Poetry Friday: Dog-eared books, comfort zones, and blue corn mush – an interview with “Everybody Counts!” illustrator Emma Graham

It’s Friday, and that means it’s Poetry Friday – and yes, I have a very apropos poem coming up! But first – I’m so excited to welcome my Everybody Counts! illustrator and fellow SCBWI member Emma Graham to Radio, Rhythm, & Rhyme today.

Thanks so much for joining me here at the ol’ blog, Emma. I have to say it again:  I love what you did for the illustrations. Before we get into that, though, I wanted to ask about what led you to becoming a children’s book illustrator. After graduating Norfolk Institute of Art, you had done a lot of corporate artwork like greeting cards, album covers, and sculpture painting, so how did you find your way to where you are now?

© Emma Graham

Hi, Matt, thanks for asking me! I trained as a graphic designer and worked a while in publishing and packaging design, then when my children came along I fell back in love with children’s books. I read a lot as a child and still have many of my books. It was a joy to read with my children and see their love of books develop.

There is something rather special about a dog eared book that a child wants read over and over again. I decided to give it a go, my early attempts weren’t good, but I refused to give up and it is so lovely to see my work in print. But without the authors there would be no books, it is a partnership, we bring each other’s work to life.

Aside from honing your craft, where there any specific skills or things you learned over the past 30 years that helped with this transition?

I’m always learning. Each project brings new challenges in research and design. I try to bring something fresh and new to each book and I love experimenting with new techniques and colour pallettes.

Well, I have to say I love the color palette you chose for our book – it’s soft, but vibrant, as well. So please tell me how you began your approach to illustrating Everybody Counts!

Sherry at The Little Fig sent over your wonderful text for me to read through and sketch ideas. I have to be honest, I started with children (which I imagine you were expecting), but drawing humans is way out of my comfort zone, and after many pages of sketching I felt that I just couldn’t capture the beautiful diversity of all those cultures.

As much as anything, I didn’t want to get something wrong, so I went back to [editor] Sherry Bushue with my worries, we discussed it and we said how about the animal – which I LOVE drawing – from each of those cultures. Then it was into the research of the animals, culture, food and all the little extra elements like pattern that I love to add.

Are those watercolors or digital? They certainly have the look of being hand-painted.

All hand drawn and painted in acrylic ink, which is similar in many ways to watercolour but a bit more versatile to build layers and keep colours vibrant. My artwork is then scanned and tidied in photoshop, ready to send to Sherry and the designer.

What did you find most challenging about the project? Any surprises along the way?

I think the hardest part was finding reference to the Navajo taa’niil, not an easy recipe to find!

© 2023 The Little Fig, LLC & Emma Graham, all rights reserved (click to enlarge)

Ah, yes – blue corn mush! So how was the process for Everybody Counts! different from the process for other books you’ve illustrated, like Señior Saguaro or Symphony Hollow?

There was much more research with ‘Everybody Counts’ with the 12 different cultures. Usually a picture book will have one main character and a few others that pop up on their journey. With 12 cultures, there were all the animals, food, settings, numbers, patterns and countries to ‘get right’.

Trust me, I can guess how much research you must have done – this book probably took me longer to write than any other!

Thank goodness for the internet and my collection of many books. I have to admit the recipes were wonderful, it made me rather hungry and wanting to try new things, I saved the recipes on Pinterest and think Sherry will add a link on the website to these to link in with the book.

I’m so glad to hear Sherry will be sharing the recipes – I’d wanted to include them in the book but quickly realized the amount of information would be overwhelming for a reader. Now, I know you have several books of your own that you’re working on; are there any upcoming projects you’re at liberty to share?

Ha ha, yes, I love to write, too. I think at last count I have 18 picture book stories written and 2 YA novels. I’d love to have one or more of my own published. I’m in discussion with a UK publisher at the moment, so fingers crossed.

One of my stories, ‘The Owl Who Wanted to Sing’ was a finalist in Stratford Literary Festival’s Stratford-Salariya Prize for picture books 2017. It was inspired by an owl who would sit in the tree outside my bedroom window and hoot at dawn. It made me smile, so I wrote the story.

© 2023 Emma Graham, all rights reserved (click to enlarge)

Well, I wish you the best with getting it placed, Emma – and congratulations on your other books and projects, as well! I hope we get to work together again at some point.

Speaking of working together…

I had asked Emma to send me a favorite illustration of hers that I could write a poem about – and she sent me the most colorful, fun, energetic picture I could have asked for:


I have a diverse sort of musical soul;
my style is folk-polka-rock ‘n roll.
If you happen to take in one of my shows,
I’ll have you dancing and tapping your toes.

So let’s join together!
Quick, go grab a mic!
We can play any music or rhythm we’d like.
Alas, no big band or jazz tunes yet –
I’ve no way of holding a clarinet.

© 2023 Matt F. Esenwine, all rights reserved


Molly Hogan is hosting today’s Poetry Friday roundup at her blog, Nix the Comfort Zone, so be sure to head on over and check out all the poetry links and fun!

Read Across America Day ~

Would you like to have an author visit your classroom for free? I’m once again offering free, 20-minute virtual visits all day Thur., March 2, for Read Across America Day! I’m usually jam-packed with a couple of visits every hour, all day long – and spots are filling up.

If you’ woul’d be interested in having me join your class for a 20-minute visit via Zoom, GoogleMeets, or MS Teams, send me an email! I’ll read one of my books, share some poetry, and talk a little bit about the writing process and how they all came to be! Just email me at matt(at)mattforrest(dot)com and I’ll reply as quickly as I can.

I’m booking author visits for the 2023 spring semester:

Click the graphic for more details!

I love chatting with elementary and middle school classes about writing: why poetry is fun to read and write, the importance of revision, and how one’s imagination and creativity can lead to a fantastic career! My presentations are tailored to fit the needs of the classes and students’ ages. One day I might be sharing details of how a picture book like Flashlight Night (Astra Young Readers, 2017) was created; the next, I’ll be discussing dinosaurs, tree ferns, or origami sea turtles!

Student presentations include:

  • The Making of a Picture Book (featuring “Flashlight Night”)
  • How a Child Saved a Book (featuring “Don’t Ask a Dinosaur”)
  • “Once Upon Another Time”
  • The Most Imporant Thing about Writing Poetry
  • “I Am Today”

Adult presentations include:

  • The Making of a Picture Book (featuring “Flashlight Night”)
  • Poetry: An Introduction to the Most Important Genre
  • The Most Important Thing about Writing Poetry
  • Free Yourself with Free Verse
  • Tight Language, Loose Narratives: Crafting a Non-Traditional Picture Book

Learn more at MattForrest.com!

If you or someone you know might be interested in having me visit your school, library, or other organization, please email me
at matt(at)mattforrest(dot)com!


(The Little Fig, LLC, 2023)

Order a PERSONALLY-SIGNED copy of this or or ANY of my books
from my local independent bookstore!


I’m very happy to be part of the BOOKROO family!

Create an account to add books to wishlists and be notified of special deals and dates…create custom collections…and discover and follow your favorite authors & illustrators!

Find out more about BOOKROO here!


I continue adding to my “Wit & Wordplay” videos ! These videos were created for parents and educators (along with their kids) to learn how to write poetry, appreciate it, and have fun with it. From alliteration and iambs to free verse and spine poetry, I’m pretty sure there’s something in these videos you’ll find surprising! You can view them all on my YouTube channel, and if you have young kids looking for something to keep busy with, I also have several downloadable activity sheets at my website.


Ordering personalized signed copies online? Oh, yes, you can!

You can purchase personally-signed copies of Flashlight Night, (Astra Young Readers, 2017), Don’t Ask a Dinosaur (Pow! Kids Books, 2018)and nearly EVERY book or anthology I’ve been part of!

Click here to view all my books and to order!

Just click the cover of whichever book you want and send a comment to the good folks at MainStreet BookEnds in Warner, NH requesting my signature and to whom I should make it out. (alternatively, you can log onto my website and do the same thing) They’ll contact me, I’ll stop by and sign it, and then they’ll ship it! (Plus, you’ll be supporting your local bookseller – and won’t that make you feel good?)


Thank you to everyone for your support!




Did you like this post? Find something interesting elsewhere in this blog? I really won’t mind at all if you feel compelled to share it with your friends and followers!

To keep abreast of all my posts, please consider subscribing via the links up there on the right!  (I usually only post once or twice a week – usually Tues. and Fri. – so you won’t be inundated with emails every day) . Also feel free to visit my voiceover website HERE, and you can also follow me via Twitter FacebookInstagramPinterest, and SoundCloud!

13 thoughts on “Poetry Friday: Dog-eared books, comfort zones, and blue corn mush – an interview with “Everybody Counts!” illustrator Emma Graham

  1. Linda KulpTrout

    I enjoyed learning more about Emma and how she created the illustrations. I’m always amazed by an artist’s creativity. Your poem matched the picture beautifully, and it made me smile!


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