Meet the Author/Illustrator: Jay Albee
Meet the Author/Illustrator: Jay Albee
Jay Albee is the pen name for an LGBTQ+ couple named Jen Breach and J. Anthony. We sat down with the people behind the name to discuss their new series, Riley Reynolds.
Congratulations on your forthcoming new series! Tell us a little about Riley Reynolds.
Riley is a nonbinary fourth grader who lives in a vibrant working-class neighborhood in South Philly. Between home, school, and the park, Riley’s world is full of family, friends, and neighbors. The books are all about community and all the pieces and people that a community is made of. Riley explores it all through keen observation and bright imagination.
Between the two of you, you’ve held jobs like archaeologist, illustrator, ticket taker, and bagel baker, but now you co-author under the name Jay Albee. Can you tell us about the process of two people writing a book together and why you decided to work together?
So much of our casual conversation has always been about art and the creative process. And since we are married, we casually converse all the time. As creators, it’s been a natural, organic, easy process to collaborate. There was never really a decision to do it, it was simply putting to work a process that was already forming.
The nuts and bolts part about how we collaborate on a Riley book? It starts as a conversation (casual, of course). Over a few days of talking, loose ideas are refined, some thrown out, some new ones brought in. We don’t get to scripting until we understand a few beats of the story, and have the “button” for the book, the moment that the story will end on.
Then, Jen takes the outline from notes to a draft manuscript; J. has an editorial role—J. has a real ear and eye for character nuance—and Jen redrafts. This goes around again until the draft is ready. “Ready” is a feeling more than anything. It’s usually when J. gets itchy to start drawing the story.
J. is solely responsible for the art, which goes through anywhere from three to half a dozen drafts, again refining with each cycle. J.’s process has changed from book to book—the hybrid of prose and comics in Riley Reynolds allows for a lot of possibilities, and J. is open to them all.
Sometimes, we redraft the text based on J.’s images—some characteristics or story details come to us once it is visualized, then we can fill in detail and fun nuance to bring seamlessness to the reading experience across prose and image.
There is so much representation in this series! Why is it important not only for children to see themselves reflected in stories but for others to be exposed to people different than them?
One of J.’s particular strengths as a creator is empathy for the childhood experience. The Riley Reynolds series has so much representation because this is what we see in our neighborhood, and what J. has been able to articulate in our creative conversations. Kids understand the diversity in the world, either as a boon or a disadvantage, and to say otherwise is a disservice to our child readers.
As a mixed-race kid, J. grew up around a lot of other mixed-race kids and was exposed to the idea of a lot of different cultural environments. That spectrum of experiences and contexts has been with them ever since. But apart from this lived experience, imagination has a big role, too. Exposure to a variety of experiences is also exposure to a variety of possibilities. It invites us to bring imagination and understanding to other people’s experiences.
One major point in each book is how creative and imaginative Riley and their friends are. What inspired this to be a constant in Riley’s personality?
For both of us, Riley is somewhat aspirational: a healthy, loved kid with an uninhibited imagination and full support. But still in a real, grounded world, with all the problems and worries of a kid. And a great way to meet those problems and worries? Creativity and imagination. Even concrete thinkers like Cricket and literal kids like Lea engage in creativity and imagination. Riley just leans way further into it, especially in play. But more than that, creativity and imagination are key to empathy. They help Riley find a place for themself in a world that might not otherwise be welcoming.
This series touches on themes of inclusion, empathy, and creative problem-solving. Why are these so important to have in books, particularly children’s books?
Kids are naturally clued into fairness and inclusion. And kids are creative. In their questions, but also—maybe especially—their answers. Like representing diversity, representing inclusion, creativity and empathy were simply reflections of our observations of real world kids.
What is one thing you hope young readers and adults take away from Riley and their story?
For us, the Riley Reynolds series is about connection, community, and possibilities. If a reader picks up one of these things, that’s great. But, the spirit of Riley is inclusion, a real invitation to “come as you are”—so whatever a reader takes from the books is welcome, especially if it’s something we couldn’t have imagined.