Tessler, Manya


An Interview with Children’s Book Author & Illustrator Manya Tessler (Wakayama-ken, 1998-2000)

By Tamaris Rivera

(From the Spring 2008 “Party” Issue)

It’s a late night in Astoria, and Manya, her husband Roumen and I chill in Manya’s living room, alternately chasing her rabbit, Dessy, and her cat, Petunia, for mandatory adoration. On a normal night, we’d flop out on the couch to watch reruns of Columbo. Tonight, however, I set the recorder on the table, because we’re here to talk about Manya’s first book, the Japan-inspired children’s book, Yuki’s Ride Home.

Tam:What made you want to write this book, and how did your JET experience influence it?

Manya: While living in Wakayama, Japan for the JET Program, I loved to bike down to the beach.  I’d find a nice secluded place by the water, pull out my sketchbook, and just write and sketch for hours.  I filled over a dozen sketchbooks during the two years that I was in Japan, basically talking to myself and taking note of what I observed, both externally and internally.  Some days, I read and worked on exercises from the Artist’s Way [Note: The Artist’s Way is a 12-week creativeself discovery program by Julia Cameron]; it really helped me realize that I wanted to write and illustrate children’s books.

My first six months in Japan were stressful for me, because I couldn’t understand much of what was going on around me.  Being away from the comfortable and familiar, in a place where I was basically illiterate gave me the opportunity to explore not only on a new external level but helped me focus internally as well.

However, early on I developed a friendship with an artist named Tamaki-sensei and his wife, Fumi-san, a master dollmaker.  Tamaki-sensei was a sumi-e artist, and my sumi-e teacher.  [Note: Sumi-e is is an art form that strives to distill the essence of an object or scene in the fewest possible strokes.]

After school, I would either bike around Wakayama, or bike to Tamaki-sensei‘s home for sumi-e lessons.  Most of the time he, his wife (an amazing dollmaker), and I would chat and eat sweets.  Until I learned enough Japanese to hold real conversations with him (which took a good year), he and I communicated largely with our sketchbooks and dictionaries.  One night I showed Tamaki-sensei a drawing from my sketchbook, and from then on, he encouraged me to paint scenes from my imagination as well as the still lifes we had focused on in our lessons.  He gave me this sketchbook that unfolds like a screen, and in two months it was completely filled up with images of people and animals and my everyday life in Japan.

A lot of my time spent there, including the bike ride to and from their house, inspired a lot of the book.

Tam:How did you get to this point in your career?

Manya: I studied printmaking at Wesleyan [Note:  Where Manya and I met in a physics class and suffered together], and my thesis advisor told me that my final project looked more like illustration than art.  He meant it as a harsh critique, but it made me think that maybe I could really do illustration.  It was actually a blessing in disguise. While I was in Japan, I took an online writing class through the Learning Center, and as the class went on, more and more people dropped out until there were only four of us left.  We started a critique group that lasted for years, and now everyone who was in that group is published.  It was really helpful to have that group to get feedback on and support with my work.  During my second year on the JET Program I applied to (and was thrilled to be accepted to) the School of Visual Arts in New York.

Tam:Any advice for anyone trying to break into this field?

Manya: One good place to start is the Society for Childrens’ Book Writers and Illustrators (www.scbwi.org).  They offer workshops, lectures and conferences to members, who can also join online critique groups.  I think annual membership costs around $60.  It’s helpful to go to conferences, because most publishers won’t take unsolicited manuscripts.  But if you talk to or attend a lecture by, someone from the publishing house, they often allow you to submit to them.

I’d also recommend the Children’s Book Illustrators Group (www.cbig-nyc.com), since I’m a co-president of it.  It’s an amazing group, composed of people who really care about each other and the art of children’s books.

Advice, criticism and support from my critique group have also helped me enormously.

Taking classes has also helped me.  I took a children’s book writing class online many years ago (while I was working in Japan on the JET Program), which is how I met members of my first critique group.  Monica Wellington teaches a wonderful continuing education class at SVA.

After an hour of storytelling, reminiscing, and show and tell (including sketches from the folded sketchbook), Petunia, tired of adoration, has wedged herself under the TV, Dessy is happily munching something in the kitchen, and there’s just one last question to be asked.

Tam:Why should people buy this book?

Manya: Oh, God. (She starts laughing.  Note:  Self-promotion isn’t Manya’s strong point, and her husband Roumen asks for the recorder.)
Roumen: I can say why.  First of all, the illustrations are gorgeous.  Dreamy, the colors are out of this world.  Then, I think it’s a nice feminist story, about a girl, [Manya and I start laughing.]
Manya: It’s a feminist story because there are no men in it!  The only man is the dog.
Tam: Ladies and gentlemen – a new definition of feminism.
Roumen (once he stops laughing): And the other nice thing, I think it’s a book that can help the communication between a grandmother and a granddaughter, and kind of how to spend a good nice time together enjoying each other’s company and learning together.
Tam: There we go – the official statement of why to buy this book.

More information on Manya’s current – and future – projects can be found at her gorgeously illustrated website:  www.manyatessler.com.

Tamaris Rivera is a writer and crafter, also living in Astoria, and working at Columbia Business School’s Center on Japanese Economy and Business alongside the JET alumni who convinced her to conduct this interview. (Thanks, Jenn!)  Information on her projects can be found at her craft blog: novenastar.livejournal.com.

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