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 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…
- Top three favorite children’s books of all time? Now you’re asking! If I had to limit to three–Never Talk to Strangers by Irma Joyce (Early childhood favourite: I’ve been on the lookout for a bee playing a bass bassoon ever since), The Trumpet of the Swan by E. B. White, Absolutely anything by Jacqueline Woodson.
- Coffee, tea (or neither)? Both
- Where is your safe place? My imagination and anywhere the people I love are.
- Dogs, cats, (or neither)? Both. I had a cat for 19 years & 8 months and now I have a five-year-old French Bulldog.
- Early bird or night owl? Both. I only sleep 3.5 hours a day.
- Three words to describe what it takes to make it in the kidlit world…Persistence, Curiosity and Laughter.
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: 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?”
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.
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.
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: 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
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!
- Something helpful is my author/illustrator critique group. We formed this past July, and I can’t recommend critique groups enough. They are a group of excellent writers and illustrators who are so inspiring. They also offer a new perspective on my stories, which has been insightful.
- If you’re a Black writer or illustrator, another fantastic group is #BlackCreatorsIn KidLit. This is a group that as Antwan states ‘aims to bridge the gap between publishing professionals and Black creators (authors and illustrators).’ It was founded by Antwan Eady and Winsome Bingham. They’ve built a team of creatives that are helping uplift other Black creators who are interested in the publishing industry. The amount of support and talent in virtual meetings is evident. Also, they offer workshops and have critique groups to help creatives develop their craft. It’s exciting to see the amazing books that are going to be in the hands of many lucky kids!
- If you’re interested in writing/illustrating comics or graphic novels. Something to file under #timewellspent is Kids Comics Unite. Which was founded by Janna Morishima. This network of creatives is absolutely incredible. Not only do they have a passion for the craft of sequential storytelling, but they are also natural teachers amongst them. By teacher, I mean I instantly have turned a member into one by raising my virtual hand and asking a million questions. Do they treat me like a pesky sibling?–No! They are helpful and if they don’t know the answer. Rest assured that they’ll find out for you.
- BookTrust is a brilliant children’s reading charity based in the UK. They have an endless list of programmes, campaigns and awards in celebrating the kidlit world—lots of resources for writers, illustrators, families and educators.
- SCBWI is an excellent professional organization for writers and illustrators of children’s books. Countless workshops, resources, conferences, divisional events . . . they also have a never-ending list of kidlit goodness.
Lastly, follow publishing professionals on social media, such as:
- Literary agent Kaitlyn Leann Sanchez from Olswanger Literary has tons of kidlit info in her twitter thread @KaitlynLeann17. She also has a brilliant blog kaitlynleannsanchez.com, hosts the wonderfully fun #FallWritingFrenzy writing event with ultr
a-talented author Lydia Lukidis @LydiaLukidis
- Writer and publisher at Ladybird Books, Louie Stowell has a fantastic Twitter feed that’s chock a block full of publishing news. She also highlights and joins Twitter threads answering questions regarding publishing @Louiestowell
- Literary agent Jennifer March Soloway from Andrea Brown Lit has an excellent informative twitter feed of writers/illustrators tips @marchsolway
- Award-winning picture book illustrator Dapo Adeola has a fantastic feed. He also is very active in supporting fellow Black creators in publishing. @DapsDraws also created an inspirational drawing challenge #HUGTOBER that you can share on his Insta: @DapsDraws.
- Writer/Motivational Speaker Alyssa Reynoso-Morris has a great Twitter feed that offers tips and resources for writers @AReynosoMorris
- Literary agents Jessica Faust and James McGowan from Bookend Literary Agency have tons of great information about the publishing world.
- An amazing blogger that’s based in the UK that reviews Black children’s fiction and non-fiction books candidcocoa.blogspot.com, Twitter-@Kwia35
- Also across the pond in UK, Golden Egg Academy founded by award-winning editor Imogen Cooper. While watching a free mini webinar, Imogen changed my middle grade writing with the following words,”Put your main character in peril.” Twitter- @TheGEAcademy
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!