Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Cats on Wednesday -- Happy New Year of Cats

Happy New Year, World! from Cats on Wednesday (and me).

Next year I plan to interview cats who share their homes with some writers and illustrators!  Hmmm.... I wonder what secrets they'll be able to tell us about their people and their people's work....

Hope we will all have a successful, prosperous, healthy and happy new year!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Booklist Named Signed, Abiah Rose to Two Top Ten Lists for 2010

I wrote recently about the Top of the List selection on Booklist.  Today I'm happy to mention that my book, Signed, Abiah Rose, made two of Booklist's 2010 Top Ten lists.  The list of Top Ten Historical Titles for Youth was announced April 15.  I recently learned that my book has also been named to the Top Ten Art Books for Youth.  The honor of being on the same list with the likes of Karen Cushman, Richard Peck, David Wiesner and Sid Fleischman is amazing.  A wonderful gift for the holidays!

Alchemy and Meggy Swann. By Karen Cushman.

Ashes. By Kathryn Lasky.

Blessing’s Bead. By Debby Dahl Edwardson.

Crossing Stones. By Helen Frost.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. By Jacqueline Kelly.

Is It Night or Day? By Fern Schumer Chapman.

One Crazy Summer. By Rita Williams-Garcia.

A Season of Gifts. By Richard Peck.

Signed, Abiah Rose. By Diane Browning. Illus. by the author.

Take Me with You. By Carolyn Marsden.

Art & Max. By David Wiesner. Illus. by the author.

Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring. By Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan. Illus. by Brian Floca.

Bridget’s Beret. By Tom Lichtenheld. Illus. by the author.

Brontorina. By James Howe. Illus. by Randy Cecil.

The Django. By Levi Pinfold. Illus. by the author.

Mimi’s Dada Catifesto. By Shelley Jackson. Illus. by the author.

Paris in the Spring with Picasso. By Joan Yolleck. Illus. by Marjorie Priceman.

Signed, Abiah Rose. By Diane Browning. Illus. by the author.

Sir Charlie: Chaplin, the Funniest Man in the World. By Sid Fleischman.  illus.

Tupac Shakur: Hip-Hop Idol. By Carrie Golus. illus.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Cats on Wednesday -- Lost and Found

The end of the year is the time in the children’s literature world for the announcements to start coming in of awards and ‘best of the lists’.  On Monday Booklist announced their Top of the Lists Editors Choices.  The selection for Youth Picture Books is a delightful book about a cat, Nini Lost and Found, by one of my favorite illustrators, Anita Lobel.  Nini has appeared before in One Lighthouse, One Moon and Nini Here and There.  Happily she’s back for another adventure, daring to explore the world outside her snug, comfortable home.  I love the watercolor and gouache illustrations of the serious little cat and her inviting world.
Nini’s return home and her loving reception are reassuring and satisfying.  The theme reminds me of a much-loved cat of mine whose main ambition in life seemed to be to go exploring even though she was actually terrified of the world outside.  I had more than one fright when she scooted through an open door looking for adventure.  Fortunately she, too, really preferred her snug and comfortable home, and always came back.  I hope there will be more Nini books and think the editors chose a good book to top their list!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Wonderfully Crazy World of Maira Kalman

In the last few weeks I’ve been fortunate to twice see the excellent Maira Kalman exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center. I attended the pre-opening of the exhibit, which included a very entertaining conversation between Maira herself and Ingrid Schaffner, the curator of the show. I love the artist’s work and was both inspired and entertained by what I saw. I was already familiar with her wonderful children’s books and some of her editorial work, and this exhibit shows a wonderful variety of paintings, embroidered pictures, installations and magazine covers. Her loose, free and deceptively simple images can actually be quite subtle and sophisticated. What I love most is her freedom of expression.

During my second visit, with a group of SCBWI writers and illustrators, several of us spoke with the docent about that very quality. The wonderful loose quality of Maira’s style we surmised might be partly due to her decision not to ‘study’ art. She has stayed (purposefully) ‘naïve’ in her art style, though she can be quite painterly too. This may be what has enabled her to keep her creative freedom. She didn’t study the ‘rules’ one learns in art school.

Early in my art school training I realized that although the departing Art Center graduates were clearly talented and wonderfully trained, there was a similarity in their ‘look’ as well. Art school can do that. It can be worthwhile and at the same time take away something special. My friend Suzy suggested that art school can destroy that wonderful quality that we all have as children (and that we agreed that some of us spend the rest of our lives trying to regain). That is the simplicity, exuberance and spontaneity that Maira Kalman’s work still has. In my art studies I wanted to learn to accurately capture what I saw. Now I want to return to expressing what I feel.

Though Maira has a successful career in children’s literature (12 books), it’s been said adults may be her most appreciative audience. I find her work to be evocative, chaotic, irreverent, original, idiosyncratic, charming, hilarious, quirky, moving, joyful, vital, surprising and always creative. Though her work can sometimes appear ironic, she told us her work is never sarcastic.  Her paintings are like a sketchbook narrative of what she observes of her life and the lives of others she passes on the street. She has said, “My work is a journal of my life.” What a wonderful journal it is.

The exhibit, Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World) is on view now through February 13, 2011 at the Skirball – see it if you can!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Chemers Gallery Children's Book Illustrators Show

Both aspiring and professional illustrators know their most important time is spent doing their work. But of great value is the time spent visiting peers, attending classes, workshops, conferences and galley exhibits.

I love being recharged and inspired by other illustrators’ work. Seeing book dummies, finished books and original artwork is fun and enlightening. Below is a gallery of photos of illustrators speaking at this year’s Chemers Gallery event.

David Diaz demo drawing

David Diaz

S. D. Schindler
Patrick O'Brien

Julie Paschkis
Julie Paschkis

Julie Paschkis cut paper

Gennady Spirin

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Cats on Wednesday -- A Trio of Cat Books

Children’s books about cats are always popular. Many of us cat lovers enjoy them, and their intended audience (children) certainly love them. At the Chemers Gallery illustrators’ event I attended last weekend there were three examples of lovely, but very diverse, cat books illustrated by two of the featured illustrators.

Cat Dreams
One of them was Cat Dreams, by Ursula K. Le Guin – a charming book about a napping cat. The model for illustrator S.D. Schindler was his cat, Furball (a very attractive calico with green eyes). Schindler is also the illustrator of Le Guin’s marvelous Catwings books as well as more than 50 other children’s books.

Fat Cat
Where is Catkin?

Also representing cats in the gallery was another favorite illustrator’s books – Julie Paschkis’ Fat Cat and Where is Catkin?

I hope to get back to the gallery to study the original illustrations more closely before the exhibit ends.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

I Meet My Favorite Illustrator at a Gallery Show

Saturday I attended the annual Chemers Gallery Children's Book Illustrators Show and Signing in Tustin.  The show included demonstrations and a display of books and original art by five exceptional illustrators, working in various styles and mediums.

I was particularly excited about the inclusion this year of one of my most favorite ‘illustrator-idols’, the master illustrator Gennady Spirin, who came with his son Ilya (also an illustrator) as translator. Illustrators always want to know details of artists' processes and mediums, so it was gratifying when Gennady answered questions from the audience. We learned he does his gorgeously detailed, often quite small, paintings without a magnifying glass. He doesn’t even wear glasses, ‘thanks be to God’. He uses all mediums but prefers watercolor, especially for illustrating books. He has every imaginable size of brush and prefers Russian sable, which he says will last him through two books whereas other brushes will only last through two paintings. He likes Windsor and Newton paints, but also uses Russian watercolors (though they have fewer color choices).

Who inspires him? So many artists he couldn’t pick just one, but certainly the Renaissance masters. About his beautiful, graceful calligraphy, he feels it’s part of his art. He has designed most of the title calligraphy for his books. He professed dissatisfaction with all his body of work. He enjoys the process, but he always wants to do better and better and grow as an artist.

Of course original illustrations are always better than the work in print. Gennady Spirin’s originals are breathtaking.

The gallery exhibit and sale continue through December 18.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Sketching in Tea Rooms and Coffee Shops

I’m sure there have been artists sketching in taverns, pubs, tea rooms and coffee houses since there first were such places. One of my favorite spots for sketching is the Gypsy Den in Santa Ana, an arty and charming restaurant/café in a part of town that is very artist-friendly, with lofts, studios and galleries.

The Gypsy Den has long, floaty pale curtains in interesting colors, lots of oil paintings on the walls and occasional live music. It’s too far for me to visit often, but I go there any time I’m in the area. It’s a great place to sketch or to write, and I’ve included a couple of drawings I’ve done there. I’ve been inspired lately to seek out more cozy places to sketch, closer to where I live. Sketching is a great way to train your eye, to experiment and to grow as an artist.

I’ve recently been inspired by an excellent blog (Urban Sketchers) of artists from six continents whose drawings are an ongoing record of their surroundings, done on site. They are sketching their world ‘one drawing at a time’. I’ve always admired artists who sketch regularly. I intend to be one of them.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Cats on Wednesday -- Therapy Abroad

I find cats therapeutic – definitely mood-lifting, which of course enhances their value to harried deadline-plagued illustrators or plot-blocked writers. The longest periods of time I’ve been without a cat have been the extended times I’ve spent in Europe. In London I was staying in a comfortable little B&B in Bloomsbury. Only one other family (English, but recently forced by circumstances to leave their home in the Middle East) were staying in the hotel over Christmas. The hotel owner had a sweet-tempered, placid black and white cat named Tibby – a bit overweight from being spoiled by too many years of guests who, like us and our neighbors down the hall who had tried every day to lure the cat into our rooms with treats. We took turns – a rivalry of sorts – trying to get Tibby to spend time with each of us. Comfort companionship, entertainment. Every day the long-suffering landlord’s son would climb the stairs and knock on each of our doors. “Do you have Tibby?” he would ask. One or the other of us probably did.

Another cat, a grey cat, was encountered for only one day, when cheering was needed. She had bounded across a meadow in Switzerland, very purposefully and joyfully and with what looked like recognition, to cheer up three Americans going for a dejected walk in the countryside. She appeared to understand English perfectly and communicated cheerfulness so thoroughly that recovery was very quick and life’s problems soon solved.

So to tie in with my coffee shop theme this week, there are cat café’s in Japan. For about six years they have been very popular little establishments. Tea, coffee and smoothies are available, but the big draw is the cats, which provide a different kind of pick-me-up. Merchants there have come up with a solution for pet-starved over-crowded, can’t-keep-cats-in-your-apartment citizens of Tokyo who need the comforting, cheering and charming company of cats. There are quite a few of these cafés, where there’s a nominal fee for spending quality time with the cats. The cafés look very pleasant and clean in the pictures I’ve seen and very few actual refreshments are in evidence. The patrons have to take off their shoes and wash their hands before entering the cats’ presence and can’t disturb sleeping cats, pull tails or be uncivilized in any way! Sounds good to me.

I am without a cat for the time being – I’d love to visit a cat café right now!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Writing in Tea Rooms and Coffee Shops

Though I lived in London a few years ago and had intended to visit Scotland, I never made the trip. I wish I could travel to Edinburgh now to see the red-fronted Elephant House Tea and Coffee Shop where J.K. Rowling wrote part of Harry Potter. I recently checked out the coffee shop’s website and apparently J.K.’s table is in a light and airy back room with large windows and a view of Edinburgh Castle.

Reading about Elephant House has gotten me thinking on the possible merits of coffee shop writing. I’ve heard your favorite coffee shop can be a place where you can really focus on your writing, and wonder if the buzz of noise and the surrounding crowds help in some inexplicable way. Is the handy prepared-by-someone-else and instantly-available food and drink helpful? Is the anonymity useful? I do find working at home involves the necessity to block out of all kinds of distractions. I’ve actually found it rather annoying going into a favorite Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf and finding it full of people staring at laptops. They obviously won’t be leaving any time soon, and I won’t be finding a table at all. In a coffee shop I’d be one of those rare beings writing in longhand. Wouldn’t I feel guilty sitting at my table, lingering over my writing and an occasional cup of tea?

So that leads me to the etiquette of coffee shop writing. I think not lingering during mealtimes, or if there aren’t many tables available, would be the most important rule. Mid-morning and mid-afternoon must be the best times. Continuing to buy drinks or snacks every hour or so would make you a legitimate patron, but could be costly and make you fat.

So if I decided to try coffee shop writing, what would I look for? Coziness, ambience, good lighting, low noise level and inexpensive prices. And an absence of cell phones. And computers. For me, tea room/coffee shop evokes an earlier, more relaxed, non-technical time and a place people went to talk (not text) and to write (not type or compute). I’ve been thinking of getting back to a novel I had put aside to concentrate on picture books. So l might go looking for a retro tea/coffee house -- any suggestions?  A view of a castle would be nice......

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Congratulations – with a Nod to Cats on Wednesday

Today I am happy to announce the winner of our drawing for a copy of Mara Price’s new book, Grandma’s Chocolate. I decided to use a cat pitcher instead of a hat, in honor of my usual Cats on Wednesday post.

Thanks to all the visitors and commenters who stopped by on Mara's Virtual Book Tour.

And congratulations to Sarah Wones Tomp. Sarah, please send your mailing address and your book will be sent to you!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Writer to Writer -- Michele Dominguez Greene

The November Writer to Writer speaker was Michele Dominguez Greene, actress and author of the YA novel Keep Sweet. Her book is the story of a young woman in the controlling, confining religious community Pineridge, where she lives with her father, his seven wives and her 28 siblings.

Michele has had a long successful career in TV, film and theater. She also teaches writing workshops and she gave us some great tips to help us make our characters come to life. Michele has learned to create 'triggers' to make her acting believable, and has found this skill useful in her writing as well.

Some writing tips from Michele:

About sensory detail:  think about establishing an atmosphere in the setting of your story. Describe a room – the lighting, the warm wood, the hum of white noise for instance. Visuals, sounds, the feel of your surroundings can set a tone in your writing. What’s the physical environment for your characters? Create an evocative world to suit their wants and needs. This will make their world real.

About description:  don’t over-describe. The old ‘show, don’t tell’ is still true. One example of tying into a particular dramatic scene is to use the description of the familiar to evoke emotion, to contrast with a sudden shock, for instance. Describe familiar surroundings, then pare them down to the essentials for maximum impact in setting a powerful emotional moment. Little details can add depth to a story.

About triggers:  Use smells to trigger reactions in the characters. What smells would make your characters anxious, relaxed, or sad? What could evoke memories, and why? Plan triggers for sight, smell and taste as well as certain trigger phrases for each of your characters. Develop a handful of key things that carry through the story. It’s important that your character not do something 'out of character' without having established a reason.

I felt I’d had a helpful mini writing course in this short Writer to Writer meeting and am looking forward to reading Keep Sweet. If Michele writes as she speaks, it will be a great book.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Blog Tour for Grandma’s Chocolate – Interview with Mara Price

Today I’m happy to be hosting day 4 of Mara Price’s virtual book tour for her bilingual picture book, Grandma’s Chocolate. Illustrated by Lisa Fields and published by Pinata BooksGrandma’s Chocolate tells of a beloved Grandmother’s visit and her stories about the chocolate she and her granddaughter enjoy sharing.

Thanks, Mara, for answering some questions and letting us get to know you.

1. What was the inspiration behind Grandma’s Chocolate?

Thank you for asking this question. It brings me back to the smells and flavors of hot chocolate and evokes happy memories of growing up in Mexico with my grandmother. We drank chocolate every day, on special occasions and whenever we had company. We made different drinks of chocolate in winter like champurrado and atole to warm us up. Chocolate is also a central ingredient of mole, my favorite food.

Ever since I can remember I have been fascinated by history. I learned that pre-Columbian cultures in Mexico were the first to use many things we take for granted today, including chocolate. Thus, chocolate and my cultural heritage became the vehicles to tell this story of the love between a little girl and her grandmother.

2. Did you write and/or draw as a child? If not, when did you begin?

I wrote poems as a child. Rhyming words was a game that I liked to play.

My grandmother and I had a lot of games with words. I remember making little silly stories in Spanish where all the words would start with A and the next person tried the same. The longest story and the one that made most sense won. The stories were often funny and we laughed a lot. We played this game using many letters of the alphabet. It was a nice way to enrich my vocabulary.

I have also liked to draw since I was very little. I remember often drawing a house with tile roof and prickly pear cactus with red fruits. Sometimes I would draw the same house with tulips in the garden. I often enjoyed drawing dolls and fashion clothing, as well.

3. What is the best advice you have been given about being a writer?

Less is more; keep it simple.

4. Do you write for other formats?

I have done a little bit of everything. My first stories and illustrations were published by Iguana children’s magazine, in Spanish. I had the honor of doing an interview of the late Bill Melendez, the award winning Mexican animator, at his studio in Sherman Oaks, California. Iguana has kindly continued to accept my stories and drawings.

I have been a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) since 2001 and I submit articles and illustrations to the SCBWI Newsletter.

Los Bloguitos is a bilingual blog for children who speak and read Spanish. Among the pieces I contributed was a biography of Picasso. I wrote El Corrido de Los Bloguitos, a ballad in Spanish.

5. What books influenced you most when you were growing up? Were you an avid reader?

My mother would read to me about the Olmecs, Mayas and Aztecs. As long as I can remember I have been fascinated by pre-Columbian civilizations.

I remember walking with my grandmother to the second-hand bookstore where we got "new" books in exchange for ones we had read. I loved Jules Verne. I also liked comic books! To be honest, I never actually saw a children's picture book when I was growing up.

6. Are you working on a new project?

Yes, I am working on new projects for children's books and magazines. I'm looking forward to finishing a series of little illustrated poems for Iguana.

Diane, thank you for the excellent questions. It was fun visiting with you.

Mara Price

Follow the rest of Mara Price's virtual book tour for Grandma's Chocolate/El chocolate de Abuelita, listed below. And please leave your comments – there will be a book giveaway at each stop on the tour. At least four comments are needed to be eligible for Mara’s giveaway. Good luck!

Friday, November 19
Latin Baby Book Club
Book giveaway
By Monica Olivera Hazelton

Monday, November 22
Writing a History-based Fiction Story for Children
By Adriana Dominguez

Check out Mara’s schedule or find more information about her at her website.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Ventura/Santa Barbara Writers Day -- A Conference Groupie's Lucky Day

I was one of the spotlight speakers at the Ventura/Santa Barbara SCBWI Writers Day, so rather than doing Cats on Wednesday I decided I would post my speech. When I wrote it I hoped to encourage others who are having a long journey to publication. After I spoke several writers told me they had related to my story and were encouraged, as well. So here it is:

At the time I moved to Hollywood from Texas as a child, we thought the movie business was glamorous. One of my Texas cousins visiting us was more than a little serious in her desire to be “discovered” by a movie producer. We all knew the old lore about starlets being discovered at Schwab’s drugstore and becoming famous movie stars.

It occurred recently to me that the big SCBWI Conference every year is to aspiring children’s book writers and illustrators a bit like Schwab’s was to those starlets—the brass ring, the chance to be discovered, and whatever that might mean in the publishing world. It’s a chance to be a J.K. Rowling, instead of Lana Turner or Angelina Jolie.

I was fortunate in my family who were always supportive of my intention to be an artist, like my mother, and to write books.

My oldest sister taught me to read before I started school. She shared her favorite books and poetry and they became my favorites too.

The three of us enthusiastically wrote plays and acted in them, and wrote and illustrated various editions of a family newspaper that was full of gossipy news. Then we decided to jointly write a science fiction novel and though we abandoned it rather quickly it had a rollicking start with us each collaborating on our ideas.

I belonged to a creative writing club at the library and the librarian who started the club was a published children’s author. She was my first mentor.

My life has always been involved with art. My first art teacher was my mother who was a talented successful artist as well as a wonderful mother and role model. We moved to California for her career and because my sister wanted to go to Art Center.

I grew up and went to Art Center and became an illustrator, graphic designer and painter and eventually decided it was time to follow my early dream of writing and illustrating children’s books.

While studying with Uri Shulevitz in New York State I first found out about SCBW (they hadn’t added the “I” yet) – back here in California. At my first summer conference I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. It was where all my questions were answered---I had found my people!

After years of attending the conferences I still find them enjoyable. I continue to learn something new at each one. After that first conference I continued writing, editing and having my work critiqued. I wanted my work to be truly ready, so I didn’t submit any of my manuscripts.

But then my mother had a stroke and other health problems and I chose to be her caregiver. I wrote and painted as I could and continued to attend conferences. I was beginning to feel I had become a Conference 'groupie' because I had been attending for such a long time.

Still I didn’t submit my work, because I felt if I sold a manuscript my situation would make it too difficult to follow through with the project.

I won a Los Angeles Writers Day picture book contest with the manuscript that would later become my first book, though it would be years before it would be submitted.

Years earlier I had seen – and never forgotten – a PBS documentary called “Anonymous was a Woman”. It was about the many unknown women folk artists of 18th and 19th century America whose work was rarely credited or lauded. The film inspired me to write my book about a fictional young girl painter in 1830’s America who pursues her dreams of being an artist and finds a way to sign her name to her work, when everyone says she shouldn’t.

Growing up I rarely heard of women artists – women as accomplished as the famous male artists. Times have changed, and today there are plenty of books on women’s accomplishments, but I still think it’s good to encourage girls – and boys – to have a strong sense of self-worth.

After I lost my mother, it took me a while to recover.

And then my lucky day happened. It was at the 2008 summer conference that my dummy and sample illustrations for Signed, Abiah Rose came to the attention of Abigail Samoun of Tricycle Press.

It had happened!—Just like Lana Turner at Schwab’s Drugstore! I was discovered! Only for me it was at a Portfolio Display in Century City. By then I had lost my starlet good looks after waiting so many years to be a glamorous overnight sensation but the dream of all of us conference groupie starlets had happened to me!

My book Signed Abiah Rose was released in June. Booklist gave it a starred review and named it to their Top 10 List of Historical Titles for Youth.

I am lucky, even though luck for all of us usually involves what my heroine Abiah Rose has, and I have tried to have—determination, belief in yourself, patience and hard work.

If there is someone here today who feels they’ve been wanting for a long time to be published and is getting discouraged, maybe knowing of my long road to publication will be helpful.

And while I wasn’t trying to give a message with Signed Abiah Rose -- I wanted to tell an entertaining story – I hope children will be encouraged by it to follow their dreams.

Of course, having one book isn’t stardom. All those qualities it took to get published have to continue and to grow. I intend to keep being a conference groupie and hopefully to have many more lucky days.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Ventura/Santa Barbara Writers Day -- Spotlight Speeches

I attended the yearly Ventura/Santa Barbara Writers Day event Saturday and found it excellent, as usual. The program was informative and interesting, as well as fun. I was honored to be asked by the fabulous Regional Advisor and organizer of the event, Alexis O’Neill, to give one of the spotlight speeches. Each year first-time authors are invited to speak about their road to publication. The other spotlight speakers were Ian Fraser (and Mary Ann Fraser), Sarah Lynn and Candace Ryan. Catherine Linka also gave a spotlight talk on dystopian fiction – what it is and why we relate to it.

Ian Fraser, along with his illustrator mother (the much-published author/illustrator of over 60 books) created Ogg and Bob: Meet Mammoth and Ogg and Bob: Life with Mammoth. Their joint talk, “Sticks and Stones May Break Your Bones – or Get You a Story”, was about Ian’s childhood story of two prehistoric friends and how it progressed to a high school project and finally to publication of two books – and he’s still in college! He’s studying engineering, but we hope he’ll write more books!

Sarah Lynn's topic was “Write Two Books and Call Me in the Morning”. She told of her journey to the publication of her book, Tip-Tap Pop. It's a touching and heart-warming story of a little girl and the grandfather who taught her to dance and what happens when he begins to lose his memory of their dance steps. Sarah is also the author of the very charming iStory Frankie and the Big Squish.

Candace Ryan's fun and lively presentation “Word Herding 101: How to Tend a Flock of Words for Fun and Profit” was a good complement to her wildly imaginative book, Animal House. It’s about Jeremy and his difficulty convincing his teacher how unusual his house and furniture are, done with clever play on words throughout. It was a fun and creative presentation – lots of clever visuals and witty ‘word-herding’.

Catherine Linka, of Flintridge Book Store, also spoke. She is the excellent coordinator of Writer2Writer, which meets monthly at the book store, and a writer herself of dystopian fiction. She knows her subject, and “Dystopian Fiction: The End of the World as We Know It” was a much-appreciated overview of the genre: set on earth, in the near or distant future, in a familiar world but one that has been forever changed by a pandemic, technology, war or other disasters. She pointed out to us that we have more than likely all read dystopians without realizing – such as 1984, Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World. A fascinating talk.

My own talk, “A Conference Groupie’s Lucky Day”, told of my journey to the publication of Signed, Abiah Rose. More about it tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Painting in Progress - Young Boy

I have been working on new portfolio pieces in preparation for the SCBWI Illustrators Day next month. Here are the preliminary sketch and finish of a scene from one of my manuscripts.

I work on tracing paper first because it is easy to check for drawing errors by looking at the reverse side of the tracing. Another way to check for accuracy is by looking at your sketch in the mirror. That’s how I find out that one eye is too high or other unintentional oddities. It’s also easy to transfer your drawing from tracing paper to paper or board or canvas. Then I’m ready to paint.

For this piece I painted gesso on Strathmore Wet Media heavyweight multipurpose paper, but didn’t stretch the paper first so there was slight buckling. I usually apply several coats of gesso to Bristol board. This works well for me when I paint with acrylics and doesn’t require stretching the paper.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Becoming Lucky

I’ve thought a bit about luck since I sold my manuscript to Tricycle Press.

My musings on the subject were renewed after the excellent event I attended last weekend - the Santa Barbara County Education Office's Breakfast with the Authors. The featured speaker was the 2007 Newbery Award winning author of The Higher Power of Lucky, the talented and entertaining Susan Patron. The title of her talk was Becoming Lucky: Taking Chances. Several other authors spoke briefly of their own experiences of luck, and taking chances. They were all enjoyable and enlightening.

My old Webster’s dictionary defines luck as 1) a force that brings good fortune or adversity or 2) the events or circumstances that operate for or against an individual.

Alexis O’Neill spoke of her luck in having her supportive Irish/Scottish parents, who gave her a childhood of music and storytelling, and of her lifetime of taking chances which led her into writing. She said luck doesn’t just happen to you. You make it happen.

Barbara Jean Hicks said luck came with courage, the chances she had taken, hard work and the support of those around her who believed in her.

Thalia Chaltas read the dictionary definition of luck she had found: a purposeless, unpredictable and uncontrollable force which shapes events favorably or unfavorably.

But the consensus of the writers who spoke Saturday seemed clear:  being writers, being published takes luck – the kind of luck that occurs with hard work and being willing to take chances along the way. That it is possible to make your own luck.

And I agree.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Cats on Wednesday - A Heaven For All Our Cats

I’ve been a fan of Newbery winner Cynthia Rylant’s books for a long time. Perhaps my favorites of her books are Cat Heaven and Dog Heaven, two books which deserve to be forever-more classics. Cat Heaven was published a dozen years ago by Scholastic, and although it is a children’s book it can be just as consoling for adults who have lost a beloved cat. I have found comfort more than once reading its bright and joyful pages.

I have lost many cats over the years, including little outdoor strays I remember living in our garage when I was very, very young and the pedigreed Siamese my sisters and I won for our paintings when I was seven. Then there were much-loved Danny, kind Sylvester, talkative Ming Tu, saint Kitty, most-favorite Scout, faithful Lucy, stern and motherly Emily and her adopted daughter Orly, devoted-to-each-other Morgen and Thea, shy Mousie, wise Alyosha, moody Minka and, most recently, sassy Sophie. Sophie, so tiny as a kitten she looked like a little rat, grew up to be large and lovely and lived to be 17. Each one a distinctive being – I miss them all.

For anyone who has had a cat that died, Rylant has written a sweet description of the heaven one hopes, and perhaps believes, is awaiting our cats. It is beautifully written, in rhyme. Rylant is a self-taught artist. While her charming illustrations have reportedly been greatly influenced by the folk-style paintings of Grandma Moses, clearly they express the joyful message of her story in her own colorful and energetic style.

I am glad this book was created. It’s special.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Cats on Wednesday - Puss in Plumes

My computer desktop is adorned with cat.

He’s not a cartoon cat, not a photo-realistic cat, not a real cat (he’s wearing a plumed hat and a pleated ruff!)

What he is, is all-seeing, all-knowing, soulful-eyed, serious-for-the-moment essence-of-cat. And just looking at him soothes my stress, calms my nerves, makes me smile.

He’s the cover of a picture book. Don’t you just love him?

He's Fred Marcellino's Puss in Boots.  I was fortunate to see him (Puss) in the original in the Downtown Library's extensive and breathtaking exhibit, The Art of Fred Marcellino, in 2007.  It was the first book cover I remember seeing with no text -- it was, and is, very powerful.  It compelled me to look inside and see what the title was, who the cat was.  Marcellino once said that the cat grew and grew until there was no room left for anything else......  He must have had a cat. 

Wish he were still here, painting cats.


Tuesday, October 5, 2010

From North to South Blog Tour – Interview with Joe Cepeda, Illustrator

Today I’m hosting a stop on the Virtual Book Tour of From North to South/Del Norte al Sur, written by René Colato Lainez and illustrated by Joe Cepeda.

I know Joe through an L.A. SCBWI illustrators’ group, and am pleased to interview him for the tour. Joe has illustrated many book covers and award-winning picture books, including his Pura Belpré winner Juan Bobo Goes to Work.

You originally studied engineering at Cornell University and later got your BFA at Cal State Long Beach. When did you realize you wanted to have a career as an illustrator? And why did you decide to concentrate on children’s books?
I suppose, together, Cornell and I figured out I wasn't meant to be an engineer. As much as I was interested in science and the like (and still am), I wasn't all that good at it. I came back home sort of with my tail between my legs and had to figure out what I was going to do. Fortunately, I loved being in school and never veered far from the classroom.

While at a few stints in jobs I really hated, catching glimpses of corporate America, I went to school part time, eventually taking more and more art classes. I read the comics a lot on my coffee breaks and convinced myself I could be a cartoonist. I started doing editorial cartoons for school newspapers. This turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made. I refer to editorial cartooning as boot camp for illustration. There's a saying in cartooning: if your audience doesn't get your cartoon in three seconds they never will. You learn quickly how to compose a picture so your reader sees primary, secondary, and tertiary information in the right order... so they move through your images, text, etc. and get your gag almost instantaneously. Seeing your work in newsprint is brutal. You'll know if you can draw or not; it forces you to be a good draftsman.

At the end of my scenic route through school I finished with an illustration degree and started looking for work. I thought of myself as an editorial illustrator (and still do) and looked for that kind of work. To be honest, I never really thought of doing children's books while at school. I didn't take a single class in the subject. When you're looking for gigs and you need money (I was in my thirties by this time), everything is an option. As I took a peek at the children's book market, I realized it was more artful than I gave it credit for. At the same time, I found humor sneaking its way into my work more and more.

I went to New York and showed my portfolio around town, to magazines and publishers alike. Believe it or not, I actually took original artwork with me. What I lacked in professional presentation materials, I made up for with confidence and a little bit of talent. Before I knew it I had my first picture book assignment, The Old Man and His Door. Arthur Levine was at Putnam at the time and signed me up right off the street. I also met Phoebe Yeh on that trip and she gave me my next book. I became a children's book illustrator because others saw it in me maybe even more than I did.

Who are your favorite illustrators in the field of children’s books? In what ways do they inspire or influence your work?
This question always embarrasses me a little. Since I wasn't aiming for work in the children's market initially, I never really bothered to study it. When I walk in a book store, I rarely go over to the children's section and look at what's "out there." I say this, realizing this may or may not be good. So, off the top of my head, it's hard to come up with a list of names, but here goes:

Robert McCloskey (the Homer Price books were a childhood favorite)
Marla Frazee
Martin and Alice Provensen
Shaun Tan
Kadir Nelson
Howard Pyle
Arthur Rackham
Allen Say
Ezra Jack Keats
Chris Van Allsburg

There are more, of course, just can't think of them.

The truth is, I don't look at other children's book illustrators for inspiration or influence as much as I look at other things... or other art forms. Sculpture, editorial illustration, movies, walking down the street, etc. influence me more than other book illustrators. For me, it's just not part of the process. This doesn't mean that I'm not appreciative of the work. Heck, sometimes I'm in awe like the next person; it's just not part of a working process, that's all.

You illustrated your first children’s book in 1995 – how has your work evolved since then? Do you use the same process, the same techniques?
I'd like to think that at technical aspects I've honed my skills over time. Nothing makes you better at your craft than simply working. The challenge is to stay connected and separate yourself from your work at the same time. I was signing books the other day and someone offered me a compliment. They remarked how they enjoyed my work - that I had such a recognizable style. I'm very grateful and I know what she's referring to, but that statement makes me cringe a little. I like to work, and I like the pursuit of work. At this stage, though, change is particularly attractive. Changing techniques and such can certainly spur innovation, but that's only part of it. I'm also interested in thinking differently.

Children’s Book Press publishes bilingual books created in the “first voice” – meaning they are written and illustrated authentically about one’s own culture. What do you feel you are bringing to From North to South from your own background?
The truth is I really didn't have think about it... My mom is from Mexico, as is much of my family. Immigration has always been part of our experience. I just painted the people I know.

The faces of the family in From North to South reinforce the hope and optimism expressed in the text. In what other ways do you try to add to the text of the manuscripts you illustrate?
Now, that was where I spent my time conceptually on this book. At its root, this is a story about the bond between a boy and his mother, and what it feels to lose that connection and gain it again. That's where I tried to do my picture-writing.

Your illustrations for From North to South are vibrant and textured. Could you describe how you created the illustrations?
The texture comes from the layering of paint, and trying to be as masterful and eloquent as possible. When you put a brush or pencil to a surface, that's your voice: it should have a cadence, a timbre… you should sing. Concept is imagination. You need both. There's nothing like oil paint. Better said, there's nothing like good oil paint. I allow the underneath layers to show through, which is how I create line much of the time.

I've been able to keep a studio away from home for the last eleven years. With this downturn in the economy I've seriously considered working at home. When it comes to studios, put everything on wheels. Even when you have too much furniture, if it's on wheels, you never feel like the furniture owns the room... there a level of flexibility there that can be useful. If you make sure everything has a home, you don't fret over making a mess because anything can be cleaned up in a day.

Could you share a picture, or description, of your workspace/studio? Is there a favorite art tool or product you feel you couldn’t do without?
No favorites... I like the whole tool box.

What are you working on now?
I just finished a story... it's about salvation.

Thank you, Joe, for helping us get to know you and your art.  And that new story certainly sounds intriguing – can’t wait to find it on Amazon!

Visit the tour stops below and make sure to leave a comment for a chance to receive a copy of the book. Three lucky winners will be announced at the end of the virtual book tour next Monday at Children’s Book Press’ blog, Many Voices, One World.

Wednesday, Oct. 6 (Christina Rodriguez) Christina Rodriguez

Thursday, Oct. 7 (Lori Calabrese) Lori Calabrese

Friday, Oct. 8

Monday, Oct. 11 (Many Voices, One World) Children’s Book Press