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.
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