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dillydally4gtg2

Sometimes I write the books I illustrate. I was recently asked what I write about when I develop a picture book.

What do I concentrate on? What are my ‘themes’?

I hadn’t really thought of it that way. I usually have dozens of small ideas I am working on and I spend most of my efforts in finding out if the ideas work at the appropriate scale and tone for a picture book. But I do have issues that resonate within my work. They are there whether or not I put them there.

Obviously when I write and draw a picture book I have more control over how it all fits together. I most often do a dummy that I submit with my manuscript so the text has already been fit with illustrations so editors can see how well they hang together, or don’t. Revisions ensue.

But what do I like to write about? My picture books all have a strong outdoor component. With my book, The Great Thanksgiving Escape, it’s easy to forget that it’s really about kids who are taken with imaginative play – and they want to play outside. That want to get to that swing set. They don’t want planned ‘play time’ with artificial boundaries. For me the last page of The Great Thanksgiving Escape sums up so much of my childhood. It is about the love of being outdoors, no matter the weather. When my daughter was small we were at the park everyday. And living in Oregon that means we played through plenty of rain and she never minded as long as she got to play!

Fearing_3

The final page form The Great Thanksgiving Escape

And Dilly Dally Daisy (my new picture book, due out in July)  has a similar POV. The outdoors again make an appearance at the end of Dilly Dally Daisy. As a child I spent 90% of my time outside. We had horses, cows, pigs, chickens, 20 some acres of pasture, forest, creeks and the St. Croix river just down the road. So outdoor themes are built into my childhood. Even if they are only tangential to the plot of many of my stories.

The new picture books I have written (more about them when a release gets closer) also hold reverence for the out of doors, though it’s not the main point of the stories.

I try and focus on what I remember from being a kid, but I also pay close attention to how my daughter and her friends are experiencing and expressing their childhood. That’s important for a children’s book author. Don’t just reflect on your own childhood. Try to understand what kids are like today. There are similarities and some very big differences. A large part of the ‘childhood experience’ is universal. I try to find universal themes and express them in modern terms – but the stories are still particular to my personal interests/experiences.

This is way too long an answer!

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diasy3

An advanced copy of my new book arrived! Dilly Dally Daisy is a new picture book I wrote and illustrated. Having an advance copy arrive will make for a much better week.

The end papers have Daisy in many different hats. As a kid I loved hats for some reason. I was just talking to my daughter about all the hats I used to get at rummage sales and secondhand stores. I don’t think I have any left. I wish i had kept a few.

The color in the book looks really great, I think it’s one of the best reproductions of my work I’ve seen in a long while. It will be out in July. Make sure everyone you know buys a copy. Or two. ; >

I’ll get some better photos of the book shortly. These are the “I’m so excited, it’s here!” pictures.

diasy2

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thanksgiving_escape

I updated my website with info about my next book, The Great Thanksgiving Escape, which escapes in September from dank, dark warehouses.

It’s a Thanksgiving story. I hope the title didn’t give that away.

The first review ran for it in Kirkus, and they said very nice things and I could breathe again – so I guess I can start my publicity push…which mainly focuses on me walking around town with a copy of the book under my arm and when people look at me I say – “I noticed you seem interested in my NEW book!” and I read it to them. Out loud. After all, picture books are meant to be read aloud. This does lead to some delays and frequent calls to the police, especially when I do this while I’m in line at the grocery check-out at around 5:30.

OK. That’s not true. That’s not ALL my promotional ideas. I also super glue several copies of the book to the outside of my car and I update my website and blog.

OK. Sadly enough, my main publicity idea is updating my blog and website.

And the radio ads I’m taking out for it.

 

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A few more rescue scans of stuff headed to the recycle bins.

I often really like a small, quick sketches on a page of a sketch book. Sometimes it wasn’t even the focus of what I was doing on that page.

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I like ‘rough’ art. The mistakes, the signs of struggle. The coincidence. I’ve always like the improvisational aspects of work in a sketchbook.

 

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Below are rough page layouts and character designs for a counting book I did. This never sold, but I created a dummy from it that I showed in my portfolio until I had published work.

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ideas

One of the most common questions an author, cartoonist or illustrator receives is, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’

This is somewhat straightforward to answer when you are contracted to illustrate a manuscript. I literally was handed a story to illustrate. Granted all the visuals must be created, so you are definitely generating visual ideas that must come from somewhere, but you have the architecture plans in hand – the manuscript.

John Cleese has lots of great quotes about creativity and ideas.

“We get our ideas from what I’m going to call for a moment our unconscious — the part of our mind that goes on working, for example, when we’re asleep. So what I’m saying is that if you get into the right mood, then your mode of thinking will become much more creative. But if you’re racing around all day, ticking things off a list, looking at your watch, making phone calls and generally just keeping all the balls in the air, you are not going to have any creative ideas.” ~ John Cleese

I recite an answer to the question of where I get my ideas when I give talks, which sounds much like every other author’s answers I’ve ever heard. And I think I began to believe it. It makes it sound likes it’s a discipline. Like you can take Idea Generation 101 at a university where you practice and develop and study and craft creating ideas. NO. You craft and refine and revise a manuscript or a sketch – which is based on an idea that comes from…????

When looking back on things it’s easy to think we see dots connecting to create an outcome. I think we mostly create those dots to fulfill a preconceived notion of ourselves. For those very same ‘dots’ could produce an infinite number of different outcomes. That they resulted in any particular event is simply a product of odds. So the looking back and pretending to know where an idea generated from is a comforting fiction we tell ourselves so that the world continues to unfold in an orderly action-reaction state.

A few weeks back I was sitting in the waiting room of a local athletic club. I was tired, a little bored, thinking about what I was going to make for dinner while I waited for my daughter to get done with swim team practice. And I was writing/doodling in my sketchbook, which I do all the time. And a story simply developed from a few sentences and a quick sketch.

I have NO idea where it came from. And of course no idea if it’s any good. But if I continue to revise it and if it is submitted to editors one day, I will follow up on this post.

But the fact is – I see no logical reason for that story to have appeared in my head at that moment. I hadn’t been working on it. It doesn’t have to do with swimming… it was totally random.

So much for knowing where ideas come from.

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There are a few really good days being a full-time author/illustrator. Getting checks is nice of course. After all, the food doesn’t buy itself. But really the best days are when you get the book you worked on for a year or more for the first time.  Seeing the final proof for the first time is also a good day.

This past week I’ve been busy working on the second picture book I wrote and will illustrate. The dummy is coming together, though it’s at that point where I spend a lot of time wondering if a particular page communicates the right story beat.  I was concentrating so hard that my daughter and her friend snuck up to my studio and gave me a big “BOO! ” on Saturday. Twice to be exact. Each time  I screamed out loud. My wife heard it from the front porch. Well, it is the season for scares.

But the other cool thing this week was seeing the final digital proof of the picture book I wrote and illustrated that will be released  by Candlewick Press next Thanksgiving. The cover, the flap copy, the final art with final type…very cool to see. And I am looking forward to the first hardcopy proofs in a few months. You will hear me talking more about both books as they near release.

Now, back to work. But I better make sure my daughter isn’t sneaking up the stairs.

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I am preparing to present a workshop on picture books later this month. I’ve been working on the presentation and one of the last issues is creating a reading list. I want some key examples that demonstrate not only the amazing history of picture books but also how they have changed.

ducks_pigeons

I don’t want to write too much about it here but when you compare Make Way For Ducklings and Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, you can immediately see the changes. Picture books are often read by a child now, or a parent reads WITH a child. It’s not always just an adult reading to a kid. There are exceptions, but word count in a modern picture book rarely exceeds 900 words.

A friend asked if that meant the old books were ‘bad’.

No it doesn’t. There has been a lot of change across our culture in 40 some years. And the old books reflect the culture of the time. True, some don’t hold up well, but many do. You should accept them as being part of the time they were created in. You can’t watch a silent film from the 1920’s and expect it to look and feel like Star Wars. Most modern writers wouldn’t write a play in the vernacular and style of Shakespeare but the power, originality, beauty and craft of Shakespeare’s work is still recognizable today.

I’m not saying Make Way for Ducklings is Shakespeare but it’s a beautiful picture book that is amazingly well crafted and still holds a place in the market all these many years after it was made. It creates a world that is welcoming and charming. It can seem fantastical/fairytale like but it also resonates as nostalgic to a modern reader. How we perceive the book has changed. But the book is still a beautiful read.

Now don’t get me started on The Pokey Little Puppy…

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