Lindsey Manwell is a gifted illustrator and painter. She’s also the illustrator-in-residence for LitWorld. In her awe-inspiring blog A Year in Paris, she chronicles her year abroad living with her newlywed husband in Paris. To celebrate World Read Aloud Day this March 7, Lindsey agreed to speak with TCBR about her work with LitWorld, her determined path to publication, and the beauty and grandeur of Paris.
Nicki Richesin: I’m so excited to interview you as we met on World Read Aloud Day through the efforts of LitWorld- a cause I know that is near and dear to your heart. Could you tell us how you became the illustrator-in-residence for LitWorld and a little bit about the organization?
Lindsey Manwell: Sure! In 2009 I went to a literary event in Mill Valley where Pam Allyn was guest speaking. Pam is one of the leading literacy experts in the world. I met her before she took the stage and in those few brief moments we really connected. When she spoke that night I learned a lot about how many people in the US and abroad cannot read. It sounds naïve, but I was very shocked. Growing up my mom was an English teacher, so literacy and books were a way of life that I guess I took for granted. Afterwards we stayed in touch, and just a couple months later I was proudly illustrating a logo and putting together a coloring book for LitWorld that would travel the globe helping people learn how to read. Ever since then I’ve joyfully taken on various work for LitWorld year-round.
In one sentence, LitWorld teaches training techniques that help cultivate and sustain literacy in places around the world. It’s funny because the day I met Pam in Mill Valley I felt right away that we were kindred sprits who had to work together, and now I laugh as after 3 years of working with her I’ve learned that pretty much everyone who meets her- from the big wigs in New York City to the 5 year olds in Kenya- all feel this way!
NR: Congratulations on signing your two book series deal with HarperCollins! You are illustrating two upcoming books and you also work as a realist oil painter. I’m sure you must be thrilled to see your dreams coming true. Could you share your road to publication and any words of advice for aspiring illustrators?
LM: Absolutely. My road to publication has been rocky and it’s taken me over two years to get my first contract. When I graduated from art school I went straight to New York to meet with publishers, portfolio in hand. Within a few months I was contacted for a project stemming from a meeting I’d had. I remember feeling incredibly lucky at the time. But after almost a year of unsuccessful back and forth, I had no contract, and it was time to move on.
At that point I was pretty down and confused about my next step. So I joined SCBWI and headed to a conference in Asilomar to listen to the experts and get some advice. There I was lucky enough to win the Golden Gate Portfolio Award, and David Wiesner was the judge who selected my portfolio. David and I emailed a bit after the conference, and he offered me words of encouragement that I cherish today, and that helped keep me positive at the time. At Asilomar I also met Josh Adams and soon after joined with Adams Literary. With Josh’s help, this past fall I was picking between two really nice book offers- both series- one of which I took and now I’m on the road to publication!
Over two years is a long time to wait for a first deal, so my words of advice are simple: KEEP GOING. Do anything you can think of to keep yourself drawing- take those small jobs, volunteer, attend SCBWI events. Most especially, don’t allow someone else to steal your confidence. The internet is the easiest place to lose your zeal so be wary of comparing yourself to other artists who seem to have it all together, or focusing on all the accomplishments you see your friends posting on Facebook. Art is not a competition. Even if people close to you don’t understand what you’re trying to do and seem to suggest that you should just get a real job already, keep your faith. There is a project that only you were meant to do waiting for you.
NR: As a first-time illustrator, how are you finding the creative process of putting a book together in pictures? Are there aspects of the work that you find particularly daunting or surprising?
LM: I am scared of the whole thing! Every day! I think I just have such respect for children’s literature, especially after all the work I’ve done with LitWorld, and I know there are so many books out there that haven’t quite hit the mark, and you want to be able to give a child something and not be wasting their time.
I’m at the early character and environment developing/sketching stage. The story is still being edited and changing, which makes things tough sometimes, but I am thankful for this slower process because it’s given me time to keep thinking up new details, and I can shuffle out my mistakes more easily than if I was on a tight time constraint.
NR: You are leading the most romantic life right now living in Paris for a year with your newlywed husband. How did you make the decision to live abroad and what have you learned about yourself as a result of your glamorous time in gay Paris?
LM: One night about two years ago my husband and I went to a little French restaurant in San Francisco called Chez Spencer. We just started being silly and daydreaming about living in Paris. Maybe it was the red wine, or all the French waiters running around, but we got pretty passionate about it and we went home that night with a renewed zest for life. As an illustrator I can live anywhere, however my husband works in Palo Alto for an asset management company and that’s a different story. But we kept our daydream alive- talking about it once in a while, even making French meals from time to time just for fun. And then, about six months later, my husband came home and said he had a surprise. He took me on a walk and told me that he had worked it out with his company and he would be able to work abroad for one year. I burst into tears on the spot, and suddenly we were on our way to planning our move to the City of Light! I guess we’ve learned about ourselves so far that we’re pretty open-minded about the direction of our lives.
NR: You’re chronicling your experience in your wonderful blog A Year in Paris. I loved reading and vicariously living through your exciting adventures. You’ve made such a fun discoveries like the Natural History Museum in the Botanical Garden and Delacroix’s studio. You also share pages from your sketchbooks and favorite things—a list I especially appreciated. Have you made any unexpected discoveries as a result of your time in Paris? What’s inspiring you the most right now?
LM: Oh, thank you very much. It’s nice to have a blog I really like to post on (even if my Dad is my major fan base at the moment). What’s inspiring me these days is actually this theatre that we live across the street from, The Odeon Theatre. The windows we look into from our apartment are the laundry rooms of the theatre. A whole wing of the building is a very French style laundry quarters where ladies work all hours of the day on the costumes- washing and steaming and ironing everything just perfect. I get to see feathered ball gowns, beaded bustiers, and velvet coats and top hats hanging up each morning to be spruced up. I love imagining what scene they might have been in the night before.
NR: I’m thrilled to read again for the third year with Caroline Grant of Literary Mama and Todd Parr for WRAD at Books, Inc. in San Francisco. How are you planning on celebrating the day (March 7) in Paris?
LM: Well since I don’t speak French well enough to do anything besides order macaroons, I’ll be heading to the American Library where they’ll be having two English story hours that day. I’ll be taking pictures there for LitWorld.
NR: You created the World Read Aloud Day Google doodle for March 7. Could you tell us a bit about working on this project?
LM: Submitting a Google Doodle is tricky and you have to submit a form with a lot of questions and they decide what they want to use. They don’t tell you if your doodle will be selected, you just wait and see. It’s a long shot, as LitWorld is only four years old, but we already have thousands of people participating in World Read Aloud Day, and a few strong voices in the fray talking us up to Google, so you never know. If not this year, I’m sure we won’t give up.
NR: I have very close friends who have lived in Paris for 20 years now. When I visit them, I like to go to certain landmarks that have become important to me. The Medici Fountain in Luxembourg Gardens always leaves me feeling especially uplifted and rejuvenated. Which parts of Paris (neighborhood or monument) has been a retreat for you or somewhere you have returned to again and again?
LM: I like to take a walk in the early morning around the Tuileries, which are the gardens that surround the Louvre Museum. No matter how early you get there there’s already joggers passing through the gates ahead of you and gardeners getting going inside. I walk around for about 20 minutes in there. I bring headphones so I can listen to these Gregorian chants that I found on iTunes. Between the chants, the pink sunrise and the endless tree-lined paths I feel like an ancient morning warrior or something. I love it!
NR: When you return home to San Francisco in the fall, what do you think you’ll miss most about Paris and what are you looking forward to about being home?
LM: There’s a quiet simplicity to living here that I love so much. We don’t have many friends and are constantly just doing quiet things like working or wandering or cooking together. Even if we did have a lot of friends here, I think we’ve found that the best things Paris has to offer—the museums, walks, parks, lights, cafes—are most purely experienced intimately and quietly.
When we come home we’ll be looking forward to the big things—like not missing family birthdays or friends having babies, but also just the details of everyday life that we’re so accustomed to in the US— like clothing dryers (dryers don’t really dry, so you have to iron everything), Ziploc baggies (you have to go to the hardware store to find them), salads (you will not find healthy salads in Paris), and shops being open on Sundays.
One thing we both sense though is that this is a really special year in our lives, one that we’ll always look back to when times are tough or if we need a little inspiration during more mundane days. In many moments here we know we’ve just never been happier.
NR: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with TCBR about your art and upcoming projects. We look forward to reading your forthcoming books. Merci beaucoup!
LM: Merci a vous!
For more information on LitWorld and the wonderful work they do, please check out their website http://litworld.org/ Also, if you’d like to participate in World Read Aloud Day, here’s a list of events and you can register here.