Author Interview: Janice & Tom Shefelman

Janice and Tom Shefelman have collaborated on several children’s books, among them A Peddler’s Dream (Houghton Mifflin), a Reading Rainbow selection, and Sophie’s War (Eakin Press), a historical novel. The Shefelmans live in Austin, Texas.

Books by Janice & Tom Shefelman
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Janice, what made you decide to become an author?
Janice: I have always loved to express myself in words. My father, a German professor and writer, encouraged me and saved my first story, written at the age of five. He also read to me every night. In college I took a course in children’s literature and fell in love with it. When Tom and I married, we spent a year bumming around the world. I wrote articles about our travels that were published in newspapers. Tom illustrated them — our first collaboration. Finally, remembering my love for children’s books, I decided to write a novel based on my German ancestors coming to Texas in 1845, A Paradise Called Texas. This book and its sequels were illustrated by Tom and our two sons, Karl and Daniel. Success at last, including a Texas Bluebonnet Award nomination.
Tom, what made you decide to become an illustrator?
Tom: One of my earliest memories is watching my mother paint at an easel. Only later did I realize that some of those paintings were scenes of Venice. It seems I was destined to illustrate I, Vivaldi. Growing up in Seattle, I spent many rainy days indoors drawing. We lived across the street from artist and sculptor, Phimister Proctor, who gave me lessons. In elementary school I was only a mediocre student until my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Pearl, encouraged me to illustrate my report on Marco Polo. I got an “A”! Later, cartooning for my high school newspaper became my ticket to social acceptance. Now I am both an illustrator and an architect, which surely helped in illustrating scenes of Venice.
Have the two of you always had a fascination with Baroque-era musicians, or has your interest emerged over time?
Janice: It has evolved. My childhood home was filled with music. Mozart and Beethoven were my father’s favorites. But as a teenager I became enamored of Frank Sinatra and popular music. Then I met Tom.
Tom: My mother was not only a painter but also a singer. She would sit me down in the living room and play Beethoven’s 9th Symphony or a Puccini opera. As I grew up my taste widened to contemporary composers. Then I met Janice.
Janice and Tom: Together we listened to KMFA, our classical music radio station, and discovered The Four Seasons and a recording by Ofra Harnoy of Vivaldi’s cello concertos. We began to wonder about the man who wrote such passionate, melodic music that touched our hearts across hundreds of years.
Why do you feel that it is important for children to read about these people?
Janice and Tom: To enlarge their world both in time and space. To see the many possibilities in life. Everyone has a gift to give the world. Reading about those who have made the most of their gifts can inspire us all.
What is a typical workday like?
Janice: It begins with an early morning workout and breakfast with Tom. Then I step into my studio, which is a sunny room on the first floor of our house. There are my shelves of books, three desks, a couch, and a bulletin board wall covered with images and notes of my current project. For I, Vivaldi I had photographs and maps of Venice, a plan of his childhood home, costumes of the time, and several portraits of Antonio. I sit down at one of my writing desks, one for pen and paper, the other for computer work. The first two drafts are handwritten; the third and all the rest are typed and revised many times. After lunch at 2:00 I have several choices: Write, research, take care of book business (like this interview), or confer with Tom. Finally, we have a quiet dinner with relaxing music, and then we read or write in our journals.
Tom: After an early morning exercise routine and a big breakfast, I have to choose between my downtown architect’s office and my art studio at home, depending upon schedules and priorities. Sometimes I spend half a day in one and half in the other. My art studio is in the “Little House” connected to the “Big House” (relatively) by a wooden bridge. Thus Janice and I work separately. On days when I have been at the office, I may come home to find little yellow tabs on my sketches. These are Janice’s comments — some complimentary, some not. Once I found a tab that said, “Read the text, dummy. Love, Janice.”
Which is your favorite illustration from the book?
Janice: It is hard to pick just one. I love the title page with its view of the fantasy that is Venice. I also love the passionate scene of young Antonio playing out his anger on his violin. The illustration of The Four Seasons with the personified winds, especially fierce Boreas from the north, blows me away! But if I must choose, it would be the Piazza San Marco with the ornate Byzantine church dwarfing the people and more than filling the page.
Tom: Each illustration has a unique fascination, but the Piazza San Marco scene provides my most grandiose vision of Venice. The cover illustration captures the charm of our talented young musician and Venetian fascination with his music in Venice’s intimate living environment along her canals. I also love the scene of young Antonio rehearsing with his father, gathered in the pulpit in San Marco’s magically dark interior.
Do you have any advice for would-be authors and illustrators?
Janice: Read, observe life around and within you, and write. Keep a journal, not necessarily everyday, but whenever you have a significant thought or feeling or event in your life. Otherwise you are throwing your days to the wind because you will never remember the thought, feeling, event with the same intensity later.
Tom: Draw, draw, draw. Carry a sketchbook and pencil in your pocket and keep your eyes open. Illustrate your school reports and you, too, might get an “A”.
What characteristics do writers/illustrators need most?
Tom and Janice: Sensitivity, passion, and persistence
Can you tell us one thing people may not know about you?
Tom and Janice: No one knows the extremes we will go to in researching our books. We never write about or illustrate a place we have not seen with our own eyes. And we never take no for an answer.
Recently we traveled to Vienna to research the composer, Franz Joseph Haydn. On a cold, rainy, windy day in November we set out by train to visit the country palace where Haydn worked for Prince Esterhazy. We crossed the border into Hungary and stopped in a small village. Alighting from the train, we seemed to be nowhere. There was no train station, only a hut by the tracks. Tom knocked on the door. A bearded, grim man opened it a crack. “Kastély [Castle]?” Janice asked. Out came an arm and pointed the direction. It was nowhere in sight, but we started off down the long straight street, bordered by shut-tight houses. No one was about, only dogs that barked at us.
At last we came to a center and a school and asked directions. Walking on to the edge of town we came upon the lonely palace, a Hungarian Versailles, walked through the wrought iron gate, across the vast entrance court, and up the central steps. The doors were locked. On a lower level we found a room with a ticket office and a sign that obviously said closed. The few tourists who had gathered there left. We stayed. Janice noticed a door slightly ajar. We opened it and began roaming the palace, not knowing how to find the room we had to see, the Music Salon. Doors were locked and Tom’s new shoes were hurting. So Janice went on.
A guard commanded her to leave. “Mein Herr [My husband],” she pleaded in German and pointed upstairs. He threw up his arms, and Janice continued to explore. Finally a young man came bounding down a spiral staircase. She pulled out Tom’s storyboard illustrations of the Haydn picture book project and pointed to the one of the Music Salon. He understood and brought the curator of the Kastély. She, along with the guard, took us to the glorious French salon.
After Tom took photographs, we hurried back to catch the last train to Vienna. Standing in the cold wind as daylight waned, we watched the man in the hut come out and manually lower the traffic gate for the approaching train. As we boarded, he smiled and waved. It was the only smile we received from the village. But we got what we wanted.
Do you have any plans for future books that you would like to share?
Janice: Oh yes! A couple. I like to work on a short and a long project simultaneously. A picture book and a novel. At present we are working on the picture book biography of Haydn. My long project is a novel based on a Greek myth and set in 1260 B.C. Although I love historical fiction, this one goes further back in time than I have ever attempted. Fascinating!
Tom: When Janice and I were researching I, Vivaldi, we learned that he died in Vienna, poor and forgotten. Even so there was a funeral Mass for him at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and one of the young singers in the boy’s choir was Joseph Haydn. It seemed like a magic connection we wanted to make with our next picture book. I am now immersed in the full-scale drawings for each scene in the dummy (model book) of I, Papa Haydn.