Hello and welcome to my ‘#GrowYourWriting Creator Interviews’ blog series. My goal is to shine a spotlight on kidlit creators and their fabulous projects and allow them to share their tips and tricks to grow your writing. Today I’d like to welcome Author and Illustrator, Laura Smetana.
Laura Smetana is an award-winning children’s book author and illustrator. Her latest author-illustrated book, My Love for You Is Like a Garden, is a joyful celebration of unconditional love with bold, watercolor collages of garden scenes and received a starred Kirkus review. Laura is also the author of Ice Cream with Grandpa: A Loving Story for Kids About Alzheimer’s & Dementia (illustrated by Elisabete B. P. de Moraes), which was winner of a Northern Lights Book Award, and Little Squiggle’s Lake Adventure, which she co-authored with her son. When she isn’t writing or painting, Laura can be found talking to kids at school author visits, gardening in her sunhat, and spending time with her family outdoors. Laura lives in the Chicago suburbs with her family. She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Julie Hedlund’s 12×12 Picture Book Writing Challenge, and the Downers Grove Artists’ Guild. Visit her online at www.laurasmetana.com and @SmetanaLaura on Twitter.
1 – What inspired you to pursue a career in children’s literature, and when did you start creating?
At school visits I always tell kids that I have been creating books since I was a kid, then I took a break and used my creativity in different ways in a career in nonprofit communications and then, as a preschool teacher. But my path circled back to writing for kids during the pandemic, and I have to thank my son for that! During that first summer of lockdowns we went kayaking a lot. One day we went to a new lake we had never been to before. As we paddled away from the shore, we marveled at birds, flowers and fish, and explored an island too. That night for bedtime stories we had a hard time picking out a book to read. So I suggested one I wrote and illustrated in elementary school about a giraffe named Little Squiggle.
When I finished reading it, my son said, “Let’s bring Little Squiggle back!” I grabbed my notebook and we brainstormed the outline for Little Squiggle’s Lake Adventure based on our own lake adventure that day. The next day, we wrote the first draft together on the back of scrap paper and we collaborated throughout the entire process to publication. The following year we had a wonderful launch event at our local indie bookstore, Frugal Muse Books. More ideas kept flowing for me and I started working on Ice Cream with Grandpa and My Love for You Is Like a Garden. I always tell kids they have great ideas and we all have stories to share. I’m so thankful my son suggested we bring Little Squiggle back in a new book, because that was the spark for me to pursue a career in children’s literature, and for that I’m so grateful!
2 – Can you please tell us how the idea for your picture book, My Love for You Is Like a Garden came about and its journey to publication?
The inspiration for My Love for You Is Like a Garden also has roots in the pandemic. During those early months when we were under stay-at-home orders, I spent a lot of time gardening in my backyard. We couldn’t see family and friends in-person, but when I was in my garden, I was reminded of their love—behind each plant there were stories and shared memories. The lilac bush from my dad reminded me of times we spent gardening together, the tiger lilies from my mom reminded of summers with my grandparents, and the list goes on! There is love in every garden, and the ways unconditional love can present itself reminded me of a garden—and the idea blossomed from there. I hope readers feel loved when they read it!
In June 2021, I began painting the watercolor washes for the book. Little did I know a tornado would rip through our community that night, sending a tree through our roof, and causing severe damage to many of our neighbors’ homes—leaving many uninhabitable. It also swept away many trees in our backyard and a garden that was under them. Over the next year, while working on the collages for the book, and repairing our home, I was so touched when friends, family and strangers started bringing flowers and plants to help us replant the garden that was wiped away. Now whenever I look at it, I am reminded of the kindness, generosity, and love we experienced in the aftermath of the tornado.
3- Can you tell our readers a little more about your beautiful book, Ice Cream with Grandpa: A Loving Story for Kids About Alzheimer’s & Dementia, and what inspired your story?
Just a few weeks before the pandemic shutdowns began, I lost my dad to Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia. We had to postpone his memorial for over a year and a half due to COVID. As I reflected on my dad’s life, I realized my dad gave my son his first taste of ice cream when he was a baby, and my son gave my dad his last taste of ice cream a few days before he died. It was their last interaction together and it was a beautiful full circle moment. Even as my dad’s dementia progressed, they were able to maintain a meaningful relationship through a shared love of ice cream. Their story was the inspiration for Ice Cream with Grandpa: A Loving Story for Kids About Alzheimer’s & Dementia.
The book gently explores the topics of dementia, aging, and loss from a child’s point of view, and provides parents an opening to begin conversations on the difficult subjects of dementia, hospice, and death. The illustrations by Elisabete B. P. de Moraes beautifully capture the love and sweetness of their enduring bond. The book also includes a guide for parents and caregivers by expert on grief and loss, Diane Snyder Cowan, MA, MT-BC, CHPCA, with tips for talking with children about dementia, hospice, death, and grief. It is the book I wish I had had at the time, and I hope it helps other families who are navigating dementia and loss.
4 – I enjoyed your article for the Alzheimer’s Association Illinois Chapter, in which you discussed encouraging honesty for families facing dementia together. How would you encourage aspiring children’s writers to incorporate challenging emotional topics in an accessible way?
When writing Ice Cream with Grandpa, I relied heavily on the memories of what it was like for our family caring for my dad as his dementia progressed, and I tried to focus on what it was like from my son’s perspective. For example, when my dad had to move from his assisted living community to memory care, my adult self was worried about all the logistics of the move, but my son’s main concern was if there was going to be an ice cream parlor. Every time we visited my dad in assisted living, they would enjoy ice cream together in the ice cream parlor down the hall.
It was their special thing to do together. In his mind, if there was no ice cream parlor, what would happen to their relationship? When I realized this, I made sure we found ways they could still enjoy ice cream together, as well as other activities so they could maintain their special bond. So my advice for children’s writers to incorporate challenging topics in an accessible way is to start by looking at it from a child’s perspective. What would a child think? Why? How would this be different from an adult perspective? What would their reasoning be? How would they feel? What questions would they ask? How would you explain it to a child?
5 – What overall advice would you like to give aspiring kidlit creators to grow their writing?
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received is to read, read, read! Every week I visit my local library and check out a stack of new releases and read them to my family. We discuss them, marvel at the art, and simply enjoy storytime together. It’s a great way to get a feel for how different books sound when read aloud, find mentor texts, and to be inspired in general. I also would encourage creators to keep learning from other creators by going to in-person events, attending webinars, or by listening to some of the many wonderful kidlit podcasts. I have enjoyed continuing to learn as a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Julie Hedlund’s 12×12 Picture Book Challenge, and my local artist’s guild. Many groups have free learning opportunities throughout the year too. Overall, my advice is to stay curious, be open to new experiences, and to remember to take time to play and create just for fun—you never know where ideas will come from!
Guess What? It’s giveaway time! Laura has graciously offered to host a giveaway for our readers.
**A signed paperback copy of My Love for You Is Like a Garden (US entries only)**
To enter, leave a comment on this blog post below! Entry period closes on May 31, 2023 at 12am PST. One Winner will be announced June 1, 2023.
1 Bonus entry is available for anyone who shares this post on twitter and tags @SmetanaLaura and C_Alemshah.