A blog for parents, teachers, writers and illustrators.

March 16, 2015

How Low Can You Go?

I’m sure everyone at some point in their life has participated in a limbo contest, to see how low you can contort your body below a pole until you fall on the floor. (I could never win those contests - I always had to duck under.)

When it comes to children’s books, we writers and illustrators have to play a game of "word count limbo" all the time. "How low can you make your word count go?" Many children’s books today have much lower word counts than books written during my childhood. Many publishers are now looking for books written in 500 words or less, and lately more are asking for 300 or less.

How in the world do you tell a story with only 300 words?

The trick is to figure out the “bones” of your story. What words do you REALLY need to get your story across?

Take the book “Gravity” by Jason Chin, for example. (No, it’s not a retelling of the Sandra Bullock movie.) It’s a picture book with only 7 sentences made up of 62 words.

How is that possible??

Well, the illustrations “do the rest of the talking.” The images are magnificently drawn, showing a book that falls to Earth and lands in front of a boy playing at the beach with his toys. Suddenly, as the text starts to explain that gravity is the force that holds things down on Earth, the boy’s toys and snacks float into the air and out into space. The book is filled with beautiful pleasing-to-the-eye illustrations with incredible perspectives. The size and placement of the text also changes to help emphasize the concept of gravity, with letters getting smaller or larger or floating away like the objects in the pictures. And in the back of the book, there is a reference spread of facts and additional illustrations to further explain the force of gravity. The book is a perfect example of creative non-fiction that explains scientific facts while applying those concepts to images of events children could understand while using the least amount of text possible.

On the fictional side, Jeff Mack is a genius when it comes to writing a book with very few words and cute, funny illustrations that also help to tell the story. His books like “Ah Ha!” and “Good News Bad News” are wonderful examples of how you can use barely any words while allowing readers to interpret more of the underlying story or concept through the illustrations.

In one of my previous posts, I highlighted Raul Colón's wordless picture book "DRAW!" At a conference workshop, he showed us his original book dummy that included text along with his incredible illustrations. In the end, the editors thought the pictures told the entire story so well the text wasn't even needed. Zero words - can't get any lower than that!

So if you’re a picture book writer, the next time you sit down to write a story think about this: What words do you really need to tell this story? Could a sentence or paragraph (or entire text) be shown in the illustrations instead?

If you're an illustrator, what can you show in the illustrations that can take the place of some of the text and help move the story along?

And if you’re a parent, librarian, or teacher, try to find books to read to and with children that allow them to uncover “the second story” in the illustrations. It will not only add more to the reading experience, it will teach readers to pay attention, listen, and interpret information themselves.

I may never win the limbo contest at the next wedding I attend, but for me the only limbo pole I’m concerned with today is the low word count one – and I'm ready to get down!

March 4, 2015

Happy Seuss-Day!

March 2nd is Dr. Seuss's birthday, and each year classrooms and libraries celebrate with reading festivals and activities. We brought our son to the annual "Seussfest" at our local library - he had a blast petting animals, making crafts, dancing, and of course reading.

Everybody knows that Dr. Seuss (aka Theodore Geisel) was a genius when it came to rhyming. He had his own unique structure that no one has been able to replicate. He could write an entire book using less than 100 words in different combinations while still maintaining humor and a strong plot. But more importantly, he was able to infuse sight words and phonics in a creative way to help kids learn how to read and learn to LOVE to read.

So for me, as a writer and illustrator of children's books as well as a teacher and a parent, Dr. Seuss will forever be one of my biggest inspirations.

I will forever love his quirky characters - the Lorax, the Grinch, Thing 1 & Thing 2, Horton, Sam I Am, and of course The Cat in the Hat, to name a few.

I will forever admire his unique illustration style and continue to aspire to find my own easily recognized style.

I will forever love to say the crazy names and words he came up with - zizzer-zazzer-zuzz, fiffer-feffer-feff, thingamajigger, sneetch, yertle, thidwick, among others.

I will wait with anticipation to read the newest Dr. Seuss book, "What Pet Should I Get?" - due out in July!

And I will forever be inspired by some of his most memorable quotes:

Which Dr. Seuss book is your favorite? Leave a comment below!

February 6, 2015

A Conference to Remember

Every person dreams about meeting someone famous. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would meet one of my favorite illustrators, the incredibly talented Raul Colón. But just three weeks ago, my dream came true !

I remember when our SCBWI Florida regional advisor posted on facebook that Raul Colón was going to be at our conference this past January. I wanted to make sure it was the real Raul Colón and not some author or editor or agent with the same name that I didn't know about. So I asked "Do you mean the famous illustrator Raul Colón?" And she said, "Of course! The one and only." I go to the winter conferences in Miami every year, but this year I knew it was going to be special. And what a conference it was!

First, I had the pleasure of picking up  Raul Colón and his lovely wife Edie from the airport to drive them to the conference hotel. We got to chat a lot about his career and his books, as well as his wife's career as an ESL teacher (which we have in common) and her book "Goodbye, Havana. Hola, New York!" that Raul illustrated.

My son Alonzo also came along for the ride - this photo is one I will make sure he hangs on his wall.
Raul and Alonzo

The first children's book Raul illustrated.
Why do I love Raul so much? Not just because he's a nice person but he produces some of the most beautiful illustrations you'll ever see. About 5 years ago, I came across a book called "Always My Dad" - it immediately caught my attention, not just because of the title and theme of the book but the illustrations were striking. I knew right then and there I would be a fan of Raul.

I learned that Raul mainly uses Prismacolor colored pencils over watercolor washes and then adds some line and shadow with a wax pencil, or China marker. He'll also use an etching tool to make scratches on the paper or in the colored pencils to produced a beautiful and unique texture in his drawings.

(However, for his newest book "Draw!" he used colored pencil directly on colored paper. 
Look how vibrant the colors are.)

His illustrations are easily recognizable because of his original, signature style. And they are truly works of art. 

So if meeting Raul wasn't awesome enough, I also got to pick up Laurent Linn, the Art Director for Simon and Schuster, from the airport (of course while wearing my Wonder Woman shirt to give me the power to do all I had to get done hours before the conference.) All I can say is that everything that you hear about Laurent is true - he's handsome, he's funny, he's sweet, and when it comes to designing and creating books he knows his stuff!

Laurent and me!
On the first day of the conference, I attended an illustrator intensive with Laurent and Raul where we got mini critiques on our strongest and weakest illustrations in our portfolios. Then we learned about their collaboration on Raul's wordless book "Draw!" I shouldn't even call this book a book - it's really a masterpiece. Just look at some of these illustrations.

Raul explained how as a child he had chronic asthma and had to stay indoors and home from school quite often. So he got to draw a lot, which is how he got the inspiration for the character in the book. It starts off with a boy in bed drawing African animals who then starts imagining he's actually in Africa. He makes friends with an elephant and travels around Africa drawing and interacting with all kinds of animals.

 It will definitely inspire your creative side - maybe when you're still wearing your pajamas!

Alonzo gets inspired to "Draw!"
Then on Sunday, I took both Raul's and Laurent's workshops. I learned so much about the illustration process, materials and methods, and developing an illustration style. Laurent showed some great examples of how you can have different styles depending on the markets - educational, mass market, or trade. It was helpful to know that the publishing industry has room for all kinds of styles.

Raul and me!
Meeting Raul and Laurent was truly one of the highlights of my illustration career, and one that I will always treasure and remember!

January 20, 2015

How I Became the Lunch Lady for a Day

Bottom row, second from right holding "The Hero in You"

Happy New Year everyone! This past weekend I attended the SCBWI Florida conference in Miami - my 12th one! I was on the first books panel talking about how my two books published this year came to be. It was great to be on the panel with such amazingly, talented writers. What an exciting time.

Me dressed as the Lunch Lady, a character from Jarrett Krosoczka's graphic novels

On Saturday, we had our masquerade ball with the theme being "Heroes vs. Villains." Being a big fan of Jarrett Krosoczka, I chose to dress up as the crime-fighting Lunch Lady from his graphic novels. I even had fish stick nunchucks, chicken nugget bombs to throw, a bananarang, and a spatu-copter. I was one of 5 finalists in the costume party but didn't win any prize. Someone needs to have a chicken nugget bomb thrown in their face for that! Just kidding.

Jarrett Krosoczka
Speaking of Jarrett, I have many favorite illustrators, but to me he incorporates everything you'd want in an author and illustrator for kids - simple yet colorful illustrations, funny dialogue, kid-friendly concepts, and most of all humor.

 Whether he's writing about a boy who wears a bag on his head, a slug that becomes your friend, a crime fighting lunch lady, or a punk band of farm animals, Jarrett knows the formula to entertain kids.

Jarrett has written and illustrated all kinds of books - picture books, graphic novels, chapter books, and short stories. I recently read, "Must. Push. Buttons" his newest illustrated book written by Jason Good. It's told from a toddler's point of view as he blurts out all the things that are running through his head while trying to find anything that has buttons he can push. The words and pictures work perfectly together but the expressions on the toddler's face are priceless.

On my last trip to the library, I picked up a copy of Jarrett's "Lunch Lady" graphic novel, book 1. It's about a lunch lady who fights crime at her school using typical cafeteria superhero weapons, such as a Spatula-copter, chicken nugget bombs, fish stick nunchucks, and a bananarang, a banana that works like a boomerang. The book is illustrated in black and white with just highlights of yellow throughout which contrasts Jarrett's normal use of bright saturated colors in his picture books. But it works. The way Jarrett has broken down each page into frames using different perspectives and angles, speech bubbles and sound bursts, and humorous characters is ingenious.

But Jarrett isn't just a fabulous author/illustrator. He is an amazing public speaker. I truly enjoyed hearing about his path to success during his TED-x talk. He even talks about how real lunch ladies are truly heroes for all they do for kids and has sparked a national Lunch Hero Day coming up on May 1st. He's also conducted some great interviews himself with other authors, such as Bob Shea, on "The Book Report." His blog is a great one to follow, too. He's super funny and a great read.

So if you or your child or students are looking for a good laugh with some super cute and funny illustrations, I highly recommend getting hooked on Jarrett Krosoczka's books. And maybe someday you'll have a chance to dress up as the lunch lady - or another one of Jarrett's awesome characters - like me.

January 19, 2015

Remembering the Dream

Today is the celebration of the life and work of a great man, Martin Luther King, Jr. And there are plenty of books out there recognizing his, and others', accomplishments, as well as ones about civil rights. Here are just a few:

Dr. King's dream dealt with eradicating racism and segregation at the time, but we still need to remember his dream today, including in publishing. He dreamed of children of all races and colors being able to go to school and play and eat together. On a related level, we can apply this dream to publishing as well - wouldn't it be nice to see more children of all different colors and races represented in books more often? Yes, there has been an increase and improvement in this area, but the presence of children of color is still not as strong as it should be in children's books that are non-cultural or non-historical in nature. Publishers need to publish books with characters of color in every day situations, not just ones about their cultural history or practices.

For the books that I illustrated last year, both publishers told me they chose me because of the diverse characters that I draw in my illustrations. Many publishers say they're looking for more books with diverse characters, but the number of those books actually published is still not high enough. There is a need and a want out there - so it's also up to us writers and illustrators to start producing good, high quality work with characters of color so we can help make diversity a norm in children's books.

One organization trying to change that is We Need Diverse Books. They are working very hard to bring this topic to the forefront of the conversation in the publishing world as well as in movies and other forms of media.

So the next time you have an idea for writing or illustrating a story, ask yourself if you are making your characters too stereotypical or not diverse enough. After all, we live in a diverse world. Shouldn't our stories finally start to reflect that?

December 24, 2014

The Ghosts of Christmas

Around this time of year, I always love to watch (and re-watch) holiday movies, and of course read (and re-read) holiday books. Even though there are new releases both in print and film each year, my heart is always drawn to the classics, like "Rudolph" and "The Year Without a Santa Clause" (Heat Miser and Snow Miser rule!). And who can pass up watching "A Christmas Story" and "It's a Wonderful Life" - I cry every time!

But surely no holiday season would be complete without reading the classic Charles Dickens tale "A Christmas Carol." In my opinion, this book has one of the best opening lines and paragraphs ever written:

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail. 

More on first lines/pages and hooks in a future post...

While thinking about "A Christmas Carol" and how three ghosts visited old Ebenezer Scrooge, I started thinking of my Christmas past, present and future.

Christmas Past:

At this time last year, I was busy working on the final art for "The Hero in You" written by Ellis Paul and "My Body Belongs to Me" by Jill Starishevsky - my first two published books as an illustrator. As busy as I was, I did take Christmas off to enjoy it with my family, but the next day I was right back to the illustrations.

Two book deals in one year? Not too shabby.

Christmas Present:
This December, I was working on the final illustration for the SCBWI Tomie dePaola Award. In August, I found out that of about 200 entries, I was chosen as a semi-finalist! In September we received the prompt for the final round. I'm not sure I can publicly post the prompt before the winner is chosen, so there will be updates on my illustration and the contest results in a later post.

Riding on cloud 9 at this point!

Christmas Yet to Come:
Hopefully December 2015 will not be as bleak and scary for me as Scrooge's vision of his future Christmas was.

I wonder... by this time next year will I be illustrating another book? Or will a book that I've written be under contract? Will I have another agent who will be helping me improve my skills and be aggressively submitting my work?

Or will the Grim Reaper be pointing me down a dark, lonely path leading to the death of my career?

Only time will tell. 

One thing we can learn from Dickens, and Scrooge, though, is that it's never too late to make a change. You can proactively do things now to ensure your future is bright - write and draw every day, study published books, regularly participate in critique groups, build your portfolio, send out promotional postcards, submit your stories. The contracts and work won't come to you - you have to work hard to earn them.

So here's to a happy holiday season and a productive year for all of us who aspire to be published in the future - whether for the first time or the next time! 

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!