It’s my pleasure to introduce you to Brooklyn-based author-illustrator Melissa Iwai. I first met Melissa in 2015 and have been following her career and getting to know her ever since. Melissa is talented, humble, genuine, and supportive, so I knew she’d be a great addition to our Pocono Retreat faculty!
Virginia: Melissa, at our conference, we’ll have a mix of PAL members and SCBWI newcomers. Can you tell us a little about your first publishing experience?
Melissa: Thanks for asking! My first book, The Dog Around the Corner, was not actually a published book, but it is the first book I’d written/illustrated that was bound and made into the physical semblance of a book! I wrote it in 5th grade when I was ten. I had an amazing teacher, Mrs. Haselmo, who developed this children’s book project for the whole class. We wrote stories, edited them, divided the text on pages, inked the words, and drew pictures that went along with the text on each page. We also designed and illustrated covers. Then she laminated the pages and somehow bound everything into books with hardcovers and pasted end papers.
Virginia: Wow! What a great entry in to the world of publishing! Since then, you’ve enjoyed a successful career, illustrating more than 30 books over the past 20 years. I’m sure things have changed during that time, what would you say have been the greatest transformations in children’s publishing?
Melissa: The internet has drastically changed the way we show our work, promote ourselves and interact with our editorial teams. I started at a time when we lugged around physical portfolios and dropped them off at publishing houses, met in person with editors/art directors, and turned in pieces of original art. Some people still do turn in original art rather than digital art, and I think it’s common to meet with our team in person if we live in NY or nearby. But everything else is done online now. And there is the added responsibility for artists and authors to be active on social media and promote our own work in addition to the promotion our agents already do.
Virginia: I feel lucky SCBWI helps me stay on top of the changing industry. In fact, the organization has been nothing less than life-changing for me. What have been your most memorable SCBWI experiences?
Melissa: My most memorable SCBWI event was the first one I went to in Los Angeles when I was still in art school. I was taking Marla Frazee’s children’s book class at the time. She indirectly helped me find my agent in New York. Another major event was several years later, I was on a panel at the Society of Illustrators/SCBWI event in NY. It was my first public speaking experience and I thought I was going to pass out. Jerry Pinkney was the keynote speaker and I was in awe of meeting him! He was warm and friendly, and I was so impressed by how relaxed he seemed before giving his talk! I also met other author/artists there at the very beginning of their careers, and we are still friends to this day.
Virginia: You’ve written and illustrated some books—PIZZA DAY and SOUP DAY—and illustrated other writers’ manuscripts. Do you prefer working one way or the other? Do you have lots of ideas for more stories of your own?
Melissa: Both routes have their own challenges! Illustrating others’ manuscripts is what I’m more familiar with and what I did for ten years before writing my own. I love the opportunity to enter the story and interpret it in my own vision. Each story is unique, and I love approaching them this as such.
I do have many other ideas for stories of my own as well! Many have not sold, believe me. I recently did sell a manuscript that I am in the process of rewriting and figuring out the illustrations for; the project is in its nascent stages. Doing both the pictures and writing the text provide a different set of challenges. Because there aren’t the same parameters as having a text given to me, there are many more choices and decisions to be made. I usually write and sketch out my dummy at the same time, going back and forth between the images and text. I often begin with the images. So it’s a different process for me.
Virginia: Finally, I know you love spending time in the kitchen. Both illustrating and cooking/baking are creative hobbies. Do you see other similarities in the two? Do you have a favorite recipe you can share with us?
Melissa: They are definitely similar! Especially when I am creating a new recipe and experimenting, it is similar to creating a piece of visual art—a process of having inspiration and an idea of what I want to create, pulling together the materials I need to produce it, and then figuring out how to execute it. With both you are using disparate items (ingredients and art media) to create something entirely unique and entirely different from what you begin with. I love the chemistry that happens with cooking and baking. It’s magical the way applying heat to or pureeing ingredients completely changes its composition.
I’m working on a DIY Birthday book that involves a lot of cooking and creating art, and the overlap between the two is more pronounced here, visually. I have a lot of themed cakes and themed food, and I use ingredients to create edible representations of things like monster faces, castles, superheroes, etc.
Virginia: Have you been to the Highlights Foundation before? They sure have tasty food!
Melissa: I love the Highlights Foundation! I’ve been to three retreats there. The first two were with my family for the annual Highlights Magazine Illustrators Three Day Weekend. The last was a Hidden Picture retreat that was very small and intimate, and there were just a dozen artists there. And yes, the food is amazing there! I love the chef!
Here’s one of my favorite recipes I developed from my cooking blog, The Hungry Artist. It was also featured in CookingLight magazine (so it’s pretty healthy!) I hope you enjoy it!
Grilled Portobello Mushroom Eggplant Parmesan Rounds
- 4 Portobello mushroom caps, stems removed
- 3 tablespoons virgin olive oil, divided
- Kosher salt and pepper to taste
- Small eggplant sliced thinly, about 2 cups
- ½ cup prepared marinara sauce
- 4 oz. Sargento® Shredded Reduced Sodium Mozzarella Cheese
- ½ oz. Sargento® Grated Parmesan & Romano Cheese
- 4 slices vine ripened tomato
- Basil leaves for garnish
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Salt sliced eggplant and let rest in colander for about 20 minutes while oven is heating. Rinse and pat eggplant slices dry. Brush with 1 tablespoon olive oil and arrange on baking sheet. Roast for 15 minutes, flipping after 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile prepare mushroom caps. Wipe caps clean and then brush both sides with remaining olive oil. Sprinkle each side with salt and pepper and place on grill pan gill side down. Grill caps for about 2 ½ minutes on each side on high heat with grill pan covered with a lid.
- Assemble rounds. Mix together the mozzarella and parmesan and divide mixture into two small bowls. Set aside. Spoon a tablespoon of sauce onto gill side of mushroom caps then layer eggplant and a pinch of cheese mixture from one of the bowls on top of sauce. Repeat, alternating sauce, eggplant and cheese on all caps, ending with sauce, then one slice of tomato if desired. Top each round with the remaining cheese from the second bowl. Broil in oven for about 4 to 5 minutes until cheese is bubbly.
Melissa Iwai is the author and illustrator of many books for young children. Some of her stories include Soup Day and Pizza Day, which she wrote and illustrated. She is the illustrator of Thirty Minutes Over Oregon (a 2018 Orbis Pictus Honor book) and I’ll Hug You More, as well as many more. She received her BFA in Illustration from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA. Melissa has been a proud member of SCBWI since 1996 and served on the faculty of the SCBWI New Jersey Regional Conference in 2013. Please visit her site at www.melissaiwai.com to view her work.
Love those covers! Looking forward to meeting Melissa at the Pocono Retreat.
Thanks, Anni! looking forward to seeing you there! I feel like we’ve met there before, maybe at a past Highlights retreat for Illustrators???
Nice to meet you here, Melissa! I won’t be at the Pocono Retreat. :(( But I will be trying your recipe. I can make it that weekend and think of you. I’m vegetarian and it looks yummy!
Sorry you won’t be able to make it, Wendy! I hope you like the recipe! 🙂
Nice interview, Virginia. I am coming to my first Pocono retreat and I am looking forward to seeing you and all the other people that are going to make this weekend exciting!! See you there!!! 🙂
Thanks so much for the feature and interview, Virginia! 🙂 Looking forward to seeing you next month!