Please help me share this video with the Tolkien fans that you know!
Over on the Picture Book Builders blog, I shared some highlights about illustration research I did for three weeks in England in 2015 for the new picture book biography JOHN RONALD’S DRAGONS: STORY OF J.R.R. TOLKIEN, by Caroline McAlister.
I had a great question come over Twitter recently about traveling for research, but couldn’t seem to limit my answer to few characters, so I’m sharing those here!
The most helpful thing I learned overall is to prepare as much ahead of time as possible, but leave some time and flexibility in the schedule for the unexpected.
Here are some other key tips:
- Print out maps, bus/train schedules, and directions ahead of time. Phone and internet service can be unpredictable and at times unavailable (usually in the moments when you need them most). Luckily, my super amazing husband/travel assistant, Adam had foresight and prepared printouts to guide us, and they were indispensable.
- Call ahead. We discovered that dates and times for exhibits or opening hours were frequently inaccurate online.
- Balance travel with rest. When paying out-of-pocket to travel for research, you can feel pressure to maximize every minute there. But filling every minute will make for a miserable trip, and you’ll want time off for rest and recovery. We spent the weekdays researching, and chilled with relatives of Adam’s who live in England on the weekends.
- Keep your receipts! These trips are tax-deductible, so keep a detailed travel journal and all your receipts for filing at tax time.
We did a pretty great job of maximizing time and enjoyment. If I could have changed one thing, I would have added some extra days for returning to locations just for sketching on-site, which we didn’t end up having time for. But we took hundreds of photos to make up for it!
If you’d like more info on the book:
JOHN RONALD’S DRAGONS: THE STORY OF J.R.R. TOLKIEN
March 2017, Roaring Brook Press/MacMillan
AGES: 4-8, 48 pages
My new picture book, with author Varsha Bajaj and Nancy Paulsen/Penguin Books, came into the book world today! THIS IS OUR BABY, BORN TODAY celebrates the birth of a baby elephant. Over the course of one day the jungle family and friends rejoice the baby’s arrival. The book is set in the lush wilds of India and is a tribute to all little ones getting their first warm welcome into the world.
I’m so excited to share more about this book, its author, and the process of creating the illustrations later this week on the Picture Book Builders blog.
So far the reviews have been lovely:
When a baby elephant is born, “wrinkled and gray,” not just the herd, but the whole world rejoices, from morning to night. From the proud Mama to the grand Aunts, from the “fertile and firm” Earth to the ancient Banyan tree, everyone and everything around the new baby elephant joins in celebration and care for the Baby “who warms the hearts of the world today.” Glowing with warm golds and greens and shadowed with deep blues and greens, the gorgeous artwork lushly illuminates the day of an elephant’s birth as it is cared for by its family and surroundings. The expressions on the elephant faces are sheer joy to behold; the elephant smiles are realistic and yet radiate affection. Seemingly simple, this gentle rhyming story works on two levels: the playfulness of the young elephant and its friends ensure that young children will be able to see themselves in the story, and given the depiction of the natural scenes, at least some young readers will become fascinated with the lives of elephants as well. An author’s note at the end provides background from the Indian-American author’s own life and also draws attention to the present-day need to protect elephants from poaching and the loss of habitat. The soft cadence of the rhyming verses and the joyous pictures of the elephants will make this a bedtime favorite. (Picture book. 2-5)
Bajaj (Abby Spencer Goes to Hollywood) traces the first day in a baby elephant’s life, an event celebrated by family members, other animals, and even elements of nature itself. The soft, gently repetitive text quickly establishes a soothing message of love and acceptance: “These are Aunts,/ caring and grand,/ who circle the Baby/ born today.” (There’s a hint of “The House That Jack Built” to the episodic structure, minus the cumulative aspect.) Bajaj focuses on a female-centric cast of elephants, subtly referencing their matriarchal societies, and glancing mentions of monkeys and peacocks give a fuller look at the book’s Indian setting. Working in pen, ink, and bright watercolors, Wheeler (Wherever You Go) evokes a lush environment of towering banyan trees and dense vegetation, helping create another personified character in the setting (“This is the Lagoon,/ calm and waiting,/ to bathe the Baby/ born today”). It’s an intimate and celebratory look at the early days of an elephant’s life, and a reminder that human births are pretty special, too.
Published by Nancy Paulsen Books
Aug 02, 2016 | 32 Pages | 9 x 10 | 3-5 years | ISBN 9780399166846
In TELL ME A TATTOO STORY, a father tells his little son the story behind each of his tattoos, and together they go on a beautiful journey through family history. There’s a tattoo from a favorite book his mother used to read him, one from something his father used to tell him, and one from the longest trip he ever took. And there is a little heart with numbers inside—which might be the best tattoo of them all.
I share about the process of making the art for this book in this post on my ‘Picture Book Builders’ group blog, The Story of TATTOO STORY, where you can read about how I developed the characters, sketches, and a color story throughout.
One story behind this book that I haven’t shared about yet is one about the cover art. The original sketch for the cover was to show the father in this arm-flexing position, as if he’s showing off his muscles, but he’s actually sharing his tattoo story. When the publisher, Chronicle Books, shared this sketch with international publishers at the Bologna Book Fair in Italy, they pointed out that this arm position is offensive in Italy (the equivalent of dropping an F-bomb). Yikes! Luckily this was discovered in the pre-publication stage, and we were able to change the position of the father to an embracing pose for the final cover.
When getting inspired to illustrate this story, I found myself staring at the tattooed folks all around my neighborhood (and then usually had to apologize and explain why I was studying their tattoos). I also frequented a great shop, Wacko Soap Plant, around the corner from my apartment to capitalize on their great collection of tattoo books (like this one).
It’s been a lot of fun to see this unique book go out into the world, and I’ll admit that I wasn’t exactly sure how it would be received by the world at large (being a picture book about tattoos and all) — but what I did know was that this book has an audience of tattooed parents who would be certain to appreciate it. Luckily, this story seems to be finding that audience, and some lovely reviews have been the icing on the cake! Here’s a highlight:
The New York Times: “Tell Me a Tattoo Story,” by Alison McGhee and illustrated by Eliza Wheeler, seems, at first glance, written specifically for the hipster parent who longs to see himself reflected in literature, tat sleeves and all. Here, tattoos are emblems of personal history, as a father describes to his son what inspired each one. The first is from his favorite childhood book, the next — the phrase “Be Kind” — was something his own dad said to him. Wheeler’s lush, detailed images beautifully dramatize each moment from the father’s past, and we move seamlessly between the present to these memories.
I was also able to share and sign TATTOO STORY at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books in April, and Chronicle books set me up on a lovely discussion panel of Picture Book illustrators with Dan Santat, Nikki McClure, Jose Lozano, and Lee Wind.
Blogger and reviewer Jules Danielson wrote this sweet article about TELL ME A TATTOO STORY.
Alison McGhee collected and shared tattoo stories on her blog, and here’s one of my favorites.
Alex Cohen of Southern California Public Radio conducted an interview with Alison McGhee here.
You can Buy ‘Tell Me A Tattoo Story’ HERE!
This year’s second picture book with my illustrations is coming out August 2nd, 2016: THIS IS OUR BABY, BORN TODAY by Varsha Bajaj, published by Nancy Paulsen/Penguin Books. I look forward to sharing more about this book in the coming weeks!
It’s been two weeks since the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators annual summer conference in Los Angeles, and I am still feeling like I’m in recovery mode. This conference is a massive whirling ball of creative energy. There we experience information, inspiration, connection, excitement, boredom, nervousness, and ultimately, exhaustion! It was the first year I was on faculty to give a portfolio workshop and moderate a panel of art directors at the Illustrator’s Intensive day, so all of these feelings for me over the four days were extra heightened.
A memorable moment happened at the end of that Illustrator’s intensive day when the faculty was giving parting words for the attendees. The very last question that came up was (I’m paraphrasing):
“After four days at this conference I’m left feeling two things: An intense excitement and inspiration to go home, do more work and get better. Then there’s this overwhelming, ‘Oh my god, I SUCK! How am I ever going to get there?!’ What the heck do we do with these feelings?”
This question lit a fire within the faculty, Caldecott-winning illustrators and art directors battling for the mic to say:
“That feeling NEVER goes away.” And,
“Maybe we do suck, but we have to keep going, keep working at it.” And,
“The feeling of sucky-ness is what pushes us to reach for more and better. If we thought our work was awesome all the time, we’d get too comfortable and complacent with our work.”
It felt like the conversation could have lasted for hours. One thing was clear – we all feel this way, no matter how successful we’ve become in the eyes of others.
And I felt so moved to say something, and we were sort of out of time, but mostly I just didn’t have the courage to take the floor in that moment. So that question has been eating at me since, and I’ve decided to share what I had wanted to say then, here.
There’s a fundamental problem in the way that we creative people approach our work. We draw lines or write words on paper, declare them an extension of ourselves, and then label those marks (and ourselves) as either AWESOME or SUCKY. This is an illogical and unhelpful thing that we do.
In Rene Magritte’s painting The Treachery of Images, the image we see is a painting of a pipe. Underneath the pipe are the words, “This is not a pipe.” Because of course, it isn’t. It is paint on canvas. Can we take away the labels of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ from our work, and see it simply for what it is? Marks on paper.
Even worse than the judgements we give our marks on paper are the labels we give to ourselves (in response to the marks on paper). “I SUCK!” we proclaim. But I am not those marks – I am a human being, that is ink on paper, and “I suck” is only a thought in my head.
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” ~William Shakespeare
I think we are afraid that if we don’t connect our identities to our work, if we don’t judge it as good or bad, we won’t care about the outcome. We won’t care to improve, to grow. I assure you, this is not the case. Why?
Because the reason we do this work, the reason that we sit down every day and make marks on paper, is because we have seen art, or read writing that made our hearts sing. Maybe we’ve even had a taste of this from our own work. But that is our driving force behind making marks. We want our ideas and our marks to make our hearts sing.
So, back to that question, “What do we do with these intense feelings of ‘I suck’?”
On an action level, we have two simple choices:
- Continue making marks on that paper.
- Make new marks on a new piece of paper.
How do we know which action to take? Once we take our thoughts away we are left with the marks on paper, and our internal feeling response to the marks. This internal feeling is your guide to what to do next, so give it your full attention. Don’t label it, don’t judge it, just feel it.
Does it feel enthusiastic, exhilarating, expansive, focused, or simply relieving? Those are good signs to keep going!
Does it feel confusing, tense, blocked, or like a sinking pit in your stomach? This is a signal that you might want to stop and refocus. So in that moment ask yourself those two questions:
- Would it feel better to continue making marks on this paper?
- Would it feel better to make new marks on new paper?
When you look at these lines on the paper, does it feel better to leave them as they are? Does it feel worse to abandon it now? Maybe more marks will fix what’s not working for you. Does it feel better to do something entirely different? There’s no right or wrong answer, you’re just feeling for relief. Every moment is a slight adjustment towards a feeling of relief. Improvement is a matter of incremental turns in the direction of better feeling marks.
I would also suggest taking these steps (often) in between number one and two:
- Take a nap.
(Or a walk. Or a shower. Clean something. Read something, etc.) It’s likely that if you’re in the emotional state of ‘I suck’, none of those marks will please you right now. I have discovered that when I take action in my desperation to fix problems, I usually end up mucking things up further because of my lack of clarity. Walk away and come back with a clear mind. Those two decisions of continuing or starting over will still be there, but you’ll be fresh in your approach.
- Study marks on other papers.
Stepping away from your marks often and revisiting other work that you love will remind you of that heart-singing feeling. Try to learn about why those marks worked so well. It can help create more clarity in what kinds of marks you want to make that will feel better.
REVISION, EVOLUTION, IMPROVMENT, GROWTH
Maybe the marks won’t make your heart completely sing for a while, but you will be able to at least feel relief from previous marks that really didn’t feel good. Keep turning, making incremental shifts to a place that feels a little better, and a little better. This is what we call ‘the revision process.’
TURN IN THE DIRECTION OF FUN.
If you aren’t enjoying yourself, it’s likely you’re not going to create work you love. A miserable journey is not going to leave you feeling happy at the end. A joyful journey is going to respond with a joyful outcome. Melissa Sweet taught me this – at the Illustrator Workshop, she showed us some painting she was experimenting with, and to us it looked gorgeous. But she asked herself one simple question, “Okay, this looks great, but am I having FUN?? No.” So she turned in the fun direction, and the work came out EVEN BETTER. To anyone else it may look great, or it may suck, but the only thing that’s relevant is how the marks make you feel. So those small incremental turns should go in the direction of fun–in the direction of play–in the direction of relief. They are moment by moment, downstream turns. Effort and pushing feels upstream. Playing and inspiring feels downstream.
I am the first one to admit that I get too precious with my work. I have limited time, and so I often feel that I have to make everything count, that it has to be perfect right out of the gate. But that’s not how the creative process works. It’s not how those heart-singing surprises happen. I’ve realized that when I’m too concerned with creating a great end product (trying to do something that doesn’t suck), and add to that working on a deadline, that’s when it goes downhill for me. But when I’m focused in each moment with ink flowing on paper, without analyzing or judging it, that’s when the magic happens. Inspiration and insights come out of a good-feeling process, and answers to problems in the work are waiting there.
This process of mark-making and finding relief in new marks is a process that never ends. It’s creative evolution – it IS the work. Turn towards those feelings of inspiration and the desire to keep making new marks, and release the “I SUCK!” words in your head. Those small, gradual, incremental turns will eventually lead you towards mark-making that will make your heart sing.
Today was the official release of not one, but two books that I worked on over the past two years:
The first book is WHEREVER YOU GO, written by author Pat Zietlow Miller. I’ll be traveling to Madison, Wisconsin to celebrate this book’s release in May. For those in the area please join Pat and I on May 15th at Books & Co. Bookstore, and/or May 16th at Mystery To Me Bookstore.
A special thank you to Pat for creating the words, Connie Hsu and Leslie Shumate for editing and story directing, and Patti Ann Harris for art directing.
If you missed the book trailer for WHEREVER YOU GO, check it out HERE.
To order a copy of WHEREVER YOU GO, visit your favorite Indie Bookseller, Barnes and Noble, or online retailer, such as Amazon.com.
The second book is THE UNMAPPED SEA, the 5th book in the INCORRIBILE CHILDREN OF ASHTON PLACE series by Maryrose Wood. I had such fun working on the cover and interior illustrations. Maryrose is truly a talented writer — these books are witty, playful, and lovable. I will admit that in each of my several readings of this manuscript, I got a little weepy at the end. I wish I could have been in New York for the book launch to celebrate with Maryrose.
A special thank you to Maryrose for her writing, Donna Bray for her editing, and Dana Fritts for her art directing (and incredible patience!). This is a dream team!
Along with THE UNMAPPED SEA, we’re also celebrating the release of this series in paperback (which sport my new cover illustrations!).
AWWWW — Maryrose, thank you!!
To order a copy of THE UNMAPPED SEA, visit your favorite Indie Bookseller, Barnes and Noble, or online retailer, such as Amazon.com.
In the life of children’s book creators, many things are beautiful:
A book’s birthday.
If you’re looking for a positive book with sweet writing and diverse characters for a 7-10 year-old, this is your book!
A brand new book trailer.
My husband, Adam, created this beautiful video for a new picture book I illustrated, WHEREVER YOU GO (coming April 21, 2015), by Wisconsin author Pat Zietlow Miller. Thank you, Adam!