We love getting to know parents in our community. In our Home Work series, we ask moms and dads how they juggle their work while raising kids, hoping to get some insight on how to better balance our own work/playtime while being introduced to our neighbors and their cool businesses. Today we meet Anika and Christopher Denise, husband and wife team who write and illustrate children’s books. They work from home (Anika’s office is in the house and Chris converted their garage into an artist’s studio) and have two children: Sofia age 8, Isabel age 6, and one on the way.
Their newest book “Bella And Stella Come Home” hits stores on November 24th. Celebrate the release of their new picture book at Barrington Books on Saturday, November 27 from 1 – 4pm. Meet the author and illustrator. Go “behind the book” with early sketches and character studies to learn how a picture book is created.
Kidoinfo: What inspired you to start your business?
(Anika): Well, our business is kind of unique in that we each have our own projects, but we also work as a team on picture books. Before we officially began doing books together, I helped Chris with PR and book promotion. After our first daughter was born and I was home, Chris encouraged me to submit manuscripts to his publisher, and fortunately they were accepted. We realized that doing books together allows us more creative control, and makes sense financially, because we earn both sides of a book advance and royalties. (And it’s fun!)
Kidoinfo: How did you start your business?
(Chris): I’ve worked as an independent artist all of my career. Anika came from the more corporate side of things, and it wasn’t until we had kids that she considered perhaps she could make a living as an author and freelance writer. I lured her over to the self-employed side.
Kidoinfo: How do you balance work and family?
(Anika): I’m not sure it’s ever in perfect balance. Sometimes when Chris and I are on deadline, we have to put in long hours and the scales tip toward work; but on the flip side, we have a great deal of flexibility and freedom. We can go for impromptu bike ride or beach walk after the kids get home from school; we can take a long weekend and travel; we can be right there if one of our kids has a rough day. All that makes up for the busy, hectic times. It’s more of an imperfect balance–but it works for us.
(Chris): We try to be flexible day to day; when Anika’s on a writing deadline, then I’m “soccer dad,” carting kids around, making dinner. And if I’m swamped, she does the same. We do try and have meals together most every night; it’s important–even if the meal is grilled cheese and tomato soup, we sit down together. The great thing about having a studio right out my back door is I can put the kids to bed and then go back to work for a couple of hours if need be.
Kidoinfo: Please describe a typical day.
(Anika): Alarm rings at 6am–not mine, Chris’–I tend to stay bed at the last possible minute, and he’s up making coffee and putting out cereal bowls.
(Chris): I like the quiet before the storm.
(Anika): Then it’s showers, getting the kids dressed, fed an onto the bus by 7:30. Chris and I take a few minutes to go over who’s doing what that day; if there are after school activities, we divide and conquer depending on our work schedules. After that, Chris does what we call “the long commute” (10 steps away) to the studio, and I go to my office. Then we each do our own thing for several hours. Our paths will cross throughout the day, but our work time is typically independent and our own. If we need to work on something together, we make sure to schedule it in, just like you would with anything. It’s important to respect each other’s space and time, even though we’re both home.
Kidoinfo: Do you have any time-saving tricks that you could share?
(Chris): Set the coffee maker the night before.
(Anika): Mornings are hectic, our kids are not quite at the age where they can get themselves ready and out the door so it feels a little bit like herding sheep. We’re not 100% with these tactics, but we do try to make lunches, lay out clothes, and pack backpacks the night before when possible.
(Chris): From a work productivity standpoint, I don’t keep email open all day. I check at various points throughout the day, but when I’m painting, I try to keep the distractions at a minimum.
(Anika): I never turn off email! I get email nine different ways all day long, but I find I can shift focus and go back again without much trouble. (His way is probably better though!)
Kidoinfo: If you could give your past self (pre-kids or pre-business) any advice, what would it be?
(Chris): Wow. I’d probably tell myself: What are you complaining about!? DO YOU REALIZE HOW MUCH FREE TIME YOU HAVE? Now get to the gym!
(Anika): I would say: Spend less, and save more! But I would also say: Take a trip…travel! My current self would be very contradictory and confusing to my past self. I think we learn as we experience, and the best we can hope to do is make the right choices for right now, and live in the present as much as possible.
Kidoinfo: Where do you find inspiration?
(Chris): I’ve always been interested in art history. Whenever I was beginning a project I would wander around the public library just browsing through the art books. These days much of the browsing is done online. The collections that are available are amazing. I also love films. Kids films and grown up ones as well. Visual story telling in any medium fascinates me.
(Anika): My daughters; my husband’s artwork. Great dialogue inspires me. I’m fascinated with novelists, screenwriters and playwrights who can write a scene that is so authentic and powerful, you think about it for days afterward. Being in a children’s section at a bookstore inspires me. Hearing my favorite books read aloud.
Kidoinfo: What is the one kid or parent product that you could not live without?
(Anika and Chris): My iPhone.
Kidoinfo: What is your favorite children’s book or music CD?
(Chris): An appropriate, but loaded question…
(Anika): “Where The Wild Things Are” was my favorite children’s book growing up. A contemporary favorite would be: “Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus.” Mo Willems is a genius. He just gets kids.
(Chris): My favorites change and there are so many amazing books! I love different books for different reasons. I love the read aloud language in the classic “Caps For Sale” by Esphyr Slobodkina. I love the mood and the pacing of “Dawn” by Uri Schulevitz. I love the character owl from “Owl at Home” by Arnold Lobel.
Kidoinfo: What do you do with your kids on a rainy day?
(Anika): No surprise, we’re a reading family. Staying snuggled up with books is a big rainy day activity for us.
(Chris): Drawing, Candyland, Zingo. The RISD Art Museum. Going to the movies is a favorite. I also work as a character designer for feature animation and the kids give me the excuse I need to see all the latest animated films.
Kidoinfo: What is the last great non-kid book or film that you loved? What made it so great?
(Anika): “The Help,” by Kathryn Stockett was a recent favorite. Her characters were so vivid. Talk about exquisite dialogue! I was completely transported.
(Chris): “Kafka by the Shore,” by Haruki Murakami. Masterful writing. A great blend of realism and surrealism. Incredibly touching and poignant. Film: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
Kidoinfo: Do you have a guilty pleasure?
(Anika): Red wine and strong coffee, but I rarely feel guilty about either. Oh, and Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” novels. They were initially released in the “romance” category but they’re really more a blend of historical and sci-fi fiction. The storylines are epic, with great characters, and I love books involving time travel.
(Chris): Guilt, in this regard, is overrated. I do take a strange pleasure in traveling but not in the ways you might expect. Not by car and not even to exotic places. I really love trains and planes. I think it’s the unstructured time and then the arrival. You are somewhere else but without all the demands of your normal life that seem so important-you are just there, experiencing the place in real time. Feels like waking up.
Kidoinfo: If you had an extra hour each day, what would you do with it?
(Anika): Sleep. There’s certainly a better, more “pc” answer to that question, but since we’re having another baby–my unequivocal answer is sleep.
(Chris): Sleep, so that I could read for another hour before I fell asleep the following night.
Kidoinfo: Can you share a story or anecdote that is symbolic of your dual life as a business owner and a mother/father?
(Anika): I recently paid my daughter $5 dollars to stay very quiet while I was interviewing another author for an article.
(Chris): I have an area set up in my studio for the girls to come sit and do homework or draw while I work when they get home from school.
Kidoinfo: How has the experience and on the job training of being a mom/dad prepared or changed you in business?
(Anika): Being a parent and writing children’s books is a natural fit. Having kids helps us write authentically for them, and gives us a wealth of inspiration to draw from. Oddly though, occasionally things happen in reverse. My next manuscript is about being the middle child, and I wrote and pitched it before we knew we were having a third baby. It was a true case of life imitating art.
(Chris): That does happen a lot. I’ve painted something, a tree for instance, and we end up moving somewhere with a tree just like it in the front yard. And then of course, our kids and friends end up in our books. (Usually as mice or hedgehogs, though.) I have definitely taken a greater interest in the “nuts and bolts mechanics” of books for younger readers. Clear communication through the illustrations has always been important but there’s more to it. I think that spending hours reading to the girls has taught me a great deal about what does and what does not work in picture books.
Kidoinfo: What is next for you and your business?
(Anika): Our new book, Bella and Stella Come Home releases on November 24th, so we’re looking forward to doing signings and events to promote it.
(Chris): I just completed the art for a young reader chapter book, and I’m moving into production on our next book: The Best Part Of Middle.
(Anika): And our next great collaboration is due in March.
(Chris): What was that one again? (I’m kidding.)
(Anika): New babies are very inspiring!
Photo of family by Laliberte Photography.