Jenifer Tull-Gauger and her husband, Kirk Gauger, run East Valley Martial Arts in Mesa, Arizona. Tull-Gauger has also been writing and drawing since childhood. Her most recent book, The Two True Karate Kids: A Dojo Kun Character Book on Battling Dishonesty, was released December 1, 2019. I met Jenifer through folk dancing, and reconnected with her in November at the Tempe Book Festival. I’m thrilled that she consented to be interviewed for ARHtistic License.
ARHtistic License: Have you always lived in Arizona? What are the pros and cons of living in a desert area?
Jenifer Tull-Gauger: I grew up in southern California and our young family moved to Arizona over 22 years ago. Arizona has provided opportunities that California couldn’t. We love the people here, and are so happy to be here now. A huge perk is the weather most months out of the year. And for me, a huge drawback is gardening in an arid climate. I don’t like working with cactus, so I must contend with big water bills.
AL: You and your husband have been practicing karate for twenty years. How do children benefit from karate training?
JTG: Karate is great for people of all ages, but children especially stand to benefit from karate training because it helps them form values, inner strength and the knowledge of their power, in their formative years. For our children, we have seen improvements in self-confidence, self-defense, respect, and character-building in addition to the fitness it provides.
AL: I know a dojo is a karate school, but what is dojo kun?
JTG: A kun is an oath, so the dojo kun is the oath of a traditional karate school. Our Dojo Kun lists our most important rules and values that we uphold. Each student is expected to work on using them in daily life – both in and outside of our classes. For me as an instructor, I teach people how to fight or harm others for self defense, and these rules teach them how not to fight, or at least how to have a moral code for the use of force. Our Dojo Kun is the traditional one created by Shungo “Tode” Sakugawa around 200 years ago. It is translated as: 1) Strive for a good moral character. 2) Keep an honest and sincere way. 3) Cultivate perseverance or a will for striving. 4) Develop a respectful attitude. 5) Restrain my physical abilities through spiritual attainment.
AL: You’ve been drawing since you were a child. What sort of art training have you had? What advice do you have for budding artists?
JTG: I took as many art classes as I could in junior high and high school. Other than that, I have practiced a lot on my own, including learning Sumi-e, Japanese brush painting, from a book. That was fun. My advice for budding artists is to just do it! Practice with different styles and media. Sketch as much as you can (or would like to) and regularly. Youtube is also a great source for techniques, ideas and inspiration.
AL: How is illustrating a book different from drawing pictures? What did you have to keep in mind as you created your accompanying illustrations?
JTG: For me, the biggest difference (and thorn in my side) in illustrating a book is the editing process. In fine art, I create a piece and when it’s done, it’s done. In illustration, I receive feedback from my art editors and then make revisions to make sure the pictures are supporting the story I want to tell. With book illustration, there is also the use of left-to-right action and awareness of where the eye is led in order to encourage the turning of the page.
AL: Do you draw your illustrations by hand, or do you use graphic software? Tell us about your process.
JTG: I use a mostly traditional process, but with the help and support of technology. My process for the Dojo Kun Character book series is to do a rough layout sketch or book dummy, then create real-size pencil sketches. After input from my art editors, I go over the outlines in black ink. All of that is done by hand. Then I scan the line art into digital files, print it all out, and fill in the colors by hand with brush pens. After another round of editing thanks to other artists’ eyes, I’ll make additional edits. Then I layout the pictures and text in Microsoft Publisher before consideration of final adjustments. If images need more digital manipulation than Publisher allows (such as removing backgrounds or parts of pictures), I’ll use GIMP.
AL: How do you find time to write and work on illustrations?
JTG: It is tricky finding the time to do both. This tripped me up for years. Then I implemented two things that help me make this doable. One is prioritizing. I have one project at the top of my list that I work on regularly. I put most of my focus and energy into that project. (I’ll put things of secondary importance in my to-do list where I anticipate having a break in my primary project, such as when waiting on input from editors or “beta-readers.”) The second is I commit to working on my books daily, even if it’s only for a short block of time. And when my day allows, I spend more time. Using a to-do list helps. As did figuring out which one series of books I want to work on at this point and having one area of focus. It is true that my other stories, my poetry, and my personal journal writing are on the back burner as I’m focusing on my karate picture books at this time. But it’s worth it to see the progress of these Dojo Kun Character Books as they come into being.
AL: You’re a member of SCBWI and you have critique partners. How did that help you on your journey to publication?
JTG: Both of these have helped me immensely. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators has helped with my professional development and with teaching me the nuts and bolts of the trade. Through them, I’ve also met people who have helped guide me on my path to publication. I have found a lot of moral support and help in both the SCBWI and my critique partners. Plus, it’s awesome and inspiring just to be around other creative types. Additionally, it is invaluable how good critique partners can help you “see” the writing and illustrations through other people’s eyes or from other perspectives.
AL: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
JTG: I’m a mix of both, and depending on the story, I may lean more toward plotting it out beforehand, or flying by the seat of my pants and making it up as I go along. I actually enjoy both. When left to my own devices, I will usually have a solid idea plotted out in my head of what I’m going to write. But I try to stay open to inspiration and go with the flow of creativity while writing. I did a longer work, a children’s chapter book for NANOWRIMO a couple years ago, and was amazed and delighted at how some parts of the story took twists and turns that I hadn’t expected when plotting it out. There were times that I was writing my characters into trouble and had no idea how they were going to get out of it.
AL: What was the most difficult part of writing your books? What is the most fun part of writing your books?
JTG: The most difficult part of writing my first book was the uncertainty of what to do with the story and when to do it. I actually had the idea and wrote the first draft years ago. After I took it to my writer’s support group for feedback, it sat, going nowhere, for years. (That is the purgatory where most of my stories and poems sit.) The most fun part of writing and illustrating my book is just overall the adventure of it all. Some of the high points of the adventure are getting lost in the creative process, and learning of new (or previously unknown) helpful resources such as the Biteable app which eases the process of book trailer creation. I enjoy meeting new people at writers’ events or even on social media. It’s fun to encourage other writers and artists to find that spark within them and follow where it leads. And I love bringing my art and writing to the table in karate training, as well as bringing the most important lessons of traditional karate out into the world to help children, even those who may not train, improve their lives for now and for their futures.
AL: What types of books do you like to read? Which authors do you admire?
JTG: I like to read all types of children’s books. It’s important to keep up with the industry. I admire Tomie dePaola for continuing to support and encourage younger writer-illustrators in the SCBWI even though he doesn’t need to. And I admire many authors I have met who have helped and encouraged me, including Pat Curren who once won a Tomie dePaola DVD on the craft of picture books and gave it to me because she writes for teens. As far as my personal reading, I’m open to trying out any book from any author, but I will put it down if it doesn’t hook me within two pages. Dean Koontz is my favorite author to read.
AL: What is your favorite book about writing?
JTG: There are so many great books about writing! I would have to say my favorite is Natalie Goldberg’ Writing Down the Bones. It contains so much great advice and sharing of knowledge and writing experience. I also really like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, which inspired me to get to know her better through her writing.
AL: Your book The Can-Do Karate Kid: A Dojo Kun Character Book on Defeating Laziness & Procrastination came out in May 2019, its companion coloring book came out in November 2019, and The Two True Karate Kids: A Dojo Kun Character Book on Battling Dishonesty came out in December 2019. What’s next?
JTG: My third Dojo Kun Character Book, about wrestling with quitting, is at the top of my writing and illustrating priority list. I’m also working on a companion coloring book to go along with the second book in the series. These will be released in the first half of 2020. And I’m looking forward to my book launch party for The Two True Karate Kids on February 15th, 2020. It will include a Karate with Your Dog Class!
AL: Do you have a funny story about any of your books or about the writing process?
JTG: Maybe not really laugh-out-loud funny for most people. But I enjoy a dry sense of humor, and I find many of the “little things” in life hilarious. My picture book adventure has so many little funny things like that. Such as a five-year-old calling both the snail and slug monster in my first book “snails” (he’s from Arizona). Or his mom giving Procrastination (the snail monster) a voice, “Don’t do it now, you can do it later.” Or the response from a teen “beta reader” when she saw that I made the adult female karate teacher bald. (She was not on board with this idea.) I got to see her face as I was there in person: priceless.
AL: What is something about your books or about yourself that you wish your readers knew?
JTG: Hmm, I feel like I put all of these things out there in my weekly writer-illustrator and karate blogs. So this is a tricky question for me. But there is one thing that I may not get out there enough. I wish that all adults with elementary school aged kids in their lives knew I aim to make my books educational yet fun, character-building conversation starters with enough weirdness to make kids want to talk about them (and a can-do attitude, honesty, perseverance, etc.).
To learn more about Jenifer Tull-Gauger, check out her author website. And if you’ll be near Mesa, Arizona on February 15, you’re invited to the launch party for The Two True Karate Kids. Since the plot includes karate and the adoption of a dog, the book’s publication will be celebrated with a karate class that’s going to the dogs. The party will take place 9:45 a.m.—11:30 a.m. on Saturday February 15, 2020, outside East Valley Martial Arts, 1829 S. Horne, Suite 8, in Mesa. It will include book signings, a book reading, pictures with your dog and the author, and a Karate with your Dog Class. Participants in the class are invited to bring their dogs to go alongside them through a martial arts influenced obstacle course. Donations will be accepted for the Arizona Humane Society. Sounds like lots of fun, doesn’t it?