Welcome to Picture Books for All

Children of all abilities should see themselves in the books they read. That's what makes reading fun. There are many picture books that include characters with disabilities; some are excellent in terms of their portrayal of these characters, some are pretty good, and some miss the mark. This blog features these picture books and evaluates them based on standards for quality in children's books that portray characters with disabilities. For more information, see the first post entitled "Welcome to Picture Books for All." (Click here) Welcome to Picture Books For All

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Interview With Illustrator Lea Lyon

I would like to welcome Lea Lyon, illustrator of Keep Your Ear On The Ball, to Picture Books for All. Lea is fulfilling a childhood dream by being a children’s book illustrator. She has had several other careers, from substitute teaching to running a small doll and puppet cottage industry, to getting an MBA and working in high tech. Now she uses her creativity and business skills in the field of children’s books.
Thank you for being here with us today Lea. Could you tell us what you like best about being an illustrator?

I love painting people, especially children, and telling stories through my art. It is a challenge I really enjoy to put images to other people’s words.  My favorite part, though, is working with real children--my young models--to set up the scenes for the stories. We have so much fun.

How did you get the job of illustrating Keep Your Ear on the Ball and did you have total freedom with the illustrations?

I had illustrated two other books for Tilbury House before Keep Your Ear on the Ball--Say Something by Peggy Moss (about bullying) and Playing War by Kathy Beckwith (a book that shows that war is not a game). So the editors knew my work, thought it would be a good fit for this story, and contacted me to illustrate this book.  The way they first found me, though, was from sample images I sent to them in 2003.  I included a postcard of one image, which the editor put on her bulletin board. When she got the manuscript for Say Something, she contacted me to see if I was available.  It was my first book.

I had much freedom with the illustrations, but I looked at it as a team effort and welcomed any suggestions from the publisher.  I showed them the various stages of the work as I went along to get feedback. The author, Genevieve Petrillo, was not involved, but we emailed, and I knew she loved what I was doing with her book. I found a classroom at a local school that had visually impaired children in the regular classes. I “borrowed” a class to act out the story and took hundreds of digital photos. They even played a kickball game for me. And they really got into the characters, and treated Mohammed, the blind student in their class who played Davey, like Davey.   

Fascinating!  I notice that your illustrations depict an ethnically diverse classroom. Was that a decision you made together with the author? Was it based on an actual classroom?

It was based on an actual classroom that I used for models, but I, personally, choose to have ethnically diverse characters in my books if possible, and I know that Tilbury House prefers that too. In fact, I had to add some Caucasian children to the classroom because the real class I used, in the San Francisco Bay Area, didn’t have “enough” to seem real for the rest of the country.

In your opinion, do the illustrations have the potential to influence how readers connect with a character, especially if that character has a disability?

My goal was to make Davey, and the others, as real and accessible as possible. I wanted the readers to be able to form a connection with each of the characters, to see themselves or someone they know in the book.  I think my realistic illustrations, showing many emotions, help to achieve this.  I especially wanted to show that Davey was “blind, not an Alien”--just another kid.

What was your biggest challenge in illustrating Keep Your Ear on the Ball and how did you address it?

I had a rather funny challenge for this book. The blind student in the class I used for models was Middle Eastern, Mohammed, and the protagonist in the book is Caucasian with “medium brown hair and medium brown eyes.”  It wouldn’t have mattered except that this story is based on a real person. So, what I ended up doing was to use Mohammed’s body, for the body language, and another student, Lawrence’s, head. I explained why and Mohammed thought it was funny.  I made sure that Mohammed was in the book as one of the other, sighted, boys on as many pages as possible. When you are dealing with real people as models, you have to be careful and fair.  

What a great anecdote!  Are you working on a project currently?

I am currently working on illustrating and co-writing a book for middle schoolers and older students about the Holocaust. It is a novella with poems and illustrations. We have an agent for the project and are hoping it will, indeed, find a publisher. I also illustrated a book that was released last October called Operation Marriage by Cynthia Chin-Lee (Reach and Teach) about siblings who talk their two mommies into getting married while they can, before Proposition 8 in California is passed.

Wow! I hope your agent finds a publisher soon. Would you welcome the chance to illustrate another book that portrays a character with a disability?


Is there anything else you would like to share with us today?

I am so happy to be doing what I love, and being published and recognized, and illustrating so many books about social issues. It is nice to feel I am helping children and parents, along with entertaining them.

I want to thank you, Lea, for being a guest on my blog today.  Illustrators deserve as much credit as authors for their contributions to picture books, yet often times the illustrators are overlooked or not recognized. Your comments and insights are much appreciated. Best of luck with your new project, and please stop back and let us know when you find a publisher!


  1. Great interview, Holly! (I love author interviews). And I believe it is extremely important for children to 'see' themselves in books, no matter what personality, disability, skin-color, family, or home they have. : )

  2. Thanks Elliah. I think "illustrator interviews" are pretty rare, but illustrators really make or break a picture book. It was fun to interview Lea.

  3. Holly, this website is awesome, what a great resource for teachers! I like reading the author interviews, it's so interesting to learn more about the people writing and illustrating these wonderful books. I think older children would benefit from reading the interviews too. You ask great questions and the authors, like Lea Lyon, are so willing to share their experiences. Karen Ternullo