Well this is a super long post. Feel free to read one or all of the stories about the five illustrators/ writers I met at the Literature conference March 31, 2012. I wrote them as if I interviewed each one, but really I just created an amalgam of their presentation, answers to questions from the audience, or comments from questions I snuck in during autographs and lunch. Did I mention that Children’s book writers make me feel happy and at home in the world? This was an inspiring day. It was refreshing to hear from people who think visually, and with purpose.
Sources for his work: Shannon says his characters, stories, and illustrations come from the things he’s always drawn since childhood. Several of his books have what adults would call “psychosomatic themes.” They give a surprise twist in illustrating the magical thinking of children. In his well known picture book, Stripes, a little girl’s worries about what others think make her change color, and shape too. Shannon knows how to push the emotional arc of his story even beyond the first or second level, so that the resolution brings a great sigh of relief. How does he do this? One example, his book No, David! he ends with the “biggest yes of all.”
Audience: Shannon has an entire line of picture books about a boy based upon himself, called David. The entire audience, mostly women librarians and teachers, were in hysterics over Shannon’s authentic slides of the first book he drew as a little boy. It contained the only two words he knew how to spell: no, and David. Shannon explained that he doesn’t write with the literary critic in mind, but rather kids, himself included, and now his own daughter, Alice.
Voice: David writes in a voice based on his own childhood experiences. His characters have a lot of mischief and a tongue in cheek sort of truth. Shannon says that he writes for that moment kids truly understand: that moment of “slow motion” when the cranberry juice is headed for the really expensive carpet– and if they could move, they would reach out and catch their mistake. That’s why Shannon believes that the picture book is all about the page turn: the rhythm, humor, and questions we ask the reader as they turn the page.
Advice: Shannon’s advice to writers & illustrators is to write off their hobbies and field trips by putting what they love and do into their illustration work. His new book coming out this fall in 2012 is a big fish story based on his love for fishing. The new illustrations are his first ever done entirely in oil instead of acrylic. He made two rules for himself in this visually stunning book: Take time. Try anything.
Sources for her work: Sarah Weeks is the kind of writer who loves a great theme. Gratitude is the theme for her popular book, “Pie.” And Sarah Weeks is a grateful person; to her family, her mother, her friends, and neighbors. And like many writers for children, she writes about children and writing. Weeks does something, however, that few writers are able to do. She finds joy and humor in everything around her: her boys fighting when they were young, kids performing puppet shows for themselves instead of listening to her presentation at a school, and best of all, kids who are unusual.
Audience: Weeks not only looks for the odd one out, she writes for him. In her book series about Oggie Cooder, Oggie likes to “charve” or carve cheese slices with his teeth, especially when they form into the shape of states like Texas. What seems like just a zany chapter book takes teachers’ geography lessons to new heights.
Voice: Weeks new book, Pie, has a voice with just enough quirk to make it tart, and just enough simplicity to make it sweet. But again, there is more to this book than a story on a shelf. So many readers have been moved by this middle grade book, that one librarian learned and practiced making pie every day for two weeks to present Weeks with a fresh pie on her arrival. Readers, teachers, and readers’ parents have begun making pies, crocheting pies, and sewing pie pins to share with Weeks. Everyone wants to show how much this book about gratitude has meant to them. It turns out that gratitude, or thankfulness, grows and spreads when shared.
Advice: Weeks read her final draft of Pie to her young next door neighbor. The girl explained she always likes to start a book knowing who the main character is right away. The best advice Sarah Weeks received while writing Pie was from David Levithan, her editor from Scholastic. He said that she needed to add “pie porn,” more description about the taste and texture of the pies eaten in the story. Even I had to buy a pie the next day after hearing Weeks read selections from her book— they are very good.
Sources & Voice: Jerry Pinkney grew up with the oral tradition. He knows the story tellers voice first hand. Although he didn’t know any artists when he was young, he carried a sketch book everywhere he went. He met his first artist while selling newspapers. One of his customers, John Lining the comic artist, invited him to see his studio. One of the most crucial influences in Pinkney’s long standing career as an illustrator was his grandfather. Pinkney always had plenty of pencils because his grandfather worked in a pencil factory. Pinkney closed his presentation by explaining that one reason he works so much with watercolor is because he loves line. Pencil is his tool of choice which he uses to “express something with pressure” on a surface. I think that expression is the great force of Pinkney’s connection with nature and history. Today, Pinkney adds gauche, colored pencil, pastel, and whatever will help him achieve what the illustration calls for. He showed the audience pictures of his new working studio, and his library of over 3000 books with a large supply of works on nature and African American literature and tradition.
Audience: Pinkney has the unusual knack for bringing to life fables and stories from American and African oral tradition. The audience he speaks for are not just children, classrooms, or parents; he writes to bring to light ancient stories that will last well after our present future. One look at his new wordless picture book of the fable, The Lion and the Mouse, will explain the power of Pinkney’s work. His illustrations are, at the same time, better than you could ever imagine, and also exactly how you always pictured it yourself. Recently Pinkney has completed the Three Little Kittens inspired by his great grand-daughters love for nursery rhymes.
Advice: Pinkney answered a few questions from the audience. About the texture quality of his work, he explained that it comes from layering values with watercolor or colored pencil. He paints on a very smooth, uncoated hot press paper by Arches. Pinkney’s advice to other artists is to get out in nature. He enjoys working from books, live animals at the zoo, and even borrowed a stuffed model from a natural history exhibit to understand the structure and qualities of his newest character, a chipmunk. The chipmunk stars in Pinkney’s new book Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. When a friend challenged him by asking what project he’s always wanted to do, but had been intimidated to try, Pinkney was inspired. He read to us a beautiful text: the introduction to John Henry— better than any I’ve ever read. When I asked Pinkney if he was considering writing his own folk tales in the future, his eyes got real big until I could see the golden flecks in them. His eyebrows rose up into arches until he looked exactly like the lion caught on the cover of his brilliantly illustrated fable. Then he answered with a laugh. He has always wanted to, and he was thinking about it.
Sources & Audience: Tom Angleberger sometimes think story rises up out of nowhere. The job of the writer is to recognize the right story. But later in his presentation, Angleberger admitted that he doesn’t write for the kids he speaks to at schools; he writes for himself – as he was in sixth grade.
Voice: When I asked Tom about his great series, Origami Yoda, he explained that yes, he first learned to enjoy origami as an adult. And yes, it was the origami that gave him the idea for this great series of books. Tom Angleberger is ageless and he wants it that way. As he spoke he appeared younger and younger. After the audience did an origami project with him, he said, “now you too can be five folds away from Jedi knowledge.” Angleberger borrows the metaphor of light and dark forces from Star Wars. His wants the characters in his book to show a puny way for middle school age kids to recognize one key truth: There are both positive and negative ways to cope with the difficulties of school and other social situations. Why does he want to show this? The problems he struggled with as a kid turned out to be his superpower, but school was still his kryptonite. I think Angleberger hopes the characters in his books teach a profound hope that weaknesses can turn into strengths, or in his words “superpowers.” Angleberger models this happily ever after from his middle school days with this explanation, “Now I am a professional nerd.”
Advice: Tom Angleberger writes and illustrates books for school-aged kids to let them know they are not alone, and that they too have superpowers if they can find a “lighter” side, pun intended. He had the entire DNA Lit conference make a fivefold Yoda– see the picture on his website. His newest book in the series is The Secret of the Fortune Wookie. His advice for other illustrators and writers seemed to be: remember we do the hard work. For example, when a friend told him that Chewbacca was the missing piece to his new book, Angleberger still had to figure out how to make a nonspeaking character star in his book. Answer: he added a translator.
Sources: Patricia MacLauchlan teased Paul Zelinsky in her opening remarks, because he was the only illustrator/writer who did not share about his childhood at the DNA Lit fest on Saturday. However, Zelinsky went into such great detail about the process of his artwork, I think we all had a better picture of how and why his artwork has been important to him probably for as long as he can remember
Voice & Audience: Paul Zelinsky is a true artist: flourished handwriting, a soft-spoken and eloquent way of speaking, and he spanned the gamut in his range of ability in communicating visually: He showed an amazing slide show about one of his favorite book projects, recently reprinted, Knick Knack Paddy Wack. We saw the animation of the original paper engineering from the front and back of each page. He humored us with funny drawings from his sketch work for his newest book, Z is for Moose. He also demonstrated his first step for illustrating a picture book: How to break it into 32 pages—more of a math puzzle at first—for all those important page turns and surprises. He is a typographer, and the master of every style of illustration. His illustrations of classic fairy tales are as pristine as stain glass, painted in the Renaissance from his studies in Italy. His illustrations of American folk tales are painted in the exact style of Colonial art. They could be mistaken for the real thing, only they are even better. I could go on and on, but you’ll have to do an online image search to get the idea.
Advice: Paul Zelinsky had the best and most creative advice for writers and illustrators who “can’t let go” when a book project is done, and it is time to move on. For example, in order to transition from his illustration work with Z is for Moose, Zelinsky did small goodbye projects. First, he repainted a small set of 32 pages from a different perspective. (For the original project, he drew the illustrations in Photoshop, printed them with pigmented non soluable ink and watercolor paper from his Epson, then hand painted each character. This allowed him to frame and keep the work after it was scanned for printing. I asked him privately: Yes, he is hanging his illustrations in galleries and museums.) Zelinsky also created a 2D sculpture of Moose for his mantle. He worked on a short animated film about the book with voices by friends, family, and famous friends like Maurice Sendak. Finally, he then uploaded two versions of his book pages, in miniature, to Spoonflower.com. From there he was able to order several yards of fabric printed with his own design. Afterwards, I asked Zelinsky about the details of his shirt: Thankfully he had found a good tailor while working with the book printing company in China. He simply had the fabric sent to the tailor; they kept his measurements on file, and soon his amazing button-down dress shirt — complete with his postage stamp size checked design of the illustrations—arrived. He was wearing it. Impressed? I am. And you can order the fabric too if you type in his name to the site. I think it would make great quilting fabric. Of course, you could also upload your own illustrations to make an illustrated something for yourself. Brilliant.
Sources: Patricia MacLachlan, Patty to her friends, loves to talk about her family as the source of her the best moments in her writing. “What we do is write about ourselves as children,” says MacLauchlan. She spoke of her father, who was a poet-farmer, her brothers and sisters, herself as a child constantly reading, and the northern prairie where she grew up. Most of her newest inspiration comes from her amazing grandchildren who sing like angels. MacLachlan, author of Sarah, Plain and Tall, possess that ancient ability writers used to have to make ball like a little baby after hearing only a few words. I think it is because she writes from experience, but it’s more than that.
Voice: MacLauchlan, however, is her own person, and very much in the present. She loves to make scandalous side comments to let her peers know that she may have written Sarah, Plain and Tall, but she isn’t Sarah after all. MacLauchlan writes much of her work in first person present tense, but it is each character’s quality and tone of voice which makes each character so true to life. MacLauchlan also makes sure her characters have secrets. I think it this revelation of secret, one moment at a time; of hidden truth that makes her work so powerful.
Audience: MacLachlan is a great speaker, but she also shares her favorite quotes from friends grown famous over the years: Among them, Jane Yolen, and other writers for children in the Massachusetts area. There they started a writers group that weathered through changes in family, fame, and fortune. MacLachlan likes to quote her friend Natalie Babbitt as well: “Lives and books slide sideways into each other . . . . I’m throwing a story up against the wall to see if it fits.”
Above all, MacLachlan speaks to “the family I call mine.” She includes: friends, fans, readers, children who write her letters, or leave messages on her answering machine, and people she shares with at conferences. I think this means to Patty, you are her family if she has shared stories with you. To her, sharing story, experiencing story, reading and writing story . . . is what life is all about and what makes family possible.
Advice: Over lunch (and in a Master’s Class I had with her last summer), Patricia MacLachlan mentioned a few things that helped her get started, and kept her thriving in the book writing business: She started out going to SCBWI. She had a writers group to keep her accountable. She wrote from experience both past and present. She listens to the children who read who work. She listened to hard advice from other writers, like changing Sarah, Plain and Tall from a picture book to a novel to give it room to grow. She appreciates first readers like her husband, who writes compliments in the margins. She uses the “backspace button”— willing to revise and struggle with her work. “I like imperfections,” she says, “I learn from them.” Finally, MacLachlan mentioned that she found new publishing avenues with a writing agent that was open to her trying new genres and writing picture books. The result was a large selection of new published work in her own fluid and firmly present style. She never chose to chase after projects that were merely “popular” for the moment.