the essential manga guide book cover - written by Briana Lawrence

Interview with Briana Lawrence, author of The Essential Manga Guide

Today is publication day for Briana Lawrence's The Essential Manga Guide, a "must-have guide" on the history and legacy of manga. It's an entertaining and personal look at the impact of fifty outstanding manga titles and their creators, as well as great recommendations of what to read next.

the essential manga guide book cover - written by Briana Lawrence

I recently interviewed Briana about the process of writing the book. It was such a fun conversation!

My first question is, how did Running Press come to tap you to write this book? How did they know you were an expert, and what made them reach out to you?

[Briana] They were working on the Essential Anime Guide with two writers, Patrick Mattias and Samuel Sattin, and I was writing for The Mary Sue at the time. I wrote daily, and whenever I could write about anime, I would. I don’t know which article gained their attention, but I wrote quite a few about anime. My guess is it was an article about Kiki’s Delivery Service and burnout. I got an email from one of the writers of the book, asking if I wanted to write some essays about anime. I said yes, as that was basically my everyday job. I wrote two essays and assumed that would be it. But then Brittany [the editor] messaged me and asked if I wanted to write a whole book about manga.

Manga gives you more options than anime, so I was excited. I asked if they would provide a list, but they said I could pick whatever books I wanted to talk about. It was perfect.

essential guide to manga by briana lawrence interior art

Having a book called "The Essential Guide to Manga" is sort of like making "The Essential Guide to Books." A pretty tall order! Manga is such a huge category with so many genres and titles. How did you narrow it down? What was your process to pick which titles you'd focus on?

My brain immediately started setting some limits. There are some creators I love who have multiple works, so I had to pick one from each. You need something from Akira Toriyama, something from CLAMP, and other well-known creators like that. I wanted to include popular titles like Dragon Ball, One Piece, and Naruto, but I also realized I needed to pick by genre. You should have something horror-related, slice of life, comedy, etc. For example, if someone wants a psychological thriller, I’d recommend Death Note, not Dragon Ball. This helped narrow it down.

I also didn’t include manga I hadn’t read, like Attack on Titan, because I didn’t have time to read it. It had to be something I was familiar with. I also wanted to include short series and some hidden gems. I asked my wife for help, too. CLAMP has so many works, and I had to pick one. I chose Inuyasha for Rumiko Takahashi because it meant the most to me. I reminded myself that I couldn’t cover everything; it’s impossible. I wanted to show people that manga is worth exploring and can cater to any preference.

essential guide to manga by briana lawrence interior spread

Did you feel like it was easy to write, or were there any sections that bogged you down?

It was hard because I had to write 50 consecutive essays. For some manga, I could think of five different things to say about them, but I had to narrow it down to one main point. I remember one of the editorial notes for Dragon Ball was that it was the longest essay... because I had so much to say. That was my first manga and anime that I became familiar with as a kid, so it's not surprising I had a lot to say.

For each essay, I wanted to explain why people like it, or why it meant something to me. Sometimes it was easy, like with Demon Slayer, which is about a protective brother. I had an older brother who was very protective of me before he passed away.

Other times, it was hard, like writing about Chainsaw Man, where there are ten different angles I could approach, but I only had so many words. It was also hard to go back to manga I read as a child and see it with adult eyes. For example, I appreciate Sailor Moon more now as an adult because I understand her struggles better.

essential guide to manga by briana lawrence interior spread

What are your predictions about the future of manga?

I think it's just going to grow more from here. I hope people won't be so surprised that others are into it. Some people still don’t get it, but it’s just another form of entertainment. I hope people realize it’s a worthy form of entertainment. It’s both extremely popular and niche, which is weird. There are pop culture sites that cover everything except anime and manga. Or sites that talk about the big names but not the hidden gems.

There’s so much queer content in manga now. People say there’s no queer content in mainstream media, but it’s all over manga.

I hope we reach a point where people recognize its value. I think we will, because fans of anime and manga are now creating their own content. Shows like "My Adventures with Superman" are inspired by shojo anime. Steven Universe's creator loves Revolutionary Girl Utena. Our generation is telling stories heavily influenced by manga and anime. Coming from the 90s generation, we had no idea it would blow up like this. We were just watching cartoons, but now, we see its massive impact. I feel like there’s no choice but for it to grow and be as great as I've always known it to be.

Connect with Briana on her website.

Learn more about The Essential Guide to Manga.

Learn Manga With Misako

Learn Manga With Misako

I recently caught up with Misako Rocks! to chat about her newest release, How to Draw Kawaii Manga Characters, which came out from Quarto Kids in April 2024.

Misako has been teaching kids to draw manga and anime for at least ten years. During the pandemic, she started Learn Manga with Misako, her online school to teach manga drawing to elementary school students.

learn manga with misako online classes for kids

I was curious to find out why she's just as passionate about teaching kids as she is about writing and drawing her own stories. As it turns out, she had a lot of interesting things to say about that!

From the perspective of your students, why do you think they're interested in learning how to draw manga with you?

[MISAKO] They already had an interest in drawing manga, but also, the thing is, they like drawing manga with me. I have realized that it’s like we are creating “Misako time” together. It's kind of like art therapy.

That's a really interesting point.

The kids need some kind of place where they can feel safe, they can laugh at stupid stuff, they can release frustration and of course create fun art. I think it really helps them to feel positive and even make mistakes. I just make them draw, I don't let them think so much, and that kind of helps them break away from their perfectionist habits. So yeah, I think that's why.

child learning manga drawing with misako rocks

Wow, that's really cool to hear. But is it possible for you to capture that experience that the kids have with you in real time in your books? How do you do that?

So yeah, the books are just paper, not a direct interactive experience with me. But if they want to listen to my story, they can just scan the QR codes in the books and go to YouTube. When I'm teaching, I'm talking a lot. So in a way, yeah, they feel like they can take my lesson live with me.

I love that.

I feel like I can be their “aunt from another family.” So they can feel relaxed and just talk to me about everything. Sometimes when I ask just one question, like, “What did you do after you finished lunch at school today?” twenty of them start talking right away.

You must be doing something right, because so many parents complain that when they say to their kids, “How was your day at school?,” the kids say, “Fine.” And nothing else. [laughing]

Maybe part of what makes you a popular teacher is that you just listen to them without judgment.

Yes. Yes, without judgment. Sometimes I have extra sessions, besides lessons, and I ask them more questions to help me with writing the Bounce Back books. For instance, I might say to them, “Hey, if you have a fight with your friend, how do you make up with each other afterwards?” That kind of stuff.

And they tell me really detailed stories. Maybe ten kids are there, trying to help me understand their lives. But the good thing is that I feel like they end up helping each other as much as me.

They help each other feel better about themselves by sharing their experiences. It’s so great to see this happening because they all live in completely different states, some of them live in different countries like Canada. But they are trying to give advice to each other. It’s such a good feeling. So that’s why I want to keep doing this.

Yay! I hope you keep teaching kids, too. 

Check Out Misako's New Book!

How to Draw Kawaii Manga Characters by Misako Rocks is available now! The next book, How to Draw Manga Fashion, releases in June 2024.

Learn Manga With Misako

Learn Manga With Misako

Learn Manga With Misako

You can find Misako at and Connect with her on social media at and

MY DAY WITH MOM by Rae Crawford

Rae Crawford's early reader My Day With Mom just came out from Holiday House this month! It's a real-life tribute to her mom.

(Handy reminder: Mother's Day is on May 12, 2024!)

Rae had this to say about the book:

"I conceived of My Day with Mom as a love letter to the days I would spend with my mom taking all the steps to prepare a meal for dinner. This was often an exercise in patience as we prepped all day: grocery shopping, farmers markets, and cooking.

But the story would highlight the success and relief when you get to enjoy that meal with the ones you love.

In fact, many scenes are pulled directly from things in my real life: people, places and memories. These experiences have fueled my artistic voice and shaped my life."

My Day With Mom Illustration by Rae Crawford

My Day With Mom Illustration by Rae Crawford

My Day With Mom Illustration by Rae Crawford

"You may think this book is more or less a sequel to My Day with Dad, but that's not exactly true. When I was pitching My Day with Dad, I started to notice the parallels between both the 'mom' story and the 'dad' story and thought they would make nice companion pieces, much like my parents in real life."

The My Day with series is for kids and parents alike to encourage bonding in your everyday lives. Take time to go to that park, visit the art fair, or listen to some jazz. These are the things we carry with us."

My Day With Mom Illustration by Rae Crawford

"I've been lucky to inherit my humor, my artistic skill, and my love of the humanities from my mother who is an incredible writer herself. I hope some of that love I have for her shines through in this book.

And even if not, I hope it encourages you to go out and have a day with your mom!"

Thanks, Rae! Will do. :)

Buy My Day With Mom here.

Connect with Rae on her website.

Connect with Rae on her Patreon.


Haru Spring by Joe Latham

HARU by Joe Latham

Joe Latham's gorgeous middle grade fantasy graphic novel Haru just came out from Andrews McMeel a few months ago:

Haru Spring by Joe Latham

In their review of Haru, Publishers Weekly said:

"Latham sets this dazzling work in a Tolkeinesque world, employing clever pen and ink drawings awash in luminous colors to deliver a cliffhanger ending that will have readers eagerly anticipating the next installment."

Below are some spreads that show what PW was talking about.


Haru Illustration by Joe Latham

Haru Illustration by Joe Latham

Haru Illustration by Joe Latham

Haru Illustration by Joe Latham

On his Substack, Joe explained why he creates comics like Haru:

"I started making comics out of my own impatience, many years ago. I did them for me, I shared them online and friends seemed to like them, so I did more, and realized it was a way to have a voice that felt like wearing a comfy jumper to me. It helped me to express and explore feelings and thoughts I couldn’t find the words for any other way. It’s always been for me, yet it’s connected me to people in ways I never expected."

Below are some process images that show how Joe builds his illustrations from pencils through inks, colors, and final art. He's an incredible artist (and available for freelance illustration work!).

Haru Ink Illustration by Joe Latham

Haru Color Illustration by Joe Latham

Haru Illustration by Joe Latham

Haru Ink Illustration by Joe Latham

Haru Illustration by Joe Latham

Haru Ink Illustration by Joe Latham

Haru Color Illustration by Joe Latham


Haru Sketch by Joe Latham


Haru Ink Illustration by Joe Latham

Haru Illustration by Joe Latham

Joe has several upcoming events to celebrate the release of Haru:

Buy Haru here.

Connect with Joe on his website.

Connect with Joe on his Substack.


Next Stop by Debbie Fong

Next Stop by Debbie Fong

Debbie Fong's new book, Next Stop, is now available!!

If you're looking for the next heart-tugging, hilarious, slow burn middle grade graphic novel to read, this is it.

It's racked up multiple starred reviews:

  • "Remarkable." – The Horn Book
  • "Poignant" and "profound." – Kirkus Reviews
  • "Weird and wonderful." – The Bulletin of Children's Books
  •  "Gut-wrenching" – Kirsten Gudsnuk
  • "Heart wrenching." – Kayla Miller
  • "Nuanced and deeply felt.” – Andrea Wang

This book is REALLY GOOD!!!!

Next Stop by Debbie Fong, a middle grade graphic novel

Debbie sent me a few spreads of sample art so you can see her rough process from thumbnails, to pencils, to inks, to colors. She's a self-taught artist with a minimalist style influenced by indie comics.

Next Stop process illustration by Debbie Fong

Next Stop process illustration by Debbie Fong

And here's character sketches of the laconic main character, Pia:

Next Stop process illustration by Debbie Fong

And some lovely interior spreads to give you a sense of the story's deadpan humor and surrealist style:

Next Stop illustration by Debbie Fong

Next Stop illustration by Debbie Fong

Next Stop illustration by Debbie Fong

Her book launch at Books of Wonder on Tuesday night was packed!

Debbie Fong's book launch for NEXT STOP at Books of Wonder bookstore in March 2024

The wonderful Wendy Xu interviewed her. Wendy asked Debbie where her style comes from, and Debbie replied:

I'm a big fan of stories with a dreamlike quality. Where you're not quite sure what's real, and what's not. And I also really love stories that cross genres.

Then Wendy asked her to describe her creative process. Debbie said:

I script a lot at first. I know some graphic novelists will combine thumbs and scripting at the same time. That's not what I do. The story lives in my head at first, then I write it as a script. And then I toil away trying to make the pictures happen the way I see it in my head. I draw everything with ClipStudio on my iPad. With the iPad, I can keep working even when I travel.

Wendy concluded by asking her what her favorite part of the process is. Debbie answered:

That's easy. My favorite part is the color. I can sit and color the pages just like coloring a coloring book. It's very relaxing!

Debbie Fong's NEXT STOP book signing at Books of Wonder, March 2024

The Noisy Puddle by Linda Booth Sweeney

Interview With Author Linda Booth Sweeney

Children's book author and systems thinking in education consultant Linda Booth Sweeney

You’re a children’s book writer with a focus on systems thinking and nature. Could you tell us a little bit about where this comes from? Why are you so passionate about these themes?

I reference systems thinking a lot so here’s a quick explanation: Systems thinking is an approach to learning, decision making and design that involves understanding the relationships and interconnections between different elements of a system.

Kids who understand living systems, look to understand how different parts of a system work together to create a whole. They are more likely to think and act in informed ways and less likely to jump to blame a single cause for the challenges they encounter.

By encouraging children to trace how the interconnections in systems create the results we see (in, for instance, their family, a pond, or a community), we help them learn empathy and problem-solving skills.

Here’s an example of a diagram I created to try to “map the system” of a vernal pool when I was working on my new picture book, Noisy Puddle:

The Noisy Puddle Anna Sketch White Board by Linda Booth Sweeney

As a kid, I used to spend hours in the fields near our house, just lying in the tall grass and watching clouds drift by. Since TV time was restricted to Sundays, nature became my entertainment hub.

In my twenties, I worked for Outward Bound and then went back for a doctorate at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. That's where I got to know Peter Senge, Joanna Macy, Fritjof Capra and learned about the work of Buckminster Fuller. All of these thinkers opened my eyes to the idea that everything around us, from nature to organizations like Outward Bound, is part of this big, living system.

It was a like a whole new world opened up for me.

Interior Image of The Noisy Puddle by Linda Booth Sweeney

The systems view helped me to look at interconnections instead of parts. I started seeing patterns everywhere. I could see that the way mint plants multiply in my garden was driven by the same pattern (or feedback loop) at play with the spread of a virus -- or even rumors.

As I learned more, I wanted to share these ideas with the teens I was working with (through Outward Bound), but I learned from the eye rolls I got at first that I couldn’t use jargon. I had to find simpler ways to talk about stuff like systems and feedback loops in ways they could actually understand and use it in their everyday lives.

That's when I had the idea to use games to teach systems thinking. We were already using experiential learning at Outward Bound, so why not?

That's how The Systems Thinking Playbook came about—30 games to help build up those systems thinking muscles.

Interior Image of The Noisy Puddle by Linda Booth Sweeney

And then I started to have children, and I realized stories were another way to make systems thinking accessible to everyone.

When a Butterfly Sneezes uses picture books and Connected Wisdom uses folktales from around the world to make systems thinking accessible to people of all ages.

For years I’ve led two parallel lives: teaching and writing about systems thinking... and reading and soaking in children’s stories and picture books. Now my journey has led me to the intersection of both children's books and systems thinking.

Whether I’m writing a simple concept book like Apart, Together, or a nature science book like The Noisy Puddle, I let the systems thinker guide what I write.

I was especially excited to see Betsy Bird's review of my picture book biography on Daniel Chester French. She so astutely noted, "...Sweeney is dedicated to introducing kids to the fact that the world is complex.”

That pretty much sums it up!

On March 12th you’re launching your book, NOISY PUDDLE – congrats!!! Tell us about the book. Where did the idea come from? What’s your favorite thing about it?

I love to walk in the woods to clear my head. The first few stanzas of this poem came on one of those walks in my hometown of Concord, Massachusetts.

Halfway down the well-worn path to Fairyland Pond, I saw one lone goose and then, about 20 feet away, one lone crow.

Both were standing silently next to a small row of bright, yellow daffodils. It was a serene and peaceful scene.

Suddenly, I heard a cacophony of quacking sounds from what looked like a small swamp, which I later discovered was a vernal pool. It was so loud I realized I couldn’t hear myself think!

I laughed, and wondered aloud, “What happened to the forest’s hush?  Why is everything in a rush?” 

From those few lines, this book was born. 

The Noisy Puddle by Linda Booth Sweeney

Who do you see as the audience for NOISY PUDDLE? How do you hope people will react to it?

I’m reading and loving The Creative Act - A Way of Being, a book by music producer Rick Rubin. Rubin produced LL Cool J, Run DMC, The Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Cult, The Strokes, Tom Petty, Metallica, Johnny Cash, and The Chicks, among many others and that's why the book is so intriguing!

 In the short chapter on "Nature as Teacher," Rubin writes: “When we take notice of the cycles of the planet and choose to live in accordance with the seasons, something remarkable happens. We become connected.”

That is what I think is the promise of The Noisy Puddle: it celebrates the cyclical, magical, noisy world of nature’s pop-up spring pools, which are a tangle of interconnections.

It's an invitation for children, parents, grandparents, and teachers, to tune in to nature’s natural cycles. And feel connected.

My hope is that children will be curious about the world of vernal pools and fall in love with the unusual cast of characters that show up in them, like fairy shrimp, whirly gigs and quacking wood frogs!

The Noisy Puddle Interior by Linda Booth Sweeney

I want them to discover that, even when they don’t see them, these important ecosystems are there year round. As they grow older, my hope is that these same children will share the magic of these pop-up pools with their children.

Most people have never heard of vernal pools, so these pop-up spring ecosystems, which are often invisible at other times of year, face increasing threats from urban development and agriculture.

As they grow, I’d love for these same children to protect vernal pools, because they know vernal pools help protect our communities from floods, filter our water and help create health in surrounding ecosystems.

Sketch from The Noisy Puddle by Linda Booth Sweeney

NOISY PUDDLE is an obvious choice for storytimes about springtime, or wetland habitats, or the four seasons. What are some non-obvious aspects of the book you’d like teachers and parents to share with kids?

Non-obvious? Well, to me the biggest one is WONDER and AWE. Who would have thought there was so much life teaming in what looks like a simple puddle?!

I know you’ve already started doing school visits with the book. What activities do you do with the kids? 

I’m planning to have a lot of fun with the launch of this book! We’ve got a vernal pool March madness bracket in the works, vernal pool bingo, visits with Fred the turtle at Drumlin Farm (an Audubon Center in Lincoln, MA), a Noisy Puddle class play for grades K-2 (a huge parachute movement game that mimics pond life, created with nature educator Melissa Roberts), and a wonderful series of dance/movement activities created by environmental educator Layla Sastry.

Wow! That's a lot.

Are you already working on a new project now, or do you have a dream project in the future? If so, what is it?

I’m dreaming of a graphic novel series with a systems thinking twist that is so funny and action-packed that kids will devour it and learn something at the same time.

Okay, I’m working on that dream right now so maybe I can't call it a "dream" anymore. Stay tuned!

Where can people connect with you and find out more about NOISY PUDDLE?

I’d love for people to connect with me on Instagram or my website.

Cover of Nell and the Netherbeast, illustrated by Ash Szymanik

Comics Artist Ash Szymanik on Their Creative Process

Tell me a bit about yourself. Where are you from? How did you decide to become an artist?

Hi! I’m Ash Szymanik, and I’m a New York based illustrator, colorist, and comics artist. I’ve been drawing all my life and I’ve always had a huge love for comics and illustration, but I didn’t really consider looking into illustration as a career until a bit later than most illustrators I know.

Don't Wake Up the Cat by Ash Szymanik

I initially pursued filmmaking, and studied film my first year of college at Pratt Institute. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a great first impression of the school’s film program and was disheartened by the lack of emphasis on storytelling or technical skill, but on the upside, the foundation classes I took my freshman year helped me become more confident in my drawing skills.

Those classes helped me realize that I wanted to take a shot at a career where I got to draw regularly. I made the switch to animation for my sophomore year and that’s where I’d say my art career truly began.

I didn’t end up working in animation either, but I’m perfectly okay with that. I love being an illustrator, and I’m really happy with where I am now in my career.

Illustration by Ash Szymanik titled "Tired"

You worked on a wide range of books over the past couple years – as a cover illustrator, graphic novel colorist, and more. Could you tell us more about what you’ve worked on?

My very first major project was my webcomic Let’s Get Burgers, a slice-of-life gag comic about a cat named Knife and a dog named Cheddar who really, really like burgers. A majority of the comics were about being trans and queer, working retail, and finding happiness while surviving a late-stage capitalist world. All drawn from personal experience, of course!

Perfect! I'll update the timeline in our notes. :) Thank you so much!

Around 2020, it started getting positive attention from the indie comics corner of Twitter, and Silver Sprocket, one of my favorite indie comics publishers, reached out and asked if I wanted to make a book out of my comics.

An illustration from Let's Get Burgers, illustrated by Ash Szymanik

An illustration from Let's Get Burgers, illustrated by Ash Szymanik

An illustration from Let's Get Burgers, illustrated by Ash Szymanik

Funnily enough, the 2022 release of my decidedly adult-oriented book of comics is more or less how I landed in the kidlit industry. A member of the Silver Sprocket staff, Carina Taylor, who I’ll add is a wonderful artist and human, happened to also work at Scholastic, and she reached out asking me if I was interested in working as a colorist for Rex Ogle’s middle grade graphic novel, Four Eyes. And of course, I said yes!

Cover of Four Eyes, colored by Ash Szymanik

I had the privilege of working alongside the supremely talented illustrator Dave Valeza, who was nothing but helpful and encouraging while I found my bearings in my new job. I’m very proud of the color work I did, and I feel extremely lucky that I got to work with such a supportive team during my first job.

An illustration from Four Eyes, colored by Ash Szymanik

Another one of my jobs that year was as a cover and spot illustrator for Adi Rule’s Nell and the Netherbeast, a fantastic middle-grade fantasy-mystery novel about an animal-loving girl and the supernatural cat-shaped gremlin she befriends while she investigates her aunt’s haunted bed and breakfast over the course of her summer vacation.

Cover of Nell and the Netherbeast, illustrated by Ash Szymanik

For this project, I looked to linocuts as inspiration for the designs, and I was also very influenced by illustrations by Quentin Blake (who worked on a number of Roald Dahl novels) and Dave Mckean (who did the cover art and spot illustrations for Neil Gaiman’s Coraline) that I remembered from my childhood. Nell and the Netherbeast definitely was one of my favorite projects I’ve worked on, and I’d love to work on more cover and spot illustrations in the future.

Illustration from Nell and the Netherbeast, illustrated by Ash Szymanik

The most recent project I finished was coloring Rex Ogle’s sequel to Four Eyes, Pizza Face. My next colorist job will probably be the third book in the series!

Cover of Pizza Face, colored by Ash Szymanik

You also worked on a cool project related to a video game! Explain what you did for that project. Was it similar to working on book illustration, or different?

So in early 2023, the indie game developer Darya Noghani reached out to me to commission a series of illustrations for their indie RPG Small Saga. They were creating a PDF  “travel guide” to be included in the deluxe version of the game, as a callback to the game manuals that were often included with older games of the genre. I was already familiar with the project and I was absolutely delighted at being asked to contribute!

Illustration from Small Saga, illustrated by Ash Szymanik

I created a set of four interior illustrations depicting the cities you can visit in the game. I tried to create a busy, whimsical atmosphere, while hinting at some of the plot elements that Darya had provided me with. And I’d say that it was pretty much more or less the same as working on book illustration!

Illustration from Small Saga, illustrated by Ash Szymanik

What are you working on now?

Currently I’m working on private commissions and on updating my online store, which I’m planning to reopen sometime in mid January!

Cat illustration by Ash Szymanik

You told me recently that you cut back on social media usage and read a lot in 2023 that helped you develop a different approach to online promotion. What were the books that inspired you, and how have they changed your approach?

While social media, ESPECIALLY Twitter, has been instrumental in helping me achieve the level of professional success that I have today, most people I know would agree that the current social media landscape is a total nightmare. I’d go onto Twitter knowingly subjecting myself to a barrage of negativity just because I was so addicted to dopamine high of witnessing petty drama or checking numbers on my most recent posts.

Cat illustration by Ash Szymanik

The constant hunger for clout and the relentless negativity started to affect my mental health, but I didn’t really feel like I had the tools to free myself from this cycle until I started reading How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell. She articulated a lot of what was so frustrating about social media and how these platforms are consciously designed to trigger anger and discord. 

Illustration of Little Cafe in the Big City by Ash Szymanik

The way she laid it all out honestly made me get really angry at how my attention was being taken advantage of, when I could be spending my time doing things that would make me happy  and self-assured, like reading books! Or birdwatching! All of that really helped me take a step back and only use Twitter and other social media “as needed”.

Halloween Party by Ash Szymanik

Do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on so far in your career? What did you love about it?

I really, really loved working on Nell and the Netherbeast! I’m a HUGE fan of cats and of drawing cats, and I found the awkward, animal-loving protagonist Nell super relatable. Honestly, any project where I get to draw cats is extremely fun for me and I am very much looking forward to working on more cat-themed projects in the future.

Cat illustration by Ash Szymanik

Do you have a dream project in the future? If so, what is it?

I don’t currently have any concrete dream project in mind, but I would love to illustrate a picture book or graphic novel. Preferably one involving cats in some shape of form, of course. But any project where I got to draw animals would be great too!

Pillow Cat by Ash Szymanik

Where can people connect with you and find out more about your work?

My portfolio site is! As for social media, I’m @housegoblin on Tumblr, Twitter, and BlueSky, and I’m @house.goblin on Instagram. The url to my online store is and it should reopen in late January!

Star Cats by Ash Szymanik

punycorn by andi watson, a funny middle grade fantasy graphic novel

The Steps to Creating a Graphic Novel: Andi Watson on PUNYCORN

punycorn by andi watson, a funny middle grade fantasy graphic novel

The day has come! PUNYCORN has arrived.

Who is PUNYCORN, you ask?

He's just the sweetest, bravest little can-do unicorn in the land of Carbuncle! Who takes on evil Sir Ogre with the help of Wheeze the allergic dragon! And P'oo the dung beetle with the strength of a thousand men! Not to mention the pacifist sword Bloodgutter!

PUNYCORN is, in other words, a very funny middle grade fantasy graphic novel by legendary indie comics creator Andi Watson.

I could go on and on about how much I love this book, but instead I'm going to share some creative process info from Andi below.

Andi is a true comics pro, having written or illustrated or written and illustrated more than fifty comics and graphic novels. (If you want to see the full list, check out the jaw-dropping bibiliography on his website.)

A few months ago, he wrote a detailed description of how he created PUNYCORN in his newsletter. He kindly gave me permission to share his words here.

Andi Watson on His PUNYCORN Graphic Novel Creative Process

ANDI: Starting from a detailed synopsis, a Word file of roughly 13,000 words, I needed to break the story down into thumbnails. That way I could work out what I could keep and what I could cut in order to fit within the maximum page count (224 pages). Depending on publisher, genre and various other factors, not least of which cost, a book has a page count range you are expected to fit within.

My normal thumbnails are extremely primitive, barely legible visual shorthand to get the rough idea of the rhythm and number of panels on a page. That is fine when I'm the only one who needs to read them. When I have to communicate directly with others, an editor in this case, they have to be at least legible.

I grabbed my scrap paper and pencils and got to work. I scanned the results, and because other humans have to be able to read them, added text via a font rather than my (awful) handwriting. After sketching out the first 50 pages I shared them with my editor. They looked like this:

graphic novel layout example: punycorn page sketches by andi watson (middle grade fantasy graphic novel)

The early feedback I got suggested that the editor and I had different ideas of what counts as "thumbnails." I felt like they were expecting something closer to what I would consider pencils. I would need to tweak my process again and present them in a more polished form.

However, I'd still draw thumbnails on paper to work out my thinking -- example below from the second book in the series:

graphic novel creator sketchbook: andi watson's thumbnails for graphic novel series PUNYCORN

I'd invested in an iPad and Procreate and discovered it was the quickest way to get the thumbnails/pencils done while integrating them with text. I re-drew many of my scratchy pencils on the iPad. It's a lot easier to manipulate images digitally and saves the chore of scanning artwork.

This is how they look after I'd changed up my methods:

procreate graphic novel pencils by andi watson for his middle grade funny fantasy graphic novel punycorn

After I'd had my notes from my editor I re-drew certain panels and changed pages to address them. I re-worked some scenes, cut others and added some new ones. That resulted in the pages falling differently in sequence, moving from the left hand to right hand of facing pages.

After the edits are approved I can move onto inking. With my previous book The Book Tour, I didn't pencil it all before I inked it. I did both together, page by page, using pencil and pen on paper.

For Punycorn, as I'd already pencilled the entire book and I was staring down an approaching deadline, I decided to ink Punycorn digitally. It would be quicker, skipping the boring process of scanning artwork, and would make it easier to edit. I simply inked over my existing thumbnails/pencils.

Inking requires less brain work. It is more about muscle memory and perseverance. After the initial rush of doing something new after months of thumbnails/pencils, it settles into the challenge of meeting the daily page count without my brain melting out of my ears.

The solution for me is to listen to podcasts and audio books while I put in the hours.

This is what the inked pages look like:

inked graphic novel page example by andi watson from his middle grade funny fantasy graphic novel series PUNYCORN

For The Book Tour, I lettered the pages by hand on the page. Because Punycorn had to pass through the hands of editorial, copyedits and proofreaders, the assistant editor/designer (everyone is overworked in publishing) created a font from my lettering specially for Punycorn to make it easier to edit.

After the notes are addressed and the inks are approved, I can start on colours. As the art is already digital I hop on over to Photoshop to colour the line work.

Colour requires much more decision-making than inking, but it still boils down to a lot of repetitive pointing and clicking, so I keep the podcasts coming:

sample final colored graphic novel spread without lettering, from PUNYCORN, a funny fantasy middle grade graphic novel by Andi Watson

The lettering is combined with the colours in the final part of the process.

After addressing notes for the colours, the book continues its journey through the publishing process. Roughly one year after I finished, it appeared on the shelves (hopefully) of your local book shop.

Learn more and order PUNYCORN here.

Watch the AWESOME (one minute!) book trailer here.

Find out more about Andi on his website. Connect with him via his newsletter here, and via Patreon here.

Cover of Pizza Pickles and Apple Pie, illustrated nonfiction by david rickert

Teacher-cartoonist David Rickert on PIZZA, PICKLES, AND APPLE PIE

On Oct. 31st your book, PIZZA, PICKLES, AND APPLE PIE came out from Kane Press – congrats!!! Tell us about the book.

It’s a non-fiction middle grade graphic novel that tells the history of everyday foods in a fun, lively way.

Cover of Pizza Pickles and Apple Pie, illustrated nonfiction by david rickert

You're a high school English teacher, and you're also a cartoonist. How long have you been a teacher? When did you decide to pursue comics seriously, as well?

I have been teaching for 27 years, the vast majority of which has been as a high school English teacher. When I was in high school I seriously considered going to school to become a cartoonist, but I chickened out. I did, however, make a compromise. I went to the Ohio State University which is home to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, and also the place where Jeff Smith got his start doing a daily strip for The Lantern, the OSU school newspaper. Like Jeff I too did a daily strip while I was a student there, and learned a lot about comics and drawing from that. 

Once I graduated I focused on my job, but eventually remembered how much I enjoyed drawing comics. I grabbed my drawing table and old art supplies from my parents’ house and started doing some new comics which found their way into the educational market.   

David Rickert, nonfiction cartoonist and author of PIZZA PICKLES AND APPLE PIE

What was your favorite part of the process of creating PIZZA, PICKLES, AND APPLE PIE?

I love looking at historical figures and finding funny ways to draw them.

pizza pickles and apple pie by david rickert interior panels: comic about history of dessert

How does your experience as a teacher inform what you do as a writer and artist?

It’s made me very kid-centered in my work. I’m always thinking about what kids will find entertaining more so than adults. I try to make the kind of comics that I would have read as a kid.

pizza pickles and apple pie by david rickert interior panels: how to become a sushi chef comic

You're a parent as well as a full-time teacher and graphic novelist. How do you balance everything? How did you complete this book on deadline while doing everything else you have on your plate?

The biggest thing for me is that writing and drawing comics is the way I wind down, and something I look forward to every day. When I get in the zone with that, there’s no better stress reliever than that. It’s easy to prioritize work that has that therapeutic value to it.

Beyond that, I’m not going to lie – there were times when I was working on the book in school because it was more urgent than keeping up on grading. And there were also times when I would work in the evening after dinner instead of watching television with my family. But they are very understanding that this is something I wanted to do with my life and they see how much joy I get from it, too.

pizza pickles and apple pie by david rickert interior panels: comic about pickles

Given all your classroom experience, I imagine you must have ideas on how schools could use graphic novels and your books in particular most effectively. What would you say about that?

I’m a big fan of using original graphic novels in the classroom like Maus and Persepolis. I’m less of a fan of using graphic novel adaptations of classic works to make is easier for kids to understand the content. If graphic novels are to be thought of as a legitimate literary form, then teachers can’t just use them as a substitute. They need to be seen as valuable in their own right. 

Now that you’ve finished PIZZA PICKLES, what are you working on now? 

My next book is about the history of medicine.

pizza pickles and apple pie by david rickert interior panel (1)

Do you do school visits? If so, what do you focus on in your presentations?

I haven’t done too many yet, but kids seem interested in the process of creating comics from start to finish, and how you can create expressions by just altering an eyebrow or mouth. I also talk about the process of conducting research, how to create a food history comic, and other topics related to non-fiction and comics.

Where can people connect with you and find out more about PIZZA, PICKLES, AND APPLE PIE?

Go to my website: You can also go to Instagram: @rickertdraws. 

 Find out more about PIZZA PICKLES AND APPLE PIE here.

apart together-linda booth sweeney and ariel rutland-cover

Linda Booth Sweeney and Ariel Rutland on APART TOGETHER

apart together-linda booth sweeney and ariel rutland-cover

On Oct. 17th Balzer & Bray released your book, APART, TOGETHER – congrats!!! Tell us about the book. Where did the idea come from?

LINDA: "I can remember the exact moment this book idea showed up.  It was during COVID,  every open spot in my house was filled with someone online, either working or taking a college or high school class.  So I hid out in the basement where no one else wanted to work. I love it down there. Darker places help concentrate my thoughts somehow.  

I was taking an online class with children’s book author Kate Messner. She gave us a writing prompt: “What do you love?  I just starting making a list:  'I LOVE piano chords. I love how one note combines with other notes to make chords. Unlike one note, you can really feel a beautiful chord.'

I kept writing: 'I love what happens when you mix colors..  Red on its own is red.  Yellow is yellows.  But together they are an entirely new color.  Orange. Magic! / I love how apart, brooks babble, but together, they ROAR!'

There was more, but when I finished, I realized all my examples were about how 'the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts.' 

Was it a crazy idea to write a kids book about emergence?  Kate encouraged us to trust what we wrote.  I loved that list so much, so I decided to work on it.  Eventually I found that it could rhyme quite nicely, and then I decided to start workshopping it in my writer’s group.  

I think what sealed it was the fact that we were all apart during COVID.  My little neighbor who was three wasn’t able to play with other kids on the playground. At some level, I wanted the book to celebrate the magic of being together too.

Linda, tell me a bit about yourself. How did you decide to become a writer? 

Linda Booth Sweeney, author of APART TOGETHER, and teddy bear and Roosevelt - Our Headshot

LINDA: I’m the youngest of four kids, all born within six years of each other.  As I kid, there was a lot going on in our house.  When I was 12, my sister gave me a diary with a lock.  I loved the idea of writing whatever came to my mind and I could lock them up and keep them safe.  I highly recommend it! 

Ariel, tell me a bit about yourself. How did you decide to become a designer and illustrator? What type of work do you create?

ariel rutland-illustrator of apart together

ARIEL: I live with my husband and our three fun-loving boys (6, 3, and 1) in the suburbs outside Philadelphia. We live on a quiet tree-lined street near a walking trail along the Delaware river and a sweet downtown. It’s a lot like my cozy hometown of Metuchen, NJ, where I grew up.

Becoming a professional designer and illustrator was a natural landing along a path I started following as a child and never really veered from. As a kid I was also coloring, painting, and crafting. It was an expressive outlet for me that came naturally.

I studied art and design in college, landed a job at Martha Stewart in NYC and began my design career. Though my work was print-based, I was lucky to have a desk feet away from the craft department and textile department.

I explored a lot of hands-on art making during this time, creating surface pattern design for home goods like notebooks, wrapping paper, and pillows. From there I worked at a design studio specializing in gourmet food brands and packaging. The clients and products were incredibly varied. There was chia pudding, handmade pasta, Mexican cookies, macadamia milk and on and on.  

Ariel Rutland textiles for baby

When my 6-year old was born, I left the studio for freelance life, and today I continue print design and branding work with a handful of dear clients within the gourmet food market and in the education field.

I’m thrilled to be working with Linda again on our second book with Balzer + Bray (forthcoming). And I’m busy creating sample art for a book pitch in the new year, this one written by one of my childhood best friends.

As you know, Linda, we originally pitched the book to publishers as a manuscript, but didn’t have any luck. When I originally suggested partnering with Ariel what did you think?

LINDA: I thought that was brilliant!

If you think about it, I was trying to create pictures of change. Ariel was able to highlight the different parts like seeds, soil, sun and water, and then celebrate in a beautiful illustration what happens when those parts combine. 

ArielRutland-ApartTogether-honey interior spread

When I originally suggested partnering with Linda, Ariel, what did you think?

ARIEL: It was a dream opportunity and I said yes without hesitation!

At the time you suggested it, my freelance jobs had a strong illustration lean: creating patterns for Birchbox and illustration spots for ApartmentTherapy. My work was becoming a satisfying mix of design (order, problem solving, structure) and artistry (intuitive, full of expression, loose). I was rediscovering myself as a drawer, painter, artist and it was invigorating being on this path.

ArielRutland birchbox packaging

When you presented the manuscript, I knew I had to pursue it. I was certain it would be a positive experience, that I would learn and grow as an illustrator, no matter if there was a book deal in the end.

Ariel, what’s your process of approaching the visual expression of written text by someone else? How do you develop the illustrations?

It wasn’t an easy process! In all of my past work for clients, it was important to set aside my personal aesthetics, especially when working within an existing brand style guide.

This was the first project in my career that literally had my name on it. So, this was an opportunity to dig deep and embrace my own style.

ArielRutland-ApartTogether-foam bubbles illustration

Linda, after you collaborated with Ariel on the pitch, we got multiple offers on the book! What do you think her work brought to the table?

LINDA: When I think of Ariel’s work I think of not just brilliant color, but the masterful way she combines color. Brilliant orange next to a robin’s egg blue, hot pink next to a deep lemon yellow. 

She’s like a jazz musician except she’s riffing on the color wheel. Her drawings, her fabric, her art is clean, graphic, child-friendly, whimsical, and in many cases, inspired by nature.

What has been your experience of the writer-artist partnership? How do you complement each other?

LINDA: We have a lot of mutual respect for each other and listen to each other’s ideas.  

OK, sometimes I may have too many ideas!

Ariel and I compliment each other because she listens really well, and while she’s amazingly creative, she’s also discerning and practical, which means we ultimately pick the best ideas and then go for it!

I think it’s really interesting how the concept underlying APART, TOGETHER is reflected in your work together. The book is about how sometimes, separate things come together and result in something completely new, something that’s not 1+1=2, but rather 1+1=5, or something like that!

How would you say that this fundamental concept of “systems thinking” shows up in human collaboration?

LINDA: Absolutely. But first a story. 

2730 years ago, a philosopher named Aristotle was puzzled. He thought about the parts of a tiger, like the heart and stomach and brain. He knew that separately, the parts made a heap or pile. Together, though, they created something different: a fierce, fast, powerful Tiger.  

So he famously said: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Scientists now call this “emergence.” 

Our health, the speed of your bike, the song you love, a growing garden, love between family and friends and human collaboration --  all are the result of interactions that produce something greater than the sum of the parts.    

Typically, real collaboration takes time.  If you think about little kids playing soccer, they're more like a heap or a swarm. There’s not a lot of collaboration or cooperation. 

But as they grow, they learn how to play together. And with time and practice, something new that is the result of their interactions over time begins to emerge: teamwork, cooperation, and even success.

ARIEL: The magic comes from working together.

In our case, Linda needed pictures, and my pictures couldn’t have existed without her words.

Linda, you’re actually a systems thinking expert. Why do you want to bring systems thinking to very young readers? What’s important about it?

LINDA: As adults, we intuitively understand how tightly interconnected our world is. (Certainly the last few years have demonstrated that acutely!)

Sometimes these connections and the systems that govern them can be invisible to us, though, until we take the time to really look and trace how “this” influences “that.”  

Whether you’re five or fifty-five, systems thinking begins with imagining how different parts of a system work together to produce the results we see. By doing this, we become more curious and learn to think critically about the world around us.

Early exposure to systems thinking can help children feel more confident when dealing with complex problems as they grow older. At the same time, they are practicing important abstract thinking skills like prediction, cause and effect, and transformation. These are also developing a growth mindset and building neuroplasticity!

The premise APART, TOGETHER is simple. We teach our kids about objects: Truck. Duck. Cat. Bat. We teach our kids our individuals: Mom. Dad. Grandma. Teacher.

But when do our children learn to look at interrelationships, between objects, parts or people? 

APART, TOGETHER invites children and their grownups to read, discuss, play, imagine and together, be curious about the connections that make up their world.

Having these types of conversations helps children build the muscle to see not only objects — a bee, soil, a soccer player — but to imagine how the interconnections and interactions among those objects can create something entirely new. 

Early childhood researcher and author Ellen Galinsky, in her book Mind in the Making, calls this “cognitive flexibility.” That means developing the ability not just to sort, categorize and name parts, but also to make multiple connections, a skill Galinsky notes “becomes possible during later preschool and early school-age years as the prefrontal cortex of children’s brains mature.” 

“Systems thinking” might be a new concept to some early childhood educators. How do you help them incorporate it into their work with children?

LINDA: I tend to focus on everyday scenarios and language when I teach systems thinking. 

In the book I use familiar scenarios like mixing paint, building with blocks, and playing soccer as examples of how interactions produce different results that are often quite different from or greater than the sum of their parts.

For little ones, APART TOGETHER simply asks:  what can happen TOGETHER that doesn’t happen when things (or people) are APART? 

Ariel, you have very young children yourself – the exact target audience for APART, TOGETHER! How does your experience as a mom inform what you do as a children’s book illustrator?

ARIEL: It informs everything, whether I’m conscious of it or not!

Being around these three growing humans and witness to all their developmental changes, tiny and big, has added new levels of perspective. I try and take cues from their approach to life and apply it myself. To be open, be curious, be playful, be willing to try big things and make mistakes and try again.

Kids reading apart together by linda booth sweeney and ariel rutland

This practice was essential when embarking on illustrating this book, and continues to guide me through new drawings, especially when I’m feeling stuck.

In a very literal sense, being a mother informed how I imagined another caring adult would read this book out loud to a child.

How would a child look through these pictures, what nuances might they appreciate? What can I incorporate that would spark an idea, or might prompt the adult reader to point out something to the child?

The final spread of the book (a family of birds in a nest) was very much the result of letting this mom energy flow. The ginkgo tree depicted on the page is a real tree that stands like a friendly giant in our front yard. I get a perfect view of the canopy from the window over my desk and I spent many many days looking out at it while i drew the book.

ArielRutland-ApartTogether-birds illustration

Where can people connect with you and find out more about APART, TOGETHER?

LINDA: Visit!

ARIEL: You can find me at and