July 27, 2015

You Can't Get Bored with Board Books

Between working many many hours for the Miami Book Fair International this summer and getting ready to go back to teaching in less than a month, I haven't been very discipline about writing new blog posts. But this is one that I've been meaning to write about for a while.

In June, I attended the New Jersey SCBWI conference for the second year in a row. Once again, it was a fabulous opportunity to mingle with fellow writers and illustrators, network with editors and art directors, and get inspired to work on my stories and illustrations.

At the conference, I was fortunate to take the illustrator intensive with Patti Ann Harris, Executive Art Director at Scholastic. She works with novelty books, picture books, and board books for the preschool market. The main focus of the intensive circled around board books, so our homework for the workshop was to illustrate a spread from one of the given board book texts (which came from actual published board books).

I chose the text given from Richard Scarry's "I Am a Bunny" and illustrated the following spreads (we only had to do one - I felt ambitious and motivated to do more).

(For more insight into my batik technique, see my last blog post here.)

Besides seeing some fabulous work from all the other illustrators and how they interpreted the texts, we learned a lot about board books by looking at examples that Patti Ann has worked on or that Scholastic has published. 

Board books are geared toward the very young, mostly for ages 0-3. They are usually printed on heavy board or sometimes fabric so that they can withstand young children tossing them around or even eating them! This is the age when children are being exposed to the concept of print and reading, as well as basic concepts such as counting, colors, numbers, animals, among other topics. They learn the proper directionality of reading, how to relate the pictures to the text, inflection and fluency by hearing others read to them, and so on. Children at this age can not only develop an interest in reading but they can learn more about the world around them as well as how to use their imagination. 

Every day from the time our son came home from the hospital, I read some book out loud to him. Then one day, around 15 months old, he pointed across the room and said "Brown bear, brown bear." He was pointing to"Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?" After learning to navigate that book, he would say some of the words on the pages of his "Hop on Pop" board book, then came "I Can Teach My Dog a 100 Words", and "Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus", among other concept board books teaching letters, numbers, colors, etc. His interest and skills just kept building year after year and now at seven years old he reads well beyond his age level.

Richard Scarry and Bill Martin, Jr. are two fabulous authors who have written some classic board books, like those mentioned above. Some board books are written as stand-alones while others are created from picture books that have already been printed. Here are some examples of books that I saw at the library:

One of my favorite board book author/illustrators is Leslie Patricelli. She is super talented and knows what topics work best with this age group. Her ability to use short, simple text and simple, colorful illustrations is like no one out there today, in my opinion. Here are a few of her books:

Board books are such an important part of publishing. I believe the younger children read, the less literacy problems they'll face in the future - and the sooner they can develop a life-long love for reading. I'm hoping my new illustration style and some new story ideas can break into the board book world someday. I would love my books to be responsible for some child out in the world learning how to read - and learning to love to read!

June 24, 2015

Playing With Crayons

For the last four weeks, I have been busy preparing my stories and portfolio for the New Jersey SCBWI conference.  Part of that preparation included experimenting with one of my favorite art mediums, batiks, for my illustrations. 

Batik is the art of wax resist and dye on fabric or paper. Batiks can be traced back to the Middle East, Africa, Indonesia, Malaysia, China, Thailand, Philippines, and India. They are usually created on cloth by applying wax to the material and then dyeing it. Cracks in the wax often occur as the batik is folded or pushed into dying tubs. The “crackling” effect occurs when the dye seeps into any cracked parts of the wax.

The first batik I ever created was of a dolphin jumping out of the water. I was in fifth grade and painted melted crayons on fabric, then ironed out the wax. I wish I had taken a picture of it. 

In college I learned the tub dye method to create these three batiks.  

First I drew my picture on white muslin. Then I melted a mix of paraffin and beeswax and painted it on the areas to keep white. The wax has to be hot enough to go on clear so as to not allow any dye to get onto those areas. Next the fabric is placed into a dye bath of the lightest color. Wherever the wax was applied, that area would stay white. After the fabric is hung to dry, wax is applied to the areas that will stay the light color. The process is repeated until the last color (the darkest) is applied.

I've since created other batiks the same way, such as these.

However, when using the tub dye method, all the colors need to stay in the same analogous or monochromatic color family in order to prevent colors from mixing incorrectly. The palettes then become limited. So I started using Photoshop to colorize them. 

With some convincing and encouragement from friends, I started to examine the idea of using this technique for illustrations. Using melted crayons seemed to give me the best option with regard to using lots of different colors while keeping the crackling the same color. 

First I draw out a sketch and then transfer it onto white muslin with a pencil and light box.
Then I melt some crayons and use brushes to paint the melted crayon wax onto the fabric. 

After the whole picture has been painted, I prepare a dye bath, then crumple the fabric and place it in the dye bath for about 20-30 minutes.

Then I hang it to dry. Once it's dry, I iron out the wax between sheets of newsprint.
The crayon color did run and bleed quite a bit so I had to touch it up in Photoshop. Plus some of the colors came out darker than I wanted. So I made it look like this.
Here it is with my original sketch and text placed on top in Photoshop. (Please note: text and idea comes from "The Story of Ferdinand" by Munro Leaf)

Next time the crayon wax has to be thinner and hotter - I'll be using aluminum cups to melt the wax instead of glass jars in water inside a hot skillet in the future.

Here are some other recent crayon batiks done the same way.

Come back next month when I hope to have more of these illustrations to show!!!

May 12, 2015

Magic Tree House Books - Truly Magical!

As a kid, I didn't have a tree house but I always thought it would be cool to play in one. There's even a show out now called "Tree House Masters" on Animal Planet  - what a way to make a living!

But imagine one day walking through the woods and discovering a tree house high up in a tree. You climb up the rope ladder to find the tree house filled with books of all kinds. When you point to a picture and wish to go there, the wind starts to blow...
The tree house stars to spin.
It spins faster and faster.
Then everything is still.
Absolutely still.
And you are transported to another time and place.

Well thanks to  Mary Pope Osborne, you can journey in that magical tree house, too.

I've always enjoyed reading "Magic Tree House" books with my students and stepsons over the years. I introduced the books to my son Alonzo last year when he was in Kindergarten and we read up through book 19 (and have since skipped around to other books in the series). I'm starting to reread many of the MTH books now to get inspired as I write my own chapter book series - no details to share yet.

The MTH series began in 1992 and is still going strong. There are currently 51 "Magic Tree House" books in the series. In addition, there are 28 Fact Trackers which are nonfiction companions to the fiction titles. You can read "Magic Tree House" books in print form, as ebooks, and as audio books narrated by Mary Pope Osborne herself.  There are also the "Merlin Missions", which is a series of MTH books with longer text and higher reading level geared toward older readers.

 "Magic Tree House" is THE number one chapter book series out there, in my opinion, 
for many reasons:

First, the characters - Jack and Annie - are very age appropriate for the target readers. The series is perfect for children who are on the tail end of reading picture books but not quite ready for middle grade novels. My son was six years old when he started. Although Amazon has them listed for ages 8-12 (grades 3-7) I feel kids as young as 6 or 7 could start reading these books, if not alone then with an adult.

Second, the sentence structure is simple yet complex enough to be challenging. The text and dialogue flow from page to page and make each book an engaging fast read. Most of the books in the series have 10-12 short chapters and are around 100 pages. And each chapter ends with some type of cliff hanger or interesting sentence to make you want to turn the page.

Also, while every book tells its own story,  each book connects to the others in some way. For example, every 3-4 books will connect to a larger story, such as Jack and Annie having to find multiple items or clues to break a spell. There are prologues in each book explaining what happened in previous books to remind the readers where they left off. And Jack and Annie will often reference previous stories to further remind readers about their adventures and how the current story relates or connects. (i.e. They're riding on a helicopter over an earthquake stricken town in China and say "Remember when we rode on the helicopter to Antarctica?"). This is so important when writing a series.

Third, the illustrations are placed throughout the books to help readers visualize the text. They also help to break up the text to ease that transition from picture books to novels.

And last but not least, each book deals with some type of historical event or topic that takes readers to another time and place. It's done in such a creative way to not only delight readers but teach them something about history, culture, and geography, among other topics.

Oh, and did I mention there is a magic librarian named Morgan le Fey who asks Jack and Annie to help her break magic spells, solve mysteries and riddles, and save ancient stories from being lost forever?

How cool is that??

I'm glad that my son is only seven years old now and still has plenty of Magic Tree House books left to read with me - and to me. Then again, I'm 43 and am still reading the books. I don't think Magic Tree House books will ever get old - or will ever lose their magic!

April 28, 2015

How Do Dinosaurs Say We Love Jane Yolen?

Zo's official logo
My seven-year-old son Alonzo is so into dinosaurs. He started getting the dino itch about a year ago and hasn't stopped loving them since! He even has his own website called www.alonzosdinos.com where he shows off his 112 dino drawings and gives some facts for people to learn about the different prehistoric species.

When I was a kid, I was into dinosaurs, too. But I remember learning about only 5-6 species of dinos. Today there are over 500 different named dinosaurs - and my son probably knows most of them!

So for this blog post, in honor of National Poetry month AND my junior paleontologist son Alonzo, I'm going to focus on Jane Yolen and her dinosaur picture books.

Ah! A T-Rex!
When Alonzo discovered Jane Yolen's dinosaur picture books, he was immediately hooked. And so was I. What's fabulous about Jane Yolen's books is that they are simple, eye-catching, and involve topics that are relevant to children. Not to mention she has a fabulous illustrator in Mark Teague who's been able to teach children about different dinosaurs while showing what dinosaurs would be like if they acted like children. And if you're an illustrator, you'll want to study Mark Teague's illustrations - he is one of THE best children's book illustrators out there. You can learn so much about composition, movement, expression, color, etc. from his work.

Each of the books begins with a question in the title and the first few spreads also ask the reader questions - what would a dinosaur do in a given situation? Would they spit out half-chewed broccoli when they ate their food? Would they stick beans up their nose? Would they be a playground bully if they went to school? Would they stomp and throw a tantrum to hear one more book before bedtime? Then about 2/3 of the way in, Yolen flips the script, and says no, dinosaurs are good, just like you little readers. She then, in her simple rhyming format, tells the readers what good dinosaurs would do in those situations - eat all their food, kiss their mom and dad goodnight, treat others nicely at school.
Here are some of the great titles in the dinosaur book series:

So for all your little dinosaur lovers out there, like my son Alonzo, I highly recommend you introduce them to Jane Yolen's books. They'll not only read some wonderful books in verse, but they can learn to act like good little dinosaurs do.

April 19, 2015

Celebrating Poetry Month with Shel Silverstein

The Academy of American Poets started National Poetry Month in 1996. It's held every April and is celebrated with schools, publishers, libraries, booksellers, and poets all over the world. I was not an avid reader as a child, but one thing I did love to read and write was poetry. And still do to this day.

One of my favorite children's book writers of poetry is Shel Silverstein. I remember reading so many of his books when I was a kid. Probably my favorite collection of his work is "Where the Sidewalk Ends", published in 1974. It opens with this great poem:
If you are a dreamer, come in,
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer . . .
If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
Come in!
Come in!
For someone who didn't really like to read as a child, Silverstein's words felt welcoming, comforting as if he was saying, "It's okay. You can trust me. You'll like my poems. You'll want to read more. I won't let you down."

Who can forget these incredible works of word and art, too.

In every book, I really felt like Silverstein was inviting me into his world of imagination. I felt like every time I opened one of his books I would find something new to read or see. His poems were every kind  - silly, fun, weird, strange, touching and most of all inspiring. His illustrations were so simple and funny. They added a great deal to each poem. I'm usually drawn to colors in paintings, books, and just about everything. But there's something about Silverstein's books being in just black and white that are eye-catching, special and unique. 
Out of all Silverstein's books, though, by far the one that caught my heart the most is "The Giving Tree." I tear up each time I read it. It's a masterpiece that you need to pick up every so often to be reminded how important it is to give to others and to evaluate your capacity to love.

So this April, I encourage you to take a look at Shel Silverstein's work. Browse his website where there are lots of resources for teachers and parents to share his poetry, specifically for National Poetry month and beyond. As for me, I'll be going to the library and checking out all of Silverstein's books, starting with a special edition of "Falling Up" that has a few never before released poems - like this one called "The Poet Tree"

Underneath the poet tree
Come and rest awhile with me
And watch the way the word web weaves
Between the shady story leaves.

The branches of the poet tree
Reach from the mountains to the sea.
So come and sit...and dream...and climb--
Just don't get hit by falling rhymes.

Thanks for the invite, Shel. I plan on reading your books with my son, hoping that he'll grow up to love you as much as I do.

March 31, 2015

Shhh! Don't Say a Word

Last time, I wrote a post about picture books with very low word counts. I mean, really low.

But how low is low?

How about ZERO!

That's right, the infamous wordless book.

There are some author/illustrators who are fantastic at making beautiful picture books with no words, or barely any words. They let their images do the talking. They put clues in the images to help tell the story and allow readers to interpret the images, and thus the story, in their own way.

Do you have to be an illustrator to write a wordless book? Of course it helps, but no. It's not a requirement. But you do have to think of what story the images can tell without using text and convey that idea in clear but concise illustration notes. 

My favorite illustrator to write wordless books has to be David Weisner.

Probably Weisner's most famous books is "Tuesday." It's a Caldecott Medal book about strange events that happen on a Tuesday. It all begins when frogs flying on lily pads invade a small town. They soar through a woman’s living room, encounter a dog playing in the yard, and grab the attention of a man in his bathrobe enjoying a midnight snack. The attention to detail, the perspectives, the progression of images in panels on some of the spreads, and the color to give that sense of nighttime is just ingenious.

Another one of Weisner's masterpieces is "Floatsam", again a Caldecott book. In this story, a boy who loves science goes to the beach to collect and examine flotsam (which is anything floating that has been washed ashore). He finds various objects, like bottles and lost toys. But when he finds a barnacle-encrusted underwater camera, we see him discover something more - a story in the pictures from the camera. The book goes full circle at the end when the boy throws the camera back into the ocean, and Weisner draws another child reaching for it as it washes up on shore.

Here are some more fabulous books by the great David Weisner:

There are many other wordless / near wordless books, both past and present, on the market including these gems:

And here's a list of more wordless/low count books at Goodreads.

Have you noticed how many of these books have won awards? Now that's saying something!