Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Amy Lignor is talking with Deborah Stevenson, author of Oy, Elephants! as well as the book's illustrator Morgan Spicer.
FQ: Both of you have a strong love for animals and are true animal advocates. Can you tell readers a little bit about your particular ‘loves’ and perhaps any organizations you wish to talk about that benefit animals?
STEVENSON: On my kindergarten report card, my teacher wrote: "I think Debbie should have a pet. She loves animals so much." So I think my connection with animals was hard-wired and early onset. Actually, Grandma Gussie's character in Oy, Elephants! is based on my real grandma. She adored animals and was always taking in strays, rehabilitating and releasing neighborhood squirrels and injured birds, and she always had dogs. She would have loved the Helfands! She was most definitely a strong influence in my life in general, and in my love and respect for animals specifically. I have always had a particular affinity for dogs, and have been fortunate to share my home and my life with many over the years. I enjoy training and competing with them in the sport of dog agility, which they enjoy as much (maybe more) than I do. Agility, for me, is a like a beautiful dance that showcases the miraculous partnership that is possible between dogs and humans. And of course as dogs go, none was quite as dear to me as Soren, the incredible little French Bulldog who was the subject of my first book, Soaring Soren. I love all animals, but aside from dogs, I do have a little thing for elephants and confess that I'm a long-time collector of elephant knick knacks. I also love rhinos, and I am extremely concerned about the effects of poaching and encroachment on the future of both those species.
For each book, I try to support a related charity. For Soaring Soren, that charity is French Bulldog Village. It's a wonderful group that rescues, rehabilitates and re-homes French Bulldogs in need, and they don't just take the easy to place cases. They take senior dogs, dogs with medical and behavioral issues. It's an often-expensive labor of love and they do great work. For Oy, Elephants! and another upcoming book, I've chosen some charities that help fight against poaching and ivory trade. One lovely organization is David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. They rescue young elephants, rhinos and other animals who are orphaned, often due to poaching, care for them, rehabilitate them and acclimate them to return to the wild. In addition to general donations, you can foster one or more of these youngsters and get regular updates on their progress. It's both educational and rewarding, and honestly, just fascinating--a great gift and activity to share with a child. International Rhino Foundation has a similar foster program and works hard to educate the public about rhinos and protect them and their habitats.
SPICER: I struggled with my love for animals for most of my life. I called it a curse, "cursed with compassion." We live in a world where animals are not treated well. I felt I could not find a place for myself or my art growing up. My love for animals, and respect for their right to a cruelty-free life, made me feel separated from my own family and most of my friends. The best way for me to express my love for animals, with my artistic talent, was with dogs as the subject to start out my career after college. Everyone loves dogs, right! That was something we could almost all agree upon--they were a safe, but fun subject for the majority of my books. My small business, Bark Point Studio was founded in 2012, and since that time I have created thousands of pet 'caricatures,' now called illustrations, with a percentage of a lot of those commissions going to local and national 501(c)3 animal rescue groups.
Since making the decision a few years ago to embrace a vegan life, my struggle to love animals has no longer been a struggle or curse. I can love them, embrace them, respect them and draw them without the feeling of hypocrisy or of helplessness. I now feel I express my love for animals with each meal, every day, and not just with my professional career choices. I would love to mention Farm Sanctuary, an amazing non-profit. I would also love to mention just two of the breed-specific rescues I love to work with, Poodle Rescue of Vermont and Oldies But Goodies Cocker Spaniel Rescue. Another great one, Foster Dogs, Inc. which started in NYC but has since grown.
FQ: How did you first meet up with one another?
SPICER: Through my small business Bark Point Studio. I started the business because I was determined to make a career as a freelance artist. I had been doing pet portraits my entire life, with the best experiences having been at the Monmouth County SPCA dog walk fundraiser. My mom, who is a small business owner and philanthropist, was always pushing me to use my art to benefit others. One year, I donated all my profits which only amounted to a few hundred dollars, but I must have drawn about 50 dogs that day as they sat in front of me at this wonderful fundraiser. I would say this experience enabled my career as an artist to get off the ground. So Bark Point Studio was the same idea, but at a much larger scale thanks in part to social media. People who commissioned art of their animal companions were encouraged to share them on social media, since my work is done digitally, this was quite easy for them. One share lead to another and Deborah had found my work. It was through this process that almost all of my author's of dog-related titles found me.
Deborah and I do share a love for animals, in particular, for our dogs. We work very well together, I feel as though the more feedback we give each other and the more we bounce ideas off of each other, the better both of our work becomes. It has always been easy for me to communicate with her throughout the process because we are so similar in our mutual respect for dogs and our understanding of the incredible role they can play in our lives, whether it's as an agility partner or simply as a best friend. I believe we have many more stories to tell together!
STEVENSON: Our first meeting was quite accidental, and a real-life case of foreshadowing if I ever saw one. I saw a caricature of a friend's dog on social media, and it was wonderful. I thought, "I'd love to have one of those of Soren!" and so I asked my friend where she had gotten it. I contacted the artist, Morgan, of course, and asked her if she could do a caricature for me. She did, of Soren and one other of my dogs, and I loved them. A few years later, I went to contact Morgan again to have her draw my other dogs, and noticed on her Facebook page that she was illustrating a children's book. By then, I had a first draft of Soaring Soren written, so I sent it to Morgan and asked her if she might be willing to illustrate it. The rest, as they say, is history. Who knew back when Morgan drew her very first Soren, that she would become the subject matter expert one day. 🙂
Whether it was chance or fate, I'll always be grateful that our paths crossed. I am not sure whether Morgan's talent or her heart is bigger, but they are truly inseparable, and they are what, together, make her work so powerful and unique. I also have always felt, since we first started working together, that our creativity is different, but meshes in a way that brings out the best in each other. I'm in awe of her ability to capture the soul of a character. I don't know if I am her biggest fan, but I have to be pretty high on the list.
FQ: Deborah, is this love you have for animals what made you first want to pen a children’s book?
STEVENSON: That's an interesting question. Animals are definitely the inspiration for much of my writing--both the stories and the characters. And undeniably, Soren's remarkable story, and my deep admiration for that little dog with such a huge heart and spirit, is what pushed me over the edge to finally bring a children's book to fruition. I loved his story, and I loved him. I wanted the inspiration he gave to so many throughout his life, to live on. He has such a powerful and important message for children and adults alike, and I was driven to share it. But I think beyond that, it is my love of reading that was the motivation. I was the weird kid that was always getting yelled at to "stop reading at the table," "stop reading while you walk--you'll kill yourself," "stop reading and go to bed--it's 3 A.M." And then I had my own child, and watching him fall in love with reading was maybe even more addictive. I think that is when I started thinking I'd love to write a children's book one day. I hoped to help children find their own love of reading. I would also like to share with them my love and respect for animals and nature, to make them laugh, and to encourage them to be kind, to themselves and to others, to dream big, to work hard for the things they want in life and to believe that anything is within their reach if they have the determination to pursue it.
FQ: Deborah, will there be more books, with more incredible animals starring in the lead roles that readers can look forward to seeing soon?
STEVENSON: I am going say that is highly likely. I've been working on one for while now that I hope will be out this year. It's on a rather serious animal conservation subject, but it also has adventure, humor, and some unique and special characters I hope children will relate to and love as much as I do. I won't let the cat any farther out of the bag, but I'm very excited about it. Beyond this next book, suffice it to say, I have more ideas than I have time, and I hope, eventually, I get to do them all. I think Soren may have a few more fun adventures and worthwhile messages to share at some point, as well.
FQ: Morgan, you operate your own studio. Can you tell readers more about this? And what got you into the illustrating realm after graduating from Syracuse University?
SPICER: I went to Syracuse for their incredible illustration program, which was invaluable to my success. Syracuse taught us not just about how to be a well-rounded and experienced artist, but also about the business aspect behind freelancing. To be honest, I never wanted to be an artist though, I wanted to be an ethologist, but very few schools on the East Coast have that program, I then wanted to be a Zoologist...Despite this uncertainty, thankfully I listened to my family who told me I was given my artistic talent for a reason, and to embrace it. I did, but the only way I was going to be an illustrator was if I could find a way to help animals and be their voice when I could. I did not seek out children's books. The projects came to me as a result of Bark Point Studio, which was founded with the purpose of being a starting point for my real goal--to have an animal and creative sanctuary for children and adults to come and see animals in a new light, in a positive, educational, kind and cruelty-free environment.
FQ: Morgan, do you have any personal favorites when it comes to artists?
SPICER: I do! I have always absolutely loved the work of Peter de Seve, Nico Marlet, Cory Loftis and Shiyoon Kim and then more recently I've fallen in love with Ruby Roth's work. However, since I do consider myself an animal advocate and activist above being an artist, the most influential activist to me is MLK, who said, “Never, never be afraid to do what's right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society's punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”
FQ: If you had to choose one, is there a favorite children’s book that you hold dear to your heart, and why?
STEVENSON: It's so difficult to choose just one, but since you said I "had to," I pick Charlotte's Web. It is such a marvelous, creative, touching story, and one character is just richer and better than the next. Ironically, I am petrified of spiders, but I can't think of a character I adore more than the ingenious, determined and devoted Charlotte. She is the friend we'd all love to have, and should all aspire to be. After all these years, my eyes still fill with tears when I think of her. As an author, I would dearly love to create some child's "Charlotte," that fifty years later, as she reflects on her favorite children's books, can still bring a tear to her eye.
SPICER: I loved, and still love, Growltiger's Last Stand picture book by TS Eliot and Errol Le Cain. The book is about cats, which was always my favorite subject matter growing up in a house with three. Ironically, I have never done a book about a cat, despite that fact that I never liked dogs until I was a teenager. I felt bad that cats were always the bad guys, and dogs were always the good guys in media and animation and I hated it! This book makes cats feel so cool. Not to mention the art, which is amazing and edgy!
FQ: Deborah, are there other genres you wish to dive into one day?
STEVENSON: In general, I tend to love to try new things. Actually the book I am working on now is a new endeavor for me. It started as a picture book, but I decided the content was a little too heavy for that format, and that it was better suited to a chapter book. It's been an interesting transition and a wonderful learning experience. It has gone through many iterations at this point, and I have greatly enjoyed watching it evolve over time. I still love doing picture books, but this format has allowed certain freedoms picture books do not--like being able to explore more complex plots and develop rich characters and relationships. I've fallen in love with these characters and their story, and I hope children will too. I also hope it will raise awareness about the very serious issue of poaching that has taken some species to the brink of extinction. I'd love to do more chapter books in the future.
Thank you both so much for your time, and your titles. I am a huge fan! And congratulations on the award, you deserved it 100%. - Amy Lignor
STEVENSON: Thanks so much to you and to everyone at Feathered Quill for all your hard work to support, recognize and promote authors and illustrators.
To learn more about Oy, Elephants! please read the review.