Misha Maynerick Blaise is a Croatian American, born in Canada, raised in the Colorado Rockies, and now calls Austin, Texas home. She’s the author-illustrator of several books, including My Wondrous Cloud Odyssey, and This is Texas, Y’all!. Her most recent book, This Phenomenal Life, has been translated into 5 languages.
We spoke to Misha about her creative process, her love of the natural world, and what she’s working on now.
You live in Austin, Literati’s hometown! You’ve written a book about Texas (This is Texas, Y’all!: The Lone Star State from A to Z) so we know you’re a fan: How does the place you live influence your work or your working life?
Well, living in Austin certainly came in handy while writing a book about Texas! In general, I love that this city is filled with artists, music, green spaces, and that it is warm for most of the year. I have a thing with sunshine; I find it very difficult to get in the creative flow when it is chronically dark, cold, and gloomy outside. Also I get cold very easily, which makes me feel like my body and psyche are just shutting down. There is nothing like a walk on a beautiful green Austin trail on a warm Spring day to get me into a positive, creative space.
What is your creative process like, and how do you go about illustrating your books?
I first write a manuscript, which tends to take a while when writing non-fiction. There is a ton of research, and then the whole process of curating the most interesting information and somehow organizing it into an overall narrative. Once the manuscript is set, I begin illustrating. I paint by hand using gouache on paper. I then scan my drawings into the computer and finish them digitally in Photoshop; I tend to collage a lot of individual drawings together on one page. This is done either on my back porch or at my dining table while drinking black tea and listening to some fresh tracks.
You’re incredibly passionate about environmental issues facing us today and the way we can more consciously care for our planet and one another. How do you recommend parents talk about these topics with young children?
The most incredible part of this current era is that we can scientifically prove that we are one human family —literally all of humanity is related as distant cousins—and that we share one planetary homeland. I think this is the information to focus on when working with kids. Rather than just focusing on a set of rules (be sure to recycle, bring a reusable bottle etc.) we should nurture a deep understanding of our interconnection with the universe. From this authentic understanding, new patterns of living will emerge naturally, and quite possibly our kids will grow into adults who spur on radical change.
I definitely believe that environmental exploitation is rooted in a crisis of worldviews. We absolutely must move away from a conceptual framework that says we humans are outside of the environment and can take from it without regard to larger consequences. We must learn to see ourselves as stewards of the environment who co-exist with every created thing.
I believe that it’s important to also reframe the environmental crisis as being part of greater human rights issues. Environmental pollution harms people in communities. The worldview that deems nature as ours to exploit is the same worldview that sees some communities as less important and therefore disposable. If we all deeply cared about the conditions of our brothers and sisters worldwide, it would inform our lifestyle habits and public policy, and many environmental issues would find quick resolutions. For this reason, I think it’s important to nourish a sense of global citizenship in children, and that they learn to care for people outside of their own family and friends.
What’s one thing you wish everyone knew about the natural world?
The message I’m trying to put forth in This Phenomenal Life is that nature is not something “out there” that you can only see when you go camping, but rather we are at one with the natural world at all times. Our bodies are literally made from elements that exploded out of stars, and we share this elemental heritage with everything else on Earth (and in the universe!). We don’t exist in isolation, but rather through relationship with all life on Earth. Every part of the ecosystem is balanced in a way that sustains our own lives.
Along with thinking of nature as being “out there,” we often learn to think of nature as somehow lifeless or purely material. An interesting shift in that narrative is to view all the things that the Earth does to sustain us as acts of love. The nourishment the sun shines down on our planet daily, the way that light and water join with a seed in the soil to grow the food we eat; what if we interpreted these things an expression of cosmic caring? What happens when we not only feel love for the environment, but we perceive that it loves us back?
Were you a reader when you were young? What books were you most drawn to?
One book I had as a child that I’m still obsessed with is called If You Are Afraid of the Dark, Remember the Night Rainbow, by Cooper Edens. As reflected in the title, it’s a collection of imaginative ways to reframe childhood (or adult!) concerns and fears. The surreal, poetic style of writing merges with beautiful illustrations to invoke a sense of whimsy and creativity.
What can you tell us about your current/next project?
My next book, Crazy for Birds, comes out in March 2020 from Penguin. It’s a blend of art and science and explores the incredible diversity of the avian world. Birds are insane! I filled the book with unbelievable factoids about bird life, and as you can imagine, it was great fun to illustrate some of the incredibly eccentric bird species out there. And of course, I also focused on how we are interconnected with birds!