A blog for parents, teachers, writers and illustrators.

December 15, 2014

Add a Little Texture with Denise Fleming

Boy, time has flown. I can't believe Christmas is ten days away and Hanukkah starts tomorrow! But more than that I can't believe it's been a month since my last post - between work, a few illustration contests, and getting some manuscripts ready for critiques at an upcoming SCBWI conference, life has been a bit nuts. But now it's time to get back on track.

This month I'm going to talk about textures in illustrations which I love to do with my own drawings. Adding texture helps to avoid illustrations looking too flat. Now, some illustrators like Bob Shea and Mo Willems create illustrations that are flat in color with no shading or highlights, such as the Pigeon or Dinosaur books. But those flat illustrations work because of the type of characters they've created for simple texts for younger readers.

For me, I like to get a sense that I can touch or feel an illustration. Maybe it's because I'm drawn to pastel and charcoal drawings, or perhaps it's my love for collage and using fabrics to sew and create art that I like things with patterns, brush strokes, or rougher edges. Again, all art is subjective, right?

One illustrator that embodies the idea of textures is Denise Fleming. If you're not familiar with her work, you need to be. She writes a lot of concept books as well as books with short, simple texts for young readers.

She uses an amazing technique for illustrating books - she actually makes her illustrations out of paper pulp! First she comes up with rough sketches. Then she creates her own stencils out of Styrofoam trays and pushes paper pulp through a screen. She then has to remove the moisture from the paper by using a machine that sucks the water out of it.

I can't do the explanation justice, so here is a video on YouTube of her talking about her process. It's incredible how many steps are involved and just how beautiful her pieces come out. And it's amazing to me how she manages to have effective compositions and perspectives while using this very complicated but magical illustrating technique. There's no one else in children's books who does illustrations like Denise and I hope she continues making wonderful books for many more years to come.

Here are some more examples of her amazing work. The next time you're looking to read a book with your children or students, consider choosing one of Denise Fleming's books. Study her layouts, her perspectives, her color choices, and her texture. I think you'll find yourself choosing more than one of her books to read and study!


November 11, 2014

Funny, Loveable, Memorable Characters

The children's book world is full of characters - LOTS of different kinds. From funny to sweet to mischievous to loveable, there's a character you can fall in love with no matter how old you are.

With Halloween just passing, I saw this site about memorable children's book characters that were born to be made into costumes. None of them, however, beat my son's Halloween Storybook Parade costume this year - Elephant Gerald from the Mo Willems series.

My son Alonzo as Gerald. "Hey Gerald. There is a bird on your head!"

Why in the world would my son want to dress as an elephant with a bird's nest on his head? Because Gerald is hilarious, and my son is a ham! (Sorry for the pun, Piggy.) Kids LOVE Gerald and Piggy because of their antics, their expressions, and their kid-like personalities. Willems knows just how to infuse humor into simply drawn characters that appeal to kids.

But what makes a great children's book character? Here is an article from Writer's Digest that gives five tips for creative great characters for kids. And here is some information about characters that I've gotten from many sources and conference notes:

1) Great characters are memorable - Children will walk away from the book and continue thinking about the character. They'll want to read more about the character and his/her/its adventures.

2) Great characters are attractive - Children will fall in love with a great character, almost thinking like the character is a friend or family member. Whether this is because of the way the character looks or acts, or something specific the character does all the time that the readers like, there's something about the character that is appealing to the readers - and they'll crave for more exposure to the character.

3) Great characters hit at the emotions or experiences of the readers - Children who relate to a particular character will feel like the story and character are talking directly to them.

4) Great characters are eye-catching - The illustrations are done in such a way that the children will want to look at the characters over and over - maybe even try to draw them or get a doll or stuffed animal of that character... OR dress like them!

5) Great characters keep coming back - Two words: SEQUELS and SERIES! Great characters can carry story lines into additional books and maintain their personalities throughout each new plot. These are the types of characters that are made into plush toys, lunch boxes, backpacks, pencil cases, T-shirts, and Halloween costumes :)

And now to decide which children's book character tops the list of greatest character of all time. WAY too hard to choose - everyone's list would be different because it all depends what you're looking for in a character and how YOU relate to that one. While many people would probably pick amazing characters like Olivia, Amber Brown, Junie B. Jones, Madeline, and Eloise, I can honestly say I never related to any of them. Maybe because I'm more of a tomboy who tends to read books with  animal or boy characters.

So here are the ones that would be on my list. The list includes those characters who have broad appeal to readers AND who have two or more books created in a series:

1) The Pigeon (Mo Willems) - What more can I say about a pigeon who wants to drive a bus and would like a walrus for a pet? The pigeon is so kid-like and fun to look at and draw that he has to be a contender for the top place on my list.

2) Corduroy (Don Freeman) - I so badly wanted to be Lisa and have Corduroy as my doll. I felt so bad for him when he was left behind at the laundromat. This was my ultimate favorite childhood character and will always have a special place in my heart.

3) Peter (Ezra Jack Keats) -I just love all the different books portraying Peter as a gentle, obedient, innocent soul. His interaction with his family and friends - and dog Willie - make for some real memorable stories. And kudos to Ezra Jack Keats for portraying a child of color as the main character in his books in the 1960s!

4) The Cat in the Hat (Dr. Seuss) - a mischievous, clever cat in a tall striped hat is surely a formula for success. And now cartoons on PBS featuring Martin Short as the voice of the cat give this character a new generation of fans.

5) Dinosaur (Bob Shea) - This little red dinosaur's roar is big and loud as he fights against everything he's supposed to do, just like a young child would. Bob Shea really captured the personality in this little red character who in reality is just a loveable little monster.  

6) Biscuit (Alyssa Satin Capucilli) - Even if you're not a dog person, it's hard not to fall in love with this cute pup. Not only do you want to hug Biscuit but you just want to jump in the book, play with him, and follow him on his cute, innocent adventures.

7) Willy Wonka (Roald Dahl) - "Come with me, and you'll be, in a world of pure imagination..." Enough said.

8) Ferdinand the Bull (Munro Leaf) - We should all take a page from this book and find time to sit under a cork tree and smell the flowers with this bull. I KNOW! This breaks the sequel/series rule but I can't have a list of characters without my Ferdinand.

9) Harold and the Purple Crayon (Crocket Johnson) - To think that one crayon could take you on so many adventures was amazing when I was a child. He's truly one of the best characters ever.

10) Peter Rabbit (Beatrix Potter) - I think every child after reading this book as a kid thought twice about disobeying their parents again.

There are several others that I would break the rules for and include in a top ten list, even though they may not be as well-known or have a sequel or series out, such as:

- the conceited Cheetah in Bob Shea's "Cheetah Can't Lose" (this guy is so hilarious)

- the biracial/bicultural cutie pie Marisol McDonald by Monica Brown (and illustrated by my friend Sara Palacios)

Pete the Cat by James Dean - I'm not a fan of the illustration style at all but I can see why kids love this groovy, hipster cat.

The mischievous, tricky, hat-wearing, spaghetti eating dragon in "The Best Pet of All" by David LaRochelle.

You're probably saying what about Curious George, Clifford, Skippity Jones, Bad Kitty, Fancy Nancy, Pattington Bear, Winnie the Pooh, ... the list of great characters is endless!

I could go on and on and on, but I think you get the idea. For writers and illustrators, developing characters that kids will love (and ones that will sell in the publishing world) is not easy to do, but if you can do it right you may just one day have a TV show, or a doll made, or even a Halloween costume made of your character. And as a writer and illustrator, it really doesn't get much better than that.

November 4, 2014

Elect Your Favorite Doreen Cronin Book

Today is Election Day! And since I still want to address humor in children's books, I thought... why not elect my favorite Doreen Cronin book?

This is not an easy choice to make, however. Cronin has written a LOT of very funny children's books.

How shall I make such an important decision? First, let's do some research of the candidates.

I could choose an Election Day themed story, like "Duck for President" illustrated by Betsy Lewin. Duck's comical, in-charge, tough-minded personality in all the books is priceless, but in this one I found it hilarious that he gets tired of doing his chores so he holds an election to replace Farmer Brown. But when running the farm is too much work for him, he decides to run for governor. Then he eventually winds up running the country as president! In the end, though, Duck gives up his job to the Vice President and goes back to the farm to type his autobiography. Lewin's loose, colorful ink and watercolor illustrations add to the humor and always provide a second story line to accompany the text.

                                          This is definitely a contender.

Again, Cronin and Lewin team up for one of the funniest farm stories around. The cows are cold at night in the barn and refuse to give milk until they get some electric blankets from Farmer Brown. The hens even agree to stop laying eggs until the demands are met. Duck becomes the negotiator and eventually helps to broker a deal in which the cows get the blankets and Farmer Brown gets his milk, so long as the cows give up their typewriter. Oh, and Duck demands a diving board or the pond. How much more clever can you be with farm animals?

This book is an instant classic and one of my all-time favorites. 

This time, Henry Bliss is the illustrator, as well as other "Diary" books written by Cronin, and did a fabulous job with the images. This book is very unique in that it tells the story in a diary format in the words of a strange choice for a character - an earthworm! Worm is portrayed very much like any child but one that can eat his homework and never has to take a bath. It's extremely clever and humorous and a must read for kids ages 4-8.

Boy, picking my favorite Doreen Cronin book is getting tough!

Here Cronin has moved her humor onto chapter books, with four fuzzy little, trouble-seeking chickens who are being watched by J.J. Tully, a retired search-and-rescue dog, who is responsible for getting the chicks out of trouble. Although the book has more words that her picture books, the humor and cleverness is still there. The illustrations by Kevin Cornell really add a lot to the story, especially the different perspectives and angles at which he draws the images. Kids ages 7-10 will truly enjoy reading this book, as well as other books in the series.

Then there are these books by Doreen Cronin as well. 

Okay, okay. No more books on the ballot, please!

I've made my decision: I vote for...


(If only voting for the governor of Florida were this much fun)

Feel free to cast your ballot for the best Doreen Cronin book, and tune in next time when we talk about another farm book - a PUNK farm book!

October 25, 2014

The Art of the Picture Book

I'm taking a short break from blogging about humor in books to talk about the art of picture books. Being an illustrator, I love to study the pictures that illustrators create to bring books to life and I am fascinated at the diversity of the illustrations I see.

There are all different kinds of illustrations found in picture books from very basic drawings to very elaborate paintings. Just look at the difference between these two!


Picture books have more than just a story to tell - the illustrations are works of art! You can find many art shows around the country throughout the year that put illustrations on display. Right now, if you're in New York you can view some of the most amazing works of art in picture books today at The Society of Illustrators.

This year's gold medal winner at the exhibit is "The Bear's Song" by Benjamin Chaud. There are beautiful illustrations done in pencil and digital art. Other winners include "Wildwood Imperium" by Colin Meloy and illustrated by Carson Ellis, "Harlem Hellfighters" by J.Patrick Lewis and Illustrated by Gary Kelley, and "Little Elliot, Big City" by Mike Curato.

And here is a list of the 166 books that are on display at the show.

It's amazing to see just how many different mediums can be used to illustrate children's books - pastel, watercolor, pencil, ink, digital, gouache, graphite... the possibilities seem endless!

As an illustrator, it's important to study the craft of the picture book, not just so you can see what your competition is like but also so you can see what works. Why was that illustrator chosen for that particular story? Why did they use that particular medium and style? What are the different compositions, perspectives and view points shown on each spread? How are the characters drawn? Are they consistent from spread to spread? Why were those colors chosen?

Another important aspect to consider is how the illustrations support or enhance the text. Nowadays, picture books have a shorter word count. Therefore, there is a lot of information that can be found in the illustrations that help explain or move the story along, allowing readers to infer or interpret rather than just read a text and see pretty pictures.

Dr. Mira Reisberg and Chronicle Books Art Director Kristine Brogno held a webinar about how illustrations can provide a second story, or additional storyline, to go along with the text. They'll be holding a 5-week course on illustrating for children's books through the Children's Book Academy called "The Craft and Business of Illustrating Children's Books" where you can learn a lot more about techniques and styles to make a picture book successful.

I'm taking the course, my fourth one with Mira, and I highly recommend taking it if you're interested in learning more about the craft of picture books. Whether you're a writer or illustrator, you can benefit from the information Mira and Kristine are going to provide. 

You can also attend a free webinar with Mira and co-founder of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Stephen Mooser, on Thursday, October 30 at 5pm PST/8pm EST.

There is so much more to say about the art in picture books, but I'll save more for another day. I'm not sure if book publishers produce books with the idea that they're really producing works of art for adults and children to enjoy. But for now, I'm off to the bookstore - or should I say art gallery to admire more amazing works of art!

October 6, 2014

Say "Yes!" to David Shannon!

It's been a couple of weeks since my last post - that's what happens when work and life get in the way. Now it's time to get back on track.

The last couple of posts dealt with humor in children's books. Since humorous books are really my favorite, I can't stop at just two posts. So today I'm going to talk about one of my favorite author/illustrators, David Shannon.

One of the funniest characters in children's literature is David, who stars in Shannon's books called "No, David!", "David Gets in Trouble" and "David Goes to School," among others. The illustrations are very kid-friendly, looking as if a kid drew them. And his text is very simple - very few words are on each spread or page. Shannon let's a lot of the narrative come through the pictures and actions and emotional expressions of David. What's great about these texts also is that they're like a one-sided dialogue. The person "speaking" or doing the narration is David's mom or his teacher, some adult or person who is talking to David as he's "acting" in the scenes. They're brilliant, silly, funny, and perfect for young readers who want to laugh. And they're especially good for your very active or even "naughty" children who will find out that even the most misbehaved children are loved.

Shannon's "David" books are also perfect examples of how an author can use his or her experiences to create a story that readers can relate to. Shannon adds a preface in the books and explains how he based the character on himself and his childhood experiences of always being told "No." or "Stop it, David." The "relatability" factor is extremely important in publishing because publishing companies need to be able to sell the books. Duh, of course! Right? But it becomes a lot easier to sell the books to readers who can relate to a character or situation in the book - then they'll want to pick up the book again and again. Or they'll pick another book with the same character, or by the same author, because they felt a connection to the first book. Help the children make that connection, and authors like Shannon will come up with more stories with the same characters, publishing companies will sell more of his books, parents and teachers and librarians will buy his books, kids will read those books, and the cycle starts all over again.

Many of Shannon's other books are also character-driven (meaning, the plot revolves around a particular character and his/her troubles, inner thoughts and feelings, inner conflict and relationships, etc.) Some like the "Pirate" books have also developed into a series like the "David" books. Some are spinoffs, like "Good Boy, Fergus," where Fergus has made appearances in the David books.

Some have a very surreal theme or topic, like "A Bad Case of Stripes" while others have very quirky characters such as "Alice the Fairy". One of my son's favorites is "Duck on a Bike", about a duck who decides he wants to take a ride on a bike one day. As he's passing by the other animals, they all  have something to say to him or warn him about. Then a group of kids ride by the farm on their bikes while the other animals watch. Finally, the other farm animals see how fun it is to ride a bike and they hop on the bikes to join the duck. Once the riding adventure is over, the farm animals go back to their normal lives while the duck has his eye on the tractor, leading us to believe a sequel is on its way. The repetitive text makes it easy for children to read and the fun illustrations and different perspectives of the scenes really make it a great read.  No matter if Shannon is drawing animals or people, or writing about mischievous boys or bugs in your hair (yuck!), his illustration style and humor is consistent from book to book. 

 So if you have any reluctant readers in your home or classroom or library, turn them onto one of David Shannon's books - they're very hard to say "No" to.