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.

Behind the Scenes with Tom Lichtenheld

ThisIsAMooseRemember Moose and his motley crew? He’s hard to forget with that superhuman (supermoosian?) determination and antlers tuned toward mischief. Let me turn the reigns over to Tom Lichtenheld himself, so he can give you a look at his process, sketches, and creative problem solving. It’s a fascinating look at how an illustrator responds to an author’s manuscript, and a glimpse at the evolution of a picture book.

Welcome back, Tom! breaker This is a Moose by Richard T. Morris and Tom LichtenheldWhen I receive a manuscript and like it, the first thing I do is start doodling. That initial moment of inspiration only comes once, so I try to capture the first images that pop into my head. When I receive a manuscript and like it, the first thing I do is start doodling. That initial moment of inspiration only comes once, so I try to capture the first images that pop into my head. This is a Moose by Richard T. Morris and Tom Lichtenheld This is a Moose by Richard T. Morris and Tom LichtenheldThen I start refining and exploring options. Then I start refining and exploring options. This is a Moose by Richard T. Morris and Tom Lichtenheld This is a Moose by Richard T. Morris and Tom LichtenheldThe director was initially a raccoon, but a duck felt more manic. The director was initially a raccoon, but a duck felt more manic. This is a Moose by Richard T. Morris and Tom LichtenheldI spent a lot of time on film sets during my career in advertising, so I know it’s a lot of hurry-up-and-wait. I spent a lot of time on film sets during my career in advertising, so I know it’s a lot of hurry-up-and-wait. This is a Moose by Richard T. Morris and Tom LichtenheldNo, giraffe don’t live in the woods, but I like to draw them, so a giraffe it is. No, giraffe don’t live in the woods, but I like to draw them, so a giraffe it is. This is a Moose by Richard T. Morris and Tom Lichtenheld This is a Moose by Richard T. Morris and Tom Lichtenheld This is a Moose by Richard T. Morris and Tom Lichtenheld This is a Moose by Richard T. Morris and Tom LichtenheldLots of gags get left on the cutting-room floor, but it’s all part of the process. Lots of gags get left on the cutting-room floor, but it’s all part of the process. This is a Moose by Richard T. Morris and Tom LichtenheldBoom! Boom! This is a Moose by Richard T. Morris and Tom LichtenheldAn idea revealing that the movie was actually made, which makes no sense. An idea revealing that the movie was actually made, which makes no sense. This is a Moose by Richard T. Morris and Tom LichtenheldFirst crack at a title page.  First crack at a title page.  This is a Moose by Richard T. Morris and Tom Lichtenheld (click to enlarge)

First version of the opening scene. The narrator was a monkey, and part of the scene. We quickly realized that the director had to be “off-camera” until the end. This is a Moose by Richard T. Morris and Tom LichtenheldFirst version of the spread where Director Duck realizes none of the animals are playing by the rules. I liked the simplicity of having only his eyes move, but it was a bit too subtle, so I changed it to his entire head looking from side to side. First version of the spread where Director Duck realizes none of the animals are playing by the rules. I liked the simplicity of having only his eyes move, but it was a bit too subtle, so I changed it to his entire head looking from side to side. This is a Moose by Richard T. Morris and Tom Lichtenheld (click to enlarge)

The Moosenest 

Turning this marvelously manic manuscript into a logical sequence of pictures required complete immersion, so I made a foamcore enclosure around my desk, with only Moose material within my sight lines, and dubbed it The Moosenest. It sounds like a joke, but there’s a point in sketching out a book where you need to have the entire book suspended in your mind at once, so you can mentally move the pieces around without losing sight of any elements. It’s challenging, but one of my favorite parts of the process and I don’t think I could have done it for This Is A Moose without The Moosenest.

breaker A marvelously manic manuscript with mayhem in the pictures. Thanks for letting us in to The Moosenest, Tom!

(I love that moose-like alien. I’m glad he got his day here.)

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