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Interview With an Author: Susan Bernardo and Courtenay Fletcher

Wendy Westgate, Librarian, Exploration & Creativity Department,
Author Susan Schaefer Bernardo and illustrator Courtenay Fletcher

Susan Schaefer Bernardo and Courtenay Fletcher are best friends who met during a Mommy and Me class back in 2004. Now, they collaborate on vibrant and meaningful children’s picture books, with Susan doing the writing and Courtenay providing the illustrations. Their titles include Sun Kisses, Moon Hugs, written to support kids struggling with grief and loss; The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm (a collaboration with LeVar Burton to help children heal from trauma), and The Big Adventures of Tiny House, which explores the meaning of home and introduces children to concepts of sustainable living and building a community.
All of their books came from the heart and have a purpose: to help children feel loved and connected to their world.

Their latest collaboration, The Artist Who Loved Cats, is a gorgeously illustrated rhyming picture book biography illuminating the life of French artist Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen, the creator of the iconic Le Chat Noir Cabaret posters of 19th-century Paris, and they recently agreed to be interviewed about it by Wendy Westgate for the LAPL Blog.

What book is currently on your nightstand?

SSB: I always have a topsy-turvy stack of about 5-10 books next to me, my latest haul from the library or a trip to the Iliad used bookstore in North Hollywood! Right now, I am halfway through The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton and also dipping (on an as-I-need-to-know basis!) into Born to Be Wild: Why Teens Take Risks, and How We Can Keep Them Safe by Dr. Jess Shatkin.

CF: Right now I’m about halfway through Himself, by Jess Kidd, which is rather dark. I also just started The Holy Sh!t Moment by James Fell. I always have a stack of books I want to get through, as well as tons of stuff on my old Kindle reader. Sometimes I find myself reading several books at once. If a book isn’t doing it for me, I have lots of backups! I’m super excited for Erin Morgenstern’s new book, The Starless Sea…her first, The Night Circus is one of my all-time favs.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

SSB: The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett was one of my childhood favorites. I still re-read it every few years (it’s comfort food), AND, I made it the favorite book of the main character Rocket Malone in my debut YA novel Inspired.

CF: I had two books or rather a two-book series that I devoured over and over; The Narnia books and Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion (wore the cover off of that one). I wanted to be Alec Ramsey so badly I convinced my parents to buy me a black horse. I would ride through the countryside pretending my gentle black gelding was the wild and fast-as-the-wind Black Stallion!

What is a book you've faked reading?

SSB: I don’t think I’ve ever faked reading a book! There have been books I couldn’t get through, but I’d be the first to admit it. I will confess that I don’t read ALL the fine print on those “Terms and Conditions” on contracts when downloading new apps.

CF: I remember years ago telling a boy (who I was trying to impress) that I was reading Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which I’d bought and wanted to finish, but couldn’t get past the first chapter. Luckily he hadn’t read it either so he couldn’t quiz me! I still have the book on my bookshelf…hoping one day to be smart enough to “get it”.

Is there a book that changed your life?

SSB: The first book I ever read “all by myself” was Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham. That experience introduced me to the magic and power of written words and set me on the path to becoming a voracious reader at age 4. Now write rhyming picture books in mostly anapestic tetrameter, so clearly Dr. Seuss has inspired my writing journey, too! More recently, the book I can’t get off my mind and heart is The Overstory by Richard Powers—that book has me hugging trees and saying thank you for all they do for us, more than ever.

CF: If I had to name one book, it would have to be Sun Kisses, Moon Hugs, the first children’s book I illustrated. That changed the course of my career and has lead to some amazing things, like getting a book sent to space! Having Susan as a creative partner is so much fun and we’ve had lots of incredible adventures, traveling around, reading all of our books at various schools, libraries and organizations and meeting really nice people along the way. I love that we always have ideas brewing and it’s all because a desire to help our children feel loved was born on the way to ceramics class!

At what age did you discover your artistic/writing talent?

SSB: When I was 6 or 7, a funny little short story I wrote about a fishing trip with my dad was published in the Moody Library newsletter in Galveston, Texas where we spent our summers. Seeing my words in print made a huge impact on me, and I continued to write. When I was 11, a gifted teacher in California encouraged my creativity and submitted one of my poems to the Santa Barbara Children’s Anthology of Poetry. Again, the experience of seeing my words in print was such an honor and encouragement, so I continued to write stories and poems and seek out ways to have them published through middle and high school.

CF: As a kid, I loved drawing pictures of horses so I think that got me excited about art. I didn’t get really serious about being an artist until my high school art teacher, Mr. Suter, suggested I go to Art Center College of Design. So I took his advice, dropped out of UC Berkeley and headed to Art Center, but majored in advertising and graphic design, not illustration.

What did your parents want you to be when you grew up?

SSB: A tenured English professor so that I would have a stable career and be able to do my creative writing on the side during sabbaticals. I received my BA in English from UCLA and went on to Yale for graduate school—but after earning my master’s in English Literature, I decided to withdraw from the Ph.D. program. It felt like I was spending far more time analyzing other authors’ works than creating my own, and that I needed to try my hand at something non-academic.

CF: My parents never really told me what they wanted me to be, although I think my mother would have liked me to stay at UC Berkeley and become a scientist. She really wasn’t happy about me wanting to go to art school until it was explained to her that it didn’t mean that I’d be drawing caricatures for a living on Venice Beach!

What other careers have you had (if any)?

SSB: I worked in public relations, as a television writer’s assistant, as a language arts teacher and as a full-time mom and “extreme volunteer” (doing fundraising for public schools and advocacy for an organization to help homeless moms and children). My illustrating partner Courtenay Fletcher and I met when our kids were in a Mommy and Me class, and after years of friendship created a book and formed our own publishing company in 2012. My earlier meandering job path ultimately gave me the perfect foundation for this new dream career!

CF: I was an advertising art director for about 15 years working in Chicago, NY, and LA on all sorts of products, from luxury cars to Cap’n Crunch. After I left advertising, I worked as a photographer, which led to designing and digitally illustrating book covers for publishers in New York. All of those experiences gave me valuable skills that have helped in the production of our books and in the running of our indie publishing company.

What do you hope kids will take from your latest book?

SSB: When children (and adults. too!) read The Artist Who Loved Cats, I hope they not only learn a few facts about a very influential artist but also remember the importance of honoring their own innate curiosity and creativity. There is such joy and contentment to be had when we open our hearts and really SEE the world around and inside of us. Whether it’s traveling to a new country or a local museum, gardening, hiking, painting, communing with trees and sky, looking through a microscope, writing poetry (or all of the above!), it is critical that we find ways to hold onto and express that sense of wonder throughout our whole life. To me, that is the entire point of this human journey.

CF: I hope kids get to know Steinlen as an artist and cat lover and discover that being open and curious about something can lead to an interesting story. If they also get the message that art can change the way we see the world and that you can follow your passions to create the life you want, that would be wonderful. If they just want to sit and count all the cats in the book, that’s great, too. A book can fill many needs.

What is next for you?

SSB: Courtenay and I plan to continue creating “books to heal and inspire children of all ages” (that’s our mission statement for Inner Flower Child Books!) We have several picture books in the pipeline, starting with a bilingual Spanish-English edition of our first book Sun Kisses, Moon Hugs. I am also working on a sequel to my young adult novel Inspired. The first book featured the Greek Muses, and the next is set in Ireland and explores Celtic mythology. I’m learning so much, and it was a wonderful reason to travel to Ireland to do research. I might need to go back to finish the draft! We also continue to expand our offering of educational assemblies and workshops for schools, libraries, and non-profit organizations.

CF: Susan and I always have books we’re working on so ideas for scenes and characters are percolating in my head. We’re working on getting a bilingual version of Sun Kisses, Moon Hugs finished up and we hope to have that out by the end of the year.

Is there anything else you would like to share with our library patrons?

SSB: Libraries are portals to wonder and creativity. So many of my adventures in life have begun with reading a book!

CF: When I was a kid, we didn’t have a lot of money so the library gave me the opportunity to read all the books I wanted for free! I loved that it was a place of serenity and order, yet shelf after shelf was swirling with creativity, each book a little world to explore. I’ve always felt slightly giddy with the possibility of finding another incredible story to get lost in each time I visit to my local branch. As a visual person, though, I have to say I always judge a book by its cover.