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.
I’m certain my editor at Dial, Lauri Hornick, recalls the day when, several months after signing contracts on One Cool Friend, I called to say that I had misread the manuscript and discovered it was impossible to illustrate. The pause on the other end of the line represented, I presume, a lot of eye-rolling before Lauri managed to politely ask, “And why is that?”
I explained. I had signed based on a quick read. The bizarre situation and odd characters, the language and the perfect comic timing of Toni Buzzeo’s text had drawn me in. I loved the idea of a kid popping a penguin into his backpack and stealing it from the aquarium. (Was this the first picture book where crime actually paid off? If so, I wanted to be part of it!) I also liked the idea of a single-parent family where the other parent—in this case the Mother—is never even alluded to. That seemed so moderne.
I had not overlooked the book’s crowning joke, that Dad keeps a giant sea tortoise in the house. (It might be supposed, Dad himself had stole the tortoise from the aquarium when he was a boy, making this the tale of two related, nerdy, animal-loving thieves or—one might spin it—two heroic animal liberators.)
What I had overlooked was the problem this tortoise posed for the illustrator: how to hide in plain sight a giant reptile and extend this game over the course of 32 pages? More importantly, how do you do this so that, on the final page, when the tortoise is revealed, it won’t seem like a dope-slap to the reader? (The reader should never be made to feel stupid.)
Lauri, in our conversation, seemed confident this could be solved in the pictures. “A can of turtle flakes on the kitchen sink?” she suggested. That idea I quickly batted down with the energy of the determined self-defeatist. “We’re not talking here of a cute little painted turtle in a bowl. We’re talking a huge Galapagos-style tortoise. Those babies don’t eat turtle flakes, they eat six or seven heads of cabbage at one meal.” I took a breath. I went on, “ I saw this at the zoo once, at feeding time, and I remember it so well because I was on LSD. (It was the 60’s.) I’ll never forget how, bit by bit, that ancient head came out of its shell, opening its maw like a steam-shovel in slow motion … the power of those ragged jaws as they locked onto a cabbage head …”
“Great!” said Lauri. “I can tell that at least you’ll be able to draw a perfect turtle!”
If Lauri had any more suggestions they were totally eclipsed that day by the panic I felt. (Panic, plus the conviction that any project is impossible, being part of my process.)
It’s an odd fact, but true, that when contracts have been signed you suddenly find in yourself a new energy. For someone like me, who is basically very lazy, having a flame-thrower aimed at your ass is a good thing. I stopped focusing on failure, stopped whining to my editor, to my good wife, to the UPS delivery man and to whomever was left who would still listen to me, and got busy.
Lauri’s suggestion of turtle flakes was a good one, just undersized. I began throwing in visual hints of turtles everywhere I could. I even gave Dad a box of Turtles candy to nibble on, (an entirely appropriate product placement, sadly without reward from the Turtles Company, those ingrates.) I made the turtle connections so obvious that, when all is revealed in the end, readers feel not that they were unintelligent, not that they had had their pockets picked, but –as with a good magic trick—that they have simply overlooked the obvious.
Sharpening your readers’ perceptions, showing them what’s been there before their eyes all along –that’s a fun read. To get a kid to re-read a picture book, going back to find those things they missed, couldn’t be better.
And what I find so wonderful about the collaboration between artist and a good editor is, when things seem impossible, she offers a way out, the book turns out wonderfully, and I get total credit.
Thank you, Lauri!
A few years ago, I gave a talk at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California. The presentation was part of the museum's family program to get kids involved in art. I talked about the process of making a picture book and the works of art that have inspired me. At the end, I showed an excerpt from my book Bunny Days. I read the first story in the book about a group of bunnies who get muddied and are helped by a bear to get clean via washing machine. The children seemed to enjoy the story.
There was one woman though who was puzzled. She intended to attend a different lecture, but wound up in my audience. She said "I don't understand. Are you trying to teach kids how to spell? What is the lesson here?" I wasn't quite prepared with an answer. "Well," I said, "there isn't a lesson here. I would say this story is for entertainment, for fun, for joy." The frown still stuck to her face. "For joy? Where's the joy?" I didn't have an answer for her. If someone can't find the joy, you can't find it for them, can you? Perhaps it is a question that a person can only answer for themselves.
The lady's question has stuck with me. I think it's a fantastic question. Where's the joy? When I start writing a story, the possibilities seem endless to the point of intimidation. A story can go in so many ways. My head starts spinning with questions like "What do kids like? What do they want to hear?" And then I remember "Where's the joy?" and it pulls me back on track. I'm back on the path to finding the story that is in my heart; the part of my heart that gives me joy. Only then does my story feel genuine and I feel good about what I am creating. Hopefully, the joy I make for myself can resonate with others, but I can't make any promises. What I can do though, is pass on the lesson that I learned. Occasionally stop yourself and ask "Where's the joy?" I hope you find it.
* * *
The oldest woke every morning to the sun slanting through pines at the far edge of the field across the road. She stood outside in the darkness before bed and looked up at the stars glittering thickly in the heavens, diamonds on black velvet. When she lay her head on her pillow her ears were drawn inward to the depth of the surrounding silence, and the shushing of her own heart was all she heard.
There was a giant maple tree at the end of the driveway. Every summer afternoon the three sisters gathered there at three o’clock, and their mother read aloud to them.
There was a dirt road that meandered down the hill and through the woods and over a wooden bridge that spanned the brook to a far meadow.
Down the dirt road there was a swamp that – if they jumped from hillock to hillock – they could cross without getting their feet wet. In the midst of the pine trees that grew on the other side was a clearing made holy by its thick carpet of pine needles, by the sunlight sifting through outstretched branches. The sisters called it their pine tree house.
There was a green insulated knapsack that their mother packed bologna sandwiches in, to take down the dirt road, across the swamp, to the pine tree house, for picnics.
There were blackberry canes down the dirt road, bending over the brook. There were green paperboard berry boxes that they carried down the dirt road to the blackberry canes. Burst of sweet juice on tongue. Fingertips pricked by thorns. A curving scratch on a knee, beaded with blood.
There was a broken-down barn filled with hay. A rope swing tied to a rafter. Three little girls heaving hay bales into stacks, pushing out tunnels in those stacks, making a hidden fort. There was a flashlight and a book being read in the silence and darkness of the hay fort. A girl listened to her sisters running on the hay above her and shrieking as they swung out on the thick rope swing.
There was a tree house built by the oldest that neither of the younger two could manage to climb into. The girl took her jackknife and carved her initials into a slender branch: A. R. M.
The dirt road? Still there. The pine tree house, still there, and the broken-down barn, and the holy pines. The giant maple, gone. The scratch on the knee faded to a whispery white line. And the three sisters grown to women all, their shadow baby selves still wandering the dirt road of their childhood. The A.R.M. is fat and pillowy now, cradled in the embrace of the branch that healed around it. And the girl who carved it is sitting right now in a bagel shop thinking of Neil Young, who wrote, “All my changes were there.”
* * *
A Place that Wants Only to Take You
away from everything you know
into everything that was known.
You and your sisters, clutching berry boxes.
Brambles next to the pond, canes yearning over the creek.
Blackberries, thick tapered bodies
like bumble bees, darker than blue.
Work your way down the creek without knowing.
Drift away from this sister and that one.
Find your way into the heart of the patch.
This is where you are – a still summer day.
Your hair red-brown silk,
Sweet tang of berries
on your tongue.
Drone of insects.
Beat of sun.
* * *
This Is How It Was
You sat on the couch
and I climbed in your lap.
You shook out the paper and
then folded it in half, and
again into quarters, and
then smoothed it straight.
I leaned back against your
giant chest and waited.
You pointed to each panel
and read the black and white
marks above the bright picture.
When you finished one quarter,
you turned the paper over and
read the next, refolding,
smoothing, and turning.
It was Sunday.
We called them the funnies.
Your voice was a bass rumble
reverberating in my ears and chest.
Sometimes, these days,
this is the kind of memory that comes
floating up from the other, louder ones.
Your finger pointing at the words
rising above bright pictures,
leading me from page to page.
* * *
Longing for the Dance (a villanelle)
What were you faithful to, back then, alone
long nights when those in other rooms slept on?
You’d look out at the stars, those nights you spun
a world of other places, all undone
from your small self, so still in the small bed
that you were faithful to, back then, alone
in dark that held the sky, the moon. First one
breath in, then two, then three. Always awake
you’d look out at the stars, those nights you spun
out lives where you were grown, were not the one
without the skin to make the hurt, hurt less.
What were you faithful to, back then, the lone
girl that you were, with dreams you told to none
for fear they’d not come true, would disappear?
You’d look out at the stars, those nights you spun.
Long gone now, then. Long years have taught that none
of those who dream are lost, can be undone.
What were you faithful to, back then, alone?
Look now. Look at the dreams, the stars you spun.
A Mother's Day poem by K.A. Nuzum
On Mother’s Day, a Thank You, Mater
Oh, Mater, thank you!
Thank you for being ever
a gently rocking cradle for my creativity
and never a slamming door.
for typing all my manuscripts when I first began to write books in third grade,
transforming my slanting-cross-the-paper,
nothing said or done could tell me more clearly that
my stories were important.
for introducing me early on to authors like A.A. Milne,
whose opuses helped teach me
the storyteller’s voice.
for not pointing out to me how heavily
I borrowed from that literary giant
in my seven-page book, Norman’s Escapades --
the story of a clinically depressed donkey.
how effective a teacher
imitation can sometimes be.
Thank you, Mater,
for reading me a bedtime story each and every night
and always letting me choose the book.
Thank you especially for letting me so often select
the Disney picture book of Sleeping Beauty
thereby ensuring that my writing would expand and evolve
to draw not just from the garden of childish dreams,
bright with innocence and roses,
but from Grim(m) Disney’s dark and fearsome well of
Myriad nightmares that woke me in the wee hours (ages 5-8),
that left my
my stomach churning
from futile efforts to escape Maleficent,
flourish still in the fertile,
shadowed corners of my unconscious mind.
Thank you, Mater,
for showing me how to make a happy ending
I plotted and executed high crime.
You always kept a can of tuna on hand to feed
the occasional kitty I kidnapped on my way home from school.
or black-with-white-socks feline,
that I lugged home in my arms,
always dined like a king, not a kidnap victim, in our home.
And thank you,
for driving the cat,
at the end of the day and the bottom of the tuna can,
the cat, round-bellied and reeking of fish
back to the scene of my crime,
where I would carry him from the car,
set him gently on his own front stoop
and bid him farewell.
The kitties’ families never the wiser were, but I was.
for forcing me to go to church and Sunday school
week of my life
for my first sixteen years,
thus providing me not only
a spiritual path,
but broad knowledge
of Western culture’s base,
bedrock for my stories.
And, Mater, thank you
for indulging my attraction for
by allowing me
(and my equally diminutive chums)
to ride to school
in the trunk of our hulk of a Pontiac.
It took only the first time of our popping out of its rear end instead of the back seat,
for whispers to start and
rumors to spread,
and from that day forward,
there was always a waiting,
cheering crowd curbside
when you pulled up before the front doors of Martin Park Elementary.
On Mother’s Day,
for these and a thousand other acts
of love and recognition, Mater,
for opportunities deep and wide
in which to learn and grow my craft,
many thanks and much love.
William Steig, writer, illustrator, and artist, winner of the Caldecott Medal, a Caldecott Honor, another Caldecott Honor and a Newbery Honor in the same year, a Christopher Medal and so much more . . . And the writer of the book Shrek! that led to the Dreamworks movies. Although he sold his first cartoon to The New Yorker at age 23, William Steig didn’t turn to children’s books until he was 62 years old. He made up for it though, and wrote 39 of them, completing the last one at age 94. When he lay down his pen that final year, he quietly and gracefully went on.
Shrek! was not his most popular title, but it was the book that put his name on the big screen at age 93. After seeing Shrek! for the first time, he said, “It’s vulgar and disgusting and I love it.
And there you have it.
The best thing about Bill Steig was that there was no “bull”, and the worst thing about Bill Steig was that there was no “bull”. Nothing got past him; his sensors were keen. If something was amiss, he didn’t pause for pleasantries. He’d look you in the eye with his own piercing blues and say, “What’s wrong?” He wore converse sneakers, blue jeans, and work shirts. A tie only if necessary. He was the same in his children’s books. The pictures look you straight on, face out, right there. They are drawn same size, no shrinking or enlarging required.
Illustrating was Bill’s work--and he loved to say that he hated illustrating. He said, time and time again, that he hated drawing the same characters one page after another, painting the outfits the same way one page after another. Painting the windows, the curtains, the floors the same way one page after another. Bill wrote to me on September 8, 1995: “Hol, I sincerely hate the chore of illustrating. I illustrate Jeanne’s work because we sleep in the same bed and I’d be uncomfortable if I didn’t illustrate her work. Besides that, I like her work, it requires no repetitions, and I’d kill myself for her if necessary.”
This was his system: He would dummy up an entire picture book, and once it worked, he would create his line drawings. Then he set up his painting factory. The book laid out in consecutive page order in his studio. He painted all the reds, the blues, the greens. And if you look very closely, you’ll notice that some of the colors and the patterns fade toward the end of his books, the crazy Steigian patterns on the floors and the couches and the wallpapers. He was running low on paint!!
But what Bill loved, as much as anything, was doodling faces. Doodling gave him great joy. As his wife so poignantly put it, “You see, as a young man Bill had lost considerable hearing to a bout of meningitis, and didn’t always catch what was being said. The visual was what he was after, anyway. He loved television, and particularly relished a Spanish talk show, though he did not speak a word of Spanish. The excitement on the faces of the speakers, their intensity, captivated him. He drew hundreds of pages of faces; some were abstract, some resembled portraits, though they never were. Except for a few of his many thousands of faces being published in The New Yorker, Bill’s faces were for himself. Doodling was not about publishing.
Bill would have turned 100 on November 14 (2007). He knew that Moby Dick was his favorite book because he had read it more times than any other book. He knew that Picasso was his favorite artist because the work excited him more than anybody else's. His favorite animal was a donkey because he loved the way they looked. He relished a good football game. And as he wrote in his picture book autobiography, When Everybody Wore a Hat, "In 1916, when everybody wore a hat, I was eight years old. When I grew up, I wanted to be an artist or a seaman. I did become an artist, but not a seaman."
And there you have it again. No "bull"
After two years of study at the SVA MFA Illustration program, I wrote and illustrated a story called The Book as my final project.
After the thesis exhibition, Dial Books for Young Readers decided to publish that book. Later the title was changed to The Little Red Fish and we kept most parts, but changed the ending of the story. Originally my story was about a boy's adventure in a library to find his little red fish. In the end, he gets stuck in a book page and his fish reads the book.
Nancy Mercado, my editor at Dial Books for Young Readers back then, was concerned that the ending of my story could be pretty scary for children. Kids will reflect themselves as the main character as they read and if they find out that the boy will never be able to come back out from the book page, they will close the book frightened.
I started to think about what I really wanted to tell through the story. I focused more on what I wanted to draw than who will read my book. I didn't try to change my story to be just friendly to children, but I wanted to refine the story to deliver a clear message with a more satisfying ending.
We decided to work on the ending and it took almost another half a year. Revising only the ending part of the story was harder than writing the whole story over again.
After several months, I finally found a solution that I was very happy with. And the very last image became my favorite illustration through the whole book.
I learned how a thoughtful editor and art director could inspire as we work together. I am very thankful for all of their feedback.
Since The Little Red Fish has been published, I have illustrated three picture books. And this year my second book as an author, You Are a Lion, is going to be published by Nancy Paulson Books.
Every book that I have worked on challenged me for many different reasons. But one thing that I keep in my mind while working is to make a picture book that children want to read many more times. How wonderful it will be if my picture book will be kept on someone's bookshelf through their childhood and hopefully for their own children.