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Children's book author and illustrator Julia Denos is 'Starcrossed'

On the podcast: Acclaimed alumna Julia Denos ’05 shares the inspiration behind her new book

 

Find the full transcript after the Episode Notes.

Episode notes

Starcrossed book cover - two children looking at each other, one from space, the other from earth.

Julia Denos's new book Starcrossed features two socially distanced friends. One lives on earth, one in the stars. Julia, talks about the origins of the story, mindfulness for children, painting, and why we need new creators. Lesley Assistant Director for Social Media Emily Earle conducts the interview.

About the guest

Julia Denos ’05 is an author and illustrator of books for children. Sometimes she writes the books, sometimes she illustrates them, and sometimes she does both. Julia's books include Starcrossed, Here and Now, Swatch and Windows. She is a graduate of the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley (now the Lesley University College of Art and Design). You can find Julia on Instagram at @juliadenos. Pro tip: Check out her Instastories!

 

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  • Transcript

    [music]

    Narrator: This is Why We Write. A podcast of Lesley University. Every episode, we bring you conversations with authors in the Lesley community to talk about books, writing and the writing life. Today, Emily Earle speaks with Julia Denos, a graduate of our art school, who has written and illustrated a number of award-winning children's books. In this episode, Julia talks about creating during COVID, where she finds inspiration for her books and gives advice to illustrators and authors who are early in their careers. Here's our interview.

    Emily Earle: Hello, Lesley community and welcome to the Why We Write podcast. My name is Emily Earle and I'm the Assistant Director for Social Media here at Lesley. I'm here today with Julia Denos, an award-winning children's book author and illustrator and 2005 graduate of our Illustration program, technically, the Art Institute of Boston back in the day. She's the author of such titles as Here and Now, a mindfulness book for Children, Windows set in our neighboring Somerville, and the winner of the Massachusetts Book Award, and her newest picture book out later this month, Starcrossed, the story of an interstellar Friendship. Hi, Julia, thanks so much for chatting with us today.

    Julia: Hi, Emily. Thanks so much for having me.

    Emily: Of course. First of all, it's been a few years since we talked after Windows came out, and it's like, we're worlds away from that right now, so how are you doing?

    Julia: Good. Hanging in. How are you? [laughs]

    Emily: Good. Same, getting through it, getting through the day. I'm very excited to talk about your new book. I got a sneak peek of it and it's just incredible and beautiful and very resonant with what we're all going through right now, which we'll definitely get to, but I wonder, actually, if you could give us a few details on your background and how you became a bookmaker in the first place.

    Julia: Sure. As you said, I went to AIB. At the time, it was called the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University and I got my BFA in Illustration. I had a really great bunch of educators there and an awesome small group of illustrator peers, so I just had a really great time getting my degree there. I feel like it really prepared me because pretty quickly out of school, I was able to start securing publishing illustration jobs.

    My first one was with Simon and Schuster. I had about a year down between school and I worked a variety of odd jobs back at home and then I was called up by an agent because of the work on the website that I had created in my last semester at Art Institute of Boston. That's how I got my agent and then I just launched into publishing and started accepting contracts. Then, a little ways into it, I was able to really get to know editors and get to know the business and I had always been writing and illustrating my own work privately and on the side, and it's the reason why I got into illustration and went to school for it in the first place.

    I started to decide that I wanted to slow down on my illustration work for other authors and really get into being able to create work that was coming from my own heart, that I was writing and illustrating. I transitioned into that and 2016 was my first author-illustrated work called Swatch and then, after that I even moved further and just became an author for a few books and didn't illustrate them. My creative partner and friend, E.B Goodale was the illustrator on those. I'm toggling between both author-illustrator now, and just author. [chuckles] That's my journey in a little nutshell.

    Emily: That's great and I remember too, you had mentioned maybe an internship that you secured at AIB and how that influenced getting into the publishing world and seeing a few different sides of what that was and how that informed your journey. Can you talk a little bit about that?

    Julia: Yes, for sure. I think it was the last year. I was able to get a connection to, I think it was a visiting art director and they actually didn't have any positions opened when I contacted them, but they sent me on to Candlewick Press, who at the time, I think they were in Cambridge, and so, they had me in for an interview the year after-- it was the year I graduated so it was that summer and I was working as an R.A, I think, at the dorms.

    I was able to walk to my internship. It was really great going to Candlewick Press. I got so much experience just getting to check out how people were submitting, how artists were submitting their work and this is going to age and date me here because, this not totally how people submit anymore, but everything was totally printed out and created. Physical packages were mailed to publishers and then they were filed away within Candlewick.

    Everyone does it differently, but Candlewick, they file them according to style and voice and aesthetic of the illustrator that they chose, and when they accepted people that mailed things in, they would just kind of file them away for stories that would come up in manuscripts that would match them. My job as an intern was to actually file these accepted illustrators into their filing cabinet. Physically on my knees in the manila folders.

    [laughter]

    Emily: Wow. Don't see that much anymore.

    Julia: Yes, yes. I just spent hours doing that and I just am so grateful for that because, I could really see what publishers wanted and how they really contemplated the voice in a story and then matched it to an illustrator that came in and how fair and awesome and they were very generous about looking at literally everyone that came in and really weighing those submissions. I feel grateful for that opportunity for sure.

    Emily: That's really cool that you can make that connection from where you were then to what you do now, and how different it was, but also how it matches up in terms of making sense in a natural way and that progression. I follow you on Instagram and I think your followers can see how you're inspired by nature and the world around you and you have this beautiful perspective on plants and stars and color and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about where your inspiration comes from for your books.

    Julia: I think each one is very different. Like you said, I never really thought about it that way, but I guess it is true. I work with elements, so for Swatch, I was really inspired by just color in general and how it's so alive and it's got its own spirit and I'm someone that really enjoys collaboration and co-creation. That's just what I've always believed in as an artist. I really enjoy my materials and I really do love a lot of mistakes that happen when you let them.

    I don't even want to call them mistakes. They're just wild things that like watercolor allow to happen in your work. That's why I love working with messy materials. I think color similarly inspired Swatch because it has a mind of its own and has a story to tell and so, when I focus on one, which was yellow at the time, I was really excited to let that color tell me a story. That's how Swatch turned into or came into being. Now, Starcrossed, I think, is, it just definitely comes from a broader perspective.

    It's, of course, my love for stars and astronomy and I don't even know how to put it into words. That kind of thing. Something that I enjoy doing. I think we all just enjoy taking part in that wonder of looking up and looking out, and realizing we're part of something larger, so I think I just moved over to letting the stars tell me the story this time around so I feel like, it was the same pattern where I was co-creating and collaborating with that element of stars.

    Emily: That's so beautiful. [laughs] Actually, before we get into Starcrossed, which I'm excited to do, I wanted to chat a little bit about Here and Now, your mindfulness book. When the pandemic first started, this book popped up on so many lists as a resource for kids and adults to go through, but it came out last year so I was wondering, what was the impetus for a children's mindfulness book and where that came from?

    Julia: It's really strange how timing works. I do believe that a lot of creative endeavors seem to come out at the time where people either need them, or want them, or they can be used in the way that they're intended to and I think that's just so cool. I feel that's happened a lot. It's not just Here and Now. There are a ton of mindfulness books for children out now and they're all being used in that way. I feel like, I'm so glad to be part of that.

    I'm so glad it came out when it did. The inspiration for that was, it was my own need for mindfulness and a really tough time in my life. I was writing a lot of poetry and one poem that came out turned into a little encouragement for other. It was called In the Moment, or Moment Living, I think I called it. It was just like, "We have this moment." It was something that equalized everyone, it brought everyone into this one space where we could be empowered. I felt like there's so much going on in everyone's lives especially right now. It's pretty chaotic and if we can just grab where we are right here and now, I feel like we can move and grow from that spot. I was inspired by my own living, but I'm so glad that it can help others, especially young people.

    Emily: It's a beautiful reminder too. It's one of those things that I think sometimes we take for granted, but certainly that's not something that we put into practice on a regular basis. I think to just have that and to, like you said, for young readers, it's something that they can start doing at an early age and hopefully incorporate that into practice.

    Julia: Yes and I just wanted to make it really accessible too. That was the aim of that book was like, "Can you fit this big, big, big idea into something that's very accessible?" So someone just touching the book and opening it is already there. You're already there together. I just wanted to make a little portal for someone that's-- It's in their lap. You're reading this book now and that's all you need to do. You don't need to wear special pants, you don't need to take a class. [laughter] You don't need to do any of that fancy stuff. You're here, you're part of it. [crosstalk]

    Emily: That's enough. I think people need to hear that always, but especially now. Okay, let's get into Starcrossed and I can't wait to hear from you about this book. It's just stunning. I was wondering if you could just give, to start off, just a brief synopsis of the story.

    Julia: Yes, sure. Do you want me to give away the twist ending?

    Emily: [laughs] I don't want you to give away the twist ending. [laughter]

    Julia: Okay. [laughs] 

    Emily: No spoilers. No spoilers.

    Julia: [laughter] Okay good. I won't. Starcrossed is about two friends. One lives in the stars, he's made out of stars and one is-- I'm not sure if this person is human completely [laughs] because he's from a different planet for sure. Anyway, there are two different physical forms of being, but they are best friends. It doesn't really matter how far away they are from each other, they seem to really enjoy their relationship and their friendship. They do a lot of fun things together. Then, they reach an opportunity where they can make a wish to possibly be together or be in one another's space and experience something different. I'm not going to go further than that because [laughter] I want you to find out what happens. It's a story all about connection and maintaining your relationship with others even across distance.

    Emily: I think it's such a beautiful surprise, so I would love for readers to be able to experience that in real-time. You just did a virtual reading and author talk at the Boston Book Festival this week.

    Julia: Yes, yesterday.

    Emily: How was that?

    Julia: It was really fun. The only thing that I wished, because it was virtual it was bittersweet because I could not see anyone or interact with anyone, so I had to imagine that they were there. At the same time, it was more personal and intimate in a way because I could invite people that were watching right to my desk and read the story that was created at that desk, in front of that window. The idea came to me at that window. It was like, "Hey guys, this is where I thought of this idea, this is where the idea came from and now you're reading the book with me. It's very special." It was so different. That's the way I can describe it, but I enjoyed it so much and they were really lovely to invite me.

    Emily: Well, that's great. Actually that really segues quite nicely into my next question, which is, I did see that you said you were able to do this virtual reading at the same window where these characters visited you for the first time and I was wondering if you could maybe explain what that means and where the inspiration for the story came from.

    Julia: Sure. Yes. The concept for it came when I was making a whole series, at the time, of star paintings of people. They were my star people, I call them. They're on Instagram, there's actually a hashtag, I think, called #JuliaDenosStar, if you hit it you can see all the different people I painted through the years filled with stars. I created a painting one night at that desk under the window just because I was enjoying looking at the stars. It was two figures of stars joined at the head. It was there, the stars were moving between them. I thought it was kind of an interesting thing that these two star figures were in a relationship. Then I used an app, actually, because this is how I name my star paintings. I take an app out that helps you find the stars wherever you are, it's really fun. I don't know if I should name it here or not. [laughs]

    Emily: I guess, yes. Sure. [laughs]

    Julia: I think it's called SkyView.

    Emily: Okay.

    Julia: It's called SkyView. I used it over my painting. I directly held my phone and I found a very bright star that was on the other side of my desk right through the earth [laughter] and it was named Acamar. Then, I found out that the other name for Acamar, because it's a binary star system, it's actually made of two stars. I was like, "Oh that's kind of perfect." I just painted these two star friends. The astronomical name for Acamar is Theta-1 Eri and Theta-2 Eri. I was looking more into Eri and I found out Eridanus is the full constellation that Acamar is part of and Eridanus means "The river." It was all these very interesting historical things too that tied in like Acamar used to be the brightest star in Eridanus, the end of the river, but then later on, as telescopes and-- I think, actually, the tilt of the earth affected this and scientists were able to see an even brighter star at the very end of Eridanus so now there's a new-- I think it's Achernar now, but Acamar was the star I picked for the painting. Acamar and Eridani, that's how their names came to be. Long story. [laughs]

    Emily: No. That's fascinating and when folks read the book that will just inform so much. That's, I mean-- [crosstalk]

    Julia: There's an author's note too if anyone wants to read it. Yes.

    Emily: Oh. Okay. Got you.

    Julia: Yes.

    Emily: I didn't read the author's note. But it’s great to hear it from you. [crosstalk] That's amazing. That's so cool to know that it really comes from this very real place. Again, I imagine that this publishing process for Starcrossed began pre-pandemic, but as we've talked about a little bit, these characters and best friends are like the ultimate socially distant pair. [laughter]

    Can you talk a little bit about how the book resonates with the world we're in today and how maybe young readers-- It resonated with me as an older reader.

    Julia: Like I said before, I didn't plan for it to be this way. I just think that I'm leaning into the message of this book on myself because I think it's a struggle right now to keep connections and we're just all trying to reinvent ways to be resilient with our connections to people and even ourselves and the world around us. I think the message of this book isn't just about overcoming the obstacle of distance and different physical forms and time and space. Those are all viewed as obstacles. They could be, but at the same time, something super beautiful and exciting and fun and all about growth happens because of those obstacles in their relationship which I can't give away.

    [laughter]

    I am sorry, but they're able to experience something beautiful together that they might not have been able to do before. I guess I'm focusing more on that, the opportunity for growth from the distance and the obstacle that's in that story.

    Emily: Another thing that resonated was just unique communication and how it cuts across time and space throughout this book in different ways and then gets manipulated when different things happen. I feel that is something that we just go through on this human level for sure, but just as a being level, it's what everybody goes through. I get the sense that so many of your stories come from this very real place, but this universal sense of being in the world and what that means in different ways.

    Julia: I feel like there's so much human resilience and I think we're just in the middle right now of figuring something out. Together, we're figuring out how to communicate, we're figuring out how to connect in crazy noise we've never thought of before. We're always evolving as beings.

    Emily: Yes. For this book, you did the writing and the illustrations?

    Julia: Yes.

    Emily: Can you talk a little bit about that process? You touched on it, but I was wondering if you could go into more detail about just the different ways you've published books in the past and how this might have been different than a few of your recent books.

    Julia: The last two before this, I was just the author, like I said and E.B. Goodale was the illustrator, amazing job. It was so cool to get to work with my friend that way. She's brilliant, amazing.

    Emily: Yes, those are incredible books, definitely, for sure check those out.

    Julia: So beautiful and she's illustrated and written her own. Under the Lilacs is her new one. This one is obviously different because I did all of it and it is interesting. The process is a little more, I don't even have the word for it, it's more holistic obviously because you are working on the words and you are working in the pictures and then they inform each other. Sometimes you have weigh out, okay, this image of-- Whoa. [laughs] I almost gave away the ending there.

    [laughter]

    This image of Acamar, his expression is much more important than the words I'm going to put on a page here. Maybe I'll move them to another page, or maybe they need to be abbreviated, or actually, maybe I don't need any words at all. Maybe the image can speak totally for this concept itself on this page.

    Being an author and illustrator both for that one single story, you get to do a lot more manipulation of those two things to tell the story the way you want.

    Emily: You talked about your Star paintings before. In this instance, did you, I guess, the visual came first for this piece of it or?

    Julia: Yes, good point. I wasn't really thinking about how it happened but yes, it was a painting and then very quickly, almost right away, I could start to see more little images about star friends and I saw a few images. [laughs] I almost gave away the ending again, sorry.

    [laughter]

    Emily: No, it's all right. I mean, do I want to say it and then maybe people can skip ahead if they don't want a spoiler?

    Julia: Let's spoil my spoiler. [crosstalk]

    Emily: Spoiler alert.

    [laughs]

    Julia: I saw an image of them just slipping, like trading spots. That was one of the very first images I saw right after I painted those two star friends. Right away my reaction was, "Oh, they are trying to be together. The star system is almost gravitational and they are orbiting." But they can't actually be together and it was sad for me at first, but the story came to me almost within minutes of seeing that image and painting those two, that no, in fact, it wasn't sad. It was actually about a story about something really cool that happened to both of them that they were excited about. That's the feeling I got from the characters.

    From that point on, the draft really did evolve around their dialogue about it to each other. I think that's why the dialogue became so important in the book and actually became literal speech bubbles across space and time. Which is the visual element I used in the book.

    Emily: I love that so much. You make a good point too, this thing happens to them where they make the wish and trade places and it's not sad. At first, I was like, "Oh no, [laughs] but then you realize what they are able to experience and then how they can stay best friends, but know each other's lived experience, it's a happy ending for sure. [laughs]

    I was wondering, has your process changed at all over the last year? You typically work from home as an author, illustrator.

    Julia: Yes, that part hasn't really changed. I just probably have spent even more time [laughs] inside working on my stuff. Yes, the art process hasn't really changed. I'm working traditionally in watercolor and ink and pencil and then I scan everything in. Then I go into my computer and I do a lot of Photoshop manipulation as far as levels and saturation and things like that. I don't do a ton of digital paint, most of it is traditional and then everything is sent over to the publishers that way as a digital file. That's literally hasn't really changed. [laughs]

    Emily: Things like author talks and maybe you would normally be visiting bookstores and things like that, that's a little bit different.

    Julia: Yes, that's a huge change. That's a thing that is at the same time, just like this book, it's echoing sadness because that is the part that you are so excited at the end. When a book comes out, you want to share it right away, it's for people to share with you. You want them to enjoy the story themselves and there is something so lovely about being able to do that in person and interact and see kids enjoying it and grownups enjoying it or taking something away from it that you never planned on having.

    I just love to have the book have its own life and its own purpose. That can still happen, it's just got to happen remotely. I'm going to try to take a cue from Acamar and Eridani and figure out [laughs] a way that it can be different. It can be different and still beautiful and joyful and fun and fulfilling for the story and for people.

    Yes, we are doing virtual events. I'm going to do a book launch at Porter Square Books, kind of in space.

    Emily: Oh, fun. Yes, Porter Square Books, we love them, they're a nice neighbor of ours. [laughs]

    Julia: Yes, they are so close by.

    Emily: Definitely. That's the takeaway, how do we find new ways to communicate and make it work in a beautiful way. Any words of advice to aspiring children's book authors or illustrators?

    Julia: Hang in there.

    [laughter]

    You can do it. More than ever, we are going to need your stories and your creativity and your new ways to invent and think of ways to do things, because we are all new at what's happening right now. Your talent is unique for sure, and we are going to need your specific talent and what you have to bring to this world.

    Keep going, keep plugging away. When the work feels like a lot, it's good though because it'll prepare you for all the good stuff you are going to get to do in the future.

    Emily: That's awesome. Are you working on anything new or anything coming up that we can look out for?

    Julia: Yes, this is actually a part of well, it's on a two-book series, but I'm working on a second book after this for HMH right now. It's kind of secret. We're still in development.

    [laughter]

    I'm also chipping away at a middle-grade novel that I've been working on for probably three years now. It's been in the back burner, yes.

    Emily: Oh wow, that's really cool.

    [crosstalk]

    [laughter]

    No, no, no, that's totally fine.

    Julia: It's totally a different format for me.

    Emily: Yes, I was going to say that process must be pretty different.

    Julia: Yes, yes, it is.

    Emily: How do you balance these different work styles and ways of going about things?

    Julia: I try to move according to inspiration. When I hear the novel speaking in my mind or I wake up with an idea, I will definitely try to go for that for at least a chunk of the day. I try to just fit as many creative projects in as I can, but it is using different parts of the brain is interesting, for sure.

    Emily: Yes, definitely. Julia, it's always such a pleasure to speak to you. Thank you so much for being here today.

    Julia: Thank you for having me. It was awesome.

    Emily: Of course, this is so great. Starcrossed is out and I highly, highly recommend that along with the rest of the Julia Denos collection of works including Windows and Here and Now, and many more.

    Julia, where can people find you around the Internet?

    Julia: You can come to my website at juliadenos.com and I'm on Instagram. I do a lot of stories like I was saying, but it helps me be able to do some immediate stuff so I paint a lot and stories and things like that. That's @juliadenos on Instagram. That's pretty much where I'm at. [laughs] It would be nice to see you, yes.

    Emily: It's an awesome account to follow. Definitely hit that up as well. Again, thank you so much, this was great.

    Julia: Thank you. Everyone stay healthy and good. Thanks for having me.

    [music]

    Narrator: Thank you for listening. Julia Denos' latest book is Starcrossed and is now available at all the best book stores, of course. Find links to Julia's work, her Instagram, and website in the show notes.

    If you are looking for a transcript of today's show and more content, check out our episode page. The link is also in the show notes.

    [music]