Robinson + an interview with Peter Sís

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by Peter Sís (Scholastic, 2017)

Here’s a special thing for you that was a huge honor for me.

Meet Peter Sís. You might know him from an incredible stack of books like Starry Messenger, The Wall, and The Pilot and the Little Prince. His latest, Robinson, is a sort of mashup of Sís’s own childhood and the adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Surprising, refreshing, and familiar.

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When, how, or why did you get into picture books?

Growing up in Czechoslovakia I loved to illustrate stories that my father and grandfather told me as a child, but I never thought about becoming an illustrator while in art school. I was thinking about a future in fine arts and fell in love with animation. I won the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival with my short film “Heads.” I got invited to Hollywood in 1982 to work on an animated film project for the summer Olympic Games in 1984. Animation takes a long time so I was still working on the film when the Soviet bloc countries pulled out of the Olympics, and I did not return home.

I was trying to figure out my future as an artist in America when Maurice Sendak came to the rescue. “So, you want to be in children’s books?” he said. He gave me such a lovely introduction to publishing that I have been in the picture book world ever since.

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Can you tell us the story of how Robinson came to be?

Robinson is a memory from my childhood which came back to me when my sister found an old photograph of me dressed up in furs as Robinson Crusoe for a school costume party. It was a flashback to a moment when I felt ridiculed by my friends. I loved the book Robinson Crusoe. And my creative wonderful mother made me an outrageous costume of the brave castaway, for which I won the top prize for the most imaginative character. But all my friends made fun of it.

I remember very well how mortified and foolish I felt. Yet I loved the book so much that somehow it made it all worthwhile. My new book, Robinson, is about the power of books for a child.

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What does it mean to you to be a recipient of the Hans Christian Anderson award?

It means one is recognized by one’s peers all over the world for lifetime achievement. That is wonderful and also alarming because it means you are getting old. But I love that it creates a connection to my teachers and mentors: Jiri Trnka, Maurice Sendak and Quentin Blake.

One of my favorites from your backlist is Madlenka. Do you have any favorite stories in your catalog? And why?

For many years, I was inspired by my children. My son gave me the idea for Fire Truck because we lived across the street from a fire station, and he was passionate about them. I discovered life in America and the colorful, multicultural world of my new country through my daughter, Madeleine (or Madlenka), who is very curious and creative and had many adventures on the block where we lived in downtown Manhattan. This global diversity was so inspirational for me because I came from a country where everybody and everything looked the same. Now my children are grown, but I still have many stories from their childhood that have yet to make it into a book.

I also value the story about my father, Tibet Through the Red Box, and a book about my childhood hero, Jan Welzl, A Small Tall Tale from the Far Far North. The Three Golden Keys brings back special memories of Prague for me.

Who are some of your story heroes?

Robinson Crusoe, Antoine de Saint Exupery, Czech president, Vaclav Havel, Swallows and Amazons, Charlie Chaplin, Milos Forman (I created the poster for his film Amadeus), John Lennon and the Yellow Submarine.

I also had unique heroes as a child since my grandfather worked on the design of train stations in Cleveland and Chicago in the 1930’s. He collected comic strips from the Chicago Tribune and got them bound into a book which was bigger than I was. Unlike other Czech kids, I grew up with Little Orphan Annie, Mutt and Jeff, and Crazy Cat. I loved that book so much that the newsprint slowly fell apart.

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

My favorite piece of art is by Lane Smith. We did a picture exchange, but I still owe him his! Sorry, Lane, it is coming!

What’s next for you?

Ha, good question. I am inspired by the story of Nicholas Winton who saved 669 children before the Nazis arrived in Czechoslovakia in 1939. He organized trains that took them to England. I am also thinking about a story of a little refugee of today who faces all kinds of dangers before arriving in the free world. And how I met the Beatles and worked on the cover for Sergeant Peppers. There are amazing stories happening all around us every day. Now I need to focus and choose the right one.

 

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PS: Thank you to Scholastic for the images in this post and connecting me to Peter Sís.

How to Make Friends With a Ghost + an interview with Rebecca Green

How to Make Friends with a Ghost

by Rebecca Green (Tundra Books, 2017)

Here’s your fall storytime favorite! It’s already mine. Author and illustrator Rebecca Green stopped by to answer a few questions about this book and her beautiful work.

Welcome, Rebecca!

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When, how, or why did you get into picture books?

I’ve only been doing picture books for the last two years or so. Before, I was doing editorial, gallery work, and older chapter books. I signed the contract for How to Make Friends with a Ghost right when I was signing on with my children’s publishing agent, and I just sort of got launched into the industry. I absolutely love working in this field, from the broad possibilities for illustrations to the people – everything’s been great.

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How to Make Friends with a Ghost is your debut as an author, right? How was the experience of both writing and illustrating for the first time?

Honestly wonderful. Because the story is mine, I still feel enthusiastic about it – I still feel just as excited about the characters as I did the day I started writing the story. It’s gone through such a change from that first day and it’s been an amazing learning opportunity. I also get to do a lot more in terms of promotion and marketing and that’s very fun for me.

Can you tell us about your process?

I usually do sketches with a black colored pencil on paper. Those are then sent to the client and we go back and forth with revisions or changes. Once I am ‘good to go to final’, I then redraw the illustration on Bristol paper and use either gouache, colored pencil, or a mixture of both to do the final painting. I then scan the illustration, taking it into the computer and I use Photoshop to clean up the illustration, making the background clean and white.

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Who are some of your story heroes?

Maira Kalman is definitely one of my biggest real life art heroes. I absolutely love her work and her writing. As far as fictional characters, I’ve always admired Jesse from Bridge to Terabithia. That book is one of my all-time favorites, and he is a such a strong and compassionate character.

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

A painting by Nashville artist, Harry Underwood. It’s a small piece, maybe 8×10″ and it portrays a woman who remarkably resembles by mother. In sloppy pencil, it reads “Life goes on”. His work is quite sad and eerie and I love it.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently illustrating a memoir, and another picture book, both for other authors. In coming months though, I am hoping to carve out some time in my schedule to work more on personal work and writing.

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Pax and Blue and an Interview with Lori Richmond

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by Lori Richmond (Simon and Schuster, 2017)

I’ve been so fortunate to get to know this fabulous author, illustrator, and human this year, and I’m so pleased to introduce you to her today. Unless you also know her, and aren’t we lucky?*

Meet Lori!

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When, how, or why did you get into picture books?

I came to love picture books through art. Ever since I was a kid, I loved to draw. My professional career has always been related to art or design — for 20+ years I was Creative Director at various corporate media companies. But the nature of my industry shifted, and design, especially digital product design, became very data-driven and technical. While there were some things I liked about it, I found that my daily tasks at work were no longer aligning with my personal goals. This was a tough thing to go through, because so many of us conflate our own identity with what we do for work.

Out of frustration and fatigue, I went shopping for art supplies. Oh man, is there nothing better than the smell of new art supplies?! I began drawing and painting again late at night after my kids went to bed, and I felt so refreshed and joyful. I took some continuing education classes at School of Visual Arts (SVA), where my husband teaches as an adjunct professor, and one of those was a picture book class. Thinking about making a picture book was so magical to me. To have something you made, and can hold in your hand and share with children — it was the piece I was missing in my professional work. I fell in love with the process and knew I had to pursue it.

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How did PAX AND BLUE originate?

We live in Brooklyn, so my kids are used to taking the subway everywhere. My then 3-year-old told me a story about when he was out with our babysitter, and that there was a pigeon stuck in the station. My son was so worried about the bird and talking about how frightened it must have been. Pigeons are certainly not the most revered urban animal, so it struck me how the child’s perspective was so sweet and innocent. My son was little, just like the bird, and could empathize with it. I knew it was a good seedling for a story, so I went from there and started on it while I was at SVA, and also workshopped it at Pat Cummings’ Bootcamp at Highlights. Originally, the title of the book was PAX AND THE PIGEON. In my mind, it kind of still is!

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What was it like to be both the author and illustrator for the first time?

I had no idea what I was doing, and still feel like I don’t. But I LOVE being the author and the illustrator, because you have the power to have the art do so much of the talking. I find that as I draw, more and more words go away. My editor, Paula Wiseman, and I edited a lot of text out of the book. The drawings were doing all the talking and left more room for the reader to discover the story and emotion on their own.

Can you tell us about your process? (And if you have any pictures of your studio or PAX-in- progress, that would be excellent!)

I usually begin with the words first. I may not have the entire narrative or all the character nuances laid out, but I need to have some kind of foundation for the story before I start thumbnailing. I admire artists who draw characters for years and get to know them, and their story comes out. That has never happened to me. (Maybe one day!!)  I do love the thumbnailing part of the process — the loose scribbles and the thinking part. Everything feels so malleable at that stage, and it is very free flowing. I like to challenge myself to come up with multiple solutions to the same problem. Sometimes I think of something way better, and other times it helps me validate my first thought as the strongest.

PAX AND BLUE looked really different in the initial submission to Simon & Schuster. It always had a limited color palette, but it wasn’t until about a year after the submission and we began to work on it, that I revisited the art. I created new character studies for Pax and expanded the palette while still staying true to the original feel. I wanted to be like a modern version of LYLE, LYLE, CROCODILE (by Bernard Waber) where the backgrounds and environments recede and the characters really stand out on the page. I love books of that era! This also led to me asking (ahem, begging?) my editor for a 3-piece binding. That was a really special touch that helped give the book a vintage feel.

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What’s your studio like?

I am part of a co-working studio in Brooklyn called Friends Work Here. We are an eclectic mix of all types of creatives, including writers, photographers, designers, and video artists. And we even have an indoor swing, people!! I like having a separate workspace and the community that comes along with it. The studio is very conveniently located to my home, too, which is helpful when I have to be home for my boys.

Who are some of your story heroes?

I absolutely love THE CARROT SEED by Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson, and SNOW by Uri Shulevitz. Both are such simple stories about a child’s belief in themselves, and persistence in those thoughts no matter what everyone else says. I love these kind of universal messages that stand the test of time.  As for modern books, my current favorite is LIFE ON MARS by Jon Agee. It’s one of those books I wish I had thought of! So well done, and the pictures say so much. And it’s so funny!

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

This is a classic case of the shoemaker’s children having no shoes. I make books, and my husband is a photographer, and we have no art on our walls. We also don’t have too many walls, because we live in a city apartment! I do always let my children hang up their work, though. I never get angry about tape or adhesives on the walls. It’s really fun to see them feel pride in their creations. My younger son has completely covered the wall surrounding my bed with love notes. So, those are definitely my favorite right now.

What’s next for you?

2018 is going to be a crazy year. In March 2018, my next author-illustrated title, BUNNY’S STAYCATION (Scholastic), will hop into the world. This is an incredibly special book about a parent who travels for work. I can’t wait to share! Then in Spring 2018 comes a super-cute book I illustrated called OOPSIE-DO (HarperCollins), written by Tim Kubart. And, finally, in Summer 2018 comes SKELLY’S HALLOWEEN (Henry Holt), written by David Martin. Whew!

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*This is a recurring line in my novel, A Rambler Steals Home, and it pops into my head so many times I just use it as much as I can. Cool, right?

Thanks to Lori for the fantastic pictures in this post!

The Unexpected Love Story Of Alfred Fiddleduckling + An Interview with Timothy Basil Ering

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by Timothy Basil Ering (Candlewick, 2017)

One of my all time favorite picture books is The Story of Frog Belly Rat Bone, which I wrote about here. That’s Timothy’s! I’m so excited to have him here today and to give you a peek of his latest book, a total delight, The Story of Alfred Fiddleduckling.

Check out this synopsis and see what I mean.

Captain Alfred is sailing home with new ducks for his farm when his little boat is caught in an unexpected and mighty storm. Everything aboard the ship is flung to the far reaches of the sea, including the very special and beautiful duck egg he had nestled safely inside his fiddle case. But perhaps all is not lost: the little duckling stumbles out of his shell and discovers Captain Alfred’s fiddle, floating not too far away in the waves. And when the duckling embraces the instrument with all his heart, what happens next is pure magic. Through an enchanting read-aloud text and beautiful artwork, award-winning author-illustrator Timothy Basil Ering shares a thrilling and fantastical story of a farmer, a gentle old lady, a dancing dog, and one brave, tiny duckling that will warm the heart.

Welcome, Timothy!

How did you get into picture books?

The foundation to my career as an illustrator was The Art Center in Pasadena CA. I don’t know where I’d be without that amazing training from a melting pot of truly amazing teachers. One of the biggest starts for me just before I graduated was when I caught word that an art director was visiting Pasadena for a day to look at student portfolios. Making that appointment to show my portfolio, which was a soup of all kinds of stuff, was one of those “OMG, I’m so glad I did this!” moments.

The art director, Lynette Rushchak, showed particular interest in the textures I was creating, and in my figure and anatomy drawings. She told me that she was looking for an illustrator that could create aged, distressed, anatomical figure drawings that were reminiscent of old DaVinci drawings. When my eyes lit up with curiosity, she asked me if I’d be interested to illustrate an exciting manuscript she had that was written by author, Roscoe Cooper. Of coarse I was thrilled about the opportunity and was all in! That project was The Diary Of Victor Frankenstein. After lots and lots of drawing, DKink, NY published the book and it was released in 1997. It was the 1st book I illustrated. The project was fantastic fun!

Trying to manipulate paper to give the appearance that the paper was hundreds of years old was part of the project that I really enjoyed, and creating pen and ink, and charcoal drawings of strange experiments and macabre anatomical illustrations was a blast. What’s more is that I illustrated that book on a small 30-foot boat! I had at that time also made a commitment to a 5-month sailing voyage alone with my father on that boat from Florida to Guatemala and back. It was an adventure that I will never forget! Creating art for that book hooked me deep with interest to illustrate more books!

And more books came.

After illustrating 3 more books by different authors, including a children’s pop-up picture book, I became more and more excited, interested, anxious, and determined to see if I could write and illustrate my own book. After hours, days, weeks, and months of writing and re-writing and scribbling and sketching and re-drawing, I was ready to show the work and I pulled off what seemed to be the impossible- getting in the door of a publisher to have a meeting to show the work and my ideas! It was a meeting with editor and publisher Karen Lotz in NY that launched the beginning of a dream. It was a meeting that I thank my lucky stars for every day! With Karen Lotz and Candlewick Press, my 1st book, that I both wrote and illustrated, was published in 2003, and this was the beginning of my ongoing, magical, and SO appreciated adventure in making books with Candlewick Press!

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Where did Alfred Fiddleduckling’s story come from?

I had bits and pieces of dead end ideas for a story that I was trying to write around two characters I had imagined. The two characters had great potential that I did not want to give up on. One character was a duck named Alfred that played the fiddle. The other was a duck dog that did not like duck hunting but loved to dance, and in particular, he loved to dance to the fiddle! So, whenever I imagined my two characters interacting out in a marsh somewhere, it made me laugh, but the story just wasn’t going anywhere.

Whenever I hit a wall over and over again when I’m writing or art making, the way I clear my mind from frustration is to go fishing. Lots of ideas come to me when I’m out on the water fishing. So one day, during a “getting nowhere writing day,” I grabbed my fishing rod and hit the beach. I waded across the shallow flats through the water until I was about a ¼ mile off shore standing in waist deep water casting and thinking and relaxing and doing what I love to do when unexpectedly a huge thick white fog bank rolled in off the ocean right to me. I was locked in fog. I love the ocean, and extreme weather, so watching this fog was awesome but more so it got me thinking about a new element in my story! Fog! I had been lost and struggling in my story, and oddly enough, as I stood offshore, in waist deep water, in the fog, things became super clear to me! The fog made me think of mariners from long ago getting lost at sea in the fog, and it made me think of widows. Wow! 3 new ideas! The fog, a sea captain, and the sea captain’s wife were new ideas that immediately began to thread themselves into my dead end ideas and I knew just what to do with Alfred and the dog!

Normally I stay in the water until I catch fish but that day was a day I couldn’t get to my sketchbook fast enough! I jogged through the water, across the beach, up through the woods to my truck and sat in it dripping wet, writing so fast it looked like chicken scratch!

Can you tell us about your process?

I like to experiment with lots of different art making mediums. Which mediums I choose to use depends on the project. For The Unexpected Love Story Of Alfred Fiddleduckling, I used acrylic paint, charcoal, and pen and ink on paper for the interior art. I used acrylic paint on wood and canvas for the book cover. For most of the illustrations I worked on 19” X 24” paper. I created charcoal drawings first, and then painted on top of the drawings. However, some of the illustrations were started with paint first, then drawing over paint, then paint again.

Whatever mediums I use for my art, there will be several layers applied and mixed before I finish a piece. I like to start an image by loosely rubbing, scribbling, smearing, or washing the medium all over the surface that I’m drawing or painting on. I’d say I use my hands to move the mediums around as much as I use brushes, especially when using charcoal. I use charcoal pencils, and graphite pencils but I also love to grind pigment from the pencils or sticks onto the surface I’m working on so that I can rub the pigment, or smear it, and make shapes and forms and marks with my hands.

I’m definitely very inspired by the way children apply art-making mediums. At the beginning of a drawing or painting, I like to move the mediums around quickly to increase the potential for mistakes that can lead to unique things that happen to shapes and forms and colors. I’m always keenly watching for interesting visual things to happen and when they do, I stop to look and react to their beautiful possibilities. To me, mistakes show positive possibilities that I might not have imagined were there when I started. There’s a lot of trial and error, lots of mistakes, and different reactions to my mistakes. If something doesn’t work visually, it’s fun to deconstruct it by erasing or painting over it, and then to reconstruct it again with different color, or value, or size, or whatever it takes so that it does visually work. I also like to glue more paper, or canvas, or wood if needed to make room for more imagery rather than to start over again on a new surface. Sometimes I cut pieces of art from a piece to move it somewhere else in the piece or collage onto a completely different piece.

Below is an example of starting with a charcoal drawing. The paint was applied over the drawing.

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Below is the beginning of the application of paint over a charcoal drawing.

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Below is an example of starting with a loose painting.

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The two drawings below of the gentle lady wearing a gray wool coat are examples of developing a charcoal drawing over a wash of paint, and they show how much my drawings change while I’m developing them.

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Below you can see how much my scribbled drawing of Alfred shrunk in size before I started painting him.

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The next two drawings below are examples of experiments with paint, ideas, textures, and composition during my process of figuring out these illustrations.

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Believe it or not, the image below of this beautiful glob is actually my kneaded erasure that I pinched into a quick reference sculpture of Alfred Fiddleduckling playing his fiddle. I used it to help myself envision and draw the following illustration of Alfred playing his fiddle.

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I used pen and ink to create the title text.

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Who are some of your story heroes?

When I was in high school, I had a hard time finding books that captured my interest quick enough to keep me pouring through the pages until I read White Fang by Jack London. I love the outdoors, nature, wild animals, and adventure, so I really enjoyed that story, so much so that when I finished that book I remember wanting to see what else Jack London wrote. It was easy to find Call Of The Wild and I loved that story too. Again I searched for another story to read by Jack London and chose Sea Wolf and loved that one too! So, one of my story writing heroes is Jack London.

Another story writing hero of mine is Irving Stone. It only took one book of his to make him a hero of mine. It’s a big book entitled The Agony And The Ecstasy. What kept me into every page was Irving Stone’s wonderful descriptions of the life and times of my favorite artist, Michael Angelo. It was awesome! And Kate DiCamillo is not only a story writing hero of mine, but she also created a story book hero of mine- Despereaux.*

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*Which Timothy illustrated! What a pair.

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

A single-haired paint brush painting of an owl by an artist from India who paints masterfully with a tiny, tiny, tiny one haired brush!

What’s next for you?

I am working hard on my next children’s picture book, but its waaaaaayy too early to say anything about it except that I’m struggling with fighting the good fight and I think I need to go fishing!


 

Thanks, Timothy! I can’t wait to see how that next fishing trip turns out.

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THE UNEXPECTED LOVE STORY OF ALFRED FIDDLEDUCKLING. Copyright © 2017 by Timothy Basil Ering. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Everyone + an interview with Christopher Silas Neal

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by Christopher Silas Neal (Candlewick, 2016)

I’m happy to introduce you today to Christopher Silas Neal, a picture book creator I am a big fan of. He’s got quite the illustration portfolio, but this spring’s Everyone was his debut as both picture book author and illustrator. Here’s hoping he makes many more. Enjoy!

How did you get into picture books?

Over and Under the Snow was my first experience making a picture book. I had been an illustrator for about seven years, making art for magazines, posters, and book covers before Chronicle Books called with Kate Messner’s manuscript. Kate’s approach to writing about nature was more lyrical and unexpected than a typical science based picture book and Chronicle was looking for a non-traditional artist. Even though many of my biggest influences were classic picture book makers, I hadn’t thought I would be one myself.

Narrative illustration felt overwhelming and daunting—character building wasn’t something I had ever tried and building scenes was certainly not my strong suit. I had previously worked as a graphic designer and my approach to image making is more flat and simple than what I thought readers expected from picture book art. The industry wasn’t as visually diverse as it is now and at the time, most books about nature would have featured fairly detailed and rendered paintings. I just didn’t see me having a place in that world. But, I loved Kate’s writing and the folks at Chronicle Books are so nice and very design oriented, so I thought if there was ever a chance, this is it.

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My pictures are often quiet and still with a lot of space—the fact that this book was set in wintery woods was reassuring.  A big challenge was figuring out how to add depth without using the things that traditional painters rely on like lighting and perspective—visual tools I typically don’t use. I like to think the personality in the art comes from me trying to fit a painterly peg into a graphically flat and naively drawn hole.

Where did the beginnings of Everyone originate?

When I first met my agent Stephen Barr at Writer’s House I had a few book ideas floating around, but Stephen was more interested in an animated gif I had made. It was based off a drawing I did for the New York Times about a boy whose parents were deported to Mexico. It’s a simple image of a boy crying and his tears turning into two birds. Stephen thought the idea had promise as a book and I spent the next year turning it into a manuscript and book dummy. In the end I think I had made fifty versions before sending it to publishers. Eventually, we sold the idea to Liz Bicknell at Candlewick.

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Can you tell us about your process?

The writing process happened organically. I started with that original New York Times image and tried to think of other visual metaphors that involved nature bending and morphing to reflect our emotions. After a bit of sketching, writing and playing with ideas, a theme developed—when we feel something, the world feels it too and reflects those feelings back at us—and I illustrated three emotional expressions: crying, laughter, singing.

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It took a lot of patience for the words to develop. I had one version where I spelled everything out in the text i.e.”…the boy’s tear turned into a bird and flew into the sky. The bird whispered to the clouds and soon the clouds were crying, too,” but my editor, my agent, and I all agreed that the story was better left simple and open ended. After many, many revisions I pared it down to the few words that appear in the book.

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I was listening to a lot of John Lennon—he uses these wonderfully simple, repetitive phrases—and I tried to put some of that influence to the words of this book. I can almost hear a John Lennon melody when I read from Everyone, “When you cry you are not alone. When you laugh happiness grows. When you sing everyone listens.”

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9780763676834.int.2 I wanted the art to match the simplicity of the text so the illustrations are made using just three colors. My process starts with pencil sketches and then digital mockups where I think about color and composition. The final art is created in layers or separations very similar to print making. Each color is drawn and/or painted separately and then scanned as a black and white image. Then I add color to each separation—one is colored black, one blue, one tan—and they are layered on top of each other to make a complete image.

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What does a picture book text need in order for you to feel excited about illustrating it?

The words should be poetic or simple or surprising and there needs to be room for me to add to the narrative. If the text is too descriptive, there isn’t really much for me to add.

Who are some of your story heroes?

One of my favorite books is Frederick by Leo Lionni. It’s a simple, emotional book about four field mice storing food for winter. Except one mouse who gathers sun rays, colors, and words. I love how you can see the process within the final images. The reader can mentally pick apart the textures and scraps of paper like a puzzle.

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

Leanne Shapton paints wooden blocks to look like re-imagined book covers. The art is all typography and shapes. I have one of her blocks painted as Jaws by Peter Benchley.

What’s next for you?

I have a third book with Kate Messner coming out in Spring 2017 called Over and Under the Pond. In Fall 2017 I have another book with Candlewick about a hungry cat. In Spring 2018 I have a series of board books about shapes and colors and animals. Beyond that are books with authors Jennifer Adams and Barb Rosenstock.

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Thank you, Christopher! Your readers have lots to look forward to, and I am so very glad you are a part of the world of picture books.

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EVERYONE. Copyright © 2016 by Christopher Silas Neal. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

How to Outfox Your Friends When You Don’t Have a Clue + an interview with Jess Keating

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by Jess Keating (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2015)

Heads up, email subscribers: my blog took a bit of a tumble so I’m reposting what was lost in the shuffle. Apologies, and thank you for reading!

Sometimes you meet people on the internet who are instantly your kind of people. And all of a sudden they aren’t a tiny square avatar, but a real friend who sends you ketchup chips from Canada and the best gifs to your email. They support you on this whirling road of publishing, and they make you laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh and you wish that Canada and California weren’t so far away.

Let me introduce you to my friend Jess Keating. She’s got great books and she’s a better friend, and I’m so happy to have her here today to celebrate her newest story in the My Life is a Zooseries, How to O

And also, it’s not just me. These guys liked her too . . .

“With her trademark kid-oriented wit and lighthearted touch, Keating leads readers through the daily emotional ups and downs of the typical just-turned-teenager who is trying to juggle hormones, parents, schoolwork, and, most importantly, her friends…A sweet reminder that being middle school girl is about far more than boys and makeup.” –Kirkus, starred review

So: here she is!

Hi Jess!

Hello, my dear Carter! Thank you for having me!

Can you give us some backstory on Ana? Is there any young-Jess-Keating wrapped up in her?

There is definitely a lot of young-me in Ana. I’ve always been an animal nut, and I was raised on Kratt’s Creatures, Crocodile Hunter, and Jane Goodall. Savvy readers might notice that Ana’s middle name is Jane—both she and her mother share this name to honor Dr. Goodall!

As a kid, it was my dream to live in a zoo, surrounded by strange animals. Obviously, my parents thought this would be rather hazardous, so instead they let me decorate my room to look like the rainforest. I even stuck plastic lizards and poison arrow frogs to my walls. Sometimes I even pretended I was David Attenborough, narrating my way through the day with a bad British accent.

Ana is also a giant nerd, who struggles with feeling like an outsider a lot. I think that’s something a lot of us share (particularly as teens and tweens), and I was no exception. It takes guts to share your passions, you know? I think Ana is also a very lucky kid, in that she’s surrounded by intelligent people who challenge her to pursue her dreams. We have that in common too.

Which do you most identify with: having untied shoelaces, missing a snorkel, or not having a clue?

Untied shoelaces!

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What’s your ideal writing scenario? Snacks? Tunes?

Yes to snacks! I’m a big fan of popcorn and chocolate chips. Together or separately, really. My awesome agent Kathleen Rushall introduced me to Songza, which I’ve found to be perfect for playing background music while I write. I listen to mainly movie scores and video game soundtracks.

I like to move around a lot as I work, so I have a standing desk that’s really just a wooden crate that props up my laptop. That’s about it! Oh, and Post-It notes. Millions and millions of Post-It notes.

Which came first, these characters or their scenarios?

The characters came first, for sure. I think once you’ve got characters you know well, especially their flaws, it’s really a matter of plunking them down with some challenges and letting them find their way. I’ve always had such a clear picture of Ana, Daz, and Shep, so they seem to run the show. With each book, I have a general idea of a setting I’d like to explore, but I like to give them some freedom in getting there.

But sometimes writing can surprise you! Characters like Sugar and Bella were much quieter in my mind, and getting to know them better as the series continues has been extra fun.

What has been your most favorite scene to write and edit? Just don’t spoil us too much!

I love writing funny scenes, embarrassing scenes, and downright awful ‘fight’ scenes between friends. There’s just so much juicy emotion in these!

My favorite scene to write in OUTFOX revolves around Ana doing a Superman impression. I won’t spoil it, but it’s a scene I’ve wanted to write since the beginning of the series!

Describe Canada in one word.

Home!

What gif best describes your feelings for this book’s birthday week?

Ahh, you know how much I love gifs! I have so many feelings, I have to give you two! Publishing a book is a funny thing—it never stops being exciting. With every new book, I feel like Bilbo going on an adventure:

And this week especially, I’m so thankful and humbled that we get to continue Ana’s story in a third book. It takes so many people to get the story in your head on a shelf, and the readers who pick it up are really the reason we do this. So, I have a lot of love for everyone who works so hard to make these books, and those who have been with Ana from the start. Hence, hobbit hugs:

What’s coming next for you?

I like working on several projects at once, so I’ve got lots to keep me busy! My first nonfiction picture book is coming out in February, called PINK IS FOR BLOBFISH. It’s all about challenging the notion that “pink is for girls”, showcasing bizarre, dangerous, and unique pink animals. I’m tickled pink for this one! (Sorry.) This book is part of a new series called “The World of Weird Creatures”, so I’m also working on the next one! I can’t share the title yet, but I’ve definitely never seen anything like it before. Hee!

I’m also deliriously happy to report that we’ve just sold my first picture book biography!SHARK LADY is all about the life of Eugenie Clark, an incredible female scientist who studied—you guessed it—sharks. She is one of the coolest ladies I’ve ever come across, and I’m so excited to share her story!

Thanks again for having me!

And!

The wonderful folks at Sourcebooks Jabberwocky are going to give away a complete set of Jess’s My Life is a Zoo series to a lucky reader! Head here to enter! (https://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/54ca7af7194/)

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Good luck!

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About the Author:

Jess Keating is a zoologist and the author of the critically acclaimed How to Outrun a Crocodile When Your Shoes Are Untied. Jess is also the author of the playful nonfiction picture book Pink is for Blobfish (Knopf Children’s, 2016). She lives in Ontario, Canada, where she loves writing books for adventurous and funny kids. Visit Jess at jesskeating.com.

You can also find her at these places:

Website

Twitter

Tumblr

Instagram

(And you’ll be so glad you did.)

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The Little Gardener + an interview with Emily Hughes (part i)

The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes by Emily Hughes (Flying Eye Books, 2015)

Friends, I am beyond awe with this conversation with Emily Hughes. If you aren’t familiar with her work yet, I guarantee you will fall in love with it, with her, with a storytelling brilliance that is out of this world. Here, she lets us know both where stories come from and why they do.

And a note, you’ll definitely want to click on all of these images to enjoy them at their full resolution.

Enjoy!

The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes Can you talk about where this book came from? And what the process was like for its creation?

Lots of things were swimming around in my head when The Little Gardener was being made. 
I was back home rereading a book I love, The Growth of the Soil, about a simple self-sufficient man dealing with societal pressures that seem unnecessary. He was the symbol of The Little Gardener, he’s not the personality powerhouse Wild is, he is really just a symbol for the everyman, the underdog, you, me, (my brother thinks the 3rd world) our place as a human. It’s not about him, it’s about his vision, his hopes.

There are a lot more nuances to that, but that is what it is in a very small nutshell. 
The process for Gardener was an outpouring, I drew and drew and drew. Because the images are so dense it was a meditative book to make- almost like making a mandala. The story process took a while, but with the images I worked on steadily through, and luckily they worked out with little drafting. That isn’t the usual, but this one felt natural to make, intuitive.

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Why do you think your stories are best suited to the form of the picture book? What can you do in this form that you might not be able to in another?

If you look at my bedroom, my backpack, my email inbox, my general manner, you would be able to figure out a good deal about me. Totally scatter-brained.

It is an affliction that makes it tricky to get work done in general.  What makes children’s books an appealing medium for me is that there is text to dance with. There is the written skeleton to adhere to- oftentimes my stories have layers that I have built up depending on where I am or what I’ve been thinking of while I work. There is not just one story being told in The Little Gardener. Having text keeps my brain focused when there are other ideas floating about. Because I also draw, I am able to tell the other story lines as well- they are quieter, but are still present for others to interpret if they have patience. It is a good compromise for me.

Narrative has always been an interest, I think telling stories is what I like to do- so the things I’d compare it to would be film, theater, animation, etc. I like doing illustrations for picture books because it’s 2D and doesn’t move. However, if you are really invested you can move them within your head and expand it’s boundaries to a world you truly are interacting with. The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes

One of my favorite things is the cola can that says MADE IN HILO, HI on it. I know that’s where your roots are, and I wonder how that home has shown up in the work that you do? Or if there are other easter-egg-y things that you stick in your work?

Good spotting! Hawaii is always present in my work. I left home for university in England when I was 17, and at that time I was eager for new experiences. Nevertheless, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I miss the Big Island always. Drawing things from home is indulgent for me- it is time spent reminiscing, it is a means for me to keep connected, grounded.

The cola can was initially modelled after a local company- Hawaiian Sun. The label looks nothing like the original (and I used the non-existent ‘cola’ because I thought it would be easier to translate), but the sun made a symbolic appearance. Those cans are always around- refreshments after soccer games, trips to the beach, the park with cousins. It reminds me of happy outings. I’ll add this bit to my advertising resume…

The house that the humans live in is based on my family home. It’s a plantation-style house that my Grandmother grew up in, as my siblings and I have also done. It’s a special place.

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The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes

In the scene where the gardener is chasing away the snails, there’s a ‘rubber slipper’ (you guys would call it ‘flip flop’- Hawaii’s preferred footwear of choice) strewn about. It even has the ‘Locals’ tag on it which is the same kind you get at the grocery store. There’s lots of little things from home hidden. I like having the sentimentality there, even if it’s for my own benefit.

It seems like the girl in Wild and this little gardener have some sensibilities in common, like the hope and comfort in this un-tapped-into nature. Are there big-picture-stories you are drawn to creating, both in text and in art?

There are a lot of stories I’d like to tell. I think I start off with a general character and theme and it evolves- the writing is the last part, I think the feeling needs to be understood first. 
In my journal these are a few themes I’d written that I want to explore:

Does ‘evil’ exist? Really?


You can, will, should feel every horrible emotion and that’s fine


Kindness trumps all


Looks vs Expectations


It’s all chance for me I think- I might read something, or watch something, or sit blankly staring at the wall even, and most times it is nothing but a murmur. But once in a good while something speaks up.

As for Wild and Gardener, nature serves as a backdrop because it is an ideal to be in sync within our most natural of habitats. Something we all still strive for- a place where we’re needed.  Wild is about acceptance and tolerance, issues I was trying to practice myself. Gardener was about keeping hope alive when I was faltering with my own.

They are stories coming from a place of trying to understand, rather than a place where it is understood.

The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes

Carter, here.

You guys. I keep reading these answers over and over and feel like it’s such a gift to get this glimpse into a storyteller’s heart. Because Emily is fascinating and brilliant and our conversation gave me so much to wrestle with and enjoy, there’s more! Come back tomorrow for the second part. More pictures, more process, more book love.

Whatever you do, get your hands on this book as soon as you can, for hope and home and heart.

Huge thanks to both Emily and Tucker Stone at Flying Eye Books for the images in this post!

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Dragon and The Dangerous Princess – A Blog Tour! (with Dashka Slater and Jim Averbeck)

Raise your hand if you are way not finished with holiday shopping! Raise your other hand if you love books!

Now wave those hands Rocky style cause I’ve got something fantastic for you.

Allow me to scoot over and introduce you to Dashka Slater and Jim Averbeck. They are pals and they are awesome. I asked them some questions, and now I really hope they have room for me in their friend brigade.

Carter: Because this has been Picture Book Idea Month, I have been obsessing over tiny seeds for picture books. I’m curious where your ideas come from and how you cultivate them?

Dashka: A lot of my ideas for picture books tend to come from children. DANGEROUSLY EVER AFTER is based on an idea my son had when he was six, while THE SEA SERPENT AND ME is based on a story I wrote when I was ten. BABY SHOES and FIREFIGHTERS IN THE DARK were both inspired by my son’s obsessions when he was small. Lately, a lot of my ideas have centered around the form of the picture book itself — I’ve gotten increasingly interested in the tactile experience of the book, the interaction between art and text, and the possibilities that uniquely arise from things like trim size and page turns.

Jim: My ideas come from a number of places. Some of them have come from dreams. Some of them have come from conversations. OH NO, LITTLE DRAGON came from the name of a tour guide in China, which got me thinking about dragons, and a shower I took while there, which made me think little dragons would have a great reason for hating bath time.  Some ideas have come from assignments. (IN A BLUE ROOM and EXCEPT IF both fall into this category.) My critique group always gives an assignment around Christmas time. This year the assignment is to write a picture book using one of the following as inspiration: “One Word,” “Things I Hate,” or “I’ve Been Thinking About Laughing.”  I wonder what stories will come from these?

Carter: What is your favorite picture book of all time?

Jim: That’s a tough thing to choose. But the one I find myself going to when I need to remember what a picture book should be is Maurice Sendak’s OUTSIDE OVER THERE. It has an incredible, lyrical story that sound so good when read aloud.  And then there’s KITTEN’S FIRST FULL MOON by Kevin Henkes.  When I got that, I threw it down in front of my critique group and exclaimed, “If the is any justice in this world, this will win the Caldecott this year!”  It did.

Dashka: It’s hard to choose just one, because there are the ones that were childhood favorites and ones that are adult favorites. As a child, I loved A LITTLE HOUSE OF YOUR OWN by Beatrice Schenk De Regniers, which struck me as one of the truest books I’d ever read. It addresses the reader very directly about the need to have a little house, and I felt entirely understood by it as a child. It has lovely pen and ink illustrations, very simple. As an adult, one of my favorites is KING BIDGOOD’S IN THE BATHTUB by Audrey and Don Wood, which seems to me to be a perfect book — beautifully illustrated, very funny, and wonderful to read aloud. Another favorite is FISHING IN THE AIR by Sharon Creech, illustrated by Chris Raschka. A book that succeeds on so many levels, it’s almost miraculous.

Carter: Do you have a favorite word? (I really think you can learn a lot about someone in this very important question.)

Dashka: Ragamuffin.

Jim: Curmudgeon.

Carter: (Eyeball.)

Carter: Who do you consider your greatest creative influences?

Jim: Sendak, Bradbury, Schulz, and Mary Ann Meyer, my high school art teacher.

Dashka: Maurice Sendak, E. Nesbit, Lewis Carroll, Charlotte Zolotow and the film-makers Jean Cocteau and Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

Carter: What are you most excited about for 2013?

Dashka: I’m eager to finish my middle grade novel. “Finish,” means “cut like hell” as I’ve never written anything that didn’t start out much too long. So the book is ready to go on a major weight loss regimen, from which I’m hoping it will emerge lithe, sinuous and irresistible.

Jim: I have another picture book coming out in 2013, called THE MARKET BOWL.  It’s especially dear to me because it takes place in Cameroon, where I was a Peace Corps volunteer.  The Peace Corps has three goals: Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans. So THE MARKET BOWL is my third goal fulfilled, at least a little. The book was a Junior Library Guild selection, so it is quite an honor to be able to fulfill my third goal obligations in this way.
I am also excited begin working with my editor on my first novel, A HITCH AT THE FAIRMONT, for the middle grade audience.

Carter: What is your work space like and what is your favorite thing about it?

Jim:  I work in two places. I write at the Mechanics Institute Library in San Francisco.  My favorite thing about it is that it is a library and that it is in San Francisco.
When I illustrate I work in a little 6×8 foot space in my house. It had lots of storage for books, art supplies and toys, and way too little space to work. My favorite thing about it is the tech:  I have a very fast computer, which helps when I am working on huge files in Photoshop. And I also like the way you really can be in a little space in your home, but still be connected to the world via the internet and social media.

Dashka: I write from a large bird’s nest lined with moss and precious gems. My favorite thing about it is the parfait bar on a nearby tree limb and the team of masseurs.

Carter: If you weren’t a picture book writer/illustrator, what would you be?

Dashka: Extraordinarily irritable.

Jim: A novelist I hope.  At least, if “independently wealthy” is already taken.
… though I plan to be both.

Carter: What color is your day today?

Jim: Today is brought to you by the color Cerulean.

Dashka: I’d love to say it was sea green, but alas, it was typography gray.

Seriously, how fun are they? Hey Dashka and Jim, if you’re ever in Burbank…

I’ll properly highlight their books in the coming weeks, but I wanted to tell you about something really special for the holidays. Along with a few other stellar authors and illustrators, Dashka and Jim are providing signed bookplates designed exclusively for their books. You can buy their books from your favorite local bookstore, or anywhere else you’d like, and they will mail you a signed bookplate to stick inside. Cool, right?

All the information and a peek at the beautiful bookplates are here. (Remember Backseat A-B-See?)

I love, love, love this idea. If you are gifting picture books, (and why would you not be!) check this out for sure. Huge kudos to this bunch of authors and illustrators for connecting with readers like this. Now…to shop.

Dangerously Ever After (Dial Books for Young Readers, September 2012)

By Dashka Slater, Illustrated by Valeria Docampo

 Princess Amanita laughs in the face of danger. Brakeless bicycles, pet scorpions, spiky plants–that’s her thing. So when quiet Prince Florian gives her roses, Amanita is unimpressed . . . until she sees their glorious thorns! Now she must have rose seeds of her own. But when huge, honking noses grow instead, what is a princess with a taste for danger to do?

Oh No, Little Dragon (Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, August 2012)

Written and illustrated by Jim Averbeck

With a PHOOSH and a Grrrrrr and a CANNONBAAAALLLLLL! Little Dragon tears through his day (and the house). But even when he gets a little too rambunctious, there’s no OH NO! that Mama’s kiss can’t fix.