Category Archives: Children’s Book Critique Group

Wings

Birds placemat

“Birds have wings; they’re free; they can fly where they want when they want. They have the kind of mobility many people envy.” – Roger Tory Peterson

I must be one of those people to whom the famed naturalist was alluding. I find that things with wings, especially bird wings, have a special attraction. Real birds fascinate me. How they have evolved, the way they communicate, their behavior. And of course, how they move. This attraction extends to other winged creatures as well – angels, putti, mythological characters. Anything with wings on it seems imbued with magic.

Cherubs-Neopolitan-mid 18th c

Have you watched the PortlandiaPut A Bird On It” skit? Now, I enjoy the humor in that show as only a true urban Northwesterner can, but since that episode aired, I can no longer indulge my bird love without a twinge of shame. Damn them. Don’t they understand that we just envy birds’ mobility?

M Chodos-Irvine -Get Out Of Jail Free charm

So bear with me while I bare my feathered soul.

There is something about birds that I find comfort in. I don’t collect birds like a philatelist collects stamps. Rather, such items accumulate around me like pigeons around a cafe. They inspire me. Why shouldn’t I want bird imagery on things I have around me in my nest, so to speak?

Such as outside my window, on a metalwork piece by artist Deborah Mersky.

Deborah Mersky-Crow metal hanging

Or on the walls of my home, as in one of my favorite paintings by Joe Max Emminger, “Bird Moon.”

Joe Max Emminger-Bird Moon

And on jewelry.

MOP bird pin

Blue bird and moon pin

Winged school bus pin

Japanese bird badge mount set

I also have amassed a large number of bird related postcards.

I H Jungnickel-Der Hahn als Festordner

Bill Reid-Haida-Raven and the First Men

Pablo Picasso-The Dove

Claude Coats-Disney production image for Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs

Crows-detail of Japanese screen-c 1650

Ruan Sidi-Jinshan folk art-Ducks Eat Rice

Along with this page from a Mary Poppins “Magic Paintless and Dot-to-Dot” coloring book by J. LaGrotta and E. Eringer for Disney Inc.

J LaGrotta and E Eringer-Disney Mary Poppins Magic Paintless and Dot-to-Dot

Of course, the works some of my favorite children’s book illustrators have wings too.

Julie Paschkis:Julie Paschkis-Word Bird-Flutter and Hum

Leo Lionni:Leo Lionni-Tico and the Go copy

Lizbeth Zwerger:Lizbeth Zwerger-Swan Lake

Wood engraving is a beautiful medium for portraying the delicacy of feathers. These are some of my favorite prints in that medium.

Sarah van Niekerk:Sarah van Niekerk-Jacobins in a Bay Tree

Eileen Mayo:Eileen Mayo-Two Doves-1958

John Buckland-Wright:John Buckland-Wright -Endymion-1943

This is a wood engraving of the sculpture of the Winged Victory of Samothrace by an uncredited illustrator, used as an advertisement for air power. It came from the now defunct scrap file at the Central branch of the Seattle Public Library.

Winged Victory of Samothrace-Airlines determine the destiny of nations-artist unknown

There are wings of inspiration in all sorts of places. I took this photo of some old airline signage from the Boeing Museum of Flight.

Boeing logo bird arrow

I went to Paris recently. Paris has wings everywhere you look.

Winged monument Paris

Winged Victory statue Paris

Wall decor painting - Louvre

So by now it shouldn’t surprise anyone that bird imagery shows up often in my work.

M Chodos-Irvine -Dreamer

M Chodos-Irvine -Cycnus

It helps to have some good reference materials. I have accumulated a number of  bird books, but there are a few that I use often. Birds In Flight, by Carrol L. Henderson, has excellent photos of birds on the wing. Any bird book by Roger Tory Peterson will be good. The World of Birds, by Peterson and James Fisher has good structural information, such as this page on the anatomy of the wing.

R T Peterson-wing anatomy

The “How To Draw” series from the 40s includes a handy instruction book on drawing and painting birds.

How To Draw and Paint Birds cover

Hunt makes it look so easy.

Lynn Bogue Hunt-How to Draw and Paint Birds-pg 14

Audubon’s illustrations are fun to peruse. His birds are placed in the most awkward positions, yet they are graceful in their own torqued way. I guess this is what you get when you are drawing from death, rather than life.

Audubon-White-tailed Kite

Birds and wings and feathered things. They tell a story of flight, of soaring, and of freedom. May they inspire you to make great art. Or at least put a bird on something.

Jean Honore Fragonard-The Cage

Another Alice

R Steadman-Through The Looking Glass 1

A few weeks ago, Maria Popova published a post in her wonderful Brain Pickings blog featuring the illustrations by Ralph Steadman from a 1972 edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland.

Before you go any further, read her post. Then come back here. Then go read more of her posts if you haven’t already.

I didn’t know Steadman illustrated Alice In Wonderland, but I should have,  because I own a copy of his Through The Looking Glass, also published in 1972, that I bought on a trip to England in 1975 (Steadman’s Alice In Wonderland is mentioned on the book jacket flap, but what 15-year old reads  jacket copy?). It is one of my Most Valued And Beloved Books. Here are more of my favorite images:

R Steadman-Through The Looking Glass 2The Jaberwock, with eyes of flame. Steadman is also a political satirist.

R Steadman-Through The Looking Glass 3

R Steadman-Through The Looking Glass 4

R Steadman-Through The Looking Glass 5Notice how he uses the gutter split to advantage. Perfect for a story set in a world of reflection.

R Steadman-Through The Looking Glass 6

R Steadman-Through The Looking Glass 7

R Steadman-Through The Looking Glass 8 Steadman takes the commonly accepted view that the White Knight is Lewis himself.

R Steadman-Through The Looking Glass 9

When I was first starting out as an illustrator, nearly thirty years ago, I tried out pen and ink as a medium, a la Steadman. The image below was for The Clinton Street Quarterly, a small publication from the 80s out of Portland, OR. It is humbling to look back that far in my professional history, but take it as a tribute to my love of Steadman’s work.

Chodos-Irvine Marcos

Studio Housekeeping

BB 26-27 final 150

Since I last posted here, I have sent off the art for BOOM BOOM, a 32-word picture book (each word is repeated once so it’s really 16 words, twice) by Sarvinder Naberhaus. It was a mad rush towards the end (it always is) and after I shipped it out, I felt joy, relief, and just a touch of fear (what if they don’t like it?…). Then the next day I came back to this:

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What a mess!

Because the techniques I use involve many different tools and materials, things tend to spread out a bit.

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My workspace gets kind of cluttered.

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Pretty much every surface gets covered with something.

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When I run out of horizontal space, I go vertical.

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Since I usually am printing more than one image at a time, I need to have a lot of colors available on my inking table.

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I try to keep them from drying out with saran wrap, and in order to keep track of what detail is which color, I started labeling the saved colors with a marker (and to keep track of the nine children I feature in the images, I gave them all names). All this needs to get scraped off and wiped clean.

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And then I have to clean all my tools.

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Plus there is the added detritus left from mounting the art and packing it up.

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It feels good to be done with a large project like this at last, but also a little sad. I’ve enjoyed working on this book. I’ve lived with it for many months now. I will miss these characters and their world that I’ve made up, but I look forward to seeing them again, in a year or so, in their new home – the book itself.

BB 32 final 150

Having Fun

Clark One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish - Theodore Geisel

Clark
One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish – Theodore Geisel

As I have been working on the illustrations for BOOM BOOM, I have been thinking about humor in children’s book illustrations – what amused me when I was a child and what I find funny now. I’m sure there is a common thread from one to the other, but I’m not going to delve too deeply. As E. B. White said, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”

Sometimes the images act as punch lines to the text, while in others the joke is delivered on a separate plate from the words. Many are visual puns. What I see as a constant is the amount of fun the illustrator appears to be having. In the best comedy for children, I believe joy, humor and art are a trio act, with joy having the leading role. Have you ever tried to illustrate a children’s book when you are not in a good mood? Unless you are drawing trolls or  gargoyles, cheer up or take a break.

To demonstrate, I’ve put together a small collection of some of my favorites, old and new. I have no idea if the artists were grumbling or grinning when they worked on these books, but they must have been giggling at least a little by the time they were done.

Scrambled Eggs Super detail-Dr Seuss-Random 1953

The Ziffs on the cliffs and the Zuffs on the Bluffs
Scrambled Eggs Super – Theodore Geisel

Dr. Seuss tops the list. In my early reading years, the library my parents and I went to shelved their Seuss books on two conveniently low shelves. Scrambled Eggs Super was one that I picked up whenever it was available, regardless of how many times I’d checked it out already, and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish made learning to read worth the effort.

Eloise

Here is what I have to do every French morning…
Eloise in Paris – Hilary knight

Eloise In Paris 2-Hilary Knight Kay Thompson-1957

I am all over the Etoile…
Eloise in Paris – Hilary Knight

When I was about eight I discovered Eloise on a family road trip visiting friends of my mother’s in Vancouver, Canada. I slept in their daughter’s room. She was at least fifteen years older than I and long out of the house, but her collection of Eloise books by Kay Thompson, illustrated by Hilary Knight, were still there. I poured over Knight’s exuberant illustrations for hours. Eloise is truly all over the Etoile and all over the page. Her gestures and body language are as much choreographed as drawn.

The Story of Ferdinand bull butt-Robert Lawson Munro Leaf-1936

He didn’t look where he was sitting…
The Story of Ferdinand – Robert Lawson

The Story of Ferdinand, the sensitive bull. While beautifully composed and exquisitely drafted, Robert Lawson‘s illustrations for Munro Leaf’s text are also wonderfully fun to look at.

The Bedside MAD-William M Gaines-52-59

The Outer Sanctum
The Bedside MAD – William M Gaines

The Bedside MAD 2-William M Gaines-52-59

The Outer Sanctum second spread
The Bedside MAD – William M Gaines

At about age nine, my taste in humor took a sidestep when I purchased some old MAD Magazine paperbacks. These books compiled early issues that featured artists like William M Gaines (also the magazine’s founder). He specialized in spoofing popular radio dramas from my father’s era such as “Inner Sanctum” with goofy yet surgical expertise. I think their intended audience probably wasn’t me, but take a close look at the details and you will see why I liked them so much as a nine-year-old.

I Know an Old Lady-Abner Graboff Rose Bonne-Rand McNally 1961

I know an old lady who swallowed a bird
I Know an Old Lady-Abner Graboff

I didn’t discover the work of Abner Graboff until I found a copy of I Know An Old Lady by Rose Bonne at a school library sale a few years ago, but I wish I had found him sooner. Thank you, Abner, for breaking all the rules.

And lest you have the impression that I only look at children’s books published before 1960, here are a few more contemporary works that make me laugh.

Arnie the Doughnut-Laurie Keller-Holt 2003

Arnie looked around and saw all sorts of doughnuts…
Arnie the Doughnut – Laurie Keller

Laurie Keller is funny, in both text and imagery (And in person too. I was lucky enough to meet her). She could make a stand-up comic out of a golf ball.

Polka Bats and Octopus Slacks Ed-Calef Brown-HM1998

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Polka Bats and Octopus Slacks – Calef Brown

This image by Calef Brown is wonderful even without the poem that accompanies it (sorry, you will have to go get the book yourself and read it). Which came first, the image or the words? Who cares. I’m glad for both.

Insectlopedia The Walking Stick-Douglas Florian-1998

The Walking Stick
Insectlopedia – Douglas Florian

Douglas Florian is a poet who is also an artist. Or maybe he is an artist who is also a poet. Either way, he creates books with a graceful blend of sophistication and whimsy (sorry, you are going to have to go get this book too). His humor is subtle and precise and beautifully rendered.

Glasses Who needs em-Lane Smith-Viking 1991

…potatoes however…
Glasses, Who Needs ‘Em? – Lane Smith

And Lane Smith. Smith has made numerous hilarious books, but I think I like this image from Glasses, Who Needs ‘Em? best of all. Do you see what I mean?…

I hope this small sampling has made you laugh, tickled your funny bone, or at least improved your mood. If you are going to be illustrating children’s books, you might as well be smiling, right?

Handwritten

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The article I read recently that got me thinking about handwriting: The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting and Why It Still Matters

Script and Scribble, by Kitty Burns Florey, a book that Julie Paschkis gave me because I talked with her about the above article (and yes, I know Julie’s handwriting quite well).

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Drawing in Blue

sketch by M Chodos-Irvine

Yesterday I sent off a revised, “tight” dummy to my editor at Beach Lane Books for Boom Boom. Today is a day of reprieve – I can take a bit of a break before I hear back from her, but it’s too soon for me to start worrying because I haven’t heard from her yet.

So here I am, rearranging the furniture in my brain to focus on writing today’s post.

Since I am fully immersed in illustrating Boom Boom, it’s hard for me to think about much else, so you are going to get another how-to from me today.

When working on final drawings for a picture book, I use a technique I picked up from watching Sylvain Chomet talk about animating The Triplets of Belleville in the video extra that came with the DVD. If you have not yet seen this French animated film, you have missed a witty masterpiece. It’s rated PG-13, (there are some naked ta-tas spinning briefly in the opening sequence, and a bit of implied mob violence), but the film’s rating is deserved most in that its sophisticated, satiric humor isn’t built for young children. If Disney’s Sleeping Beauty is a Three-Musketeers bar, then The Triplets of Belleville is Cuisses de Grenouille. (Really, see the movie).

Anyway, in this “making of…” video, Chomet demonstrates how he first draws his sketches in non-photo blue, and then hones in on the refined outline in black, which is the only color the camera will read. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a copy of that video on line, but I did find something similar in this clip about his animating The Illusionist.

Chomet says finding the right lines is “discovering something” that was already there, like Michelangelo freeing figures in marble. I am in no way trying to imply that I am on the same level as either of these artists, but I always feel like I’m trying to carve out an image when I draw, so this approach struck a chord with me.

This is my humble, homey version of what Chomet and Michelangelo do.

A photocopy of my rough:

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A blue line drawing on tracing paper over the photocopy:

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The blue line drawing alone:

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I haven’t gone to black pencil on the above sketch quite yet. I will do that once I have the editors go-ahead on the full dummy. In the drawing below, I’ve gone halfway using a darker blue pencil, inching my way towards black.

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Then I scan my blue line drawings into Photoshop, adjust the gray-scale levels to eliminate some of the lighter blue, and place the images in the dummy lay-out with InDesign. It’s not exactly what the animators do, but it works for me.

BB 6-7 kids

Well, during the time it took me to write this post, I heard back from the editor and have full approval to proceed with the final art. That was a short, but welcome reprieve! Back to work!

A Movable Wall

I shipped off a book dummy today. It’s a good feeling.

The dummy is for the book Boom Boom by Sarvinder Naberhaus that I am illustrating for Beach Lane Books. It’s a pretty minimal text, so there is lots of room for me to develop my own story line for the images.

I like to see the whole storyboard as I’m working on initial sketches. It’s easier for me to keep track of my ideas if I can see them all, but my drawing table is not that big. My story line was getting buried in mountains of sketches, which caused me frequent frustration and occasional cursing.

I decided that I needed a wall to pin everything on, but as you can see, I’m a bit short on wall space in my cozy little studio (I’m a bit short of anything space, but that’s another issue).

So I bought the biggest cork bulletin board I could find and perched it on my inking table.

I used colored tape to divide the board into “spreads” and added stickers with page numbers and post-its with the text. Ta-da! Instead of piles of sketches I have a portable storyboard wall where I can layer my sketches as I develop each spread. All there right in front of me. Much better!

Now I just have to wait for feedback from the editor. If she approves of the direction I’ve chosen I can move forward to the next step: refining the images. If not, then it’s back to the drawing/bulletin board!

Pay Attention, Report Back

It seems my monthly turn at this blog comes around too quickly. Then I think of my Dad. For 25 years, he wrote a three-times-a-week column that ran on the front page of his newspaper, the Sonora Union Democrat. Three times a week.

A precursor to blogging, Dad’s Sierra Lookout column was a forum for his take on the life and times of his beloved “poison-oakers” in California’s Mother Lode. Dad wrote about his childhood, family, local issues, world news, and rural life, all from the perspective of a self-described “country editor.”

Harvey McGee, 1990

The following column seemed to raise its hand to be included on our Books Around the Table blog because it was written on July 19, 1977. That’s 35 years ago, almost to the day. I think of it as an ode to the Sierra.

     WHEN THE insides of your knees are chafed all the way up to the end of your spine.
When anything you sit in seems to lurch and shake.
When the backs of your hands and ears are chapped and sunburned.

     WHEN YOU can’t get the smell of fish out from under your fingernails and the smell of smoke out of your clothes.
When the porch railing is draped with an open sleeping bag.
When the air mattress that stayed puffed up only long enough to lure you onto it is on the way to the dump.

     WHEN YOU’VE said thanks to Mr. Cutter and his magic mosquito repellant and drained the pollywogs from a glass of Tang for the last time.
When you can smile again without your lips cracking.
When old “Mac” is again munching hay in Willy Ritts’ Kennedy Meadows corral.

     WHEN ALL these things are done you lie on that bed that never deflates and remember –
The gentle plunk of the lure on the long cast.
The dart of a shadow from a deep pool, the splash and flash of silver – then nothing.
Or maybe a solid tug – too soft for a snag, too firm for anything but a lunker.

     OR VAST ranges of granite pocked by blue jewels with revered names – Black Bear, Bigelow, Emigrant, Dorothy, Maxwell.
And in the folds of rock: lush meadows, green groves, clear streams. Far beyond and below, the grey-brown air trapped in the simmering valley.

     SOON forgotten are the lurching chafing and burning of the sometimes rider. Even the memory of Pear Ripple, wet clothes and gin rummy defeats begins to fade.
What remains as clear as the night sky over Bigelow Peak are the steaks, shishkebob and basted eggs by an expert volunteer cook, the sweet meat of camp-smoked trout and the fellowship of others who share an unspoken appreciation of the remote magnificence.

     VISITORS to the wilderness are apt to feel some guilt about the privilege, but that’s the paradox of the place. If it were easily available to more, it would soon be enjoyed by none.         –Harvey C. McGee

Emigrant Basin. Photo courtesy of Susan McGee Britton.

As writers and artists it’s our calling to pay attention and report back. No one sees the world quite the same way. I’m lucky to have my Dad’s columns – his keen observations and amused take on the human condition, his personal stories and opinions – to guide me. Not to mention the gold mine of over 2,500 columns that will come in handy when I’m looking down the trail for a blogpost idea.

Riding into the high country, 1968. L to r: Marny Gorgas, Kate McGee, Laura McGee.

An Inspiration Grows Up

Fifteen years ago, I bought a dress for my two-year-old daughter. I thought it was the perfect little toddler dress – a red jumper that had a bit of a bell-shaped swing. I even paid full price for it, counter to my usual shopping philosophy.

My daughter however, was not enthusiastic about my taste in clothing. When I put the dress on her, she sat down on her wee diapered tush and cried, “I don’t like this dress Mommy. Take it off! Take it OFF!”

There are some battles worth fighting for. There are others where it’s best if you just write about them. This mother-daughter impasse was the inspiration for Ella Sarah Gets Dressed; the first children’s book I both wrote and illustrated, which won a Caldecott Honor award, way back in 2004.

Now my Ella Sarah picks out her own clothing, and pays for it too. She has defined her own style and has modeled and blogged for a local shoe store for the past three years. I even find myself consulting her on many of my wardrobe concoctions. I dare not wear an outfit that raises an eyebrow from her!

I am bringing this up now because I have been thinking a lot about this child I’ve known for nearly eighteen years. And I’ve been thinking about her because she is about to leave me. She will be going to college in New York in the Fall.

I would be waxing sentimental at this point whether I had written a book about Ella or not, but having preserved that moment in our lives in print perhaps makes it feel more poignant. Or sappy. Or both.

Ella has been a willing model for many of my illustrations over the years. There is nothing like having a kid handy when you are working on a children’s book. She outgrew my picture book needs quite a few years ago, to be replaced by her sister, who in turn has been replaced by younger neighborhood children, but I’ve done many images that owe their accuracy to Ella’s cooperative posing.

So maybe what I am feeling as we all prepare for her flight east – along with the joy and pride and sadness and worry  and hope – is gratitude. She gave me a enormous gift in being the inspiration for a story that became a book – a book that added my name to a venerable list of illustrators in addition to making me a published author. I never expected such a payoff when I boarded this motherhood boat.

Ella plans to major in Graphic Design and Communications. She says she wants to work in publishing some day. She may even study illustration for a while. Perhaps I have returned the favor and inspired her a just a bit?

Whatever she does, may she find as supportive a community of people with whom to work as I have. Go with grace, little bird!

Cooking Up Ideas

Once a month our critique group meets. We each bring what we are working on – rough drafts of manuscripts, storyboards and illustrations that are baked, half baked or sometimes overbaked. We talk about the work and then we have lunch. We each bring something to contribute to lunch as well; it’s a potluck.

I usually worry a little about the work I am sharing but never about the food.

I’ve been thinking about how to approach writing with the same ease that I approach cooking. I enjoy everything about cooking – planning what to make, chopping, cooking, serving, eating and even washing the dishes.

When I write or paint I love it once I get started. But I sometimes fear that I have a finite number of ideas. When the page is empty I worry that it will stay that way.

I am comfortable cooking because I have been doing it most of my life. Sometimes the bread doesn’t rise perfectly or the soup is too thin or thick. But I know that it will come out better the next time. I keep cooking.

With painting I have a similar comfort and a habit of working. Part of what makes me able to paint good paintings is allowing myself to paint some bad ones. Ideas beget ideas.

Writing is still not routine for me, but making writing as common as cooking could be the key to making ideas flow. As I write more the empty page will feel more like an opportunity and less like an abyss. The empty page could be that little pang of hunger that makes me want to cook.

p.s. Here is an attempt I made a while ago to literally bake an illustration for a book. It doesn’t completely work  yet but maybe the idea will rise again someday. Bon Appetit!