~ by Julia Anne Young
I have always loved The Wizard of Oz. When I was a kid, I wore out our VHS tape. As a grown-up, I work with a shelf of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books directly across from my desk.
Naturally, I was beyond excited when Maria Middleton, Art Director for Random House Children's Books, created an Oz-themed assignment for her illustrators’ intensive at the 2017 New Jersey SCBWI Conference. She asked us to put our own spin on any character from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, write an original story brief, and illustrate a story scene.
Follow me down the yellow brick road as I share the process of creating a brief and art for my story: The Forgotten Cavern of Oz!
Generating Ideas from a Manuscript
At this point, my story brief and art were somewhere over the rainbow. I was facing the scary blank page. Time to revisit the classic book!
When I illustrate based on someone else's writing, I read the material several times. While images flit through my mind, I jot down notes and make tiny sketches. If I get to choose which scenes to illustrate, I select standout moments in the story—scenes that have a lot of drama, evoke a strong emotion, provide humor, or set a certain tone or mood. Illustrations should complement the writer’s words and also add something special.
A strong book illustration will often spark the question of “What's next?" in a reader's mind. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is full of exciting and magical moments. In that spirit, I wanted my brief and illustration to pique a reader's curiosity with their own dramatic and otherworldly qualities.
Although I chose Dorothy as my primary character, reading about the flying monkeys (who are not actually evil) inspired me to include them in my project.
So, I had at least two characters, and I knew some of the feelings I wanted to inspire with my illustration. Now it was time to stretch my wings and figure out the brief!
I continued playing with ideas in my “process journal”—a concept I was introduced to by The Fundamentals of Illustration by Lawrence Zeegan. I create journals for projects in the iPad app Paper by 53, filling pages with notes, sketches, photographs, etc.
After rejecting several ideas, I latched onto the concept that my Dorothy would be a camp counselor for The Flying Monkey Scouts!
During a canoe expedition on the Emerald River, Dorothy tries to rescue a monkey camper from a magical water cyclone. They end up in an underground cavern, in a village filled with rubbish and creatures that have fallen through the same drain. No one has escaped the cavern for decades, but Dorothy and her camper must find a way home.
I started working on character designs. I don't worry about how good things look yet—my journal is for pure idea exploration!
Refined Character Sketches
Maria Middleton encouraged us to consider our character from every angle. Here are the three tighter character sketches I sent for review.
She gave me great advice for the final piece, including a suggestion for a middle grade cover design: Dorothy’s canoe coming straight at us, about to tip into the cyclone. Among other things, she also recommended adding touches of Oz to Dorothy’s style, like a ruby slipper charm.
Before starting on an illustration, I create several thumbnails (tiny sketches). Thumbnails help illustrators experiment with composition ideas without expending energy on larger sketches. Here are just a few of mine.
Collecting Reference Images With Pinterest
At this stage, I will gather reference images either by taking them myself (as often as possible) or finding them online. I create secret Pinterest boards for my projects. I never copy a reference image exactly—it's essential to truly make the sketch your own. Gathering multiple photos and studying them before drawing really helps with this!
Sketching and Value Studies
I enlarged my favorite thumbnail to the correct dimensions and started sketching in Photoshop with my Cintiq drawing tablet. To get Dorothy’s pose right, I photographed myself and used my little artist’s mannequin.
Here is my sketch, still at a very rough stage:
As is the case with strong writing critique groups, a strong illustrator critique group makes all the difference! I asked for my group’s thoughts on these value studies, which help artists figure out their lights and darks.
After refining my sketch, I began inking on a new layer using a favorite Kyle T. Webster Photoshop brush. I smudged some of the lines for the water.
From Black and White to Technicolor—Time to Paint!
I use “watercolor” and “gouache” digital brushes created by Grutbrushes and Kyle T. Webster to build up my paintings gradually, using many Photoshop layers. I spent a lot of time on the water, making some layers more or less transparent and trying different colors.
To add additional texture, I take my own scanned, hand-painted watercolor background, convert it to grayscale, and set it as an “Overlay” layer above the painting.
Off to See The Wizard (at New Jersey SCBWI)
Here is the final painting I took to the conference:
During our critique at the intensive, I found out that although this might work as an interior illustration, I would need to increase the drama to make it a strong cover.
Maria Middleton and the other participants gave me specific and valuable feedback. For example, they suggested I zoom in, add more whites to the water in the whirlpool, and darken the surrounding water. They also suggested incorporating more magical and Oz-themed elements, and they advised me to revisit the drawing of Dorothy and the canoe.
I completely agreed that the changes would make the painting stronger. So, where does this leave me?
There’s No Place Like Home — for Revisions!
I’m sorry to end on a cliffhanger, but as is the case in the children’s book world, final art will sometimes require final revisions. This assignment was a great challenge, leading me to try new things and learn along the way. Soon, I’ll be taking this painting to the next level and posting a new version to my website.
In closing, I hope this journey through my Oz adventure gave you insights about some common steps in the illustration process. I love reading a manuscript and taking inspiration from it—using my imagination and old-fashioned elbow grease to create a unique illustration that suits the narrative. When a writer’s manuscript is paired with an illustrator’s interpretation of their text, I truly believe the final collaboration can yield some of the most great and powerful magic!
Julia Anne Young is a Boston-based freelance illustrator and member of SCBWI. To learn more about Julia, visit her website at juliaanneyoung.com, or visit her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/juliaanneyoungillustration. You can also connect with her on Twitter or Instagram at @juliaanneyoung.
by Milanka Reardon
My first children’s book illustration job had a non-traditional start.
Eric Bennett, the owner of a penguin gift shop in Western Massachusetts, found my portfolio on my website through a friend in one of my SCBWI critique groups. He was working on a sequel to his 2014 self-published book about a penguin (Noodles) and a fish (Albie). I had been asked to work on self-published books before, but I had been advised to be wary of agreeing to projects that did not have the commitment of an agent or a publishing house for all the traditional reasons: the risk of low sales, a high workload, uncertain paychecks, and stigma from traditional publishers. But the first Noodles and Albie had sold almost 1,000 copies already, and I was looking for an opportunity to expand my portfolio and gain experience. I decided to read the manuscript.
In the sequel, Noodles and Albie’s Birthday Surprise, Albie is looking for the perfect birthday present for Noodles, whose birthday happens to be on Christmas Eve. Albie settles on a compass—just the device a frustrated Kris Kringle needs when his GPS fails and leads him off course! And as soon as I read the manuscript, my mind began working through illustration possibilities: mid-way through the book, Noodles and Albie visit an underwater amusement park. While the text did not describe it in much detail, I could already see the “Octowhirl” in my head—a giant octopus ready to spin the characters around as if the tips of his tentacles were seats on a ride. I was in.
Traditionally, the art director at a publishing house chooses the illustrator, not the author. But working with an author in the self-publishing realm allowed me to learn a great deal about the process of visual story-telling, communication about the direction of the book, and working through contracts. I reached out to one of my Rhode Island School of Design Continuing Education teachers, who gave me a sample contract that I could use as a guideline and adjust it to meet the specifics of my project. The contract specified payment details, including my upfront fee, when I would be paid, and what percentage of royalties I would earn if the book sold a certain number of copies. It also specified the finals timeline and the number of revisions I was willing to do. I made sure I maintained the right to my original artwork, that I would be able to use the illustrations for promotional materials, and that there was a “kill fee”—an amount we agreed I would be paid if I finished the illustrations and the book did not go to print. The part about maintaining the right to my original artwork was important to me. Aside from loving the story and having fun coming up with ideas for the text, one of the reasons I decided to take this particular self-publishing job was to add new illustrations to my portfolio that will hopefully attract art directors or future collaborators.
Within days, the contract was signed and accepted. I was ready to start illustrating my first picture book!
Now to the fun part - the illustration process! I was ready to create the main characters and did a lot of sketching. However, the images of Noodles and Albie were already set up in the first book. This was my first big dilemma: should I imitate the original book, or work on the characters in a way that felt truer to my own illustration style? Luckily, the author gave me artistic freedom. He said that he envisioned the characters a little bit older in the sequel. Instead of being a baby penguin with grey colors, Noodles is a spunky 6- or 7-year-old in this book, and his coloring is that of a one-year-old penguin: black and white. But I still had to work with the guidelines that the author gave me, such as the detail that Noodles always wears a blue baseball hat. In self-publishing, the author acts as the de facto art director.
Here are some first sketches of the main character, Noodles:
And this is how Noodles looks in one of the final sketches and the final painting in the book:
Next, I started creating the world that my character lived in. I had a lot of fun with this. It involved a lot of research including a trip to the New England Aquarium with my nephews. I used this trip not only to research but also to see what excited the boys. I spent a lot of time observing, sketching and taking photos for reference at home. There were some sea creatures that had to be included in this world to create some drama in scenes where Noodles loses his compass and he and Albie chase it down. Also, the author wanted a Polar Kingdom underwater amusement park with an “Octowhirl” ride which was a great idea because the octopus’ movements at the aquarium were mesmerizing and I couldn’t wait to paint one!
Here are some of the sketches and the finished paintings:
Before I started the finished paintings, I completed a 32-page storyboard with the final sketches. The author loved the storyboard and the interplay of text and visual storytelling but he had definite ideas about what he wanted in this book. We worked back and forth and changed some things and added others. I was lucky that we had a good working relationship and that he trusted my judgement on most of the illustration process. It helped that I also respected his ideas. This process would be different when working with a traditional publisher because the author wouldn't be communicating directly with the illustrator. The art director would provide feedback to the illustrator.
I was happy that Eric hired a book designer to put it all together, and after a few delays the book came out late last year. I was a little nervous wondering how the book reviews would go. Happily, the first book reviewer loved the book and actually said that her favorite thing about the book were the illustrations. I breathed a sigh of relief as other nice reviews followed. But the work wasn’t done yet.
Promoting the book involved a book signing at a bookstore and reading to a classroom of second to fourth graders. I was nervous about reading and speaking to a classroom full of children but armed with a stuffed penguin, a compass and an extra-large sketch pad, I was ready. The children’s enthusiasm and excitement to draw penguins on my sketchpad put me instantly at ease. There were so many teaching points for the children and myself. This will probably continue in the fall of this year because promoting the book is part of the continuing process, both in self-publishing and in traditional publishing.
Illustration for the cover of Noodles’ and Albie’s Birthday Surprise, written by Eric Bennett and illustrated by Milanka Reardon:
Milanka Reardon is Co-Illustrator Coordinator for New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. She recently illustrated her first picture book, Noodles' and Albie's Birthday Surprise by Eric Bennett. Her illustration of "A Beary Special Friend" won the R Michelson Galleries Emerging Artist Award at the NESCBWI 2016 conference. She lives with her family in Uxbridge, Massachusetts. You can see more of her artwork at MilankaReardon.com.
By Brook Gideon
I am asked a lot of questions regarding my first book job, illustrating the chapter book Azalea, Unschooled by Liza Kleinman. How did I get the job? Did the illustrator choose me? Did we submit together? How much say did I have in the design and how much say did the author have in my illustrations? As all writers and artists know, the journey isn’t a straight shot.
©2016 Right Click Photography
Landing the Gig:
I was contacted by the wonderful editor of Islandport Press, Melissa Kim, by email. I had been scrolling through my inbox while on a break at work. Scanning it quickly and thinking it was an SCBWI list serve message, I almost deleted the email but at the last second I saw it was addressed to me specifically. (That was a close call.) Melissa was interested in my work for a picture book, she had seen me on the RISD website, and was wondering if I could send along some samples. (Um, yeah!) I had just moved and all my stuff was packed in boxes and stacked to eye level, filling the room that was to by my studio. Sure, I could send some, if I could find them. I let her know I had just moved and she said to take my time as nothing would be decided for a few months. Well, of course I dug through my boxes immediately and found the best copies I had. The next day, I slowly drove to the post office on a wicked snowy day and mailed them off. I drank a celebratory beer and then I waited.
A decision was to be made in January. By the end of the month I had not heard anything, so I followed up with an email inquiry to be sure my samples made it to her safely. All was good, no decision had been made yet. It was the end of February before I got the word they were going a different route, thanked me for submitting and let me know that they would keep me in mind for future projects since they all liked my work. Whomp whommmp. I laid around and binge watched t.v. in a slump. So close and no prize. The kite eating tree had struck again.
Another month went by and Melissa emailed me to ask if I would be interested in illustrating a chapter book called Azalea, Unschooled. So, I did what every person in the KidLit world says to do. I said yes while freaking out royally because I had no idea what I was doing. She attached the sample of my work that fit the style they liked the most, as well as other artist examples. It was to be a full-color cover with black and white illustrations every chapter or so. The fee schedule would be a flat fee, no royalties, and they expected the cover in about three months at the beginning of summer with the chapter illustrations to follow in the fall.
It was my first book contract and I didn’t have an agent, so I was slightly clueless and had a ton of questions. What is typical for payment? What things should I look for in the contract and what things do I need to be sure are there to protect me? I immediately contacted two wonderful KidLit friends about the contract and offer details so they could tell me what was what. They scraped me off the ceiling, and I learned that chapter book illustration contracts are typically flat fee (a.k.a. work for hire) unlike picture books which usually include royalties. They gave me an idea of what I should expect to be paid and as well as advice as to how to include statements about who owned the original artwork and for what purposes it could be used.
Armed with my friends’ contract information, I made sure:
1) Islandport Press and I could both use the art for promotional material but…
2) I retained the rights to the original artwork
3) the original art would be returned to me. (I work traditionally in pen and watercolor, so sending my images off in the mail was scary, too!)
4) there would be authorship credit whenever my images were used
5) my name would appear on the cover (a huge point to push for)
6) we had a “kill fee” in case the project was scrapped and I’d already done most of the work!
Other things to know are the expectations for initial and final sketch timelines, how many revisions you are willing to do, and payment schedule. (I was paid in halves, first when contract signed and the remainder when finals were submitted.) The contract was signed and accepted. I met Melissa and got the final version of the contract at the NESCBWI conference.
Illustrating a Chapter Book:
First, I read through of the manuscript to get a sense of the story. The second time through I started a list of the characters and noted any physical descriptions that were given. I sketched some initial faces (aka floating heads) to get a feel of what each would look like.
I was given specs (the size of the book), how they would work and a timeline of due dates. The front cover was due first, and it is hard to do this so early in the process. By the time you are done with a book, you are so accustomed to drawing your characters that the images are fresher and less stiff. However, the cover is needed early for promotional purposes. I sent in super rough ideas of the characters and cover, and Islandport Press let me know what they liked. There was some back and forth with Melissa and the book designer, Karen Hoots, tweaking the approved image until the final was agreed upon.
Next, interior sketches were roughed out and sent for approval. Melissa had ideas for each chapter, but I could work from my imagination as well. (Side note: work the interior sketches from the middle out. Then the first and last images will be strongest since you’ve drawn the character over and over and those are the images many people remember.)
While most of the feedback was from Melissa and Karen, Melissa did show the images to the author, Liza Kleinman, and she liked them all. The only suggestion I was given was to change Gabby’s appearance slightly, as Gabby was of mixed race. It was a bit of a challenge, since my interior illustrations were simple line work and black and white. I revisited my sketches of Gabby, altered a few things, and it worked. It’s amazing how subtle changes in even the simplest images make all the difference.
The back cover was done last, which proves my earlier point. The work is better when you are comfortable with the character. Melissa had stated it was her favorite and wished it could have been the cover.
Months later copies of my book were delivered to my house. It was a surreal moment. Then came the book launch, cake, friends and fun, but that’s a blog for another day…
Brook Gideon is a writer and illustrator and a member of SCBWI and The Writer’s Loft. She survived the Blizzard of ‘78, a Garanimals wardrobe, big hair of the 80s, and giant palmetto bugs crawling over her in the 90s. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and three vacuums to slay the Ghost Wookiees arising from two dogs and a herd of cats. She loves circus peanuts, cake and sharks. Visit her at www.brookgideon.com, on Twitter @brookgideon, or on Facebook @brookgideonsbiggerboat.
~ By Amanda Smith
We are excited to visit with author and illustrator Matthew Cordell at 24 Carrot Writing.
Matthew has illustrated poetry, novels, and picture books for children including Special Delivery by Philip Stead and the Justin Case series by Rachel Vail. He has also written and illustrated several picture books himself, including Another Brother, Hello! Hello!, Wish, and Dream.
Matthew’s books have been recognized as Best of the Year selections by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, and his first wordless picture book, Wolf in the Snow, was awarded a 2017 Boston Globe-Horn Book honor award.
Thank you, Matthew, for answering all our questions about the making of a picture book from an illustrator's point of view. We are honored to learn from you.
Tell us a little about your journey to becoming an illustrator.
As long as I can remember, I’ve always been drawing and making art in some capacity. I was never particularly into sports or some of the things other kids grow up interested in. Art and drawing was always my thing.
As a boy, I was really excited by comics and comic art like Spiderman and X-men. But by the time I got into high school, my eyes were opened to fine art and I learned about all different kinds of art-making—painting, sculpture, printmaking, etc. By the time I needed to choose a college major, I knew it would have to be art or something art-related. Trying to be sensible about it, I put my name down for graphic design. (I wasn’t entirely sure what “graphic design” was, but I knew it was a career where I could be creative.)
Throughout college, I learned more about graphic design and came to love it. I also continued taking classes in drawing, painting, printmaking, and sculpture. I loved it all, really. And by the time I graduated, I wanted it all. I wanted a career in graphic design and I wanted to draw, and paint, and show my work in galleries and ultimately museums. And with lots of work and persistence, I was on my way to success in both.
I got my dream design job at one of Chicago’s top design firms. And my drawings and paintings were being represented by an excellent gallery in the city. However… Once I got a taste of what both were really like… I realized neither were for me. The design world was too buttoned-down for me. The art world was too pretentious. I was at a loss. What I’d always wanted, I’d gotten. And I didn’t like it much at all.
Around that same time, I started dating a young woman named Julie Halpern who was a writer and an elementary school librarian. She had an idea that we should collaborate on something. She thought we should do a picture book together.
But I thought that sounded like the most uncool thing ever! To be fair, I’d been out of the picture book game since I was… I guess 6, 7, 8 years old. I had no real idea what picture books were, but in my mind they were wholesome and moral-driven, and not terribly interesting or inventive or inspiring. And, of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Julie started feeding me classic and contemporary picture books from her library. I was blown away by the quality of illustration in these books. I was particularly drawn to the more expressive and loosely drawn illustrations of those like William Steig, Bernard Waber, and Jules Feiffer. And I became excited about the idea of a completely different audience: kids, parents, and educators.
So, Julie wrote a manuscript and I put together some drawings, and we submitted our book idea to 20 publishers at the same time. One by one, we were told “no”, until we had a stack of 19 rejections. The 20th and last letter came from Houghton Mifflin. Theirs was a “maybe” that turned into a “yes.” And eventually, our book, Toby and the Snowflakes was published in 2004.
Once I began working as an illustrator with the folks at Houghton, and later, at one or two other publishers, I was hooked. I was hooked on the kindness and warmth of everyone in the business. I was hooked on the idea of making art that could be appreciated in an intimate setting and acquired at an affordable price. I was hooked on the idea of making art that would be in the hands of and before the eyes of children—a funny, fun, fresh (and not horribly jaded like us grown-ups) audience for me. I was hooked, and from that point on, I did all that I could to eventually make children’s book illustration my full-time job.
When you first receive a manuscript to illustrate, what is your process?
In the very beginning, it’s just some vague planning. And it’s not intense work right away, which makes for a good ice breaker. I’ll work out the trim size and number of pages and page breaks. I print out the manuscript and I read it through several times. Then vague images tend to materialize in my mind and I’ll jot down some notes in the margins. Before I draw anything in detail, I begin with character sketches and share them with my editor and art director. Nothing can or should take place in terms of work, until we’re all in agreement about the look of the main characters. (Which is, by the way, maybe my favorite part of the process—designing the characters for my books. It’s a fun problem to solve. Are they children? Animals? Something else? What are they wearing? Are they wearing clothes at all? What are the colors? The proportions? What else?) Once the characters are hammered out, I’ll go through and sketch out all the pages in the book. The first dummy is sent to the publisher and there will be several rounds of notes, and changes, and back and forth until we’ve got an approved sketch dummy that’s ready for final art.
You have written and illustrated your own books as well as illustrated books authored by other writers. Can you speak a little to the pros and cons of illustrating someone else’s story, versus a story you’ve written yourself?
I consider myself an illustrator first, who’s occasionally given permission to write my own stories. Writing has never been super easy for me, I guess mostly because I haven’t spent the better part of my life trying to uncomplicate it (unlike drawing). So, writing my own books is often a struggle, in one way or another. But it is extremely validating when it works (when something I write gets published). I do love having 100% ownership of a book. In terms of the finished piece and the assemblage of the thing. As I’m writing, I’m also aware, in some respect, of what the pictures are ultimately going to look like. The two different parts of assembling this puzzle are coming together organically and somewhat simultaneously. And having control over both the words and pictures is a rather satisfying thing to have.
Working on someone else’s manuscript is also validating and challenging in its own ways. I like to collaborate with like-minded individuals to put some squished-together piece of art into the world. There is not a lot of direct contact between author and illustrator in most cases, but the collaboration is still intact. Two names are on the book and two different skill sets have been combined to bring this new book into the world. There are some worries. Like, “is the author going to like how I bring her/his story to life visually?” What if someone really didn’t like what I did with her/his words? That would be pretty unfortunate. It’s always a possibility. But, like it or not, the magic of combining two things by two people is a pretty cool thing to be a part of. It’s also nice when it comes to marketing and promotion. Promoting my own books can feel a little lonely and egocentric. When there’s an author friend involved in this part of the process, it can make it more bearable and more fun.
How much interaction, if any, do you have with the author of a manuscript you are illustrating? If you do work with the author, what make those collaborations successful?
It’s pretty rare, in my experience, for an author and illustrator to have direct communication regarding the writing and/or the illustrating of their book. A book’s editor, or art director, or both are usually the connective tissue between the author and illustrator as the book is coming together. This has always made sense to me, mostly because the book is ultimately being produced by the publisher that has invested in it. So, the folks who work at the publisher and are involved in the project generally have final say in many aspects. It’s also helpful to have a person in the middle who can filter any communication between the author to the illustrator, so that no feelings get hurt, and to be a sounding board for any ideas that may not even be worthy of making the jump from the author to the illustrator or vice versa.
The sole instance in my career where I’ve collaborated directly with an author, has been on my books, Special Delivery and The Only Fish in the Sea, by author Philip Stead. Phil and I are friends and were so before we came to work on these books together. We’re both authors and both illustrators too, and we have strong feelings on both matters. Knowing all of this, it would’ve been incredibly weird not to speak to each other about what was going on in the making of these books as they were coming together. So, lines of communication were wide open with Phil and me and our editor Neal Porter, throughout the production of both of the books. I think it really needs to be a special circumstance for this to happen. Not only do the author and illustrator have to be close in some way, but the editor of the project must also be close and willing to open the doors to free and complete collaboration. But when it works, it works. I had so much fun making these books!
You illustrated Lost. Found. (Roaring Brook Press, 2015) a picture book, written by Marsha Diane Arnold, which consists of two words only, repeated throughout. Picture book writers are often intrigued, and a little intimidated, by the process of writing a wordless book, or book with minimal text. What does such a manuscript look like when you get it?
Lost. Found. (by author Marsha Diane Arnold) is a very different manuscript from any other I’ve ever been offered. There are only two words in the entire story, which are (you guessed it) “lost” and “found”. In a nutshell, it’s a story about a bear who owns a big red scarf that one day gets taken away by a gust of wind on a snowy day. The scarf is then found by a couple of quarreling raccoons who ultimately lose it themselves. The scarf is repeatedly lost and found by all different types of animals until it’s found by every one of them and battled over until it’s ripped to shreds. There’s more to it, obviously, but I won’t spoil the ending. So, there’s no narration or dialogue to tell the story. Just “lost” and “found.” In principle, it’s pretty close to being a wordless picture book. When my editor, Neal, sent me Marsha’s manuscript, there was some general description of the actual story. Some explanation of how the scarf is lost, what animal finds it, and what happens next. (Otherwise, no one but Marsha herself would’ve known what in the world was happening among all of those losts and founds!) I followed much of her outline, but did end up changing a thing or two once I started with the visuals. Even with proper planning, one never really knows how a thing will play out until the actual visuals are put in place. It’s a really clever and heartfelt book and I’m super proud of that one.
Do you collaborate more with the writer in the making of such a book?
Despite the unconventional nature of this book, I still had no actual discussions with Marsha about the text or the pictures as I was illustrating. Any questions I had were put to Neal and if he couldn’t answer, it would be asked of Marsha. Then I’d get answers back through Neal. That’s really just how it goes.
What advice do you have for writers who are walking around with a wordless book in their hearts?
I imagine it must be an unusual undertaking to be a writer and envision, write, and even pitch a story like this. Much less one with no words at all. But I know it can be done, obviously, and done well. One of my favorite recently published picture books is a wordless book, Sidewalk Flowers written by JonArno Lawson and illustrated by Sydney Smith. If any author is ever on the fence about doing a wordless picture book, I say get off the fence and go for it. Some picture books simply function better with no words at all, and there’s really no better way to do it.
Yes, the dreaded illustration note question: We’ve read agents’ opinions on illustration notes. As an illustrator, what is your take?
When a manuscript is on submission, I think illustration notes are quite helpful. A picture book text, in the end, should not spell out every single twist and turn that is meant to be seen in the book. If it did, it would be working overtime and be terribly redundant as the pictures are already doing some of this work and filling in gaps. As an illustrator, I don’t mind the occasional illustration note, especially if there is no text to describe a critical element to the story. But if a manuscript is riddled with notes, I think it can be a bit overwhelming and stifling to my own interpretation and decision-making I’ve been hired to deliver. But most editors I’ve worked with strip the manuscript of most, if not all, notes to see how I might interpret the story. Unless, again, there is some critical description that must be seen by the illustrator.
When you are not working on an assignment, what do you do to grow your craft/art?
If I’m not on deadline, I like to use any free time to develop any story ideas that have been sitting around, or simply just to draw for fun. I think it’s important to continue to draw when there’s no pressure of contracts and timelines and expectations for specific books or jobs. Whenever I work on a book, there is a lot of extended planning involved: Image research, sketches, sketch revisions, pencil drawing, and then by the end, I break out my pen and bottle of ink.
When I’m drawing for my own pleasure, a lot of the pressure and expectations are stripped away and I can sometimes stumble upon new ways to solve problems and use the pen and line to do what I never knew it could do. I like to skip any time and labor involved with sketches and the pencil and just attack the paper straight away with the pen, which can be a little intimidating, considering ink is incredibly unforgiving. But often times the best drawing is the very first one that’s been put to paper. Sometimes the very first sketch has so much more energy than a final drawing—one that’s been drawn 3, 4 or more times. So it’s fun to just go at an ink drawing with no planning at all. It’s fun to just draw without limits or expectations.
At 24 Carrot Writing, we pay a lot of attention to goal setting and planning. Do you set illustrating/ art goals? If so, what do they look like?
This is a great point, one I probably haven’t thought much about in a while. There definitely have been many times in my career where I’ve stopped and set goals for myself. For instance, to get my first book published as an author and illustrator. Or to do everything I could to become a full-time illustrator. Or to stick my neck out and do more public speaking and appearances. I’ve been really fortunate, in that many of the goals I’ve set for myself have been met over the years. And in recent years, I think I’ve gotten a little slack about this sort of thinking. I think goal setting is a great way to make sure we’re all moving forward in some way and not getting too comfortable or sedentary. So, now that you mention it, I think my new goal is to think on this and set some more goals!
What does your typical work day look like?
Julie and I have two young children (4 and 8) and we evenly split up responsibilities and child care duty. On top of kidcare, we both work from home, so no two days tend to be the same. But our typical setup is that Julie takes the AM shift of the day for her work (she’s a Young Adult author) and I stay on top of the kids’ needs during that time. Then around lunch, we do a sort of virtual high five, and I start work and she takes over with the kids. So I work from mid-day through 5 on most days. And if I need to get caught up, I have to stay up late, when everyone else is off to sleep, and work into the wee hours of night. Someday, when both kids are in school full time, there will probably be a bit more normalcy to the work day, but it’s hard to imagine it that way right now.
What has been your greatest joy in your career as an illustrator so far?
I love connecting with kids who have read and appreciated my books. It’s incredibly satisfying and inspiring to meet and hear from these kids and to hear that I’ve even maybe had something to do with them wanting to draw and learn more about drawing. The most satisfying instance of all, is to see my own daughter taking a big interest in art. I might be biased, but she’s a terrific artist and she loves to draw. To be perfectly fair, I don’t know how much credit I can take for her talent and interest, because she is very much an individual and her own person. But I’d like to think I had a LITTLE bit of something to do with it.
What has been the biggest surprise?
I used to be terribly afraid of public speaking. I think many of us who make books are probably just more at home by ourselves and just being with the ones we love. I used to think that, no matter what, I would never be comfortable talking to large groups of people—kids or adults. I thought I would never agree to doing it, no matter how often I might be asked or by whomever was asking. But I realized, at some point, that I would only get so far in my career if I was holed up at my desk. And I would only be so content with myself if I never faced my fears.
So I started seeking out and accepting appearances at schools, book festivals, book stores, etc. And now, it’s, like, no big deal at all. I’m pretty much completely comfortable with talking to groups. I mean, there’s still some small bit of uneasiness about it, that I’m sure will never go away. But I never thought I’d be able to perform, speak, or draw in front of big crowds of people, and now I do it all the time. I’m happy that it’s something I overcame. And I’m glad I did too. The rewards of connecting with people face-to-face are endless.
To learn more about Matthew visit him online at matthewcordell.com.
August Illustrator Bonanza!
If you give an author a crayon, they think about illustrators.
August is school supply month and as the 24 Carrot Writing crew puts crayons, pens, and pencils in our shopping carts, we get curious about the skilled illustrators who bring picture book texts to visual life.
Who are these creative folks? What makes them tick? How do they create their masterpieces? How do they work with authors? And what do they really think about illustration notes?
We are excited to have illustrators Matthew Cordell, Brook Gideon, Julia Young, and Milanka Reardon join us this month to explore these and other illustrator-centric questions.
Stay tuned for their posts and welcome to 24 Carrot Writing's August Illustrator Bonanza!
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