Sunday, January 17, 2010

Meet Author and Artist Sallie Wolf!

Today's guest is Sallie Wolf, author of  Peter's Trucks, illustrated by Cat Bowman Smith (Albert Whitman, 1992) and Truck Stuck, illustrated by Andy Robert Davies (Charlesbridge Publishing, 2008). A resident of Oak Park, Illinois, Sallie is also an award-winning artist whose work has been displayed at dozens of art shows and exhibitions. Her newest book, The Robin Makes a Laughing Sound: A Bird's Journal (Charlesbridge Publishing, 2010) is a book of bird poetry illustrated by images from her sketchbooks, with pages designed by Micah Bornstein.

To find out more about Sallie, visit her website at

Q: Please tell us a little about your ties to Chicago.

SALLIE: Well, Scotti, I came to Chicago in 1973, when I married my husband, Chuck, then a second year law student at the University of Chicago. I thought I would be going back East—I grew up in Virginia, and Chuck’s family lived in New Jersey at the time. And here it is, 36+ years later, and we’ve never left the greater Chicago area. Oak Park is where we have lived the past 31 years. It’s been a great place to raise our family, 2 boys, and it’s easy to get into the city.

Q: How old were you when you first realized that you wanted to be a writer?

SALLIE: In 8th grade I had a friend who wanted to be a journalist and she got me interested in writing fiction. I also became intrigued with the books being read to my younger sister, who is almost 10 years younger than me, and that is one reason I began to think about writing for children.

Q: Please describe one of your earliest works. Who or what inspired you to write it?

SALLIE: In high school I started an “escapism” journal, inspired by the book Don’t Knock the Corners Off, by Caroline Glynne. She was 15 or 16 at the time her book was published. I was intensely jealous of her success and began writing my own story about a girl and a house with many mysterious rooms. I worked on it all through high school, and I don’t think I ever finished it.

Q: Can you name someone whose encouragement made a significant difference as you developed into a writer?

SALLIE: When I was 17 I took a creative writing course at Phillips Exeter Academy Summer School, in Exeter, NH. I had to keep a writer’s notebook, jotting down anything that came to mind or any observations about what was going on around me. The notebook was turned in for regular individual critiques. My teacher, Mr. Marriott, at my first critique, put his hands behind his head, his feet up on the table, and pronounced, “Well, you’re a writer.” It was the high point of my summer, and I’ve thought of myself as a writer ever since.

Q: For you personally, what is one of the easiest things about writing picture books? What is one of the most difficult things?

SALLIE: There is almost nothing easy for me about writing picture books. At least I can see the end in sight—only 32 pages. And yet it is a struggle to get from the beginning to the end. The hardest part is finding the right structure or shape to the story. The language itself is perhaps the easiest, since I love words, the way they taste in my mouth, the rhythm of them. It would help if I could spell better.

Q: Would you tell us a little about the "road to publication" of your first book, Peter's Trucks?

SALLIE: Looking back, Peter’s Trucks led an almost charmed life. I met an editor at a conference who said she was looking for a truck book. I already had an idea in mind, and I started writing on the train ride home. I submitted a story, in prose, about 6 weeks later. After months of waiting for a reply, I got a letter suggesting I aim at a younger audience and focus on rhythm, rhyme, and repetition, the three “R’s” of childrens’ books. I rewrote and resubmitted the manuscript. Again a long wait. When I heard back, the editor suggested I write the book in a rhyming pattern  and she showed me how the first stanza might look. The book was already very close to rhyming so it was easy to rewrite. This is the version that was accepted. The whole process of writing and revising to acceptance took about 2 years, and it took 2 more years for the production of the book. At the time it was agonizingly slow, but in retrospect it seems very fast and straight forward. It took over twelve years to write and publish Truck Stuck, and I had to submit it many times. Robin Makes A Laughing Sound found a home right away, but the production has been slow, partially because of the difficult economic times.

Q: You have been an artist since childhood. Do you have a favorite medium?

SALLIE: I work primarily in watercolor, often with pen and ink drawing. My father gave me watercolors when I was very young and I’ve always liked watercolor best, and anything on paper. I do a lot of mixed media as well, but always add water—to charcoal, pastel, fountain pen inks. Water, paper, and ink are the common elements in almost all my art.

Q: Your newest book -- The Robin Makes a Laughing Sound: A Bird's Journal -- will be published February 1, 2010. It's the first book you both wrote and illustrated. Can you describe one of the biggest challenges in putting this book together and tell us how you met that challenge?

SALLIE: The biggest challenge was finding a way to create the page layouts. I had the poetry and I had bird imagery—sketches of birds, mostly scattered all through years of my journals. I wanted to collage my images together with the poetry and journal-like observations, but I did not want to cut up my journals to do it. I was at my local Starbucks, asking a question about Xeroxing on clear Mylar. The new barista, who was on his break, asked me why I needed to do that. I described my intention of combining images with words and said, “I know this can be done in Photoshop, but I don’t know Photoshop.” He said, “I know Photoshop. I can help you,” and out of that 10 minute conversation a collaboration was born. Micah Bornstein took scans of my sketches and composed the pages in Photoshop. We worked together on the actual makeup of each page, and he created the digital files that were used to produce the artwork. I was amazed and very pleased that Charlesbridge was willing to take a chance on the two of us with this project.

Q: You offer workshops for children. What do these usually encompass?

: I love to share my working process with people of all ages. With young children I teach art workshops—how to paint in watercolor, draw with charcoal and pastel, combine watercolor and drawing media, and do collage. With older students and with adults I like to talk about the process of keeping a journal. I can teach several simple ways to bind a journal sketchbook, and then we explore ways of working in them. And I like to combine writing with art, with students creating a collage,  and then writing based on that collage.

Q: Please tell us a little about The Moon Project.

SALLIE: The Moon Project is an on-going art project that I have been working on since 1994. I watch for the moon on a daily basis, and when I see it, I chart it’s position and phase in my journals. I use my arms and a compass as measurement and I draw a “moon portrait”. Eventually I compile my observations into calendar-like charts and other kinds of drawings and graphs, even sheet music, based on the moon’s physical position in the sky. I’m trying to teach myself strictly through personal observation about the patterns and movements of the moon. The Moon Project has been exhibited at the Adler Planetarium, in Chicago; the Art Gallery of the Fermilab Research Facility in Batavia, IL; the Louisiana Art and Science Museum in Baton Rouge, LA; and several other venues. Currently the Moon Project is on display at the Art Gallery of the US Air Force Academy in Colorado.

Q: Anything else you'd like to share?

SALLIE: My next project is a book based on my Moon Project. I’m very excited to see my art, which I develop for an adult audience, become the inspiration for my writing for children. That is how the Robin book evolved, and the art I am working on continues to lead me to new story ideas.

One of the things I like most about being involved in Children’s Literature is the generosity of the community of writers and illustrators who make up SCBWI and especially our Illinois region. Thank you so much, Scotti, for letting me share my art and writing with your readers.


  1. Love this! Thank you. Looking forward to The Robin Makes a Laughing Sound.

  2. Ah, Sallie, I remember when you showed me The Robin Makes a Laughing Sound over lunch in Springfield! It was great! Great interview. I remember you told me about the Moon Project, but I didn't know it had been exhibited in so many cool places! Exciting!

  3. Great interview, Scotti! Sallie is awesome! I have my first speaking engagement at the end of the month and she gave me some great advice. :)

    xoxo -- Hilary