Friday, February 5, 2016

Author/Illustrator Barbara Johansen Newman talks about Glamorous Glasses

Barbara Johansen Newman has been an artist in all her life. As a child, she crayoned pictures on her walls. After college, she created puppets for her and her husband’s puppet troupe Moonberry Puppets. Eventually she was drawn to illustration, creating textile designs and art for the picture books of other authors. But she yearned to write, too, and her dream came true with Tex and Sugar, A Big City KittyDitty, the first book she wrote and illustrated. She’s gone on to create a series of books about the best cousins, Bobbie and Joanie, including Glamorous Garbage, the book she’s here to talk about today.

In Glamorous Garbage, Bobbie’s room is so full of stuff, she and her cousin Joanie have no room to play. So Bobbie’s mom issues an ultimatum. Bobbie has two weeks to clear out the clutter. How can she part with any of her beloved things? Bobbie has a vision for turning her space into a big-kid’s room and begins by gathering even more stuff. Even her cousin Joanie doesn’t see how this will help...

Welcome, Barbara! I know you grew up in a close extended family. Did you have a “best cousin” like Joanie? How did you come up with your characters?

Thanks for having me, Linda. I credit you with my first real foray into children’s literature when I attended a retreat on Cape Cod years ago that you organized. You and everyone there made me believe I might be able to do this and I am eternally grateful for that experience.  

Getting back to your question, I had lots and lots of family growing up, but I actually had no first cousins, since both of my parents were only children, and I had no siblings, either. It was an often-lonely childhood at times for lack of peers. But I did have an older second cousin named Joanie and I adored being around her. I went with her when she got her first pair of glasses in 1961. That very day gave birth to the story of Glamorous Glasses and it was also the beginning of my life-long obsession with eyewear. I was called Bobbie back then and in the character of Joanie I “imagined” the cousin/best friend/sibling that I always longed for.

In Glamorous Garbage, you tackle a touchy topic. Most kids have battled with their parents about cleaning their rooms. Yet your book is lighthearted and fun, not preachy at all. How did you manage this?

I let art imitate life, and I indulged my own fantasy. Here is a true confession: I actually did battle with my own parents about my messy room—even as a teenager. So much so, in fact, that one of the greatest pleasures I had was going off to college and keeping my room however I wished. And I wished to keep it really, really messy. How’s that for carrying rebellion into young adulthood and beyond? (Note to parents: do yourself and your kids a favor-- don’t obsess over their messy rooms.) I gave Bobbie more freedom to live in a great deal of chaos--much more than I could have ever dreamed of when growing up. Left to my own devices as a kid, my room would have resembled Bobbie’s. Of course in order to have a story, I had to have Bobbie’s mom reach her breaking point. I also thought it would be nice to contrast Bobbie and Joanie. I knew Joanie’s room would always be neat and clean and that she would be frustrated by the way Bobbie kept hers. That added to the drama, because having a peer complain, as opposed to a parent, resonates more with a kid. By the way, it just occurred to me now that in a future Bobbie and Joanie story, I’ll have to show the home workspace of Bobbie’s dad. It will be a wreck. She needs to come by her messiness naturally…

Wow, our interview sparked an idea for a new story…how awesome is that!
Back to the questions…In the spirit of “Reduce, Reuse, Redecorate,” Bobbie collects used items and turns them into something exciting and new. Do you have any tips on how to revitalize found objects?

One key to repurposing is to look at the shape of something, and imagine a new use for it. How else could this object be useful? For example, Bobbie looks at a discarded colander and it reminds her of a lampshade. The fruit crate becomes a nightstand. Everything she uses in her new room gets a new color. Taking what would otherwise be a piece of junk and adding a coat of fresh paint can result in a wonderful transformation. Paint is the least expensive and the easiest way to “upcycle” one thing into another

Great advice! You wrote and illustrated Glamorous Garbage. Do you consider yourself more of an artist or an author? Did the words or the pictures come first? Could you tell us a little about your process?

Probably artist. I am very visually oriented, so I think in pictures and have a vivid memory about the way things look. But I always attach stories to the pictures in my mind, even if I don’t write them down or try to turn them into books, so the visual is never without some sort of narrative. I even did this when I was a soft sculpture artist back in the 70s. It wasn’t enough to make the dolls; I sold them with little written vignettes because each doll had a story to tell, even if brief. I would say that I am both artist and author to some extent because I can’t seem to do one without the other, but making art is much easier for me. Taking stories from my head and turning them into written stories that work in a picture book format is more of a challenge. Plotting is my biggest nemesis. I can create interesting characters and I can write clever dialogue, but the twists and turns of a captivating story take a lot of work for me to develop. I usually begin with a character that I know very well and a situation that I want to put them into. Then I have to work at crafting the story. The illustrations are the easiest part because I just work from the movies I see in my head.

How has your artwork evolved from making puppets and creating textile designs to painting illustrations? What connects all your art? What makes your style so distinctive? Are you experimenting with anything new?

There are two common factors in all of my artwork for the past 45 years. One is that I am drawn to characters of all kinds and those attributes that make each unique. The other factor is that I only work from my head.  That way, I know that I am really creating my impression of a person and not a replication of one. I also love details. For me the most satisfying way to convey character is through the details: clothing, hair, gesture, or voice, or all of the above. That is what drew me to puppetry, then dolls, and then illustration. I guess everything for me has some sort of narrative. Even my fabric designs are narrative.

Lately I am working on a series of portraits in collaboration with another artist who builds me assemblage frames to paint within. Even these portraits hint at stories and layers of narrative. I guess I could never be a landscape painter, although lately I am fascinated with trees and am planning a series of paintings of individual tress. I drive all around and am often distracted by the bones of a tree. Each tree is so unique and the branches are like gestures to me. It will be the first non-figurative work I have done once I get going.

This is the second book starring Bobbie and Joanie. The first was Glamorous Glasses. Did you
always plan on writing more than one book about these cousins? Was writing the second book different than writing the first? Do you have more Glamorous books planned for the future?

Once you know characters (and I know these kids very well), the stories write themselves and have to be told. I have three more Bobbie and Joanie stories completely written and the art is fully formed in my head. The most challenging of the five stories I have so far was Glamorous Garbage; Glamorous Glasses and the others just flowed. It is uncertain as to when those might be published, but I can tell you that Bobbie and Joanie, and the rest of the family are chomping at the bit to have more adventures.

Can you tell us about your book’s journey from creation to publication?

Glamorous Glasses grew out of the true story about going with my cousin Joanie when she got her first pair of glasses. I always loved drawing glasses on people and I knew I wanted to write a story about a little girl obsessed with glasses just like I was and have been for many years.  I just needed to figure out a way to tell the story in a picture book. That took much effort since I am not a natural plotter. It went through several rewrites but it struck a chord with my editor when she first saw it in a submission, and once she and I began to work together, everything crystalized.  For Garbage, I had the premise for Bobbie as a messy kid and wanting to redecorate and organize her room, but I needed to build the story. Of course, Glam Garbage is also semi-autobiographical: I spend LOT of time at garage sales, antique shops, junk stores, and thrift shops, in addition to being not the neatest person. Once that story was mostly complete, it sold.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers?

I think that what you write or draw should accurately reflect what is unique to who you are as a creator. I know that “write (or draw) what you know” is the mantra. But it is more than that. I think you have to write what you are. Easy to say, I know, because sometimes when we create from within, the product we create is not the flavor of the day because publishing trends come and go

I have to ignore that fact. I can’t work any other way than the way I work. In the end, what I produce is true to who I am. We need to be true to what makes us tick. If you write quiet stories, write quiet stories. If you like detailed art, make detailed art. When you remain true to instinct, what you create is always genuine. There’s a lot to be said for that honesty.

Well said, Barbara! Are you willing to reveal what you’re working on now?

I’m working on a couple of characters right now and each has a developing story line. One is a six-year-old little girl in New York City—the anti-Eloise, to be more exact. The other is a boy of the same age who is out of tune with every member of his family and he has to figure out a way to resolve that conflict. I’ve also got a new dummy for a Christmas tale to shop around, and another manuscript that needs a dummy that I want to do in a new mixed media style.

The main thing I am working on is trying to carve out more time to work. Life has a way of setting up obstacles. It has made me realize how much I need to have uninterrupted studio/writing time.

Thank you, Barbara, for being my guest today. You can find out more about Barbara and Glamorous Garbage at and