Lalena Fisher is author-illustrator of FRIENDS BEYOND MEASURE (HarperCollins, 2023). The picture book, is a story of friendship told through illustrated infographics such as charts, graphs, diagrams, and maps. The book combines data literacy with emotional literacy and is especially attuned to visual learners. Read on to discover how Lalena combined her journalism education with an MFA in painting to become, among other vocations and talents, an infographic designer and children’s book creator. She is represented by Lara Perkins at Andrea Brown Literary Agency.
Where did you grow up, and how did that place (or those places) shape your work?
I grew up in Houston, a very international, diverse and creative city. I had the great privilege to know lots of different kinds of families from all walks of life, many places around the world, and diverse occupations. And I got to attend the public High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, right in the heart of Montrose by the arts district.
As the only child to two working parents, I spent a lot of time entertaining myself by drawing, writing, and reading. I watched as my dad practiced a myriad of artistic hobbies in his free time, from photography to watercolor painting to stained glass. His IBM job was obligatory; he made it clear to me that if he could go back, he would have pursued art or marine biology (Houston is right on the Gulf Coast, so we also spent a lot of time fishing and swimming in the ocean). I didn’t want to make the same mistake.
My mom opened a Native American art gallery called Arrowhead when I was nine or 10; she was in many ways a lot more adventurous and inquisitive than my dad. And this experience was a huge influence on me; we went on fascinating buying trips through the Southwest, and I got to know lots of artists, like Dora Tse-Pe and Virginia Alice Stroud, and saw how they worked.
Here’s a funny story from that time: My folks got really into learning about the artists, their communities, and art techniques, to the extent that my dad learned how to bead, and made intricate beaded belts for me and my mom. And he built a loom and tried weaving a Navajo-style rug. We even gathered fruits and plants to dye the wool! And when it came time to boil the plants to make the dye, they told me that to permanently set the dye in the fibers, you have to use either a particular toxic chemical … or else the urine of a child. You can see where this is going. They asked me if I’d pee in a cup. I cringed and said no; that was just too weird. They totally understood and went on to plan B.
Did you always want to be an author-illustrator, or did that come later?
I wanted to be an artist. But I also wrote a lot. I have my diaries from age 10 to around 30. I wrote poetry and short stories. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me until much later to put those two practices together in a profession.
Since, oddly enough, my very supportive parents didn’t think I should pursue a career in art, I majored in journalism when I got to UT. But I still took art classes, and drew comics (as well as wrote) for THE DAILY TEXAN.
After going back to school to finally get my art degree—in New York, at Pratt—I worked in animation as well as journalism, kind of zigzagging between them. I designed for the children’s television series BLUE’S CLUES, and created graphics for THE NEW YORK TIMES. I think it was when I worked at BLUE’S CLUES that I realized I needed to have my own creative projects, so I joined SCBWI and started learning how to write and illustrate children’s books.
If someone were to follow you around for 24 hours, what would they see?
Well, every morning after jogging, seeing my daughter off to school, etc., I cross through our Central Texas backyard—with cedar elm trees, western soapberries, and trilling cicadas all around—into a small outbuilding that serves as my studio. The studio also has music gear, because my daughter and I write and perform as a rock band (The Mothermold, in case you’re interested).
I draw and write in my studio, which I love. I never had a studio before we moved to this place. My husband also works from home, as a music journalist, editor and programmer; he has a workspace in the living area of the house. So, he’s the closest thing I have to an office-mate.
I sort of have co-workers-in-spirit with my illustrator group, The Girllustrators; we get together monthly at a coffee shop to share work and advice, and to talk shop, and to vent. It’s treasured time.
Oh, and sometimes I go to a coffee shop alone to sketch or work on a book dummy. I get a lot done at coffee shops; I feed off the energy of other people bustling around, and enjoy listening in to their conversations!
How does your everyday life feed your work?
I am inspired by the animals and insects that live around me: skunks, possums, armadillos, foxes, raccoons, crickets, lizards, toads, cicadas, spiders, bees … And I’m inspired by my own child, of course.
Tell us about some accomplishments that make you proud.
I’m proud of: getting over stage fright; going through with a preventive mastectomy and reconstruction because of my BRCA genetic mutation; exercising daily; recording an album with my daughter; leading a fantastic rock band in New York; arranging and creating a politically-charged, museum-quality art exhibition in the Ground Floor Rotunda of the Texas Capitol; helping to raise three awesome step-kids; giving birth to and raising my daughter; being at my mother’s side at the end of her life; caring for my dad now; winning a countersuit when our greedy landlord sued us; and writing, illustrating and publishing a children’s book unlike any other!
What surprises you about the creative life?
It involves a lot more drudgery than one would think, and is hard work. Actually, this doesn’t surprise me; I’ve been at it for too long to be surprised! But this might surprise others.
When a reader discovers your work, what do you hope they find?
I hope to delight and surprise readers, and give them a good giggle.
With FRIENDS BEYOND MEASURE in particular, I hope that young visual thinkers are excited and inspired by seeing a story told in their “native language.” And for kids who feel insecure with math—which I did as a kid—I hope they discover that there are other ways to enjoy math concepts than just memorizing “boring” arithmetic facts. A person can be interested more in some aspects of math than others, just like in any other subject. But, we never seem to talk about math that way, for some reason.
And I also hope that in FRIENDS BEYOND MEASURE, kids—and even maybe their grownups—find a springboard for talking about their feelings, and how complicated emotions can be.
Most interesting or favorite infographic you created for a news article publication?
For THE NEW YORK TIMES:
I diagrammed Attorney General John Ashcroft’s pancreas.
I drew icons to illustrate the lingo of sanitation workers, like “disco rice,” which means maggots. (Visualize a grain of rice in a John Travolta pose on a lit-up dance floor!)
I created a chart of these beautiful microscopic crustaceans that live in NYC drinking water—crustaceans that had stirred a debate within the Orthodox Jewish community about whether or not the drinking water is kosher.
I also got a charge out of the challenges of crunching and visualizing COVID-19 data, which didn’t necessarily result in particularly creative charts, but which was fascinating and important work.
Favorite/nostalgic children’s album?
• FREE TO BE… YOU AND ME—by Marlo Thomas and Friends
• THE POINT—by Nilsson
Where might you be, if you could be “a fly on the wall” someplace?
I am fascinated by the start-to-finish processes of highly skilled creators. So, I’d love to be a fly on, say, Paul McCartney’s piano. He’d probably be too absorbed in his work to bother swatting flies, right?