Bonnie Ferrante: Today I am interviewing Cheryl Johnson who writes picture books. Welcome, Cheryl. Can you use eight words to describe yourself?
Cheryl Johnson: This is a difficult question. Ambitious, tenacious, stubborn, productive, optimistic, imaginative, analytical, and talented.
Ferrante: Who is Mish and why have you made a series about him?
Johnson: I think I got the original inspiration from a glass money bank I was given at six years old as a Christmas present. I still have him on my dresser. It’s a mushroom with a happy face on the front. The whole story of Mish came to me 35 years agog after I’d put the children to bed, and I stayed up all night drawing.
Mish needed a buddy to commiserate with so I created his side kick Sidley the snail. About three years ago, I finally got my first book self published. It was a life long goal, that my mother, a third grade teacher encouraged while she was alive. Mish The Mushroom Man is a simple story about looking beyond a person’s exterior.
I’m working on the eighth story book right now, and there will be at least a dozen. Mish is not gender specific. Also he is a generic character in the race department.
Ferrante: You use a lot of original imaginary creatures in your books. Why do you prefer this to, say, using anthropomorphic animals?
Johnson: I started making up characters and little monsters and aliens from eight years old. I loved reading non-fiction and historical novels, like Caddie Woodlawn and Little House on the Prairie as a child, but the realm of fantasy was my chosen place to dwell. Fairy tales and science fiction were what kept me enthralled and reading every day.
Nowadays I like making up environments and characters that a reader can still identify with but feel entertained by its fanciful presentation. Besides, I love drawing weird stuff.
Ferrante: What messages are you trying to get across to your readers?
Johnson: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Treat our world like the precious gift it is. Practice compassion and empathy.
Ferrante: Important messages.
Which did you have an interest in first, the writing or the illustrating?
Johnson: I graduated from the Maine College of Art in 2000 but I started drawing by the time I was ten years old, practicing and watching those who I thought were better than me. My desire for a career in art and writing took a back seat for many many years after I married and had children.
Three years ago I started teaching myself how to draw on an Intuous digital tablet using Photo Shop. My previous medium was markers or acrylics. I am so in love with the technology that allows me to have so many wonderful tools at my fingertips, and creates no waste. I taught myself to paint landscapes and portraits to help create an income but my heart is definitely with my books.
I love to write, and I keep a daily journal, but it’s the visual images I get that inspire the stories. The art comes first.
Ferrante: In the earliest stages of creating a children’s picture book, do you see it in words or in illustrations?
Johnson: In the earliest stages of a book, it is ALL pictures to me. I get a flash of a character, and the story falls around that, with little explosions of ideas. If I don’t write them down, or draw immediately, I’ll forget great inspirations so I always keep paper and pen nearby. I get great ideas on my daily walk but have forgotten to bring writing material and I’ve had to scratch key words into the shoulder of the road. Then I come back with the car and a pen with paper and write it down. I’m sure some of my neighbors think I’m some kind of fruitcake.
My book Cloud Hill was a walking inspiration. I had the whole book laid out in my head by the time I got through my back door.
Ferrante: What’s the best advice you could give someone who is, like you, both writing and illustrating their work?
Johnson: Don’t ever do it for how much money you think you might make. Do it because you can’t stop doing. Enjoy everything about the process. I certainly hope someday I am “discovered” but if I die poor and obscure, I will have no regrets. I am doing exactly what I was intended to do.
Ferrante: Everyone hears discussions that they consider boring. What topic can put you to sleep more quickly than any other?
Johnson: I am curious and will listen to a good debate on politics or religion or the value of watching reality tv. But once my husband starts talking about carburetors, wheel alignments or Nascar winners, I put my “interested but not really there” face on.
Ferrante: I could see that. If you could have been there to witness any specific moment in history, what moment would you choose?
Johnson: I would have liked to have met Abraham Lincoln the night he won the presidency. Also I’d like to just have a conversation with Jesus, over tea or whatever they drank that was non-alcoholic, a few years before he started his ministry. Sitting in his carpentry workshop, at ease and safe. Just to talk to him, ask him questions about his take on things in the world-straight out of the man himself, no filters.
Leonardo de Vinci, Vermeer…Mary Cassatt, lots of artists I would like to talk to.
Ferrante: I, too, love Vermeer. The light in his paintings is a presence. Mary Cassatt’s pictures of children are wondrous.
Now, in a different direction, if you could experience a sailing adventure/cruise on any river, lake, or ocean in the world, what body of water would you choose for your trip?
Johnson: I am not big on sailing or cruises, I’d rather fly. But if I ever make it financially, then I will rent a cottage in Inverness, Scotland by the edge of Lochness. I’ll take a rowboat and a cup of coffee out on the lake every morning and float. I might get lucky.
I hope you do, Cheryl. Thank you for this insight into your work and all the best with your Mish books.
Click on a cover below to buy one of C. Johnson’s books.
Note: the three random questions are from “Chat Pack – Fun Questions to Spark Conversations”.