Robert’s Snow…Meet Illustrator Shawna Tenney!

Today’s illustrator feature for the Robert’s Snow: For Cancer’s Cure Fundraiser is Shawna Tenney, an artist with a gift for whimsy and, as you’ll see in her snowflake, a child’s playfulness.

Blogger’s Note:  I’m a children’s author and a middle school English teacher, so my students are collaborating on our series of illustrator profiles. Today’s feature is courtesy of the Global Citizens in 3rd period English class.

Shawna Tenney has illustrated many books, such as Allie’s Bike, Treasure Island, Oliver Twist, A Very Strange Place, and In the Sun.


She first wanted to be a ballerina, but finding out it wasn’t made for her, she discovered writing and illustrating.  She now lives in Utah with her husband, Warren, and two daughters, Cassidy and Madeline, and don’t forget Bongo the Cat!


We interviewed Shawna Tenney.  Here are our questions and her answers:

First of all, please tell us about your snowflake. Where did the idea for the frog fairy come from?

Well, sometimes I don’t really know where my ideas come from.  I was looking at my snowflake, and all I could see was a big beehive hairdo and wings.  A fat frog lady hopped in there randomly.

Why did you join the Robert’s Snow fundraiser?

I found out about it on a friend’s blog, and really wanted to participate, mostly because my mom is a breast cancer survivor.  I was very excited to participate in a fund raiser for cancer research in which I could use my talents.   I dedicated my snowflake to my mom and my good friend Amber, an 11 year old who has leukemia.

Why do you like being an illustrator?

Wow, what is there not to like.  I can stay at home with my kids while I work and make my own schedule (although at times this can be a challenge).  I get paid for doing something I love to do.

How much practice does it take to be an illustrator? 

Well, I have a bachelor’s degree, so I have had as much schooling as most other professionals.  I have always loved drawing and have been doing it since I was very little.  It takes many hours to complete a painting.  First I have to get the sketch just right with a composition I am happy with.  Then I have to transfer that sketch onto a board.  Sometimes I do a color study on the computer to decide what colors I am going to use.  Then the painting itself takes many many hours.

How many paintings have you done?  Do you have a favorite?

Oh goodness, I have done countless paintings.  I have big bins full of old paintings.  I kind of stick to one style now, but I’ve gone through many different styles and mediums.  I think one of my favorite paintings right now is “The Queen of Sheep-baa.” 

I really like making animal characters and want to do many more, maybe even someday a book with some fun animal characters.

Where do you get your inspirations for paintings? Do you ever get ideas from your family?

I am inspired by many great artists and illustrators.  As for my ideas, I get those from many things including things I used to imagine as a child, and things that are going on with my family.  Sometimes my imagination comes up with things out of nowhere.  A lot of the time I am doing jobs for a client and they tell me what to draw (which is certainly not as fun).  I really like fairy tales.  I like to modernize them and make them silly.  In fact, I’m working on a whole new website based on silly fairy tales.  Come back and visit my website in a couple months to see what I mean.  My little three year old, Cassidy, is really into fairy tales, so some of the things she enjoys inspire me.  Some of the things she says and does give me ideas for stories that I would like to write and illustrate.  My husband also helps me think of ideas.  He is a graphic designer, so he helps critique my work and helps me improve things.
Do you feel like you have a particular style of illustrating, and if so, how would you describe it?

I feel like I have my own children’s storybook style.  I guess if I were to describe it, I would say, clean, detailed,colorful and whimsical with interesting angles and compositions (at least that’s what I’m shooting for. . .).

Which do you prefer to draw – fantasy pictures or realistic ones?

Definitely fantasy.  I love making up my own worlds where anything can happen.
What medium do you usually paint in?

Acrylic Paints.  I do some black and white work with charcoal pencils and micron pens.

Have you ever thought about writing your own book? What would it be about?

Yes, I’ve actually written a few of my own, but have never gotten a story good enough to send out.  I think I would enjoy writing a picture book about a crazy fairy tale or about animal characters.

Now the rapid-fire questions…things that kids (and adults who think like them) need to know!

What is your favorite painter or painting of all time, and why?

How can I pick one?  Well, one of my favorites would be John William Waterhouse.  His skin tones are beautiful and I love his style and the way he applied his paint.  His subject matter was usually fairy-talesque.   There are countless other painters and illustrators I greatly admire.  A current artist I love is James Christensen.  If you saw his work, you would probably know why.

Favorite book ever?

Oh goodness, I can’t just choose one.  I of course love the Harry Potter series.  One book I read recently that I thoroughly enjoyed is The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale.  As for illustrated children’s books, there are too many to count, but my favorite author/illustrators are Dr. Seuss and Chris Van Allsburg.

Your favorite kind of pie?

Banana Cream Pie.   Mmmmmmmmm!

Favorite sport?

Well, sorry folks, I’m not much of a sports fan.  I do enjoy watching some sports.  Actually, I’m more into dance, if you can count that as a sport.  I was actually thinking of being a ballet teacher in my earlier years before I decided to become an illustrator.

Your website gives your name as Shawna J.C. Tenney. What does the JC stand for?

Shawna Jean Calder Tenney
Favorite animal?

Sea Lions

Favorite color?

I don’t think it is legal for an illustrator to choose just one favorite color.

We read about your cat on your website. How come you chose Bongo as his name?

We found Bongo in my parent in law’s window well.  He was a sweet little orange kitten.  My husband chose Bongo as his name and  it stuck.

Has your cat Bongo ever helped with a painting?  Or ruined a painting?

Bongo posed for the cat talking on the phone on my website, although he was very embarrassed to have to dress up like a girl.  Sometimes Bongo tries to bite my feet while I’m painting.  Sometimes he tries to jump up on my lap or drink my painting water.  One time he stepped in my pallet and walked over my painting.  That wasn’t the worst I’ve had though.  Cassidy who is now three has painted on several of my paintings that I had to get to clients.  Fortunately acrylics are forgiving and I was able to fix them.  Madeline, my one year old, hasn’t ruined any paintings. . .yet.

 Thanks, Shawna, for taking the time to visit with us, and thanks for giving your time and talents for the Robert’s Snow project!

Thank you!  It was really fun.  What a fun project for your classes to do!  Hope you’re all having a great year

Please be sure to check out Shawna’s snowflake and all of the amazing work at the Robert’s Snow Auction Site.

And…to be entered in a drawing to win a copy of Allie’s Bike and a print signed by Shawna Tenney, please post a comment below, mentioning one of your favorite snowflakes in the Robert’s Snow fundraiser.  You don’t have to have a blog to win, but be sure we have a way to get in touch with you.  A winner will be drawn in early December, after the auction.

Trick or Treat!

I dressed up as Abigail Smith for Halloween on Saturday.  She’s the main character in SPITFIRE — a young girl who disguises herself as a boy to fight in a Revolutionary War naval battle on Lake Champlain.  In the first chapter of my historical novel, Abigail steals a rowboat and arrives to meet Benedict Arnold’s fleet on the lake, looking cold, disheveled, and soggy.  Since it poured rain during the Burlington,  VT Halloween Parade, I was particularly authentic, giving out temporary tattoos, with my hair soaking wet.

Afterwards, it was blessedly warm, dry, and cozy at Borders, where I gave a presentation to about 15 people who braved the weather.  I took my work cap off and shared my secret…that I was really a girl disguised as a boy.  (They promised not to tell General Arnold!)

The kids in attendance were real history lovers, and they taught me a few things, too. 

And of course, they were excited to reach into Abigail’s haversack to check out some artifact replicas and find out about life on an 18th century gunboat.

When Abigail was done answering questions, the kids had some things they wanted to ask the author of SPITFIRE, so I “went to get her” while one of my helpers passed out samples of hardtack.  (Only one man wondered why I was changing my clothes in the Classical Music aisle.)

Rain or shine, Burlington’s Church Street Marketplace sure knows how to throw a party.  Marketplace Events Coordinator Becky Cassidy and Borders Sales Manager Kristine LeMay were fantastic to work with and made the rainy day seem a lot brighter. 

After the presentation, I went downstairs to sign copies of SPITFIRE.  I’m still surprised when I show up for events and they have signs up, like I’m an author or something.

What you don’t see is the other side of this rack, where there’s a picture of

, who had signed copies of A BAD BOY CAN BE GOOD FOR A GIRL at Borders the week before my visit.  Do you think Tanya and I look alike?  I had never noticed the resemblance, but…


One man kept looking at one side of the rack, then looking at me, then looking at the photo on the other side.  Finally, he crossed his arms and frowned at me, so I helped him out.

“I’m that one,” I told him, pointing to my side of the sign.

“I thought so,” he said, “but you look a little like her, too. Not that that’s a bad thing…”

Maybe Tanya and I will have to do an event together some day and really confuse the guy…

A CURSE DARK AS GOLD by Elizabeth Bunce

Charlotte Miller is my new hero.

Not because she refuses to let a man solve her problems.  Not because she tries so hard to save her family’s woolen mill. Not even because she steps forward with courage in terrifying circumstances.  She’s my hero because she finds herself in a situation that is, by all accounts, dire, and never once whines about it being unfair. Though her story is a take on the classic Rumpelstiltskin story, Charlotte is no typical fairy tale girl.

When her father is buried in the first pages of A CURSE DARK AS GOLD, Charlotte is plunged into a world of hard work, broken down machinery, troubled finances, and ancient curses.  Does she complain?  Does she say, “How come I have to answer for the mistakes of all these men?”  Nope.  With pluck and courage, compassion and commitment, Charlotte forges ahead to set things right – no matter whose fault it all was in the first place. 

We could use more heroines like Charlotte Miller – and more authors like Elizabeth Bunce, who weaves Charlotte’s harrowing story into a rich, colorful tapestry that’s difficult to let go of when the last page is turned.

I’m giving a presentation on historical fiction at November’s NYS Reading Association Conference, and I originally borrowed this ARC to note examples of how writers of historical fantasy weave factual details into their novels.  When I finished reading CURSE, though, my notepad was blank.  Not because there weren’t examples.  There were plenty of them – from the details of the woolen mills of the early Industrial  Revolution to the country folklore of that time.  It’s just that I…umm…forgot to write them down. 

That, my friends, is the mark of a great story.

*sighs, picks up pen, and goes back to take those notes*


Question:  When does a middle grade historical novel become a Halloween book?

Answer:  When the author agrees to dress up as her main character because she can’t resist Burlington’s Church St. Marketplace Halloween CelebrationSpitfire is about a girl who disguises herself as a boy to fight in a Revolutionary War naval battle on Lake Champlain.  That means…you guessed it…  On Church St. this Saturday, I’ll be an author, disguised as an 18th century girl, disguised as an 18th century boy.  Here’s the official blurb…

Saturday, October 27, 1:00: Join children’s author Kate Messner for a trip back in time to the American Revolution on Lake Champlain at Borders Books and Music, 2nd floor. Kate portrays Abigail Smith, the main character in her middle grade novel SPITFIRE, who disguises herself as a boy to fight in the battle of Valcour Island. Participatory activities for kids are based on the book. A book signing will follow the event.

If you’re leaf-peeping in Vermont this weekend, please stop by and say hello!

On Tuesday, October 30, I’ll be at the North Country Teacher Resource Center Educator Showcase at Plattsburgh State from 4:30-6:00, with five other fun author/illustrator people.  (At this one, I’ll just be regular Kate…)

Feeling lucky?

October must be contest month in the kidlit blogsophere because I can’t remember a time when I’ve seen so many offerings.  Cool ideas, too — here’s a roundup for those of you with lottery dreams…

Being a teacher, I guess I’m especially partial to Jama Rattigan’s Apple-for-the-Teacher contest over at her blog, Alphabet Soup.  She’s offering up a copy of Sarah Miller’s MISS SPITFIRE, which is amazing, and the APPLE COOKBOOK, which makes me hungry just looking at it.

Jo Knowles (

) is having a Figure-Out-My-Contest-Contest at her LJ.  Come up with the perfect contest for Jo, and you could win a signed first edition of LESSONS FROM A DEAD GIRL.

Curtis Brown agent Nathan Bransford has a Best First Paragraph Contest running on his blog, with a Thursday night deadline.  He’s offering manuscript and query critiques as prizes.  (Even if you’re not at that stage in your career, it’s worth heading over to check out some of the entries!)

Heather Brewer, author of EIGHTH GRADE BITES, is giving away 13 of her extra-special vampire hoodies for Halloween.  She still has a few left, so check out her blog, Bleeding Ink, to enter.

I’m sure I haven’t listed them all, so if you have a contest running, too, feel free to post a link in the comments section.

And finally, have you seen the contests popping up with the Robert’s Snow: For Cancer’s Cure illustrator interviews?  A number of the amazing illustrators who donated snowflakes for the auction have also signed books and prints as contest prizes to help draw traffic to the auction site.   Kris over at Paradise Found, has compiled all of the Robert’s Snow contest links on her blog.

Be sure to check out this week’s illustrator features, too!

Monday, October 22

Tuesday, October 23

Wednesday, October 24

Thursday, October 25

Friday, October 26

Saturday, October 27

Sunday, October 28

RICKSHAW GIRL by Mitali Perkins

I’m partial to books with strong girl protagonists, so I loved Mitali Perkins’ RICKSHAW GIRL.  Naima is a young girl growing up in Bangladesh, living a life marked by both her family’s poverty and her appreciation for color and beauty.  As the best alpana painter in her village, Naima has a unique gift — a gift that she initially sees as irrelevant to her family’s financial problems.  But Naima is a spitfire – a girl who can’t settle for fitting into the mold her society has created for her. 

Perkins’ exploration of gender roles and the creative thinking challenging those roles in modern day Bangladesh is both poignant and accessible to young readers.  Her themes of self-determination and community are presented within the context of a story that has beautiful sensory language, vivid characters, and some great surprises along the way.

The smell of autumn…

My weekend was full of gushy pumpkin guts, fresh-baked bread, ripe red apples, and yellow river leaves.  For this, I am thankful…

Montreal’s Atwater Market — always a feast for the senses!

This bakery (above & below) was the model for the patisserie  in my MG Contemporary novel that’s making the rounds right now.  Needless to say, my research was extensive!

On Saturday, we took advantage of the warm temperatures to hike Mount Baker in Saranac Lake.

On one bright fall hike each year, we always collect a few leaves to press.  These are sleeping between the pages of my phone book now.  On Thanksgiving, we’ll shake them out to decorate the table and remember the smells of late October…

Robert’s Snow…Meet Illustrator Judy Schachner!

“Oh, I’m Skippyjon Jones, and I bounce on my bed; And one or six times, I land on my head!!!”

Today’s illustrator feature for the Robert’s Snow: For Cancer’s Cure Fundraiser is none other than Judy Schachner, created of the beloved Skippyjon Jones series and many more fantastic books for kids and kids at heart.

Blogger’s Note:  I’m a children’s author and a middle school English teacher, so my students are collaborating on our series of illustrator profiles! Today’s feature is courtesy of the 6th, 7th, and 8th graders of the SMS Writers Club!

We were asked to feature writer/illustrator Judy Schachner here to help raise awareness of the Robert’s Snow fundraiser.  Robert’s Snow raises money for cancer research at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute.  Judy was kind enough to agree to an interview and has donated a signed copy of one of her books and a Skippyjon Jones doll to a lucky blog reader!

Thanks for joining us, Judy!  We love Skippyjon Jones, so we were so happy that you created a snowflake. Why are you involved in the Robert’s Snow fundraiser?

Because it feels good to give. And because I lost my mother to cancer when I was young and then later my stepmother.

Could you tell us about your snowflake for this year’s auction?

This is the third snowflake I’ve painted. It’s the second time I’ve painted my cat Skippyjon Jones (with mittens on his ears). It’s done in acrylics.

What led you to become an author/illustrator?

A huge love of drawing, painting and storytelling that I’ve done since I was a very little girl.

What other career dreams did you have when you were younger?

I was too shy to star on Broadway, I didn’t have the math grades for nursing, and too many bad habits to be a nun so a life in art was my only choice.

Many of your illustrations go along with stories that have some humor. How come?

I love “funny” but other books of mine are quite different – Yo Vikings, The Grannyman, Mr. Emerson’s Cook, and Willy and May.

The Skippyjon Jones books are so popular, and we wonder if that’s partly because the name is just so much fun to say. How did you come up with Skippyjon’s name?

Cats should always have more than one name. SkippyjonJones is what my cat called himself.

We just learned that your real Skippyjon Jones, your own Siamese cat,  passed away recently, and we’re so sorry.

Skippyjon died in September. I can’t tell you how sad I am.  Here’s a picture of him in his younger days.

So he was the inspiration for the Skippyjon Jones books?  How did you create the stories?

Skippyjon’s character is like a good stew. You start with a big pot. Then add a very funny brother named Kevin, who was famous in our house for his over-active imagination. Add a handful of Siamese cat named Skippy, one basement with a bumblebee in it, and a tussle in the litterbox. Finally a dash of Antonio Banderas.

Which came first for this series of books — the story or the illustration ideas?

I like to work in dummy form right from the beginning. Pictures fill in the spaces where the words aren’t working and vice-versa. I usually think of a title right away and almost always have my beginning sentence. It’s the rest of the book that’s a problem.

Of the books you’ve illustrated, do you have a favorite?

Yes, Yo Vikings, it’s about my children and it’s based on a true story.

Now a few rapid-fire questions…
If you had to choose a favorite author and a favorite book of all time, what
would they be?

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

Your favorite food?
Angel Food Cake

Favorite thing to do in your spare time?
Read, re-arrange the furniture, and kiss my cats.

Favorite time of year?
Give me snow!!

Bring on the snow!  Judy Schachner’s snowflake is featured in Auction #3, which runs from December 3-7.  If you would like to bid on a snowflake for Robert’s Snow, click here to check out Judy’s creation and the others.

If you’d like to be entered in a drawing to win a signed copy of one of Judy’s books AND a Skippyjon Jones doll, here’s what you need to do.  Simply visit Auction #3, and then come back here and leave us a comment to tell us about a snowflake that you love.  We’ll enter your name in the drawing, and a member of the Writers Club will draw one lucky winner out of a hat to win a signed book and doll.  (Note: If you don’t have an LJ account, please make sure you leave your name.  It’s tough to enter “anonymous” in a drawing and even tougher to track her down if she wins…)

Be sure to check out today’s other Robert’s Snow illustrator features…

What 3rd graders need to know…

Have you ever given a presentation, and NO ONE wants to ask a question during the Q and A?  I hate that.  But I LOVED visiting with the Oak St. School 3rd graders today.

You’d think 75 kids packed into a small classroom might be a little chaotic.  It wasn’t.  

You’d think 75 third graders squeezed together like puppies in a basket might be noisy.  They weren’t. 

Those Oak Street kids are fabulous listeners, friendly hosts, and some of the best question-askers ever.  Here’s a sampling of our conversation:

How long did it take you to read and learn about everything so you could write your book?

About a year and a half.  I loved doing all that reading and learning, and then the writing was fun, too.

How long did it take colonial guys to make a fire with that flint and steel you showed us?

I guess it would depend on how good they were at it.  I think it would take me a very long time!

Yeah, you only got a few  sparks.

What made you want to write this story, in particular?

I live on Lake Champlain, and I always look out at the water and think about what happened here years ago — all the battles and the people who lived here before us.  I wanted to tell their story.

Sometimes, I go camping on Valcour Island, where your story happens.  Have you ever been camping there?

Yes, I have. It’s pretty, isn’t it?  My family likes to have campfires there and roast marshmallows.

I like s’mores.

Me, too!

Hey, how did they make things shoot out of that powder horn you showed us?

They didn’t make things shoot out of it. They used it to store their black powder so they could fire their muskets and cannon.

Oh. (disappointed look).  Nothing ever shot out of it?

Nope. Sorry.

Do you know my sister?  She goes to the  middle school.

Yes, I do.  She’s nice.

At that point, I had to leave the rest of the questions unanswered to go back to the middle school, where that particular sister and a few other siblings were waiting for 3rd period English to start.   I was sorry to leave with hands still in the air, but I’ve promised to follow-up with an email or another blog post.  I have no doubt there were some future researchers and authors in that audience today!

Better than a Newbery…

I got an email this week from Mr. Smythe, my high school English teacher who read about SPITFIRE in a newspaper clipping someone mailed him.  He’s proud of me.

You have to understand — Mr. Smythe wasn’t just any teacher.  He was that teacher.  If you’ve survived high school and lived to tell about it, you know what I mean.  The teacher who makes you believe you can do better.  The teacher who makes you work harder than you’ve ever worked and makes you love every minute of it.  

Long before I met Harry and Hermione, Mr. Smythe introduced me to Hermia and Helena, Lysander and Demetrius, and their magic was no less charming.  Mr. Smythe had a way of bringing those old stories to life, making them feel as urgent and real as the upcoming prom.  And when we wrote for his class, we wrote with passion. Language mattered.  It mattered with an intensity that burned long past the end of 9th period…and burns to this day.  Thanks, Mr. Smythe.