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Creative Inspiration: An Interview with Colleen McCarthy-Evans
by The American Speciatly Toy Retailing Association   |   April 21   |   16 Comments
Colleen McCarthy-Evans has spent much of her life exploring her creative passions as an actress, writer, graphic designer, artist, gardener, butterfly propagator, chicken wrangler, mother, and co-founder of a Charter School where she lives in Santa Barbara, California.


For the past fifteen years she’s been designing boardgames, with 35 published games and many awards to her credit. Recently she illustrated her first children’s book, The Three Sunflowers, a recipient of two Creative Child Magazine Awards. She hopes to both write and illustrate more children’s literature, and has new book projects in the works. Peaceable Kingdom just released her cooperative pre-school game, Sunny Day Pond, co-created with Joyce Johnson and winner of the Oppenheim Gold Award.

We caught up with her to ask about creativity, game designing and more.

You've designed a variety of games ranging from vocabulary builders like Story Speller, to physical challenges like Sturdy Birdy, and pattern recognition games like Guacamole.  What led you to develop games encouraging these different types of activity?

Wow, thanks for pointing that out! I’m not sure that ever occurred to me...the variety of these games. I’m a very curious person and fascinated by most things, especially humans, and particularly children. It feels like a miracle when any game gets published, and we inventors are often surprised by which one strikes the fancy of a game publisher. The influences for these three games came from three very different directions. 

With Story Speller, I was contacted by Randy Compton (creator of Thinkets, a tin of figurines and other delightful trinkets that players build stories around). He wanted me to design a card-based story-telling game for young children, and I was instantly on board. I have a background in improvisational comedy, and was tickled to imagine the wee ones improvising their original stories for their friends and families. The image of the ‘storyboard’ and color-coded/alphabetized word cards and images quickly floated into my mind. Playtesting this game with children and hearing their stories is one of the highlights of my game design career.

Sturdy Birdy was the brainchild of the amazing inventor Joyce Johnson, a dear friend with whom I’ve co-created more games than we can count, and have had 30 games we’ve co-designed published. As you know, there is a very real concern about childhood obesity in America, and we wanted to create a game that got kids up and moving. Joyce arrived at our weekly meeting toting some cards with adorable drawings she’d done of birds in different poses, a bean bag to add a balancing component to the game, and dice for the randomizing mechanism. I knew immediately it would be a  winner. We continued to develop the game, testing it in classrooms and with families in our area. Fat BrainToys picked it up right away.

Ironically, Guacamole started out as a game called Want Fries With That? The concept came to me one day when I was on the road and only had fast food options when my blood sugar started to crash. I was so grateful to get a burger, fries and a chocolate shake in me, and I almost got up to order a second round, as I was still a bit shaky. The memory of that day makes me laugh. I was inspired on the spot to make a game about my life-saving meal. It has a quirky pattern recognition, set-making gameplay that causes the brain to work in unusual ways. Come to think of it, I wonder if the low blood sugar had something to do with that! Joyce and I tested it and tweaked it a bit after that, and while it got initial interest from a few game companies, the theme was found to be, shall we say ‘unappetizing’ due to the fast food connection to obesity. So it sat on the shelf for a bit until while on a trip to Costa Rica, I found myself staring at an avocado and imagined the images in the game could be the ingredients of guacamole (avocados, tomatoes and chiles), instead of a fast food order (burgers, fries and shakes)...and Mindware loved it.

What led you to transition from game design to illustrating a children’s book?

In the summer of 2010, I went on a writing/painting retreat to Peru, where I learned watercolor technique. I fell in love with the medium, or more accurately, I became a bit obsessed. A few months later, my dear friend, the wonderful author Janet Lucy, saw one of my recent paintings: a field with butterflies and three cheerful sunflowers. She told me that she’d been working on a children’s story, coincidentally called The Three Sunflowers, and that my painting evoked the very spirit she wanted for the book. She asked if  I’d read her story and if I liked it, consider illustrating it. I was hugely surprised by this offer; I felt I was still such a beginning watercolorist! She gave me a copy of the manuscript and I fell in love with The Three Sunflowers. We agreed we would do this as a step-by-step experiment, consult on each illustration, I’d complete one at a time, and we’d see if down the road we ended up with a book.

It was a thoroughly delightful process and a year later we had a completed 32 page picture book! I also got to create the overall book design, and be an editorial collaborator due to my passion for natural history. We quickly got interest from a publisher, Publishing by the Seas, who’d published another book of Janet’s, and The Three Sunflowers was on bookshelves a couple months later in November of 2012! Oh! That story has such a happy ending, just like The Three Sunflowers!

Tell us the story behind The Three Sunflowers...inspired by a love of gardening? Something else?

The author, Janet Lucy, is also a therapist and hugely empathetic to the challenges facing children in our modern world. It was following the tragedies of September 11th, the Tsunami in Indonesia, and a devastating mudslide in our area, that the inspiration for The Three Sunflowers came to her. The story takes place in a seemingly tranquil garden, where the sunflowers are enjoying a beautiful, peaceful day. They suddenly find themselves faced with unexpected challenges including a major thunderstorm, through which Gloria, the older, wiser sunflower guides the two younger sunflowers. There are many hopeful and inspiring messages in the story, including themes of courage, trust, peace, the natural cycles of life, and supporting each other through difficult times.

April is national School Library Month. Describe your reading habits as a child -- how have they influenced your career path?

As a young child, Dr. Seuss was my favorite, hands down. He created these delightful magical worlds which he delivered to us with his unique lilt of language, images, rhythm and rhyme. He was a masterful storyteller, poet and a gentle teacher of virtues, such as kindness, compassion, and respect. Children’s literature remained my favorite genre, even into my teen years. I took a Children’s Lit class in high school as an elective...books like The Little Prince, The Wind In The Willows, The Secret Garden, are still alive in me today. Children’s books allow the imagination to run wild...it is such a liberating experience to read these treasures. I believe imagination is one of the most important qualities for humans to have and explore, and I hope to continue to investigate and nurture my own imagination through a variety of creative projects for the rest of my life.

What childhood favorite (or contemporary work) is a must-read for every kid? Why?

When I became a mother, I was ecstatic to explore the world of new literature for children...reading to my little boys was my greatest delight! Well, of course all the Seuss classics were in our home library, and we were thrilled to add The Lorax to the mix when it was published. When my sons learned to read, their favorites were The Time Warp Trio series by Jon Scieszka, and later Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, adventure tales with humor, triumph and excellent lessons learned along the way. Eventually many of our books were passed along to other families with younger children, but there were a few I couldn’t part with including: The Mushroom Man, by Ethel Pochocki, illustrated by Barry Mosher, and Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch by Eileen Spinelli, illustrated by Paul Yalowitz. They are tender tales of friendship and the importance of connection. The illustrations in these books are unique and both are exquisite. I studied them carefully before I embarked on illustrating The Three Sunflowers, and they were tremendous inspiration for me. Oh! And of course my ‘must-read’ list includes The Three Sunflowers!

Thank you so much for asking for my thoughts. It has been a joy to ponder these questions and reply!

Colleen is working on a top secret game to promote world peace, and a bilingual version of The Three Sunflowers is on deck, coming to a classroom or living room near you soon. To learn more about Colleen’s games, The Three Sunflowers, and other creative projects, visit her website: http://colleenmccarthyevans.wordpress.com/


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Colleen McCarthy-Evans  |  April 21
Thank you so much for inviting me to participate in the WooHoo Factor! You guys asked the coolest questions!
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Colleen McCarthy-Evans  |  April 21
Thank you so much for inviting me to participate in the WooHoo Factor! You guys asked the coolest questions!
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