Category Archives: Illustrating Children’s Books

Scary But Not Too Scary

 

Writing a scary book for young readers is a tricky business. Where is that line between fun scary and scary scary?

With my latest book, The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael, I’m hoping I found that line. It certainly was fun to write, even though it took forever. I really can’t remember when I jotted down the first few lines:

It was the thirteenth of November, a stormy night
When the Thirteen bus hove into sight.
Something about it didn’t seem right
But Michael McMichael boarded.

It might have been as long as 20 years ago. Long enough that the first drafts are somewhere on a discarded hard disc drive.  It was just a bit of doggerel that kept stumping me because I’d boxed myself into a corner with my rhyme scheme. The story had to make sense and have a satisfying arc, yet the first three lines of every stanza needed to end in perfect rhyme and the last line had to rhyme or near rhyme with “boarded.”

The first three lines rule wasn’t hard. It was that darn “boarded.” I think I managed to find just about every word that rhymes or near rhymes with “boarded”, from the sensible “hoarded” to the desperate and untenable “sore head.”

Years would go by as I worked on other things; The Frightful Ride forgotten only to be rediscovered once in awhile in my files and noodled with a bit more. Finally it occurred to me that I had a complete story and this might be a picture book. Luckily Sarah Ketchersid at Candlewick agreed—with a few changes.

Back to the drawing board for a few more years. Then the completed manuscript went to the marvelous Mark Fearing for illustrations. (Where I suddenly realized that a word I’d used years ago when banishing the villainous bus driver–deported–needed to be changed to “exported.” Deported had become too loaded of a word.) Then a year for printing and distribution. And finally, it is here! The official release date is July 10, 2018.

But all along it was geared to younger readers, so, of course, the scary thing is defeated in the end. But the real key to me between scary but not too scary is humor. And that was my instinct from the get-go. What was really rattling around in my mind was my memory of the macabre, rhyming tall tales of Robert Service, especially his poem The Cremation of Sam McGee.

My father read that to us when I was a kid and I loved its wonderful “chewy” language.

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

 “The men who moil for gold” or “That night on the marge of Lake Lebarge,” who can beat that?

There’s that kind of juicy language throughout Service’s poem. At the same time it’s a complicated story, but Service doesn’t cheat with easy or obvious rhymes. He reaches for the great instead of the good. (I’ve always wondered if “moil” was made up, but it’s a real word as is “marge.” There’s even a Lake Laberge in the Yukon. Service definitely isn’t a cheater.)

I can’t claim I achieved a “Robert Service” but his macabre humor, his love of words and tall tale format were my inspiration. In these tense times with voices of concern all around us, it’s nice to know that sometimes our stories, even scary ones, can just be for the fun and the love of it.

Here are some more samples of Fearing’s wonderful illustrations. Thanks, Mark and Sarah and all of Candlewick for making this book possible.

 

 

 

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How Well Do You Know Books in Art?

In my collection of images of books in art, there are a number of pieces by famous artists. Although, not always their best works, its fun to see how artists from Matisse to Magritte have portrayed the books in our lives.

Each artist is somehow unmistakably themselves (well, except one) despite a common theme. I bet you can guess most of them. Scroll to the bottom to see if you’re right. Enjoy!

 

 

In order from the top, we have Henri Matisse, Roy Lichtenstein, Renee Magritte, Thomas Hart Benton, El Greco (if you got that one, I’m impressed), Albrecht Durer, Arthur Rackham, Wayne Thiebaud (my favorite. All his paintings look edible to me) and, of course, Norman Rockwell. How’d you do?

 

For Love of the World

“All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” – E.B. White

Lately I have been digging into the final dummy revisions for SQUEAK, a picture book which will be published by Philomel in 2019. It is a chain-reaction story; a Rube Goldberg alarm clock that starts with the squeak of a small mouse and ends with the biggest bison’s bellow billowing out over mountains and meadows and waking everybody else.

Along the way I get to draw chipmunks, trout, elk, eagles, bears, wolves, and big horned sheep, as well. Also the landscape and the plants where they live.

You might recognize Little Wolf whose howling in SQUEAK wakes the big horn sheep.

I am illustrating SQUEAK with my sister Kate Harvey McGee. I wrote the story and will create a black and white gouache layer, like the wolves above, for the illustrations. She will provide the color, as she did for LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING. One of the benefits of this collaboration is we talk over possibilities. For instance, tree choice.

We were hiking on the Oregon coast and came by this lovely Sitka spruce. It had the perfect opening at the bottom for a small mouse nest – and great checkered bark. But the big cast of animals in SQUEAK requires the ecosystem of a place like Yellowstone. That sent me scampering through the internet to see if there is a similar spruce in the Rockies – Yes! The Englemann spruce. I gathered screen grabs of the pine cones and needles, branching habit, etc. of this particular tree. And photos of the inside of stumps, too, for the final spread.

e spruce

For LITTLE WOLF, Kate captured the colors of the hours from evening to night, painting moonlight. But SQUEAK takes place just before the sun comes up, the whole story happens in about 15 minutes. She is experimenting with possible palettes, auditioning various pinks and oranges to suggest the pre-dawn.

To find the images and the colors to illustrate this story we tune into the beauty and wonder of the natural world: from the thick brown shag of a bear’s coat to the silver scales of trout, from grass-choked meadows to conifers hugging the bottom of rocky cliffs.

We were raised in Sonora, CA, in the Sierra foothills, and spent many happy days hiking the Emigrant Wilderness, about an hour up Highway 108. On backpack trips into the high country, we sometimes woke in the chilly pre-dawn when a few stars still lit the sky. We lay awake long enough to note the beautiful mountains, meadows and towering trees all around. Then, like the small mouse in SQUEAK, we snuggled down with our friends and went back to sleep.

How satisfying to have a project that recalls that place and lets us speak our love for the natural world.

Why Hadn’t I Done This Before?

I attended Western Washington University’s Children’s Literature Conference for the first time a few weekends ago. And I’m rather chagrined that I’d never attended this 15-year-old event before.

The conference is a gathering of some of the top creators in children’s literature right here in my own backyard—or close enough, anyway. It started relatively small 15 years ago and now it draws a sell-out crowd of over 600 teachers, students, writers, illustrators and children’s lit aficionados to Bellingham, WA.

This year’s speakers were Sophie Blackall, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Benjamin Alire Sáenz and Kevin Henkes. I won’t even try to list all their awards and accomplishments—but the poster for the event will give you some idea. I think you’ll recognize the books, even you don’t always recognize the name.

I have this thing. Whenever I hear a speaker, I end up kind of wanting to be them. Or, at least, thinking maybe I should talk that way. Maybe that’s how I should present myself. Although, the most heartening thing about it all is that everyone presents themselves differently (scholarly, anecdotally, ad lib, prepared, humorous, philosophically), but if they do it with honesty and care, it works.

Sophie Blackall

Author/illustrator Sophie Blackall shared the things she loves, including six books that were important in her life and she used these as a springboard to anecdotes about herself and her writing. I was intrigued by her fun, idiosyncratic selection: Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne and E. H. Shepard , The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by DuBose Heyward and Marjorie Flack, The Unstrung Harp by Edward Gorey , The Principle of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman , Here We Are by Oliver Jeffers and Moby Dick by Herman Melville. The nicest touch of all? She gave her copy of each book to six members of the audience who shared the titles of books that had been important to them.

The give-away seemed to fit into Blackall’s overall approach to life and work. She’s generous. She’s a giver. Check out this project she’s starting for other writers and artists: https://www.milkwoodfarm.org/

Poet and writer of young adult novels, Benajmin Alire Sáenz gave an almost stream-of-consciousness incantation of a talk. Sáenz, who starts his own day with a “word of the day,” repeated the phrase “the word of the day is” throughout his talk. Each time invoking a new word and new idea. “The word of the day is” became something of a catchphrase for the rest of the day.

For Sáenz, in general, the word of the day would have to be “words of the day” including Latino, gay, philosopher, survivor, award-winner, role model and maybe even life-saver. On his Twitter feed are comments like this:

i’m a gay transgender man and i can’t even begin to tell you how grateful i am for this story; it saved my life. thank you so much.

8:02 PM – 8 Mar 2018

And photos like this:

Benjamin Alire Sáenz and a fan

The word of the day for author Pam Muñoz Ryan was clearly serendipity, in particular when it came her latest book Echo. Researching a story that was going to be about segregation Ryan ran across a photo of a classroom of children each holding a harmonica. When she asked about it she was told it was a 1931 photo of the school’s harmonica band, something that apparently was common at the time.

Harmonica bands! What was not to like? Ryan reasoned. As Ryan followed that trail, her story changed completely, turning quite unexpectedly into a tale about a magical harmonica and how it connected three different children in three different times and places but all somewhat connected to WWII and Nazi Germany.

Pam Muñoz Ryan

Pam seems to be one of those people who can turn the every-day events of their lives into stories. Funny stories. Like the time she joined band, decided to play violin, broke said violin, tried to super glue it back together, got ejected from band, but ended up in chorus, then was asked to write an article about being in chorus, which led to her doing more writing, which led to her, of course, becoming a famous author. Isn’t joining band in the 4th grade how everyone’s life stitches together?

Author/illustrator Kevin Henkes word of the day was “waiting.” A common theme in his work and his life. He waits, he said, for ideas. Then he has to wait to see if the idea proves good and solid. His characters wait, like the characters in his book Waiting. And this feels apt, he says because children themselves are always waiting.

A particular creative quirk of his that struck me: he likes to have a title from the very beginning of writing. It helps him know and remember what the book is about. What I liked about Henkes’ presentation was his awareness of and respect for the creative process and for his readers.

It showed in his talk and it shows up in his work. Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse was one of the texts I pored over when I was trying to figure out how to write picture books. The only bad part: it gave me the notion that picture books could be over 1,000 words. Well, if they’re by Kevin Henkes, maybe.

Keep your eyes open for the 2019 WWU Children’s Literature Conference with an equally impressive line-up of speakers: Barbara O’Connor, Candace Fleming and Eric Rohmann, Neal and Jarrod Shusterman, and Jerry Pinkney.

Another major children’s lit event that WWU is hosting this year is the May Hill Arbuthnot Lecture on April 28, 2018. This free, annual event features an author, critic, librarian, historian or teacher of children’s literature, of any country, who prepares and presents paper considered to be a significant contribution to the field of children’s literature. This year’s speaker is Naomi Shihab Nye who has received four Pushcart Prizes, was a National Book Award finalist, and has been named a Guggenheim Fellow, among other honors.

Many Gifts

Each month, Julie Paschkis, Laura Kvasnosky, Bonny Becker, Julie Larios and I meet at one of our houses, around one of our tables, to review and critique each other’s work. We also share news, thoughts, stories, quandaries and lunch (or brunch) and tea. As most of you already know, this blog evolved out of our working friendship.

Each year, we exchange gifts for the holidays – small things, often items we have made ourselves, sometimes souvenirs from places we have visited in the past year.

But the greatest gift we give each other isn’t at these yearly holiday gatherings; it is what we give each other each time we meet, and often in between. We give our eyes, ears, brains and trust. It has been many years since I joined this group (around 2002) and it started ten years before that. A few members have come and gone (and come back again). We started blogging together in January of 2012. Between the five of us, we have published 69 books and 309 blog posts. Geez.

There have been a lot of thoughts and ideas shared around our tables. I am forever grateful for the excellent input and feedback I have received over the years – and that is not to discount in any way the friendships we have developed.

If you have a professional critique group like ours, you know how valuable it is. If you don’t and wish you did, find a few open-hearted individuals whose work you respect see if they are amenable to starting a children’s book group with you. Maybe you will find a good group if you take a picture book writing or illustration class or workshop (that is how this group got started). It helps if you are all at a similar place with your writing and/or illustration careers.

Best wishes for a creative and productive new year!

 

Books and bad weather

Illustration by Karen Hollingsworth

Books and bad weather just seem to go together. It’s so enticing to settle in with a book in hand and snow, wind and rain at the window.

Illustration by Lorenzo Mattotti

It can be a moment of solitude…

Illustration by Samantha Dodge

or a moment that unites us.

Illustration by Vincent Mahe

Illustration by Adrian Tomine

Sometimes you can create your own shelter.

Illustration by Iker Ayestaran

Illustration by Michelle Riche

In my collection of images of books in art, reading in a time of cold and dark is almost always a warm, safe moment.

Illustration by Sasha Ivoylova

But not always.

Illustration by AJ Frena

But let’s not end on this chilling note. Here’s the perfect image for cozy holiday reading.

Illustration by Raija Nokkal

Merry Christmas! Happy holidays! Season’s readings!

What I Learned from the 2017 Caldecott Winners’ Portland Panel

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Marian Creamer of Children’s Literature Alive introducing the panel. L to r: Marian in front, Brendan Wenzel, Javaka Steptoe, Carson Ellis, Gregory Christie, Vera Brogsol and moderator Steven Engelfried.

There they were – all five recipients of the 2017 Caldecott awards – seated for a panel discussion in Portland, Oregon. Usually a given year’s Caldecott winners appear together only at their ALA awards ceremony. But shortly after these winners were announced last January, my friend, Portland librarian Marian Creamer, who served on the awards committee, realized all five of the 2017 recipients had a connection to Portland. So she hatched a plan to gather them for a wonderful few days of events in her corner of the world.

Here are some remarks from these illustrious illustrators that stuck with me.

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Javaka Steptoe with Faubion PK-8 student.

First off, Javaka Steptoe whose book, Radiant Child, the Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, was given the top Caldecott medal. His illustrations were created in the style of Basquiat’s work: painted and collaged onto found wooden panels with repetition of iconic Basquiat images in Basquiat-bright colors.

Javaka said he begins his projects by looking for the story behind the story. For this book, it was the mother/son connection that spoke to him, “the basis of Basquiat’s humanity.” In the first stages of any book project, Javaka advises, “Let it be ugly: throw it up on a page, put it all out there, then scale it back.” His goal is to find “a balance of flavors.”

As he works through successive drafts, Javaka finds “better words and flow out of the chaos and jumbledness.” He concluded, “Put the work in – and also realize you have to give it up eventually. You gotta let it go.”

Javaka first visited Portland 17 years ago and “looks for any excuse to return.”

Next up, the four Caldecott honors.

 

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Vera Brogsol scored Caldecott honor recognition with her first picture book, Leave Me Alone, the tale of a grandma who yearns for a place where she can knit in peace and quiet. Born in Russia in 1984, Vera came to the US at age five and worked many years in animation. Like the babushka in her book, she relishes time alone and the opportunity to work on her own projects.

Vera emphasizes she works slowly. “Projects become a part of you, like a limb.” She looks for projects that will challenge her, to help her grow and understand herself.

Screen Shot 2017-12-09 at 2.57.16 PMVera’s fellow Portlander, Carson Ellis, author of Du Iz Tak, is flat out inventive. This is a book written in a language spoken by insect characters; a language made clear by repetition and context. The illustrations move the story along with delightful surprises at each page turn. Carson is the mother of two young kids and wife of indie musician Colin Maloy of the Decemberists. She keeps a slush pile of pieces that she revisits to see if any of it “can go anywhere. Everything I do is over-complicated and I have to simplify.” She circles back to the slush pile to see if any ideas are ready to “flesh out properly.”

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Gregory Christie and me.

Greg Christie spent three months painting in the Portland arts environment, in the time before he opened a bookstore/gallery in Atlanta. His book, Freedom in Congo Square, recounts a chapter of slave history in New Orleans. The rhyming text by Carole Boston Weatherford, tells of the slaves working day by day, leading to a Sunday gathering for dancing and music in the city’s Freedom Square.

“Anywhere you go in the US, New Orleans is unique,” Greg said. “Its unique urban energy was forged in African American culture.” Greg has illustrated over 60 children’s books and lots of album covers as well. He used a combination of collage and acrylic gouache on this one. He paints his final art over a loose sketch. “I like to give myself room to keep energy in the painting.”

His reason for creating children’s books? “I do these books because I want there to be books I wish I had as a child.”

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Brendan Wenzel is based in Brooklyn, NY, but his book, They All Saw A Cat, came out of his experience of living three years in SE Asia. The illustrations reveal the ways that various creatures (flea, snake, mouse, skunk etc.) see a cat, as well as how the cat sees itself. Brendan says he was aiming to “create a sense of healing through understanding our different perspectives.” That is exactly what these illustrations do. Also, this book has my favorite first line, “A cat walked through the world, with its whiskers, paws and ears.”

Brendan worked with Michael Curry, Portland’s creator of large puppets, i.e. Lion King, for four months.

The Caldecott 2017 panel was introduced by students from Grant High school and Riverdale Elementary and moderated by Steven Engelfried, Library Services Manager, Wilsonville Public Library. In the following days, the five visited Faubion PK-8 school in NE Portland and worked with students on art and writing projects.

I met Marian Creamer – who dreamed this up and made it happen – about 20 years ago when she was a school librarian at Riverdale Elementary and I a visiting author. Though she is retired from her school library, she continues to work tirelessly to bring kids and books together.

Marian was struck by something she gleaned from these five Caldecott winning books as a whole: “A multiplicity of viewpoints can coexist, and differences of perspectives are evident without preaching. Children are the best judges of discerning what is true and relative.”

Yes!

Marian’s non-profit organization, Children’s Literature Alive, sponsored the Portland events. If you would like to join me in supporting Marian’s work, leave a note in the comments and I will send you her contact information.

 

One Hundred Lilies

Last month I confessed to a bout of nerves before starting on a new picture book project. I have gained some calm as I have delved into defining the imagery for the book. I am no longer on the shore. I am wading in.

Of the two primary characters in the book (a dog and a child), it is the dog that I have been working on the most so far.

I have a dog. He is a rat terrier. My initial drawings for Lily were based on him.

But they were rejected for not being cute and cuddly enough. I admit, Nik is a bit angular and bony and he doesn’t have much of a tail.

So I drew a dog very unlike Nik; a furry pooch with a more expressive tail (as I showed you in my last post).

That Lily thankfully got the go-ahead.

Even though Lily the dog appears in less than half of the imagery, I want to be sure of what she looks like and how she moves. The best way for me to do this is to draw lots of character studies. This is how I familiarize my brain with characters so that I can draw them without having to actually see them. I mostly draw characters from my imagination and then seek reference to augment the drawings. It may seem like an ass-backwards approach, but it’s how I feel most comfortable working.

I have drawn a lot of children. Usually I do about five to ten studies per character before starting on illustrations for a book. But I have not drawn a lot of dogs, so I set myself a goal of one hundred Lily drawings. Here are a few of them.

After I had drawn about seventy imaginary Lilies, I thought it was time to find a real dog to look at. Then one day, while walking in the park with Nik, I met Romeo.

I introduced myself to Romeo’s family and they let my take photos of him. Those pictures helped get me up to my three-digit goal.

Now I feel like I know this Lily. She becomes more real to me, each time I draw her.

Sailing Away

If you had to guess what kind of boat is most associated with books, what type do you think it would be?

Just like cats and books, birds and books, and rain and books go together, so do books and sailboats (although there are some rare exceptions to the sailboat).

For these summer days, I thought it would be fun to look at  my collection of images of books in art for the theme of boat. I found quite a few.

Not only does the sailboat work conceptually since sailboats and books are both places of leisure, contemplation and escape:

Illustration by Pawel Kuczynski

Illustration by Yuko Shimizu

Illustration by Catherine Nolan

Illustration by Natalie Andrewson

It works artistically given how books and boats echo each other visually:

Illustration by Pawel Kuczynski

Illustration by Henriette Sauvant

Sometimes the books and boat metaphor can feel a bit stretched:

(Couldn’t find credit for artist)

I do like the idea of books as an ark to preserve knowledge–although I’m not sure what the cylinders on the roof are about.

Books and boats can also be seen as a metaphor for capturing knowledge:

Illustration by Christiane Beauregard

Illustration by Gurbuz Dogan Eksioglu

Or maybe the appeal is that with both boats and book we are set a-sail on something vast and deep:

Illustration by Pawel Kuczynski

 

 

 

 

Science Lit

On this eve of Earth Day, 2017, with marches for science scheduled tomorrow in cities around the US, I got to thinking about science books for kids, and what they’ve meant to me.

It’s important for children to see real worlds as well as imaginary ones. They can be equally wondrous. Children love stories. Science is the narrative of the universe.

Looking through my science books as a child, I dreamed of seeing cardinals, and fireflies, and the Northern Lights. A bright red bird, a bug that lights up, colors in the sky – they seemed like magical things, in spite of being real.

I still have some of my childhood science books, and I’ve added a few more. I continue to use them as reference for my work.

Even though I spent a lot of time making things and drawing pictures when I was growing up, I also loved reading about insects and dinosaurs and rocks (I lean towards biology and geology). My family and I went on rock hunting expeditions in the California desert. When asked when I was five what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said An Archaeologist. I did eventually go on to get a degree in anthropology (as well as art).

This is my parents’ fossil book that I poured over as a kid. Fossil hunting continues to be my idea of Big Fun.

There are wonderful books on scientific topics being published every year. My daughters both loved Cactus Hotel and Spoonbill Swamp, by Brenda Guiberson, illustrated by Megan Lloyd.

Douglas Florian writes and illustrates quirky poems about areas of science. I especially enjoy his Comets, Stars, The Moon, and Mars.

The Minor Planets

Sometimes known as asteroids.
Sometimes called the planetoids.
They always help to fill the void.
Tween Jupiter and Mars.

Named for sweethearts, daughters, sons.
Some are small as breakfast buns.
Others larger, weighing tons,
But none as grand as stars

Florian knows how to be both funny and informative without either getting in the way of the other.

Several years ago I bought a book on the work of Charlie Harper. When I first saw the book I felt a pang of nostalgia. He was an illustrator in the later half of the twentieth century and created the images for The Giant Golden Book of Biology. I must have read that book at some point, because looking at his work gave me flashbacks of being in grade school.

You may recognize Harper’s work from recently produced coffee mugs and calendars. I have bought fabric with his birds on it. He is having a posthumous revival of sorts. But some of his most beautiful and innovative images are his illustrations about science.

Science is a varied and expansive topic. That is good, as there is something to spark interest in just about anyone. I applaud all authors, illustrators, teachers and parents who find inspiring and creative ways to introduce young people to the wonders of science. Let’s make sure students  continue to have access to a wide range of scientific ideas, exploration and knowledge in the future.