Creating Thunder Boy Jr.: it takes a village!

thunderboy

by Sherman Alexie, illustrated by Yuyi Morales (Little, Brown 2016)

I am so excited to share this guest post with you today! Please welcome Alvina Ling, esteemed editor at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, sharing here about the collaborative process that brought this beautiful book to life.

Enjoy!


Creating Thunder Boy Jr.: it takes a village!

by Alvina Ling

It’s said that we’re “stronger together,” and that’s certainly the case when it comes to bringing a children’s book into the world.

Collaboration is especially apparent when working on picture books, and I thought I’d give you all a peek into how a book gets made while outlining the publication process of the picture book Thunder Boy Jr. , written by Sherman Alexie and illustrated by Yuyi Morales.

Most picture books start with a manuscript. Sherman, associate editor Bethany Strout, and I went through a few different ideas, and a countless number of drafts and revision to get to the text that ended up in the book. He sent the initial idea for Thunder Boy Jr. in as a text titled I Want a New Name in July 2013, and we had a final manuscript and the new title by September, which is relatively fast.

Once we had a manuscript ready to share, we set about finding an illustrator. At Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (LBYR), we always ask the author if they have any ideas. Sherman suggested an illustrator, and I worked with our Design department to come up with some additional ideas to share with him, too. Ultimately, two different people at LBYR separately suggested Yuyi Morales. Yuyi’s Niño Wrestles the World had gained a lot of attention that year, and when I showed the book to Sherman, he was instantly in love. He even wrote a letter to Yuyi to entice her.

Dear Yuyi,

I am sitting in the Little Brown offices looking at picture books, searching for potential illustrators, and I just saw your Nino book, AND I AM IN LOVE.

I would very much love to work with you.

Please.

Please.

Please.

Um, please.

Sherman Alexie

I hadn’t known it at the time, but Yuyi had been planning to focus on her own work, as opposed to illustrating other author’s work. But it turned out that her whole family was huge Sherman Alexie fans. In fact, for Christmas one year her son had given his grandparents copies of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Yuyi was IN! And, we were all ecstatic. It felt meant to be.

Once Yuyi was on board, the next step was sketches. Yuyi sent us very rough thumbnails first. Here are a few spreads:

1-yuyi-rough-thumbnail 2-i-hate-my-name-rough-sketch 3-i-want-a-name-that-celebrates-rough-sketch

As you may be able to see, in the early thumbnails, Thunder Boy Jr. had a bunch of friends that he interacted with. The art director, Sasha Illingworth, and I reviewed the sketches and decided that they were a little too busy and confusing at times. The funny thing with collaboration is, oftentimes you don’t remember who came up with what idea, but we ended up throwing out to Yuyi: instead of all the friends, what if Thunder Boy Jr. had just a sister instead? Yuyi loved the idea of bringing in a little girl, and focusing on Thunder Boy Jr’s immediate family.

Once sketches were in, we circulated them amongst design, copyediting (in this case, our managing editor Andy Ball), and editorial. Each department reviews the sketches carefully, looking for things like continuity, pacing, the gutter (the middle of the spread where the pages are bound together), the “bleed” on the edges (during the book’s printing, the pages aren’t always cut exactly right, so we ask the illustrator to include a quarter inch extra art, or bleed, around the edges just in case, so that nothing gets cut off), and more.

Here were the comments we sent Yuyi on the spreads above:

Spread 9:   The scene on the left is a bit close to the one on spread 11. Is it possible to change this one up a bit? This is a quieter moment in the story. We’d also  love to add mom into this scene. On the right side, we’ve love for Thunder Boy to be bigger, and would love for him to be leaning in, perhaps like he’s whispering, or gesturing to us that he’s telling a secret.

Spread 10: We LOVE this! We don’t want to lose too much of Thunder Boy’s head so it would be great to move him up a bit. We also don’t want to lose the snake in the gutter, could you shift his head to the left?

Spread 11: We’d love to see a little more action in the right hand side. Maybe make him larger in scale as well? Have him be in a more powerful/active pose?

Yuyi sent us more detailed sketches—you can see how the art has developed:

4-can-i-tell-you-a-secret-detailed-sketch 5-i-hate-my-name-detailed-sketch

Isn’t the little sister adorable?! For those of you who have read the book, I think you’d agree that she steals the show. And to think she almost didn’t exist!

We also sent these sketches to Sherman, who loved them so much. “Oh the sketches just made me cry!” He was also inspired to make some text changes in response to Yuyi’s art—for example, he added the little sister character into the text, and we also worked to get the ending just right.

In this case, these are the comments we send Yuyi on the three spreads I shared above:

Spread 9: LOVE

Spread 10: Need lots of bleed especially on the bottom so we don’t lose too much

Spread 11: GREAT. Love little sis hanging on Dad’s leg!

As you can see, not too many comments—Yuyi was given the go-ahead to go to final art.

In the meantime, Sherman and I continued to work on the ending—we felt that the resolution was happening too quickly. Here’s the previous ending text:

I do not want the name

they gave me when I was born.

I do not want to be Little Thunder.

I don’t want to be small.

Hey, wait.

I just had a great idea.

I know how

to fix this thing.

My Dad will stay Thunder

But my name will be Lightning.

Together, my Dad and I

will become amazing weather.

Our love will be loud

and it will be bright.

My Dad and I will light up the sky.

Sherman thought about it, and decided that he wanted the new ending to deepen the father’s role. Here was his revision:

I love my dad but I don’t want to be exactly like him.

I love my dad but

I want to be mostly myself.

I love my dad but I want my own name.

What do I do? What do I say?

“Son, I think it’s time I gave you a new name. A name of your own.”

My dad read my mind! My dad read my heart!

“Son, my name will still be Thunder but your new name will be…”

LIGHTNING!

Together, my Dad and I

will become amazing weather.

Our love will be loud

and it will be bright.

My Dad and I will light up the sky.

Even though we often like to have the child solve a problem in children’s books himself, in this case we felt the new ending rang more true—it seemed fitting for Thunder Boy Jr. to declare his will of wanting his new name, and for his father to help grant his wish in the end. Yuyi suggested having both the father and son say “Lightning!” at the same time, which made for a satisfying ending.

Because we expanded the ending, we now needed to condense some of the beginning. Here’s a revised spread at the beginning with new text including the sister:

6-can-i-tell-you-a-secret-detailed-sketch

Ah, there’s Mom!

If you look at the finished book, you’ll notice further art changes to the composition that were made, even after this sketch. It’s always a work in progress.

7-can-i-tell-you-a-secret-color-sketch

And then comes the part that is still one of my absolute favorite parts of my job—when the final art starts coming in. In this case, Yuyi sent in scans of her art.

This is one of the first pieces Yuyi sent in:

8-1st-piece-yuyi-sent-in

Absolutely gorgeous.

We sent a few test pieces into the printer to start picking paper and proofing. At this stage, we’re working closely with our production department—Erika Schwartz supervised the production of this book. We got in test proofs with the art on both coated and uncoated paper, and then reviewed both carefully. Personally, I’m a sucker for the texture and feel of uncoated paper, but it really depends on the specific art style and book. In this case, it was unanimous: we decided to go with coated paper, because it made Yuyi’s colors really pop.

In the meantime, Sasha was coming up with different fonts for us to choose from, and then placing all of the art with the text in a file called mechanicals. Printouts are circulated once again from design, to copyediting, and to editorial, with each department marking corrections and queries directly on the printouts. The mechanicals circulate until there are no more corrections needed. The mechanicals are also sent to Yuyi and Sherman for review.

The final mechanicals are sent to the printer, and we get color proof back. These we review to make sure the color reflects the original art. If an illustrator is local (like Peter Brown or Jerry Pinkney, for example), we’ll invite them into the office to review the proof for color—we have a color review room in our office with special lighting for this purpose.

Otherwise, as with Yuyi, we mail them the proof and ask them for comments, which we’ll incorporate into our own in-house review of the art. Editorial, production, and design are involved in the color correcting.

Once again, we go as many rounds as needed to get the color right.

So many discussions and decisions go into the making of a book. The cover image, of course—at LBYR we have a jacket committee where our Sales, Marketing, and Publicity directors all weigh in. We bring in sketches, then final art, and discuss details down to how the bylines will read.

Here’s an early cover sketch:

9-cover-sketch

A few early comps:

10-cover-comp-a 11-cover-comp-b

And the final cover:

12-final-cover

Other things to decide: What will the endpapers look like? (circles with the colors Yuyi used throughout the book to highlight emotions) Should we include an author’s note? (We thought the book was perfect without. Also, Sherman and I felt that once the book was out in the world, it belonged to the readers and we liked the idea of different children—brown and otherwise–seeing themselves in the book without knowing the story’s inspiration.) What special effects should go on the cover? (spot gloss and embossing on the title)

The book is now out in the world. It has received six starred reviews, was an instant New York Times and IndieBound bestseller, and best of all, has been pronounced my countless kids to be their favorite book. We couldn’t be prouder of how it’s been received.

As I hope I’ve illustrated, it takes a village to create a book—and of course there are countless more people who touch the book and make it what it becomes. It’s a labor of love for everyone involved, and, ultimately, it is the readers who play the most important role of all.


 

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7 Comments

  • Claire Bobrow
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    Fantastic post! Thank you so much for this peek inside the making of Thunder Boy Jr. It is so helpful to see the back-and-forth dialogue between author, editor, illustrator, etc. and what changes resulted from that dialogue. The final book reflects the care and love poured into this project!

  • Posted December 6, 2016 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this behind-the-scenes look!

  • Posted December 6, 2016 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful post. I’ve spoken so often with my kids at school about what goes unto publishing a book, but this is so enlightening! I’ll be sharing the process with some classes very soon. – Susan

  • Posted December 6, 2016 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    What a fabulous behind-the-scenes look at this process. Congratulations to all involved!

  • Amanda Sincavage
    Posted December 7, 2016 at 1:53 am | Permalink

    This is wonderful! Thank you for sharing the creative process behind this masterpiece!

  • Posted December 7, 2016 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    I thoroughly enjoyed seeing this process after reading the book–thank you for sharing!

  • Posted January 12, 2017 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    I love this post! The process is fascinating to watch. This would be useful in the classroom too so students could see how real authors and illustrators work together and use feedback to make changes. Thanks for sharing!