Author-Illustrator Interview : Maryann Cocca-Leffler
Crafting words and images that will capture the attention of a child can be challenging. It can be even more of a challenge to generate a purpose that will stand out, resonate with readers, and most of all, make a difference.
Children's author Maryann Cocca Leffler has written and illustrated over 50 books for children. Last March, she released Janine, a story that encourages both children and adults to embrace the differences amongst ourselves. The main character is based on her own daughter, Janine Leffler and her life growing up as a child with disability. To further raise awareness, she has developed Janine’s Party, a website with relevant resources such as films,writing, and poetry to promote awareness, acceptance, and tolerance.
Most recently, she has released Janine and the Field Day Finish, a sequel to Janine. Paired with lovely illustrations, the story captures young Janine, a one-of a kind character who is determined, upbeat, and inspiring to her classmates. After reading the book, I felt compelled to learn more about her work. I decided to ask her a few questions.
LISA: In a previous blog post, Embracing Disabilities in Books and in Life, you wrote “I have been wanting to write this book for 25 years, but the timing was not right until now,” referring to the publication of Janine. What do you mean by that?
MARYANN: Ever since my daughter, Janine, was young, I wanted to write a children’s book using her as the main character, (she is now 31!). I had to wait until now. Let me explain; Janine was born with a variety of disabilities including CP (Cerebral Palsy) and a vision impairment. Even as a young child, she never let her challenges get in the way. She was a spunky, happy child who always saw the bright side of every situation. Though she had difficulties doing lots of things other kids do, she always tried her best, was optimistic and supportive to others. Janine was also an avid reader. Every child wants to see themselves in books, but back in 1990, there where not many books, (if any) that portrayed children with disabilities as strong main characters. I promised myself I would write one, but I realized that this was not my story to tell…I had to wait until Janine grew up.
LISA: What made you decide to finally share Janine’s story with the world?
MARYANN: As Janine’s parent and advocate, I watched Janine’s life unfold. I celebrated her accomplishments, cried with her through times of exclusion and bullying, helped her fight against discrimination, and watched her embrace her disabilities and grow up to be her own advocate. Now as an adult, Janine, a college graduate, works for an organization that helps adults with disabilities. I had a few book ideas based on events that happened in Janine’s life and I asked Janine for her permission to write these stories…and she was ‘all in’. It was time.
LISA: Now that you have released Janine and Janine and the Field Day Finish, what are your thoughts? Did you ever imagine you would have come this far in sharing Janine’s story and inspiring others? What kinds of feedback/support have you gotten in response to your work? What challenges did you face along the way?
MARYANN: I am thrilled to see these books in print and very grateful to my daughter who bravely allowed me to tell her story. Luckily, times have changed, both in attitudes towards people with disabilities and in the publishing world. Now there are many books that highlight a positive main character who happen to have a disability. (We have a list of suggested books at: www.JaninesParty.com.)
When I submitted the first book, Janine, in 2014, a few publishers rejected it, but ultimately I sold it to Albert Whitman & Co in Chicago, who has a great reputation for championing social issues. One challenge during editing was the question of whether or not to mention the character’s disability in the story. (We don’t). This question was the center of many editorial discussions. From the beginning I thought it was important not to mention the disability. First off, every person, child or adult, wants to be seen as the person they are, not a label. Secondly, in reality, kids don’t care! They relate to each other as kids. Every child has weaknesses and strengths and everyone needs help now and then.
The reviews and feedback have been very positive from the beginning, with the first book, Janine, selling out of the first printing within 2 months. Through our school visits, letters from teachers, kids and parents, we can see that we are touching people’s lives. There’s more work to be done in the area of kindness and inclusion, and we hope to continue to inspire.
LISA: Not only do your Janine books raise awareness, but they have teachable lessons. These include kindness, friendship, and positive thinking. Janine’s optimism and confidence teaches readers to be proud of themselves and who they are, and her interactions with other characters teach us to view our peers as equal. How important do you think it is to instill these values into children at a young age? What advice do you have for parents and educators?
MARYANN: The lessons of kindness, friendship and being positive are so important to every child, but our message of inclusion and loving yourself are key themes to these books.
-BE SPECTACULAR! Is our message in the first Janine book.
-BEING A WINNER IS NOT ALWAYS ABOUT BEING NUMBER ONE, is our message in Janine and the Field Day Finish. We want kids to know, it’s not always about
winning…it’s about trying your best, kindness and inclusion.
My daughter, Janine says it the best:
JANINE: “I hope by sharing my story I will inspire others to be more tolerant and accepting of people’s differences and to inspire children who have disabilities. In the Janine books one of the big lessons is self-advocacy—standing up for yourself and loving who you are. Another is standing up for those who are being treated unfairly. These are very important messages to share with students in any age group since bullying is such a prominent issue these days.
I grew up with various disabilities and challenges. Instead of being down on myself, I have spent my whole life focusing on being positive and thankful. When people had doubt in me, my faith in myself has remained strong. Someone recently asked me, “If you could erase your disabilities, would you?” My answer is a big NO. Sure, I’d like to be able to drive, but my disabilities have made me the person I am, and I don’t want to change. In the words of “book Janine:” I LIKE ME!”
Our advice to Parents & Educators: Encourage every child to love themselves and be who they are. Show examples of inclusion and kindness everyday.
LISA: The pages of your book, Janine and the Field Day Finish come alive with bright illustrations that further contribute to the beautiful story. What inspires your art and how do you craft images that are appealing to your audience?
MARYANN: As an illustrator, I spend much of my time creating characters which will appeal to kids. This project was a little different because unlike an imagined character, when I write and draw the Janine books, I need to be true to my then eight-year-old little Janine. I keep asking myself: how would “kid” Janine handle this? What would she say? What would she wear? I look to my daughter Janine for character guidance, but as her mom, I can bring myself back in time to visualize her spunkiness and her quirks, and pay homage to this courageous, happy child.
The medium for the illustrations is gouache and color pencils and a bit of collage. (I do not work digitally).
LISA: What have you learned about yourself and your audience throughout the years of writing and illustrating? What has been the most rewarding part of your work?
MARYANN: Big question. One thing I have learned about myself is that I HAVE to create. It is part of who I am. Making “something” out of a tiny spark of an idea is very rewarding, whether a story, an illustration or a play. Secondly, I learned that I am not a quitter. Once I set a goal, I follow through and follow my dreams. The most rewarding part is then sharing my work with others and hopefully inspiring them.
LISA: What advice do you have for aspiring writers and illustrators?
MARYANN: Have thick skin. There’s lots of rejection in the publishing world. Take criticism and learn from it, but be true to yourself. Learn the business by understanding contracts and rights, and of course, keep improving your craft. (And don’t give up.)
LISA: What are you looking forward to/ what do you hope to accomplish next?
MARYANN: I have a few picture books in the works, but I’d like to try a different genre and I am currently writing a Middle Grade Novel. We’ll see. Either way- I’m not planning to stop creating anytime soon.
Be sure to join Maryann and Janine this Saturday, November 19th at the Toadstool Bookshop in Milford, NH from 1pm to 3pm as they share, sign and discuss Janine and the Field Day Finish. Maryann will also be signing copies of her seasonal books including "Thanksgiving at the Tappleton's", "A Homemade Together Christmas", and her latest, "What I Love About Christmas: an interactive holiday board book". This will be a fun and interactive event you won't want to miss!
Maryann Cocca-Leffler is the mother of Janine Leffler, the inspiration behind the courageous and optimistic character, JANINE. Both Janine and Janine and the Field Day Finish were based on real events as Janine grew up with the challenges of disabilities. Maryann is the Author-Illustrator of over sixty books for kids, including; A Homemade Together Christmas and Bus Route to Boston. Also a playwright, Maryann’s award winning play Princess K.I.M. The Musical is based on her Princess KIM books. This National New Play Festival Winner can now be licensed worldwide through StageRights.com. Maryann creates books in her home studio in New Hampshire.
Janine Leffler is the inspiration for the character JANINE. She lives her life focusing on the positive, despite the fact that she has many challenges in life. She has become a role model to children and adults, as she encourages them to focus on abilities, not disabilities. Like her character in Janine and the Field Day Finish, Janine never won a trophy or came in first place in any sporting events, but she was always number one in her gracious sportsmanship and unyielding focus on personal best. Janine has a BA in Communications and visits classrooms speaking about inclusion and tolerance. She lives and works in New Hampshire.
To learn more about the author, please visit www.maryanncoccaleffler.com
For information and resources, please visit www.janinesparty.com
To learn about Princess Kim, an Original Play based on the children's books by Maryann Cocca-Leffler, please visit www.PrincessKimTheMusical.com
Lisa Allard is a student at Southern New Hampshire University. She is working as Literary Editor for the New Hampshire Writers' Project. For editorial inquiries and requests, please contact LisaAllard02917@gmail.com.