Where The Story Begins


Lori-nicholsChildren’s literature is more than just bedtime stories for Lori Nichols.

Written by Lindsey Lowe

Photography by Beau Gustafson

 

Maybe yours was Goodnight, Moon. Maybe it was Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile or If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. Mine was The Velveteen Rabbit. I can still hear my mom’s voice dancing back and forth with the opening lines: “There was once a velveteen rabbit, and in the beginning, he was really splendid. He was fat and bunchy, as a rabbit should be…” There is nary a grown-up around who, given the chance, couldn’t name his or her own favorite children’s book. And if they happened to stumble across that book—perhaps they were perusing the children’s section for something else—chances are, they would quickly be transported back to their childhood days. Children’s books have that way about them.

Lori Nichols believes this to be true, and she’s been able to rediscover the magic as a parent to her daughters, Harper, Zoe, and Bella. “I think it’s a really magical time,” she says. “That is probably my favorite part of being a parent—that lap time with the girls, reading to them.” And so, mesmerized by the genre, she decided to add to it: In February, with the publication of her first children’s book, Maple, Nichols became one of those generous souls who makes childhood magical for the rest of us.

Nichols’s path to becoming an author/illustrator of children’s literature is perhaps more diverse than one might expect. She didn’t always dream of writing books. It wasn’t until she was experiencing children’s literature again through her own children that the idea was formed: “I thought, ‘Maybe I can use some of my training that I have as a designer and an illustrator and put it toward children’s books,’” she says. And the main character in the book—a little girl named Maple who learns to adjust to a new season when her baby sister, Willow, arrives—wasn’t born from Nichols’s words. She was born from her illustrations.

Nichols has worked in the creative industry for many years, as an editorial and advertising illustrator. Once she moved to Birmingham in 1991, she spent most of her time in the editorial world with Southern Progress, Inc. publications (she was a designer for Southern Living and the assistant art director at Cooking Light.) She continued working after both Harper and Zoe joined the family, but in 2002, when Zoe was 1, she decided to quit her job to stay home with her children. Really, she says, the foundation for a project like Maple began then.

In the years that followed, Nichols traveled to conferences all around the country, usually twice a year, to meet people in the business, hone her crafts, and build a portfolio. She went to her first one soon after she initially quit her full-time job to stay home with her girls. “I knew I wanted to keep my foot in the door in some creative arena,” she says. That one was a Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference, where she met editors and publishers from publishing hubs like New York City. “Really and truly, it was my way of going to school for children’s books,” she explains. “I didn’t have a degree in children’s literature. I just had a passion for it, and this was a way I could still maintain the hectic chaos of our lives with kids, but also start to develop those skills I needed to write and illustrate.”

MapleThe conferences taught her about capturing and relaying emotion, about the continuity of a story, and about seeing the world the way children do. “A kid would totally know if you draw a boy and he’s got an apple with a leaf on his shirt on one page and then the leaf is not there on the next page,” she says. Nichols filled sketchbook after sketchbook with her drawings, which she says was an organic process of learning. And she was learning. In 2009, she placed her portfolio in a portfolio review at a conference in New York City; it’s helpful, she explains, because journalists, artists, publishers, and the like offer feedback to author/illustrators. And it’s also a competition. She didn’t win her first few years, but in 2012 and 2013, she placed as a runner-up, and in 2014, she received first place.

When Nichols arrived home from the 2009 NYC conference, she was contacted by two different agents who had seen her portfolio and wanted to represent her, and she chose Joanna Volpe (with New Leaf Literary & Media, Inc.), whom Nichols calls her “defacto editor.” While Nichols worked through some dummy books, the actual character of Maple first began from character development sketches. She says she didn’t expect Maple the character—or the story—to turn out as they did. The story moved from character sketches to, well, a story one day when Nichols’s daughter brought her mom the empty stem of some grapes she had eaten and said, “Mom, doesn’t this look like a tree?” Nichols agreed, and the two gathered leaves from their front yard, arranging them around the “tree,” and then scanned the images they created into the computer. Next, Nichols placed one of her characters—a little girl—under the tree. “I thought, ‘Oh, I guess I have to write a story about this girl now,” she says, laughing. She went back and forth with Volpe, sending drawings and eventually words, carefully crafting Maple into what it is now.

As she did that, something surprising happened: Nichols found that pieces of her own life began to show up in Maple’s story. Nichols herself grew up in Pennsylvania, and she says there was a maple tree of which she was very fond. “I just loved that maple tree,” she says. “I didn’t set out to write the story Maple, but that is one of my earliest memories, being under that tree. I can almost touch the memory, or smell it, or feel it.” When she and her husband became parents, they planted trees—although oaks, not maples—for each of their daughters, like Maple’s parents do. And like Maple, her own daughters had to learn how to adjust as life ebbed and flowed around them, especially when new siblings were introduced. All of those experiences helped to create a foundation for Maple’s story; and while Nichols points out that it does belong to Maple, it also belongs to her and her daughters as well. “Each one of them thinks it’s about her,” she says with a smile. “And in a way, it is. It’s about each of them.”

Maple was published by Nancy Paulson Books, a division of Penguin, and Nichols is working on a companion book that explores the relationship between Maple and Willow even more. She says it’s a lot of fun to have a hand in creating that same kind of magic she fell in love with as a child. Her own favorite is still Where the Wild Things Are. “I loved it and still do,” she says. “The illustrations make me feel alive. The story is perfect in every way showing a likable, but very mischievous, Max who is punished for his mischief, but very much loved.”

Children’s literature is more than just bedtime stories. Rather, Nichols says, it’s one way to take kids by the hand and lead them into a more beautiful world. She remembers something she once read, which she says sums it up well: “[Children’s books] are almost like little art museums for kids. It’s an introduction to art for children.”

 

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