Guest Post by Melissa Sweet
There is no separation between art and life in my book. I’m always seeing the world through the eyes of what I’m working on. In writing my biography Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White, I had the pleasure and privilege of reading everything he wrote, as well as listening to his three children’s books in my car for the better part of three years. It was an education, and an inspiration. There is much to admire about White and his writings. In the end, the essence of White to my mind was his sense of freedom, and the conviction for living life on his own terms. He personified what President Kennedy wrote in a speech celebrating the role of the artist: “If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.”
When Francine invited me to create a blog post I suggested: “10 things I learned from E.B. White” (even though there were scores of things I learned from him). Then I remembered towards the end of Charlotte’s Web, Charlotte had laid 514 eggs, and since 5+1+4=10, hence the organization for this piece.
Here is just a handful of White’s many words of wisdom:
1. “I think the best writing is often done by persons who are snatching the time from something else…”
Sometimes taking a walk, deadheading the flowers, or jotting down something that comes to me in a flash is still part of “working.” It’s all another form of thinking.
2. “Work from a suitable design”
Finding the design not just the writing, but the merging of words and pictures, is the best part of designing a book. Once I discover and decide on the “scaffolding,” the elements begin to fall into place. In Some Writer!, the hierarchy was first my text, then White’s quotes with illustrations, and finally the merging of archival photos, manuscript pages, and White’s ephemera. Creating the book was akin to inventing a three–dimensional jigsaw puzzle.
3. “I would really rather feel bad in Maine than feel good anywhere else.”
White left New York City and the The New Yorker, as well as fame and notoriety, to live in Maine, a place that had inspired him since childhood. While living on his farm, he wrote essays for Harper’s Magazine that became a collection of some his finest writings: One Man’s Meat.He also penned Charlotte’s Web and Trumpet of the Swan, to name a few. Just as important as loving where we live is carving out a space and time to work. John Updike wrote, “Try to develop actual work habits, and even though you have a busy life, try to reserve an hour, say -- or more -- a day to write." Even an hour a day adds up.
4. “I like to read books on dog training….to me a book on dog discipline becomes a volume of inspired humor. Every sentence is a riot.”
Why throw a wrench in the middle of deadlines when everything is going pretty well? In a fit of madness, or just to keep things interesting, we got a purebred shepherd puppy– I wasn’t looking for either. We named her Ruby. She continues to remind me not to take myself so seriously and that I need fresh air and exercise. For Ruby, life is a ball, and it might as well be the same for me, too. As White once wrote, “A really companionable and indispensable dog is an accident of nature.” Ruby is both. (With apologies to White’s famous line regarding Charlotte).
5. “The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.”
This says it all. Could crafting a book with this advice be that simple? Yes, along with the other bit of advice.
When I wrote my first book, Carmine: A Little More Red, I had Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style on my desk and referred to it constantly. By the time I began writing Some Writer!, I realized I had about seven copies of that book between my home and studio. It was the book that helped me understand White’s process.
1. A nod to another great writer…
Author John McPhee, a New Yorker contributor, is one of my favorite nonfiction writers. In his book, DRAFT #4, McPhee’s essays are a collection of writing advice that is fun and informative to read, as are all his books. Writing a biography of E. B. White was a gigantic undertaking, not just because he is one of our most beloved writers but the sheer volume of research that had to be read, sifted through, and organized. The following quote by McPhee is sage advice for choosing the content of a biography (and writing in general):
“What is creative about nonfiction?…here are a few points: The creativity lies in what you choose to write about, how you go about doing it, the arrangement through which you present things, the skill and touch with which you describe people and succeed in developing them as characters, the rhythms of your prose, the integrity of the composition, the anatomy of the piece…the extent to which you see and tell the story that exists in your material…. Creative nonfiction is not making something up but making the most of what you have.” –– John McPhee
1. “Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder.”
Dr. Dorian said this in Charlotte’s Web. White once watched a spider spinning an egg sac in the doorway of his barn, and the rest is history. It could be, as Mary Oliver writes, that “paying attention is the beginning of devotion.” Indeed.
2. “Omit needless words.”
This rule from the Elements of Style is a favorite. By editing and rewriting, we find clarity and simplicity. White goes on to write: “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.” And in conclusion: “There you have a short valuable essay on the nature and beauty of brevity– sixty-three words that could change the world.”
3. “Every writer, by the way he uses the language, reveals something of his spirit, his habits, his capacities, his bias. This is inevitable as well as enjoyable. All writing is communication.”
All art is a form of communication. White wrote tens of thousands of letters in his lifetime. An invaluable exercise that lots of writers have used as a way of limbering up (myself included), is writing a letter, a postcard, or a thank you note. Try writing by hand or on an old typewriter. Why not email? Because doing something by hand slows us down, helps our mind become in synch with our hand, not to mention the recipient will receive a memorable gift in the mail. Also, a book titled, The Collected Emails of (insert name here) may not capture our imagination.
4. “A person who is looking for something doesn’t travel very fast.”
Stuart Little knew this. His quest was more important than the destination. You’re going artistically, and otherwise, write on!You are no doubt heading in the right direction.
Melissa Sweet has written and illustrated many award–winning books including, Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade, and two Caldecott Honor winning books, The Right Word, and A River of Words, both by Jen Bryant. Her most recent book, How To Read A Book by Kwame Alexander, will be published in June, 2019. You can find out more about Melissa at melissasweet.net and https://www.facebook.com/melissa.sweet.35.
Stevie Lewis: Art on the Road
~ Hosted by Amanda Smith
Stevie has been living on the road for the past three years, furthering her passion for climbing, art, and the outdoors. Striving to live simply and tread lightly on the earth, she gathers inspiration from a variety of places, be it climbing in the high desert at Smith Rock, hiking in the forests of southeastern Alaska, or sharing laughs with strangers around a campfire. After working four years in animation at DreamWorks, she now illustrates children's books and creates art based on her travels. Her latest work includes PRINCE & KNIGHT (Daniel Haack; Simon and Schuster), THE FINDING SERENDIPITY series(Angelica Banks; Scolastic), and LOST IN THE LIBRARY (Josh Funk; Henry Holt & Co.), which will be on shelves August 28, 2018.
1. Tell us a little about your journey. How did you become an illustrator?
I remember always having a pencil in my hand as a kid. You would always see me doodling on the edges of my notebook, or on napkins in the restaurant. It just flowed out of me, and became the way I shared and communicated with the world. I decided to seriously pursue a career in art when I was a senior in high school, and ended up getting accepted to Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. After working endless nights and creating, with my friend, Avner, our senior film, Defective Detective, I landed a dream job at DreamWorks Animation in the Bay area. After 4+ years of working there, I decided it was time to pursue children's book illustration.
2. You made a bold move, leaving a secure job in film animation, to follow a passion. What prompted this decision?
Working in animation was an amazing experience. I was surrounded by a wonderful team in the art department, and everyone who worked there was supportive, helpful, and full of team spirit. We were a small team of artists who got along really well. But, at one point we were unfortunate to have had a superior who wasn't the best leader. It was a rough time, and it affected everyone. Morale was low for a while, and I realized that a dream career in art shouldn't feel like that. It felt like the time to move on, and try a new venture. At the time, I had immersed myself in the rock-climbing world. I'd been taking several trips to Tahoe, Yosemite, and other local areas to learn how to climb outdoors. It had prompted me to move into the back of my Honda Element, and travel around the United States and Canada for a year. The combination of those two things happening in my life, convinced me to take the risk and do something completely new and exciting.
3. At an NESCBWI conference a few years ago, author-illustrator Dan Santat spoke about a similar move and how it had changed his art stylistically. How does your on-the-road lifestyle impact your art? Did you notice a big change in your art when you changed your lifestyle?
The change affected me in a really positive way and allowed me to be the artist I am today. When I left DreamWorks, my art became more about the outdoors and the wonderful people I met while traveling. I was inspired by how the rocks, trees, and lakes were rich with texture and life. I began to incorporate those elements more into my work, and share more of my art with others, through little portraits of them with their vans, or illustrations of all of us hanging out around a campfire. I felt like I reconnected with why I chose to be an artist in the first place. To share my experiences with those around me.
4. I’m an art supply hoarder. To me art supplies and a living out of a van sound incompatible. Most of your current art is digital. Did you make a decision about art media limits before you went on the road?
Ha, I know what you mean. I used to work with traditional media much more when I was in college. But, since I started working in animation, my work became heavily digital-based. It's incredibly easy to make changes, especially with big files and detailed pieces. Sometimes you'd have a note that would ask you to remove a few buildings and add a park with trees in its place. I can't imagine how hard that would be to do on paper. It's funny because I worked with a few guys who have been around since the PRINCE OF EGYPT days, and did all of their artwork with pencil, airbrush, or a variety of traditional techniques. Now they all work digitally and it's expanded their work to a new level. But it is nice to be able to go back to pencil and paper when desired. Living in the van, I've had to make a few sacrifices. While I don't have to pay rent, I had to limit what I could bring along (especially living with two dogs and a 6'4" partner). I pretty much have room for my computer, a small collection of gouache paints, color pencils, and some ink materials. Let's just say I have to make several trips to the art store when I'm working on a traditional project.
5. What is the one medium (besides digital) you have to have? Why?
Lately I've been experimenting a bit more with paper cutouts. It's been a change in pace and challenge for me. I like how I can reuse and recycle paper from old magazines or catalogs, and how it almost creates a sense of dimension off the page. Every year I try to focus on a new style or medium, just to mix things up. Next year I want to try screen printing!
6. When you first receive a manuscript to illustrate, what is your process?
After reading a manuscript for the first time, I immediately have ideas of what I want to illustrate. Once I’ve read it through a few times, done thorough research, and confirmed with my editor any details they want to see, I start sketching. They’re usually rough sketches, just to see my ideas on paper. If necessary, I’ll do research in person, for example, I flew out to the New York Library in Manhattan to spend some time sketching, taking photos, and gathering ideas for LOST IN THE LIBRARY, written by Josh Funk. Since that book took place in a beautiful, historical location, I wanted to capture as many details as I could.
Then, I’ll spend a bit of time doing color thumbnails, to try and layout the lighting and color progression of the book. With LOST IN THE LIBRARY I started with neutral earth tones until Fortitude stumbles upon the children’s room, full of fun shapes and color. It’s really fun to see it all come together from rough sketches to final color, something to be proud of!
7. What does your typical work day look like?
Since I live out of my vehicle, my mornings are usually slow. After making a cup of coffee and enjoying some yoga and a light meal, I get myself ready for the day with podcasts and music. Most days I work out of my van, which has a table to work on and solar panels to charge my tablet computer and other electronics. I’ll usually work a few hours in the morning, and take a mid-day break and go for a hike with my dogs. I’m very lucky to be parked in national forest, with endless access to biking and hiking trails. Then I’ll work for the rest of the day until my boyfriend gets off work. When I’m not working out of the van, I’ll end up in a coffee shop or at a library for most of the day.
8. There is a lot of dialogue about the importance of all children being able to recognize themselves in the books they read. Is this something you think about during the initial concept art of a book? How can an illustrator contribute to diversity and representation in kidlit?
It’s true. As a first generation Asian American, I’ve struggled to fit in throughout my life, especially when I was a young kid. I can’t think of any kids’ books growing up, that I read, which represented someone like me. I’ve always wanted to see diversity in animation and children’s books, and advocate for it when I can. Luckily, the few publishers I’ve worked with have been on the same page, if not pushing for it right at the beginning. When I worked on PRINCE & KNIGHT, we went back and forth on which main character would be the person of color, but it wasn’t a question that there would be diversity throughout the book. It’s hard to reach everyone, but it’s incredibly important to try. You never know if your book will be the one to make someone, somewhere in the world, feel like they belong.
9. You have also illustrated some middle grade books. How does the process of illustrating an MG differ from PB?
Honestly, the process wasn’t too different. I mostly approached it the same way, with plenty of research and sketching before jumping into the project. The major difference was the number of colored paintings in picture books. It was quite overwhelming at first, and I was nervous because I had to finish the entire full-color project in the same amount of time it took me to work on a middle grade book (color cover plus B&W interiors). What’s really fun about working on picture books was that I felt I had more freedom to explore different ideas, compositions, and lighting. I think it was because of the different format and the fact I had entire pages to fill.
10. While working on LOST IN THE LIBRARY, what was your greatest surprise or biggest challenge?
Before starting work on LOST IN THE LIBRARY, I’d never done a rendition of such a large, beautiful building, and I was nervous I wouldn’t do the best job since I hadn’t visited the library before. So I flew to NYC in hopes of seeing the library in person, and spending some days sketching, taking photos, and planning out the book. Oh, and I also never drew a lion before, so that was a challenge as well! But, in the end it worked out really well, and I feel like it all came together nicely. I’m really proud of the book, and thankful for the team at Henry Holt for believing in and trusting me with such an amazing project.
11. When I first saw illustrations from LOST IN THE LIBRARY, the expressions on the lions’ faces made my heart soar. What brought you the most joy in illustrating this book about Patience and Fortitude?
I loved creating a portrait of these lions. They’re so sweet and charming, and iconic for those who frequent the library. My favorite part of the book was when Fortitude discovers Patience in the children’s room, a place full of joy, learning, and most importantly, fun. For children, that’s what a library is all about. It was such a nice way to tie the book together.
11. During the last couple of years. Have you stumbled upon a parallel, epiphany, or metaphor regarding climbing and creating that you can share with our readers?
With any serious hobby or passion, you’re bound to find those parallels. For me, I’ve found that climbing is surprisingly a creative, thoughtful sport. As with art, climbing pushing me to think outside the box, especially when I’m stuck on how to climb something, or when I need to overcome worry of heights, safety of the gear, or fear of failing. The way you need to move your body to find the easiest way to ascend the rock requires placing your body in different ways, and getting creative. Another parallel I’ve made is how difficult being creative can be, when you feel stuck. With climbing, I’ve gone a few long stretches of not climbing either because I’ve been injured, working, or simply uninspired or motivated. And, I’ve come to terms with the fact that we as artists or climbers, shouldn’t blame ourselves when these moments happen. Sometimes they’re out of your control, and the best you can do is get back into it when it feels right.
Thank you, Stevie, for sharing your journey, process and amazing art with us!
To learn more about Stevie Lewis, visit her website here.
LOST IN THE LIBRARY will be in book stores, August 28. If, like me, you cannot wait, it is available for pre-order at indiebound and other book retailers.
To learn more about Josh Funk, 24 Carrot Writing contributor and the author of LOST IN THE LIBRARY, visit his website here.
ILLUSTRATING A DIFFICULT SUBJECT
Guest Blog Post by Brian Lies
My newest book, The Rough Patch, deals with a difficult topic—grief, especially the anger aspect of grief—and hope. The story is about fox named Evan who does everything with his dog, but one day the dog dies. One of their favorite activities had been working in Evan’s garden, and without the dog, Evan can’t bear to even look at the place they’d enjoyed so much together. He hacks it to bits, and in his grief, begins to tend the weeds that sprout in the space where his vegetables and plants had grown before. The garden becomes a dark place, but when a pumpkin vine sneaks in under his garden fence, Evan begins a transformation back to hope.
I didn’t set out to write a story about grief. Sometimes a story idea comes to you and won’t leave you alone. This was one of those ideas. The story of a man, a dog and a garden began as I was weeding my own vegetable garden, wondering what would happen if instead of pulling weeds, I transplanted them into even rows and tended them. Would some reverse psychology cause the vegetables I wanted to come up between my rows of weeds?
When you’re illustrating a story on a difficult subject, many questions arise. How are you actually going to depict the difficult parts? How much should happen “off-stage”? How much is too much to show? Or too little? I wanted the story to carry real feeling but not be so strong that it felt brutal or manipulative.
One roadblock at the beginning was that I originally envisioned Evan as human, a crusty old New Englander with a good heart. The more I thought about this, the more I worried that young readers wouldn’t empathize with him. When we’re children, most of us don’t see our grandparents as fully-rounded beings with complex emotional lives. Much of our relationship with grandparents is selfish—about how they make us feel, or what they’ll give us. So, would a child looking at a story about an old man really feel for him when he’s sad? I didn’t think so.
Turning him into an animal may seem like a no-brainer solution, but it took a while for me to see him differently. I tried him as a bear...
and then as a rhinoceros.
Both looked clunky, and I didn’t instinctively feel anything for them. But then I drew Evan as a fox, and knew I’d found him. A fox has soulful eyes, expressive ears and tail, and his long lines better echoed that crusty old Yankee that I’d originally envisioned. Evan became a fox, and I think it’s much easier for a child to look at his face now and think, “Poor fox! He’s so sad...”
The next big challenge was to find that storytelling line between bland and brutal. The interplay between text and illustrations is always important in a picture book, but here it felt critical. It’s easy to get maudlin if you say too much about how a character feels. So I decided to keep the text mostly factual, explaining Evan’s actions in a kind of reportorial way, and let the illustrations show his feelings. The classic “show, don’t tell.”
Several techniques or tricks came to the forefront as I worked on how to illustrate the story. One was using a wide range of compositions or “camera angles” to convey emotion and feeling. When Evan destroys his garden, I didn’t want to fill the page with a bird’s eye view, looking down at a character mowing down vegetation. The most important thing was his emotional state at that moment, so I came in for one of two extreme close-ups in the book—Evan filling the page, slashing with a hoe and vegetation spraying behind the hoe.
Evan is cropped in an uneasy way, with his lower body and one arm off of the page. On the next page, I wanted to focus on the emotional aftermath of his action.
So I zoomed out and showed him from the back, carrying an armload of plants to a compost heap, his tail curving in a counterpoint to his weight as he walks. In the foreground, everything is spiky—the slashed stems of plants, the shattered, splintery bamboo support pole. A garden fork sticks out of the soil in a stark silhouette. The sharp imagery echoes the sharpness of his pain.
Another thing I employed was white space. When I’m watching a movie, I don’t want to be aware that I’m watching a movie—I want to be in that world. I don’t normally like white space in illustrations for the same reason. White space reminds me that I’m looking at pictures in a book. But here, using white space felt important. Early on, we see vignettes of Evan’s life with the dog in little bursts surrounded by white.
This serves to pack days, seasons and even years into several pages. (If you look closely in the book, you’ll see the dog aging from a puppy to a gray-muzzled older dog). And then later, on the page where the dog dies, or where Evan loads up his pumpkin, the white space focuses our attention on the emotion of the moment.
We’re not distracted by additional details. And that’s not so unreal—sometimes, in fraught moments, the rest of the world goes away and we see only the one person or thing that’s the most important to us. Color choices felt very important in these pieces, too. We react to colors instinctively. So the palette here is very simple: in happier days, things are bright and tend toward primaries.
When Evan’s in the throes of anger and sadness, the color dims and becomes a kind of sickly green-gray.
And as hope returns to Evan’s life, the primaries re-assert themselves. Even if the text doesn’t say that Evan is going to be okay in the end, the palette suggests that it will be. The colors act as our guide.
This book was very rewarding to create. Each image was different enough from the others to make the process of painting them interesting, from the first day to the last. And it was also the most difficult book I think I’ve done, taking some fourteen years from when I first came up with Evan’s story to publication. But it’s a good reminder to keep plugging away if a story idea grabs you. I returned to the idea for years, thinking “I’ve got to do that story!” before I finally discovered how it should look.
Honestly, I don’t think I was ready to do this book back in 2004, and though it would have been great to get it out quickly, I think it’s a better book for the wait.
Brian Lies is the author and illustrator of the NY Times bestselling bat series (Bats at the Beach, Bats at the Library, etc.), and over two dozen other titles. The Rough Patch has already received three starred reviews (Booklist, School Library Journal and Publishers Weekly), been named a Junior Library Guild selection and is being translated into three languages. You can visit him at www.brianlies.com, connect on Twitter at @BrianLiesbooks, or Instagram at brianlies.
~Hosted by Amanda Smith
Few people in this world impress me more than children's book illustrators. I am constantly awed by the thoughtfulness of their process, the depth of their talent, the beauty of the art they create, and the truly humble and kind people they are. This month on 24 Carrot Writing we shine the spotlight on some illustrators who inspired us during this year.
We are honored to kick of Illustrator Month with Lita Judge. Lita is the award winning author and illustrator of 24 fiction and nonfiction books including MARY'S MONSTER, a YA novel about Mary Shelley and the creation of Frankenstein. Her picture books include BORN IN THE WILD, RED SLED, HOOT AND PEEP, and ONE THOUSAND TRACINGS winner of the International Reading Association Award and an ALA Notable Book. Her book, FLIGHT SCHOOL, was adapted into an off-Broadway musical and is currently running in New York and China. She lives in Peterborough, NH.
1. You came from a science background. Tell us a little about your journey into illustration and kidlit.
I graduated with a degree in geology and spent some time working as a paleontologist on dinosaur digs. Science came naturally to me, but I didn’t have a lot of exposure to art as a kid. I grew up in Alaska and the remote areas of the Northwest and had never been to any art museums. When I first walked into the Metropolitan Museum in New York City as an adult, and saw a show of Renaissance drawings, my whole world changed. I actually quit my job and started an adventure in learning how to really paint. The best advice I ever got from a great artist was to go look closely at great original paintings. So over the next five years, I traveled to Europe more than twenty times to study in art museums. I financed the trips by painting on-location street scenes and landscapes (in oil paints with a French easel) which I sold in galleries when I returned. I was influenced by the art I saw and my style was loose and painterly. But I felt like the aspect of “story” and narrative was missing in this kind of work. The desire to create art around stories really drew me towards writing and illustrating children’s books.
2. Not having any formal art training, how did you become so proficient in concepts like perspective, composition, and skills such as drawing and painting?
I think my science background helped me a lot. As a paleontologist I put dinosaur skeletons together and so much about drawing is knowing the structure of what you’re looking at. My grandparents were ornithologist and I spent a lot of time watching birds as a youngster so I think the skills of observation really helped. I kept journals and I drew and painted what I was seeing and learning. I worked from life a lot. I drew animals and thousands of plein-air paintings in the field. Gradually I started letting go of painting only what I saw and trusted my imagination to take me to drawing what I felt in my mind. I love weaving the intellectual act of observing with the imagination.
3. Your words, whether in print as in MARY’S MONSTER, or spoken, as the narration of your videos, are carefully chosen and lyrical. Have you always played with words? How did you discover your voice as a writer?
I love to play with the lyricism of words. Its extraordinary how a poem or a picture book manuscript can give meaning to an idea, and tell a story, but also have a musicality like birdsong. I find that quality transporting. I love how a beautiful poem can work together with the quality of line in art. They’re different mediums, but they’re surprisingly similar. Both require you to observe, and distill an idea, then let yourself be free to find the artistry that lies within that thought.
It did take me a while to find my voice as a writer. I’m such a visual person, sometimes I think I could have easily stayed in the realm of painting alone, without writing. But then I wouldn’t have the story I wanted. Finding the right words didn’t come as naturally to me as drawing. But it’s ultimately what gives my illustrations their full meaning. I needed both to feel I was creating a whole. One thing that helped me find the words was to recognize they didn’t have to come first in a project. Many people assume I write a story, and then illustrate it. But I almost always start with art, and then the words come as I see my way into a story. That was true even for MARY'S MONSTER. I drew for 6 months before I put a single word down. By the time I did, I felt like the voice of the work was already thrumming through my bloodstream.
4. Let’s talk MARY’S MONSTER. You deliberately set out to do something so new and unique with this book to mirror Mary Shelly. How did you arrive at this format – an illustrated biography in verse that reads like a YA novel?
It took me a while to discover this format. For years I had been drawn to the story of the teenaged Mary Shelley, but didn’t quite know how to tackle it. First I considered a graphic novel, but it didn’t feel like the format fit. Mary Shelley’s life was so intense. Her emotions needed to leap out of the page. Graphic novels are structured so that the art unfolds within several contained panels. They leave a lot of white space around the images. This can be great for developing action, but it didn’t give me the room I needed to fully develop the visual story with the emotional intensity I wanted. I wanted full bleed illustrations that viscerally poured out emotion. I also wanted poetry, something I couldn’t fit into graphic novel format. Mary’s life and her love affair with Percy Shelley revolved around poetry and literature. And I really wanted to do something different than what I had seen before. Mary Shelley developed a whole new genre - science fiction. I felt I needed to do something unique to capture her story. Or maybe, I was just inspired by her to be bold and brave. Whatever it was, I felt like the only way I could bring her story to life was by blending full-page illustrations with free verse.
5. During discussions of this book, our book group wondered about the genre of MARY’S MONSTER and how libraries would categorize it. Were you and your editors ever concerned that it would get lost in the adult biographies? And in your heart, to which genre does this book belong?
Yes, I was concerned about how libraries and bookstores would categorize this book! I went multiple times to our local library and my local bookstore, The Toadstool Bookshop, and asked them where they would shelve it. I was concerned that it would slip into adult biography or that it would be categorized in the graphic novel section. I love graphic novels, but that section really didn’t feel like home to this book. I see this being an illustrated novel, rather than a graphic novel, and I really wanted it to be shelved with other YA books.
I was also concerned about whether it would be shelved as nonfiction or fiction, which has been an issue. It’s deeply researched and I tried to portray Mary Shelley‘s life as accurately as I could, but ultimately I chose to write it in first person. I thought that it was the only way I could capture the essence of this brave, courageous teenager who dared to throw off the shackles that society inflicted on women. But this is definitely not a straight up biography. It dives into the realm of what goes on in the mind of a creative soul. I didn’t want to be restricted by writing it in a purely non-fiction way because, in a strange sense, I didn’t feel that could possibly tell the whole truth of her story. And besides, there is also her creature. She gave him a voice in her book. I couldn’t ignore that. Her novel is about creating life from death, but ultimately she created life from literature. I wanted this story to reflect that. And to reflect the interaction that goes on between a writer and his or her creation. He just had to have a voice in this book.
6. What did you want the art to accomplish in this book?
The art was critical for portraying the emotional elements of Mary‘s life. She was such a strong and courageous young woman despite overwhelming grief, and mental abuse by both her father, and boyfriend, later husband. But despite that, she endured. I think if I had only words to convey all the tragic events in her life, the text would’ve felt very heavy. But the pictures can convey these searing emotions in a way that makes us empathize with her. At least that’s how I feel when I see a great painting. Art can also show the intensity of her creative process. The relationship between her and her creature evolves in the art. There is this back-and-forth movement of power between them. At times it’s almost like a dance between her and her creation. Sometimes her creation is lifting her up, as if to save her from her emotional ruin. Other times it threatens to overpower and consume her. All of these things can come through in the art in a way that would be very difficult to convey in text.
7. Like ogres and onions, MARY’S MONSTER has many layers for readers to peel back. You often used images as metaphors. However, as an English major, I also know that often scholars read symbols where authors or artists didn’t intend symbolism. Some things I wonder about in your book are: The black and white birds, the resemblance of the Creature to Percy, and mirrors/windows/reflection. Would you share some of the deeper symbols or metaphors with our readers?
I’m so thrilled that you picked up on the symbolism in the art! The book is loaded with visual symbolism. The creature does indeed resemble Percy. I had one picture of Percy to work from and Mary’s own description of the creature. I felt it was appropriate to create an eerie resemblance between the two. I used the same model for both! Like the creature, Percy was driven by a feeling of rejection and self-induced exile. He felt vilified by society. His internal demons drove him to be abusive towards Mary. She clearly empathized with the demons he faced. She understood the bitterness that grew in his heart came from his feelings of rejection – rejection of his poetry, rejection from his father, and rejection from society. I wanted to use the similarity between the characters to draw these parallels together.
For the windows and doors I wanted to show how Mary faced isolation due to the fact that society vilified her for running away with a married man. We think of doors as a place to escape from or enter through. Likewise, windows are a place where we can look through and mentally escape. But in the art the doors and windows are barriers. We often look from the outside, through a window where the grilles look like the bars of a prison cell. She can see the outside but she is not welcome there.
There is also symbolism represented in the hands, both Mary‘s and the Creature’s, because I think hands are so connected to the act of creativity. Sometimes Mary’s hands are literally lifting up her creature, representing her power to create. Other times the hands of the creature are enveloping her, almost at times threatening to overpower her. This is meant to represent the fine line she was walking between succumbing to all the grief and sadness in her life, versus using that pain and pouring it into her creation.
8. The amount of work that went into MARY’S MONSTER is vast. Your research, your sketchbooks, your photographs and models, your poetry and artwork. What practical methods did you learn along the way about organizing big projects like these?
Hmmm, I wish I could say I had a plan, but really it was get up every day and write and draw the hell out of it. It was just full throttle rather than planned out vision. Maybe for the next one, I could come up with something a little saner. I’m just learning how to take a weekend off again.
9. You worked on the HOOT AND PEEP books while you were working on MARY’S MONSTER. In which ways was it challenging to transition from the playful colorful artwork of making picture books to the dark, haunting paintings of MARY’s MONSTER? In which ways was it helpful?
Yes, I did work on HOOT AND PEEP during the six years I’ve worked on Mary‘s Monster. It was incredibly challenging going back and forth between the picture books and MARY'S MONSTER - not so much because the style of art was different, mostly because of the pacing involved in a picture book versus the pacing of a longer form book. Everything has to be spelled out but simple in PB art. Little readers have to be lead through a story differently. In MARY'S MONSTER, I had to trust that I could make big leaps, otherwise, it would have taken 5000 pages. But there, I could put a lot more hidden meanings into things because I knew my readers would have more life experience to interpret them. Working on the novel for such long spells made it hard to get back to the simplicity of a picture book.
But on the other hand it was incredibly helpful to have an oasis in which to fall back on, because MARY'S MONSTER was an incredibly intense project. At times I just needed to let my brain rest before diving in again. I often work back-and-forth between nonfiction and fiction picture books. I think creatively it can be good to work on more than one project at a time so that you allow yourself time to escape a project and then come back with fresh eyes.
10. You work mostly in watercolor, but in MARY’s MONSTER, the illustrations have a layered and washy quality. How did you adapt your techniques and media for the art in this book? Have you transported some of these techniques into your newer picture books?
I did have to adjust my techniques for MARY'S MONSER. To get the emotional depth to some of the pieces required a lot of haunting imagery. I found that digitally layering different washes helped me find the richness that I needed. In a picture book, simplicity is important. Young readers are just learning to explore visual images so my washes are often very simple and my line work bold. I’m not sure that the work I did with Mary will translate to picture books. But I’d love to find another project in the future where I can use these techniques. Artistically it was really fun to dive into this new style.
11. The choices you made in MARY’S MONSTER all seem deliberate, well thought through and planned. Your work has a sense of organization and forethought. Yet, in making art there are often “happy accidents”. How do you live in the tension between the two?
This is a great question! I think it is the crux of what takes a painting beyond representing something and into the realm of art. It is what makes it so hard, and yet so interesting. I perceive painting much like creating live music. For me, painting requires lots and lots of planning which is equivalent to rehearsal. But then, ultimately, the final art has to be like a jazz performance. I have to let go of all the planning, and trust that all the experience and practice will pour out into paintings so that they feel spontaneous.
12. 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?
I guess my biggest goal is always to have a challenge ahead of me where I remain really charged up and interested in my work. This means having a project in the works where I don’t know the answers, and I have to learn something in order to execute it. I guess I like to be a little bit terrified. It’s uncomfortable, but it what gets you into the studio every day. Fear can be such a powerful motivator. I don’t mean fear as in the way we usually talk about it. I mean, more like in the way maybe an explorer would think about it. The fear, alongside the excitement of the unknown. I always want to be curious and pushing against that fear. If I go into a project knowing all the answers, I’ll just start phoning it in. And what good is that? My goal is to always love the project I’m working on and feel like it’s an adventure. If I don’t feel both, I have to make a course correction!
13. What has been your greatest joy in your career as an author/illustrator so far?
Having my picture book, FLIGHT SCHOOL, get turned into an off-Broadway musical was an incredibly joyful experience. Creating a character out of your imagination and then watching him suddenly come to life, singing and dancing on stage, was mind blowing. I also loved seeing how other artists, in this case, the composer, lyricist, director, actors, and costume designer pour their energy into this character. I will forever be thankful for that experience. Plus, it’s pretty cool to crank up the volume and play the soundtrack of the musical and dance with my parrot on a rainy day!
14. What has been the biggest surprise?
As a kid I never imagined I’d get to be an artist. I really didn’t know people did this for a living. My mind was reeling with imaginary friends, basically because my family lived far out in the woods, and I didn’t have other kids to play with. It was kind of a lonely childhood and living in my imagination helped me get through it. But now I get to give those imaginary friends life within the pages of a book. Is that sappy? It’s just that they feel real to me. And then kids read those books, and in so doing, those characters become real to them. It gives me a strong sense of connection to people that I didn’t have when I was a kid. I wasn’t expecting that gift to come out of this career.
15. What is next?
I’m very excited to have another picture book coming out with the character from FLIGHT SCHOOL. This one is titled PENGUIN FLIES HOME and is coming out in January. I also have a non-fiction picture book coming out called HOMES IN THE WILD, which draws on my love of animals and the natural world. It’s full of all the cool ways animals create shelters and homes for themselves in the wild. And one more picture book – called Wingbeats. I wait to let that mystery unfold.
Thank you, Lita, for sharing your amazing art, insights and stories with us. To learn more about Lita, visit her website at www.litajudge.net.
For a 24 Carrot review of MARY'S MONSTER click here.
For book group discussion questions on MARY'S MONSTER click here.
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