Some people might call that an overnight success, but Wheeler, a 2006 University of Wisconsin-Stout graduate, would reply that the seeds for her first book were planted as a child, nourished with inspiring teachers and bloomed after years of hard work.
Still, she was as surprised as any first-time author might be to see her work reaching the No. 10 slot April 28 on the Times’ list for picture books.
“It’s really exciting for a brand new author,” Wheeler said in a telephone interview from her home in Los Angeles. “At the most I pictured that my friends and family would buy this.”
What stands out about Wheeler is that she didn’t just write the 32-page book, published by Nancy Paulsen/Penguin Books of New York. She also was the illustrator.
She’s an illustrator by trade, having majored in art with a graphic design concentration, and happens to be talented enough to also write her own books. “Through illustration I realized I had stories I wanted to tell,” Wheeler said.
“Miss Maple’s Seeds” is about Miss Maple, a tiny woman who lives in a cozy maple tree house, gathers orphan seeds and raises them. Miss Maple imbues the seeds with motherly knowledge before letting them loose into the big world.
Publisher’s Weekly praised Wheeler’s work. “Confident artistry and an intuitive knowledge of what the world looks like to a very small person make a winning combination in Wheeler’s debut. Wheeler has clearly had a good time inventing fairy-house fixtures for Miss Maple: flower lantern boats and hollow-log houses make one yearn to escape our big, unwieldy world and inhabit hers.”
Wheeler’s story is an allegory for parents and teachers, who also must send their progeny and protégés into the world.
“They’re the caretakers. That’s the role they have to go through, and there’s the attachment they have to children and students. At some point they have to let go,” Wheeler said.
Dedicated to her teachers
Wheeler could be one of Miss Maple’s seeds. She dedicates the book to five art teachers, the first of which was her father, Gary Swanson, at Solon Springs Elementary in northern Wisconsin. Another art teacher, at Solon Springs High School, was Dave Zosel, a UW-Stout alumnus. Two others were professors at UW-Stout, Charles Matson Lume and Amy Fichter.
Lume isn’t surprised by his former student’s success.
“As I recall, Eliza was remarkably talented in drawing. But talent will only take one so far. She had a will to succeed that manifested itself in self-imposed high standards and a strong work ethic,” Lume said.
“Her fellow students often worked harder because she set the standard so high for the class. Over time, I saw in her a growing sense of self-confidence in her skills and her ideas. She was unafraid of risks and frequently sought ways to challenge her own ways of thinking. Needless to say, Eliza was a delight to work with, and it’s not surprising to see that she has found success in so many ways,” Lume added.
Wheeler, who fell in love with drawing as a child, said she comes from a family of teachers, including grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Her mother, Jean Swanson, was her elementary and high school music teacher.
“The whole story came together through different inspirations in my life. My grandmother was a gardener. The idea of this woman shepherding seeds and caring for seeds came through this influence,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler admits that her heart was in drawing, or studio art, but decided to focus on graphic design at UW-Stout because she and her parents thought it offered more job opportunities. Still, she learned plenty about drawing in her art and design foundation classes.
“We were required to take a lot of painting and drawing courses, and those were the ones I loved the most. That’s where the passion was. Even though I wasn’t an illustration major, I still got a lot of what I needed. There are cross-over skills that I’ve been able to incorporate into my illustration work,” Wheeler said.
She first met her future husband, Adam Wheeler, in an art class at UW-Stout. They both worked at the University Library part time, and Eliza also worked as a student graphic designer for a campus office.
After they graduated in 2006, they moved to Los Angeles in 2007 to help further Adam’s career in multimedia and film. Adam, a Ladysmith native, also has done music videos for the Eau Claire-based band The Daredevil Christopher Wright.
Eliza credits Adam with helping push her to be better and providing valuable artistic feedback, calling him her “creative partner.”
Eliza’s career took off after she began attending Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators international conferences in Los Angeles. She won SCBWI awards in 2009, 2010 and 2011 and began making key professional contacts.
One of the awards was for a mentorship with Cecilia Yung, art director for Penguin. Yung was impressed with Eliza’s skills and work and invited Eliza to submit book ideas. Her first proposal was for “Miss Maple’s Seeds,” which editor Nancy Paulsen loved.
The process from book inception to publication took two years, with “Miss Maple’s Seeds” coming out April 4. Eliza created 28 full-color, richly detailed drawings for the book.
Eliza did the initial work on “Miss Maple’s Seeds” while back home in northern Wisconsin for a few months house-sitting for family friends. No seeds were flying — it was midwinter — but she used the experience of being holed up in the snowdrifts as a writing retreat, she said.
She already has a contract for a second book with Nancy Paulsen/Penguin.
Since 2011 Eliza, who has an agent, also has worked full time as an independent illustrator. Her work will grace the cover of a middle grade novel, “Doll Bones,” by Holly Black, another New York Times best-selling author.
“Doll Bones,” from Simon & Schuster, is scheduled for release in early May. It includes 12 chapter drawings by Eliza.