Authors and Illustrators on Creativity During the Pandemic

Meg Medina, Jason Chin, Nikki Grimes, and other creators discuss how quarantine life has impacted their imaginations and work.

As the coronavirus forced people to drastically limit their activities, we asked authors and illustrators how the pandemic has affected their creative lives. Writing and drawing are for most, solitary acts; still, for many, the adjustment to this new reality was significant. Since we posed this question, our nation’s attention has been refocused on police brutality and racial injustice, and it’s likely that some of the activities below have given way to activism.

Amy Alznauer, author of The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity: A Tale of the Genius Ramanujan (Apr. 2020) and the forthcoming Flying Paintings: The Zhou Brothers: A Story of Revolution and Art (Sept. 2020; both Candlewick):

"My daily work has shifted, for it now has this intense simultaneity: mother, writer, person, citizen all at once, none can be ignored. But also, my view of my work has shifted. For example, Flying Paintings: A Story of Revolution and Art is no longer a story from history but is also about this current moment, for it’s about two brothers struggling against oppression to find their freedom both as people and as artists. Their story gives me hope that art matters and will matter and can be a vehicle for transformation and hope during the darkest times."
 

Joseph Bruchac, author of numerous fiction and nonfiction books about Native American life and culture and peoples, including the forthcoming One Real American (Oct. 2020; Abrams):

“I’m missing our closed-down Ndakinna Education Center, where my two sons and I teach and train Brazilian Jiu jitsu at our dojo and work with people of all ages sharing traditional indigenous wilderness skills, history, culture, and language. (Though we are offering free, live streams of storytelling, and outdoor education at 1 p.m. daily on our Ndakinna Education Center Facebook page.)

Creatively, my publishers have kept me busy with the final work on two books for middle grade readers due out later this year: One Real American—a biography of Ely Parker, a 19th-century Seneca sachem who played an important role in the Civil War as a Union general and [Ulysses S.] Grant’s personal secretary, and Peacemaker (Oct. 2020; Dial), a novel about an Onondaga boy whose life is changed by the charismatic leader who centuries ago united the five warring Iroquois nations.

I’ve begun new writing projects, including one coming directly out of the pandemic—a novel in verse titled Rez Dog, about a Wabanaki girl quarantined with her grandparents on their reservation. It’s meant to picture what real life is like today for many contemporary Native folks...and how the event of a new, deadly virus impacting everyone so drastically is not without precedent in American Indian history. As Malian’s grandfather puts it, 'We’ve lived—and survived—through this before.'”
 

Jason Chin, illustrator of Nine Months (2019) by Miranda Paul, and author and illustrator of the forthcoming Your Place in the Universe (Sept. 2020; both Holiday House):

“I finished a book at the end of March, and since then, I’ve been busy helping my children with at-home learning and being a replacement for all the friends they can’t see. It’s been difficult to work full time, but we’re making do. Our state hasn’t been hit hard by the virus, and we have easy access to the outdoors, so I count myself very lucky. The bigger disruption for me is that I was planning to travel to do research for my next book, which is no longer possible. Since I don’t know when I’ll be able to travel again, I’m going to have to find something else to write about.”

READ: SLJ Summer Reading 2020 

Nikki Grimes, author of Southwest Sunrise (May 2020) and the forthcomingLegacy: Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance (Jan. 2021, both Bloomsbury):

"The pandemic, and subsequent lock-down, have forced me to slow my pace. It took a minute, but once I embraced the opportunity for stillness, new story ideas began bubbling up in me. More than once, I've awakened with a line in my head that, within days, grew into a picture book manuscript. I've been on fire. I'm also making cards, drawing, and painting for the first time in over a year. My key to productivity has been limiting my daily intake of the news. Ingesting regular reports of the dead and dying is a sure way to inhibit creativity. Obviously, a pandemic was not on my bucket list, but the unasked-for gift of time has allowed my muse to move in and set up shop."

 

John Hare, author of Field Trip to the Moon (2019) and the forthcoming Field Trip to the Ocean Deep (Sept. 2020; both Holiday House):

“Over time, I’ve learned that occasionally stepping out of my comfort zone is good for creativity. Well, COVID-19 and its shadow turned the world into a kind of discomfort zone. So it seemed natural that drawing and writing would be a good outlet—and it was for a while. But as time passed, a general malaise became the new normal, and being creative became more difficult. In a reversal, I’ve had to step out of the discomfort and allow occasional guilt free me-time moments to stay evened out. Things like going fishing...or eating a meal where everything is battered and fried including the napkins.”

 

Shawn Harris, illustrator, and Mac Barnett, author of A Polar Bear in the Snow (Oct. 2020; Candlewick):

“We’ve been friends since we were kids, and that whole time we’ve made stuff together: student council campaign posters, podcasts that were never distributed because podcasts weren’t invented yet, and, at last, a picture book! During shelter-in-place, maybe because we couldn’t hang out in person, we devised a way to spend countless hours on the phone; we’ve been making a live cartoon, a serialized sci-fi musical called The First Cat in Space Ate Pizza, animated by hand and recorded every Saturday morning on a Zoom call before being blasted out to the world.”

 

Aram Kim, author of No Kimchi for Me! (2017) and Let’s Go to Taekwondo! A Story About Persistence, Bravery, and Breaking Board (Apr. 2020; both Holiday House):

“Drawing and writing have always been my ways of coping with emotionally difficult times, and it helped this time as well. During the pandemic, I have been working on my next picture book, Sunday Funday in Koreatown. I turned in the final art last month, and I’m currently working on the front cover. Having a deadline to commit to and a project to focus on has truly been helpful by keeping me grounded during this uncertain time. I was able to finish a story that I can’t wait to share with young readers next year. This has been a silver lining among all the disappointments from the missed storytimes, school visits, and other opportunities to connect with children that I was looking forward to this spring.”

 

 

Remy Lai, author of Pie in the Sky (2019) and the forthcoming Fly On the Wall (Sept. 2020; both Macmillan/Holt):

“The pandemic gave me special powers of morphing into other forms. First, I transformed into a productive robot and threw myself into my work, in an attempt to grasp a modicum of control. I wrote when my brain was mush, drew when my hand screamed in pain. Then I had insomnia because my hand hurt. Which led me to morph into a couch-dwelling, Netflix-bingeing grouch. I spent days doing zero—something that I was grumpy with myself (and others) about. I oscillated between these two forms for a month before I realized it was . . . not good. I drew up a humane daily schedule that included Netflix-bingeing in between work. Since then I’m much more pleasant (and safer!) to be around.”

 

Amanda McCrina, author of the forthcoming Traitor (Aug. 2020; Farrar):

“At the beginning of lockdown, with my day job shuttered, I took some time to finish up the manuscript due to my editor. I do all of my writing holed up alone anyway, so for those first couple weeks I felt like I really didn’t have an excuse not to be writing. Since then, I’ve been keeping myself busy finalizing a preorder campaign for Traitor, trying to teach myself Polish, and reading outside my genre (I’ve been on a fantasy kick lately; a recent favorite is Aleksandra Ross’s Don’t Call the Wolf). To be honest, I’ve also been bingeing (and rebingeing) an embarrassing amount of Parks and Recreation.”

 

Meg Medina, author of Merci Suárez Changes Gears (2019) and the forthcoming Evelyn Del Rey Is Moving Away, with simultaneous publication in Spanish, Evelyn Del Rey se muda (both Sept. 2020; all Candlewick):

“My book travel schedule came to a screeching halt, which was so disappointing. Once I let go of the sadness of not connecting with readers in exciting places like Shanghai and Hawaii, I began to realize that slowing down could have its benefits. I’ve hunkered down with the essential things: my family, my daily writing practice, my garden. There have been lonely days, for sure. But there have also been blessedly quiet days that have given me ample space to write and even to grieve when I’ve had to, as well.”

READ: Summer Reading 2020: A Collection of Links

Daniel Miyares, illustrator of Amy Alznauer’s The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity: A Tale of the Genius Ramanujan (Apr. 2020; Candlewick):

“Like most people, the rapid development of COVID-19 upended all facets of mine and my family’s lives. At the beginning of March I made the leap to making books full-time. So that meant I was relying only on freelance income for the first time. This was scary enough, but I was extremely excited about all the new possibilities. By mid-March my wife and I were trying to figure out homeschooling and how we were going to make ends meet because of canceled and lost opportunities. As a direct result of not being able to meet in person, I’ve had the good fortune of participating in a couple of virtual book conferences, and also I’ve begun sharing more creative-process videos through social media and my youtube channel. I’ve got plenty of current projects to keep me more than busy, which is good. It really has reinforced the fact that making things is good for my soul, especially during the most trying times. I think that’s a wonderful thing about storytelling—it’s always been there for me.”

 

Antoinette Portis, author and illustrator of Hey, Water! (2019) and A New Green Day (Apr. 2020; both Holiday House):

“Basically, working has been the way I stay sane these days trying to keep a ‘business-as-usual’ mindset. I'm grateful that the picture-book-maker way of life has prepared me well; I'm used to generating creative assignments for myself. Overall, it’s been a productive time—an enforced period of focus on ideas I was too distracted to tackle before. OK, some days I wander around the house aimlessly in my pj’s, or binge-watch Netflix. But then, back to work.”

 

Jillian Tamaki, author and illustrator of They Say Blue (2018) and the forthcoming Our Little Kitchen (Sept. 2020; both Abrams):

“My attention span was pretty nonexistent for the first bit of quarantine. Of course, I still had work to do, but the only thing that felt appropriate was reaching out to friends and sewing masks. I'm still making them for friends and a mask drive organized by a hospital. I have a book to work on, but I took on some short-turnaround illustration jobs because the deadlines helped to break up the endless stretches of time. I also started a quilting project that I will keep on working on until...well, I’m not sure. End of lockdown? It’s been an adjustment of expectations to realize that there is no finish line or end date.”


Daryl Grabarek is a former senior editor at School Library Journal and a librarian at PS 89 / IS 289 in lower Manhattan.

 

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