Here is another photo from the same party:
Who hasn't experienced having the thrill of the imagined birthday party trampled by the disappointment of the actual birthday party? The games get wrecked. The party room is ransacked. The cake is rejected. The friends are bossy, overbearing, sugar-crazed, needy. Someone throws up. Someone needs stitches. The cat's tail is pulled. The new doll is ripped.
Okay, I exaggerate. But you know what I mean.
Sometimes, however, the whole experience is redeemed by something small and wonderful--a moment of discovery, a new friendship, the sharing of a treat. And that is why we keep having birthday parties, year after year.
I wish I knew who Mystery Girl was--I bet she could have become a really great friend, but something tells me she moved out of town before that could happen. I am not sure what games we played, what gifts I received, or what cake I had, although I do know my favorite then was Angel Food Cake with Lemon Glaze. (And I know I loved my outfit.) I don't even know how I felt about everything by the end of the party. Maybe that's why I wrote TWO SPECKLED EGGS--so that I could find out how I might have resolved my own ambivalence about birthday parties, and gotten past that tiny lonely birthday party feeling.
*TWO SPECKLED EGGS will be published by Candlewick Press, Spring 2014.
Much of my journey has been thinking, drawing and writing about the journey - about how to navigate our true potential despite the challenges. Perhaps a seed was planted when I was a boy of twelve.
I rode my bicycle to the nearby farm who allowed a camp for special needs children to set up during the summer along the river. They were in need of volunteers, and I soon found myself with a group of six children. It only took a day to realize that I could not expect them all to be doing the same activity, at the same time, in the same way. Each was different, with a different challenge. One tiny girl in my group was deaf. I had been talking to her, and I learned she did not hear me. I had to find a different way. Every child deserves this kind of understanding. They flourish when we take the time to connect in whatever way allows a connection to happen. Whether through art, a hug, a nod, sign language, or just a smile - every child needs a connection to another human being. Those connections can make a world of difference to that child.
I'm Here ends with a quote that fits perfectly: "To the world you may be one person, but to one person, you may be the world."
This sequence was removed from the final version of my book because Stitches is my story, not my mother's. At 15, I understood nothing about the reason for her blackouts. I only knew that she was doing crazy things in the middle of the night and felt that my life was in jeopardy. To have explained her physical problems would have implied a wisdom I gained only in hindsight, and an open-mindedness as well.
I did, in the Afterword, include a page on Mother's medical history, hoping to give the reader a more sympathetic insight into the woman.
The art is shown in color because, at a certain point, I was considering doing the book's dream sequences all in blue. In the end I decided not to use any color at all, making my life's dream and waking sequences fit seamlessly on the page. Many of us tend to see our dreams as being unrelated to our waking lives. I do not. Hence this choice.
Following Grandfather is the story of Jenny and her grandfather. The two are inseparable. Grandfather, now retired from his famous Italian restaurant in the North End, raises Jenny. He teaches her how to button her coat, how to write her name and how to bake lasagna. They spend long days at the seashore collecting and naming shells. Together they explore Grandfather’s Boston, meeting his friends and in the process Jenny learns about her grandfather's past while also being gently guided into understanding how she can make her own way in the world. But when Grandfather is gone one day, his loss is simply too much for Jenny. She imagines seeing him at every turn and desperately chases after ghosts, trying to connect one last time with her beloved Grandfather.
Could I illustrate this? I knew that I could produce a competent set of images that would accompany the text, but could I create artwork that resonated at the same emotional pitch as Rosemary's writing? I did my best to outline the arc of the story, the place, the characters, etc.; all the "stuff" of the the book to be, but still had a difficult time beginning or understanding how to illustrate this manuscript.
So I began sketching and found myself thinking about my own Grandparents and their little house just outside of Bridgeport, in Stratford Connecticut. My grandparents passed away many years ago, but the experiences and images that came to me were vivid and alive.
I remembered one evening getting myself a cup of water at the kitchen sink. The window above me was framed by those little shelves common in 1930's houses, and topped by a short lace apron. The kitchen scissors hung on a small brass hook to the right. It was dark outside and snow had begun to fall while the family was watchingThe Wonderful World of Disney. The light above the sink made a warm, white elongated rectangle. Just at the far edge of the light, a doe stood looking back at me, perfectly still in the falling snow.
I remembered sitting in the wooden kid swing made by my grandfather and painted with the left over dull green house paint, and the summer afternoon light that came though the canopy of the huge maple tree that generously agreed to keep me aloft. I had been drinking a grape soda and the taste mixed with the smell of cut grass and July in Connecticut.
I remembered my Grandfather's little wood shop in the garage. The small shelves between the wall studs filled with jam jars of nails and bolts. The scarred workbench with a massive vice at the end and splatters of paint from the whirligig and birdhouse projects. The October sun warmed the structure just enough to produce the faint smell of machine oil and old pine boards.
I missed them and I remembered that like Jenny, I had never had a chance to say goodbye.
Somehow all of this reminiscing freed me up to work and gave me a starting point. Perhaps all those memories gave that doubting part of my mind something to think about while I made the pictures.
I finished the art, and along the way Rosemary and I became friends. A gift, really. She said that she loved the book and that I did a better job than she herself could have. I'm still not sure about that, but I appreciate the compliment. Nevertheless, as the project became part of my past, my doubts returned, and I wondered if I had done it properly.
This past October, Rosemary and I were invited to participate in a book fair in Connecticut. While fielding questions and signing dozens of books, Rosemary invited me to dinner at her house. When you are invited by Rosemary Wells to illustrate a manuscript or to attend a dinner (she is an excellent chef ) you say…yes. We planned to meet in a few hours. As I sat in the car, I realized that I was probably not far from that little house in Stratford, so I typed the address into the GPS. I was just seven miles away. I drove the last two miles from memory and then, there it was.
A man was outside loading things into a van. In fear of being mistaken for a real estate appraiser I introduced myself. “Frank” and his wife had bought the house from my aunt, and had raised his daughter there. He was gracious. We talked about the house and all the changes he had made. We would have gone inside but Frank had to go. He invited me to stay in the yard as long as I liked. His van drove away and there I was, alone-sort of.
I stood and watched, enjoying the parade of ghosts. Myself and my brothers running wild around the yard. My mother, young, sitting in an aluminum lawn chair, drinking a tab and chatting with my grandmother. My dad napping in a hammock over at the edge of the yard. There was the kitchen window. The lace was gone but I knew the view was from inside. The tree that held my swing was no longer three, but some 8 feet from its place stood a carbon copy. And there was the garage, and the wood shop inside.
I looked in the windows. Compelled to explore, I let myself in though the unlocked door. Garages rarely change much. I placed my hand on the bench. There were a few new splatters of paint but the dull green was still visible. I saw the hand drawn outline of pliers, a hammer, and screwdrivers on the empty pegboard attached to the wall. Small rings remained from the bottoms of the jars on the shelves. There was a smell of pine and even a bit of machine oil in the air. I was, for a moment, eight years old and at the same time, me.
When I left I put a copy of the book in the mailbox and a note thanking Frank.
As I drove south to my dinner feeling both happy and a bit melancholy, I realized that any doubts that I had about the book had vanished. I had completed a suite of images that were strong, but more importantly, they were right for the book. I had asked the question of the manuscript but found the emotional truths of the story within myself. How it can be hard to move on, to change, to let things go. That its OK to be sad and to remember. All of it is who we are and charts a course for our future. I took those truths, applied my craft, and produced something that I believe in, something real. I had done my job.
There is a new manuscript on my desk. It is also wonderful and poignant and I have said ...yes. As I read it again I will remind myself to to ask the question, trust the answers when they come, and to follow the thread. Like Rosemary's hero, Jenny, it will always take me to a place of truth and ultimately one of understanding.
My stomach flutters with nervous energy. 50,000 words in 30 days?
Can I do it?
- I’m taking a cross country trip to visit family in November.
- I’m hosting family at Thanksgiving at our new little cottage in Maine. (Yes, after more than a decade of traveling in Maine, writing about Maine – see Converting Kate, my husband and I own a tiny bit of Maine. We closed our place in July. The plan was for me to stay a few weeks and then rent it out to help pay for it. But I’m still here. Can’t leave. Too in love. My husband, Saint Alan, drives up six hours each way from NYC each weekend.
- I have company coming to visit me in NYC (Yes, I’m finally
leaving the beloved cottage in November. How can I write every single day?
- I’ve practiced my speech: “I’m sorry. Excuse me. I’m on a
writing deadline. I’ll have to hide away in my room for two hours. It’s NANO.”
- Maybe family, guests, and friends, will think I’m writing
some top secret project for NASA or the CIA, because NANO sounds official
- What I’ve realized is that if I don’t do NANO this November
my schedule is so crazy, I wouldn’t get any writing done.
- Because writing is something that’s done on one’s own
schedule, I often put off my writing because “it’s more important to spend time
with family and I can write tomorrow”. Being a writer with a flexible schedule
means I’m available 24/7. Which I love. But also hate. When is my time? NANO
seems to be empowering me to say my writing time is every single day.
- I’m feeling so pumped, that maybe I’ll invent DENO (December
Novel Writing Month) and JANO and FEBO! I’m hoping to get brave enough after
thirty days to finally say to my family and friends, “Excuse me, I need to
write EVERY SINGLE DAY. See you in a few hours.”
I LOVED David LaRochelle’s text from my very first reading of it and knew right away that I had to illustrate this story. And I liked that David had made the book itself a character—the way it addresses the readers and takes them along for a ride (with some unexpected appearances from a tiger along the way). So, without any hesitation, I told my agent to please “sign me up!”
This initial reading was followed by a long period of waiting while I worked on other projects and practiced drawing tigers. Then, when we were ready to start work on It’s a Tiger!, I began my sketches, only to find myself completely thwarted by David’s delightful story! Oh, no! I loved the humor in the text so much but my initial drawings fell completely flat. What was I doing wrong? So I reread the manuscript a whole bunch of times and realized that the humor all revolved around the surprise appearances of the mysterious tiger. Every other spread needed to have a hilarious image of the tiger surprising the reader. But, of course, there are only so many ways to draw a tiger leaping out at you before the joke gets stale. That, and there was the problem that the TIGER pages had ALL the action and the interspersing pages had none at all. My pacing was terrible whereas David’s text was so beautifully paced.
Back to the drawing board! I realized that where I saw the humor was in the REACTION to the tiger’s appearance. And merely relying on the readers’ reaction wasn’t going to be enough—I needed the reader to SEE the reaction to the tiger for themselves. So I asked Melissa and Jennifer (my wonderfully patient editor and art director) about adding a new character to the book, “But don’t worry! It won’t affect the text!” I told them. I think they were a little dubious. And, to be honest, so was I. What would David think about me adding a character that he probably never intended to be in his book? But sometimes I just have to rely on intuition.
The end result is a book that challenged me at almost every turn of the page. David’s writing required me to draw some things that I had never had to draw before—like the ocean, a rocky outcrop, and a cave. The sketches presented some other challenges that I hadn’t foreseen, such as the huge diversity of backdrops. How to draw all of these different backdrops and keep the whole book stylistically coherent? The solution, after trying a few different approaches, was to do away with my love of photo-collage and dive more heavily into digital painting. I created a few new brushes in Photoshop that allowed me to build richly textured color fields that could tie all the differing backdrops together. This technique allowed me to quickly paint-in more complex scenes and slowly build-up the colors for scenes that were more sparse. The boy and the tiger were colored using Corel Painter then imported into Photoshop for finishing.
Creating the narrator was an interesting piece of the puzzle. I wanted a solid character but one who wouldn’t steal the show (it’s the TIGER’s book after all). He, or she, couldn’t have a huge personality, but had to be appealing enough that you’d want to follow him through the book. And, since he isn’t mentioned in the text, I didn’t want to be strong-arming attention away from the story that David had created. I have a huge respect for David’s text (and for his writing in general—he’s a very, very good writer). I needed a character with whom anyone could identify—someone with a simple, iconic face that could also convey all the emotion required to carry the humor when necessary.
Perhaps the biggest challenge was drawing the tiger himself. I hadn’t expected this at all! He had to be mean and scary, but not too mean and scary. He had to be cute and attractive, but not too much so. He had to have some real personality. And, of course, he had to have some good cat-like slinkiness! And I learned that cats are very, very difficult to draw. But I like the tiger. I think he turned out okay. And the drawing of him on the front cover might be one of my favorite drawings that I’ve ever done!
The end result of all this is art that I’m immensely proud of. I had to work hard for it, mind you. Sometimes there’s nothing like a huge challenge to make one put one’s best foot forward—and this book challenged me at almost every turn. I hope you enjoy this book as much as I do.