Writing and illustrating books for children was something that I always wanted to get to, but was just too busy with the next assignment. After the first ICON conference, with its strong emphasis on self-generated work, I was inspired to make the time; it opened up a whole new world for me. I also started having babies (by proxy) and was knee deep in bottles, diapers and ideas.
First, I dusted off a script I’d done at SVA about a little freaked out blue guy who was stuck in an all red painting. This became "Courage of the Blue Boy". I worked with the manuscript for a couple of years and dozens of drafts. It's rare that I do less than twenty drafts and four or five storyboards for any book...Blue Boy was an immigration story, a diversity story, an introduction to color book…it was complicated and very wordy. Then at the next ICON conference, I ran into Guy Billout (wasn't it great when we all lived in NYC and knew each other?) He asked me what I was working on and I mentioned a kid's book- he said, "What book? How does the story go?" So, there in a crowded hallway with people pushing around and between us, I laid out the essential story in thirty seconds. And that became the book. My editor at Tricycle Press, Summer Dawn Laurie, helped me shape it into the book it became.*
It wasn't my first book published - it was third. When I'd refined the manuscript yet again, I made a few dummies with hand-stitched bindings. I called my agent at the time, Justin Rucker from Shannon Associates, to show it around. Justin said, "Great! Why don't you write three more books so that I have something else to show if they don't like this one?"
Okay.... So I wrote Wow! City! and Beasty Bath, both of which got into print and a peek a boo book which, apparently, everybody and his dog had already done. Scholastic bought Beasty Bath, then Hyperion bought Wow! City! I still get complements on the brilliant writing even though it has about forty words and twenty of them are Wow! It is a picture book, after all... It won an ALA notable book award in 2004 and that’s a big deal. My wife and I were talking about buying the woods out back in anticipation of the ocean of royalty checks that were sure to follow. Oh well, not so fast- librarians are one thing; the “Walter the Farting Dog” book buying public is another…. The great thing is that my books have continued to garner excellent reviews, with some raves and quite a few stars thrown in. I am working with Linda Pratt now, of the new Wernick and Pratt Agency (formerly with Sheldon Fogelman) who is a wonderful agent, advisor and confidant. I am also lucky enough to be working with some of the best editors in the business, including Donna Bray (Balzer & Bray, Harper Collins), Andrea Welch (Beach Lane Books, Simon & Shuster) and Rotem Moscovich at Hyperion (Disney).
Making picture books is a lot like being a painter. A book can be like a show of paintings, an idea illustrated by a cohesive set of images telling a story as a whole. You work diligently and steadily over many years to create a respected body of work and you learn, grow, and refine as you proceed. Unlike editorial work, at the end of the day, you're not done, it hasn't gone to press, and a project can preoccupy your mind for weeks and months. It takes a bit of mental discipline to detach sometimes...
At the end of the (last) day, you do have a nice product, a physical book- when I worked at the Times, we used to say "tomorrow it's fish wrap". Most of the thousands of magazine illustrations I've done over the years are gone wherever they go... there is a legacy of history recorded and the lingering thrill of the deadline and a job well done- something we all know, cherish and share- but a book is more permanent, and before long I notice that I've gathered a whole shelf of them. The public seems to hold book making in high regard also...it's funny, you work at Time Magazine, or Slate, or the New York Times for years and think that's pretty cool, but do just one book, and suddenly you're a bit of a rock star. I had a girl point me out this morning as a "Great Artist". High praise indeed coming from a six year old...
Thumbnails and storyboards... I'll scan one of these to give you a better idea. My table is a mess...
Some of the Dummies. I don't always do them, but for one book, "What Little Boys are Made of" I probably did a dozen. Rubber cement, anyone?
These are originals. I've only done two books in watercolor, "Beasty Bath" & "Hattie Hippo" (both Scholastic). These days I generally use brush and ink on Arches rough. For many years I had an assistant on regular payroll who traced all of the final sketches onto watercolor paper where I did the ink drawing. Then she erased the pencil, scanned my ink drawing and cleaned it up. Nowadays, what with the Great Recession and all, I do everything myself. I hit upon the old comics method of using blue lines for the underdrawing. I do a fairly complete pencil drawing on tracing paper, and then scan it in and print it on 140lb Arches rough in blue. Once it's inked and scanned, the blue is easy to select and delete. As far as the assistant goes, this is way more efficient, I suppose, but I miss the company. I get interns from time to time, but I often find myself redoing their work at day's end.