His Royal Highness, King Baby: A Terrible True Story + an interview with David Roberts

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by Sally Lloyd-Jones and David Roberts (Candlewick Press, 2017)

Do you see that pantyhose hair? And big sister’s expression? And her no-nonsense-ear-pencil and toe about to tap?

And the gold on this jacket sparkles with its spot gloss situation, and the whole book from the very beginning is just a yes.

So when Candlewick asked if I’d like to chat with illustrator David Roberts, I was on board. You might also know him from his work with Andrea Beaty on Iggy, Rosie, and Ada? I’m sure you do.

Meet David:

How did you get into picture books?

I got in to picture books after working as a fashion illustrator and milliner. I had gone to work in Hong Kong after graduating from Manchester Polytechnic. I had a degree in fashion design, but I knew I didn’t want to work as a designer. I had always loved drawing, and so picked up some work doing fashion illustration for magazines and newspapers. When I returned to the UK , I tried to find work as a fashion illustrator, but with not much luck. My other passion was millinery and I was extremely lucky to get a job working as a couture milliner for Stephen Jones. I did this for about six years, and in that time I had found an agent to represent me, not as a fashion illustrator but within the world of children’s books.

On seeing my portfolio, my agent, Christine Isteed remarked that I drew characters well, and expressed a wish to push me in the direction of kids’ literature. I was thrilled, as this had been a long held ambition of mine after I shared a house while at college with two amazing children’s book illustrators Gillian Tyler and Dominic Mansell. I had been completely captivated by their work and secretly desired to do something similar myself, but without the confidence to really try, but then Christine (my agent) came along, and all that changed. I have never looked back and feel privileged every day that I get to do this as my job.

When you first read the text of His Royal Highness, King Baby, did you immediately have a look in mind? How did you arrive at such a fabulous period piece?

When I read the text, I instantly loved the irony. I loved the drama and the fantasy that the little girl builds in her imagination. I wanted to try and capture a sort of fantastical traditional fairytale world with castles and horses and unicorns, but within an ordinary domestic home setting. The text left it open to be set at any time period. Being a child of the seventies, I often revert to the decade of my childhood when visualizing clothing or furniture or surface pattern; it was a very rich, bold, and brightly decorative time.

I also love the fashion of the designers Bill Gibb, Ossie Clark, and Zandra Rhodes–they were all exploring fantasy and romanticism in their designs, and it just seemed the perfect approach to use for this text.

I also needed a ‘throne’ for the new ‘king’ to sit on, and those high-backed, peacock style wicker chairs are so reminiscent of seventies interior design, that it all fit together nicely. It was enormous fun to be given the freedom to visualize the story this way.

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Can you tell us about your process?

I read and re-read the text to make sure I fully understand the story. And I do a lot of research, mainly through books but increasingly now with the aid of the internet. I start by thinking about the size and shape of the book, and whether the story would fit best in a landscape, portrait, or square format. When I’ve established the book’s physical size, then I begin drawing ideas onto layout paper, plotting and composing the images around the text, and thinking about how the pagination should flow. I might find inspiration for composition in pieces of art I’ve studied or admired. For example, David Hockney’s work has been a huge inspiration for me, as has Michael Leonard’s work, and Edward Gorey’s work. I recently saw an exhibition on Russian art from the Soviet period, which was fascinating, and I know that has got right inside my imagination and will no doubt find its way into my own work in the future.

I also find that I am inspired by old photography; I love how static it is, and how perfectly and precisely the pictures are composed.

Music or radio conversation is my constant companion while I work, and I do find that certain songs can help me create the mood and atmosphere I am trying to achieve in my artwork.

When I am happy with the composition, pagination, and content, I will share the sketches with the publisher and the author to let them comment and make their own suggestions. When we are all satisfied with the sketches, I begin the final art. This is when I make decisions about color. I don’t work digitally at all so all color decisions once painted in are usually final, unless I can scratch them off with a razor blade. I paint into heavy 300grm hot pressed paper, so it can take a bit of a scrape, but not too much.

I then send it or take it to the publisher, who has it all scanned, and puts the book together with the text.

Who are some of your story heroes?

I was thrilled and privileged to be asked to illustrate The Wind in the Willows a few years back. Having never previously read the book, I was intrigued and excited to see how I could approach it. One of the things I was most keen to capture was the loving, caring, and gentle relationship between the characters of Ratty and Mole. I fell completely in love with them, particularly Ratty and his little blue boat.

I am currently writing and illustrating a book for children about the suffragettes. One very real life character has become a hero of mine since embarking on this subject. Her name was Muriel Matters. She was Australian but lived in London in the early 20th century. In a bid to spread the word about the fight for women’s suffrage,  she hired an 80ft air ship, decorated the side with the slogan “Votes for Women,” and sailed high above London, scattering leaflets about the “Women’s Freedom League” down to the streets below on the day of the King’s Parade to Parliament!

What’s your favorite piece of art in your house?

I recently got married, and while on honeymoon in Japan my husband and I discovered this wooden sculpture. It’s called a kokeshi, which is a traditional Japanese wooden doll, usually beautiful painted, but in the 60s and 70s some artists started to create them in a more simplistic fashion. These are called “creative kokeshi.” We fell in love with this one which was designed by Yamanaka Sanpei, and love her startled expression.

David Roberts Interview for DOTPB

What’s next for you?

I am so lucky to have a lot of fantastic stories that I’ve been asked to illustrate lined up. I am currently finishing my own book about the women’s suffrage campaign, and then I have a new project with Julia Donaldson, with whom I did Tyrannosaurus Drip and The Troll about a king and his cook. Then a book set in the time of the Great War written by Sally Gardner at the start of next year. Along with more stories about the Bolds for Julian Clary, and more from Andrea Beaty who I did Rosie Revere, Engineer with, to keep me busy!

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HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS, KING BABY. Text copyright © 2017 by Sally Lloyd-Jones. Illustrations copyright © 2017 by David Roberts. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA on behalf of Walker Books, London.

The Journey Trilogy

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by Aaron Becker (box set to be released November 7, 2017, Candlewick Press)

I’m so excited to bring you this glimmer of good news today. Aaron Becker’s stunning wordless trilogy is being released as a box set by Candlewick just in time for the warm winter holidays, or any time your soul needs a boost.

Here’s a look at the magic.

I asked Aaron a little bit about his incredible past few years in publishing. Here he is!

So, how does it feel to know there’s a box set for the Journey Trilogy?

I am more than thrilled! I’ve always loved this sort of thing in the series that I follow, but I never imagined when I wrote Journey that it would grow into something like this. It’s such an honor and I’m so excited to see it come together.

Had you always planned a trilogy?

When I was editing Journey, the one thing I didn’t have room for was a resolution for the girl’s initial (and significant) disconnect with her family. Instead, she finds a way out of her loneliness through her imagination and the adventures and friends she makes along the way. This felt closer to life to me; that the things we desire deep down don’t always pan out the way we might hope.

At the same time there was this nagging question when the layouts were finished – What about the girl’s family? Will she ever be seen by them? Well before Journey published (as you know, it’s a long process from completion of artwork to final publication) I talked to my editor at Candlewick (Mary Lee Donovan) about extending the story into a trilogy to help finish the larger arc of the girl’s journey. At that point, I wrote out a synopsis of the final two books. It was important to me that the story not turn into an ongoing series, but end as a succinct story with three purposeful acts, where Quest delves us deeper into the worlds of Journey and Return comes full circle to resolve the girl’s initial rift.

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Journey was your debut and landed in the book-world like a meteor. Was it hard to follow up on that kind of success?

Luckily I avoided any of that pressure – the paintings for Quest were finished by the time Journey published! Return was harder to figure out, but mostly because the story needed to work both as a stand alone story and a book end to the trilogy – in 40 wordless pages!

Your book trailers are amazing. How do they get made?

Thanks! I used to work in the film industry, so when the time came to promote Journey, I took what I knew of animation and film making and put it to use. It’s a really fun part of the process for me, and I wanted to do something special to celebrate the release of the box set that was different than my animations from the trilogy. I filmed the lanterns and books in our back yard with some fancy new camera equipment. It was a blast, though waiting for the perfect sunset took some patience!

For the music in all of my trailers, I work with Jacob Montague, a composer from the band Branches. Jacob takes my temp track and scores original music based on the timing of the edit. Books are a relatively solitary process, so it’s nice to have the chance for some collaboration.

Now that the trilogy is complete and the box set is coming out, do you have plans ever to go back to the worlds from Journey?

I do have an idea about the girl’s father when he was a boy. It’s the back story of it all that explains the crayons and the mythology of the kingdom. Actually, if you look carefully, a lot of it is already there on the cave painting in Return. I think I prefer keeping it there instead of elaborating too literally for the reader. There’s such a large part of these stories that belong to the readers themselves and I’d hate to take that away by explaining it too much!

I’ll have to take a look at that cave myself! So what’s next?

I have an entirely new wordless book coming out in Spring of 2018, A Stone for Sascha. It’s hard to explain in words how lucky I feel to be doing this job of telling my own stories. Now if only I had more time! I have so many I want to tell.

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Return + a video premiere and visit from Aaron Becker

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by Aaron Becker (Candlewick, 2016)

It’s an honor today to welcome Aaron Becker to this space. He’s here to talk about the close to his sweeping trilogy, the design of Return, and to premiere a beautiful short film about its creation.

Take a look. Be inspired.

And here’s Aaron:

One of my favorite parts of making books is figuring out the final bits of design for the dust jacket, the endpapers, and the book’s cover. Even when I pitched Journey years ago, I decided to build a cloth-bound, hand-stitched dummy. I wanted to make sure that if we did get an offer, if would be from a publisher that was serious about the details of book making!

In Return, I needed the design of the book to support what I had set out to do. For one, this third part of the trilogy needed to stand on its own, apart from the story it was ending. At the same time, Return needed to pay homage to the book’s predecessors and immediately feel a bit more weighty. After all, this was the final act.

The cover had to evoke something from the trilogy but also speak to the fact that we were no longer in the realm of the young child. In Return the girl has grown up a bit and its story brings up more pressing questions: What are the limits to the imagination? When is it time to grow up? And can we hold on to wonder when we chose to move on from our escapist fantasies? Clearly, I was dealing with some bigger themes here, and so I knew the jacket illustration had to reflect this. We see the girl running back into the lantern forest from Journey, but now the mood is noticeably darker and more mysterious. The lanterns glow red instead of the comforting blues from Journey. And there’s an urgency to her movement – she’s no longer just passively observing the world around her.

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The embossed design for the cover for each book was also something I carefully considered. I had to match the spirit of the book in one image. For Return, I chose the symbol of the kite – this is, after all, the visual link between the girl and her father; a symbol not only of the rift between them that starts out the trilogy, but of the connection they eventually find by the stories’ end. In wordless books, these visual symbols take on even more meaning than a book with words.

These symbols have to carry the themes and ideas of the story without the support of the written word, and to this end, you’ll also notice on the back of the jacket the girl’s crown – a symbol of her attachment to the imaginary realm – now sitting at the bottom of the sea as a relic of an adventure that has run its course.

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And lastly, we come to the endpapers. When I’ve presented the story of Return to children and adults alike, this is the part of the presentation when I start to get choked up. (In the endpapers of all places!) And though I won’t spell it out for you here, if you look closely you might just see something significant within the differences between the front and back ends papers.

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I believe it’s our duty when making children’s books to make them with care. They are objects that we share with our children that can have lasting effects on their lives. I for one, as an author and illustrator, don’t take their creation lightly. My hope is that some of this attention to detail will make the difference, even if on a subconscious level, for a child as they begin to build a connection to the stories that move them.
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Lucy + An Interview with Randy Cecil

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by Randy Cecil (Candlewick, 2016)

Oh, how I loved this book. It’s unusual: not quite a picture book, not quite a chapter book, innovative and entirely perfect for the story inside. This is the story of a dog named Lucy, a girl who loves her, and another someone this girl loves. This is a story of lost things and found things, routine, and stage fright. It’s a story about love.

I chatted with author/illustrator Randy Cecil about what he’s made here, and am so happy to bring this conversation to you.

I’m particularly interested in the three main characters, and how their intricacies overlapped. Did any of them come first? Can you talk about that a bit?

Years ago, I sketched out a rough draft of a wordless book about Lucy (the dog I had recently adopted). In that story, Lucy lived with a girl that looks very much like the character that would become Eleanor. In the wordless version, the unnamed girl that looks like Eleanor loses Lucy, who ends up boarding an ocean liner and never sees her again. But all works out okay in the end for Lucy, as another child on another continent finds her and takes her in.

Most who read this story, understandably, felt sad for the girl who lost her dog. This wasn’t at all what I was after, I put the manuscript aside for a while to think.

Then one day, a few years later, I had the idea of a juggler with stage fright, who lived in a sort of vaudeville world. And I could see how it might fit together with the Lucy story, especially if I switched Eleanor from being the one who loses Lucy to being the one who finds her and takes her in. And suddenly all the pieces fell into place.

9780763668082-int-1  Lucy is an unusual picture book in terms of its form, and benefits from feeling fresh and unique. Did it feel like you were breaking rules or was there some freedom from the usual structure?

Thanks! At the start I definitely felt like I was breaking the rules, and that was a lot of fun. But as I figured out what I was doing, I realized that this story and format came with its own set of rules that needed to be followed. So in a lot of ways, it wasn’t so different.

Can you tell us about your process?

I first wrote a sort of outline for the story, which was really more of a detailed summary of the plot, broken up into scenes.

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Then I sketched out each scene to figure out the pacing.

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Then I wrote the more finished text, which I assembled, along with the sketches, into a digital dummy, and sent it off to Candlewick Press. They reassembled the text and pictures into a much more polished dummy, with the proper design and font and trim size, and send it back to me (along with lots of editorial notes).

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And after going back and forth in this way many times, I finally painted the finished illustrations.

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Who are some of your story heroes?

My heroes are the authors and illustrators of my childhood—Maurice Sendak, William Steig, Edward Gorey, Uri Shulevitz, Gahan Wilson, Mercer Mayer and many, many more!

What’s your favorite piece of art in your house?

I have always been a fan of folk and outsider art. This beautiful thing was given to me by a friend.

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What’s next for you?

I am currently trying to convince Candlewick to publish a companion book to Lucy (same universe, new characters)!

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LUCY. Copyright © 2016 by Randy Cecil. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Thank you to Candlewick Press for connecting me to Randy, and also for a preview copy of Lucy.

House Held Up By Trees

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by Ted Kooser, illustrated by Jon Klaassen (Candlewick, 2012)

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Above, the endpapers. A subtle hint at the both the hope and the loss inside: the green, the growth, the time.

House Held Up By Trees is one of my most treasured books. It was published around the time that Jon Klassen was racking up accolades (well-deserved!) for I Want My Hat Back and Extra Yarn, and it was written by a Ted Kooser, a Poet Laureate from about a decade ago.

That is a powerful team. And they captured a quietly powerful story.

There’s a house. It doesn’t look like much. But a dad lives there. Two kids. The dad is particular about his lawn and the kids run off to play in the trees and scraggly underbrush on either side of the house. Their yard, after all, has no secret spots or shade.

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These opening spreads are beautifully cinematic. Sweeping and grand. We are spinning around this house, this focal point, seeing it from the perspective of a homecoming, a hiding spot, and a thing with fur.

If you are a picture book author of text only, you’ve probably heard the advice to make sure you have x number of illustratable settings. Well. This book has a house. And a lawn. And characters that come and go. It breaks some of the ‘rules,’ but to heck with those things. Write something beautiful. 

Something important. Something that has to be told and illustrated or else it will be scattered away with those twirly-whirly seeds.

The words are not spare in this text. In fact, there are many. But because of Kooser’s text, lyrically floating around a solid foundation, Klassen gets to explore all angles of this environment.

Page after page after page. It’s a case study in composition. And it is beautiful and important and elusive.

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The children leave. The father leaves. The house stays.

It is bittersweet. Time goes on, but trees do too.

What once was vast and open and contained is now crowded by branches and forceful new life. And again, Klassen’s compositions tell the story of an unbridled wildness.

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First there was a crack of light beneath it, and then . . . 

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PS: Do you know this blog, 32 Pages? Here’s a look at House Held Up By Trees that is beyond beautiful, and in a funny twist of small-world-ness, I worked on the television show she mentions in her post. 

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen

by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen (Candlewick Press, 2014)

You know Mac and Jon. You love Mac and Jon. Now meet Sam and Dave. You’ll love Sam and Dave.

Don’t rush into the pages just yet. This is one of the best covers I’ve seen in a long while. If we weren’t so aware that Jon Klassen (that insta-recognizable style!) is a contemporary illustrator, I would wholeheartedly presume that it was some vintage thing in a used bookstore. A find to gloat about, a find that makes you wonder just how you got so lucky.

The hole. The space left over. The words, stacked deeper and deeper. The apple tree whose tippy top is hidden. Two chaps, two caps, two shovels. One understanding dog.

Speaking of two chaps, two caps, and two shovels, check out the trailer.

(I’ll wait if you need to watch that about five more times.)

The start of their hole is shallow, and they are proud. But they have only just started. Sam asks Dave when they should stop, and this is Dave’s reply:

“We won’t stop digging until we find something spectacular.”

Dave’s voice of reason is so comforting to any young adventurer. It’s validating that your goal is something spectacular. (Do we forget this as grownups? To search for somthing spectacular? I think we do.)

Perhaps the pooch is the true voice of reason here, though he doesn’t ever let out a bark or a grumble. Those eyes, the scent, the hunt. He knows.

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen

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And this is where Sam and Dave Dig a Hole treads the waters of picture book perfection. The treasure, this spectacular something, is just beyond the Sam and Dave’s reality. The reader gets the treat where Sam and Dave are stumped. Do you want to sit back and sigh about their unfortunate luck? Do you want to holler at them to just go this way or that way or pay attention to your brilliant dog? Do you root for them? Do you keep your secret?

The text placement on each page is sublime. If Sam and Dave plant themselves at the bottom of the page, so does the text. If the hole is deep and skinny, the text block mirrors its length. This design choice is a spectacular something. It’s subtle. It’s meaningful. It’s thoughtful and inevitable all at once.

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen

(click to enlarge)

And then – then! Something spectacular. The text switches sides. The boys fall down. Through? Into? Under? Did the boys reach the other side? Are they where they started? Is this real life? Their homecoming is the same, but different. Where there was a this, now there is a that. Where there was a hmm, now there is an ahhh.

Spectacular indeed.

I like to think that the impossible journey here is a nod to Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak’s collaboration, A Hole is to Dig. That’s what holes are for. That’s what the dirt asks of you. It’s not something you do alone or without a plan or without hope. Sam and Dave operate in this truth. They need to dig. There’s not another choice.

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(image here // a first edition, first printing!)

Sidenote: I’m pretty thrilled that these scribbles live in my ARC.

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen

Look for this one on October 14th.

SAM AND DAVE DIG A HOLE. Text copyright © 2014 by Mac Barnett. Illustrations copyright © 2014 by Jon Klassen.Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

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The Tiny King

The Tiny King by Taro Muiraby Taro Miura

first U.S. edition published 2013, by Candlewick Press

Here’s a sweet and funny story. Candlewick sent me a review copy of The Tiny King in the waning weeks of 2013. My eye was already eager for it thanks to this Calling Caldecott post about international illustrators, so it was a bit of postal perfection. (Speaking of, are you counting down the days to January 27th?)

And then for Christmas, my mom sent me a spectacular selection of picture books – including The Tiny King! She always says I’m tough to buy books for, like “purchasing jewelry for a jeweler.” Maybe that’s true, but I think she did a pretty darn good job. (The others were a Poky Little Puppy Christmas edition and an autographed Jon Scieszka, so. And all came from bbgb in Richmond, VA. Shop indie!)

There’s no moral to this story. Just an extra copy of The Tiny King for you! Stay tuned for how to snag it.

So, this book. It’s this crazy mashup of charming fairy tale and quirky collage. The result is exquisite and mesmerizing, and you get a taste of that from the cover alone.

A sword-gripping hand is strong and fierce but nothing more than a circle. His distinguished white hairdo dripping out from under his crown – a small stack of white, curved lines. A leg made up of newsprint, which on careful inspection is a snippet of the tiny King’s wedding announcement. Foreshadowing. Spoiler. Clever and adorable.

Did you see the mini-note at the bottom of the cover, too? (This is the actual size of the Tiny King.) What a little delight! DPB_Stack_TheTinyKing Now that you’ve met him on the cover where you’ve seen him smash end to end, flip open to the first page and see that stature in context. This split in scale made me laugh out loud and drop my jaw. It’s so stunning, and so easy to fall in love with this little dude – small and alone and swimming in it.

He has a massive colorful castle, an army of tall soldiers with spears, and a feast fit for a bigger king. The spreads that introduce the reader to his lavish and lonely lifestyle are dark and looming, despite his kooky, whimsical posessions. DPB_Stack_TheTinyKing2 And then one day, a big princess shows up. The light! The expanse of bright space! The Q on her triangled gown! I went all out gaga and giddy for our tiny hero.

Everything changes in tone and in mood. The story takes place on washes of pink, blue, and yellow. The babies arrive, the soldiers are sent home to their families, and the empty castle is filled up with a bunch of love. DPB_Stack_TheTinyKing3 Happily and beautifully ever after.

I’d love to send a copy from my castle to yours. Just comment here by Thursday night at midnight PST. I’ll announce winners for this giveaway (and The Mischievians!) on Friday, and head to the royal post office this weekend.

Good luck!

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Review copy provided by Candlewick Press.