A Winter Dream Tree Grows in Jersey

threetrees_blogOur living room Christmas decorations seemed extra twinkly this year with three trees. When I put them away, I missed the sparkle of little lights and the cheeriness of ornaments. The dark spot left by the put-away Christmas trees reminded me that last winter felt especially gloomy, both meteorlogically and emotionally. Normally, the inside warmth of my home during winter feels cozy and creative. But not last year, for some reason. So this year, to fend off any doldrums, I put up a Winter Dream Tree.

Barb's holiday tree and Polly's vision tree

Barb’s holiday tree and Polly’s vision tree

Inspired by artist Barbara Johansen Newman’s yearly holiday tree and artist Polly Law’s vision tree, I cut branches from a dead Japanese Andromeda shrub (I had mourned the loss of its life, so I was thrilled to find it a new life) and arranged them in a pitcher of stones.


My visions from 2011

At first I intended the tree to be a Vision Tree. How many of you have made a vision board—a device that sends your intentions out into the Universe to fulfill your desires like a magic genie whose bottle is decorated with ripped-out magazine pages and phrases and Modpodge? My vision board from a few years ago hasn’t kicked in yet—there is no yellow Mini Cooper in my driveway and I still haven’t been to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. But the board still expresses my hopes and passions (are you listening, Universe?!).

Instead of pressuring my tree to be visionary, I decided to decorate it with whatever represented my inner spirit and I scoured the house for personal symbols, a.k.a. tchotchkes (my home is overrun with symbols). The decorating began: artist’s tools of the trade, family, animals, beads and keys (to the future), many clocks (time is ticking), things from Italy, jewelry bling, and a timid touch of Intentions to the Universe (writing and illustration projects). mylady_combo

Now my Winter Dream Tree is twinkling in the living room, brightening up winter’s days and my mood. I call my dog Oliver my happy pill because he constantly cheers me up. After a couple of winter weeks, I can truly say that my tree is working the same way. It probably won’t come down in spring but will just transform to reflect the new season. I’m getting so attached to the tree that it may even need to stick around and share the stage with next year’s Christmas tree.


Anyone tempted to install a tree of your own? If so, I hope it brings you a Happy, Dreamy, Creative, and Visual New Year!

Five Authors Give Back-to-School Advice

As of today, almost every kid in the nation has gone back to school. In honor of this annual event, we thought it’d be fun to highlight some advice from some of the amazing authors we’ve interviewed in the past. We usually ask this question:

If you could give your high school or middle school self one piece of advice, what would it be?

Here are their answers:

amy reevesAmy Carol Reeves:

Don’t worry about so much!  I was very Type A and so much of what I worried about didn’t really matter in the long run.  (Oh, and to my middle school self—puffed bangs were REALLY not cool! What were you thinking?)

katie davis

Katie Davis:

Do not, I repeat, do not get that short haircut and subsequent perm in ninth grade, in the year 197(mumbles something incoherent).



Shannon W

Shannon Wiersbitzky:

Ditch the long hair sooner! (grin)

Actually, I’d sit my younger self down and say, “Never doubt your abilities. EVER.” I’ve spoken to lots of women, of all ages, and it seems we all have this annoying voice in our heads that says, “Maybe you’re not ______ enough.” Just fill in the blank….smart, thin, talented, driven, creative, loud, beautiful. We’ve all heard it, no matter where we are in our life or our career. When we don’t quiet that voice, it can cause us to miss the most wonderful opportunities. I try to remind myself that all the time, and then I remind other women as well. A little bit of encouragement can go a long way.


Barbara Johansen Newman:

I could pretend my seventh grade self would listen if I told her not to worry about what her peers were thinking, but I am sure she would roll her eyes and let me go in one ear and out the other. I certainly could not tell her that none of the people around her would matter much in ten years because I ended up marrying one of those seventh graders in my own section and here we still are almost fifty years later  

Kathryn ErskineKathy Erskine:

Who cares what the other kids say — be yourself and be proud of it.  Hey, that sounds like the advice Kara would give in THE BOY PROJECT!  She is one smart, nerdy chick! (Thanks Kathy!)

I can’t help but notice that this advice falls mostly into two camps. Camp One: Don’t worry. Camp Two: You will live to regret (and even laugh about) that bad hair style. So pass the wisdom of these ladies on to a student you love, and assure them that they are not alone. We’ll highlight more back-to-school advice soon. In the meantime, just click on the author’s name to see their original interviews and to learn about their books. Have a great weekend!

Barbara Johansen Newman: Glamorous Glasses!

Today, guest interviewer, Mary Zisk,  talks with illustrator and writer, Barbara Johansen Newman. I met Mary, a talented author and artist at the SCBWI NJ Conference. She is a follower of this blog.  Mary  is a mild-mannered magazine art director by day, and a children’s book writer and illustrator by night. She’s proud to be a Jersey Girl.

barbFormer Jersey Girl, Barbara Johansen Newman now lives outside of Boston with her husband , three sons, and studio companion, Bitty, the French bulldog. She has always loved to draw. Her first artwork was done when she was a baby, standing in her crib, writing on her bedroom wall. Sooner or later Barbara stopped drawing on walls and began to draw on paper like most people. After going to college, spending some time making dolls, puppets, and performing as a puppeteer, Barbara began to illustrate and create art for many newspapers, magazines and books. Now she spends most of her time writing and illustrating books for children and also designing fabrics for sewing.

 Thanks, Barbara, for talking with us today. We know that being a Nerdy Chick rules. But, looking back, if you could give your middle school or high school self one piece of advice, what would it be? I could pretend my seventh grade self would listen if I told her not to worry about what her peers were thinking, but I am sure she would roll her eyes and let me go in one ear and out the other. I certainly could not tell her that none of the people around her would matter much in ten years because I ended up marrying one of those seventh graders in my own section and here we still are almost fifty years later.

What I would tell her is that she should try to remember as much of the “feel” and mind set as she could of that very year, because it was the tail end of the last period of relative innocence and simple pleasures, and things would change very drastically before the decade was up.

You’ve illustrated many picture books and chapter books written by other authors. What led you to write and illustrate your own picture book, Tex & Sugar: A Big City Kitty Ditty? Plus it’s all written in verse, which was very brave of you to attempt. Tex and Sugar began as a poem called “Tex Mex Rex,” part of a collection of poems I had written in 1983 called “Seven Working Kitty City Ditties.” In 1984 I took a trip to NYC to show my portfolio and one of the art editors at Knopf pointed to that poem and said, “Turn this into its own book.” Seventeen years later I pulled that poem out and started working on it. I sold it in 2005 and it came out in 2007. So that story cooked on the stove for twenty-four years.

It is harder for me to NOT write in verse, to be honest. I love rhyme. I also love music. Rhyming verse is like music to me.

Well, it was worth the wait. I love Tex & Sugar, especially for the insane amount of detail in your illustrations. Where do you think your obsession with detail comes barb3from? I have a very vivid memory, so it is hard for me to draw something or report something and leave out the details because then I feel like then I am not telling the whole story. I love those small details.

Your brand new book, Glamorous Glasses, deals with another obsession: GLASSES. Glasses have been considered nerdy in the past, but are now enjoyed as trendy jewelry for the face. The book was inspired by your childhood. What happened? I went with my cousin to the optician’s office in Elizabeth, New Jersey to pick out glasses. As I watched my cousin Joanie try on pair after pair, I became totally enamored with the way they looked on her face and even more so with the materials they were made of. I wanted glasses too, but I didn’t need them. The obsession never went away, and finally, as an adult, I do need them.

I have painted eyewear on my characters since I began illustrating in 1982, so the number of pairs of glasses I have painted is in the thousands.

I think Tex and Sugar, and Bobby and Joanie have unique talents and style. What lessons (or inspiration) do they give kids (or even us grownup nerdy chicks)? Tex and Sugar each follow a passion. We all need to cultivate a passion and make it part of day-to-day life. Having a dream or a goal enriches life. It gives you something to strive for. I also think it is good that kids see that success is not easy; you need to work for it and move toward it.

Bobbie and Joanie almost send the opposite message in that they both learn that getting what you want isn’t necessarily a good thing. Maybe their message is more about understanding what it is that one really wants and determining if it’s worth pursuing or if it is just a superficial quest. They each come to realize that clearly seeing where they are going and what they are doing is the most important thing.

You’ve certainly followed your passions over the years. What has been the best thing about your career? My career has taken so many twists and turns with regard to materials and approaches and venues. Now I know every time I dip my toe into something new, it really turns out to have everything to do with where I am and have always been. So, through painting, drawing, puppetry, dolls, sewing, illustrating, writing, textile design, and back to painting again, it is all part of the whole me and who I am.

Besides your personal artistry, do you have a favorite way to flaunt your brain power? I am a nut for word games. My husband will not play Scrabble with me, because I always beat him, so when Words With Friends came about and I got an iPhone, I became the proverbial kid let loose in a candy store.

I love Scrabble, but it’s also a tactile experience for me. I love those wooden letters, so I don’t think I would take to Word with Friends. Besides playing with words, is there something else you like to do that might be considered a little bit nerdy, but is actually really fun? I have loved antiques since I was a kid. I began to buy things in my teens and by the time I was twenty and I moved off to Buffalo I was starting to hit my stride. Because of this love I have actually gotten to know quite a bit of historical information about Americana and old houses. I could easily go into another career as an antiques dealer.

Has your interest in antiques and history caused you to admire any particular well-known nerdy chick?  Yes, I really like Doris Kerns Goodwin. She makes me love history and she was one of my favorite guests on Don Imus’ show when I could still listen every day in the car. I also love that she is a big baseball fan. She is super smart and wonderfully interesting but there is no arrogance that emanates from her.

What might surprise us about you? Any social norms you are fond of flouting? I love anything to do with the paranormal and I will, given the chance, watch every single ghost hunting show on TV, much to the disdain of my husband who never passes up an opportunity to make fun of the shows (and me). I also tend to believe in reincarnation. I drive him crazy with this stuff.

I am a reluctant psychic. I have had experiences all my life but I have no idea why or how. I would love to be better at it, but who has the time?

barb2Thanks, Barb, for spending time with the Nerdy Chicks. What’s coming up for you in the future? Bobbie and Joanie from Glamorous Glasses will be in another book together, due out in 2014. I know those characters so well and I want to see them have a lot of adventures and life experiences together. I’ve illustrated two series by other authors and I am thrilled to be developing one of my own.

My latest artistic pursuit in addition to the children’s books is a return to painting. In 2009, I purchased a studio in an old mill building in town and I now have a real space to paint large works on canvas and other materials. This past year I began to collaborate with another artist who builds frames out of antique dough boards and other antique objects, which I then paint on. My painting work is art for arts’s sake. I love illustrating text, but sometimes it is nice to work on pieces that contain their own narrative within, not bound by any written word.

To find out more about Barbara, check out these links: 

Facebook pages:



 Glam Glasses site: http://www.glamorousglasses.com/

 Twitter page: https://twitter.com/JohansenNewman




 You can read more about Barbara on her web site: www.johansennewman.com

maryzTo find out more about interviewer Mary Zisk, visit her website at http://www.maryzisk.com!