Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas/Slash/Bah Humbug!

No no, I am definitely in the "Merry Christmas" camp, not the "Bah Humbug" camp... EXCEPT when I'm under a tight deadline!! Then I fall into what I call my Bob Cratchit/Uncle Scrooge complex, wherein the two sides of my personality fight for supremacy.

(not shown: the Peruvian blanket on my lap, because like Scrooge I am stingy with the central heating)

My inner dialogue has gone something like this:

U.S.: "I expect you'll want the entire day of Christmas off!"
B.C.: "It's only one day a year, sir."
U.S.: "A fine excuse for robbing a man's pocket every 25th of December! Besides, you have a deadline to meet!"
B.C.: "But sir... it's Christmas!"

My split personality has found a compromise with itself, wherein I let myself work (including writing this) until the afternoon when my wonderful husband is done cooking dinner. Then, it's rest and relaxation!

One of the hardest parts of working for myself has been drawing those boundaries. Working at home, it's easy for me to work work work all the time. But it's important to carve out time for life, like the few days Herm and I took to visit the family in Florida a few weeks ago.

(my beautiful and talented niece- future figure skater and/or star roller derby player!)

Because part of the joy of this lifestyle is supposed to be the opportunity to relax and enjoy life more, right?! So, my best wishes to everyone in this holiday season. May you find time to relax and spend quality time with your loved ones.

And I'll expect you at work all the earlier the next morning! Ha ha.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Athletics and Me: A History

Guess what time it is?

Roller Derby tryouts time! For those of you keeping track, this will be my third time trying out (once in New York, once in Portland), as chronicled here and here.

It strikes me as funny sometimes that I am involved in something so physical, and also that I'm currently writing and illustrating a book about athletics, since I was anything but athletic as a kid.

I was always gangly & uncoordinated, and just as kids pigeonhole themselves early on as "bad at math" or "bad at art", I always thought I was "bad at sports". I always came in last in the 50-yard dash, and I had a mean PE teacher who clearly favored the boys & naturally athletic girls. No big deal, I thought- I was good at reading and drawing, I did not have to be good at sports.

Appropriately enough, it may very well have been the Olympics that kept me somewhat interested in the world of sports. My mom is a highly creative woman (as evidenced by my homemade costume above), and she was very involved in giving me and my two brothers creative and unique experiences as kids. This includes, but is not limited to, the famed 1984 Block Party Olympics organized by my mother and her best friend, Mrs. C. I wish I had some pictures from this extraordinary event! Staged during our street's summer block party, all of the neighborhood kids competed in events like the marathon (run around the entire block), gymnastics, and a dress-up relay race. We also copied world flags from the encyclopedia with construction paper & staged an Opening and Closing Ceremony parade. The Gymnastics Controversy of 1984 is a story for another day, but I will say this experience influenced me for life. I may not have been naturally gifted at sports, but an athletic competition where we could make flags and have a parade? This was the sporting event for me!

I hope with Olympig (and the accompanying website & additional resources I have planned) that I can help introduce a love of sport to those kids who might not come by it naturally. I know I would be missing a lot by not being involved with roller derby now. Several times a week, I get to hang out with a group of inspirational, strong women- many of whom also never thought of themselves as athletes. Long live sports for the un-athletic!

Oh, and wish me luck at tryouts tonight!!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Long Time, No Write!

Well hey there! Guess what I've been doing besides not writing on my blog? I'll give you one hint:


When you're a children's book author/illustrator, I'll admit it: there are days when my job is prett-ty laid back. I'll watch "Fame" for inspiration, do a little doodling, take a nap & call it a day. And don't get me wrong, I AM working on those days- I fully believe you need to daydream and doodle and spend quality time with your characters.

THEN there is the other part of my job. The dummy is done, art is due in 2 months, and I am painting. ALL. THE. TIME. It's quite different from the sketching in the park part of my job, but you know what? I really like this part, too. It's comforting to know what I'll be doing tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that. The irony in all of this is that with all these hours spent at my drawing board, I have plenty of time to think up new blog topics, but no time to write them! Here are some recent topics I've thought of in my piggy solitude:

* Top 10 Things about Working From Home (I got as far as "Leggings" and "Glee" before deciding this might be too damaging to my image)

* A Salute To Creative Parents

* My Dr. Jeckyll/Mr. Hyde Complex: or more appropriately, Mr. Scrooge/Bob Cratchett Complex

* My Imaginary Interview with Ellen (DeGeneres. Wherein I talk about how I am COMPLETELY taken aback by the runaway success of Olympig, and how my good friend JK is helping me deal with the sudden fame. C'mon, hasn't every author had this dream?!?)

So, look forward to some of these topics in the future! Yes, I WILL find the time to write them, because talking to myself on a blog seems less creepy than just normal talking to myself. Have I mentioned I've been spending a LOT of time alone lately??

On to today's topic:

*Finally using images I took for class like 2 months ago!

So, I always like to know how other illustrators work. Here, for example, is how I set prepare my paper for my illustrations. It takes a while, but I enjoy the process- I like to imagine I'm one of Michelangelo's little helpers. Preparing my paper with care always feels very artisan to me.

I use acrylics on paper, and the first thing I do with my paper is wet it. Wet it good!

Then I flatten out the paper on a nice thick board. I have several of these boards so I can do a few pages at the same time.

Then, with the paper as flat as I can get it, I take out Bessie the Staple Gun and staple all around the edges.

Since the fibers of the paper are nice and wet you can literally stretch the paper, and that's what I do as I go around the edges. When it dries, I want it to be tight as a drum.

Then I take out my gesso.

It's taken me a while to find just the balance that I like, but I've found that a thin layer of gesso with a spongy brush,

followed by a smoothing with the flat smoothy thing I found in the hardware store

... generally does the trick. I let it dry, sand it down, and repeat the process twice more.

Two things to beware of:

1) Sometimes after wetting & stapling, the paper still looks warped!

Don't panic! I've found it usually smoothes out overnight.

2) Beware of angry cats trying to sabotage your career:

And the last thing about my process that I'll talk about tonight is mixing paint. I'm trying a new thing, which I am really loving- mixing all my colors in advance! It is a wonder! Illustrator extraordinaire Johanna Wright spoke to my illustration class at PNCA this summer, and she said this is how she works, so I thought I'd give it a whirl. And it has changed my life!

So I made color copies of the color studies I did, and mixed my paints to match the colors I already liked. My big question was, How do I know how much color to mix?! My answer: Who knows? For colors I knew I'd use frequently (like "Pig"), I went with "A lot".

I now have tupperware containers labeled "Pig Skin" around my studio, which adds a level of Hannibal Lecter creepiness to my existing "talking to myself" creepiness.

Goodnight, everybody!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Happily Ever After?

TWO blog posts in ONE week?! Hey, it's a full moon tonight, anything can happen!

Actually, I was quite eager to post this week's Illustration Correspondence Course, as several people had to miss class on Tuesday night. So without further ado, here's...

Happily Ever... After?!?

In which we talked about the fine line between having a "moral" in your story, and having a "meaning" in your story. I feel like some picture books (*ahem* celebrity books, *ahem*) are conceived with the notion that you have to teach kids a lesson in books. Going to the dentist is not scary, reading is fun, etc. I also feel like kids know when they're being preached to. Take "Where the Wild Things Are", for example. If written by, say, Joy Behar (no offense), maybe Max would have been so scared by the monsters that he realizes he shouldn't be a Wild Thing, and he runs home and apologizes to his mother and is never naughty again. First of all, that is wholly unrealistic, because OF COURSE kids are going to be naughty. Instead of beating us over the head with the moral "Don't be wicked to your mother", we're left with a deeper meaning: All kids are naughty, and you are okay. Even if you're naughty, your mother will still love you. Even this last bit is understated: Max does not run home to a weepy apology scene with his mother- she doesn't even appear, she just leaves his supper waiting for him.

I feel that only recently did I really GET this concept: that the best picture books don't necessarily end with Happily Ever After. I think that good picture books end with a deeply satisfying resolution, but NOT the most obvious or predictable solution. For an example, I brought in my first dummy and my revised dummy for my book Olympig. Let's take a gander...

So I thought my first dummy for Olympig was pretty good. I liked the character of Boomer (a pig who wants to compete in the Olympics). He has a struggle (he's a terrible athlete), and I thought I had a good "hook" (the Olympics). And yet, I got turned down from several agents because my story was too predictable (their words). For example, when Boomer loses another event, and his temper...

... the other animals LITERALLY say, "Being an Olympic champion means more than winning gold medals, you know!" Talk about beating over the head with a moral! In the end, Boomer realizes that being nice is more important than winning, and he helps his fellow athletes out of a big mud pit & they all win gold medals. The End.

Luckily, my agent Paul Rodeen took the time to give me very wise feedback when I queried him, and I had my eureka moment. My main character does not have to get what he wants in order to have a happy ending! Besides, how many times did I ever give up winning something to help someone else out? (zero times= not very realistic). On the other hand, how many times did I try really really hard to win something, and I still lost? (about a bajillion times= more realistic). If I want to have a deeper meaning in my story, perhaps the "lesson" that you're not going to win everything you try is a more important one to teach.

It was, of course, more challenging to have Boomer lose and yet still create a satisfying ending to the story. Ultimately, though, I feel it's a much stronger, and strangely, more satisfying story now.

I recently read the climax of a story referred to as the "reversal", and I like that. It's the point when things that have been going in one direction suddenly do a 360, and you have to deal with the consequences. It turns out Pigeon CAN'T drive the bus- what now? Kitten CAN'T reach that bowl of milk in the sky- what now? David doesn't WANT to be bad any more- what now?

Lastly, we discussed the "mother of all page turns"- page 32, the final page in a picture book. I referenced the website of Darcy Pattison in outlining these possibilities for page 32:

1) Begin the cycle again (pigeon can't drive the bus... but maybe a truck!)
2) Fulfillment
3) Emotional connection
4) Unexpected twist

It's fun to go through books looking specifically at page 32. So many great books end with exactly the opposite message as the rest of the book! In No, David! we hear the word "No" about a million times... until the last page, when we read "YES, David... I love you". Unexpected twist & emotional connection. In Kitten's First Full Moon, we read "Poor Kitten, Poor Kitten" over and over again... until the last page, when we read, "Lucky Kitten". She has a family who loves her- unexpected twist & emotional connection.

And that, my friends, is THE END.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Character Development

So before I jump right into Week 2 (3 weeks later) of Illustration Correspondence Course, I'd like to speak to you for a few minutes about Amway. Okay, that's not even really my joke- I stole it from my first fire-eating crush, Broon (made famous, of course, at the Largo, Florida Renaissance Festival).

My point is, I have some good news to share! I have a new picture book deal, yahooooooo! BUG MUSICAL is going to be published by Dial Books for Young Readers! They're also my publisher for Olympig, and I am really really excited to continue working with them! And I'm excited to continue watching Glee guilt-free, as it is now legit research.

Ok, moving on...

I am not going to repeat everything from my first Character Development post from last spring- you can see that here. But, I do have some fun new insights to add, thanks largely to the spectacular Wordstock festival held here in Portland last weekend! The highlight? A presentation by

David Wiesner


David Shannon!!!

Believe it! It was amazing to hear both of them, of course, and it was great to hear their insights into creating the characters in their picture books. David Shannon, for example, did a "learn how to draw David" exercise, and explained his reasoning behind each and every facial feature David has. It was fantastic to hear how much thought he put into such a seemingly simply drawn character. So. In case you don't know, this is David:

He went through his facial features thusly:

Nose: slightly lumpy & off-kilter, because David Shannon himself has broken his nose 5 times (the last time due to an errant sliding glass door).

Teeth: David Shannon (ok, let's call him D.S.) knew a kid when he was growing up who had greenish teeth that had grown into sharp little fangs... before he got his adult teeth.

Eyes: one is slightly higher than the other. This is because D.S. himself has mismatched eyes. He did a funny & lengthy demonstration of his lopsided eyes that consisted of 2 words: "Eyes. Ears. Eyes. Ears. Eyes. Ears." It was hilarious. Maybe you had to be there.

Ears: (speak of the devil)- no holes, because David doesn't listen.

Nostrils: Left is bigger than right, because David is left-handed & thus frequents his left nostril more than his right.

Haircut: commonly called the "pig shave" when D.S. was a lad.

Eyebrows: Both say different things. One is the "evil" eyebrow:

One is the "innocent" eyebrow:

Crazy, right? And an excellent example, I think, of how much thought and care goes into creating seemingly simple and childlike characters.

David Wiesner spoke about his new book Art & Max, and talked about how he developed their characters. His website has terrific visuals- I highly recommend. If you click on the thumbnails, you'll find his notes describing each step of the process. What a terrific gift- allowing us to see his working process! I was pleased to see that he also creates models of his characters- although his aren't quite the stuff of nightmares like Motha is...

His website also has pictures of his models- a look through his sketches is time well spent, believe you me!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Illustration AND Writing Correspondence Course!

Leaves are changing, there's a nip in the air, which means...

Illustration Correspondence Course is back in session! Continuing Ed classes at PNCA started last week, and this fall I'm teaching an 8-week class on writing & illustrating children's books. Similar to the summer intensive I taught in July, but minus the "intensive". Although, let's face it, 8 weeks is a short time to discuss all things picture books.

So, let's jump right in! One of the first things we talked about last week was how to go about planning your picture book.

A good step 1:

Thumbnail pages! I draw so many of these little rectangles in my sketchbooks. Most picture books have 32 pages, so that's a good place to start. I use thumbnail pages to keep track of what's happening when, where the climax happens, etc. But we'll get into all that in a bit.

Thumbnail pages are great for your own personal use, especially in the very beginning stages. Once you have things sussed out and pretty much in the right place, a great Step 2 is this:

THE DUMMY BOOK! A dummy is a great way to make sure your thumbnail pages actually work as a book. I've seen dummies range from the very loose and sketchy, to very detailed, nearly finished books. It's a tool for YOU to use, so it's up to you how detailed you want to get. Some advantages of dummies:

1) It's exciting to see your ideas in book format! In a profession that takes some self-motivation to keep goin' when the goin' gets tough, a dummy book can be a great motivator.

2) It's a good way to see how your story flows as a real book. Page turns are very important in picture books; this helps you experience them as a reader would.

3) They're portable! When I made the first dummies for Bea Rocks the Flock, I'd hand them out to friends & colleagues with post-it notes & ask for their feedback. Some feedback was helpful, some was not... but if everyone has trouble understanding what's going on on page 14, for example, you might want to take another look at that! And a note about feedback- most of your friends will- if not prompted- give you feedback like, "This is soooooo great!!!!!!" Make sure you let them know you're looking for critical feedback!

4) Last but not least, dummies are perfectly suitable to send in to publishers and/or agents for consideration. While many dummies are sent electronically these days, good ol' fashioned paper & tape dummies are usually acceptable, often preferred.

SO! With the basic ideas of thumbnails & dummies out of the way, we next went into studying some classic & contemporary picture books. I decided to emphasize 3 Golden Rules of Picture Books while doing so:

1) (I'm very into lists today, apparently!): The Narrative Arc. Making sure your story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. More specifically, making sure your story has some sort of buildup, an emotional climax, and a resolution.

2) Show, Don't Tell

and 3) Emotional Nugget.

So, Number 1: Back in my day, when I used to get picture book submissions at HarperCollins, I'd often get submissions that lacked a plot. Say, Judy gets up and goes to the zoo. She sees some monkeys, some tigers, some polar bears, and then she goes home. The end. While it has some beginning, middle, and end... it's not the most riveting of stories.

Think of the Three Little Pigs. While it's kind of repetitive, there is still a slight buildup. The first house is straw (easy), the second house is sticks (harder) and the third is brick (very hard). The action builds to a climax, rather than staying flat the whole time.

A classic example of a story building to a climax is (as I've talked about on this blog before) Where the Wild Things Are. Max starts out making trouble, and the illustrations get bigger and bigger as we reach the emotional climax of the story.

When the Wild Rumpus begins, we get 3 spreads of full-bleed illustrations, with no words at all. Beautiful.

If you look at the structure of WTWTA, it looks something like this:

The climax happens around pages 26-31, leaving a few more spreads at the end for the "cool down" and resolution. For next week, I asked class participants to take one of their favorite books and to do a breakdown of the pages (complete with sketches). I find that taking a favorite book and breaking it down and studying it helps to de-mystify the process.

Another example I used to show the narrative arc was "No, David", by David Shannon. This book SEEMS like it might not have a narrative arc: it's a list of David doing bad things, and being told "No". And yet. There comes a time when David pushes things too far:

I read this book frequently at story time at the Children's Museum, and you would almost hear an intake of air from the 3-year-olds at this point. Everyone knows that feeling of pushing your parent- pushing, pushing, pushing ...until you go too far, and you're in real trouble. So it's a narrative arc, and one that kids really can relate to.

Ok, moving on to #2: Show, Don't Tell. I've used this example on my blog before- the wonderful George and Martha. The text on this page reads:

"On the way to George's house, Martha played a tricky game of hopscotch."

The words DON'T say, "On the way to George's house, Martha's present fell out of her basket." There's a sort of game that goes on between the words and the pictures. The words can tell one story, the pictures another.

Another good example of this game is "The Day Jimmy's Boa Ate the Wash", one of my favorites as a kid. The kid narrator is so deadpan, and says that her class trip to the farm was "boring... kind of dull...", even though all these crazy things keep happening in the illustrations.

Another fun thing is, while she's talking to her mother she's putting on this astronaut-looking outfit, which is NEVER MENTIONED in the text. It's another, totally different story we're being told simply through the pictures.

As the mother concludes that it sounds like it actually WAS an exciting trip to the farm, the girl answers, "Yeah, I suppose, if you're the kind of kid who likes class trips to the farm."

... and then, of course, wordlessly gets into a soap box derby car with a pig, allowing us to imagine her further adventures.

Last, but not least, I talked about having an emotional nugget to your story, and one that kids can relate to. I used the example of "Do Not Build a Frankenstein" by Neil Numberman. I use this example because it seems like a simple, funny story about a kid building a monster and the trouble that ensues. And yet, I clearly remember sitting in a meeting at Greenwillow Books when we were publishing this book. The book's editor Martha (who has a wonderful blog!) was talking about the story, and said something along the lines of, "This is actually a book about getting frustrated with a younger sibling." And that blew my mind! It's hidden well, but it is totally a book about putting up with a sometimes fun, often frustrating younger sibling you can't get rid of.

"At first, having a Frankenstein may be fun. But after a while...

"it can become pretty annoying."

... And that's it for week 1! Next week we're discussing developing characters, so stay tuned!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

You know you're a writer when...

... you suffer a grave disappointment and you console yourself by thinking, "Well, at least I can use this in my book." What was this grave disappointment? Well. If you are a regular reader of this blog (Dad), you will know that I am involved in a deep and abiding love affair with roller derby. You may remember this post from 2008, when I first tried out for the New York team, or this one when I was trying to come up with a kid-lit themed name.

My grave disappointment came in the form of the Fresh Meat tryouts for Rose City Rollers a few weeks ago, alas. Despite the athletic prowess you see below, I did not make the team.

Seriously though- it DID make me feel better to think, "Well, now I have a better understanding of my character and how HE feels when he loses one Olympic event after another... and another... and another." And really, how many times as adults do we get the chance to experience the excitement and and anticipation of trying out for something, and the disappointment or elation that follows? Besides job interviews, which frankly, I do NOT consider fun.

And here is the part that tickles me... You know how authors always say there is a bit of themselves in the characters they create? Just as Boomer is sure he's going to win his next competition, there is a part of me that is just as sure that at the next tryouts, I am going to ROCK IT.