Following Grandfather
It was very quiet in the studio when I finished the call. I had just agreed to illustrate Following Grandfather, a short novel by Rosemary Wells. The Rosemary Wells, whose work as an illustrator, and a writer, I hold in the highest regard. She had asked the publisher for me. Naturally, I said.....yes. But after the excitement, the reading, and the meeting, came the quiet--and with it, the self doubt.

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.


Posted by elena at 02:12 PM Link to this post

I think I can, I think I can.

My stomach flutters with nervous energy. 50,000 words in 30 days?

November 2012
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?

Beckie's house

  • 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 doesn’t it?
  • 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.”

Posted by elena at 11:11 AM Link to this post

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.

 Tiger 1

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.

 Tiger 2

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.

 Tiger 3

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.

 Tiger 4

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.

Tiger cover 

Posted by elena at 04:10 PM Link to this post

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.

ice skating 

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.


magellan research

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!

Posted by elena at 09:09 AM Link to this post

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.

All Night

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. 


Posted by elena at 12:08 PM Link to this post

Making up people in my head and spinning them out through my fingertips onto the keyboard is easy, but I can't make up place. In each of my novels, the settings have been places where I've lived for decades, where the landscape is rooted in my heart, drawn up into my body through the soles of my feet. It took me more than twenty years to set a book anywhere outside the southwestern Adirondack Mountains, where I grew up. That is still the place I call home, still the place where, when I step off the plane at the Syracuse airport, I can relax. I'm home now. Home.     

* * *     

          Once there was a childhood full of space. Long stretches of stillness. A deep sense not of loneliness but alone-ness. This was in far upstate New York, in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. There were three little girls, sisters who dressed up for Easter, and for the first day of school, and never else.

          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,
drifting waistward.
Sweet tang of berries
on your tongue.
Drone of insects.
Beat of sun.
Faraway days.

* * *

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.


Posted by elena at 10:07 AM Link to this post

A Legacy of Laughter

My father believed in the teachings of Marx. Not Karl, Groucho. And his brothers.  I became a follower too and spent endless nerdy hours with a childhood friend, a fellow comrade repeating dialogue from their movies.

When I had a daughter, naturally I wanted her to be a follower too. Would a girl like that kind of humor? What age is the right age to introduce her to them? These were not casual questions. If she didn't like The Marx Brothers, in my mind it was the equivalent to a child not wanting to take over the family business. Is this crazy pressure? Maybe, but who else will be here to laugh and make others laugh when I'm gone.

One day Karina and I found a deluxe collection of Marx Brothers movies in the local library.  She was eight. It was time to find out. Did she have the gene? The right stuff?  I would still love her if she didn't.

We settled in on the couch with some treats as backup in case things went bad. A black and white opening scene with people dressed in an old fashioned manner mingled at a party. Not a great start. A large overstuffed woman breaks into a stiff operatic song. I think I've lost her. But wait, Groucho suddenly appears with some very clever banter Karina doesn't quite get but at least he looks and walks funny. Next, Chico comes on the scene. He's ridiculous and acts like a third grader talking nonsense. I see a sparkle in her eyes and then the magic happens. White curly haired Harpo shows up. He doesn't talk, not a word.  He should be powerless, but he seems to get the best of everyone. I see a smile, I hear a chuckle.  Then there is a laugh out loud belly laugh that thrills me. I have tears in my eyes wishing my father was still around to see what I see. No DNA test needed, she is really mine.

But wait, here's the icing on the cake. After charming, tricking, humiliating and abusing everyone around him Harpo calmly sits down at a harp and soothes the audience with a beautiful melody. Its like Mike Tyson bringing someone down with his best shot and then finishing the job by singing them to sleep with a lullaby. 

Now several times a week Karina asks me to repeat the "Why A Duck?" scene. Groucho says, "Here is a little peninsula, and here is a viaduct leading over to the mainland." Chico: "Why a duck? Why not a chicken?" Imitating Harpo puffing up his cheeks and sticking out his tongue is enough to crack us up. I'm thinking the family business will continue. It’s not always profitable but it feels rich. 

It’s not easy coming up with new ideas for children's books.  It feels like everything has already been done. One recent thought I had is a book about three brothers (or maybe three sisters).  One could be a wise guy, another a bit of a dunce, the third doesn't even talk but they all like to make a mess of things and they all make you laugh.  Even if you’re an eight year old girl.





Posted by elena at 02:06 PM Link to this post
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