What Beautiful Illustrations Can Do

In my personal development as a picture book writer, I fully admit that one of the first things I had to learn was to let go of what the book would look like. It is extremely tempting to include copious notes, in hopes that an illustrator will create pictures that mirror EXACTLY what the writer sees in their head. This is the writer’s story, after all, is it not?

You could take this limited view, but you would be missing out on many wondrous possibilities. What if the illustrator creates a vision of your book that is far beyond anything you imagined? What if they elevate your words, creating images that supplement, partner, or even transcend what you have written?

I was not always a believer. Then recently I read two picture books that demonstrate how an illustrator working with a writer’s words can elevate the piece to something quite special.

The first example is an author/illustrator. You may say, “Well, that doesn’t count. He’s working with his own story.” I would agree that it may guarantee that the writer’s vision is illustrated the way he sees it. However, it does not guarantee that the resulting words and pictures work together to create something that is greater than the individual pieces.

Lane Smith, is well known for illustrating for others, such as Jon Scieszka’s The Stinky Cheese Man. He has also illustrated his own books. My favorite of his own stories (that I have read so far) is Grandpa Green. Grandpa Green’s great-grandson tells his grandfather’s story, as he wanders through a garden. The garden is full of topiaries and other garden creations that show each of the memories that the boy shares. For example, Grandpa got chicken pox: “He had to stay home from school. So he read stories about secret gardens and wizards and a little engine that could.” These words are accompanied by a two-page spread of bushes and trees cut to resemble a lion, a scarecrow, a tin man, and a train. In the end, you discover that Grandpa is old and sometimes forgets things. “But the important stuff, the garden remembers for him.” We are treated to another two-page spread of all of the garden creations, made by Grandpa himself.

Besides the beautiful illustrations throughout the book (made all the more amazing by the fact that he uses the color green almost exclusively), the story itself is sweet. But when you combine the story and the illustrations together, it lifts up the book to make it poignant, charming, and endearing. The pictures reinforce the words, and give them so much more meaning. My son and I were so taken with the book that we immediately went back to the beginning and read it again. I was pleased to discover that Grandpa Green has earned Lane Smith the 2012 Caldecott Honor.

The second example is Two Little Trains, by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. The first item of note with this book is that it was published in 2001, 49 years after Ms. Brown’s death. More amazing still, there are many more of Margaret Wise Brown’s books that have been published posthumously with modern illustrators.

In Two Little Trains, Ms. Brown uses techniques seen in other books of hers: a repetitive, rhythmic language that compares and contrasts objects and concepts. For example:

One little train was a streamlined train,

Puff, Puff, Puff to the West.

One little train was a little old train,

Chug, Chug, Chug going West.

The words themselves are fun to read, and would be enjoyable to young children. However, the illustrators have taken the text to another level. On each left hand page is a drawing of a real train, making its journey. On each right page is a drawing of a toy train, making its own journey through the house. As the real train zooms along the metal tracks, the toy train runs along its own improvised track made from the fringe of a rug. Again, the illustrators have elevated the words to create a much bigger, more nuanced story. The illustrations ensure you want to turn the page and see what will happen next.

I apologize for not sharing more images (since I am talking about illustrations after all), but I have left them out for fear of using images that do not belong to me. All the more reason for you to go to your library or bookstore and search out these beautiful books for yourselves!

What books do you love, that combine illustration and text in a wondrous way?

Goal! – Sports in YA Lit.

Let me be frank. I am not a sporty person. Yes, I love the Olympics. Yes, I watched horse racing as an eighth-grader, even reruns. Yes, I did train for a triathlon once. But would I ever have anticipated reading and enjoying a novel with a sports theme so strong it constitutes its own character? In two letters, no.

But I love Chris Crutcher. And every one of his books — the ones I’ve read at this point — are sports books.

I first heard about Mr. Crutcher at the SCBWI NYC Winter 2012 Conference. He was a key note speaker, and man did he ever rock. He talked about the importance of using humor in order to write about grief. The audience was laughing and crying, almost simultaneously, as he pulled us down to the darkest depths of an emotional experience, only to lift us up through some unexpected, humorous twist. I’ve since read a good handful of his books, and each has provided me with the same wondrous blend of dark and light. Crutcher is a master, that’s for sure.

And he loves sports. Whether it’s swimming, cross-country, football, or basketball, Crutcher’s ability to develop sports into a character of its own is pretty remarkable, and that’s coming from someone who is not a sporty person. At times, his blow by blow narration of sporting events can be overwhelming for non-sporty people. Truthfully, I have to tune some of it out. That’s because I have no idea about layups and sweeps and off-sides. Even so, Crutcher uses sports to showcase his characters and their personalities, and even a non-sporty like me can understand the positive influence that sports can have on a person, in this case a teenager.

My favorite book so far was Stotan! This book is about four boys — the only members of their high school swim team. Being a swimmer, or should I say someone who enjoys a lap swim now and then, I could relate to this one a bit more. The boys enlist in a training exercise put on by their coach, and it’s a b&#$^ of an exercise. Somehow, even though I’ve never swum for four hours straight, doing sprints and pyramids and crab-crawls on the rough poolside, I understood how the boys were going to be stronger because of this challenge, more able to withstand the grief that Crutcher puts them through.

If you like sports and you also like YA novels, I highly recommend Crutcher’s books. If you like see protagonists face the gritty grief of real life and come out of the water still breathing, then read his books.

Dear Me…

On Simple Mom last week, Tsh Oxenreider wrote a letter to her 15-year-old self. It inspired me to write a letter to my 17-year-old self.

Hi 17-year old self! It’s Me, your 39-year-old self.

I know you don’t sleep much these days. That’s okay — that will come in handy in college. You’re really looking forward to college. The good news is, it’s everything you’re hoping for and more. Make the most of your time there: learn, play, make mistakes (small ones, please) and begin to figure out who you want to be.

You notice I said “begin.” Trying to figure out who you want to be is not only an ongoing (and lifelong) process, but what you are searching for will change. Parts of you that you weren’t even thinking about (nurturer, wife, mother) come out to surprise you later.

Through this last year of high school (ugh), you will doubt yourself. Don’t let those doubts change who you are inside. Your hard work, persistence, maturity, and values will pay off. There will be times when you are tempted to compromise your values. Don’t. Sticking to what you believe in will keep you on the right path, and will help you sleep at night.

I’m not going to tell you how things turn out 22 years later, or that everything goes easily. However, in many ways, our life has far exceeded our expectations.

By the way, that boyfriend you didn’t think you could live without? You can and will. And that best friend who supports you no matter what, still does.

Now go get some sleep, so you can take on whatever adventures tomorrow brings.



Cut Away!

I’ve recently had some major aha moments during the revision process of a manuscript I first wrote two years ago. After a round of rejections, including one that gave me the smallest smidgen of feedback, I couldn’t quite figure out what the story needed. I knew the stakes needed to be raised – that the story needed to be about more than just the romance. And while it was hard to hear the agent’s feedback, I think I’d always known that the story was about more. But maybe this awareness was just on some majorly deep, subconscious level. 🙂 In order to move forward with the manuscript, I needed to figure out what that “more” was.

I struggled with this for a while, until I received a mass email from a non-profit group I’ve supported a few times over the years. My mouth fell open. Just like that I’d found my “more”. I knew what the story needed, and my next wave of revisions was off.

Now I’m finding that so much of what had seemed so critical to the first draft of this story – and even to the second and third drafts – really didn’t matter so much in this new revision. Cut. Cut. Cut. I don’t think I would’ve seen these scenes for what they were – superfluous, fat, filler – without this new vision of what the story was really about. It felt so freeing to drop these scenes, which I am still in love with, into my “graveyard” file. Maybe they’ll find life again in another story someday. (On that note, if I end up pulling them out the graveyard someday, does that mean they’ll have to be in a zombie novel? Hope not…)

I’d always heard about people dropping major scenes, really rewriting, but I guess I’d never truly experienced it before. I suppose I’m lucky the trimming was voluntary and self-driven. Without those scenes, the manuscript will come together in a way I expect to be fresh. I’ll let you know.

You never know what will inspire re-visioning or a major trim session. But my wish is that, if you’re stuck, that you find your “more” to help you on your way.


Organizing My Thoughts

Last week, Joanna talked about revision, and how to manage the process with multiple projects in the works. Where do you begin?

I have a new novel outlined, a novel in revision, and several picture books straining to get out of my head. However, this last month of warm weather has taken me away from my writing. For good reasons: swimming, nature walks, bike riding, discovering dinosaurs, and drawing with chalk on the driveway. All of these activities and adventures brought precious moments of laughter, joy, and sweetness. They actively took up the conscious part of my brain, relegating my writing thoughts to the back of the line.

This week school began again. My house is quieter, and my time is freer. So how do I get my writing to again demand its place at the front? It’s hard to know where to begin when you have a head full of different projects in different stages.

Perhaps my son’s LEGO collection can shed some light (bear with me). He has a large collection of pieces, some similar, some specialized. It includes large airplane wings and car frames. There are medium-sized long pieces perfect for creating apartment buildings or shopping centers. There are tiny pieces that make great headlights, and those that sparkle when made into flashlights.

My son prefers to build his own creations, rather than build a kit once and put it on a shelf. He has many ideas in his head, and some days he can’t build fast enough to keep up with all of them.  So with this large diverse collection, how do we keep him organized so that he can build most effectively and efficiently?

We assessed the types and quantities of his pieces, and bought some storage boxes and bins. We spent a Saturday taking his two large bins of pieces and sorting them. And sorting them. And sorting them some more. His collection went from this:

Photo by Katie Cullinan

To this:

Photo by Katie Cullinan

So what does this have to do with my writing? Right now I have many pieces, projects, and writing tasks in the works.  I have outlined a new novel to be written, which means more research along the way. I have a novel in revision, which is in need of reframing and simplifying. I have three newer picture book manuscripts that have been made into dummy books. These need prioritization, and then new query letters readied for agents. In a few months, November will be upon us and I need to decide whether to participate this year in PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month) or NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), and then get prepared.

So perhaps the best way to get started is to get organized. My files are organized. My notes are organized. What are not organized are my thoughts. Which item should take priority? Is one more important?

Writing out what I have in the works (above) has at least helped me assess the pieces.  Now on to one project at a time.  My new novel’s characters are screaming the loudest, so I’ll dedicate this upcoming week to them. Maybe I’ll take a break mid-week and send out some query letters.

Hopefully I’ll be writing a post next month about the first draft I’ve completed on my new novel. And then on to the next project.

The challenge (as it is with my son) is to keep all the pieces organized and in their places.  Let’s hope we can meet the challenge. He and I feel so much happier when the pieces of our creative processes are organized.