Interview by Kristi Wright
Danielle Dufayet and I met through the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators. We soon became dear friends and critique partners. Highly educated in both psychology and art, Danielle tackles the emotional world of children with deep empathy. Her passion is helping children feel good about themselves and to find positive ways to express themselves. Whether she’s tackling a piece of fine art or a new picture book manuscript, she saturates her work with a viewpoint that’s awash in hope, kindness, and beauty. ~ Kristi
KidLitCraft: What do you love about writing for kids?
Danielle Dufayet: What I love most about writing for kids is that it gives me an opportunity to plant seeds in their minds (and hearts) about some important topics like: self-love, inner strength, patience, and letting go of perfectionism when creating art. I have my Masters in Psychology and I feel children should learn about ways to love themselves, developing an understanding of how to manage their difficult emotions in the healthiest ways; how patience is important and that waiting for something can still be enjoyed. In Benford Draws a BLANK (illustrations by Katia Klein), I wanted to remind kids to not strive for perfectionism when doing art. Art should be a fun collaboration between artist and the canvas, not some mind-consuming, terrible event.
KLC: Your picture books encourage children to believe in themselves. What do you draw on as your own inspiration when you take on a new project?
Danielle: I draw on faith that I will be guided by some higher force or intelligence, whether I’m writing or painting. I believe the blank canvas or blank piece of paper is wanting to be filled with my artistic expression. I also am very vigilant at what I tell myself. I make sure I don’t indulge in negative self-talk. If I’m not feeling confident in my next project, I slow down and remind myself that I can and will be able to create. It takes patience and self-compassion too. I give myself a lot of positive affirmations.
KLC: In addition to your writing, you are an award-winning fine artist with paintings in several galleries. How does your fine art influence your writing, and likewise, how does your writing influence your art?
Danielle: My art influences my writing in that it reminds me to not expect the first draft to be exactly like I’m hoping. It often takes 30 revisions to get my manuscript where I want it. My paintings help me remember that the journey of creating is where the joy is. It sometimes helps to just let loose and see where the writing goes (after figuring out what the take-away is and other book essentials). My writing influences my art by reminding me to think things through a bit so I feel prepared. That means I must think about the colors I want to use, the composition, and the content of my painting. I love writing and painting and they each help influence the other in different ways.
KLC: With Benford Draws a BLANK (illustrated by Katia Klein), your main character is a budding artist. I love how it addresses the idea that “there are no mistakes in art–just chances to be creative and inspired.” Can you expand on what inspired you to tackle this topic?
Danielle: The budding main character, Benford, is stifled when he gets his first big, white, and blank canvas. He wants to paint the perfect painting, but this leaves him feeling confused and frustrated. Nothing feels right! I thought of this story idea when I was faced with a big, white, blank canvas during Covid lock down. I hadn’t painted for a while and felt pressure to paint something great, but I felt blank like the canvas. I even wondered if I could paint at all anymore! I drove myself crazy. Eventually, I started painting again and it all worked out. I know very young kids don’t normally feel self-conscious when making art, but those little negative voices of self-doubt and fear come in pretty early. I wanted to let kids know that art should be fun and to not have feelings of wanting to create something perfect. The art is perfect if the artist had a good time making it and expressed what he/she was feeling.
KLC: Part of writing picture books is the low word count. Can you talk about how you approach creating fully alive but sparse texts? Do you start with a lot of words and pare down, or do you keep things short from the beginning?
Danielle: I start out writing the story without too much emphasis on word count, even though it’s in the back of my mind. I know as I revise, I’ll have the opportunity to drop my word count. Writing picture books is like writing poetry. The writer has to write the least amount of words for the biggest impact. At first, I focus more on the story and its emotional arc, the character development, conflict and resolution and other picture book details, but I’m fairly quick at working on word count. Sometimes this helps me focus on the impact my book will have on a young reader. Less is more, but it’s not easy!
KLC: We’d love to hear about your revision process. How do you get from your first draft to the final published version of your stories?
Danielle: I’ll start my first draft with getting all my ideas down. I know with every revision I’ll have time to pare down the words, but that’s not the focus in the beginning. I work on developing my story, its emotional arc, the page turns, etc. Once that’s worked out, I start to cut down words as much as possible.
KLC: If you had one piece of advice for other writers of children’s books, what would it be?
Danielle: My most important piece of advice would be to take this field as a serious business. For me, it wasn’t a hobby or pastime. I told myself I would not give up no matter how long it took me to get published – even if it took 20 years! It actually took me 35 years to get an agent and sell my first picture book manuscript. One must learn about publishers’ needs, the buying market, how to market yourself and your book, social media, how to handle rejection, joining a critique group and so much more!
KLC: How has the KidLit community been a part of your writing and publishing journey?
Danielle: The KidLit community is so wonderful. It’s a very supportive group of people I think because we know how hard it is to become an author. We deal with a lot of rejection which can be painfully discouraging. We often get stuck with one (or more) of our manuscripts and don’t know how to revise it. Ths community offers a lot of helpful websites, webinars, seminars, group chats, critique groups, newsletters, etc.
KLC: What can Danielle Dufayet fans look forward to in the future?
Danielle: I am working on a picture book that has me a bit stumped. I think I need to…I wish I knew! Seriously, I have to get back to it and turn it on its head. Sometimes, a writer needs to try the same story in a different format. That can feel scary, but I did that with my third book, Waiting Together, and it sold fairly quickly – after having put it away for about four years as per my agent’s request.
Danielle Dufayet, born in Yonkers, New York, now lives in sunny San Jose, California, where she writes children’s books and paints. She also teaches English and Self-Empowerment classes to kids in grades K-12. Danielle read her first picture book (Little Raccoon and the Thing in the Pool) when she was 18. She was blown away by its simplicity, timelessness and transformative power. That’s when she knew it was her calling. Thirty five years and a Master’s Degree later, she finally made her dream come true with two books published in 2019 – one about inner strength (You Are Your Strong) and the other about self-love/compassion (Fantastic You). Since then she’s published two more: Waiting Together, and Benford Draws a BLANK.
Find Danielle on social media:
For more Q&As with picture book authors check out:
Kristi Wright (co-editor) writes picture books and middle grade novels. Her goal as a writer is to give children a sense of wonder, a hopefulness about humanity, and a belief in their future. She is represented by Kurestin Armada at Root Literary. She is an active volunteer for SCBWI and a 12 X 12 member. Find her at www.kristiwrightauthor.com and on Twitter @KristiWrite.