Colleen McCarthy-Evans’s ‘Why Am I’
Longtime Santa Barbara Creative Discusses New Children’s Book and Seven Seas Press
By Matt Kettmann
The creative life of Colleen McCarthy-Evans runs from improv theater and charter schools to board games and, most recently, writing and illustrating children’s books.
Her latest is Why Am I, a book about big questions illustrated by Sarah Dietz of Germany. The book, which was named the “Book of the Year” by Creative Child Magazine, was published by Seven Seas Press, a three-year-old, Santa Barbara–based nonprofit that donates English and bilingual books both locally and internationally.
McCarthy-Evans tells us more below.
What’s your Santa Barbara background?
I arrived at UCSB in 1975, freshly graduated from an arts-infused theology-based girls’ school in Los Angeles. Creative collaboration, largely with women, continued as a theme in my four-plus decades of Santa Barbara life.
In the late ’70s, I performed in theater, including Santa Barbara’s first improv/comedy group Potatohead Playhouse. I transitioned into graphic design, including a stint with the talented team at Patagonia. While my husband and I were raising our young family, I cofounded the Santa Barbara Charter School with other dedicated parents and teachers (its focus: Arts, Academics, and Relationships) and served as Director of Operations.
In the early 2000s, the call to return to creative work was strong. Over the next decade, primarily in partnership with game inventor Joyce Johnson, I cocreated and licensed dozens of family-friendly board games to local and international game companies, including the million-seller In a Pickle. Then children’s books entered my life.
What are you up to today?
Now I teach yoga and work with the dream team at Seven Seas Press. As a nonprofit, we raise funds to create timely, inspiring English and bilingual books and donate them to children through organizations like Girls Inc., HeadStart, Storyteller, Boys and Girls Clubs, S.B./Goleta Libraries, and Artesanía Para La Familia; also through international organizations serving immigrant families, including several at the U.S./Mexico border. In our first three years, we’ve raised $15,000 and donated more than 800 books.
How did you get involved with children’s books?
In 2010, author Janet Lucy invited me to illustrate her book with an inspiring message for children navigating our modern world. I’d been immersing myself in watercolor technique, and as this book project would be my first, I offered to take it one painting at a time and see how it unfolded.
It was a joyful collaboration, and in 2011, The Three Sunflowers was published and went on to win multiple awards, including the Santa Barbara Beautiful Book of the Year. Ten years later, I’ve enjoyed writing and/or illustrating more award-winning children’s books, including The Little Blue Dragon, Mermaid Dreams, and now Why Am I.
Tell us about the newest book. What’s it about, and why did you decide to focus on that?
Bev Abrams, an educator who endorsed the book, says it best, “Even little kids have big questions.”
I awoke one morning with the beginnings of the poem “Why Am I” in my mind — perhaps I was wondering about my own reason for being?
I imagined different characters offering that question, “Why Am I?” to the sky, and what the sky might reply. The book guides readers on a meandering walk through a dreamy day, beginning in the dewy dawn, and ending with a dance by moonlight. Lovable characters remind us that we’re all precious, even if for the simple reason that we exist.
Illustrations are so critical to children’s books. How did you and the illustrator work together on this project?
For Why Am I, over a few months’ time, I commissioned a test illustration from several talented artists, and just hadn’t gotten the playful feeling from them that I’d hoped for and imagined for the book.
Then one lucky day while on Instagram, I came across Sarah Dietz of Leipzig, Germany, and was inspired anew by her whimsical work. Our initial conversation was promising, and I offered her my simple vision for each illustration, leaving her lots of space to bring her own spirit and magic to them. Sarah’s test illustration blew me away.
We proceeded to have a fun and effortless collaboration, 100 percent via email and during a pandemic! It was a miracle. She brought everything I had hoped for and more to the project.
What do you hope kids and perhaps even parents learn from this book?
I hope we can all be easier on ourselves and each other, and remember that just by being ourselves, we offer something of value to the world — and we are chock-full of potential in every moment!
Tell us more about the award you were given.
Creative Child Magazine is a national parenting publication, promoting children’s creativity and well-being. They sponsor an awards program for children’s products: games, toys, books, etc. Every year, over a two-day period at a convention center in Henderson, Nevada, 60 parents and educators test and evaluate the products submitted.
Why Am I received the 2021 Book of the Year Award for a Kids’ Storybook. It’s deeply gratifying when something we’ve envisioned, created, and offered the world turns out to have meaning and value to others.