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Interview: Jess Burbank


Photo of a copy of Little Thoughts Press Issue 7: Fabulous Facts

A photograph of Little Thoughts Press Issue Seven: Fabulous Facts with a sneak peek of the poem, "Mighty Mosses," by Jess Burbank.

 

Jess Burbank is a picture book author/illustrator, working primarily with traditional media every day from her art studio in Bellevue, Washington. Named a 2023 PB Party Finalist and a 2023 PB Rising Star Runner-up, Jess is a member of Storyteller Academy and SCBWI where she continues to hone both her writing and illustration skills. She enjoys nature walks admiring the many mosses of the Pacific Northwest with her corgi, playing board games with her husband, and traveling as much as possible. Find more of her work at www.jessburbank.com.

 

Little Thoughts Press: Mighty Mosses” creates a vibrant picture of mosses and their small-but-significant lives on the forest floor, which perfectly marries with your watercolor illustration “Shadow Dwellers.” As the first art and literature that most kids encounter, picture books are kind of like mosses in the literary ecosystem, aren’t they?  What is it about picture books that call to you as a creator? 

 

What kind of stories do you hope to “plant” in kids’ minds and hearts?


Jess Burbank: Picture books are definitely the mosses of the literary ecosystem! I love that analogy. Mosses prepare and nourish the ground, creating a healthy, stable ecosystem. Picture books do the same. They prepare young hearts, minds, and imaginations for full literary lives ahead.

 

When picture books are read out loud to a child or a group of children, so many senses are activated. A memory is made that is physical, visual, audible, and can even have a particular taste or smell associated with it, depending on when or where it was read.  I love the marriage of rhythmic text that is enjoyable to read out loud with the excitement of a page turn that reveals a breathtaking full-spread image. I love that picture books become treasured objects, mementos, security blankets, conversation-starters, empathy-formers, and world-expanders.

 

I love that picture books can be about so many subjects, feature all sorts of weird, wacky, wonderful characters, and explore so many different ideas—fact or fiction. I like to try my hand at writing and illustrating a wide range of stories, but I especially want to create stories that help children appreciate this world’s wonders. I want kids to feel small and full of awe as well as mighty and empowered to help make the world an even more wonderful place to be.



Little Thoughts Press: Both writing and art allow us to transform our personal experiences and observations of the world into shared stories. As an author/illustrator, what is your advice for balancing these two forms of expression when constructing a picture book? What kinds of observations and story elements do you think are best communicated through writing, and which ones are better conveyed through artwork?


Jess Burbank: I think that balance between the writing and art in a picture book is what makes them so wonderful, but is also perhaps the biggest challenge when creating them. I tend to think in words first…LOTS of words. Then I start to chisel away at them like a sculptor as I revise and try to discover what that big block of words wants to become. I also start to sketch ideas and scene. That’s when you can really start to chop words as you realize what can be shown in the images rather than in the text. Because picture book text is so spare, the illustrations need to communicate so much…and they can! You can spend a paragraph talking about how your main character feels or you can simply show their face and body and the reader immediately knows. If you aim to write only what can’t be communicated in an illustration, you end up with a successful balance. I truly admire when art not only beautifully illustrates the text, but when it reveals something new, maybe humorous, or illuminates a deeper meaning that you wouldn’t experience or know at all by just reading the text…and vice versa!



Little Thoughts Press:  In honor of Issue 7's theme, Fabulous Facts, tell us one fabulous fact about yourself.


Jess Burbank: A long time ago, my best friend and I decided we wanted to learn how to make gelato (Italian ice cream), so we went to Frozen Dessert University. Then, we opened a gelato shop, creating many fun flavors like avocado and mixed citrus. It was a much more delicious job than making picture books, but I don’t miss washing dishes, and picture books don’t melt in the Florida sunshine like gelato did.



Little Thoughts Press: How did you get started writing kid-lit and what do you find most challenging and rewarding about writing for kids?


Jess Burbank: I started writing kid-lit as a kid attending the Young Author’s Conference in Southwest Florida every year. I loved holding my handwritten, illustrated, and bound books in my hands and meeting authors like Verna Aardema. I continued writing throughout my childhood and into college. Words always came easily for me, but art didn’t. The ability to draw felt illusive. I started taking painting classes in college and continued trying to paint throughout my adulthood. Right before the pandemic, a friend of mine sent me a book in the mail called You Are an Artist. I took that as a sign, and from that day on I decided to do some form of artmaking every day. I enrolled in a drawing and watercolor academy and worked hard every day. I also homeschooled my kids for nine years, using picture books as the basis for our curriculum, so I always loved picture books and had read hundreds of them through the years. I then used picture books as a major component of a nature journaling class I taught in California.

 

After a couple of years of learning to draw and paint things like pears, people, and palm trees, I decided I wanted my art to do more. I wanted my art to tell a story. I combined my love of watercolor painting, writing, and books and decided to pursue making picture books. I joined SCBWI and Storyteller Academy. I took as many classes as I could, and I’m continuing to work towards my goal of being a traditionally published author/illustrator.

 

As you can probably tell from these answers, I tend to be wordy, so writing for children can be challenging as I try to simplify and pare down my dense text. Writing a picture book that has beautiful, rhythmic, spare text that tells a story that is kid-relatable and meaningful without being preachy and then illustrating in a consistent style with a high level of technical proficiency is no easy feat! But I don’t think there’s anything more rewarding than writing books for children. What a gift to get to turn thoughts and images that live in my mind into books that can then become a tangible object that helps a child learn something new, make a child laugh, help a child fall asleep at night, or create characters that come to life for a child like a new friend. There’s nothing better!



Little Thoughts Press: Which kid-lit authors and books were your favorites growing up?


Jess Burbank: I was fortunate to grow up in a book-loving family. My mom was a sucker for those door-to-door book subscription sales programs, so new picture books were often arriving in our mailbox. I was also allowed to get a big stack from the library every week. I especially loved Danny and the Dinosaur, Blueberries for Sal, Are You My Mother, Put Me in the Zoo, Mister Dog: the Dog Who Belonged to Himself, and anything by P.D. Eastman, especially Go Dog, Go!



Little Thoughts Press: And what about today? Any kid-lit writers you love and want to shout out?


Jess Burbank: Today, I have so many favorite kid-lit writers. I especially admire and will shout out Julie Falatko, Jim Averbeck, Julie Fogliano, Laura Hughes, Cindy Derby, Jilanne Hoffmann, Jessica Stremer, and Catherine Rayner. I absolutely love the book Strictly No Elephants by Lisa Mantchev and Taeeun Yoo.



Little Thoughts Press: What advice would you give to young writers?


Jess Burbank: Write a little something every day. Try several different types of writing styles and genres…you might surprise yourself! Be an observer and appreciator of the world and of people. Notice the unnoticed. Use the strongest emotions and moments from your past in your work. Read a lot.



Little Thoughts Press: Is there anything else you wish I had asked? Any upcoming projects, publications, or other news you'd like to share?


Jess Burbank: I am hard at work on an expanded full moss-themed picture book that I hope will someday be a book I can hold in my hands. I’m also working on manuscripts about vernal pools, the solstices, and manatees, so I’m busy learning many, many more fabulous facts.

 

Thank you for asking these wonderful questions and for providing us authors and illustrators a place to see our work in print. 

1 Comment


Guest
Apr 23

Thank you for this wonderful interview, Jess. I love how you write about nature & can’t wait to see your moss-themed and vernal pool picture books become a reality.

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