An Interview with Lori Nichols, the Author and Illustrator Behind ‘Maple’
The excitement of being outdoors as a young child is a familiar experience, one shared across cultures and time. There is potential in each handful of dirt, curiousity in the way bugs climb upside down across stones, adventure in fall leaves circling like whirlwinds along the pavement.
In her award-winning series of books centered around a young girl (Maple) and the maple tree planted in her honor, Lori Nichols explores early relationships with nature, and how these change as one grows. The first book, Maple, was released in 2014 and Nichols has since followed up with Maple & Willow Together and Maple & Willow Apart.
This summer, I bumped into Nichols at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference, a national event held in Los Angeles each summer. She had just finished speaking on a panel alongside Martha Brockenbrough, Mike Curato, Stacey Lee, and Anna Shinoda. During the panel, she casually mentioned her love of building terrariums, so GC sat down with her to discuss her passion for gardening (and to pick up some tips!). Below, we discuss how nature influences her family, her career, and of course: her books!
GC: What is your earliest memory of gardening?
LN: My mom had a rock garden. We’d be driving on the country road and she’d stop the car and have my sister and I help her get these big rocks into the car. Once we got them home she would arrange them in a certain way outside of our kitchen. She’d use succulents in between the plants, with a bunch of different textures and colors, between the rocks. Another memory I have gardening is growing tomatoes and canning them. We had a bumper crop and I just remember this enormous amount of tomatoes that we would can.
GC: What else (aside from tomatoes!) are you currently growing in your garden?
LN: You know, we haven’t had a really good crop of tomatoes in a while. I think we need to plant clover and let our soil replenish. But our garden is very simple, we always have tomatoes, basil, oregano, dill. The kids planted peppers this year. Some years we lay off the vegetables, and herbs, and my husband will plant 60 or 70 sunflowers which is really spectacular to look out and see!
GC: What role does nature play in your life today?
LN: I love plants, I love gardening, I love being outside. My kids love being outside too, which is really special to my husband and I. When my first daughter was born, we bought an old rickety airstream and we’ve taken the kids camping every year since. The role that gardening and nature plays, in our lives, is really important as far as my family goes. While large scale gardening is off the table, due to a back injury, small scale gardening like pots and terrariums is something I really enjoy. The patterns, colors, textures… I can effortlessly move them around and see what looks best.
GC: What’s your process for creating a terrarium?
LN: I’ll start by finding an old, glass, water cooler container. I’m a Begonia junkie–there are so many different varieties, and I love to put them in my terrariums. Sometimes I’ll gather moss and Maidenhair fern too, but [the terrariums] are generally simple without a lot of bells and whistles. The key is charcoal, which you can buy at a pet supply store or steal from your fire pit. Rocks line the base of the glass container and then you sprinkle a good layer of charcoal between your rocks and soil. That’s what keeps the terrarium from molding and your plants will survive much longer.
GC: Do you gift these to friends and family?
LN: Yes! I love to create succulent book gifts. I give these to librarians or local booksellers as a thank you for a book launch. I’ll get an old book that’s on its last leg and cut a square out of the inside of the book. I’ll place a plastic container, inside that square, so that I don’t destroy the book (even more) and then I’ll add dirt, rocks, and succulents. It’s such a magical little gift, I think. I’m crazy about succulents too.
GC: What is it for you? The structural element? The colors?
LN: It’s a combination. I love plants that are low maintenance. But when you put all the different textures together, there are so many different varieties. I have a bird bath that’s just before you walk in our front door. It’s shallow, maybe two inches deep, but it’s filled with succulents that I planted six or seven years ago. They keep multiplying!
GC: I want to talk to you about the role that nature plays in your characters’ lives throughout your books…
LN: Absolutely. Maple and Willow are both outdoorsy girls. Their characters are really based on myself as a child and watching my children grow. I think there’s something really special about how close children are to the Earth. I remember as a kid, grasshoppers, ants, and worms were my friends and playmates. They were a huge part of my life growing up. There was a lot of time to explore because there wasn’t a lot of scheduling as a kid. We were left with our imagination. For Maple and Willow, that’s their life–trees and ladybugs.
The children’s books that I’m most drawn to are stories that would seemingly be small plots, or small storylines, that become this amazing world. Maple has a friendship with a tree, but it’s so much more than that. It’s about the changing seasons, the changing of her life, acceptance of a new sister and friend. Hopefully what people get from it is opening your eyes to the world around you and being welcoming of these changes. All of my stories stem from this deep love with nature.
GC: When you’re illustrating, do you find yourself outside where nature is more tangible?
LN: Yes, I love to draw outside in our botanical garden. We have so many different varieties of plants–there’s a woodland area, there’s a Japanese garden… I sketch there a lot but I’ll even go into my backyard, sit in a lawn-chair, and draw. I like to take long walks too. There’s a marinating process when a story is about to come to you. For me it helps to be outside. I’m kind of like Maple, I’ll look up and look around me, allowing those ideas to take root.
GC: Writing and illustrating is a passion and immense talent of yours. How did you take that step in making your dream a reality?
LN: When my second daughter was born I ended up quitting my job. I wanted to keep my foot in the door as far as a profession goes and art was always my passion. My degree was in illustrator and my first passion was illustration. At the time, I was reading tons of children’s books to my daughters and falling in love with that art form…. Each book opened up doors to this new world, for the girls. I developed a passion for children’s books and someone ended up telling me about Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) so I joined.
You hear all these great, amazing stories about how people were immediately discovered and how their career took off. I kind of had the exact opposite of that. It was slow and with three daughters, my job was truly to be a full time Mom. But within that I would find time to steal away to a regional conference and in 2009, a national conference (where I’d meet my agent Joanna Volpe of New Leaf Literary). I started in 2001 and Maple was published in 2014.
GC: What advice would you give to somebody who shares this passion for writing and illustrating?
LN: I would say to show up everyday. Draw everyday and read children’s books everyday. That’s how I was exposed to my passion… Reading out-loud was huge because you get to hear how the story unfolds–the cadence and the rhythm. If you don’t have a little one to read to, find one and join SCBWI.
GC: What do you think the most important mantra or moral that gardening has to teach us?
LN: I love watching seasons–watching how a beautiful plant I love will die and then come back the next year. In life I think that happens a lot. We have seasons where things are going really well and then hard times where we have to sort of be dormant. I don’t know [that] there’s really a mantra that I can hang my hat on, but I think the seasons have a lot to teach us about how to cope with life and how to move on.
GC: What is the most underrated flower?
LN: I’m going to say a Pansy because they’re one of the hardiest plants. We plant them here in the South in the winter because they’re so strong that frost doesn’t kill them. They last all winter into spring….but if you call someone a pansy you’re basically saying you’re not strong! It’s really a derogatory term… I’ve always told my kids, if anyone calls you a pansy, that’s a compliment!