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Mentorship Part 2: the story evolves

Almost two months into my mentorship, and Elton’s Ears is taking shape in new ways that I’d never anticipated. The story is just about resolved at last: Raven is merely hinting at a way that Elton might find his way home, allowing Elton to do all the thinking for himself. So the next stage is to make sure the characters are consistent. In the process of developing the layout I ended up with some very sketchy drawings and some more finished ones, so I needed to get them all looking as though they belonged to the same book. The image above was my first sketch for Elton trying to stand up for the first time. The image below is the more refined version. I’ve lost some of the spontaneity on the way, but Brian reassured me that that happens to him too! Especially once the colour is added, children (and some adults) will need a more finished image in order to ‘read’ the action. Plus, in the process of transforming the drawings, I decided to give Elton a triumphant expression in the last picture.

I’d already gathered all the deer drawings together and started to compare them, noticing that in some, Elton looked much bigger next to his Mum than in others, and after studying Mule Deer a little more closely I made Dad a whole lot chunkier and Mum became a little more streamlined.

First sketch for the family
Elton and his parents, revised rough

Brian still pointed out that the antlers don’t look quite in perspective – I may have to construct a model out of pipe cleaners!

I now have to think carefully about the repeated images of Elton in various stages of surprise and panic. He needs to look and act like a mule deer but at the same time he has to appeal to children, so his emotions have to be recognisably similar to human emotions.

In his first encounter with loud noises, he began as a little too exaggerated:

His eyes are just a bit too human, he has teeth like a horse and a neck like a giraffe! Notice also that the text is in front of the drawing. Publishers hate that! So I needed to move the text outside his ears, plus a member of my critique group pointed out that ‘croak’ is the sound that frogs make. After a discussion between friends about the relative noises made by Australian and American ravens (we refer to them all as ‘crows’ in Australia, but in fact most Australian ‘crows’ are ravens) I decided that ‘Karrk’ was the best compromise for a sound made by both species.

So here I’ve adjusted his face so it’s more realistic, but Brian thinks it’s still in that ‘uncanny valley’ which falls between ‘not quite animal’ and ‘not quite human’. I need to make his eyes more deer-like, and less human. I’ve also made his ears smaller, because the story is not about his ears being abnormally large, it’s about the fear induced by the sudden amplification of noises.

I’m still working on varying Elton’s posture, to express panic and fear, speed, delight and relief.

Brian has given me a useful tip: he says if I print out all the ‘Elton’ faces, I can compare them and analyse whether they all look like the same character from different angles. He traces one face and overlays it on the others to compare relative proportions, in the same way as an animator would do.

All this preparation – long before I embark on the final illustrations! But it’s well worth it. I learned from another mentor, the water colourist Alan Ramachandran, that your picture will be 10 times better for every hour you put into preparing beforehand. Next time you pick up a picture book, consider that each picture may have taken between 4 and 40 hours to complete: and that’s only after all that previous preparation undertaken by both writer and illustrator, not to mention the editor and the designer!

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Mentorship, Part 1: Kill your Darlings

When I submitted my manuscript for the #PBChat Mentorship program, I thought I had taken the story as far down the road to completion as possible. That is, I’d shown it to a peer critique group, I’d worked on the dummy book for several weeks, and I’d put it in a drawer for several weeks, then taken it out and worked on it, then repeated the process several more times. But what I hadn’t done was show it to an author/illustrator like Brian Lies who has extensive experience both as a professional creator and as a mentor. And that’s exactly what I needed to do!

Brian and I haven’t met online yet, but he’s already given me a wealth of advice in what he called his ‘first thoughts’ – all three pages of them! One of the most valuable tips he gave was to pay attention to the pacing of my story. Once I have the story laid out in dummy book form, it’s not just all about the page turn. There will be fast-moving parts of the story which need the counterpoint of slower passages, and I hadn’t thought much about that aspect at all. Tomie de Paola compared creating picture books with writing, directing and performing an opera or a musical, because you are engaging your audience with language, rhythm, colour, emotion, story and action all at once – so why not music as well? And just as we need quiet passages in a musical performance, so we need comforting pauses in a fast-moving children’s story.

Brian made several excellent suggestions about the positioning of the characters, such as making sure that your hero is not placed so far away in the picture that you can’t see his facial expression, or you can’t empathise with his situation because you aren’t right in there with him. But he also drew attention to the fact that my hero wasn’t really resolving the situation himself – he was getting too many hints from his helpful companion, the Raven. I needed to make the Raven’s character more subtle so that he didn’t just behave like a schoolteacher, but gave Elton the opportunity to work things out on his own.

I ended up pasting my original layout into a giant storyboard which I joined together from four A4 sheets. I took out two scenes that I felt weren’t needed, and added another spread to slow down the action in the first few pages, which then contrasts with the buildup of momentum in the second half of the story. I downloaded a template for this purpose from storyboardnotebook.com The first spread represents the cover design, which at the moment I have repeated as the CIPdata/title page spread. The blank pages represent end papers, plus a blank in the middle of the book that needed an extra illustration, to represent the calm before the next disturbing event.

You’ll notice that the animal sounds are very large and a little worrying! Brian suggested I make them less distorted, so a child could read them more easily.

This is how my first storyboard looked.

In my next blog post, I’ll demonstrate what happened after I started applying some more of the changes that Brian suggested.

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Opportunity Knocks

When I began writing this blog last month I said I would occasionally talk about my own picture books, as well as describing the picture books, both recent and ancient, that impress me. I wasn’t expecting to have any exciting news about my own work for a long time to come, but I was mistaken!

Yesterday I woke up to discover that I had been selected to receive a mentorship with one of my favourite American author/illustrators, Brian Lies. This is a dream come true. I applied for the mentorship through PBChat, thinking I’d be highly unlikely to get anywhere as the competition is US based and there must be a million aspiring US author/illustrators who’d be grasping at the chance. So it was a huge surprise to find I was a winner!

The little fellow in the picture at the top of the page is the one who earned me this privilege. His name is Elton and his story was inspired by my Canadian grandson, who at the time of my second visit to his home in the Rockies, BC, was very afraid of loud noises. Together we sat down and made up a story about a mule deer who had ultra sensitive hearing – which led him into all sorts of trouble! Elton eventually discovers that his ears can be extremely useful, once he knows how to use them.

I’m hoping Brian will help me to hone the story and pictures into something that will be acceptable to publishers. At the moment it’s in the raw state of early conception, and as the weeks of the mentorship go by I’ll be documenting its progress, both story and pictures.

I love the way Brian writes, and his drawings are exquisite. His book ‘The Rough Patch’ moved me to tears. So I know I will learn a lot from him, and I feel very fortunate. To sample the way he crafts his stories, listen to the two interviews that are posted on the home page of his website.

One of Brian Lies’ beautiful illustrations for ‘The Rough Patch’

I’m so grateful to Justin Colon, the inspiration behind PBChat. I’m now part of a whole new community of fellow mentees, and I’m determined to make the most of every moment of my mentorship.

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Blog

As this is my brand new website (my old website was getting overloaded with diverse topics that have preoccupied me over the last 20 years), the focus in this blog is going to be on my first, current and future passion – picture books. I have always loved picture books, but I was never as serious about writing and illustrating them as I am now. Having worked as an illustrator, a poet and a printmaker, these occupations have helped me to appreciate the power of words and pictures more than ever before.

I will use this blog to create a library of my favourite picture books, past and present. I will analyse why I like them, what is uniquely special about them, and how they were created.

Just occasionally there will be some news about my own picture books, which I’m constantly working on.

For my first post, I’m going to mention a book that captured my heart a few weeks ago. I subscribe to a wonderful website called Brain Pickings, and this is where I discovered Pinnochio: the Origin Story by Alessandro Sanna.

This is an almost wordless picture book, something which publishers are often very afraid of publishing. They feel that parents and teachers need a story to narrate to the children, but I found this story very easy to narrate to my granddaughter – the pictures told me exactly what to say. They are watercolours, rendered in the brightest colours, using a seemingly effortless technique that evolves with the natural flow of the medium (you can see Alessandro working in this youtube video). The story is on one level just a series of adventures experienced by – a twig. But the beauty of the images somehow gives it greater depths; I compare it to listening to Beethoven’s pastoral symphony, if you can get the Disney images out of your head and concentrate on the power of the music instead. Because we don’t have a didactic narrative, Sanna’s pictures literally speak for themselves.

As to the meaning of this story, my granddaughter never asked me to explain. She simply absorbed the pictures, feeling the emotions that the images evoked, and empathising with the little stick creature. She didn’t know the Pinocchio story and had never seen the Disney version, even though she is totally up to date with the latest Disney epics.

I suggest you read the article in Brain Pickings and then buy the book for your child, someone else’s child, or yourself. You won’t regret it.