I have been curious about how picture books are constructed and illustrated, and the latest Children's Literary Salon addressed exactly that topic. Betsy Bird, Young Adult Materials Specialist at NYPL organizes and hosts the monthly program for enthusiasts of children's literature. She let the audience know that author/illustrators Peter Brown, Steve Light and Sergio Ruzzier would give brief presentations about their books, and then she would join them in a panel discussion.
Steve Light was up first. He gave a power point presentation about his book Trains Go, which featured his illustrations and photographs of his work space. He constructed this board book by listening to the sounds that trains make and putting them together in an interesting way. He worked with four colors and black for the book. City Dragon was spawned by his father's idea that exhaust comes up through the asphalt in city roads because dragons that live underneath the street are breathing fire upward. He included pictures of dragons in the subways. He wanted to include Grand Central terminal, but ended up having only an approximation of that monument because authors need special permission to include it in their work. The book also features illustrations of Chinatown and St. Patrick's Cathedral.
In his book Have You Seen My Monster?, Light featured many shapes, including ovals, hexagons, and octagons. Light is a huge fan of fountain pens, and he is able to refurbish old pens.
Sergio Ruzzier came up to the podium next to discuss his work. He grew up in Milan, and he has illustrated books in both Italy and the United States. He loved writing a comic strip for a school assignment, and he adores comics in the U.S. In addition, he also appreciates the paintings and mosaics of Italy. The Italian version of Little Bear was the first book that he recalled owning. He worked with one editor who refused to let him see the manuscript from the author of a book he was working on because she did not want the illustrator to be influenced by the words of the author.
Creating a Picture Book
Peter Brown is the illustrator of the very cool book Creepy Carrots, which I have been in love with since I read a blog post about it. His grandfather was an abstract painter. As a child, Brown drew many horses and ponies, since there was a horse farm across the street from him. Kids always ask him where his stories come from, and he replies that they emerge from life. For example, Brown wrote a book about a dog when his childhood dog ran away from home. The cartoon Ren and Stimpy, particularly the very detailed close-ups, influenced his ideas about illustration. The Disney book The Illusion of Life also gave him ideas about drawing. He studied art history in college, and he visited many galleries to get an idea of the variety of artistic talent that exists. He was blown away when Toy Story came out while he was in art school. Previously, he had been unimpressed by digital art, but that movie opened his eyes to the fact that digital art can be beautiful. You can tell that it is computerized, but it still has aesthetic value.
Brown put much art that he admired on a board, then used words to describe it. Then, he attempted to create his own art that he would use those same words to describe, in an attempt to discover his own artistic voice. He began work on children's literature while in art school, and he sketched a lot, especially during travel. Brown has engaged in pictorial artwork during the entirety of his life. He loved creating the book Children Make Terrible Pets. The manuscript of Creepy Carrots reminded him of The Twilight Zone, so he started watching episodes of the TV show. Brown has been influenced by many illustrators, and he alters his style every couple of books so that he does not get bored and stale. Many illustrators use a single style throughout their entire careers.
Bird then invited the speakers to join her in a panel onstage. She mentioned that there exists only one picture book award, the E. B. White Read Aloud Award for Picture Books, which is given by the Association of Booksellers for Children (ABC). She asked the authors how they got the sound right of the words and sentences in their picture books.
Are Picture Books Easy to Write?
Light responded that he reads the words aloud to determine if they flow correctly. Luckily, he is a preschool teacher, and he can use his students as guinea pigs. They are very honest and they tell him if they did not like a certain part, or if that is not how a train sounds.
Brown said that it is difficult for him to create a book that is not meant to be read aloud. He wants to get kids excited about books.
Bird commented that some picture books work great when read one-on-one with a child, but they do not work well for presentations with groups of kids. For example, some books are much too lengthy to keep the attention of a group, such as Lorax. She mentioned that the panelists all have books that work great with groups of kids.
Brown has never seen anyone read aloud his books to kids. He knows the story of his books and how the words should be read. The speaker brings a lot to the equation. Some people are not talented at reading books to kids.
Bird countered that some books, such as Press Here, as so engaging that even poor readers can leave kids in awe when presenting them to kids.
Wordless Pages, Wordless Books
Ruzzier brought up the fact that some picture books have pages with a few words, then a couple of wordless pages. He was curious as to how readers handled such a disparity.
Light asks the kids what is happening in the illustrations.
Brown loves having wordless pages. He asks the kids if he should just turn the page, to which there is a resounding, "No..." He tells the kids that they should examine the illustration. Sometimes, he does not speak while the kids look at the pages. It could just be a quiet moment in the story, and he lets it be just that. For a couple of seconds, no words, then he starts explaining the illustration. The text in his books is getting shorter, so he spends an increasing amount of time explaining the pictures that he drew.
Bird said that she could understand being able to pull off a couple of seconds of silence in the middle of the book, but doing so at the beginning could be extremely challenging.
Ruzzier had an argument with his editor about the last sentence in one of his books. He still feels as though a "the" is missing, and the lack of the word interferes with the flow of the story. It feels as though something is missing.
Bird remarked that Ruzzier's English is so good that it is difficult to tell in his picture books that it is not his native language.
Ruzzier replied that it is easier to create great short sentences for picture books in English than for longer novels, which would be a nightmare for him. Creating picture books in English is easier than creating them in Italian. He said that his written English is better than his spoken English.
The Art of Reading a Picture Book Aloud
Bird commented that larger type is a message to the reader to read those words louder.
Light said that there is a rhythm to words in picture books. It helps to be a ham and be dramatic.
Bird asked the panelists if they have ever received a manuscript that they have tossed to the ground and tap danced on (manuscripts that they rejected).
Ruzzier said that he thinks that some authors do not do a good job with the manuscript.
Brown said that he wished to take some manuscripts and put a torch to them and light them on fire. He prefers to write his own books. He only illustrates manuscripts that he really likes unless he is broke and needs the cash. He does give suggestions to authors as to how to improve the manuscripts, and he is also receptive to suggestions about his art from the writers. He usually does not like the manuscripts or the tone of the stories he receives, which are not right for him.
Bird then opened up the discussion to audience questions.
Working With Editors and Publishing Houses
Someone asked how has the authors' experience has been working with different publishing houses.
Ruzzier said that some books work with certain publishers but not with others. Some publishers do not like his work or it is not the types of things that they publish.
Brown has worked with a couple of publishing houses. His editors have become his therapists. He has chemistry with his editor and the person understands his vision. His current publishing house is Little, Brown and Company. His editor is devoted to the craft of publishing books. Brown believes that books benefit when the authors are friends with their editors.
Light says that he and his editors see things the same way. His editor at Candlewick Press makes him improve his work.
Brown's editor does not tell him the solution. It is better when the editors let the authors figure out how to improve their work. Oftentimes, when editors leave publishing houses, their authors go with them. Lemony Snicket followed his editor to a different publishing house. It is hard to work with people who suggest particular wording for a passage.
Upcoming Children's Literary Salon: Saturday, Dec 7 at 2 p.m. Inseparable Companions: Dolls and Their Influence in Children's Literature