40 Years at a Paint Splattered Desk

I recently realized that this year, 2021, marks my 40th year as an author and illustrator of children’s books. In 1981, as a recent art school graduate, I signed my very first book contract, illustrations for Thanksgiving at the Tappletons’ (written by Eileen Spinelli). Earlier this month, my 75th book, The Power of Yet was published. (Yes, I counted.) 
Addison Wesley (1982) (hand pre-sep art)
HarperCollins (1992 & 2015)
Abrams Appleseed (2021)

Over the past 40 years, my two constants have been my husband, Eric (we’ll also be celebrating our 40th wedding anniversary this year!) and my work creating picture books.  No matter where we lived, my art studio was my creative haven. My trusty drawing desk traveled with us, from our early days in the Boston area…to New Hampshire, where we brought up our two daughters, Janine and Kristin... to our recent move to the Maine coast. The paint splattered top of this old desk reminds me of all the books I have created, the inspirations behind them, and the many editors and art directors who helped move my journey forward through the years. *

Publishing in the early 1980’s was a very different world. Online portfolios didn’t exist, heck…. online didn’t exist! The world-wide-web was still 10 years away! So, how did this young illustrator who just graduated from Massachusetts College of Art find her place in the publishing world? By hauling a portfolio from publisher to publisher in hopes that someone would like my art. I started my search by sending art samples in the mail and followed up with a phone call to make appointments in Boston and New York. (Editors and art directors actually met with new talent back then.)  I’d carry two portfolios, one for drop-offs and one for in-person interviews. While in NYC, I strategically mapped out my days geographically to try to fit in as many appointments as possible. Sometimes, things didn’t go so well, like the time an art director glanced at my portfolio in the elevator on the way to lunch, but many times, I felt encouraged. On one such meeting, an editor at Grosset & Dunlap pointed to an illustration of a cat in my portfolio and asked. “Do you write?”  I was not expecting that question. “Ahh…no. I’m an illustrator.  “Try writing a story about this cat.” she suggested. 

Mmmm… I never saw myself as a writer. I never even took a writing course, but I had lots of ideas. And just like that, I started writing (or tried to). After eight rejections and just as many revisions, that cat in my portfolio became the star of the very first book I wrote and illustrated; Wednesday is Spaghetti Day (1990).  Ironically, Grosset didn’t buy it, but Scholastic did and it had a 20+ year run!  I will always be grateful to the editors, who, in those early days, gave me the confidence and courage to develop my storytelling by combining my words and pictures. 
Scholastic (1990)

From that point on, I kept writing and developing ideas. I mailed out manuscripts and dummies and continued to nurture my relationships with editors and art directors, in person, by phone or by email. I got many rejections but also sold some books.  The one thing I discovered about myself was that I loved “the chase.” I educated myself on the business of publishing and contract negotiations, and decided that I would represent myself, and I have continued to do so throughout my career. Over the years, my elevator lunch meetings became actual working lunches, and little by little I sold more stories and in turn, expanded my list of publishers. (Oh, and I did end up having a very long relationship with Grosset, publishing over 12 books with them.)

Throughout the years I witnessed many technological changes in publishing as the industry moved from hand-pre-separated art of the 1980’s to digital illustration.  I weathered the low points, including the loss of several editors during the 2008 recession and I celebrated and welcomed the high points, especially the publishing of diverse books buoyed by WNDB and #OwnVoices. 

All I can say is…it’s about time! As a mother of a child with disabilities, and a disability advocate, I was always hoping that children with disabilities would be included as part of the natural landscape in children’s books. I tried for years to publish on this topic with rejections stating; “There is no market for this book.” FINALLY it’s happening!  Attitudes are starting to change. My next two books, We Want To Go To School! The Fight for Disability Rights (2021-AW) co-authored by my daughter Janine Leffler, and Sit-In To Stand Up! The Story of Disability Rights Advocate Judith Heumann, (2022-Abrams) will proudly be my 76th and 77th books. 

And so…here I am.  Still spending my days creating books on that very same desk, feeling very blessed… blessed to have been able to do what I love to do for 40 years. I can only hope that my books, past and future, will instill the love of reading and leave something behind…a smile, a parent-child moment, a lesson of kindness and hope, and maybe even inspire a child (or an adult) to tell their own stories. I see a bright future for the publishing world, a world that I am happy to be part of.

Albert Whitman &Co (Fall 2021)  Cover comp

*With Thanks to my Editors & Art Directors (past and present): 
(an incomplete and ever changing list)

Meredith Mundy
Hana Nakamura
Courtney Code
Wendy McClure
Christina Pulles
Rick Demonico
Christy Ottaviano
Irene Vandervoot
Kelly Barrales-Saylor
Jordan Kost
Cyrisse Jaffee
Jane O’Connor
Denise Cronin
Dianne Hess
Karen Klockner
Tim Gillner
Kathy Tucker
Abby Levine 
Beverly Reingold
Jeffrey Salane
Grace Maccarone
Celia Lee
Rachel Matson
Joanne Kane
Toni Markiet

From Here to There- A New book by Vivian Kirkfield

I am absolutely thrilled to help celebrate the publishing 'Birthday' of Vivian Kirkfield's new book, From Here to There- Inventions that Changed The Way The World Moves, illustrated by Gilbert Ford. 

I am proud to say that I have a personal connection to this book and Vivian.  Many years ago Vivian brought a manuscript to our critique group about the story of the Greyhound Bus Company. I enjoyed learning how one man saw a need in his community and through creatively and determination turned that need into a thriving interstate bus company...and I knew kids would love it too.

This story ended up being part of this extraordinary anthology of travel; Chapter Five of this 96 page, nine chapter book. In From Here to There, Vivian takes the reader from the first manned hot-air balloon flight to computer generated ship design. Her talent for research, nose for unearthing facts and rich writing style brings this book to life. Vivian truly brings the reader through time and TRAVEL. Get moving and add this book to your library!

From the book's jacket: "Filled with fascinating side-bars and vibrant illustrations by Gilbert Ford, this collective biography tells the story of the experiments, failures, and successes of visionaries who found better, faster ways to move over land, sea, and air." 

Find out more about Vivian and her books : www. viviankirkfield.com

Growing Season BOOK BIRTH-DAY Giveaway!

To Celebrate the Publishing of Growing Season I'm giving away 10 Autographed Books

It's here! It's Growing Season! People who know me, know that I love to watch things grow…I carefully nurture my indoor plants all year long, start flowers from seed in my bright porch, and when the warm weather arrives in New England, flowers will bloom in my yard all summer long.

Yes- Growing Season is about GROWING, but not only about growing flowers…
it’s about growing friendships, growing patience…and growing up.

Like the variety of flowers I feature in my illustrations, I purposely created a beautifully diverse garden of children; different colors, sizes, shapes and personalities. And like flowers, children will bloom at their own rate and at the perfect time.

Happy SPRING! It really is Growing Season. Plant some flowers…but sprinkle your garden with patience, because all things take time to grow…even kids.

Books have been mailed to winners- Thank you.
Josh- Washington DC
Dianna- Columbia, SC
Cathy - Lynnfield MA
Liz- Lawrenceville, GA
Gina- Troy, MI
Michelle- Pittstown, NJ
Anna- Cape Eliz, ME
Jill- Mont Vernon, NH
Karen- Plymouth, NH
Kirsten- Portland, ME

Growing Season is Published by Sterling Books;   or order on Amazon

“Cocca-Leffler draws an easy metaphor between growing children and growing potted plants in this relatable story. El and Jo are the smallest students in their class, and they do everything together (“Even their names were short”). One spring, though, Jo starts to grow, just like the plants that the students will care for at home over the summer; neither El nor her plant, though, grow any taller. While Jo is away all summer, the girls exchange letters and El plants both of the flowers in the garden. Finally, Jo arrives home to find that both of the plants have bloomed—and she and El are the same height. Cocca-Leffler proffers a reassuring message to readers: no two growing up experiences are alike, and one develops at one’s own pace. A note on plant life cycles concludes.” —Publishers Weekly

“Best friends and their flowers grow on different timelines, but patience cures all fears of being left behind. The commonalities that El and Jo share seem to make it only natural that they are best friends—their short names, their small size, their small desks. But after Jo experiences a growth spurt in the spring, El is the only tiny person in class, and she feels smaller every day. At the end of the school year, each student picks a plant to take home and care for over the summer. Everyone reaches over El, who gets the last pot. Jo sees her friend's small, flowerless aster, and she offers her zinnias; she is going to her grandma's for the summer anyway. El plants the two side by side and waters them all summer, as she and Jo exchange letters. When Jo returns, the friends find, to their delight, that the aster isn't the only small thing that has grown. The illustrations use gouache, colored pencil, and collage with delightful detail, most scenes on ample white space, with a few busy spreads that reflect El's feelings. El, with tightly curled brown hair and tan skin, appears racially ambiguous, and Jo appears Asian. Their diverse classroom includes black, brown, and Asian children and a girl who uses a wheelchair. An endnote on plant life cycles differentiates annuals from perennials and biennials. A sweet story with emotional depth.” —Kirkus

Visiting places of inspiration...

Through the years, my young 'California Cousin' connected to her Cocca family through my books. Recently she made the trip East and visited the places that inspired two of my family stories. 

Here she is standing in front of my parents' house, (my childhood home) in Everett, MA. She's opened to the page which depicts the exact house. It's still on a bus route......The Book- BUS ROUTE TO BOSTON: 


Below she's standing in front of our family home in Hull, MA...
the setting for CLAMS ALL YEAR. 
Since I wrote and illustrated these books, the family has grown and aged and many members, including my mom, are no longer with us. These books are the stories of our lives, growing up in a big Italian family. From bus trips to Filene's Basement...visits to the North End to buy cannoli, ...to Summer days clam-digging with my grandfather and sharing the feast that followed...this is our family history, which, hopefully, will be passed down through the generations.

(Thank you for embracing the memories and the stories. 
Why didn't I ever think of doing this!?)

Have a wonderful Summer everyone and enjoy making your own family memories!

Growing Season

It's Spring and flowers are starting to POP. 
It's Perfect Timing for inspiration and research.
I'm just beginning the sketches for my upcoming picture book, 
"Growing Season" which is about El, a late bloomer and her 
friend, Jo, as they discover patience and friendship.
"El- character sketch"

"Jo- Character sketch"
(Growing Season will be published by Sterling Books.)
Happy Spring!
(All illustrations Copyright 2017- Maryann Cocca-Leffler)

Sing JOY! Happy Holidays!

Sterling Books 2016
Written & Illustration by Maryann Cocca-Leffler

Mr. Tanen’s Ties- Creating Patterns & Designers in First Grade

I love hearing from teachers to learn how they creatively use my books in their classroom curriculum.  Mrs. Cora Turner, a first grade teacher from Evergreen Elementary School in Drayton, Valley Alberta Canada, used my books Mr. Tanen’s Ties, Mr Tanen’s Tie Trouble and Mr. Tanen’s Ties Rule to introduce the students to patterns and designing.
Mrs.Turner reading Mrs. Tanen's Ties to her first graders

Over the course of several weeks, students in her class became clothing designers and designed a tie with a repeating simple pattern for Mr. Greg Wedman, their Deputy Superintendent. The unit began with a study of different kinds of patterns with 3-4 attributes.  After reading Mr. Tanen's Ties, Mr. Wedman came to the classroom to share his magnificent tie collection. The students began studying and sharing patterns, (including keeping a pattern design book). They then interviewed Mr. Wedman to find out personal information to help them design him THE perfect tie. Finally they designed and colored a one-of-a-kind tie. The project culminated with a “Tie Celebration” where the students got to share their ties with the class. Mr. Wedman capped off the project by reading another Mr. Tanen Tie Book.

Mr. Wedman surrounded by students, all with ties!

Thanks to all the students for sharing their awesome ties! A big thank you to Mrs. Cora Turner and Mr. Wedman for developing this creative project and encouraging important skills including; pattern design, critical thinking, communication skills and problem solving. You may even have encouraged your students to seek careers in art and design....(and maybe writing too!)

Much Thanks- Maryann

(All photos used by permission of Evergreen Elementary. All rights reserved.)