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Becoming An Author and Illustrator: An Interview with Gaia Cornwall

Gaia Cornwall is a children’s book author and illustrator who lives right here in Rhode Island. Recently, she shared her thoughts on writing, her illustration process and tips for kids to get started in a writing career with Books Are Wings.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

Writing as a profession didn’t occur to me for a long time. In fact, I didn’t consider myself a writer for quite some time while I was working on Jabari Jumps. I really thought of myself as an illustrator. But I’ve been a reader for as long as I can remember. Even before I could technically read, I have clear memories of pawing through stacks of picture books at the library.

Why did you choose to write children’s books, and what inspires you?

Picture books made such a big impression on me as a child– so much so that for years, I was really too intimidated by the genre to just dive in. One of my favorite parts about them is that the best ones are like holding little packages of fine art on your lap. I’m inspired by big feelings, little moments, kid’s expressions… just a lot of observing real life I guess.

How long does it take you to write a book?

Oh this seems like a straightforward question, but… it’s not! I worked on versions of Jabari Jumps for over six years before I got a publishing contract in 2014. It was supposed to come out in 2016, but was pushed to 2017. So depending on when you start counting, it took between three and over ten years. Ha. In general the publishing process does take a good two years.

How do your books get published?

I have lots of partners! My wonderful agent, Emily Van Beek, gives feedback and then submits my work to publishers. Once I have a contract with a publisher, I work with editors and art directors to change, revise and finish the piece. There are also lots of people I’m not directly in touch with, or who I only speak with a little. Most people don’t realize it, but it really takes a village to make a book.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Well, I’m a partner to my husband, and a mom to two brilliant human children, as well as a cat and a dog. Between Covid, work, and homeschooling this year, life is full. I used to love cooking, but honestly that’s become more of a chore lately. I always love reading. And a few months ago, a friend and I made a baby quilt for another friend. My job was to supply the fabric (I’m a terrible seamstress,) and I discovered dying fabric is so much fun! Hopefully it will become a new hobby.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?

Hmm a couple things: First, I really didn’t realize both how long it takes, and how many people are involved in making a book! Another lovely surprise, is getting to see how readers bring their own experiences to each book. For example, I get emails and notes from readers about how Jabari’s family is just like their family. Each reader has a slightly different family structure, (ie they have two dads, only a dad, they live mostly with their grandparents, their mom died, their parents are divorced…) but they all see themselves in Jabari. It’s really cool.

How many books have you written? Which is your favourite?

Well, I’ve written a lot more than I’ve published! But I’ve published three so far and my fourth is coming out next year. And I’m the worst with favorites, in general. It’s impossible to pick a favorite food, a favorite color, let alone a favorite book! Gah! Don’t make me!

Do you have any suggestions to help kids become better writers?

READ. That’s my biggest tip. I remember hearing that you should read at least fifty current books in the genre you want to write in. And if that’s picture books, make it at least a hundred. My other tip would be to join a writing critique group. My group has been invaluable.

What do you think makes a good story?

I guess there are a lot of ingredients, but ultimately, I think there needs to be some emotion that rings true to the reader. Whether you’re writing about unicorns and aliens, or a biography of someone, there needs to be some familiar feeling that’s going to grab your reader.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?

All kinds of things! A ballerina, an FBI agent, an artist, a forensic scientist, an actor, an astronaut… the list goes on and on.

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