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Category Archives: Illustrating Children’s Books
Once upon a time, the children’s book illustrator, Molly
Bang, was told she really didn’t understand how pictures worked. Bang agreed and set out to learn more.
She took classes, read books and went to art museums. Eventually she set out to create a composition with emotional resonance from the most basic elements–simple geometric forms and a palette limited to four colors: red, black, white and lavender.
She decided to see how this all worked with the story Little Red Riding Hood beginning with the idea of the girl as red triangle.
Of course, this choice echos the idea of a hood and the color is obvious, but beyond that, she asked herself, “Do I feel anything about this shape.” Although it wasn’t exactly fraught with emotion, she knew she felt some things about it.
How about you?
Here’s what Bang came up with: it isn’t huggable because it has points. It feels stable because of its flat bottom and equal sides. And red makes it feel bold, flashy–a good color for a main character. Molly also felt danger, vitality, passion. She felt that added up to the feeling of a warm, alert, stable, strong, balanced character. It did more than simply echoing the name of the story.
Then she set about making the forest. She tried triangles for the trees…
…but eventually settled on rectangles.
She liked how you can’t see the tops of the trees, suggesting how tall they are and how she could create a sense of depth. Now to put Little Red Riding Hood into the scene…
…but this wasn’t as as menacing as Bang wanted.
So she made Red much smaller. And she needed room for the wolf.
But before introducing the wolf, she knew she could create even more sense of danger.
Diagonals create a sense of instability, so now she had Red out in an older, more primal forest, a less certain place, and it was time to bring in the wolf.
It’s obvious why she would choose sharp triangles and to bring him into the forefront. Even so, she thought she’d experiment with what happened if she changed various elements.
How about if she made him smaller?
Or softened the triangles?
Or changed his color?
What big teeth he has.
What big eyes. But let’s make them more menacing.
Nothing has changed but the color. Not only is red–the color of blood and fire–more threatening than lavender, it links the wolf with his prey.
What if you changed the eye shape?
I was surprised how much difference it made. He looks slightly goofy. Maybe this would be the way to go if you wanted to do a Little Red Riding Hood spoof of some sort.
But Bang wanted to push the menace.
So more “blood”.
And finally she made it a gloomier day and, just for the fun of it, added even more focus on those sharp, sharp triangles of teeth.
This is how Molly Bang’s classic book, “Picture This. How Pictures Work” begins. The rest of her book talks more about basic composition and how it works. What horizontals do. What verticals do. How to make things look stable and unstable. How to create momentum and depth, chaos, calm and drama simply by compositional elements.
She talks about her theories as to why these elements work the way they do, often linking back to primal instincts–such as pointed shapes feeling scarier than rounded shapes or curves. One can hurt you, the other is less likely to.
It’s fun to think of these same principles and how you might apply them to writing. For example, I’m thinking of the sense of character created by a plump woman with sharp eyes. After all, we writers are in the business of creating pictures, too.
I would highly recommend “Picture This: How Pictures Work” for anyone interested in art or picture books. Or just for the fun of it!
The color red has its literary roots. It’s blood and drama and passion. Red is the first color that Jonas sees in Lois Lowry’s “The Giver.” It’s no accident that Little Red Riding Hood wears scarlet or that Robbie Burns’s love is “like a red, red rose.”
Red shows up in literature in another funny way. I collect electronic images of books in art. Copies of illustrations, paintings and prints that feature books in some way. And I began to notice a lot of red books in art (* see my reader’s note below). Not just as a random spot of color, but as a color that makes a statement, suggests its own story:
You can escape from the everyday…
into an imagined passion
Or maybe it’s a real world passion
Or forbidden fruit
Or perhaps red, is after all, just a mystery
My favorite literary use of red is the William Carlos William poem, The Red Wheelbarrow
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
So much depends on the red book, so much is suggested that is dark and forbidden, hinting at hidden depths beneath the most sedate appearances.
And isn’t that what reading is all about–that gateway into other selves. In this case, our red selves. Our read selves.
*Readers note: This is a reprint of a post I did in July 2014, but with some additional red book images.
One of the first rules pounded into you as an aspiring picture book writer is, no matter how vivid your vision of your book is, you aren’t the illustrator. Sadly, you don’t get to decide that your protagonist is redhead with braids who lives in a split level home, at least not as an instruction to the illustrator. If you do add it as part of the text, always think about how necessary those words are. Don’t bog down a picture book text with non-essential details.
So you quickly learn that you shouldn’t sprinkle your manuscripts with detailed descriptions of what the illustrations will show. That will be up to the editor, art director and, most specifically, the illustrator.
In fact, you’ll find as you move into the publishing process that usually the author and the illustrator are kept out of contact, rather like the buyer and seller in a real estate deal. Most editors want the communication to go through them. Their job is to respect the creative talents of both the author and the illustrator.
So, no illustration notes…
Except, of course, when there are. When you need them. Usually for obvious reasons such as when the text contradicts what the illustration needs to show. For example, I might write:
Biff was so excited to be the new class monitor.
(Illustration note: clearly Biff isn’t excited at all. The last thing class clown Biff wants to do is police other kids).
I don’t know if there are any rules about how to format illustration notes. The example above is how I do them. Separated from the regular text by spacing, in parenthesis, labeled as “Illustration note:” to make it crystal clear that what follows isn’t text. And all set in italics. But I’m sure other writers handle them in different ways.
One approach that does seem pretty universal is to put your note in present tense. It makes it more vivid, more immediate. Just as an illustration is more immediate.
I have another less obvious reason for sometimes putting in illustration notes. Your first reader is going to be an agent or an editor. They don’t yet have the illustrations to help them along. Most of the time this is good and it’s another reason to not use illustration notes. You want the editor to start owning this story. You want their imagination to start going to work. An experienced editor doesn’t need your help to start picturing what the illustrations will do.
Your text, hopefully, will create a mood, a tone, a particular experience for the reader. Sweet, funny, warm, old-fashioned, wacky. You can’t always know where the editors imagination will go, so don’t constrain it by illustration notes.
BUT… if I think a note is necessary for the book to “work,”for the story to come across as effectively and persuasively as it can I’ll put one in. It’s rarely comes up and it’s a tough call to make. Is this story more effective with that note or not? Tempted as you are to steer the editor to a certain reading (this is a warm, cozy story set in a Tudor cottage, damn it!) 99% of the time you’re going to want to restrain that impulse.
Here’s a specific example that I think shows all those elements at work. The other day I was critiquing a picture book in one of my writing groups. My friend is an experienced, excellent picture book writer, but she rarely has had to do illustration notes. I won’t use her actual words, but below is essentially what was happening in her story.
The sky darkened and…
(Illustration note: The girl points at the rising moon with her dog beside her)
The basic story was about the seasons using lovely lyrical language detailing the changes in nature. But each section ended with a girl and her dog experiencing something from the changes. The twosome are, however, never explicitly mentioned in the text, and it wasn’t always clear from the text what the two were experiencing. The pictures would carry that part of the story. So, illustration notes seemed justified.
But thinking about that agent or editor’s reading experience, I suggested the following edit:
The sky darkened and…
(Illustration note: The girl, her dog beside her, points at the rising moon.)
I thought this would create a more vivid experience for the editor. Number one: rather than bury that all-important rising moon in the middle of the note, move it to the end where it will stand out as the final image you’ve called the reader’s attention to. And, number two: I thought seeing the moon, having the reader look as the character instructs, was more effective than adding to what the illustration would show–the moon.
It seemed to me that the editor would have an experience closer to that of a child reader who might hear the word “Look,” then perhaps there would be a page turn, and then the sight of the moon. No words necessary in the text. But in this case, totally necessary as an illustration note to give the editor the experience you want her to have reading your story.
And, notice that you’re not telling the illustrator what the moon looks like. Who knows what they might come up with, and that’s half the fun!
“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light, and shadows.”
— Jim Jarmusch
Come tax season, I’m tempted to write off everything I do, because what isn’t creative fodder? We never know what’s going to click off an association, an idea, an insight, a solution.
Can I charge myself by the hour and write off that walk around Greenlake? What about that mobile I bought in Africa? Those paper cutouts from Paris? The feather I found at the beach?
Or how about the two hours this week at the Tacoma Museum of Glass watching glass artist Preston Singletary create one of his pieces (you can click the link to see a video of him at work), and then viewing his amazing show in the museum’s main gallery?
It was so peaceful to sit in the peanut gallery watching Singletary and his crew create something from what was once sand. Singletary works with Northwest Native American motifs from his Tinglit heritage–ravens, carved boxes, baskets, a canoe, totem poles. On this day he and the crew were making the body of a raven.
It began with a chalk sketch on the floor. Then he began to shape the molten glass.
The glass etching that characterizes so much of his work will happen in Singletary’s private studio, but the end result are objects like these on display at the Tacoma Glass Museum, some barely looking like glass:
If you’re in the Puget Sound area it’s easy to look to glass for inspiration. The Pilchuck Glass School founded by glass artist Dale Chihuly was instrumental in the development of the whole American glass art movement. Countless glass artists like Ginny Ruffner, Joey Kirkpatrick, William Morris, Flora Mace, Benjamin Moore and Lino Tagliapietra have studied or taught there making the Puget Sound region a birthplace and a showcase for glass art.
There’s also the Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum at the Seattle Center.
In addition to the Tacoma Museum of Glass, the Tacoma Art Museum just opened up a new Benaroya Wing based on the donation by Rebecca Benaroya of her and her late husband Jack’s private glass collection.
How many different directions can you take glass? Well, if you’re an artist open to inspiration from “bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light, and shadows”, well, the possibilities are just about endless.
“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”
— Maya Angelou
One fall day many years ago, when the wind was gusting and leaves, golden and red, cartwheeled across the street, I suddenly felt inspired to write an ode to the season. I was thinking of the kind of fulsome, simple poem that my father sometimes read to us. (When he wasn’t baffling us with things like The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.) I went home and wrote The Harvest in Our Hearts and it’s been part of my family’s Thanksgiving tradition ever since.
I’d like to share it with you along with a new painting that Julie Paschkis generously gave me permission to use. It’s a piece for a two-person show at the Seattle Art Museum’s café, TASTE, in May. Keep your eyes open for it!
Thanks to my fellow bloggers Julie Paschkis, Julie Larios, Margaret Chodos-Irvine and Laura Kvasnosky, and HAPPY THANKSGIVING to all who read our blog. You are all part of the harvest in my own heart.
The Harvest in Our Hearts
by Bonny Becker
It was the dawn of winter
and the table was set for feasting.
The silver was polished, the fire ablaze.
The turkey at last done with roasting.
We had just then raised a glass to toast
the harvest and the day,
when there came a knock at the door,
and a stranger blew in and seated himself saying,
“Room for one more?”
He wasn’t the kind to argue with. He was wide and tall and brawny.
His robes were worked in the richest threads
of brown and red and tawny.
His head was wreathed with an herbal crown;
He smelled of smoke and cold, and it seemed when he sat
that leaves fell down in a whirl of red and gold.
“Who are you?” I dared to ask, but he merely smiled
and demanded a glass of his own.
He surveyed our board and seemed to judge, weighing its merit,
assessing the richness of each dish, the quality of the claret.
Beneath his gaze it was odd to note our table grew more rich.
The silver gleamed more deep; the candles burned more bright.
Our fire stood more securely against the winter night.
He nodded. This god approved.
“Be warm, eat well, be gay.
Each season has its moment;
Each moment slips away.”
Thus saying, he, too, began to fade like smoke in the autumn wind,
but his words still lingered as we raised our glasses again.
“Here’s to friends and harvest
to winter days and rain.
Here’s to those who are with us
and to those we’ll not see again.
Here’s to fall and feasting,
to good wine and good cheer.
Here’s to the harvest in our hearts
in the winter of the year.”
Last month I warned I might revisit Roger Duvoisin’s work in picture books. So, here are two more of his books from my shelves: Donkey-donkey (1940) and Petunia (1950).
Unlike A Child’s Garden of Verses, these two books are authored by Duvoisin as well. His writing style matches his illustrations – light and delightful.
The themes are similar – animals wanting to better themselves somehow and making themselves and others suffer for it. Silly animals.
Using animals to upstage human folly is common in literature. Duvoisin’s squiggly images help us laugh at the situations such foolish creatures get themselves into.
Donkey-donkey is a happy donkey until he starts comparing himself to Pat, the horse.
He becomes dissatisfied with his big donkey ears and gets advice from everyone else at the farm on what to do about it.
As we expect, he comes around to accepting his ears and going back to his happy donkey life.
Petunia is literally a silly goose. She finds a book and has heard that ‘He who owns Books and loves them is wise,’ so she picks up the book and carries it around with her, feeling very wise indeed.
Petunia’s pride in her new-found wisdom leads her to mis-advise all the other animals at the farm.
This causes misery and mayhem.
She is too busy being wise to notice until the situation becomes explosive.
At this point she notices the book has something in it, namely pages, with words on them that she cannot read. Now she understands, ‘It was not enough to carry wisdom under my wing, I must put it in my mind an in my heart. and to do that I must learn to read.”
Be true to yourself.
Wisdom only comes from books if you use them correctly.
If a goose can learn to read, so can you.
Good lessons at any age.
Once upon a time, an author was an elusive creature. Rarely glimpsed, rarely heard from except in his or her published writings. There were the exceptions—the ever-touring Dickens and Twain. But when I was growing up a real writer was such a rare beast that I vaguely thought that all authors were either dead or perhaps lived in some land not really connected to our own.
So, I was thrilled to finally meet an actual author when I was 21–P.L. Travers of Mary Poppins fame when she was a writer in residence at my college. I had read and adored Mary Poppins as a child and here was the author herself.
The meeting, at a dinner table in my dorm, was disappointing. She was fulfilling what clearly was an annoying requirement—a meal with the students. She brushed off my shy, gushing acknowledgement of her and her books, ate as quickly as she could and immediately left. But, like Mary Poppins, she did leave me with a bit of wonder. I noticed that the salt and pepper shakers had vanished with her.
Was it a bit of Mary Poppins magic or was P.L. just a bit of a kleptomaniac? This was certainly possible. Pamela Lyndon Travers was a complicated person. She was notorious for her snappish demeanor and extreme protectiveness of Mary Poppins. You can see a highly sentimentalized (but reasonable accurate) version of her struggles with Walt Disney over the making of the Mary Poppins film in the movie “Saving Mr. Banks.” (Insider tip: Travers’ tears at the end are not tears of joy.)
You can get a more direct feel for her in this interview with Alex Witchel that ran in the New York Times in 1994.I love many of the exchanges in what must have been an intimidating interview, but this is one I could particularly relate to as a writer. Witchel asks Travers if she is proud of her Mary Poppins books.
“Yes, I am proud,” she [Travers] says clearly. “Because I really got to know her.”
Miss Travers has written that when she was a child she wished to be a bird. Is Mary Poppins? After all, she can fly and she is the only adult capable of understanding the starlings and the wind.
“That’s something I can’t tell you,” she says. “I didn’t create Mary Poppins.”
“Oh? Who did?”
“I refuse the answer,” she says. “But I learned a lot from Mary Poppins.”
“I can’t say exactly,” she snaps. “It’s not a sum. I know less about her after reading ‘Comes Back’ again.” Her tongue works itself over her lips.
“I think I would like her always to remain unknown,” she continues. “I feel I’ve been given her. Perhaps if somebody else had her she’d be different. I don’t know. I’ve forgotten so much.”
I love Travers’ acknowledgement that Mary Poppins was “given” to her. And her refusal to further explain her character. In some ways, I think writers (like Mary Poppins herself) should also remain unknown. Perhaps some of the magic goes out of things when we meet them, especially if they coldly brush us off! (Although the disappearing salt and pepper shakers almost made up for it.)
Authors are not so private and mysterious these days. Between school visits, blog posts, social media, bookstore appearances, and late-night interviews, the world seems rotten with authors. We get to know them all too well, perhaps.
Still, believe it or not this is all by way of letting you know that I’ve been doing readings and signings lately for my new book “The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael.”
So, even if you don’t need to meet me, I love getting a chance of getting to meet you. Like so many of us introverted writers, we turn into extroverts under the right light. Even P.L. Travers start to get expansive toward the end of her New York Times interview.
If you’d like to meet the not-that-elusive Bonny Becker and learn more about my latest book, do come to see me at the Secret Garden Bookshop in Ballard, Oct. 25 at 7:00 p.m.
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.
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?
“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.
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.
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.