Cindy Helms is an artist, author, and illustrator based in Denver, Colorado. She uses a variety of mediums for her creations but prefers drawing using simple pens and colored pencils. After many years as an IT manager, another many years designing and building sets for musical theater, and another many years as a stay-at-home mom to two boys, two cats, two dogs, two rabbits, two hamsters, and an unsuccessful attempt at two fish, Cindy has turned her attention to creating children’s picture books.
Hi, Cindy! Thank you for joining us today on Reader Views Kids! Tell us about your latest book, “100 Things.”
I released 100 Things last year (2018) and was more relieved to have finished this book than I was when I finished any of the others. The artwork was so intricate and detailed, and I wanted illustrations that were never boring with new things to see on every page. This was a real challenge and the process was quite intense. Two-page spreads in particular caused me so much grief: Kid’s bedroom, which I wanted to keep in line with the overall farm house vibe while showing his personality; and the page where Kid freaks out with all of the options he is accumulating in his head because this was a very abstract concept to visualize on a five-year old’s level.
The 100th day of school is quite a celebration for young students. What inspired you to write about this day and how does your book put a new twist on the theme?
I actually wrote this book when my oldest son was in kindergarten facing this 100 things assignment. That was in 2006. My son’s idea was to draw 100 faces on poster paper. But I couldn’t stop offering up suggestions for all the other things he could take: cotton balls, nuts, cereal bits, nails, etc. And before we knew it, we were out of control thinking of all the possibilities. It was a bit like a Sesame Street clip with the Count laughing ecstatically about everything that could possibly be counted. When it came time to turn the story into a book, I didn’t have Kid’s final project solution nailed down. I just knew that all 100 ideas somehow needed to make it into the classroom because that was what was unique about Kid, his imagination. Most kids use 100 of the same item, but for Kid it was so powerful to realize that his own brain had the potential to generate an infinite amount of ideas and suddenly the number 100 did not seem so big after all.
You have several books for young children. How long have you been writing and what calls you to write books for children?
Yes, 100 Things is my fifth published book. But I have a box full of stories and crazy characters. The funny thing is that I have been writing creative stories since around 2nd grade and I’ve loved to draw, color and paint for even longer. It never even occurred to me to combine them together. It was not until I was all grown up (in my 40’s) when people started to ask me why I had never written a children’s book when all of the material was right at my fingertips. All I could think was, duh! It was so obviously a fit for my skills and personality. Once I decided to give it a try, so many things started to fall into place. I started to meet people who could help me with various aspects of the process and moved along one step after another until poof Outside, Inside was released in 2015.
Our young readers love your illustrations just as much as your stories! When did you start drawing?
I have always loved the look of a black line on a white paper. Making a simple mark was so attractive to me. When I was in college, though, I never considered this kind of mark-making to be “real” drawing. Drawing was for people who went to art school and spent hours drawing naked people. As an adult I did end up taking drawing classes and suffered through the nude figure studios. This helped me redefine what drawing was for me. Now I believe that everyone can draw. If a person knows how to write their name on a piece of paper, then they have the potential to draw. I also think that tracing counts as drawing. For people who are intimidated by a blank paper, tracing lines over something helps develop drawing skills, build familiarity with the tools and learn proportions. Drawing for me is an anti-stress activity and I take drawing time very seriously. I dedicate time every week to drawing and have many, many drawing journals to snag ideas from.
What other mediums do you enjoy?
Painting is super fun and I originally started out as an artist by painting murals for friends and sets for theater productions. When my kids were born, I tried to keep painting and I can’t tell you the amount of brushes and tubes of paint that were ruined because I was interrupted from my easel and by the time I returned to what I had been working on, the paint was dried and everything was destroyed. So I turned to colored pencils and pens out of necessity. I love papier-mâché too. I have made some really fun and bizarre creatures in this medium. I have a recipe for making my own goop and love to get my hands completely gross. These projects are for my own enjoyment and can be pretty time consuming, so they have taken a back seat to the books and drawing projects.
How do you pick the topics for your stories? Do the words or the pictures come to you first?
My first books where 100% picture driven. I had the characters in a setting already drawn and I accepted a challenge to put a story together. To add to the challenge, in my first book Outside, Inside, I gave myself a 35-word limit as well. I figured if Dr. Seuss could do it then so could I. I had no idea how hard it was to create something that way. But 100 Things is 100% story-driven and it took me years to decide on an illustration style to pair it with.
Picking topics for me comes from the themes I want to convey to the kids. Friendship and creativity are really important to me. Friendship is a lifelong skill that kindergarten kids are just beginning to test out. Creativity is a capacity that we are all born with and when we hit kindergarten age, we are being drained of this precious resource and filled with expectations of conformity. Anything I can do to plant seeds towards fostering both I feel is a huge success. So my books all have some kind of link to these two themes.
Once you have an idea, what kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
I spend a while organizing page spreads and storyboarding. Varying perspectives and keeping the design fresh is one of the most important aspects of communicating a story to this age range. Kids are very savvy consumers of pictures and stories and I respect that in them. For picture books, design is every bit as important as the story and the characters. Most of my research involves reading some of my favorite picture books again and again trying to figure out ways in which other authors have solved design issues and illustrative plot glitches. I also hash out stories with my sons. They know instantly when a story has a good twist and what it takes to put one in when it is missing.
How long on average does it take you to write and illustrate a book?
There is a quote that I keep close at hand that helps answer this. I wish I knew who said it so I could give credit, but it reads to the effect that, “A drawing takes ten years of contemplation and ten hours manipulation.” That ratio is about right. I am thinking about stories and presentation all the time, constantly churning over ideas. Then it takes proportionately very little time to produce the artwork. Depending on the complexity of the images, the artwork takes anywhere from three to six months.
What do you like to read?
Children’s books, of course. Really. I love “reading” illustrations. If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then there is a high value on the quality of the artwork. I love to read art history books for the same reasons. They are picture books for grown-ups. I am actually a book reviewer for the New York Journal of Books. I review art history books as well as children’s picture books on that forum. I also love to read biographies. That’s what most art history books are, monographs of artists. Not only is this fun, but it keeps me inspired.
How many children’s books have you read?
Thousands. Or more. It would be insulting to the kids to claim I was a children’s book author if I haven’t done my research in the field. It helps that I was a babysitter in my teens and have raised two boys of my own, which presented plenty of occasions to read with kids. We have spent countless hours in libraries and story hours surrounded by stacks and stacks of books. That time is invaluable and also gives a really good indication of what kids connect with or are drawn to, what themes seem overdone and what might be missing or underrepresented.
What is your favorite book from childhood?
Well, I will be really dating myself answering this question but Dooly and the Snortsnoot by Jack Kent and Mr. Pine’s Purple House by Leonard Kessler, oh and there’s The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss. I still love them. I have a page on my website showing all of my favorite children’s books.
What sets your books apart from other stories in the genre?
What drives me crazy in this genre is the number of books that are preachy and moralistic, where every word, every story has to teach a lesson as if we were still stuck in the Victorian era of education. I think stories can just be good stories and that is what I strive for. Telling a great story in such a way that demonstrates rather than force feeds is so much more powerful. Even this age range can tell the difference. I really hope this is something I am accomplishing with my books.
What do you enjoy outside of art and writing?
I enjoy spending time with my sons. As they are growing up and heading off to college, the times spent together get fewer and farther between. Like most parents, my family is my joy and I treasure our times together. I like to travel too, and get outside as much as possible. This winter I have found myself on the ski slopes at least once a week (living in Denver, Colorado this is a great perk) and I have some of my best ideas out in the mountains so I can even justify it as a working outing!!
If you had to do something differently as a child or teenager to become a better writer/illustrator as an adult, what would you do?
Mostly I would have had more confidence in myself. As a kid I was highly susceptible to what others thought of me, the comments they made, and what they thought I should become in life. I couldn’t stand to be teased and I wanted to fit in so badly that I gave up much of who I was. I wish I could go back and not let that impact me as much as it did.
So what’s next? Do you have another story in the works?
My next book is called Rebelberry Pie and is scheduled for release this spring, in just a few weeks (sneak-a-peek on my website!!). This new book will fit nicely with the characters from Outside, Inside, Who’s New and Polygonsters. I have a slew of stories on my task list so there is definitely more to come.
Do you have a website or blog where readers can learn more about you and your works?
www.CindyHelms.com has all of my books as well as a section on What Is Cindy Reading and recent art projects I have completed. I love to get messages through the website as well and respond to everything that comes to me from that site. I recently received a message from a local kindergarten teacher thanking me for writing 100 Things! I was so thrilled to get that.
Where can readers connect with you on social media?
I do not have social media accounts. This was a big decision for me but most five-year-old’s are not on social media, so I try to spend my efforts where my target audience is hanging out – at school. 100 Things recently made it in to every elementary school in the city of Denver.
WOW – that’s wonderful! Where can readers purchase your book?
Amazon!!! And there are plenty of links from my website to the Amazon pages.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, about writing or about life in general?
The best advice I ever got was to NOT try to copy someone else. The quickest way to get recognized is not to blend in but to stand out. I took the time to find my artistic voice, get comfortable with it and put it to use.
Do you have any advice for aspiring/emerging authors and artists?
Yes. Don’t wait for someone else to validate your instincts or your interests. If you want to draw, then draw. If you want to draw a certain way, then draw a certain way. If you want to paint or cook or write, or whatever it is, then do it. Be diligent about what you want to do, commit to it, invest in becoming better and don’t be thrown off by critics or people who don’t understand your desires. Be careful who you let influence you and guard your artistic integrity. All of the great artists from Picasso to Dali, to Matisse and Cézanne, each one was fiercely independent.
One thing that I had to get over as an artist was to know when to let go of a project. Once I create something, then release it into the world, I own the copyright, but it becomes part of the greater public creative collective. Just like parents have to let their kids grow up, enter into the world and become who they need to become. Our creative babies need to be allowed to do so as well.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I would like to thank you for the work you do with Reader Views Kids. I have been using this resource for several years and I love being able to reach out directly to the kids. This is one of the only places where the kids can have their opinions voiced and that, for me, is what matters. Success in children’s book publishing is to be able to give kids something they can relate to, grab on to, and grow with.
Thank you, Cindy! It’s been wonderful getting to know more about you and your work!
100 Things by Cindy Helms
The 100th day of school is a BIG deal. When Kid finds out he has an assignment due tomorrow, he is excited. This is the first important project of his school career. But as he thinks about how to do his project, he becomes overwhelmed with options and has trouble deciding. 100 Things engages the imagination and shows creativity and ingenuity. With a charming, playful personality, and an inquisitive companion, Kid demonstrates how to have fun AND get the job done.
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Learn more about Cindy Helms!
Amazon Author Central:https://www.amazon.com/Cindy-Helms/e/B013VJ4IS6