Authors in Conversation: Vicki Johnson and Harry Woodgate

Today on the site, I’m thrilled to welcome a pair of wonderful picture book authors, Vicki Johnson and Harry Woodgate! They’re here to talk about their books (Molly’s Tuxedo, illustrated by Gillian Reid, and Grandad’s Pride, respectively), approaches, history, the process of working with illustrations, and more!

HW: Firstly, huge congratulations on Molly’s Tuxedo, it’s such a gorgeous book. Your writing is full of warmth and humour and Molly is such a memorable character, and Gillian’s illustrations are wonderfully textured and so expressive. It’s so lovely to be chatting to you for LGBTQReads Authors in Conversation.

VJ: I’m so happy to be here chatting with you. First, I have to say congratulations on all the many accolades you’ve received for Grandad’s Camper – Waterstones Children’s Book Prize for Best Illustrated Book; shortlisted for the British Book Awards Children’s Illustrated Category, and a 2022 ALA Stonewall Book Awards Honor, among others. Incredible, and so well deserved!

Grandad’s Pride is a beautiful and vibrant follow-up story, celebrating the diversity of our community and the fullness it brings to the world. Your art, as always, is layered and so inviting and full of color. I would have loved to read this to my daughter when she was young, to talk about all of the intricate details – the signs and t-shirts and hair colors and storefronts and animals and trees and flowers and families. It’s a perfect read together book.

HW: Thank you so much, that really means a lot and I’m so pleased you enjoyed it! I enjoy adding in those details because that’s what I loved when reading as a kid – looking at the buildings, outfits, characters, all the hidden stories within each book.

On a related note, I’m really interested to hear your thoughts on the intersections between fashion, gender and self-expression in picture books, because I think Molly’s Tuxedo explores these themes in such a playful yet meaningful way. How did you approach this and what do you hope your readers take from the story?

VJ: My goal was to explore my own experiences and feelings on these concepts, but to remember them from a child’s point of view. Young children have a tiny bit of agency over decisions in their lives, and self-expression in the form of what clothes feel right is a major opportunity for them to exercise their decision making. The push to conform is stronger as they get older but really young ones can be free and play and they have such strong feelings at that age. It was big for me as a child, and I observed the same with my own child. I also see it all around me every single day where this sense of play and self-discovery can be squashed by rigid and outdated ideas about gender. I drew on those experiences to write, hopefully, a very child-centered story about self-discovery and burgeoning self-confidence. I hope I’ve created some space for conversation about it for children and caregivers. I hope readers take from Molly’s experience that they can follow their inner compass and be brave if need be and feel just as happy as their classmates about their choices, even if it is a different one.

Regarding Grandad’s Pride, I’ve seen you talk about the need to recognize queer elders and their experiences as you have done in both of these books. I came out as a teen in 1980 and it has been a long and winding journey for this diverse community and there are so many untapped stories to tell! Our history and the rich tapestry of individuals within it will help sustain us, especially now. I have on my bucket list to write a story of historical fiction. How did you connect with these stories initially and are there more to come? And what is on your bucket list to write one day?

HW: In some ways I think my academic interest came first and from that I began to draw connections with my own experiences. In the UK, Section 28 prohibited the ‘promotion’ of LGBTQ+ identities in schools from the late 1980s all the way through to 2003 when it was finally repealed, and although almost all my school years came after that date, I still don’t recall learning a great deal about LGBTQ+ history or seeing many books in the library with openly queer characters and storylines. When I began researching these topics at sixth form and university, it revealed a whole alternate timeline of events and individuals and experiences I simply didn’t know had existed – and although I’m sure I could have sought them out sooner had I been so inclined, the point is that nobody should have to seek them out. They shouldn’t be on a separate shelf; they shouldn’t be consigned to a closing paragraph or a footnote; they should be readily available.

With Grandad’s Pride, I was keen to include key moments in LGBTQ+ history, such as Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, Act UP, and the eventual legalization of same-sex marriage. I wanted to link up a few of the dots and reiterate that where we are today is simply another step along a path that has been trodden by countless generations of LGBTQ+ individuals, families, activists and campaigners.

In terms of what’s to come, I recently illustrated the cover for ‘Tales From Beyond The Rainbow’ by Pete Jordi Wood, which is a collection of lost or forgotten LGBTQ+ fairy tales from many different cultures, featuring illustrations by artists from around the world. It’s publishing with Puffin Classics this June. I’m also illustrating a non-fiction book of LGBTQ+ historical figures, which is a nice change to some of the projects I’ve worked on before. As for my bucket list, I think a graphic novel is definitely up there.

What I absolutely love about Molly’s Tuxedo is that we experience Molly’s journey at the same pace as her, which really allows us to understand her feelings in each moment and creates a wonderful sense of anticipation for the final reveal. How did you develop the pacing for the story, and were there any ways in which Gillian’s illustrations informed this?

VJ: I wish I had a grand explanation for my pacing of the story. I knew this was going to be an emotional journey for Molly so I had to write it in a way that kept the emotions high from the moment she wakes up on the big day! It was a bit tricky to find a way for Molly to have her tux with her at school, and for her mom to be there, too. Gillian’s illustrations have everything to do with carrying us moment by moment in Molly’s journey. The way she used spot illustrations to depict each and every line in the scenes where Molly expresses disdain for dresses was perfect. I loved her use of Molly’s cat to mirror Molly’s emotions. Her expressions! Picture books are magical for this interaction of words and images. As an author, it’s the most exciting thing. It will keep me writing picture books for sure.

Yes, I love Molly’s cat too! Your point about the interaction between word and image is so true, and I think sometimes the complexity of picture books in this regard is underappreciated. Visual literacy is such an important skill and picture books teach it so well.

What I love about Grandad’s Pride is the setting: this wonderful seaside village full of diverse individuals from all walks of life. It’s idyllic. I particularly love how you use sweeping lines across the spread like the colors of the pride flag or a road or the rolling hills of the landscape, giving your stories a very unique energy of place. How did you decide on the setting and what is your process for creating a story? Do you ever have to change the art to match the words or the words to match the art?

HW: Thank you! The British seaside has such a hold of my imagination and was a key part of my childhood, so I suppose it’s natural that it continues to crop up in my stories. The village in Grandad’s Pride is an amalgam of several places that are important to me. I wanted any child or family to be able to imagine themselves right there on the seafront amongst the celebrations, so I spent a lot of time populating the village with a diverse cast of characters.

As for how I create a story, I usually have to edit both art and text multiple times! Usually, I begin with character or location sketches before writing a first draft, which tends to come in several hundred words too long. Then I’ll cut out all the extra fluff and exposition by translating that into illustration. I’ll repeat that process until I have a set of rough layouts and a manuscript that flow as one – where the illustrations build upon the words, and the words give structure and rhythm to the illustrations.

It’s always fascinating hearing about other writers’ processes. Coming from an illustration background, I find I tend to begin with the visual world of the story, but I’d love to hear what aspect of the story came to you first: theme, character, structure, or something else? How did you transform those initial seeds into a full picture book, and were there any aspects you particularly struggled with or enjoyed along the way?

VJ: With all my writing I start with a character for sure, then I imagine, through a child’s eyes, the simple topic I’m thinking about. As I generate words it’s more like I am writing verses in a poem without an idea where it is going until I get there! Later I work on whether it makes sense and what kind of structure it needs and what may be missing. That usually means I need to dig deeper emotionally or enliven the language, both of which always work to make the story better. I naturally write in a poetry or lyrical picture book style, and then enhance and correct over several drafts.

I tend to be more serious in my writing and have the highest praise for Gillian who was able to inject lightheartedness and humor and color and motion with her artwork. I get the sense that you and I might be similar in that our stories are heartfelt, and I wonder if you’ve ever written a humorous or silly picture book, or if you’ve considered writing a book completely out of the norm for you? Admittedly I have tried and failed at this, ha.

HW: I think you’re probably right about the kinds of stories we’re drawn to write! I absolutely love how Gillian’s illustrations bring a levity to an experience which, for a child, can feel quite overwhelming, but I think your words portray Molly’s feelings in such an honest way and have their own gentle humour, too. There’s absolutely no doubt that kids love hilarious, silly books, but there are also lots of young readers who will cherish the quieter, more reflective stories such as ours, so there’s definitely a space for both.

Funnily enough, whilst I haven’t yet written a silly picture book, I am writing a middle grade series which is about as un-serious as you could possibly get! I’d been working on some other ideas which alongside the pressures of work, news and social media were beginning to weigh me down, so I just started writing to make myself laugh, and it unlocked an enthusiasm I genuinely feared I had lost.

On the topic of humour: are there any funny rituals, routines or ‘little treats’ that form part of your day-to-day writing process that you couldn’t do without? I think mine is that the closer it gets to deadline, the more I bribe myself with coffee shop trips or G&Ts once I’ve finished work for the day!

VJ: I was going to ask you something similar! You seem to be SO busy with multiple projects, all of the time. I rely on daily walks outside to clear my head, and I need so much head clearing that I live in an actual forest, ha. I also live with five rescue pets who amuse me and interrupt me to no end. So those things give me a respite. As to writing, I am an early bird and do my best generative work when it’s still dark outside, with hot coffee next to me and cats sleeping around me.

Big thumbs up for daily walks (and rescue pets!). Excellent stress relievers, both. I wish I was an early bird. I’m lucky if I haul myself into the office before 11am.

My question for you: Gillian Reid, who illustrated our book, is absolutely amazing, and we have met since and she is just as lovely in person and also very funny. She put a few “Easter eggs” or hidden gems in the book. For example, I have a photo of me at age 7 in a suit and clip-on tie in front of our red family car and it appears on Molly’s family wall. Do you ever include secret references in your books or use friends as visual references for your characters?

HW: Oh I love hearing about these little Easter eggs! Yes, I absolutely do this. My illustrations are full of references that probably only a select group of family and friends will recognize. After all, what is it that draws us to writing or illustrating in the first place if not the opportunity to translate and thereby more fully understand our own internal worlds? They’re not just stories, in the end, they’re time capsules. 

Something which is perhaps unique about picture books is how they need to speak to children and their caregivers simultaneously, without patronising either. I wonder if you have any thoughts about this, and if there are any ways it informed your writing, because it’s something I feel Molly’s Tuxedo really succeeds in doing.

VJ: This makes me very happy that you mention this. It was really important to me to write a story where the caregiver had a proper arc, too. I do think even the most present and involved adult can miss something about their child or make mistakes or just be busy and overlook something important. I did as a parent for sure! In this case, Molly’s mom wasn’t tuned in to how important the tux was to Molly until she overheard her talking with her friends at school. I wanted Mom to have an opportunity to have a course correction because this can happen in real life. I didn’t want adults leaving this book feeling bad if they made a mistake or missed something in their own family. I wanted them to feel as empowered as Molly. If you notice in that scene when she ‘sees’ Molly she is hugging Molly but her eyes are open. That’s a moment Gillian made more special with her attention to detail.

HW: It’s so amazing how much difference something small like a character’s eyes being open or closed can make! And that is a lovely point about giving Molly’s mum the space to make mistakes. It’s so important for young readers to know that parents don’t always have the right answers, too, but that you can help each other grow by listening and making space to be open about your feelings. That’s a really powerful message.

VJ: I enjoy photography as another creative outlet, and going to movies and museums, and I’m wondering if you have other things that you do for fun or to fill your creative well?

HW: Me too! I also enjoy music – listening to, playing and writing. It’s so lovely having a creative hobby which you don’t feel obliged to share with anyone. Apart from that, cycling is my favourite way of getting outdoors and making sure I’m not sat in front of a screen for seven hours a day!

A couple of shorter questions to finish! Firstly, are there any other recent or upcoming picture books that you are really excited about or would recommend (or perhaps an older title that you feel didn’t get the recognition and appreciation it deserved)?

And secondly, the various outfits Molly and her friends wear for school picture day are so varied and exciting. If you were back at school, what would you wear for the big day?

VJ: So far this year, I have really loved Out of the Blue by Robert Tregoning and Stef Murphy, and The Wishing Flower by A.J. Irving and Kip Alizadeh, and I look forward to reading Hope for Ryan White by Dano Moreno and Hannah Abbo. As for my time-traveling picture day, in kindergarten I was horse obsessed, and I told my teacher I wanted to be a cowboy when I grew up, so I would probably wear a cowboy hat and boots.

How about you? What would be your dream outfit or what was your favorite picture day memory (Do you have a picture day in the U.K.?)

HW: Yes, I loved Out of the Blue too, and I’m looking forward to the other two as well. And a cowboy outfit sounds iconic! I’m not sure what I’d pick – we had school uniforms in the UK so the only time we got to choose what to wear was on non-uniform day (which usually had a theme, like ‘book characters’ or ‘superheroes’). I think a very swishy, sparkly ball gown would make a fun statement in our imaginary class. 

Finally, are you working on anything new right now that you’re allowed to talk about? I’ve got a few picture books in the works, as well as the (hopefully!) funny middle grade series I mentioned earlier.

VJ: I recently wrote a new picture book I’m really excited about! It came to me very quickly and for me that feels like something really true and good. I’m also in developmental edits with my middle grade novel.

Thanks so much for chatting with me, Harry. I hope we get to meet in person one day.

I love what you bring to the world of children’s literature. As Lesléa Newman told me to remember, love wins. Your stories prove it.

Buy Vicki’s Tuxedo: Bookshop | Amazon

Buy Grandad’s Pride: Bookshop | Amazon

Harry Woodgate (pronouns: they/them) is an award-winning author and illustrator who has worked with clients including National Book Tokens, Google, The Sunday Times Magazine, Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, Walker Books, Andersen Press, Bloomsbury, The Washington Post and Penguin Random House.

Their books include Grandad’s Camper, Grandad’s Pride, Timid, Little Glow, Shine Like the Stars, My First Baking Book and The Very Merry Murder Club.  Grandad’s Camper, their debut author-illustrator title, won the Waterstones Childrens Book Prize Best Illustrated Book 2022 and a Stonewall Book Award Honor from the American Library Association. It was also shortlisted for the Children’s Illustrated category at the British Book Awards as well as the inaugural Polari Children’s & YA Prize, and was nominated for the CILIP Yoto Kate Greenaway Award.

Harry is passionate about writing and illustrating diverse, inclusive stories that inspire children to be inquisitive, creative, kind and proud of what makes them unique.

Vicki Johnson (she/her) is a children’s book author, and a former band nerd, White House staffer, and nonprofit director, among other life adventures. Her debut picture book is Molly’s Tuxedo, illustrated by Gillian Reid, releasing June 27, 2023 from Little Bee Books in their publishing partnership with GLAAD.

Born and raised in rural GA, Vicki is a lesbian mom, proud first-gen graduate of Smith College and Emory University School of Law, and an MFA candidate in Writing for Children & Young Adults at VCFA. Vicki was a 2022 Lambda Literary Fellow, a 2020 PBChat Mentee, a 2020 WNDB MG mentorship finalist, and a 2018 grant recipient from the WV Div. of Arts, Culture & History and the National Endowment for the Arts. She’s an active member of SCBWI and was a nominee for the Sue Alexander Award for most promising new work. Vicki is currently working on her middle grade novel and texting cat photos to her college kid. Read more:

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