your son lost his Dad at such a young age. My father passed away when I was twelve and that experience has inspired me to write about memory and loss as well. As I mentioned earlier, these books are necessary and will help children make sense of these big emotions and tough times that we all experience in life. Thank you for being brave and writing this story. Congratulations on the interest from the editor, too! I hope it unfolds into something fantastic for you!
AD: In a similar vein, what do you feel are your strengths as an author/illustrator? What makes your art/writing unique to you?
LJ: My strengths as an author and illustrator are rooted in my personal life experiences. There is no one ME-er than ME! I spend every day surrounded by children at work and at home. I enjoy listening to them and watching their behavior, so I have a constant stream of raw material for stories with kid-appeal. My son, in particular, sees the world in a topsy-turvy way that often makes me laugh and sometimes wax poetically. He brings so much mystery and magic to the little things in life. Another strength is my attention to small details. I use this both when I write and when I draw. The imagery that I create is often layered; and, if you look a little closer, there is always something new to see. I love to play with words and their nuanced meanings in a similar fashion.
AD: It sounds like you and your son have a beautifully special relationship. Your description of him and the way he inspires you and your work makes my heart smile.
AD: What inspires your work?
LJ: My son.
AD: Tell us about your creative process and what you do to keep ideas flowing or what you do when feeling stuck?
LJ: See question #6… There is no shortage of ideas when you work with hundreds of children per day, and then go home and the only person to talk to is your imaginative nine year old. (I’m just now realizing that I hardly talk to adults...EVER. :) LOL ) On a more serious note, my creative process is the equivalent of throwing loads of sand into a sandbox then later plopping down in the middle of all of it to play around and hopefully figure out what kind of sandcastle to make of it: I love notebooks and I keep one in my pocket to jot down ideas that I pick up from just living and going about my day. I am not a-sit-at-a-desk-and-type-on-a-computer writer, because I think better on paper. Much of my writing process is done in my head, and then I free-flow write my story using old-fashioned pen and paper. I revise and edit after I have typed a manuscript draft.
When I feel stuck, I usually like to step away from my writing to do something completely unrelated to what I’m writing. For example, reading something unrelated, a walk outdoors in the fresh air, playing with my son, drawing, and taking a shower (I get my best ideas there) are usually great refreshers for me. Sometimes, I even alternate between manuscripts as well.
AD: I love that visual of the sand and sandcastles. Sounds like play and experimenting are a large part of your process. It's nice that you're surrounded by inspiration in your work and at home. I'm totally a shower idea gal, too. I think because that's one of the few places my mind is quiet and undistracted. I wonder if there's such thing as a waterproof notebook, haa!
AD: What sorts of things have been most integral in your growth as an author-illustrator?
LJ: Foremost, I think that becoming a mom and an elementary school teacher have been integral to my growth as an author-illustrator. Experience is the greatest teacher and it has given both my art and my writing a soul; no longer are my words and pictures just about pretty words and pretty pictures. I feel like I really have something of value to say in my work. More practically speaking, recently taking classes with the Storyteller Academy has opened my eyes to how tangible this dream of publication really is if I put in the hard work and persist. Moreover, it has connected me to an invaluable community of writers, readers, artists, and other professionals in the publishing industry. Lastly, getting an Apple Pencil for my birthday last year has opened my eyes to how digital drawing can enhance my art and creative productivity; it is the one tool that has revolutionized my creative process.
AD: "Experience is the greatest teacher." How true that is!! :) Storyteller Academy is a wonderful resource. I loved my most recent character design class with Vanessa Brantley-Newton. And I can totally relate to the excitement of integrating digital elements into the process. I love my Apple Pencil, too!
AD: What advice do you have for fellow kidlit creatives?
LJ: My advice to fellow kidlit creatives would be:
1. Value your unique personal experiences. There is someone in the world who needs and is waiting for YOUR story.
2. Persist! Always fall forward. Feel those stings of rejection (for a little while). Write, revise, and submit some more. Know and believe that your “yes” will come because...See point #1.
3. Always be in a continual state of learning (even after publishing): Read, write, and ask questions. Most importantly, go out into the world and live (dive into new experiences, places, people, foods, tastes, sights, smells, sounds, and feelings). Fresh ideas and opportunities are waiting there!
4. Be intent about building your village. (As an extreme introvert, I am preaching to myself on this one.) Social media can be daunting, but it is a great tool in that it shortens the distance between you and others all over the world who are either in your shoes right now or they’ve been in them. You need a support system to offer direction, critique, a virtual shoulder to cry on, and a cheerleading squad to celebrate the wins.
5. Celebrate the “half-stones!” This is one I’ve learned from my son. I used to get discouraged when I read the pamphlets in the pediatrician’s office that list developmental milestones and the ages that children should reach those milestones. My son has global delays, so he falls short by all accounts. The little things are big and challenging for him. However, he is the most resilient person that I know, and to see his face light up when he learns something new—even if it is delayed— is inspiring. And we celebrate that BIG TIME! The motto around our house is—“In his own time.”
So, with that being said: Did you sign up for a writing course? (Awesome!) Did you finish a first draft? ( Yay!) Did you get another query rejection? (Look at you, you KidLit rockstar! You are one “No” closer to your “Yes”!) Celebrate the small steps toward your bigger goal; and, in your own time, you will soon be publishing your first of many children’s books.
AD: Virtual shoulders, cheerleading squads, "half stones"...so many wonderful nuggets noted here! I'm especially drawn to the idea of valuing your unique experiences. There is only one you and only YOU can tell your story! Thanks, LaTonya!
Thank you so much for sharing your beautiful insights and art, LaTonya! We can’t wait to read your stories and see your artwork in the hands of young readers! Feel free to drop a comment below to support LaTonya and her work. Stay tuned for next week where we get to meet another Rising Star in Kidlit, and be sure to subscribe so you don't miss out and follow along on Twitter at #RisingStarsinKidlit!
Who Am I?
Amanda Davis is a teacher, artist, writer, and innovator who uses her words and pictures to light up the world with kindness. Amanda is the author of the award-winning picture book, 30,000 Stitches: The Inspiring Story of the National 9/11 Flag, Moonlight Memories (summer, 2023) and a yet to be announced forthcoming title. She also has poetry and illustrations featured in The Writers’ Loft Anthology: Friends & Anemones: Ocean Poems for Children. Amanda has over ten years of experience as a classroom teacher and was selected as Massachusetts Secondary Art Educator of the Year. When she’s not busy creating, you can find her sipping tea, petting dogs, and exploring the natural wonders of The Bay State with her family and her rescue pup, Cora. You can learn more about Amanda at www.amandadavisart.com and on Twitter @amandadavisart and Instagram @amandadavis_art.