Blog feature about Berrie Torgan-Randall on the Writer's Rumpus Blog
Hi, Writers’ Rumpus fans! It’s my pleasure to welcome Berrie Torgan-Randall to our blog today. She not only wrote the words to her debut graphic novel for early readers, but she also created all the illustrations. This first book in a new series for children 5-9 years old was released by Blue Bronco Books, an imprint of The Little Press, on October 1, 2022. The series “celebrates life’s everyday struggles, silliness, and surprises.”
First I’ll share my review of Bella & Blue:
Bella and Blue are a lovable pair of friends in this delightful new series. This first book is where 8-year-old Bella meets Blue, an energetic puppy who knows just how to make Bella feel better when she’s feeling sad or nervous, whether it’s with a game of patty-cake or just a hug. Bella goes from a lonely, anxious young girl to someone who has found herself and her own unique talents. There are three short chapters and the back matter page is super fun. Other wonderful characters include Bella’s father and grandmother. At 75 pages, the size and format of Bella & Blue is perfect for young readers, very unintimidating, making it a great stepping stone for later more in-depth chapter books and novels, whether graphic or otherwise. Berrie Torgan-Randall did a great job in creating these characters who will jump off the page and into the hearts of children everywhere.
OK, let’s get right to our interview with Berrie:
Marcia Strykowski: Congratulations on your debut graphic early reader and welcome to Writers’ Rumpus! Could you tell us a bit about your background and how you got involved in children’s books? Were there any particular hurdles to overcome in getting your work published?
Berrie Torgan-Randall: I was a very shy child and found school to be challenging except for art class. I loved everything about art class – the burlap and glue collages, the linoleum prints, and the smell of the Tempera paint. In pursuit of this passion, I went to art school where I took multiple and varied fine arts classes. I loved being in the art room, and there was one other special place where I loved to be—the school library. After working odd jobs after art school that weren’t very gratifying, I reconsidered my career options and remembered the joy of my time spent in the school library. I went to grad school to become an elementary school librarian.
Being a librarian is my bread and butter, a profession that I love. However, my true passion is illustrating and writing children’s books. It wasn’t until later, after my kids went to school, I finally pursued my dream of writing and illustrating for children. The biggest hurdle I faced was having confidence in my art. With hope in my heart, I started attending conferences to achieve my dream of illustrating books for children. These conferences inspired me to use my imagination and be creative. When I began, I would shyly present my portfolio. The other illustrators’ portfolios intimidated me. They were published and had beautiful artwork and websites! The harsh but realistic criticism of the conference presenters reminded me of the difficult years of critiques in art school. Despite my own fears and hesitation, my family encouraged me to continue, and my husband suggested that I be inspired, not intimidated. It took a few conferences to get over the intimidation and the desire to crawl under a rock.
MS: Have you always wanted to write and illustrate graphic novels or was this a newer interest when they became so popular?
BTR: Originally, my publisher wanted me to write and illustrate an early reader about a young girl and her pet monkey. I didn’t agree with this plan. Mainly because I had heard too many real life disaster stories of owning a pet monkey. So I suggested to my publisher that I would come up with a story about a girl and her dog. The publisher emphasized that the book series should be a social/emotional story so I created my character Bella who is a spunky eight-year-old who suffers from anxiety. Blue is a shelter dog adopted by Bella who helps calm Bella’s anxiety by jumping up on her lap and giving her a high five. Michele McAvoy from The Little Press suggested that the book be an early reader graphic novel much like the popular Unicorn and Yeti series written and illustrated by Heather Ayris Burnell.
MS: What inspired you to create Bella & Blue and which came first, the writing or the pictures?
BTR: Bella & Blue was written to help kids with anxiety. One of my children suffers from anxiety and our dog Chase was helpful in calming her down. When I wrote this book, I hoped that children would see themselves reflected in Bella’s story and seek help or comfort from a four-legged friend or two-legged parent, teacher, or friend. Another reason I wrote the book was to try to convince my husband to adopt another dog–unfortunately this hasn’t happened yet. Our beloved dog Chase crossed the rainbow bridge several years ago.
MS: What do you feel is the most difficult part of creating a graphic novel? Could you briefly share your process with us?
BTR: I begin with really rough thumbnail sketches to get my ideas on paper. I then write out the story like a script with art notes so that my editor can get a sense of what the story is about. My final story is much different from the original thumbnails. It’s a long process of sketching, rewriting, new sketches, rewriting, to final art and manuscript. In my “Ballet Blues” chapter, I drew several ballerinas with distinctive personalities. During the process, I felt as if I made 100 ballerinas from rough sketch to final.
MS: Do you write or draw every day or have any kind of schedule?
BTR: I don’t draw every day, but I do draw at least four times a week. In addition, I do try to be creative every day. My creativity doesn’t necessarily mean putting pen to paper but could include other creative outlets like home cooking, decorating, knitting, or gardening.
MS: Good to hear I’m not the only one whose other creative outlets can sometimes take over and that it’s not always a bad thing! What do you hope young readers will take away from reading Bella & Blue?
BTR: This book can act as a mirror for anxious kids. They can see themselves reflected in Bella, and it helps readers talk about their own anxieties. Bella’s anxiety is illustrated like a tornado that comes on all of a sudden and escalates. Kids can talk about how they feel when they have anxiety and talk about what or who makes them feel better.
MS: Great illustration! Bella is such a fun character and I’m so happy this will be a series. Can you share a little about what’s next for Bella & Blue?
BTR: I am kicking around ideas of what adventures and challenges would be fun to write about and be appealing to young readers. The next book is dedicated to my son Kellen, so I am going to try to weave in his interest including board games, trying out different sports, and camping into this new adventure.
MS: Do you have any advice for authors about surviving rejections, managing success, or anything else?
BTR: I continue to work diligently on my portfolio (it’s a lifelong passion) and continue to attend conferences to learn more about the publishing business (there is a lot to learn). The business of writing and illustrating for children is not easy and it can wear on your ego. During a writing conference, Heidi Stemple and Jane Yolen pointed out that writing for children is about the three Ps (Passion, Perseverance, and Patience). It’s the third P (Patience) that I work on daily. In the meantime, while waiting for that all important “yes–let’s talk.” I suggest that writers and illustrators join and volunteer for organizations like SCBWI (Society for Children’s Writers and Illustrators) and 12×12, and most of all to enjoy the process.
MS: Any other news or artwork you’d like to share? Where can people follow you online?
BTR: I’ll start writing and illustrating Bella & Blue’s next adventure; the final version of the book takes about a year with all the rough drafts, sketches, final script, and illustrations. I’m also getting ready to submit an illustrated chapter book which features a young girl and her purple cat (PURRple Cat Stories). I have a thing for pets who are a plethora of colors against the norm. I post on my Instagram page: #blue.berrie and on Pinterest I also send out a seasonal newsletter. If you are interested, drop me a line [email protected] and I’ll put you on my newsletter list.
MS: Great, thanks for joining us, Berrie and best wishes for continued success!