If based upon children's books alone, New Orleans is truly a special place for Lil' Yats to enjoy their significant childhood years. And with the Lil’ Yat’s Adventure Books - kids can escape into all kinds of quests - ranging from Mardi Gras to pirate ships, even fun with dinosaurs!
Rhonda Johnson Valladares and Kurt Johnson grew up in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans like many other children, where they would visit Audubon and City Parks with their three other siblings, and bask in the joy of Monkey Hill, the Zoo, and Storyland - magical places just full of wide-eyed wonder. And those precious moments left quite an impression on this sister/brother team that have artfully worked their way into their adult lives and created all new magic for the Lil' Yats of today.
She began collaborating with her brother, artist Kurt Johnson, after he retired from the U. S. Navy, and there was instant magic flowing from the collaboration fusing her words with his drawings - suddenly, the Lil Yats were born. Now, with a catalog simply bursting with exciting story and coloring books, children won't be running out of fun New Orleans reading material any time soon!
Rhonda Johnson Valladares took some time out of her busy schedule to talk with us about writing, New Orleans, and all things in Yat-Ville...
Examiner.com: When you and your brother were younger, what kinds of things did you each create with your chosen art forms?
Rhonda Johnson Valladares: I was not born with the gift of writing, but it was always something that fascinated me. I never really wrote stories...it was mostly poetry, diaries and limited journal entries. I did, however, write a short play back in late grammar school that several neighborhood friends and I acted out (in full costume) in the backyard of our house in Uptown New Orleans. It was a New Orleans-based mystery and was attended by my family, several friends and our cat (though she was more interested in watching the birds in the trees rather than the play itself). [laughs]
My brother Kurt, on the other hand, has always known how to draw (no schooling or training needed). He could just put pen to paper and out would come a very detailed drawing of whatever was on his mind at the time (usually cartoon or even real-life characters and many local sceneries).
A working relationship was really not discussed between him and me. My writings and his drawings were pretty much just hobbies that he and I pursued for our own enjoyment.
Examiner.com: As adults, you worked in management and your brother was in the military. What exactly happened after he retired from the military that led to the Lil’ Yats?
Rhonda Johnson Valladares: I had been living in Covington for a few years when Kurt moved back to the New Orleans metro area (Mandeville) after retiring from the Navy. He settled into a job, but was uncertain of the direction that life would take him. Meanwhile, I had never forgotten how writing fulfilled me and I still wanted to somehow pursue it further. I approached him with my ideas to write the Lil’ Yat’s Adventure Book series and asked him if he would be my illustrator. As his sister, I already had a personal connection to his drawing ability and I believed the combination of our talents would bring my vision of writing children’s books to life.
Examiner.com: Do you still work in management or are you a full-time Lil’ Yat-er these days?
Rhonda Johnson Valladares: I had been a full-time Lil Yat-er promoting the Lil’ Yat’s Adventure Books since the release of my first book in 2010 until September 2013. It was at that time that my books were picked up by Kids’ Korner in Slidell. Ironically, the owner of Kids’ Korner somehow also recruited me into a part-time management position at the store (two days per week).
Examiner.com: New Orleans itself is so inspiring, and you've worked so many wonderful animals and nature into your books as well. What is your personal creative process for the Lil’ Yat books?
Rhonda Johnson Valladares: I wanted my books to be locally-themed since I am a native New Orleanian and enjoy seeing the culture in print and pictures. This can be seen in my characters (crawfish, alligator, pelican and frog), traditional story lines (Mardi Gras) and locations (City Park) as well as the name of my company (Lil’ Yat’s Adventure Books/Yat’s Unlimited).
My creative process is to come up with new ideas for each book and present it to Kurt so that he can draw what I have pictured in my head and what I may have already written down. It’s easy to revert (in this process) to fun times we had growing up and visiting many of the different places throughout New Orleans, so we both kind of know what the other is thinking and it just almost seamlessly blends together.
Examiner.com: You do a lot of book signings and personal appearances with the books. I can imagine that it’s very gratifying meeting the children who love your stories...
Rhonda Johnson Valladares: It is very satisfying to see the happy faces of both kids and adults when they show up at one of my book signings or readings. Not only do I get to talk to them and sign their books for them, but they also get to meet and greet my main two characters in person: Lil’ Yat the crawfish (it’s my illustrator Kurt decked out in full costume) and Drexel the alligator. By having these characters appear in person with me, I want to bring the stories and places in the books to life so that the kids can see themselves in all of it and will hopefully get an even greater enjoyment out of their reading experience.
Examiner.com: I’m sure you have lots of ideas for future Yats books! Do you have any goals in mind – different products or additional types of books, etc?
Rhonda Johnson Valladares: Yes, I will be releasing both Book #9 and its matching coloring book soon (hopefully by early October 2014). It will be my first hardback book and I’m very excited about it! Also making its debut soon will be my line of stuffed toys based on my books’ two main characters: Lil’ Yat will be decked out in his superhero crawfish costume while Drexel will be donning his Mardi Gras outfit. While it has taken some time to find a manufacturer in the U.S. (I definitely wanted them made in the USA), I know it’ll be well worth the wait as each toy will be a hand-made, Lil’ Yat’s original design.
In addition to the story books and the upcoming stuffed toys, I also have matching coloring books for most of my titles (available on my website as well as at several local retailers where my books are sold). Finally, I have a line of “WE ALL DAT” T-shirts (only available at selected stores… please see my website for store names and locations) and original paintings by Kurt Johnson (my illustrator) --- all with a local flavor.
Rhonda Johnson Valladares: You grew up in Uptown New Orleans…what was life like for you as a child?
I loved growing up in Uptown. It was very residential where we lived so there was always access to other kids for playtime. But we also lived within walking distance of three grammar schools and a lot of local stores such as corner sweet shops and clothing/specialty stores and even nationally-known stores such as Woolworth. The street that many of these stores were on (Magazine Street) is now very well-known even outside of New Orleans.
We were also a very short driving distance from Audubon Park, which back then was a wide-open field of trees to climb and grass to run on. In the midst of all that was a kid favorite (Monkey Hill) which provided a very fun riding course for our Big Wheels and bikes. Even admission to the zoo was free back then. There were amusement rides including the train that started near what was then the entrance to the zoo (by the sundial and concession stand) and took you through almost the entire southern half of the park (between Magazine Street and the Mississippi River).
It was all just a very fun time and place to be a kid and is also where I draw a lot of my thoughts, ideas and feelings when writing the Lil’ Yat’s Adventure Books.
Examiner.com: Were you living in New Orleans during Katrina?
Rhonda Johnson Valladares: I had been living in Covington for exactly six years (since August 1999) when Katrina hit (August 2005). Yes, we stayed home during the storm…WOW! Although we did not get flooded, the pine trees all around the house were falling like dominoes. One hit the corner of my house and damaged the framing…thankfully, it did not cause the roof to leak. Another tree crashed down on the double swing in front of the house and completely destroyed it while another tree caused minor damage to my dad’s car (it just missed, literally by several inches, from completely crushing it). We were without power for about a month or so (thankfully we did have a generator), but we also had to venture out almost every day and go as far as Denham Springs searching for gas, food (which we cooked on an outdoor grill), prescriptions and a place to do laundry. The whole yard around the house (one acre) also needed to be cleared of all the debris. We agreed NOT to stay for such a big storm ever again (we went to Knoxville, TN for Gustav). Communications were also down and made for some early stress: my sister had evacuated to Houston with her family and one of my brothers lives in Pennsylvania. Neither one of them could reach us during the first two days after the storm and all they saw on TV was how the whole city was under water. But through it all --- even with so much that could have easily brought us down --- our spirits were always up.
Examiner.com: What is New Orleans to Rhonda Johnson Valladares?
Rhonda Johnson Valladares: Born and raised in New Orleans, it’s just always been home to me. I lived most of my life in Uptown and only moved out of the city limits (to Covington) in August 1999 where I’ve lived since then. Even though things have changed a lot in the city (before and after Katrina), I still have very fond memories of growing up there. Although the times and some of the places in my books are current/present-day, it’s those memories of growing up in Uptown that I get the inspirations for writing the books. I’m not only trying to convey a fun time for kids in the city today, but I’m also trying to show (through the words and pictures in each book) how fun it was for me to grow up here.
Examiner.com: Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers – about Lil’ Yat or otherwise?
Rhonda Johnson Valladares: I’d like to thank all those who've enjoyed reading Lil’ Yat’s Adventure Books. It’s been a real pleasure to meet everyone that has come out to see me and the characters in person and to get their books signed. Please continue to follow Lil’ Yat on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Linkedin, or visit our website at www.LilYat.com to see all the latest postings of upcoming dates, times and places for book signings and personal character appearances as well as to see all the stores and locations where Lil’ Yat’s Adventure Books are sold.
You can also visit one of four Barnes & Noble stores (Mandeville, Metairie and two locations in Baton Rouge) and pick up your signed copies of Lil’ Yat’s Adventure Books or even just go online at BN.com to place your orders. If you’d like to attend a signing at a Barnes & Noble store, then just go to their website at BN.com and click on “Stores & Events” to see when the next appearance by Lil’ Yat will be.
To all the kids… HAPPY ADVENTURES! HAPPY READING!
To all the local bloggers who helped spread the word about Lil’ Yat’s Adventure Books… THANK YOU FOR ALL YOUR SUPPORT!
To everyone…REMEMBER TO ALWAYS “SHOP LOCAL!”