Lisa Railsback and Sarajo Frieden Interview and Giveaway

A brilliant artist must try not to be afraid.

That’s what Noonie Norton says, and Noonie should know. The feisty fourth grade protagonist of Noonie’s Masterpiece is trying her best to be brave, pursuing her art with single-minded passion even when the rest of the world is baffled by her brilliance.

Incorporating full-color artwork throughout, Noonie’s Masterpiece (Chronicle, 2010) is a gem of a book, with words and pictures to draw in even the most reluctant reader. Today at the Mixed-Up Files we’re lucky to have two brave and brilliant artists with us: Lisa Railsback, author of Noonie’s Masterpiece, and Noonie’s illustrator, Sarajo Frieden. Lisa and Sarajo have never met in person, but thanks to the magic of the Mixed-Up Files, they’re here together today.

Before we begin, though, here’s a bit on Noonie from the book jacket.

Noonie Norton knows a few things:

  • She is a brilliant artist.
  • The rest of the world just doesn’t know it yet.
  • She misses her father, an archaeologist who works on the other side of the globe.
  • She doesn’t belong with her actor/postman uncle, dental hygienist aunt, and super dork cousin. Just because they’re related doesn’t make them family.
  • If she wins the school art contest, her dad will come home. Pronto.
  • The only problem? To win, she has to create a family portrait.

Welecome to the Mixed-Up Files, Lisa and Sarajo!

Lisa, when you first submitted Noonie for publication did you envision it being illustrated?

Lisa: My dream was that it would be illustrated. I guess I always assumed it would bethe book is all about Noonie’s art life, after all. But I was very naïve (and still am) about how much things cost in the publishing world. I feel so lucky that Chronicle, renowned for their love of art and beautiful art books, picked up Noonie.

How and when did Sarajo get involved in the project?

Lisa: I was nearly finished with my book edits, when Victoria Rock (our editor) told me that she’d found a wonderful artistthe perfect matchto illustrate Noonie. And then Sarajo leaped into the picture…

Sarajo: I was contacted (via my agents at Lilla Rogers) by Victoria Rock at Chronicle, who sent along the Noonie manuscript. The initial brief called for about 50 black and white drawingsalmost doodles, something you might draw in the margins of your notebook while not paying much attention in class! It went through a number of changes, which meant the project was on hold at different points while issues about how many illustrations, how much color, etc., were resolved. At some point it was decided that the entire book would be color. This opened up a world of new possibilities, and I was able to start on the drawings again with the luxury of coming back to something a second time.

Did you and Sarajo have any contact during the process?

Lisa: Only in an indirect way. During the illustrating process, I received every set of sketches that Sarajo had done.  It was fascinating for me to witness her process as Noonie evolved. I was invited to convey my notes through Victoria, but I don’t remember having any notes.  I was so impressed and intrigued and mesmerized with Sarajo’s interpretation of Noonie’s art, including the very early sketches. Sarajo and I have never met (we will someday!).  It sounds cheesy, but I feel connected to Sarajo in the sense that we share Noonieher voice, and artwork, and emotions.

What was the best part of working on Noonie for each of you, and what was most challenging?

Lisa: During the entire process I felt that the teamSarajo, and the Chronicle folks, and Iwere on the same wavelength, with a similar vision; I didn’t feel any glaring aesthetic differences, or that I had to fight for things I wanted to keep or cut.  The hardest part has been the post-Noonie release: trying to speak about Noonie in brief concise sentences. Trying to sell her, in so many words, and justify why Noonie might be a good book for kids. I’m a lousy saleswoman and usually prefer to sit in the quiet, at my desk.

Sarajo: The best part of working on Noonie was getting to create a whole little world from scratch. This was something I loved doing as a kid: creating whole towns and the people in them, drawing their clothing, the interiors of their homes! (I’m still completely fascinated by interior magazines and how people live.)  The hardest part, the sheer number of drawings and a deadline in which to finish them, was made so much easier for me by the enthusiasm of Chronicle designer Amelia Anderson and editor Victoria Rock. It was hard to let Noonie go. After working almost exclusively on the illustrations for several months, I wasn’t entirely sure what the world was going to be like without her.

Lisa, you mentioned that you went through many early drafts of Noonie.  Has working on Noonie changed your creative process in any way?

Lisa: Before the book reached Chronicle, the Noonie manuscript had very dark elements to it. Incredibly dark! I laugh, with at least a little humility, as I look back on these drafts. In doing rewrites I had to go through a process similar to Noonie’s.  I had to take a step back and work through my own lurking thoughts: “Of course art (and writing) is the most important thing in the whole world! Of course the world should like my art (and writing) or they’re undoubtedly clueless!”  Noonie definitely feels misunderstood, and that her art is misinterpreted. Through my process of revisions, though, Noonie also comes to realize that she is misunderstanding the people, and the world, around her. They may not necessarily love art, or get her art, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t love her and support her.  People can be incredibly passionate and serious, such as Noonie’s friend Reno, about things having nothing to do with art. Despite this being a book for ten year olds, it’s also a gentle reminder for me about the creative process.

Sarajo, the illustrations for Noonie are lavish–humorous and poignant at the same time. What was your process like? Did you or Noonie create the illustrations?

Sarajo: Well, thank you! It’s funny because that’s exactly how I approached the illustrations—as if I was Noonie, and this was my personal “Noonie” sketchbook. I called it “channeling my inner Noonie”.  It was a combination of paying attention to details in the manuscript as well as what I could bring to it. It’s written in first person and there are Noonie’s drawings, letters she and her anthropologist father exchange, as well as conversations Noonie conducts with her favorite artists from the past—all of these elements had to fit together. For example, with regard to the famous and quite dead artists that crop up in the story, the designer and I agreed most kids wouldn’t know what they look like, so I drew them as paint brushes while giving little hints about who they were. Additionally, this part of the book makes it a wonderful vehicle for inspiring artists to learn more about who these artists were.

Another question for both of you. What was middle-school like for you? Were either of you a misunderstood genius like Noonie?

Lisa: Third, fourth, and fifth grade were my favorite school years.  I feel that I was very introspective and contemplative, as opposed to my unruly, insecure teen years. Oddly, I can still remember conversations, and dreams, and feelings that I had as a middle-grader. Writing for this age group now feels very natural. Thus far, I have only written my protagonists in first person, and I honestly haven’t had to alter my adult voice very much to fit my kid voices (minus a few swear words).

Sarajo: I am the youngest of four (as is Lisa), and had to follow behind three disgustingly smart siblings who always received straight A’s. I was actually a pretty good student, except in Math, but I’m sure I felt misunderstood, or that what I excelled in, which to some extent was day dreaming, was not appreciated nearly as much. In fact, growing up, who does not feel misunderstood?

Are there any books you remember being special to you?

Lisa: In my middle-grade years I was into realism; I read…books about spunky, outspoken, quirky girls.  The Laura Ingalls Wilder series was very special to me, as were the Ramona the Pest books, all the Judy Blume books, and the Boxcar Children. Books such as Where the Wild Fern Grows, Black Beauty, Sounder, and Old Yeller, were special in a different way. These books had such a powerful emotional impact on me!  They made me cry like crazyespecially the dying animals business. It may sound contrary, but even the thought of re-reading them gives me teary shivers. I can’t. Now, I vacillate between wanting to write books that are fun and light and easily put down, versus books that have strong resonance years later.

Sarajo: My mom was a teacher and she didn’t believe in television, so for the longest time we didn’t have one. She did bring my siblings and I on weekly visits to our local library and reading was and always has been one of my greatest pleasures. I also loved the Wilder series, and my mom was fond of giving me books about famous and accomplished women (subtle hints there). As I got a bit older, I loved Ray Bradbury and books with an other-worldly twist. One of my favorite books as a kid was A Wrinkle in Time.

Lisa, you already have another middle-grade novel out this year, Betti on the High Wire (Dial). Do either of you have any other projects Mixed-Up Files readers should be watching for?

Lisa: I’m excited about another middle-grade novel that I’m working on for Dial. I’m hoping it will be ready for the world by next year. I also have a fourth book finishedmore of a “tweener” novelthat I hope will see the light of day someday, somewhere.

Sarajo: I work in so many diverse areas: one thing I’m currently working on is a bedding design for Land of Nod that involves dancers. I’ll be able to sleep on my work (as opposed to while doing my work!). I’d also love to illustrate another bookeither for middle grade or a picture book.

Thank you, Lisa and Sarajo, for visiting and sharing so much of yourselves (and Noonie) with our readers. May you meet again soon!

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If you’d like to win your very own copy of Noonie’s Masterpiece, leave a comment below. Our random generator will choose a winner on Thursday, Sept. 16.

Like Lisa and Sarajo, Laurie Schneider is the youngest of four siblings. Her three older brothers excelled at math and debate, but she liked to dream and doodle in notebooks. She still does. Today she channels her inner Noonie into contemporary and historical middle-grade novels.

Laurie Beth Schneider
  1. This book looks great and I love the whole theme of the importance of family.

  2. I love the color of the cover and the illustrations looks great. i can’t wait to show it to my son 🙂 enter me in.

  3. I love this interview. I remember seeing this book, but I couldn’t buy it at the time. I love the concept and the art at the time I first saw it. Great to see the author and illustrator talk about the book.

  4. Thanks for this interview …. I actually hadn’t heard of this book before so that is an exciting find!