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
Melizza Chernov is a Rhode Island School of Design alumna. While at RISD she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Illustration. Her artwork is inspired by the quirky and unusual. She and her five siblings spent their early years living in a project housing community in Queens, New York. There she learned her most important lessons about artistic expression. However, increasingly Melizza developed a desire to be more closely connected to the natural world. Presently, she lives in the Massachusetts countryside. Her free time is spent in the garden, on nature walks and with her quirky and unusual husband Craig. Additionally, Melizza has just illustrated a book for Blue Whale Press, and imprint of Clear Fork Publishing. The book, titled A HORN IS BORN, was released on November 1, 2020.
Melizza is currently seeking agent representation.
Welcome, Melizza and congrats on your new book, A HORN IS BORN! I've had the pleasure of reading it and what a fun, quirky story! Your illustrations add rhythm and movement to the rollicking text. I'm so excited to have you here and chat about your journey into kidlit!
AD: Let’s start with a speed round…
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.
MC: The first children’s book I remember reading was Babar. I’m sure I read others but Babar stuck with me. Babar was an Indian elephant that was taken to England after his mother was shot by a poacher. Babar learned about British society, wore suits and drank tea, then returned to his country, where he was eventually made King. Strangely, as a child I sort of identified with Babar. Okay, to be fair, no one I knew had ever encountered a poacher. No, how I identified with Babar was as an Indian, raised in a household with different customs than those of Americans. And yet, I was born in America, and I am also an American person, with a different way of looking at things than my Indian relatives from Guyana. It’s an interesting bridge to be standing on as an illustrator and writer. My journey into the fabulous world of children’s books was/is about learning how to allow these varying perspectives to meld and create something new, something uniquely me. My journey began with reading books, lots and lots of books. Being a part of a creative family made it natural for me to turn to painting and drawing as ways of expressing my ideas. Later I began to write stories that encompassed both the fantastical and the ordinary. Right now, I spend a lot of time just exploring ideas, asking myself questions about what I want to see in the world, and making attempts at answering those questions through my visual art and writing.
AD: Amazing how we can connect so deeply with characters in a story. The power of storytelling! Your process for creating sounds very reflective, and I have no doubt that there will be children out there who will connect just as deeply with your own unique story and perspective in the same way you connected with Babar's.
AD: Did you always know you wanted to be an author-illustrator? Have you explored other paths or had/have other jobs?
MC: Writing and drawing have been a part of my life since I was very young. I loved reading. Some of my first memories were of my dad taking me to our local library and us sitting in those tiny child-sized chairs, he reading his book and me reading mine. Early on, it sparked something in me. In some ways, even as a child, I knew I wanted my whole life to be like those moments.
Growing up we lived in a culturally diverse project housing community in Queens, NY. In that community we were surrounded by street performers, dancers, graffiti artists, a variety of colors, textures and unique fashion choices. Some of my first jobs were in communities like that, teaching art to children. Later I went on to create art programs for preschool aged children and worked in museum education for various organizations. Working in education has given me the opportunity to share with children a world of possibilities from which they can choose.
AD: Thanks for sharing those memories from your childhood. The memories of you reading with your dad at the local library remind me how a love of reading can be sparked at a very young age and the importance of the work we do as children's book creators to bring about that spark in children. Your experience living in Queens sounds rich with culture. Thank you for dedicating your time and expertise working as an educator, too. Those students were lucky to have a teacher who showed them all that is possible for them in this world!
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?
MC: The themes that seem to come up in my work quite often are ones that have to do with connection, individuality, and imagination. The settings for these themes are usually fantastical.
My favorite genres are children’s books (with an unusual spin), graphic novels, and fairy tales. My favorite materials for visual art would be paints, drawing materials, and paper. I’ve also been enjoying doing some work digitally. My favorite material for writing would be small notebooks, pencils, sharpies, index cards, post-its and napkins.
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?
MC: The biggest challenge I’ve faced during this process has been me. Confidence in my work and my abilities can be a struggle. Being an introvert I tend to hide when I’m feeling unsure of myself. Reaching out, networking, and social media are awkward for me. Interestingly enough, if you’re too withdrawn to send your work out or allow yourself to be seen it generally means that no one will see your work or you. Hmm...go figure.
My greatest challenge is opening up, connecting, allowing myself to be seen. What I’ve done to persevere is allow myself to connect with some wonderfully kind writers and illustrators. Sharing my work, set-backs and shortcomings, has allowed me to develop a support system with people who share my kidlit journey. We commiserate, share tips/ideas and keep each other inspired.
AD: I think the putting yourself out there part is hard for many but as you said, if we want our work to be seen, it is an inevitable part of the job. And yes, a commiseration and inspiration crew is a must! :)
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?
MC: Art school wasn’t something I did right after high school. My journey wasn’t a straight line. It was more like looking for buried treasure with a very old map. Which admittedly, does sound like great fun. Getting into Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) was a very big moment for me. When I received a full scholarship for my portfolio and academic standing that was truly magnificent; and then graduating with my Bachelor of Arts, Illustration a year early, made me very proud. There were many times I didn’t think I’d make it through. I believe it was a special moment for my family as well. Being the first person in my immediate family to have graduated from a four year college program was probably my biggest accomplishment.
AD: Congrats on your RISD accomplishments, Melizza! I imagine those were exciting moments for you and your family. I totally relate to the "looking for buried treasure with a very old map" path (and I love that analogy!). I'm glad we both eventually made our way here and are forging ahead on this journey.
AD: In a similar vein, what do you feel are your strengths as an author/illustrator? What makes your art/writing unique to you?
MC: My personal history plays a large part in the strengths I’ve developed as an illustrator. My parents were vibrant, curious, tenacious, and brave people who took a huge risk in bringing their family to America. I’m often inspired by those qualities in my own work. I enjoy the road less traveled, odd, challenging themes that make me consider my relationship to the past, look at myself in the present and ask questions about how I would like things to be in the future. And I want it all to be fun, funny, and whimsical.
AD: How inspiring! I think when we create from a place of personal experience, we are bringing our true authentic selves to the table. This vulnerability can be hard but it sounds like you have a very reflective art-making process that allows you to dig deep and produce meaningful work.
AD: What inspires your work?
MC: The world is multilayered and more than anything else that really inspires me. There are old structures abutting new structures, old ideas that butt up against new ideas, people of all shapes, sizes, cultures and with an incalculable number of ways of looking at things. Nature creates that way, wild and random but intriguing. I’m going to really geek out now and say that it all reminds me of a Star Trek quote: “Infinite diversity in infinite combinations,” ~Spock. Yep, I said that out loud and in public. I can get dressed now and leave the classroom, right?
AD: Haaa! Who could have captured this idea better than Spock?!? Perfect!
AD: Tell us about your creative process and what you do to keep ideas flowing or what you do when feeling stuck?
MC: The most important thing I do in my creative process is I write down any idea that comes into my head, no matter where I am or what I have for paper or writing implements, a napkin works, lipstick is fine, as long as I get the idea down. Then I put it on an index card and file it. When I’m feeling stuck I go to that file and pull those ideas out. I also sketch a lot and make something every day. It doesn’t matter if it’s an origami penguin or just a drawing I create with my little nieces, I try to do something every day.
AD: Yes, not editing our ideas when they first come to us is so useful! I tend to scribble ideas down all over the place but need to be careful I don't lose track and throw them away! My Notes app has been the place where I consolidate. I also have an idea box, too, which I should probably dig back into for inspiration now that a new year is upon us!
AD: What sorts of things have been most integral in your growth as an author-illustrator?
MC: Doing the work. It’s easy to get sidetracked. We live busy lives in a busy world. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I find that I am very adept at wasting a lot of time ‘thinking’ about doing things. My other hobby is toggling between ‘lamenting over’ and ‘feeling overwhelmed by’ all the things I ‘should’ be doing but haven’t.
For me the most integral thing in my growth has been learning to shut everything else out and give myself an hour, a half-hour or just fifteen minutes every day to DO something creative and just be completely present during that process.
AD: Yes! Focus, focus, focus! Easier said than done though!
AD: What advice do you have for fellow kidlit creatives?
MC: It’s easy to get discouraged because there are many excellent kidlit creators out there. The best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten was from a non-artist, my dad. It keeps me going when I feel overwhelmed. I was complaining to him about the challenges I’d been facing as an illustrator, finding work, connecting with people, financially supporting myself etc... To put this in context my dad immigrated to the United States in 1971. Growing up he lived in tenement housing and one of his many jobs was cutting sugar cane on a plantation. However, my dad patiently listened to my griping and once I was done he said, “You know I never wanted you to do this, I wanted you to become a lawyer. But you insisted. Now that you’ve made the decision, you have to give it everything you’ve got.” I replied that I was afraid and he said something that fundamentally changed the way I looked at my creative life. “When I’m afraid,” he said, “I just look down at my shoes and take it one step at a time. Don’t look too far ahead, just look at the spot you’re standing in and take one step and then another.” My advice is to do that, to take it one step at a time and be patient with yourself. It makes a big difference in how you experience the journey.
AD: Wow! What a beautiful story of determination and perseverance. Perhaps a new concept for your next picture book... :)
Melizza, thank you for opening up about your life and for such thoughtful responses! It was so nice to learn more about you and your work. Best of luck with A Horn is Born! We hope to see many more of your stories and art in the hands of young readers! 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! Feel free to drop a comment below to support Melizza and her work.
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.