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Archive for March, 2010

This is another poster (without the typography yet) for an Oregon Children’s Theatre production next year. It’s a musical version of Alice in Wonderland. They wanted it to feel like a concert as much as a stage play. It plays to a slightly older audience as well. So Alice was aged up a bit from the first drafts. I scanned in a rough pencil, painted and drawn the rest of the way in good-ol Photoshop.

Hey is that SUNLIGHT I see coming from my windows!? I have to get outside and experience this first hand! Gotta run!

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Last week I spent three days at a Young Authors conference in Washington State. I wanted to thank all the folks involved for a very nice time. And I was really impressed with the student material, both written and drawn. I taught three classes a day for three days and got to talk with students from the third grade up to eighth grade. I listened in on a few critique sessions when I first arrived and the written material was so strong – I changed my presentation after realizing these kids were ready for a more complex and detailed lesson. Nothing like last minute changes to a presentation, right!? But the audiences were wonderful and asked plenty of good questions.

I presented a talk called Drawing Stories and focused on the wide range of media that are built upon the relatively simple act of drawing pictures that communicate narrative. We looked at picture books, storyboards for film and TV, comic books/graphic novels and comic strips. I also showed plenty of samples of work in progress and early drawings from The Book That Eats People. It was exhausting but well worth the time.

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Here is a finished poster (sans the typography) for The Oregon Children’s Theatre production of How I Became A Pirate. Based on the wonderful picture book by Melinda Long and Illustrated by one of my favorite illustrators, David Shannon.

I wanted it to reflect the fun of the book without replicating the beautiful work in that book by David Shannon. (Like I can paint like him!) And of course it has to work with the title and various bits of info so I needed to leave plenty of space. By the way, David Shannon is the author/illustrator of what I consider one of the all-time-best picture books. No David. An absolutely perfect picture book for young readers. I have yet to find a kid who doesn’t immediately and deeply feel exactly what that book is about.

I’m pretty happy with the posters this year. I did 5 posters for their shows next year and I’ll pop them up here when I can. They were all painted in Photoshop, with some scanned collage elements from rough pencil sketches.

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I have written quite a few postings about Graphic Novels I don’t like. I’ve only mentioned a few I enjoyed, and I don’t do that often enough. Recently I stumbled into one I have really enjoyed. And it’s a BIG STORY kind of graphic novel with an inventiveness that’s greatly impressed me. So much so that I have tracked down all three books to find out what happens next! And, I haven’t finished yet. I hope to read the final chapters this week. (so if the end sucks – so be it. I have enjoyed the ride so far.)

It’s a trilogy called The Fog Mound,  by Jon Buller and Susan Schade. Jon draws (you’re probably familiar with his work in various young reader books) and Susan wrote the story. It’s not a straight ahead graphic novel. It is a combination.

The chapters switch back and forth between comic style renderings and illustrated prose. I know this format has had issues in the market place. I was told this a few years back when I presented an idea that was simlar in execution. Chapters would go back and forth between a journal written in prose and a comic book (graphic novel ) style adventure. I can’t remember if it was an agent or an editor who turned ghastly white and excalimed – “No. Don’t do that! No one knows what to do with those books.”  What they meant is, bookstores don’t know where to put them and readers who like comics aren’t sure they want to pick them up and prose readers see the comic style pages and put the book down. Too bad, because after the first few chapters, I was fine with it and enjoyed the switching for the most part.

I also LOVE the ‘big story’ nature of the story. What I mean when I say that is – the story addresses some really intriguing issues that are not black-and-white. For instance; the health of the planet, the beginning and end of civilizations, what is civilization, how folktales and myths often contain the seeds of truths even though the histories become altered and how meaning changes with language.

So many graphic novels choose to pay slavish attention to a ‘demographic’. The ‘Indy band’ lifestyle books. The ‘isn’t being 11 years old wacky’ approach. The ‘too esoteric to be understood by mortals’ approach. The ‘secret history revealed’ – that may as well have continued being secret because it’ so damn boring- books.

This is a wildly creative, broad story. It has a wide angle lens on. It’s a fantasy adventure, that isn’t filled with trolls and magic elves. It’s just so darn original. A bit of Watership Down, a little Hobbit, some Ursula K. Leguin as well. I don’t want to list out what it is or isn’t like. What’s important is of the dozens and dozens (if not hundreds) of GN’s I read, this one stood out. No simple task. Especially as it works for younger readers and older readers who are willing to give it a chance.

I’ve often asked, “Why do a graphic novel?”. A good story should work as prose. A good writer should be able to craft it in prose. Are graphic novels just opportunities to tell complex stories in simple ways? (EG the illustrated versions of Moby Dick, the Illustrated Classics genre).

The Fog Mound books have given me some thoughts about this. Especially because you jump between prose chapters and comic style chapters. The comic style (drawn chapters) carry plenty of story weight, plenty of literary weight. But they add a nebulous ‘stickiness’ to the tale. A sense that seeing this fantastical world fully imagined lends additional weight and permanence to it. You can appreciate the art, the breezy nature of the lines, the expressive nature of a lizard (nearly impossible to capture only in prose I think), enjoy the sight gags (the ‘plus’ that is added by having pictures that can tell you more than what is being said and written), but it also makes me feel a unique bond to the world.

The only criticism I can muster overall is, I think I would have rather seen it entirely in graphic novel format. After all is said and done, I tend to want to get to that next drawn chapter. That may just be me (I do draw pictures) but I think it speaks to the remarkable power when words and pictures are combined. It isn’t better than prose, in the best cases it is prose-plus. It is two perspectives on a singular subject. That is intrinsically more intriguing and more dynamic. It opens the door to wonderful additions to a story. The dialogue AND picture nature of a graphic novel make for a more immediate and emotional presence. Just as a film marries the power of dialogue and image to always keep us in ‘the moment’ of a story, a well done graphic novel can do the same. It wires emotional weight and intensity directly to our brains. Cliche time – a picture is worth a gazillion words (that’s 3 Gigabytes these days).

Each book in the trilogy has gotten better in every way. Even the covers seemed to get a better sense of what the book is about as they moved along. The first being too ornate and particular – as if announcing it as a ‘serious’ work because of the effort of adding embossed, gold borders to the drawings. Every serious ‘cartoon work’ doesn’t have to look like Chris Ware designed it for gawds sake.

The books were published in 2007 (having a three year old has taken it’s toll on my timeliness…) and they are definitely worth a read. I imagine kids older than 8 or 9 would be able to ‘get’ the story. And as an older reader (ahem…) I have had a great time reading them.

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As someone who worked, briefly, but fairly-happily in television animation, I had no built-in hatred for TV animation for kids. And as our daughter got old enough we would watch some TV each day. Usually in the morning and before bedtime. We tried, not always successfully, to limit it to 2 hours a day maximum. We’d watch a movie from time to time as well. Finding Nemo, Up, The Nightmare Before Christmas. (My daughter LOVES vampires…The Twilight folks will be happy to know they have got the preschoolers onboard… )

I enjoy several of the cartoons on Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel. I’m actually more likely to watch cartoons than anything else (except that National Geographic and Science channel…what a geek I am!)

But as part of a final salvo in potty training we turned the TV off completely. And almost 3 weeks later it hasn’t come back on. Which at first doesn’t seem like a big deal, or something we should be THAT proud of. But the thing is, my daughter no longer asks for it, concentrates much better and plays much better by herself. We’ve also filled the time gap with reading a lot more books. (this didn’t seem possible but I think we are reading at least 10 picture books a day together)

As part of a generation raised with, basically, unlimited TV (but only 4 channels where I grew up) I hadn’t come to understand the media saturation kids face. Even though I worked and continue to work in ‘kids media’. When I grew up, there just wasn’t that much TV to watch. And (wow, am I old or what?) no VCR’s until I was 11 or 12. But I remember watching all the cartoons I wanted. Of course that was on Saturday’s from 6AM until about 10. Cartoons were on 1 day a week. (the history of animation for kids on TV is complicated but the emergence of animation of TV was for networks to meet Federal guidelines for providing ‘educational’ content. Thus, Scooby Doo)

My wife and I didn’t want to become a TV ‘nazi’. We discussed the TV issues and decided allowing some TV was reasonable. We could find a comfortable zone where our daughter wasn’t cut out from the TV culture, but not overburdened with it either. Where it wasn’t ‘rationed’ as a SPECIAL thing (does this just make TV into that much more of a secret desire?). We’d just be casual about it. And the days when you are sick and have a preschooler running around, sitting on the couch for 2 hours of TV is a hard pleasure to forego.

But from what I see, the continuous exposure at this age resulted in less ability to concentrate, less ability to entertain herself (Why play when the TV plays for you?) and generally a sense that everything had to be overwhelmingly entertaining to keep her attention.

Every child is different and not all shows are equal, but across the board our daughter is partaking in more imaginative play and able to concentrate on age appropriate tasks better than when the TV was part of her routine.  I didn’t expect this. I’m a little amazed. Though there are supporting studies saying very similar things as well as the opinions of many parents on various parenting boards my wife frequents. I am surprised what a difference there is just going from an hour or two a day, to none. This is kind of scary when you look at the amounts of TV kids on average watch.

I’m not even getting into the violence issues on TV, or the lack of physical activity, the obesity, the inability to study. Honestly, I never REALLY thought about those issues that much (I mean, I managed with no TV restrictions growing up, but as I wrote earlier, there wasn’t much TV back then in the stone age. And, come on, cartoons are funny!)

And we have all heard how TV can help a kid learn the alphabet ETC. But from what I see, they learn MUCH better when it’s a person reading a book with them or doing a puzzle, OR struggling to figure out something on their own, without a bright orange frog dancing with letters. (that sounds kind of cool actually).

I’ve become very suspicious of any claims made by TV shows for preschool children that their ‘educational’ content is good for kids or helps them in any longterm way. Perhaps being honest and saying, “It’s entertaining content that, in moderation, most likely won’t harm them. But most likely will not help them either.” would be the best way to go.

And, if learning from a TV was so good, why don’t they study for Bar Exams via TV? Or Medical Board exams? Or when you are at work and your boss asks you to learn a new product or a new system tell them, “I learn best by TV. Just get me a show to watch and a comfortable couch.”

How much TV is bad for a child? From what I have researched there are a LOT of numbers. From limiting it to 1/2 hour a day to 2 hours a day. And no study says that no TV is a bad thing.

An interesting perspective on preschools that have TV’s.

In the long run I don’t think we will be a no TV house. But I am very much open to see where this takes us. I think I’m missing the cartoons more than my daughter! I sneak down,after bedtime, to catch up on Fan Boy and Chum Chum. I think the damage has already been done to me.

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A quick alien drawing. I’m drawing a lot of aliens these days and sometimes these doodles appear in-between ‘real work’. The orange ‘coat’ of the alien is actually a scan of dryer lint after I got done drying an orange carpet. It’s even cooler looking when it’s bigger.

Some other aliens and the good ol’ standing on the street with a sign idea.

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I wrote an article for the SCBWI newsletter from the Los Angeles chapter. Here is the home for the local SCBWI chapter, which features a link to the Spring 2010 Kite Tales newsletter. (Here is a direct link to the PDF.) Now that I reread it, it seems a bit too serious and humorless. I didn’t want it to be that way.

In the article I talk about how I use  the computer to draw and paint. I don’t consider my digital work an extension of any one traditional method. I’m not doing ‘digital’ watercolors. Or ‘digital oil painting’. It’s a unique, mixed media approach that creates a new technique. It does some things well and other things not so well. And as in any medium, the skill and creativity of the artisan can make a difference.

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