The Backstory: LLOYD FINDS HIS WHALESONG
Welcome to The Backstory. Today the incredibly talented Skylaar Amann joins us to share the inspiration behind her book, Lloyd Finds His Whalesong, (Page Street Kids, 2020). Along the way you will get the scoop on Skylaar's process, workspace essentials, and some really incredible advice.
Welcome to The Backstory and thank you for joining us and sharing the inspiration behind LLOYD FINDS HIS WHALESONG.
First off, please tell us a little bit about your story.
Thanks for having me, Andrew! Lloyd Finds His Whalesong is about Lloyd, a young humpback whale who can’t sing. His family’s whalesong guides the whales through danger and connects them to each other. But Lloyd is too quiet to join in. When he finds a magical, mysterious object with supersonic seaweed strings, it could be his chance to be part of the song. He practices and practices, nervously preparing to show the other whales. But before he can perform for them, a noisy disruption scatters the pod. Lloyd’s powerful new instrument may be the only thing that can reunite them—if he can find the courage to share his unique song. It’s a story about finding your voice, communication, family, and connection … and real-life ocean themes like noise pollution and how whales communicate.
This story is incredible! Lloyd is relatable for so many kids and I love the way you approach these themes. And we can't forget your gorgeous illustrations! They are magical.
What’s the story behind the story? What was your inspiration? Where did the idea come from?
A few things came together organically to create the root of the idea for Lloyd:
I grew up on the Oregon Coast, so the ocean was a part of my life from a young age. I spent a lot of time on the beach exploring the intertidal zone, and I was able to do some whale watching (both on boats and from shore) as a kid, which instilled a strong sense of wonder in me. I still remember watching humpbacks (like Lloyd) migrate by. They were very far away but I could make out their telltale backs cresting through the water!
As an adult, I learned to play the ukulele—my first musical instrument! It opened up a world of communication and creativity that was different from my usual drawing and writing. It was like getting a new kind of voice.
I’ve always felt a bit misunderstood, or like someone with a different point of view that doesn’t always connect or reach people how I want it. A lot of people feel something like this, especially kids who are sometimes ignored or not taken seriously (or for lots of other reasons).
So I knew I wanted to incorporate all these ideas into a story. The whale part just came naturally because the sea is what I know. The ukulele was new and exciting, and I’d started drawing ukuleles (I have always drawn whales), so they ended up merging into a uke-playing whale at some point. My early whale sketches had a bit of a sad aura about them, and I felt like Lloyd (as I’d named him) was lonely in some way. The story morphed from there into Lloyd being too quiet to sing his family’s song and needing to find his own path.
It is fascinating to learn how you pulled bits from different aspects of your life and combined them in such a way to result in Lloyd. Also, I think it is so important how you identified those feelings that many kids can feel and don't always speak up about.
How did you approach going from this seed of an idea to what is now LLOYD FINDS HIS WHALESONG? Was it something undeniable you had to write immediately or did you need to sit with this idea and let it grow for a while before it found its way to the page?
I actually drew lots of sketches and iterations of Lloyd with his ukulele for a long time before I had a concrete idea for the story. I just knew he was kind of a sad or lonely guy, but that didn’t evolve into his inability to sing the whalesong (or how he’d use the ukulele to save the day) until much later.
I tend to work back and forth between drawing and writing, especially when I was first starting. It’s a little easier for me to start with a line of text or a concept these days and jump into getting a rough draft down. But for Lloyd, I relied on sketching him and other ocean scenes with no real direction for a while. Eventually when I had enough of a concept, I started doing thumbnails (tiny, very rough drawings that help you lay out a composition or figure out a character pose, value structure, etc., without committing to a big sketch or refined drawing).
The concept was undeniable in a sense—I couldn’t shake my Lloyd character and had to draw him and think about him all the time until I found a story for him to live in. I think because the ukulele was so new to my life at the time, it was exciting and took up a lot of my thinking time too. Having something to be excited or interested about is a great source of ideas!
It sounds like Lloyd became a friend first. I love the way you say you had to find "a story for him to live in." It demonstrates such a connection to your character.
Where do you tend to find your inspiration or your sparks for ideas?
The natural world is a big inspiration for me. Growing up in a rural area, the outdoors was a big part of my life—both recreationally and educationally. I got to spend a lot of time on the beach but also in Oregon’s temperate rainforests, which are filled with inspiration, biodiversity, and a little bit of magic. Science, our connected habitats, wildlife, discoveries (and the scary stuff like climate change) are all story inspirations to me, and I feel very close to the natural world.
Outside of that, I often think about being a kid and how part of who I was at that age is still with me, whether it’s getting in a grumpy mood and not knowing why, feeling envious, stubborn, struggling to communicate, or other feelings they tell grown-ups to stop having. Kids are so naturally creative and they think about the world in different ways. As much as I can as a boring old grown-up, I try to remember those times (good and bad), harness those moments, and find stories for them.
Both of these sources of inspiration are evident in Lloyd and make great starting points for children's books. I love your idea of harnessing your inner child. All of those feelings you mentioned are powerful ones for children that can often be overlooked or downplayed by adults. Books that address these emotions and empower children are so important.
Did you use any mentor texts while creating this book?
It was more of an informal amalgam of lots of resources, research, and inspiration than a lot of specific mentor texts. But I will say that The Storm Whale by Benji Davies was one I referred to a lot -- and not just because it also stars a whale. That book has a really nice flow, deceptively simple text, and a narrative arc that I like as both a reader and a writer.
Also, as both an author and illustrator, I find it hard to separate the two components of a picture book. So looking at author-illustrator texts in general is always helpful to me. You can see how a creator incorporates certain things into the words or into the images and how those two things work together. I often go back and forth many times between words and images when I’m first concepting an idea. For example, I write out some rough text and then do messy thumbnail sketches and refine as I go, seeing what I can take out of the text and put into images instead. So watching what other author-illustrators do can be really educational and inspirational!
What books have been the most inspirational/impactful on your writing?
A lot of old books from my childhood had a big impact on me and made me want to be a writer and illustrator from a young age. To name just a few: any and all Edward Gorey books, Roz Chast comics, and Cricket Magazine when Lloyd Alexander and Trina Schart Hyman were there. Speaking of Lloyd Alexander, I was completely obsessed with his books as a kid (and he may have had some influence over my whale’s name!). I devoured picture books at the library—loved Anno, Jane Yolen, Richard Scarry, Tove Jansson and too many more to mention. They all made me want to write (and draw).
These days, I pull inspiration from contemporary picture books, comics, illustrators who don’t write, and books for older kids too because it’s important to stay current on writing styles and themes—and there’s an endless supply of incredible books out there!
What are the must haves for your workspace?
I work in a teeny tiny spare bedroom in my house that I’ve decorated to include lots of things I like, things that are calming for me. I like cute animals, plants, lots of ocean art (no surprise there!), and warm lighting.
The other big must-have for me is ergonomic options. I have a standing desk and a sitting desk, plus a slanted drawing board -- these things let me move around and adjust furniture and tools if I’m stiff or uncomfortable (which happens a lot!).
Tools-wise, I’m very dependent on technology these days. I do most of my writing on my Macbook and Google docs, and I create my dummies digitally using Photoshop, InDesign, and my Wacom tablet. That said, I still do work traditionally too. I do lots of thumbnail sketching in my sketchbooks and on some picture book templates I made, and I love to work in watercolor when I get free time.
Even though I love the comforts of my home studio, I really miss working in coffee shops! The bustling movements and sounds of a busy space help me focus on writing and editing sometimes. I’m sure the coffee helps too!
The personality of your studio is amazing! And I do agree about missing the days of writing in public places.
Any inspirational words of advice for aspiring authors?
The thing that works best for me is to set specific goals and work toward them. That sounds obvious, but here is what I mean: If you want to be an author, narrow down your goal. For example, I said to myself, I want to publish a picture book that I write and illustrate. That gave me a very specific goal to work toward.
Any work I did (writing, drawing, taking workshops, attending events, etc) had to relate to that goal. It had to support me moving closer to the goalpost. So if I got an art commission request from a person, I’d turn it down because, while making them a painting might be fun or get a little extra cash in my pocket, it did nothing to advance my goal of getting a picture book published. Likewise, I had to get picky about workshops. I only have so many hours I can devote toward this field, so if a class sounds like fun but is something I already pretty much know or something goal-adjacent but not directly tied to the goal, I’d skip it until I’m ready to revise my goal or add more goals. (On the flipside, if I felt deficient in character design and found a class that would help me improve, I’d jump on it.)
That really narrow focus allowed me to improve my craft as a writer and illustrator, and I saw myself make leaps and bounds skillwise, which translated into better drafts, dummies, and submissions.
With so many authors sneaking writing time into the early mornings and late nights to fit it in amongst work, family, and everything else on their plates, this is spectacular advice. It sounds like this would take some discipline to achieve, but that the results and progress towards your goals would be well worth it. I also love identifying things as goal-adjacent and being able to put those items on hold until a later time.
Do you have any upcoming projects or news you would like to share with us?
Yes! I’m working on my second picture book right now. It’s called SMILE, SOPHIA and will be published by Feiwel and Friends in 2022. The book is about a young dinosaur-loving girl who only smiles when she wants to, not when people tell her to. It’s a fun mix of feminism, paleontology, and humor. I’m getting to draw lots of fossils, dinosaurs, and science stuff for the project, so that is really fun and I can’t wait for people to see the book when it’s all done!
I am so excited to hear this! Congratulations! The concept is amazing and I can only imagine how gorgeous your illustrations will be.
Where can people connect more with you?
You can check out my illustrations and learn more about me at www.skylaaramann.com. You can also find me on Twitter and Instagram, both with the username @skylaara. If you want to stay up to date on my book and art projects, sign up for my (infrequent) newsletter!
Skylaar thank you so much for joining us on The Backstory. It has been wonderful getting to know more about you, your process, and of course, the inspiration behind Lloyd Finds His Whalesong.
Readers, if you haven't already, check out Skylaar Amann's magnificent book, Lloyd Finds His Whalesong. (Page Street Kids, 2020)
Skylaar is generously offering a PB or sketch dummy critique to one lucky winner.
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ABOUT SKYLAAR AMANN
Skylaar Amann is the author-illustrator of Lloyd Finds His Whalesong, (Page Street Kids, 2020). Her next book, Smile, Sophia, is forthcoming from Feiwel and Friends in 2022. She is a member of SCBWI and Women Who Draw, as well as a picture book mentor for WriteMentor. Skylaar is also an affiliated artist with the Climate Science Alliance, and she specializes in children's and science-themed art. Her clients include Surfrider, Pinna, Sitka Sound Science Center, Kaiser Permanente Northwest, 826 Seattle, Adventure! Children's Museum, Scientific American, and Paxton Gate. Skylaar has fifteen years of experience in communications and now works as an author, illustrator, and editor. She is represented by Jessica Watterson of Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. You can learn more about her at skylaaramann.com.
ABOUT ANDREW HACKET
Andrew’s background of being surrounded by children, both at work and at home, has been a treasure trove of inspiration.
A nature lover, Andrew can be found exploring the woods of Massachusetts with his wife and three kids.
While often witty and imaginative, Andrew’s stories can also delve into the more serious and emotional topics that children can experience.
Andrew is represented by Dan Cramer of Flannery Literary.