Michael Samulak is a picture book author, full-time youth minister and educator.
Bonnie Ferrante: Your first book, A is for Africa, was inspired by a trip to Uganda. You worked with a local artist, Sswaga Sendiba, to create the illustrations. Tell us about that experience.
Samulak: I was traveling back and forth to Uganda in 2006 and 2007 for church and humanitarian related needs. I took three trips, each about a month long over that time period. My dear wife had to hold down the fort while I was working and traveling in those days. We had one child at the time and even moved just before one of those trips! (Yes, I am married to the most wonderful woman in the world)
What I saw and experiences during this time in my life was so enlarging and inspiring in itself that I was looking for a way to share the beauty and wonders of that land and people with the youth in my circles of influence back home.
During an off day I would try to explore the local scene whenever possible to take in and explore as much as possible. On one of those days I happened by a batik painting of Mr. Sendiba in a local market area, I believe. The piece caught my attention from across the road. I bought it instantly.
Later in the day I noticed a similar Batik at another shop on the other end of the strip and I thought it must be by the same artist. I hustled over to the shop owner and began to pepper them with questions about the piece and the artist. Sswaga would come by from time to time and sell them a few pieces if the shop could take on more.
In the end, she was willing to take my local contact and promised to give it to Swaga the next time he came around. I purchased three more of his batiks from that shop, scribbled down the number of my host family and sent up a little prayer.
With one week to go in that first trip I got the call that changed everything.
We arranged a time and place to meet and with just a few days before my flight was to leave, had set in place a plan to illustrate various African wildlife, nature scenes, and of the native people that I would try to incorporate into an alphabet book or maybe even reading series that I had already been working on. When I told him that I would need at least 50 pieces of his work to have a chance of being able to put a finished product together, I think he almost fainted. I was more than happy to be able to support him and his work, even if I wasn’t able to complete the project.
Over the course of the next two years of researching, rewrites, tweaking, and more traveling, I was able to have Sswaga illustrate what I thought would be necessary to bring the project to life. At the end of my last trip in 2007 I had almost 100 pieces from him that I eventually chose from for the final picture book.
Whew…like I said in the beginning, a story in itself, but it think that covers the basics.
Ferrante: I’m sure you made a wonderful difference in Sswaga Sendiba’s life. It’s awesome that you used an African artist and batik is such a unique medium for picture book illustration.
Two years later, you created a coloring book based on this picture book. Considering the adult coloring craze that is happening right now, will this picture book be suitable for all ages?
Samulak: The coloring book was produced almost because of demand; With each classroom visit I did once the original was published, the teachers would talk about the different ways they were intending to follow-up with my presentation.
In terms of adult application – easy answer is, “Yes”. I have definitely had many adults purchase the coloring book: teachers who wanted it for the classroom, animal lovers, artists, doodlers, etc.
Ferrante: How serendipitous that this newest craze fits so well with your book.
A review of A is for Africa appeared on my blog on December 26, 2016.
Your latest work, A Wonderful Day, which is a Mom’s Choice Award winner, is based on a trip to the zoo. Tell us what inspired this.
Samulak: My works are often inspired and revolve around my own children and our experiences of this beautiful world and the adventures we have together. The zoo has always been a favorite for all the kids during their younger years, so I felt it would be a very relatable subject as an early reader.
Ferrante: Tell us about the illustrations.
Samulak: My publisher for the book paired me with the creative mind of Louise Charm Pulvera. Mr. Pulvera was one of a few illustrators that TATE gave me samples of based on my manuscript. I believe it was a perfect fit and Mr. Pulvera helped to bring the whole written script to another level of life.
A Wonderful Day will be reviewed on this blog on January 30, 2017.
Ferrante: Is there an author or illustrator with whom you would love to consult?
Samulak: My two heroes of the author/illustrator world are Tomie Depaola and Patricia Polacco. To spend anytime, anywhere, in any form or fashion with those masters of the world of words would be mind-blowing to say the least. I think if such a dream-come-true would ever happen, I would enter into a state of suspended animation and be lost for words.
Ferrante: LOL. I’ve always loved Tomie Depaola’s version of Strega Nona.
Why have you chosen picture books over any other style of writing?
Samulak: As an early childhood educator I have a special place in my heart for picture books. I feel that picture books are a unique platform to enable the delivery of a message, provoke feeling, translate experiences, make connections, and overall draw one into new worlds and ideas that can often otherwise be out of reach.
I believe that picture books are, generally speaking, many peoples’ introduction to literacy in a form that is beautiful and captivating while also being a genesis of knowledge and experience. Many times these books can be a driving force for our children to be exposed to new ideas or concepts; even expanded in exploring deeper connections and/or feelings to the world around them.
Ferrante: It’s a great responsibility to make picture books that are worth the parents investment in time and money and due right by the children. Do you have a favorite children’s picture book?
Samulak: Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco. I found this book in my early years as a young educator seeking to change the world and help my students with their own love for literacy. It rocked my world. I knew if I could be so moved and touched by a story, how could it not impact those in my classroom. That book helped me to establish my “measuring stick” for quality: If I love it…the kids will love it.
Ferrante: Is there anything else you would like to tell us?
Samulak: I love coffee, chocolate, traveling, and my family. They all are great influences in my life and sources of constant inspiration.
Ferrante: If you could open your own retail store, what type of merchandise would you sell?
Samulak: Coffee and chocolate. I love them both equally so I could not choose between them if I was deciding which to have on the shelf. You would have a balance for parent and child with a wonderful selection of stimulants and sweets. There would be a great space for reading and conversation, obviously, that would have to be open at all hours whenever the inward cravings came a’calling.
Ferrante: I guessed that from your previous answer. <smile> If you had to describe your personality in terms of a zoo animal, which animal would you choose?
Samulak: It would be hard to choose one, but I’ll say, the beaver. Soft and cuddly; always busy, yet never finished with his work; trying to be helpful to the environment around him while at the same time enjoying the fruits of his labor; and with a big fat flat tail that sticks out like a sore thumb…but eventually, to those who truly know him, find that it is actually his unique instrument of that labor of love which characterizes him.
Ferrante: If you could walk into any painting and actually experience the moment or scene that it depicts, which painting would you choose to enter?
Samulak: It is interesting that you ask this question. I think I have already had dreams about the entering into the masterpiece by Van Gogh, A Starry Night. This piece has often been a source of inspiration and help to me over the years. I actually just want to know if it is a mountain or a mountain of fire that is licking the heavens and overshadowing that little village on that eternal evening.
Ferrante: Thank you Michael for your detailed and interesting answers. What a fascinating journey you have gone through for the creation of A is for Africa. Best of luck with both your books and all your future endeavors.
Note: the three random questions are from “Chat Pack – Fun Questions to Spark Conversations”.