Archive for the ‘picture books’ Category

What next?

Friday, April 15th, 2016

On March 30 I sent all the interior illustrations for LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING to Candlewick Press for publication next Spring.

It has been an intense and exhilarating five months creating the final art for this book: learning Photoshop, (thank you Kevan Atteberry for help with that); collaborating with my sister Kate McGee, (I did the black layer, Kate did the color), and figuring out what the art would look like.

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And now, except for the cover, it’s done.

What next?

 I am reminded of a family story. My mom and dad raised five kids.

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That meant every three years between 1962 and 1975 they joined the audience on the football bleachers at Sonora High on a beautiful June evening to watch one of their kids graduate. After the youngest, my brother Tim, was handed his diploma, Mom turned to Dad and said, “Well, Harve, what shall we do now?”

I know. It’s not really comparable. Mom and Dad worked on their project of raising kids for thirty years. Theirs was a much bigger “what next?”

LITTLE WOLF’s been growing in my mind and studio for less than a year and a half. But I did become very fond of him and will certainly miss the almost daily interaction with Kate as we worked on the art.

My cousin Jerry has a quote for times such as these. It’s advice from 1790: “The most sublime act is to set another before you.” – William Blake, Proverbs of Hell. Blake was in his mid thirties when he wrote that, and already he’d produced an impressive body of work: books and engravings, both. Clearly he leapt forward to each next task quickly and with joy.

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But I am feeling a little empty. All I could do for Little Wolf has been done, (except for the cover). His boat has sailed.

I suppose this is why some author/illustrators work on more than one project at a time: to make it easier to face the end of possibilities when you send the artwork away.

I told Bonny Becker, (fellow BATT blogger), that I was having trouble letting go of Little Wolf. She reminded me of a picture book idea I had floated awhile back, a story that started with a mouse squeak.

“Get to work,” she suggested.

p.s. Mom took up air racing.

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QUALITY WORDS

Friday, February 20th, 2015

Like Mark Twain, I am a sucker for the right word. Twain’s the one who famously noted the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is akin to the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

For instance, I was immediately won over by my sister Susan Britton’s novel-in-progress which begins:

Jara, the lightest of sleepers, heard the noise first—the snick of a key in the lock, the creak of the door, the scuff of boots on the concrete floor of the main room below her. No light leaked up the ladder opening into the attic where she lay in bed. The Takers had a rule about no light. Immediately, Jara’s whole self went crazy with fear except for a small important part of her that knew exactly what to do. She had been practicing for this moment since she was twelve years old. Now she was fifteen.

She had me at “snick.”

Our very youngest readers deserve a rich vocabulary in their books even more. They are acquiring language, and the picture book has a big role in introducing a wide vocabulary. It can present ”the right word” in a context that reveals specific, nuanced meaning.

PZonka-Interior-WorkingA spectacular use of “spectacular” in Julie Paschkis’ new book, P. Zonka Lays an Egg, just out from Peachtree. “Spectacular” describes the title chicken’s first creative output.

Last month in the New Yorker, I read about a program in Providence, RI called Providence Talks that encourages low-income parents to talk more frequently with their kids. This effort is based on the word-counting studies done in the 1980s that determined the number of words children hear in their early years correlates with academic success, better health, and higher income later in life. (These studies also inspired Geoffrey Canada’s amazing Harlem Children’s Zone project).

The word-counting scientists found that wealthy parents talked more with their kids. As recounted in The New Yorker, “Among the professional families, the average number of words that children heard in an hour was twenty-one hundred and fifty; among the working-class families, it was twelve hundred and fifty; among the welfare families, it was six hundred and twenty. Over time, these daily differences had major consequences. Researchers concluded that with few exceptions, the more parents talked to their children, the faster the children’s vocabularies were growing and the higher the children’s I.Q. test scores at age 3 and later.”

SWOOPMore perfect words: from Owl Babies by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Patrick Benson (Candlewick). The “swoop” makes me swoon.

The White House took on this issue, too, in a conference last October on “bridging the word gap.” Their conclusion had a different emphasis: “Among 2-year olds from low-income families, quality interactions involving words — the use of shared symbols (“Look, a dog!); rituals (Want a bottle after your bath?”; and conversational fluency (Yes, that is a bus!”) were even a better predictor of language skills at age 3 than any other factor, including the quantity of words a child heard.”

Certainly being read to provides quality interactions involving words, as a letter the New Yorker’s Mail section noted a few weeks after the article about Providence Talks. The letter writer extolled the importance of the quality of words young children hear, and noted researchers at UC Santa Cruz found: “Picture books were three times as likely as child-directed speech to use a word that isn’t among the most common English words; a result found regardless of parents’ social class.”

That’s our job as picture book writers: to serve up quality words that exactly serve the story. The right word in context broadens vocabulary and fits like the snick of a key in a lock.

luluOne last example, from Harry and Lulu by Arthur Yorinks, illustrated by Martin Matje (Hyperion). The text reads:

Harry jumped up on the bed and licked Lulu’s face from top to bottom. Lulu was delirious. Then she remembered.

“Wait a minute,” she said to Harry. “You’re not a dog. You’re just a stupid stuffed animal and maybe I should throw you out the window or kick you down the sewer or something!!” Lulu went to grab him.

Harry thought of yelping for help, but instead he decided to speak English.

“Delirious.” Perfect word.

Magic Formula: How to Create a Picture Book

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

(from BooksAroundTheTable, our crit group blog)

This time up, I considered writing an advice column about what to do when you’re waiting for an editor’s response. But then I decided it’s more interesting to look at the work itself: making books. Over my next few blogposts, I plan to lay out a process for creating a picture book, using examples from my published and as-yet unpublished work.

PART ONE: CHARACTER.

Good stories need intriguing characters, characters that sparkle with their very own inward and outward expressions of self: looks, mannerisms, substance, personality quirks and out-of-balanced-ness.

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Rough sketches for Frank of “Frank and Izzy Set Sail,” exploring gesture.

My characters are usually an amalgam of people I know, their traits exaggerated and edited for maximum dramatic impact. I am especially interested in duos, for the interaction and conflict possibilities. Also, I think it’s easier to draw animals than people.

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Thumbnail sketch of Frank and Izzy.

So, Dear Reader, if you want to play along, start by drawing a favorite animal. You can anthropomorphize a little or a lot. Look through family movies and photos for lively gestures and expressions and try to transfer what you see to your animal. Notice how other illustrators do this. (Paul Schmid, Arnold Lobel, James Marshall to name a few.) Hilary Knight’s Eloiseillustrations are great inspiration for childsize action gestures. Another strategy is to google photos of famous duos, (i.e. Lucy and Ethel, George and Gracie Burns, Sonny and Cher…), and try to capture their interaction in your characters.

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Rough sketches for future characters based on Ethel and Lucy.

I like to do these sketches on tracing paper. It’s easy to erase and rework. Once I have several pages, I hang them on the wall to consider. I think about proportions. Heads to bodies to legs and arms. Do this and pretty soon you’ll have a rough, generalized look for your characters.

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Rough sketches of Zelda and Ivy, finding proportions.

It’s impossible to draw pages of the same characters without starting to sense story bubbling up. Sometimes these ideas come out of “mistakes” in the drawing. For example, maybe the line you’ve drawn for a smile gives the character a devious look. Go with it. Think about what that character is up to. Your mind will start spinning story.

Meanwhile, life goes on. Pay attention. Note overheard conversations that sound like your characters. Keep track of situations that provoke an emotional response in your own life, the funny, scary, sad, annoying, angering stuff. Write down anything that seems made for these little characters you are brewing.

My next turn to blog here will be Feb. 7. Using these preliminary drawings and notes, we’ll move toward constructing the story.

Begin Again

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

I am in a stuck place lately. The bottom of the well. Fortunately, there is lots of stuff down here with me. Perhaps I can fashion a rope and pull myself out. How to begin?

Images from the idea file.

 

I sift through clippings saved over the years and feel around for the stories that I saw in them.

I look at the photo of my family that I keep above my computer. Any more stories there?

I think about the letterforms: ABC. The tall strokes, the curves. Letterforms are reason enough to write. Kind of amazing how a whole language emerges from just 26 letters.

I think about words, too. Do any of you make lists of words? Like these reduplicates: Abracadabra, Artsy fartsy, Aye aye, Beep beep, Beriberi, Bingle bangle, Blah blah, Bon bon ,Boo hoo, Bye bye, Can can, Chitchat (chitter-chatter), Chop chop, Clickety clack, Dilly dally, Ding dong, Dum dum, Doo doo, Fiddle faddle , Flim flam, Flip flop, etc. I know they belong in a story. Maybe an ABC book?

Outside, night has come and a storm gathers. The wind whips pine branches against the house. My little dog curls beside me. Stories are stirring. It’s cozy here in the well.

The Inside Story about the Inside Story

Saturday, November 16th, 2013

Early this month, our Seattle-born and bred children’s book salon, The Inside Story, went international. In nine bookstores across the US and Australia, people who love children’s books gathered for their first-ever Inside Story experience, sponsored by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, aka the SCBWI.

It was a proud moment for George Shannon and me. We invented the Inside Story in 1998. It was a proud moment for our local SCBWI who nurtured it over the years. Here in Seattle we celebrated our 31st Inside Story that evening, hosted by Mockingbird Books.

Our goal when we started the Inside Story was to create a forum where authors and illustrators could celebrate their new titles with local booksellers, librarians, teachers and other friends of children’s books. The idea was that book creators would share “inside” information that booksellers and librarians could use to recommend titles. Along the way, we hoped to build our children’s book community. That’s what’s happened over the past 16 years. Something like 500 books have been presented in these twice-yearly programs at a rotating venue of area independent bookstores.

Each time, authors and illustrators are each given three minutes to tell the stories behind their new books. For instance, at the recent Inside Story at Mockingbird Books, we heard Port Townsend illustrator Richard Jesse Watson talk about his latest picture book, Psalm 23. He began by telling about his atheist childhood and ended with a discussion of how he chose the models for his characters. It was interesting stuff.

The timed three-minute segments are interspersed with The Great Book Give Away, a game in which audience members win copies of the new books by answering children’s book trivia questions. The program is followed by schmoozing and booksigning and a fabulous spread of food and drink supplied by the host bookstore. It adds up to a delightful evening.

After the first couple of years, George and I asked our Seattle chapter of the SCBWI if they’d like to get involved. Kirby Larson signed on for the SCBWI and our little community event grew and prospered. In the ensuing years, Meg Lippert, Jaime Temairik, Martha Brockenbrough and Deb Lund have headed the Inside Story for our Seattle SCBWI, each bringing her inimitable style and humor as the event matured.

It was interesting to note that two local authors who presented at the first Inside Story in 1998 also presented new picture books this month: Brenda Guiberson told the story behind her latest, The Greatest Dinosaur Ever, and Nina Laden showcased Once Upon a Memory.

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Seattle Inside Story, Nov. 2013: Illustrator Dana Sullivan and his new book, Digger and Daisy, and illustrator Jaime Temairik whose new book is How to Negotiate Everything.

When I think back to those first Inside Story events, Ted Rand is always there. He had a new book in every Inside Story salon until his death in 2005. He was the dean of our children’s book scene – and the only person for whom the Inside Story’s three minute presentation limit was ever relaxed.

I also remember an early Inside Story at Chauni Haslet’s All for Kids Books and Music. We wanted to honor George Shannon, so Eastside writer Mary Whittington’s partner Winnie wrote a song we could sing to him. The music and lyrics were distributed and we all sang to the accompaniment of Winnie’s recorder.

The next day George and I got a note from a writer who had just moved to Seattle from New York. She pointed out that the evening felt more like a Girl Scout campfire than a professional gathering. Oh well. Let it be noted that I believe a community bonds when it sings together.

(One of the international Inside Story events this month was at Bank Street Books in New York. I guess they didn’t include a singalong.)

There’s a gang of school librarians who show up for the Seattle area Inside Storys. Chief among them is Lynn Detweiler, who has attended just about every one. She deserves some recognition. Maybe it’s time to write another recorder-accompanied song?

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Lately I am most likely to hear about the publication of new books via a trailer on YouTube that’s friended on Facebook and tweeted on Twitter.  I’m glad that in Seattle we also celebrate these occasions together in person at the Inside Story, as a children’s book community. I love that other cities are going to have this opportunity.

Thanks to everyone who has nurtured the Inside Story along: the SCBWI chairpeople and their committees, the bookstores, the presenters, the audience and the publishers who have sometimes donated champagne (yay, Candlewick). We are all lucky to be part of the Seattle children’s book community.

A Tale of Two Foxes

Friday, May 31st, 2013

My fox sisters celebrated a new edition in May and it seems like a good time to tell their story.

The first, eponymous, Zelda and Ivy book was published by Candlewick Press in 1998: three short stories about two fox sisters in one picture book format. Both the text and illustrations seemed to drop into my lap: gifts. But with further thought, I realized this material had been trying to become a book for a long time.

We all experience moments when life is larger than usual, moments full of emotion and humor that we recognize as the stuff of story. I gathered a critical mass of such times from childhood home movies and conversations with my sibs. I wanted to make a picture book that carried our growing-up experience: our neighborhood parades, and fairy dust and, maybe most importantly, our relationships. I am the middle of five children. I know what it is to be a bossy, imaginative big sister and an adoring, gullible little sister. I was pretty sure sibling rivalry could fuel the drama.

I first worked with this material in a project called Summer Shorts. Here’s the dummy.

It included four short stories about a family with five human children. It made the rounds at publishers and was roundly rejected. Years passed while I sold other projects and got started in the picture book world.

Meanwhile, Pierr Morgan, a NW illustrator, showed me this cool medium called gouache resist (directions: http://www.lmkbooks.com/fun/gouache.php). I liked how the reds popped. Why not revisit that sibling rivalry material – only with fox characters? I simplified, reducing the cast to two.

From their debut at critique group, these characters seemed to have the juice. When Zelda and Ivy was published, it received lots of starred reviews and SCBWI’s Golden Kite honors in illustration and text.

I was invited to do a sequel. Then a third.

When the fourth book, Zelda and Ivy The Runaways, came out in 2007, it had a leaner look. Candlewick’s marketing department had advised these stories belong in the early reader canon – thus we downsized to the standard 6 x 9-inch ledger size. That year ALA chose it for the Geisel Award. It was the same year my friend Kirby Larson won the Newbery for Hattie Big Sky. We were both in the ballroom in downtown Seattle when our awards were announced. Pretty exciting.

Two more Zelda and Ivy titles have followed, and the earlier ones were reformatted from picture book to ledger.

By the time I got to the sixth book, I knew Zelda and Ivy’s world as well as my own.

As of May, all six titles are officially part of Candlewick’s Sparks series for early readers; each published as a slim paperback that fits easily into the backpack of a young reader.



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