Because I love sunflowers, the beautiful cover art of Rebekah Lowell’s poignant debut novel in verse, The Road to After, caught my attention, but I soon realized that the beauty of the book was also found within its pages. It is “a portrait of healing, as a young girl rediscovers life and the soothing power of nature after being freed from her abusive father.” When I discovered that she also had a debut picture book, Catching Flight: Soaring on the Wings of Birds, I was thrilled not only because of the absolutely stunning nature artwork, but because of the healing poem within, which also speaks of hope.
Rebekah will be a featured author at the 14th Gaithersburg Book Festival on May 20th, and will present The Road to After with Amina Luqman-Dawson (Freewater) at 11:15 am in the Willa Cather Pavilion, and Catching Flight: Soaring on the Wings of Birds during her workshop, “Nature Journaling for Beginners”, at 2:25 pm in the Graphic Novels and Workshops Pavilion.
Having grown up in Maine, within an hour from where Rebekah lives, and a fellow nature lover, I felt a kinship with her, and we have had a warm correspondence over the past several months. Below you will find a delightful interview with her.
Who encouraged or inspired you to become an author/illustrator?
From a young age, my parents were encouraging and supportive. I grew up homeschooled in the middle of a field of buttercups and Bobolinks. Whenever I was outside, which was most of every day, I would sketch plants and then look them up in field guides to find out what I saw. Both of my parents are also creative. My mother is a quilter and gardener, and her career was in hair. My father is a carpenter and made me a flower press, so I created flower art as a child as well. He also made me an easel when I was maybe 10 and built my first art display stand and drove me to exhibit at my first art festival when I was 14. My parents gave me canvases and oil paints and framed my early work. This fueled my fire to create.
Later into homeschool co-ops, high school, college, grad school, all the teachers and mentors along the way took pages of thanks in the acknowledgments for THE ROAD TO AFTER. I think we are a culmination of the mentors before us, of those who support us, cheer us on, and offer pieces of themselves to our benefit.
I always wanted to create, but it was those who mentored me and nurtured me, and there are many, that made sure I knew it was okay (and celebrated) to pursue what I was passionate about.
What is your writing space like? Your art studio?
It hasn’t always been this way, but I finally have a designated room as my studio. My studio used to be a tiny table in the corner of my daughters’ toy room, and now I work in a home studio with windows that see out on three sides. The other wall has the door to the rest of my house, so I’m very connected to my daughters throughout the day. As a homeschooling mom, I feel like I have one foot in the studio and one foot in the home. My studio walls are painted with a color called “moonlit beach” and it’s a very faint neutral peach that feels like white with a soft glow. The pale curtains let light in, but are enough to make me feel cozy. I have flat files, and benches with cubbies, a Homasote fiber board wall to pin ideas and projects on. I have natural objects and original art made by dear friends. My studio is light, and airy, and full of books— and I wish I was better at keeping it tidy. I have one side as my work side, and the other as my “clean side” but it’s not very tidy. By clean I mean that I try not to have paint and art supplies going wild on that side. I have a paper cutter, wax seal supplies, shelving for completed works, shelves of books (mostly nature and kidlit).
What was your inspiration for Catching Flight and for The Road to After?
For CATCHING FLIGHT, my inspiration was based on a painting. One day I posted a watercolor painting of a turkey feather with birds flying out of it for the Colour Collective challenge on Twitter and Frances Gilbert from Doubleday BFYR private messaged me asking if I had a book to go with it. I told her yes, that I would come up with one. I promptly wrote down a poem in my journal, sent her a photo, and she said yes, type that up and send it to me please. The poem was based on light and a feeling of hope and the willingness to go on. We were in the middle of the pandemic, and I had just parted ways with my first agent, but I was searching for hope, and found it in birds because even before the art, there was my family who loved birds and showed me how to love birds. My grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, sisters and one brother— we all love birds. So even before the art, my family was the inspiration.
For THE ROAD TO AFTER, the inspiration was based on my experience of being abused and held captive for ten years. I’m mostly like the mom in the book. It’s hard to think back to what life was like then and what I survived, but I needed to so I could write this story. But I couldn’t include all the details. This wasn’t a memoir. I wanted to offer this story in a way that could be shared for young readers because I knew if my daughters had experienced this kind of childhood, other kids had too. But even though THE ROAD TO AFTER is about recovery from domestic abuse and trauma, it’s mostly about hope. I didn’t want the book to focus on the terror of abuse, but to celebrate the strength in leaving and starting life anew. My daughters were 4 and 6 when I left with them, but the characters in the book are each younger and older. The inspiration was real life, but it led to a work of fiction that can tell a story of its own and create something beautiful from something so awful. It gives what we went through a sense of purpose and renewal as well.
What do you love most about the cover art and illustrations in your current books? Can you speak to your creative process? For your picture book, did you write the words first, or sketch out the pages?
I love that I was able to create them to begin with. I feel so fortunate to be doing this work. I love that in a world that is going more and more digital, I could still create art for my books using the traditional media that I love. I’m also learning vector art, repeat patterns, and procreate, and I finish my illustrations in Photoshop, so I’m not against digital art, I just love to feel the materials I’m using, hold a paintbrush in my hand, make a bit of a mess, get into the flow, and just create. I love the tactile, tangible nature of traditional materials and I’m thrilled to be using them to make my books.
For my picture book, the process was art, then text written inspired by that art, then art made for that text. The first painting that inspired the book was never used in the book. It was the door to the book, but not the book itself.
Once we finalized the text, I created a series of thumbnails, then a storyboard, then sketches and more finished sketches. Next, I used a light table to refine those sketches into final drawings, then I scan and print out those drawings on hot press watercolor paper. Then I soak the paper and staple it down to Homasote fiber board, then use water-based mixed media to complete the final art. Once the final art is created, sometimes the text changes a little again as well. A line moved here, a different word there, maybe a comma is added or dropped. Tiny tweaks in response to the art.
Do you have discussion guides for either of your books, and if so, could you share?
I don’t yet, but I would love to know more about creating discussion guides. Being a new author, this world of kidlit is a mystery unfolding.
I do have a Nature Journaling Activity to accompany THE ROAD TO AFTER. https://vimeo.com/816276862
How (or in what ways) do you hope librarians will promote your books?
I hope that librarians see the child who needs a glimmer of hope, or a story about freedom, finding your way, starting over, and being brave, and they offer one of my books for them. My books also follow a theme of nature, so anytime there are days like Earth Day, or Draw a Bird Day, I hope they find a place to share my books. May is also Mental Health Awareness Month and my books both fit on those lists well. The family in THE ROAD TO AFTER suffers from complex PTSD and anxiety, and CATCHING FLIGHT is uplifting, reminding us that bright skies are ahead. We are lifted up by the birds, catching their current of joy, hoping to be brought along for the journey.
Your two books are very different – for each of them, who is the reader you are writing for? Please describe them, and what you hope that the reader will learn.
Recently, I received a note from a reader thanking me for writing CATCHING FLIGHT. She talked about a tough time that she was experiencing and telling me that this book was a bright spot for her in a hard time. This made me realize that even though my books are both different, I’m writing for the same person—the person who needs someone to come alongside them and say, “It’s going to be okay.”
I hope that the readers of my books will know they are not alone, that they can reach out and there is always a kind person there to help them up, and that they are braver and stronger than they think. Hope is just on the other side of the storm clouds.
What is one thing that you really want your readers to know about you?
That I like to notice the little things that often go overlooked. I like to look for wonder in small places and find amazement in the everyday. I save caterpillars in the road and listen to birds talk to each other. That kind of wonder can’t be found in the loud. You have to explore the quiet.
Which book review or award has been most meaningful to you?
All of them because I realize that I may never have had this opportunity if I had stayed in abuse. I never would have had the chance to make art, to make books— to be published at all. I’m grateful to have the chance to make books for kids at all. I feel like I’ve been given a second chance. Anytime someone notices my books enough to share a thought, comment, or review or choose one of my books for a list— I’m brought back to that realization that I may never have been able to do this at all and I’m grateful for the chance to create, and for any kindness that results from it.
What are you most looking forward to at our book festival?
I’m looking forward to meeting readers and festival goers. This is the first time I’ve ever been to the festival and I’m so honored and thrilled about it!
What message do you have for your readers?
You are not alone. I may not know the exact situation you are facing, but I know you can get through it. You are brave, strong, and courageous. You are valuable. You are loved.
Learn more about Rebekah Lowell and her art by visiting her website https://rebekahlowell.com/
For more information about the Gaithersburg Book Festival, please visit https://www.gaithersburgbookfestival.org/