Diana Renn

Mysteries that Matter

Author

Weekend Reads

I’m beginning to chip away at my towering TBR pile of amazing new books that launched in the first half of 2022. Dayna Lorentz’s WAYWARD CREATURES came out in January, and while I’d started reading as soon as the book arrived – I’d been eagerly anticipating her new book after I read OF A FEATHER last year — I soon got busy with my own launch preparations and a deadline. I reluctantly had to put my reading on hold.
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I had some rare stretches of uninterrupted time last week, and again WAYWARD CREATURES called out to me. I devoured it in two days. You guys. THIS BOOK. Wow. It’s about a twelve-year-old boy named Gabe who tries to impress some friends and get attention, so he sets off some stolen fireworks in a woods near his house. This sparks a forest fire! The fire impacts many people and animals, and chars acres of land. One of the impacted creatures is a coyote named Rill, whose voice we get in alternating chapters; he is badly burned and trapped in a crevice, but Gabe discovers him, brings him food, and then advocates for his release after he is captured by wildlife officials. Gabe also makes amends for his actions through his participation in a restorative justice program. The connections between Gabe and the coyote are brilliantly rendered. Both receive negative attention and judgment, especially the coyote who snapped at a small child. Both are angry. Both have disconnected from their “packs” for various reasons. But as their paths cross, and they begin to heal, we learn to view both of them with greater compassion.
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As someone who grew up on the west coast, with an awareness of fires, this story stoked a lot of fears that I have. I learned new things about how destructive forest fires are, but also felt some hope about how land can heal (even soil, beneath what is burned) and eventually may regenerate – especially if humans like Gabe and his community service mentor can nudge things along. Without funding and human effort, though, the process is slow indeed. I also learned a lot about coyotes, creatures I certainly have judged negatively; I hear them at night and fear them when I walk in the woods, but I think I will view them differently now.
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As the parent of a boy not much older than Gabe in the story, I also felt the family dynamics and the interior life of a seventh grader were spot-on. It’s great to find stories that deal with the inner lives of boys, and even show boys having some meaningful discussions to overcome conflicts and repair damaged friendships. The language felt real, with moments of genuine insight punctuated by awkward humor and fierce ambitions, as Gabe’s friends eventually join him in working toward a common goal.
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A must read for animal lovers and budding conservationists, as well as anyone interested in restorative justice (which should be all of us) – highly recommend!

Celebrating Tokyo Heist’s Ten-Year Anniversary!

Wow, I can’t believe it’s been ten years since my debut novel, TOKYO HEIST, entered the world! It seemed important to mark the moment somehow, as ten years in a writing career is an important milestone.
The road from TOKYO HEIST (a YA mystery about missing Van Gogh prints in Japan and a manga enthusiast’s quest to find them while on a business trip with her dad) to TROUBLE AT TURTLE POND (a mystery about wildlife poaching and endangered Blanding’s turtles) seems incredible to me.  I know at my launch ten years ago, if someone told me I’d eventually write a mystery about turtles, and that I’d be consulting with ornithologists and wildlife rehabbers to write the next book, I would not have believed it. And yet mystery has remained my steady path, even as my topics and age market shifted over time. I feel fortunate to have been able to publish two more YA mystery novels with Viking / Penguin Random House, followed by a collaboratively written adult mystery/thriller with Realm (formerly Serial Box) and Adaptive Books, and now my middle grade eco-mystery with Fitzroy Books / Regal House.
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While two of my YA mysteries did go out of print (though are available as eBooks), TOKYO HEIST has held on in paperback. It pretty consistently hovers in the top 100 teen art fiction novels list on Amazon when I happen to check up on it, occasionally getting into the top 50 or even top 25 there. I think because it has different pathways into it – travel / Japan enthusiasts, art enthusiasts, comics and manga enthusiasts — it continues to find new readers.
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It’s so fun to hear from some of those new readers who discover this novel these many years later. One recently reached out to me on Twitter to let me know she’d read it after a workshop I gave on mystery writing, and shared the following thoughts: “As an art historian, I can be picky about how art is treated in fiction, but you nailed it. I loved the details around print-making and conservation. Effortless, fluid, well-researched.” Whew! Researching that novel – in Seattle, Boston, and Japan, and shadowing an art conservator to understand their profession – was one of the most fun, fulfilling parts of my journey in writing that book, something I remain proud of to this day. Researching and writing TOKYO HEIST gave me the confidence to write other books about topics outside my wheelhouse (artifact smuggling, international bike racing, wildlife conservation) and to create collaborative partnerships with people in many different professions.
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By far the most rewarding part of my writing career so far has been the opportunity to connect with young readers and the people who guide them, their teachers. Seeing my books used in classrooms, and getting to enter those classrooms (even virtually) or see student work (research projects, art, creative writing) is such a gift. It makes me realize how books have a life of their own once we launch them, and while we must give up control in so many ways (how they are marketed, received, reviewed, interpreted), we can feel that special spark when we know our book has connected with a certain reader or made an impact in some way.
I looked back on my blog post – on this very blog! – from June 2012, about my launch day and my launch party at Newtonville Books. I had not read it for a decade. These opening words jumped out: “. . .[M]y brother-in-law sent me a video of a NASA rocket launch. I watched the lift-off, mesmerized, a lump in my throat. It was the perfect video for that morning. I felt like I really was sending my book out into the world — with the aid of a highly trained crew — and now all I could do was squint at it in the distance and hope for the best.” Seeing those words again, and the friendly faces celebrating this first book – including some faces of family members who are no longer with us, my brother-in-law who sent me that launch video, and my father-in-law — was an emotional experience. My debut launch post is an important reminder to me of how many people it takes to write, publish, and sell a book, and the readers who help to sustain its journey, often in a flight pattern we simply cannot predict.
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My favorite TOKYO HEIST launch photo, included here, is the one of the day my books arrived. My cat sniffed atthe box and walked away. My son, then five, practiced a handstand on a nearby chair; you can see his feet in the air. I clearly was so excited about my books that I permitted the chair gymnastics. The picture is an important reminder to me, against the more “glamorous” launch party pictures, that books get written amidst the swirl and chaos of real life. I  do sometimes look at this “feet in the air” book picture to remind myself – when I’m in the middle of a messy draft, in a messy house, with lots going on around me — that books got written before, and I can do it again.
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Do you have a milestone to mark in your writing life? Is it the one month, six month, or one year anniversary of embarking on a new project? Five years since you put a stake in the ground and decided to call yourself a writer? Seven years since your first writer’s conference? Think back in time on this very day – where were you in your writing journey? Where are you now? Where would you like to be in one year? In ten?

Weekend Reads

         Welcome back to my (Mostly) Weekly Reads feature!
          I took last week off in light of the tragedy in Uvalde, Texas. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t have the bandwidth or, frankly, the will to write a bookish blog post last week. I became, like so many people, consumed by news media, especially by the portraits of those who were lost, yet again, to gun violence. I couldn’t find words to articulate my deep dismay, and still struggle to.
          But I will share a couple of things I have done in the past week before we dive in to the weekly read, in the hopes that others may feel motivated to do a couple of things too:
         I joined Moms Demand Action and donated to Everytown. Moms Demand Action has an app you can put on your phone, and they make it very easy to do some actionable steps, like contacting senators or signing petitions.
                I donated copies of TROUBLE AT TURTLE POND to 600 BOOKS OF HOPE: COMPASSION THROUGH STORY. This initiative seeks to collect at least 600 new children’s books with hopeful messages to ensure that every child at Robb Elementary School would receive one new book, “one tangible thing they can take with them that might shine a ray of promise in their unbearable darkness,” according to organizer e.E. Carlton-Trujillo. The goal is also to collect 1,300 more books to gift to the town’s other schools, from K-12. You can read more about the initiative here, and if you are a children’s book author, illustrator, editor, or publisher, please consider signing up to donate new books!
            And finally, as I work on my new mystery novel (which also took about a weeklong hiatus while I processed the news), I revisited an essay I wrote for the Huffington Post back in 2014: Unarmed and Dangerous: On Writing a Thriller With No Guns.” Sadly, this essay often gets dug up and circulated on the Internet after school shootings. But if you’re writing a book for young readers and contemplating whether or how much to include guns, this might be worth reading and thinking about. It describes my attempt to avoid guns in my second YA novel, which was harder than it sounds.
         And so, on to this week’s Weekly Read, which is, fittingly in many ways, a survival narrative. I’m almost done listening to Megan Freeman’s marvelous middle grade novel in verse, ALONE. The premise immediately grabbed me, as I can well remember the feeling of being a child or even a young adult, and finding that a morning seems particularly quiet, the streets emptier, even the birds subdued, and wondering: Where is everyone? Did they evacuate and forget to tell me??
        That’s pretty much what happens in ALONE! Maddie, age 12, is scheming to have a secret sleepover with friends, capitalizing on the shuttling she does back and forth between divorced parents and the occasional times when logistics slip through the cracks. But plans change, she sleeps at her grandmother’s empty house on her own, and wakes up to find herself completely alone; her town has been evacuated and abandoned overnight, for no clear reason. Is the thread environmental? Invisible? Potentially under attack from an enemy? The messaging about “relocation” and transport, with the tone of vague threats, was eerily relatable. Maddie must learn to survive on her own in a town that seems to have every creature comfort, but in fact has no infrastructure — no cell phones, no electricity — and the isolation she feels is one of the hardest challenges to overcome. Fortunately a dog named George and a library full of books provide companionship.
       This book is Home Alone on steroids. Maddie’s plight is a scary prospect to contemplate, but also a powerful reminder of how resourceful we can be, and how impactful the written word can be, as Maddie turns to all kinds of reading material for insight, instruction, and inspiration.
     I’d love to know what you’re reading, and how words sustain you through difficult times; feel free to drop a note in the comments!

Weekend Reads

Welcome back to Weekend Reads, my attempt at sharing something about books I’m reading or intend to read, roughly every Friday! 
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A Song Called Home - Kindle edition by Zarr, Sara. Children Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.      This weekend I hope to finish up an audio book that I’ve been immersed in lately: A SONG CALLED HOME, the new middle grade novel by award-winning author Sara Zarr.
        I’m a longtime fan of Sara’s YA novels as well as her This Creative Life podcast (and her more recent mini series podcast, The Launch Pad – a must-listen if you are anywhere in the book launch process!) And I had the pleasure of editing one of Sara’s short stories once, years ago, when I was the Fiction Editor at YARN (Young Adult Review Network). When I heard she was moving to middle grade for her next book, I was immediately excited to get my hands on this book!
       Well, I got my ears on this book — I’ve been listening to more audiobooks lately for a variety of reasons. And I’ve been trying to find times outside of driving to listen to audiobooks, and wean myself off news and social media. As an experiment, I have been starting my days with story, and am trying that out with this book. I have a golden half hour in the morning before my own writing time, when I’m helping my kid get ready for school, getting his lunch together, taking care of the dog and cat, doing a few chores, all while this beautiful book is pouring into my ears.
                I look forward to my mundane morning chores now because I want to get back to this novel.
                Sara Zarr is well known for stories about family dynamics, and I am completely immersed in this particular family. Set in San Francisco – one of my favorite cities – A Song Called Home is about a fifth-grade girl named Lou who is going through some massive changes. An alcoholic father who’s not really in the picture, a mother remarrying, a new stepdad to get used to, a move, and a kind of mystery — a guitar that shows up at her front door, a guitar she has no clue how to play. The dynamic with her older sister Casey is also changing, as Casey deals with the family’s changes in her own ways, and both girls are growing up. Friendships shift around them too, especially with the move. These are such finely drawn, nuanced characters, every single one of them. All of their reactions to one another and to certain events feel totally organic and real. This is a contemporary novel, but I relate to it powerfully as an 80’s child of divorced and remarried parents. Although I admire so much about this novel’s craft and enjoy reading it on that level, there’s something very healing and validating about reading, as an adult, middle grade novels that deal with divorce. The honest portrayal of kids’ inner lives – confusing and conflicting feelings, a range of emotions — is fully on the page. And I love how some adults make mistakes or say the wrong things, but sometimes they say just the right things at the right time. This is a great book for understanding how parents have their own complex lives, as well as pasts and futures.
               So immersed am I in this novel that when my library loan ended mid-week, and my book abruptly left my account, I felt like it had been snatched away from me, and I was totally grumpy! I was also dying to know what happened next to Lou! There’s a long wait to get the book again, since it’s in such high demand. So I bought it on Audible, which I should have just done in the first place, because, honestly, why would I not want to own this beautiful book??
                My library loan lapsed because I was listening in short bursts of available time, but also because I was lingering, deliberately, in the language and the characters, and in Lou’s entire world. Normally I speed up my audio books, but not this one. I love the narrator’s voice (narrated by Ferdelle Capistrano), which conveys different characters and emotions so beautifully, and I love the pace of the book. It’s not slow. It just . . . unfolds. If you listen to the audio version, let it simply unfold. I think the pace of this book is so important. Don’t tamper with it.
                 I will likely finish the book this weekend, so I’m including it here in my new “Weekend Reads” post. I hope this book finds a wide audience, and highly recommend!

Weekend Reads

This week I’m kicking off a hopefully weekly series on the blog, featuring my “weekend reads.” These are books I’m hoping to dig into over the weekend or am currently reading. Or just plain excited about.

Authors Rebecca Caprara and Nicole Lesperance celebrating sequels!

Lately, I am excited about brave people saving the world, for probably obvious reasons. That’s why I love Rebecca Caprara’s Mission Multiverse books so much, as they feature middle grade marching band misfits, a.k.a. the Space Cadets, saving not just our world but many worlds: the multiverse. I loved Book One for its fabulous ensemble cast of unlikely heroes, as well as some of the most creatively rendered extraterrestrials I’ve ever met in fiction. Book 2 came out this week, Mission Multiverse: Doppelgänger Danger, in which our intrepid Space Cadets are now trapped on an alternate version of earth and learn that a doppelgänger is among them. In full disclosure, Rebecca is a dear friend and critique partner, so I’ve been in on the multiverse from its earliest inception, when it was more space dust ideas then book. It’s been such a fun ride to see both of these books take shape.

Rebecca explains the multiverse.

Publishing takes a long time, and while her stories are familiar to me, I have forgotten some details. (Or maybe I am somewhere in the Multiverse still reading some other version?!) Also, i know Rebecca has revised over time, with her editor. Also, I love doppelgänger and double stories, so there’s no harm in reading this twice.

Delicious stacks of books at the Silver Unicorn Bookstore panel on middle grade sequels, featuring Rebecca’s Mission Multiverse series, Nicole’s Dream Spies series, and Gregory Mone’s Atlantis series – can’t wait to dive into all these fascinating worlds!

And I am eager to see how the final version turned out. It is always such a joy to hold a friend’s finished book in my hand and know the journey it’s been on . . .  in Rebecca’s case, an interplanetary, intra-dimensional one! I’m happy to have been a part of that ride in some small way and was honored to read her earliest pages.

I highly recommend this book and series for kids who love Space adventures, band culture, friendship stories, and adventurous kids with lots of heart.

 

Click here to order a SIGNED copy of the Mission Multiverse series at Silver Unicorn Books!

Rounding out Citizen Science Month!

It’s been a busy Citizen Science Month!
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I’m excited to finally announce that we raised $1000 for Zoo New England through TROUBLE AT TURTLE POND sales. Thanks to everyone who purchased through Silver Unicorn on launch day, and pre ordered the book.
These funds will help support the H.A.T.C.H program, which had a large part in inspiring my book. They do important work with Blanding’s Turtles and other turtles. To quote their site…
“To date, over 40 K-12 schools in Massachusetts participate in HATCH. At each school, classrooms raise newbornturtle hatchlings over the course of the year and then release the turtles back into the wild during field trips to local conservation areas. By giving them this “headstart,” students directly help conserve dwindling turtle populations by dramatically

Image courtesy of Zoo New England

increasing the odds that each turtle cared for will survive to adulthood. At the same time, students collect and analyze data on hatchlings’ growth while learning about the ecology and importance of our freshwater wetlands. By helping protect native biodiversity and restoring healthy wetlands in their communities, students learn that they can be agents of change in a small but significant way.”

You can learn more here.
There are still signed copies available at Silver Unicorn Books – click here to get yours!
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In other news…
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I was so honored to have been interviewed by author Elizabeth Norton for Cynsations. We chatted about the mystery writing process, along with some of my biggest writing hacks. You’ll also get more sneak peaks of my writing desk! Click here to read the interview.
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A Novel Mind also featured a piece of mine called Writing ADHD Close to Home. This piece is close to my heart, as it’s about writing truthfully about my own experiences (ADHD and anxiety run in my family) while also fictionalizing my characters (queue eco mysteries). A Novel Mind is also one of my favorite blogs on writing  ADHD! Be sure to check out their incredible database and past guest posts for children’s fiction dealing w/ mental health & neurodiversity issues!
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The Author’s Note Middle Grade Mashup was a blast!

I loved chatting with Sheela Chari, Elaine Dimopoulos, and Author’s Note bookstore owner Julie Berry — who is also an award-winning children’s book author!

You can find the playback link here if you’d still like to tune in.

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Coming up…
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Join me and Elaine Dimpoulos at Belmont Books on Friday, May 20 for an IN PERSON event! Click here for more details.

#Reallifebackyardranger Cody Herrmann

Meet Cody Herrmann!

Cody Herrmann (she/her) is a New York City based artist and community organizer. She combines socially engaged art, politi

cal advocacy, and community science to create participatory art works and public programs. Since 2014 her work has focused on her hometown of Flushing, Queens, NYC, creating projects critiquing policy related to land use and environmental planning in areas surrounding Flushing Bay and Flushing 

Creek. She frequently hosts both on-land and on-water tours of the area, while creating artworks such as beach towels and temporary tattoos that allow viewers to visualize water quality test results. Cody is a board member of Guardians of Flushing Bay, and a long time volunteer sampler for the Citizens Water Quality Testing program in NYC. Visit Cody’s website to view her work. Click here to learn more about Guardian’s of Flushing Bay!

Trouble at Turtle Pond in the world!

Trouble at Turtle Pond has been in the world for over a week! I’m so grateful to everyone who came out to the launch at Silver Unicorn, including Loree Griffin Burns, and the team from Zoo New England.

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There are still signed copies available at Silver Unicorn. They’ll even ship you a signed copy! Click here to order.

Trouble at Turtle Pond has also been featured on WBUR Radio Boston! I loved chatting with Zoo New England’s Field Conservation Program Manager Emilie Wilder about the HATCH program, and how it helped inspire the book. Listen to the full interview here.

In other audio news, Fitzroy Books / Regal House publisher Jaynie Royal (also my editor!) sat down with me and two fellow Fitzroy authors, Frank Morelli and Ginger Park, to talk about middle grade fiction, gatekeepers, balancing research with story, and broccoli books! (You’ll have to listen to find out what that is!) Jaynie wears many hats, and podcast host is definitely one of them! Check out the full recording on Conspiracy of Lemurs here.

I’ve also been busy pumping out various Trouble at Turtle Pond related blog post through the lens of teaching, publishing, and middle grade writing. Thanks Teaching Books, Middle Grade Book Village, and Smack Dab in the Middle for featuring my words.

THANK YOU to Regal House and Fitzroy Books for believing in this story. The paperbacks are beautiful and high quality as well, and available through the publisher and through retail stores, but what I love about Regal house is they make the hard cover available for those who want it. Click here to order.

Lastly: what can you, lovely readers, do to continue supporting this project? First, you can grab a copy from my favorite local indie bookstore, Silver Unicorn! You can then head over to Goodreads and Amazon to leave a review. These reviews make a huge difference in making sure the book gets seen. You can also request it at your local bookstore.

Thanks, everyone! Go #teamturtle!

#Reallifebackyardranger Maribel Pregnall Mueller

Meet Maribel Pregnall Mueller!

Maribel grew up in northern Vermont, Oregon, and the coast of Maine. She was the kind of kid who never could stay inside too long. Her adventures outside gave her an appreciation for nature that shaped her life and career. It led her to whale research, then to outdoor education, and then to a long career teaching public high school science. She is now a retired science teacher from Arlington High School in LaGrangeville, NY, where she taught for 30 years. During her career she integrated hands-on science and outdoor adventure into her teaching whenever she could. Fortunately for her, that made her career lots of fun and brought her to some really cool places. She brought her students to Alaska, Hawaii, Costa Rica and Key Largo, Florida to study the flora and fauna in super diverse ecosystems. They climbed mountains in Denali National Park and went SCUBA diving on coral reefs in Marine sanctuaries. She also worked with her students to battle invasive species in a local park, to work with college professors on endocrine disrupters in our personal care products, and to build an Aquaponics laboratory in her classroom.

The most rewarding project in her career, however, was working to save a species that lived in the wetlands behind her school. For most of her career, she worked with hundreds of students to save a New York threatened species, the Blanding’s turtles, from local extinction. In her retirement, she is still working on the Blanding’s turtle project and working with student interns during nesting season. She is also on the Board of The Wetland Trust where they purchase valuable wetland habitat and mitigate when there is damage to wetland habitats during development. She is also on the Board of The Friends of Peach Hill where she is working on creating pollinator meadows and building an outdoor education classroom in a local town park they saved from becoming a housing development. In her career and now in retirement, she will always be a champion for the earth. Her life and mission to help and study the environment are intertwined.

 

 

Q&A with Artist Franco Zacharzewski

Franco Zacharzewski and I met at Creature Conserve, which brings artists, creative writers, and scientists together to “study, celebrate, and protect animals and their habitats.” His illustrations address everything from climate anxiety and mental illness, to Uyghur cooking. His striking colors, textures, and subject matter always draw me in. So when he agreed to create a graphic for TROUBLE AT TURTLE POND, I was ecstatic, and equally excited when he agreed to answer a few questions for the blog. We also get a sneak peak into his studio where the magic happens!

Q: What got you into conservation work?

A: My generation grew up with a lot of great T.V. programming on the natural world. As a kid, my curiosity for animals was definitely sparked by Animal Planet and Discovery Channel shows. More recently though, I feel like my interest in conservation has been fueled by the professors I met in college that have been working in this field for a long time.

Q: How do you use art in service of conservation?

A: Art speaks to us in a way nothing else does. Even at its most representational and literal, I think art is always imbued with a sentiment that can only be felt. With that in mind, I try to use art to strike a chord with people in a way science can’t. Not to tell people about the value of wildlife conservation—to show them.

Q: What does conservation mean to you as an artist?

A: I’m not sure how my meaning of conservation differs to a scientist’s, or anyone else’s for that matter. In broad terms, I guess I see it as the responsibility to understand the creatures we share our planet with and work towards providing them with the best quality of life possible. As an artist, I’d say I channel that responsibility into making pictures.

Q: What inspires you?

A: Lately I’ve been inspired by cities and the stories unfolding in them. I like how small cities can make me feel, and in turn, how small a city can feel in relation to nature. There are so many fun visual compositions too that it’s hard not to find something to draw.

Q: What’s your favorite animal to draw?

Jaguars!

Q: If you could say one thing to a young artist who wants to use their art for activism, what would you tell them?

A: If I had to summarize, I’d say: Art for activism is an act of love, so love wholeheartedly. Do your research. Make sure you understand what the issues are and how your art addresses them. Ask the affected community about their needs, see if they have proposed any solutions already. Assess how your art will impact the community who you are trying to support. And be ready to make mistakes, and correct them.

Q: What was fun about designing this image?

A: My favorite part was finding out how to use the least number of colors and shapes to convey the Blanding’s Turtle’s habitat and personality. I really appreciate the humility in trying to make an image as simple and clear as possible so that the greatest number of people can understand it.

Q: Did any unexpected challenges come up when creating this image and if so, what?

A: Designing text was something new for me! It was exciting to find ways to accommodate both the type and the art in a relatively small image. I had to be mindful of striking a balance between retaining the most important elements in the frame and making the text legible when printed.

Q: What’s your process like when you come up with ideas? What goes into your thinking?

A: As of recently, I’ve been trying to start my compositions from photographs. I like to get lost in pictures and find the painting within them. Then it’s just a matter of removing elements from the frame until I am left with the most synthesized composition possible.

Franco Zacharzewski is an Argentinian illustrator raised in Paraguay, Colombia, and the United States. He graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and is currently based in Brooklyn, NY. Franco is an advocate for climate action and environmental justice. He is currently the art director at Creature Conserve. Occasionally, you may find him relaxing by the waters of Prospect Park Lake. 

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