Writing….a process filled with so many questions needing to be answered, problems to be solved. One of the most frustrating things about the creative process can be the uncertainty, questions, puzzles, doubts, unresolved issues…which result in much banging of the head against a wall. On the flip side of that same coin are the most joyful parts of the creative process; those lightning flashes of insight and inspiration…the AHA moments that flood in, in random places, at random moments.
It’s hard to forget them when they happen…I had several memorable occasions of these during the 7-year course of making my second book, HOME IN THE WOODS.
One of my first big challenges in trying to write this story was that I found myself unable to figure out what to focus the story around. It was based on the stories I heard from my grandma and her siblings of their childhood; the years they spent living in an abandoned tar-paper shack in the middle of the woods. With so many story fragments and memories of that experience, I had a hard time figuring out what the connective thread was. What’s tying this story together? What’s at the heart of it all?
I followed the characters around their world and their routines. At first I took their story into adulthood, then I tried including more of a wider historical context. I had scenes of them at school, in town, interacting with other migrating folks. At one point I tried the story from the point of view of the animals in the forest. Then from the point of view of a teapot. It was all sounding pretty bad.
I often had to put the book on the shelf and spend months at a time away from it. I wondered if I would crack the story, and wondered if it was do-able. During this writing process I felt like one of those restless dogs; circling and shifting around a spot to try to get comfortable.
One night…on May 5, 2013…I was having a hard time falling asleep, so I slipped on my headphones and began listening to NPR’s ‘First Listen’, a program that features a full-length preview of a newly released album. The album that day was a beautiful soulful album by guitarist Glenn Jones called “My Garden State”.
As I laid in bed, awake in the dark, this track came on that started simply with rainfall, and then the rumble of thunder, the patter of rain on a windowpane, and the s-l-o-w strumming of guitar strings.
It was quiet. It felt like what I was hearing was in the present of some lost past… It transported me to the time and place of my story, in 1932, there with my great-grandmother and eight kids in the tar-paper shack. I could see the trees, hear the rain on the tin roof, and feel the air of the northern Wisconsin woods. And I suddenly knew. I stumbled out of bed in the dark and scribbled this note…
At the heart of this story is the shack. Everything is centered in it, and around it, and the characters can come and go, but they always return to this place. That was the first big missing piece that I need to set the story on it’s right course. Thanks to that sleepless night, headphones, NPR, Glenn Jones, his great art, the gift of that AHA moment… [Hear a preview of the song Alcouer Gardens here, and buy it here]
There were many more pieces of the puzzle to fall into place, and I’ll come back and share about more of those here soon. For now, I wish you some restful time to set those pieces of your project down, let them simmer, and allow a big enough space to open and let the answers seep in.
I’m beyond thrilled to introduce you to my new book!
From the publisher: This stunningly beautiful picture book from New York Times bestselling author-illustrator Eliza Wheeler is based on her grandmother’s childhood and pays homage to a family’s fortitude as they discover the meaning of home. Eliza Wheeler’s gorgeously illustrated book tells the story of what happens when six-year-old Marvel, her seven siblings, and their mom must start all over again after their father has died. Deep in the woods of Wisconsin they find a tar-paper shack. It doesn’t seem like much of a home, but they soon start seeing what it could be. During their first year it’s a struggle to maintain the shack and make sure they have enough to eat. But each season also brings its own delights and blessings–and the children always find a way to have fun. Most importantly, the family finds immense joy in being together, surrounded by nature. And slowly, their little shack starts feeling like a true home–warm, bright, and filled up with love.
Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin Random House AGES: 5-8, 40 pages
* “Wheeler’s evocative fullbleed illustrations . . . draw readers completely into each page, creating a sense of personal involvement. The detailed imagery allows for the incredible efficiency of her poetic prose, which always finds the right note—striking a careful balance between melancholy and hope as the family rebuilds their life. Based on the childhood of Wheeler’s grandmother, the story feels warm without being sappy or overly nostalgic, successfully making a bygone era meaningful today.”—Booklist, starred review
* “Wheeler shares a poignant tale, based on her grandmother’s childhood, of a Depression-era family’s hard times. . . . Lovely ink-and-watercolor double-page spreads, in somber grays, sunlight yellow, and meadow green, evoke both the period and the family’s stark poverty. . . . Delicate visual details abound, from the sparkle of evening raindrops to Mum’s side-buttoned apron. Marvel’s ruminative narration takes occasional poetic turns. . . . A quietly compelling look at an impoverished family’s resourcefulness and resilience.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred revie
“Based on the memories of Wheeler’s grandmother, the story follows six-year-old Marvel, her seven siblings, and their mother. . . . The family’s ability to make do helps them survive the winter and greet the spring. . . . Wheeler’s story champions initiative, self-reliance, and familial closeness.”—Publishers Weekly
4th grade teacher Jennifer Keller sent out this fun tweet:
As I searched for a pic of my workspace to share, I saw many photos I’ve snapped of places I’ve written (or illustrated), so I pulled together a bunch more to share here! I’ve written and illustrated in so many locations over the past 7 years, usually due to traveling while under pressing deadlines, or at best, due to having a creative burst at some random time and location.
First workspace of note: my desk in the corner of our tiny 400 sq foot apartment in Los Angeles. We downsized from a 1 bedroom in order to allow me to go full time into illustration. Even though we out-grew it, I loved that little place…all my books before WHEN YOU ARE BRAVE and HOME IN THE WOODS happened there!
Then there are the classic alternate work-day locations: Coffee shops (must have good Hygge) and historic library spaces (also must have good Hygge). Apologies to the architects in the room, but The Muse has a harder time visiting in new modern spaces…
Speaking of modern spaces, when absolutely forced (i.e. on deadline) I’ve written and illustrated in airports, on airplanes, while waiting for delayed trains in train stations in England, and even in the car while moving across the country from Los Angeles to Minnesota.*
When I was doing visual research in England for the picture book art for JOHN RONALD’S DRAGONS: STORY OF J.R.R. TOLKIEN, I was also on deadline for another book project, so I spent the days collecting visual research and the nights working in hotel rooms.*
*this business of working while traveling might look romantic, but I should be honest in saying that in reality it’s quite difficult to get real work done, and it’s downright exhausting
Possibly the most incandescent place I’ve ever worked was at Scotch Hill Farm, owned by the late Maurice Sendak, for the month-long Sendak Fellowship Retreat. Once of the desks in my studio space there was the same one on which Maurice illustrated ‘Where The Wild Things Are’!
Last summer I spent a week collecting visual reference in the Brule River state forest—close to where I grew up in Northern Wisconsin—for my book coming out on Oct 1, 2019, HOME IN THE WOODS. I camped and hiked the North Country Trail, writing and sketching along the way.
While house-sitting at my brother and sister-in-law’s lake home recently, we had a great thunderstorm so I set up a work spot in front of the windows.
While it’s been helpful to learn to write anywhere, I have to admit I never feel as creative or productive as when I’m in my own designated workspace. These days I have my very own room for a studio space, with an open and closed sign to signal welcome or unwelcome interruptions (very important for co-habitants!):
I get to watch the seasons change from our 3rd floor windows. Things get super messy when deadlines get intense. But I can close the door on the mess and the work and keep it separate from the rest of life, and that’s a luxury I appreciate more for not having had it for so many years.
I live up the street from two beautiful lakes in Minneapolis—Lake of the Isles, and Bde Maka Ska—which are these gems of nature right in the middle of the city. They call me down to work by the water often when I feel breezes coming in or the light of a sunset glowing in the distance.
It’s a rainy spring day in Minnesota–very good for podcast listening.
I love the in-depth conversations with children’s book makers on Picturebooking Podcast, so I was extremely honored to be invited on! Nick Patton and I have a long talk about WHEN YOU ARE BRAVE, my coming second self-authored book HOME IN THE WOODS, and, always my favorite topic, process. Listen here>> https://picturebooking.libsyn.com/eliza-wheeler-living-in-your-illustrations
2. This interview with author Pat Zietlow Miller and Matthew Winner on The Children’s Book Podcast is so lovely! And I’m not being biased (even though they pay me some sweet compliments), I really enjoyed this conversation. Listen here>> https://lgbpodcast.libsyn.com/pat-zietlow-miller
I recently attended a wonderful opening exhibit at the University of Minnesota’s Andersen Library, The ABC of It , which has hundreds of children’s book treasures—original artwork from Poky Little Puppy, Millions of Cats, Goodnight Moon, Maurice Sendak, Tomi dePaola, Beatrix Potter…oh, and an 18 foot replica of the Goodnight Moon bedroom (!)—on display. If you have a chance, I highly recommend visiting the exhibit (going on through 6/14/19).
The event included a talk with curator Lisa Von Drasek and renowned children’s book historian Leonard S. Marcus. I wished it could have gone on for days. When talking about the art of making picture books, Marcus said:
“Everyone assumes that writing children’s books is easy. Picture books are just as hard as any book to write…because they aren’t simple, they’re distilled.”
That statement resounded in my head over and over, and it summed up, for me, something about picture book writing that I’ve been mulling over for years. There’s this relationship between pictures and words in children’s books that is 100% unique to the form. They tell a story and convey an experience TOGETHER; words and visuals taking part in a dance . . .
As an illustrator, my job is to look at a text and figure out parts of the story that are NOT included. Here are a few of the questions I ask myself when planning an illustration… What’s at the emotional heart of this part of the story?
What’s the mood of the character/s at this moment?
What happens before and after these text moments?
What’s happening elsewhere in the story?
What time of day is it?
What’s the weather like?
Could any other senses be involved? Smell, taste, touch, sound…
Who’s the viewer of this scene? Is it seen from a story character’s POV, or is it seen from the POV of the reader?
These questions help me to infuse the illustrations with all sorts of details that add to the story world. Instead of simply showing what the text is saying (which is repetitive, and can treat the characters and readers like they’re dummies), the illustrations have the potential to immerse the reader in a rich world that feels expansive and real. The sheer possibilities of this is what gets me excited to run back to the drawing table every day.
I’ve illustrated two picture books, WHEREVER YOU GO and WHEN YOU ARE BRAVE, both written by Pat Zietlow Miller, that I see as companion books. They’re created by the same writer/artist/publisher team, the physical books are the same trim size, and they are both about journeys (one explores an outer journey; the discovery of people and places, and the other explores an inner journey; the discovery of bravery from a place of uncertainty). You can see on these covers that I’ve mimicked the placement of the main character and ground curve.
These two books are examples of the potential of the symbiotic relationship between words and pictures. Pat does something in her writing that appears simple but is incredibly hard…which is to know when to step aside. She’s written these two texts that make no mention of characters, give no stage directions for the scene, and even have no specific instructions for drama or action. What that does is, it says to the illustrator, “Here, I’ve done my part…now you tell the story. Build the world. Own it.”
It’s a selfless creative act that takes trust and gumption. I don’t encounter this often from picture book writers (with all those illustration notes…humbug!). Over-writing is probably at the heart of what most often makes me turn down manuscripts to illustrate. And it’s also at the heart of what I aspire to do as a picture book writer; create picture books that aren’t simple…but distilled.
It’s not easy to do.
Goodnight Moon is a classic that fits that description of ‘distilled’ so well. And Where The Wild Things Are. Ooo, and how about Caps for Sale? Or one of my favorites The Little House.
This is the digital home of Eliza Wheeler, children's book illustrator/author.