Robin Koontz is an American children’s book author and illustrator who was born in 1954 in Maryland, U.S. She has been illustrating and writing books for children since 1985. In this interview she talks about her books, her love for art, reading and writing.
Voicu Mihnea Simandan: You have been an illustrator and storywriter for most of your life. How has your work evolved over time?
Robin Koontz: When I first started, I thought I could both write and illustrate even though art had been my lifetime focus and I never gave writing a second thought. I got my first contract for a book called Samuel Grows His Own about some rabbits that grew their own vegetables. The company soon went out of business and the book was never published. I sent the story and sample illustrations to another editor. Her advice was to “stick with what you know.” Samuel… went into the back of a file cabinet (and lives there still) and the editor published six books that I illustrated. Some were stories in the public domain and some were collaborations with writers.
About seven years and many writing workshops later, I tried my hand at writing again. I published five early readers and have since published twelve more along with numerous nonfiction books and curriculum texts. By 2007, I had written more books than I had illustrated! I’m happy that I’m being hired again for illustration projects and I am still writing as well.
VMS: Where do the ideas for your children’s books come from?
RK: My book ideas come from a combination of observing the world, listening to others, and remembering childhood. I’ve visited with friends I knew as a child and they laugh at all the things I still remember that we did because they don’t! I also have sad memories, and those come through in some of my writing as well.
VMS: Illustrations are a very important factor in any children’s books. In two very recent science books for children, Water Goes Around: The Water Cycle and Hide and Seek Moon: The Moon Phases (both published in 2011), Chris Davidson has done a wonderful job with the illustration. Tell us about your working relationship with him.
RK: I was hired as the writer for those books and had nothing to do with the illustrations. This is typical for a children’s book, both fiction and nonfiction. I have never contacted Chris Davidson.
VMS: Until now you have authored both children and activity books. Have you ever thought of writing chapter books?
RK: I was recently asked to submit a chapter book for an ongoing series, but haven’t heard if I got the job. Chapter books don’t sell that well, so we’re told, and part of my goal is to keep food on our table. I try to focus my energy where the market is the strongest.
VMS: You have dedicated a webpage to the memory of your mother, Virginia Mullins Koontz. What was your mother’s influence on your life as an artist and writer?
RK: My mom was an artist who taught art to middle school for many years. She also tried writing for magazines at one point. But her main influence on me, and why I dedicate my creative life to her, was her unflagging encouragement and belief in my abilities. She was never one to criticize and was sympathetic through all the bumps in the road I chose to take. Burl and I also had many great times hanging out and traveling together. Her absence is a huge void in my life.
VMS: Everyone seems to believe that children no longer read and, with the availability of affordable e-readers, many believe that, sooner or later, children will no longer want to hold books in their hands. Please comment.
RK: As one author noted, we used to read from rock slabs! The devices that deliver a book might change, but I believe that kids will still read. They might even read more now that ebooks are more affordable than a hardcover book! Personally I think the book apps that have been developed are pretty nifty. If I was still a kid, and part of me still is, I’d gobble up all those books like crazy. And I was not an avid reader as a child…
RK: Thank you for the compliment. I don’t spend enough time updating my website and that is the mistake many of us make. If they become static, there is no reason for someone to visit again.
Many writers spend a lot of time publicizing their books and generating a fan base if they can. It takes a lot of time, with mixed results. I do think it’s important to be online and accessible to readers. I make sure I answer all my email and I am very actively involved in the SCBWI Oregon, working with over 400 writers and illustrators in the northwest. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators is the only professional organization specifically for those individuals writing and illustrating for children and young adults.
RK: I have read far more children’s books in my adult life than I ever did as a child and yes, I still read them. I was a good reader, but the books we had when I was learning to read were awful. Dick and Jane, egad! It’s no wonder kids like me hated to read! I am delighted that we now have such a huge pool of diverse talent publishing books of all kinds and in all formats for those beginning readers. While the industry is having its problems, the creators are working harder than ever to produce books that children will love and cherish.
VMS: What book are you working on right now?
RK: I am working on illustrations for some early readers, and I am writing a middle-grade fiction novel. Two other jobs are looming but they haven’t appeared yet.
VMS: What is your work routine?
RK: I have a home office where I work every day of the week for at least a few hours. If I have a tight deadline, I pace it out so that I’m not in a mad rush at the end. Work consists of writing and illustrating current projects, working on new ideas, keeping up with the market, and sending out proposals and manuscripts. I’m also spending a lot of time learning about digital publishing. I recently published two of my early picture books with uTales, a new ebook publisher. Check them out! I also devote many hours volunteering for the SCBWI Oregon. We have a terrific group of writers and illustrators and I enjoy helping them on their path to publication.
VMS: What advice would you give to aspiring writers and artists?
RK: I think it’s good to have a goal, but also be flexible. You may not know where your true strength is and could miss out if you don’t allow all possibilities to flourish. The same goes with accepting and learning from a critique. I don’t mean criticism, but good solid suggestions on how to improve your work from a qualified professional. Most new writers and artists are very sensitive about their work and that is understandable. But if you want to improve, you need to distance yourself and accept that it takes a lot of work and perseverance to create a masterpiece! I’m still trying to do that.
VMS: Thank you for your time.
RK: Thank you allowing me to share a bit about me with your readers.
Voicu Mihnea Simandan
October 27, 2011