Poetry and Music, One and the Same: Interview With Author/Songwriter Johnette Downing and Illustrator Jennifer Lindsley

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 8.35.05 PMAuthor/singer Johnette Downing and illustrator Jennifer Lindsley are both native Louisianans who grew up listening to the many legends of the bayou. Pulling from their local traditions and personal experiences, together they collaborated on a  most original, eerie folkloric tale. I found The Fifolet to be so mesmerizing and uniquely wonderful, I just had to learn how this author/illustrator team pulled it off.

© Copyright – Image of Jennifer Lindsley (l) and Johnette Downing (r) courtesy of Johnette Downing

Author Photo 2012 Rick OlivierJohnette Downing

Where did the inspiration come from to write a picture book about a fifolet, and while growing up in Louisiana, did you always know the meaning of the word?

Being from Louisiana, I heard stories my entire life about the fifolet or feu follet, which means fire sprite in French. Elders, like my French grandfather, would say, “Don’t go too far in the swamp or else the fifolet will get you.” Like the loup garou, the mischievous Cajun werewolf, the fifolet is a mythical spirit used by grown-ups as an effective device to keep children in line.

For nearly three decades, I have dedicated my career to sharing Louisiana roots music and books with children as a means of ensuring that our rich musical, folkloric and cultural heritage will continue to be handed down one generation after another. Until the publication of this book, the fifolet legend has mostly been an oral tradition shared among families; therefore, I wanted to write my own original version of the legend with my own plot and characters as a way of preserving this story in book form for generations to come.

Does being a songwriter make you a better poet or does your ability to write poetry make you a better songwriter?

This is a great question, and one that I have never been asked. For me, poetry and music are one and the same. After all, language itself is rhythmic; each syllable is a beat, beats are words, words are poems, poems are lyrics and lyrics are books.

Many people do not know this about me, but I am a haiku poet and the co-founder of the New Orleans Haiku Society. The beauty of haiku is that one has seventeen syllables or fewer to make meaning out of an experience that connects human nature with nature. This Japanese form of poetry has helped me get to the heart of the subject matter by targeting what I want to say and then saying it in as few words as possible.

Therefore, to answer your question, yes, being a songwriter helps one be a better poet and being a poet helps one be a better songwriter.

“After all, language itself is rhythmic; each syllable is a beat, beats are words, words are poems, poems are lyrics and lyrics are books.”

Poetry is difficult to write well, yet I found your poetic verse in The Fifolet to be the smoothest to read of all the rhyming picture books I’ve ever reviewed. Why is poetry so difficult to write well, and is there a trick to your ability to do it?

Image 4Thank you for your kind words about my poetic verse for this book. As a poet and musician, I do not find poetry hard to write, but I do understand why others may find it difficult. I believe the trick is that poetry needs to “sing,” not so much in a literal sense, but that it needs to flow off the tongue as if it were music.

Another trick I use is to read the poem, or any other form of writing, aloud. While reading aloud, one can hear the cadence of the language. If it does not sound like music, or if it does not flow smoothly, the meter may be off, and editing syllables or words may be required to help the poem sing. Tapping your foot to the beats of each line while reading aloud and making sure the lines equal the same number of beats can transform a poem.

© Copyright – Cover Image courtesy of Pelican Publishing

Do you have any plans to turn The Fifolet into a song?

Yes, I have written music for The Fifolet for the purpose of making the book into a song. I am also working on an orchestral piece of music that would be played while I read the story.

Listen to Johnette perform some of her music

I’d love to hear that! In what ways do you think teaching with music benefits children?

I was an early childhood music teacher for twenty-two years, and I have given workshops to teachers in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Central America, North America and the Caribbean on how to use music in the classroom to teach language and to promote literacy. Since language and the majority of other academic subjects are left-brain activities and music is a right-brain activity, combining the two helps students utilize more brain capacity in a more natural and balanced manner for learning. I enjoy writing books that are also songs because, in my opinion, not only does it help reluctant readers become motivated readers, it helps students use more brain capacity for higher learning, interaction, retention and enjoyment.

“I enjoy writing books that are also songs because, in my opinion, not only does it help reluctant readers become motivated readers, it helps students use more brain capacity for higher learning, interaction, retention and enjoyment.”

Jennifer Lindsley’s illustrations in The Fifolet are outstanding. Did you have a vision of how you thought your story should be illustrated and what were your impressions on how the illustrations turned out?

While writing the book, I visualized a dark, mysterious, and mythical swamp environment that few would dare to traverse. The publisher, Pelican Publishing, suggested Jennifer Lindsley as the illustrator. When I viewed her art samples, I agreed that she was the perfect illustrator for this book. A native of Thibodaux, LA, Jennifer has created a watery world any fifolet would love to inhabit. What I love is that she gave Jean-Paul Pierre a lantern to carry. This is significant because the legend of a fire sprite or of a person carrying a vessel of light exists around the world as the Will of Wisp or the Jack of Lantern. This small detail, which Jennifer said was accidental, causes the reader to ponder whether or not Jean-Paul had been a fifolet all along – double creepy!

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© Copyright – Inside spread image courtesy of Pelican Publishing

That is brilliant. I think you handled the folkloric subject matter in your story beautifully. Were you ever concerned that your plot, featuring a fisherman who disappears, might frighten readers?

Your kinds words touch my heart; thank you. Folklore has always been a passion of mine. After fourteen books, it was time for something a little eerie, especially since my previous book, Macarooned on a Dessert Island, was all about sweets. Actually, my young readers have been asking me for something spooky for some time. I am more of a scaredy-cat than most children; therefore, I didn’t want to have a scary book. I wanted to have something I would read myself repeatedly and not have nightmares. The Fifolet, with its promise of buried treasure, has one shovel dug into the attribution of mystical powers to natural phenomena, and one shovel dug into mystery; the perfect concoction for slightly spooky folklore.

The Fifolet, with its promise of buried treasure, has one shovel dug into the attribution of mystical powers to natural phenomena, and one shovel dug into mystery; the perfect concoction for slightly spooky folklore.”

Can you tell us a bit about your next book that’s in the works?

Louisiana The Jewell of the Deep SouthI have two upcoming books through Pelican Publishing. Louisiana, the Jewel of the Deep South, illustrated by Julia Marshall, is about State symbols and is slated for a fall 2015 release. Down in Mississippi, illustrated by Katherine Zecca, is the sequel to my Down in Louisiana book. It teaches Mississippi State symbols, and is slated for a spring 2016 release. Both books are also songs.

 

616rcjen-1ecd17096908960aJennifer Lindsley

What attracted you to illustrating the story of The Fifolet?

I had briefly been introduced to Johnette at Starbucks, as a friend of mine had recommended that I talk to her. I had just submitted art to Pelican on an open submission for artists. I had no clue that eventually I was going to be paired with her as “my” author! I was so excited as the story is close to my heart in that my paternal family is from Thibodaux (down the bayou), and I am very familiar with the eerie qualities of the swamp and loved the story. Johnette is also an amazing writer and the tale just flowed in an enchanting sing-song that stuck in my head even before I started illustrating!

“Johnette is also an amazing writer and the tale just flowed in an enchanting sing-song that stuck in my head even before I started illustrating!”

Your fluid, hazy watercolor method is mesmerizing and perfectly fitting for the story. I noticed on your website your other illustrations don’t seem to be painted in the same style. Were you given any specific direction for the artwork, and how did you come up with this brilliant depiction of the story?

Watercolor was the first medium I learned, and it is my absolute favorite. Next would be oils and then acrylics, which are used for many of my murals. Since the book took place in the swamp and was watery to begin with, I thought that watercolor would lend itself to the aesthetic. I wanted to have the drippy aspect representing the Spanish moss and eerie quality of the story. I wanted the colors to be moody and flowing. There is a quality to watercolors where the colors can blend seamlessly and once they dry some of the results are surprising. I was not given any direction with regards to medium, just minor suggestions when areas needed some “pop.” You can’t erase watercolor so it was a commitment to be able to adjust – luckily I had done the initial sketches and they were approved before I started adding color.

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© Copyright – Inside spread image courtesy of Pelican Publishing

Was it challenging for you to create images fitting for an eerie folktale without frightening young readers? 

I feel like the pictures just came to me with each of the lines of the story. I had drawn an initial sketch of Jean Paul Pierre and wanted him to be consistent throughout. He seems like such a selfish person and alone and pretty simple, so his clothes, shrimping boots, hat and little red patch on his knee helped me to keep him recognizable and simple. I also added some characters that are in the story consistently as witnesses of Jean Paul’s demise — the alligator that seems to follow him around, the ever present moon, his hat and his pirogue became as much a part of the tale as he was! I didn’t make the swamp black, I opted for purples and blues, so as not to create a harshness that could spook some younger readers…I was scared of the dark when I was little and the moon was always something that helped illuminate the scary away!

Do you paint all your illustrations traditionally or do you use digital methods as well?

I’m pretty much a Luddite when it comes to illustration. I have tried some digital work, but inevitably get frustrated and go back to my “old school” methods. I feel like I can convey emotions through art better “brush to canvas/paper” than dragging and dropping images and scanning. I would like to learn how to augment my work through digital though – I just have to find someone who will teach me and make me stick to it! Someday! In the meantime I love to paint traditionally and feel like I’m more efficient time wise.

There’s simply nothing that can replace an original painting, even though it’s more difficult to make changes than with digital work. What was the inspiration for the big-nosed beady-eyed fisherman? I love everything from his shack on the water to that image of him in bed with his toes sticking out from under the covers.

Image 2When I was little my dad used to take me to a little roadside store outside of Thibodaux, that also had a tiny bar and lots of Cajuns would come through and tell stories. Jean Paul is sort of a conglomeration of these colorful storytellers and one particular person I know that is extremely cheap and selfish. (Not mentioning names!)

© Copyright – Inside spread image courtesy of Pelican Publishing

It’s fantastic that your real-life experiences created this fictional fisherman! As an art teacher, what is difference between giving an adult student direction as compared to a child student? 

Adults are afraid of messing up! Children are pretty much fearless with the ability to take risks and try things. I always hear from adults, “Oh, I can’t draw a straight line, I’m a terrible artist.” And then when I work with them and have them try different mediums, they inevitably find a niche of making art that they enjoy and can build on. Not every artist can draw, however maybe they excel at three dimensional art, it’s a matter of introducing them and trying to eliminate a fear of failure.

Children will dive in and go for it as long as there is positive encouragement. I think sometimes adults were told as children that something didn’t “look” like what they were trying to represent and it stifles them, so it’s not surprising when they pick up years later, they are still drawing at a level of a children who decided they weren’t good enough. I get inspired at the fearlessness of kids in my classes – I have a tendency to be afraid I’m going to “mess something up” but then I have to remind myself that if I mess it up, I can always fix it.

“Adults are afraid of messing up! Children are pretty much fearless with the ability to take risks and try things.”

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© Copyright – Inside spread image courtesy of Pelican Publishing

Is there another picture book in the works for you?

I am illustrating a few different books at present. The main one is a story about St. Charles and the streetcar lines and the fabulous sites that this city has to offer when you’re rolling down the avenue. I also have a book that I’m working on about a dragonfly that has a unique perspective, and it is a bilingual book for kids that might be a little different. But above it all I have some sketches of a lab rat who wants to be a famous music composer, but I need an author. I have the pictures, but I’m not a writer!

Jennifer, I have a feeling you’ll have no trouble finding that author, now that the word’s out. Thank you both for taking the time to share your unique journey with this book. I’m looking forward to your next titles.

Readers:

Visit Johnette’s website here.

Visit Jennifer’s website here.

Visit Pelican Publishing here.

Read my review of the book here.

Buy The Fifolet here.

For the Love of Books and Baseball: Interview With Author/Illustrator Matt Tavares

tavaresauthorphotoMatt Tavares has turned his lifelong passion for baseball into a library of extraordinary picture books for the world to enjoy. And he’s illustrated a number of books on other subjects too. His latest title about baseball, Growing Up Pedro is so beautifully illustrated and well written that you don’t even have to be a baseball fan to enjoy it. After I read it several times and admired the artwork for a good, long while, my curiosity about Growing Up Pedro a masterpiece of a biography for children – left me with a list of questions I was eager to get answered. I’m sure you’ll be just as impressed as I was to discover how this incredibly talented author and artist (since toddlerhood) achieves a level of excellence in his children’s books that is difficult to match. Hint: It involves a great deal of raw talent and an incredible work ethic.

How old were you when you got hooked on baseball, and did you play yourself?

FenwayParkBaseball was a part of my life from the time I was very young. I played youth baseball, and kept playing right up through high school. For as long as I can remember, I always loved playing wiffle ball with my friends, collecting baseball cards, watching the Red Sox and drawing baseball players. I grew up near Boston and got to go to Red Sox games with my dad. That’s probably what got me hooked more than anything. Fenway Park is still one of my favorite places, and it’s pretty special for me to be able to bring my daughters there now.

Image of Fenway Park int he Public Domain

“I think I gained a lot of confidence from having this one thing that I was pretty good at, and it just made me want to draw more, which made me slowly get better at it.”

How old were you when you realized you had a talent for art?

My parents say that even when I was 2 years old, I was always drawing. By the time I was in elementary school, I started getting attention for being able to draw well. At indoor recess, kids in my class would ask me to draw different things, and I would draw pictures at home and bring them in to show my teacher. I think I gained a lot of confidence from having this one thing that I was pretty good at, and it just made me want to draw more, which made me slowly get better at it.

It sure sounds like you were destined to be an artist. Can you tell us about the strange ocean voyage several thousand copies of Growing Up Pedro went through to get to Los Angeles?

Yeah, the advance copies didn’t arrive when they were supposed to, and at first I heard it was due to some weather-related delay. But then the publication date arrived, and the books still weren’t here. Turns out they were trapped on a cargo ship off the coast of Los Angeles, unable to dock due to a labor dispute at the port. The ship had come all the way from China, but then it was stuck there for over five weeks until the dispute was over. Fortunately, the first books arrived just in time for my first book signing, a few weeks after the publication date. And at least they were here in time for baseball season.

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That must have been unnerving. yet it adds so much to the story behind your book. Can you elaborate on the extensive research process you went through before writing Growing Up Pedro, and how long did that take you?

I spent about a year working exclusively on Growing Up Pedro, but my research started about a year before that. At that point, I was still working on another book too, so I’d work on the illustrations for that book during the day, then read about Pedro at night. My first step was to read every article and interview I could find and learn everything I could about his life. I also gathered hundreds of photographs and video clips, to use as reference for my illustrations. The most rewarding part of my research for this book was my trip to the Dominican Republic. My family usually takes a trip to Florida in the winter, but last year my extremely supportive wife and kids agreed to skip Florida and travel to the Dominican Republic instead. So it was part family vacation, part research trip. We got to drive up into the countryside and visit some places where it still looks just how it did when Pedro was a kid. It was incredibly helpful to be able to experience these places in person, instead of just finding pictures online.

GROWING UP PEDRO. Text and Illustrations copyright © 2015 by Matt Tavares, Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

What was the experience like traveling to the Dominican Republic, and what did you uncover about Pedro Martinez that you had not known before you went?

It was a pretty amazing experience. Most of my research in the DR wasn’t really focused on Pedro Martinez, but on the hqdefaultplace. I took hundreds of pictures of the houses, trees (especially the mango trees), and scenery, and just tried to soak it all in, so all the details in my illustrations could be as authentic as possible. It was great to get back to my studio after that trip and use all these memories that were fresh in my mind and incorporate them into my illustrations. It made the whole book feel much more personal for me.

GROWING UP PEDRO. Text and Illustrations copyright © 2015 by Matt Tavares, Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

One thing I did learn about Pedro during that trip was just how beloved he is among the people there. I guess I knew that already, but I was actually surprised by how universally adored he seemed to be. People are just so proud of all he has accomplished, and all he has given back. So many people I encountered were eager to help me, once they heard I was working on a book about Pedro Martinez.

“I still think of myself more as an illustrator than as a writer, so I really appreciate it when people say nice things about my writing.”

I enjoyed the verse-style text you use in the book and was wondering if it was challenging for you in any way to write this biography for such a young audience?

Thanks! I still think of myself more as an illustrator than as a writer, so I really appreciate it when people say nice things about my writing. I guess the greatest challenge in writing this book was wading through the sea of information and trying to decide what story I wanted to tell, what information I wanted to include, and how it was all going to fit into a 40-page picture book. In a book like this, I find that I really need to narrow my focus. If I try to do too much and tell everything that’s ever happened in a person’s life, the whole thing falls flat.

My earlier drafts were way too long, and followed Pedro’s career right up until the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004. But with the help of my editor, I decided that what really made this story special was the theme of brotherhood. This wasn’t just the story of Pedro Martinez, it was a story about two brothers who both overcame so many obstacles together. Once I established that, it was easier to decide which moments in Pedro’s life to include and which ones to leave out. Winning the World Series was certainly a major moment in Pedro’s big league career, but it wasn’t really a part this story, so in the end, I only mentioned it in the afterward.

“I never really work from life when I’m working on a book, mostly because it’s a lot easier to get someone to pose for a photograph than it is to ask them to stand there for 50 hours while I paint them!”

Watch this 3-minute drawing lesson with Matt Tavares

What medium(s) did you use for the book and do you paint from photographs, real life, or a combination of both?

I used watercolor, with some gouache here and there, mostly for highlights. I use a lot of reference photos to ensure that all the details in my illustrations are historically accurate. And I often find people to pose for me as my characters, and take photos or videos, which I use to help my drawing. I never really work from life when I’m working on a book, mostly because it’s a lot easier to get someone to pose for a photograph than it is to ask them to stand there for 50 hours while I paint them!

Usually the composition of my illustration comes from my imagination, and I mostly use reference photos for historical accuracy and to help with details like folds in the fabric, or lighting.

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© Copyright image of Matt at work in his studio, courtesy of Matt Tavares

“Then I got out my tiny paintbrushes and tried to make the little adjustments I needed to make. I felt like I was heading into surgery, and I was either going to rescue my picture or destroy it.”

Your ability to recreate the likeness of Pedro and his brother Ramon is remarkable. Are there specific techniques you use to accomplish this or does it just come natural to you?

DSC_0002Really, it’s just a matter of going back and making tiny little changes until I felt like everything looked right. The first time I thought I finished my cover illustration, I snapped a picture of it and emailed it to my editor and art director to see what they thought. They both loved it, except they thought that it didn’t quite look like Pedro. So I put it away for a few days to help me see it with fresh eyes. Then I got out my tiny paintbrushes and tried to make the little adjustments I needed to make. I felt like I was heading into surgery, and I was either going to rescue my picture or destroy it. Fortunately, Mr. Martinez came out of the procedure looking much more like himself!

GROWING UP PEDRO. Text and Illustrations copyright © 2015 by Matt Tavares, Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

How do you manage to capture light and accurately depict the time of day in such astonishingly beautiful ways?

Wow, thanks again. I guess it comes from careful observation, and lots of trial and error. Watercolor can be so tricky and unpredictable, so there are plenty of times when I’m trying to achieve a certain effect and it just doesn’t work. But that’s when I start over and try it a different way.

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GROWING UP PEDRO. Text and Illustrations copyright © 2015 by Matt Tavares, Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

The relationship Ramon and Pedro have had all their lives is heartwarming and inspiring for kids. During your research did you ever discover any rivalry or jealousy between them at all, since they had to play against one another at times?

Amazingly, no. The only rivalry I ever came across was friendly and good-natured: seeing who could knock down the most mangoes when they were throwing rocks at the mango trees. Pedro would openly root for Ramon, even when their teams were playing against each other. Their bond was so much greater than even that of brothers. Ramon played such a large role in helping to raise Pedro, and Pedro has said many times that everything he learned in life, he learned from Ramon.

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GROWING UP PEDRO. Text and Illustrations copyright © 2015 by Matt Tavares, Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Can you tell us what you learned about how Pedro has helped his family members and the people of the Dominican Republic since becoming wealthy and famous?

This is something I didn’t know about Pedro during his playing days. He has done some amazing work to help the people of the Dominican Republic, especially the children of his hometown, Manoguayabo. He has built schools, churches, and dozens of homes for families, and he’s started academic programs to ensure that the kids of Manoguayabo get a great education.

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How wonderful that he puts his wealth and fame to such great use! Have you met Pedro Martinez and has he had anything to say about your book?

I got to meet Pedro a few years ago, before I started working on the book. But he didn’t have any direct involvement with the making of Growing Up Pedro. I contacted his agent early on, but he told me that Pedro had just signed a book deal to write his memoir, so he couldn’t help me with my book. Fortunately, Pedro has done thousands of interviews over the years, so I had plenty of information to work with. I sent him a copy not too long ago, but I don’t know if he has seen it yet.

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Once he does see it, I imagine he’ll be overwhelmed by it. After reading your book, I was inspired to read more about Martinez and his success and positive press was overwhelming. I uncovered the Don Zimmer incident too and wondered what you thought of that?

Yes, I remember watching it. Pedro has said that is the one thing he regrets about his career. In his defense, it was sort of a no-win situation. Don Zimmer himself said that he wanted to “put my head in his chest and bowl him over and nail him”. Zimmer also said that Pedro “didn’t do nothing wrong.”

Watch a video about Don Zimmer discussing his fight with Pedro Martinez

Pedro had someone charging at him and had to decide in that split-second what to do. He sort of re-directed Zimmer and tossed him aside. I think they both felt really bad about it afterward. I know Yankee fans see it one way, but I guess that’s our right as sports fans, to be completely biased and unreasonable! I never condone fighting, but it’s just something that happens in baseball sometimes, unfortunately.

“Try to come up with a story that hasn’t told before. Even if you’re writing about a well-known person, try to find some different angle, something about the person that isn’t the same as what you’re finding in other books.”

I have to agree with you. Given the circumstances, I believe I would have reacted the same way Pedro did. What advice do you have for someone who wishes to write and illustrate sports figure biographies for children?

Try to come up with a story that hasn’t told before. Even if you’re writing about a well-known person, try to find some different angle, something about the person that isn’t the same as what you’re finding in other books.

Excellent advice. What book is next for you?

I just finished my next book, which is called Crossing Niagara (unless we change the title). It’s a picture book about the first person who crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope. It will be published by Candlewick in Spring, 2016.

9781455617661That’s sounds like a terrific story for a picture book. For your research, I recommend you check out the awesome picture book, Barreling Over Niagara Falls by Nancy Kelly Allen, the true story of Annie Edison Taylor, the first person to ride over Niagara falls in a barrel and live to tell about it.

Matt, thanks so much for sharing your passion for baseball, books and art with us. I can’t imagine a more perfect day than reading Growing Up Pedro and taking your child to a baseball game on the same day. Without the inside stories from artists and authors like you, none of us would know just how much thought, research and work goes into educating our children with outstanding books like Growing Up Pedro; you make it look so easy, but now we know there’s a lot more to the story than the story itself.

The next time you come down to Florida with your family, perhaps you can plan ahead so you can attend a Miami Marlins vs. Boston Red Sox game. We’ve got a spectacular new state-of-the-art stadium here in Miami with a retractable roof, and honestly there are as many Red Sox fans as Marlins fans at those games.

Readers, visit Matt Tavares’ website here.

Read my review of Growing Up Pedro here.

Buy Growing Up Pedro here.

GrowingUpPedroCover

Sidewalk Flowers, the Making of an Extraordinary Wordless Picture Book: An In-Depth Interview with Author JonArno Lawson and Illustrator Sydney Smith

Author JonArno Lawson

JonArno Lawson is an award winning children’s book author and poet, and a father of three. One day after a walk with his daughter, he was inspired to create a wordless picture book called Sidewalk Flowers; and it’s getting rave reviews. (Read my review.) If you’re like me, you’ve wondered just how a wordless picture book is created, particularly when the author is not the illustrator. Both JonArno and illustrator Sydney Smith were gracious with their time answering my detailed questions about the behind-the-scenes work that goes into making an outstanding story – in pictures only.

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I just have to know the story behind your uniquely wonderful first name?

The “Jon” part of my name was for two of my Dad’s good friends – an Episcopalian priest named John Paulson, and his best friend at University, John Goodell. The “H” was taken out because the name looked unwieldy with 8 letters. “Arno” was for Arno Schirokauer, my father’s favorite professor at University. As an interesting aside, John Goodell married Arno Schirokauer’s daughter!  Originally they were just going to call me Arno, but my grandmother cursed at my parents and hung up the phone when they told her, so they added the Jon on to appease her. I guess they thought “Jon” would make the name sound more Anglo? But in the end, it didn’t really work and ended up sounding more Italian. My grandmother never came around to liking it – the first or second version. But I’m fond of it.

That’s a great story. What was your inspiration for Sidewalk Flowers?

The storyline evolved directly out of a walk I took with my daughter, Sophie. She was seven at the time. My son, JoJo, was two days old, and my middle son, Ashey, was four. My wife, Amy, was home with the boys, and I wanted to get back home quickly. I looked for a cab, but couldn’t get one to stop. I was rushing (it’s an hour’s walk) not paying close attention to Sophie or what she was doing. Bathurst Street looked grey and ugly. I was full of worry, not really seeing the world around me.

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Cover image courtesy of Groundwood Books

Suddenly I noticed Sophie was gathering flowers – the tiny little flowers that poke up through cement cracks. When we got home, she decorated JoJo’s hat with some of the flowers and gave some to Ashey, some to Amy, and then she went off and did something else. Ashey was even playing outside with snails when we got home – just like in the book.

It sounds like you were very observant that day, despite being preoccupied.

It seemed symbolic to me – Sophie finding color in the grey world, and then giving away what she’d found. She didn’t seem to be conscious of what she was doing, which also seemed important. I realized it would make a beautiful book, without any words, with bits of color building through a black, white, and grey world. I could picture it, but wasn’t capable of capturing it in pictures. The supernatural editorial genius of Sheila Barry and the inimitable illustrative genius of Sydney Smith were both required to make the book what it is now.

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© Copyright – image courtesy of Groundwood Books

What a lovely story about the creation of your story. . . As an author who generally writes poetry, where did you get the idea to present your story in the form of a wordless picture book?

I was wondering about that too. From the beginning it seemed completely visual to me. Words didn’t seem necessary, maybe because during the actual walk we weren’t talking much. Sophie was actually singing a lot of the time.

“I knew I wanted the story to convey how unconscious the consciousness of beauty and the giving were and didn’t want any applause in it.”

How does one go about “writing” a wordless picture book? I imagine it to be so different than writing poetry.

Yes – very different in some ways. I knew I wanted the story to convey how unconscious the consciousness of beauty and the giving were and didn’t want any applause in it. It’s one of the things I like least about many movies for children (and even adults) – the ubiquitous applause scenes where everyone gathers to applaud the hero. I find this as tiresome as the requisite kick-in-the-crotch scene that almost every North American made movie for children seems to have had for the past fifteen years. One of the things I love about the book, Treasure Island is how the boy Jim Hawkins does all of these amazing and courageous things, and it’s completely taken for granted. He’s appreciated, of course, but nobody gives him a gold medal. And Stevenson didn’t feel the need to have Jim kick any pirates in the privates for a laugh. . .

And the beauty in your story is the girl’s innocent generosity.

DSC_0001Sydney does an amazing job of conveying the anonymity of that generosity. You never actually see the girl give the flowers. I love how Sydney has the dog glance at the girl as she walks away, revealing the flowers in his collar. That sort of touch completely captures it. The dog knows something nice just happened, but he can’t see what it is! And Sydney had amazing instincts about which part of the Toronto landscape to keep, and which not to keep. The most memorable part of that walk (visually) takes place between Bathurst and Dupont, and Vaughan and St. Clair (streets in Toronto). Sydney keeps important aspects of that urban landscape, but also alters and blends things, and after he gets to Vaughan and St. Clair (where the little girl is gathering flowers on an embankment, by a bus stop) it’s all Sydney’s imagination with the open park and the street of houses.

© Copyright – image courtesy of Groundwood Books

I love those images of the park and row of houses. So how did you convey the way you saw the story to Sydney, so he could illustrate it?

516w5LWqQyL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_First I wrote down what Sophie did, gathering the colorful little flowers out of the grey urban landscape, and then how she decorated the family when she got home. That’s how it was sketched out, simply following the walk and what she did. Sheila Barry pointed out to me that it wasn’t enough, and there needed to be more interaction with the world. She recommended a book to me around the same time called All the Dear Little Animals, a remarkable book by Ulf Nilsson and illustrated by Eva Eriksson. It’s about a group of little children giving funerals to small dead animals they find as they wander around. This gave me the idea to include a little dead bird in my story. As a child you’re keenly aware of the little dead animals you see, mostly in the spring. And I’m pretty sure it was Sheila who suggested the scene with the dog in my book, and she asked if I’d consider letting the girl keep a flower for herself at the end. Her contributions to the outline were absolutely essential.

“It was hard for me to give up control, and I’ve felt some panicky vulnerability over this book, because my contribution is more or less invisible, aside from my name on the cover; it’s immersed in what Sydney did.”

Was it challenging for you to create a wordless storyline and completely rely on the illustrations to tell the story?

It was Sheila’s brilliant idea to put Sydney in charge of how it would all look. This shows how important it is to collaborate, and not to be possessive. It was hard for me to give up control, and I’ve felt some panicky vulnerability over this book, because my contribution is more or less invisible, aside from my name on the cover; it’s immersed in what Sydney did. Poor Sheila and Sydney have both been very kind about my panic!

“It was as if I’d written a melody, and he wrote not just an accompaniment, but an entirely new melody that harmonized with it.”

Once the details of the storyline were established, how were they presented to the illustrator, and did you work with him throughout the artistic process?

Sydney got my storyboard sketches and plot-line, and the notes I’d written about what had been important and/or symbolic to me, visually, in the landscape, and from there Sydney was free to evolve it in the way he best saw fit. He paced it visually. The panel-pages for instance, were completely his idea. I didn’t realize how different this was from how he was used to working, but he worked wonders with this freedom. It was as if I’d written a melody, and he wrote not just an accompaniment, but an entirely new melody that harmonized with it. We never talked about it while he was working on it.

Truly remarkable things can happen when you give an illustrator artistic freedom. The innocence of the girl in the story is portrayed so beautifully. Was this a challenge for you to achieve considering there is no text?

SidewalkFlowersImageIn the storyboard, the people don’t show a lot of emotion in their faces (in part, because I can’t draw very well!). Sydney manages to convey emotion, a kind of generosity in the girl’s face, and in her body language; he does it with great subtlety. My only contribution to that was probably just saying I wanted her to be unconscious of what she was doing, or at least not self-conscious.

© Copyright – image courtesy of Groundwood Books

The dad in the story is incredibly preoccupied (like so many of us are), and he doesn’t seem to notice the lovely gestures his daughter is making. Did you intend to send a message to parents as well as children when writing the book?

Really, the message was to myself, but given that I’m a lot like other parents I see, I’m sure that resonates with other people who are looking after children. Ironically, I didn’t have a cell phone back then. But it’s symbolic since cell phones are everywhere. They’re an easy way to portray the distraction and – at worst – self-absorption of adults. I feel a bit guilty, looking at this version of me, but as my wife pointed out, I must have been aware of what our daughter was doing, or else I couldn’t have written the story!

Do you think there is more than one way for readers to interpret your story?

I do think so. I took it in to my youngest son’s grade one class, and loved listening to the various interpretations and associations. Almost every child I’ve shown it to is interested in the dead bird, and has associations from life that those pictures bring up.

What do you hope children take away from the book?

Something hopeful, I hope! I guess that beauty can be found anywhere, and that their own search matters; that they might be doing things even they aren’t aware of that have a positive impact.

Image 3

© Copyright – image courtesy of Groundwood Books

What would you say to someone who believes all picture books should have words?

Hmmm. . .I’d say we thought in pictures long before we thought or told stories in words. It’s a basic ability common to all of humanity, maybe even to all primates, and probably to many other animals as well. Go into any old church and you’ll see stories told in the stained glass windows. Developing an inner visual world can make memorizing much easier as well; there are a lot of good books about how to develop this ability.

What writing project is next for you?

There’s another wordless book that will follow this one. Sydney and I will be collaborating on this one too, and our collaboration will no doubt be similar. He’ll be free to evolve it once the storyboard and notes are in his hands.

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Sydney Smith. Photo Credit- D. EdwardsIllustrator Sydney Smith

Award-winning illustrator Sydney Smith is not afraid to take chances. The artwork in Sidewalk Flowers is so brilliant, you’d never know it was his first wordless picture book. He generously reveals the thoughts and long process that went into creating the illustrations for this most outstanding picture book that is sure to become a classic.

Image of Sydney Smith Credit – D. Edwards

How old were you when you realized you had a talent for art?

It was in grade six when drawing became a major part of my life and I realized I had an inclination for it, but I’m not sure if I have ever had a moment when I said, “Wow, I’m talented.” Talent is a funny concept.

How did you get started illustrating books for children?

I realized I wanted to illustrate children’s books when I was in art school. I remember the moment clearly, I was in a print making class and I felt so elated after having the epiphany. It made total sense to me – drawing, imagination, books. But, it took me six years and a lot of encouragement from mentors, teachers and friends to send out my first portfolio.

What medium(s) do you use?

These days I use a brush, ink and watercolor. In my most recent book I used a toothbrush as well for splattering paint.

“My individual space is very small, with my drawing table at the center and books surrounding that. My office chair is broken and slowly sinks as a draw.”

Can you describe your studio space for us? Image 2

My current space is in China Town in Toronto. The old building is located very close to Kensington Market where I get a lot of my lunches. I share my space with seven other people who are artists and computer programmers. My individual space is very small, with my drawing table at the center and books surrounding that. My office chair is broken and slowly sinks as I draw.

Hahaha! Apparently that chair is not affecting your ability to illustrate. I was quite surprised to hear that you had so much creative freedom to illustrate Sidewalk Flowers. Without specific guidelines, is it difficult to know where to begin the illustration process, especially since there are no words?

There weren’t words but the direction from JonArno was clear. The beautiful narrative was there, and we knew what the direction was for each spread. It was the pacing, the sequencing and style that were my challenge. The beginning sketches for sidewalk flowers look very different from the end result. I played with it a lot and tried different approaches and styles but settled on the brush.

© Copyright – image courtesy of Sydney Smith

The illustrations are outstanding. What gave you the idea to use little color in the beginning of the book, making the girl stand out in her red jacket, and then add more and more color as the story progresses? It works out beautifully.

JonArno had suggested to keep the city background stark and that colors would become richer as she gave out her flowers. I had been looking at a lot of black and white city photography at the time, and I loved the contrast in those classic photos. I wanted to recreate the feeling from those photos. Having the girl’s red jacket made it easier to compose the images because the reader’s eye is naturally drawn to the vivid color.

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© Copyright – image courtesy of Groundwood Books

What was your inspiration for what the girl and her father would look like?

I thought that maybe the father could be an artist or a writer – young, and slightly scattered. I think in my mind the girl was always hooded, which gives her a private space. I had originally drawn a friend’s daughter for reference but as the sketching process continued the characters looks grew simpler.

JonArno has told us about the Toronto areas that you’ve depicted in the book. Did you sketch or paint on site, use photographs or a combination of both?

Image 1I used a combination of both. I biked around the city quite a bit and sketched the buildings and collected photos of the shadows and birds and flowers. I enjoyed going to the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) to walk among the art and sketch the old buildings out the window from the café there.

© Copyright – image courtesy of Sydney Smith

Your ability to portray action and flow in the story is remarkable. Can you tell us how you managed to do that, and also how you chose how many frames to include on a particular page?

Thank you. This is the first time I have used panels to show a sequence of events and definitely not the last. I love quiet moments and stressing their importance. I’m a huge fan of graphic novels and perhaps I picked up some their tricks. I chose the amount of panels partly depending on how much action is involved in the moment and also to keep the page structures and compositions different. That’s one of the tricks to good pacing.

“I’ve learned through film studies that different ‘camera’ angles communicate different things. Also, I try to make sure I remember to kneel down and look from the height of a child. It’s important to remember the perspective we all once had.”

One of the many things I admire about your illustrations is that you paint from different angles. For instance, there’s a frame with an image of the father on the phone as a view looking up from below and my favorite image in the book of the park from a birds-eye view. What inspires you to paint from different perspectives like this?

Film, graphic novels and photography are the big inspirations. I’ve learned through film studies that different “camera” angles communicate different things. Also, I try to make sure I remember to kneel down and look from the height of a child. It’s important to remember the perspective we all once had.

29_sidewalk-flowers-spread-2

© Copyright – image courtesy of Groundwood Books

“At times I found it more interesting to show the character of the father through his shadow. It suggests his presence without actually including him. “

Your shadows are spectacular, and it wasn’t until I looked at the book for the third time that I specifically noticed them. I’m particularly fond of the shadow of the girl as she jumps over the puddle and the one of the father holding his cell phone to his ear. Did you set out to use shadows to tell part of the story, because to me they seem to add so much?

The shadows are directly inspired from Toronto. I don’t know if was the time of year or if Toronto just fosters long shadows but I couldn’t help but notice them. At times I found it more interesting to show the character of the father through his shadow. It suggests his presence without actually including him. Which was his role in the book, I believe – present but not actually in the way of her story. I don’t think he is an absent father. I like to think he recognizes what she was doing and just chooses to give her space.

Image

© Copyright – image courtesy of Groundwood Books

Do the birds at the end of the book have any specific meaning to you, and do they relate to the dead bird in any way?

They bookend the story and also act as a distraction, a separate action for her to focus on so that when she gives herself a flower its not too self satisfied or self aware. Also I didn’t want the dead bird to be too dark of a moment. Hopefully the flying flock of birds lifts the reader before the end and represents the lightness of her heart as a result of her actions through the story.

Can you give us hint about the subject of your upcoming wordless picture book with JonArno Lawson?

I really don’t know too much about it, myself. I know it is going to be wonderful if JonArno is the author and Groundwood is the publisher.

JonArno and Sydney, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom. I’ve enjoyed learning about the process of making Sidewalk Flowers just as much as I did reading it. The work and imagination that went into this heartwarming book are both inspiring and impressive. I am thrilled you are working on another wordless picture book, and I just can’t wait to see what you two come up with this time.

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Light at the End of the Tunnel: An in-Depth Interview with Artist Wendell Minor

Cape Cod Light TruroWendell Minor has illustrated over 2,000 covers, 55 children’s books and five stamps for the US Postal Service. Take a look at any of the thousands of pictures he’s painted and you’ll understand why his work has earned him hundreds of awards. His paintings have been featured in museums, displayed at universities and sold for private collections. Wendell is not only one of the most talented artists and illustrators in America, but after interviewing him for two hours, it’s safe to say he could be successful as a motivational speaker too; his philosophies are as brilliant as his paintings. With his success, you’d expect Wendell to be, well, a bit full of himself. But he’s not. He’s friendly, witty and is always looking for ways to improve his craft – as if that were possible. Wendell lives with his wife Florence, an author and collaborator, in rural Connecticut, with a most inspiring art studio nestled in their picturesque back yard. Together they travel the world to observe the earth’s natural wonders and find inspiration to write and paint. He shared with me highlights of his life from early childhood to present day, and his journey has been filled with challenges and triumphs that make as great a story as the many he has written or illustrated himself.

© Wendell at the Truro Lighthouse on Cape Cod

All Images used with permission by Wendell Minor. No Images or text may be used without permission.

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I’ve read that you are dyslexic. How old were you when you were diagnosed?

WendellYoungBoyIt was early on, at the age of six. At the beginning of 1st grade, my teacher sent a note home to my parents that said, “We’ve been doing independent reading, but Wendell doesn’t seem to grasp it.” Following that I was in special reading classes from 2nd through 6th grades. I’m fortunate that it was discovered early on, though back then there wasn’t a name for it.

© Wendell as a young boy

Does dyslexia affect your reading ability only or does it also play a role in other ways too, such as with your painting?

I think three-dimensionally, meaning I can go in many different directions. I am a highly pictorial, big-concept thinker, envisioning things in different ways than non-dyslexic people do. I have an almost photographic memory, and when I read text, from the start I create images. When I write a picture book, first I illustrate and then I write the text, which is the opposite of the way most authors work.

How did your parents influence your love of nature?

My father was a hunter and a fisherman, so he dragged me out into the woods often. You can’t help but fall in love with nature when you’re constantly outside.

How old were you when you realized you had a talent WendellAge14for art?

I was born with a heart defect, which required three major surgeries, so doctors forbade me to participate in sports. This resulted in torment from my classmates who constantly called me a wimp. In 4th grade I started getting a lot of attention for my drawings. I became the go-to guy for creating play posters and later became the newspaper artist and editor in chief of my high school yearbook. So I figured, if I can’t get attention from sports, I’ll enjoy getting it from my artwork.

© Wendell at age 14 showing the sketch he made during his English class

Did your parents nurture that talent?

1398773_10151953733493895_179964970_oMy mother did. She signed me up for art classes in the park when I was nine. My first artist’s palette was a cookie sheet. My mother was married at age 15, and my father was 24. Mom eventually got her GED, went to junior college then worked as the director of the nursery school at our church for 35 years. Her own artistic talents came out when she was working with kids. My dad was a worker in an auto parts factory that resembled something out of a Dickens novel, filled with soot, noisy machines and unsafe chemicals. Being practical, my father could never conceive of anyone doing something for a living he enjoyed. Once he knew art was what I wanted to do, he told me if I wanted an education, it would be my financial responsibility. My parents just did not have the means to help me out.

© Image of poster promoting Wendell’s exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum

US Postal service.Barn on Ives Rd. Washington  North Dakota statehood 2

 

 

 

 

 © Postage stamps designed by Wendell for the US Postal Service

Did your parents live to see you succeed?

Fortunately my dad lived to see me design one of the stamps I created for the US post office. My mom died just six years ago, so she was here to see many of the books I illustrated and she was there when I received my first Honorary Doctorate degree.

wendelluconn1Designing a postage stamp has to be one of the greatest honors as an artist. Can you tell us about those Honorary Doctorate degrees?

I received an Honorary Doctorate from Aurora University in 2004, where I once took a class many years back, and an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the University of Connecticut in 2010. I’m honored to have received this recognition.

© Photo Credit: Lauren Cunningham – Wendell addressing the 2010 graduating class of The University of Connecticut, the day he received his Honorary Doctorate

eaglescoverDo you ever call yourself Dr. Minor?

No, I don’t. (Laughing).

So getting back to art school, how did you come up with the money to attend?

After high school, I worked for a cattle slaughterhouse. It was a real eye-opener. One poor worker washed out cow stomachs and liver bile all day long. He did what he had to do to pay the bills, punching the time clock and putting in his hours. Working there was one of the worst and best experiences of my life. I never wanted to be stuck in a horrible job like that with no future. It motivated me to do something I’m passionate about.

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© Wendell’s cover art for Robert Morgan’s novel, The Road from Gap Creek, the sequel to the best selling Gap Creek.

I’d imagine that job changed the way you felt about consuming beef too!

I haven’t eaten beef since then, and I’d never touch fast food. At home, Florence and I eat vegetarian. When we get out, we occasionally eat fish or chicken.

” Given my heart defect, I always felt as though I was on borrowed time, so I vowed to never waste a minute.”

When you graduated from the Ringling School of Art, what was your first job?GalapogosGeorge

Hallmark hired me right out of school to design cards in Kansas City, MO. I was flat broke, and I didn’t think I had enough talent to become an illustrator. So I was happy to take that offer. Then I got a job with designer, Paul Bacon, and one day he threw a book manuscript at me and told me to illustrate it. Given my heart defect, I always felt as though I was on borrowed time, so I vowed to never waste a minute. I worked hard illustrating from the start, and Paul turned out to be a terrific mentor.

© Image from Galapagos George

my studio 4

© Photo of the sun-drenched interior of Wendell’s Studio 

How much time do you spend painting in your studio?

studio exteriorI often work on two or three illustration projects at a time. I’m in the studio ten to twelve hours per day, with between six and eight solid hours of painting.  The rest of the time is spent on researching and communicating with authors and editors and all the other typical office tasks that take up your time. Florence’s day in the studio is about eight to nine hours. When I was in my 20s, I would paint eighteen to twenty hours a day. To develop your craft, you have to work long and hard and make sacrifices. I didn’t get married until I was older, because I was always busy painting.

© Image of the exterior of the Minor Art Studio situated on their residential property

What medium(s) do you use? Studio palette

I use gouache paints, because they reproduce extremely well and unlike traditional watercolors, where the focus is on where not to paint, you can use a dry brush to build up opaque layers and even blot up color if need be. It’s what I like to call “faking a fix,” which you simply can’t do with watercolors. I love to use acrylic paint too and with the finishes you can apply on top of them, you can get a look similar to oil paint. It takes years to master any medium.

© Wendell’s studio palette

Florence's studio

You must spend a lot of money on paint and paper.

No matter what medium you use, you must know where you are going when you start with your image, so you don’t waste paper and paint. I use Strathmore Bristol 4-ply, which is $10 per sheet. I have a special brush custom made, so I have to buy them in bulk at $1000 per order. Gouache paints run over $33 for just one .47 ounce tube. But all your materials must be archival quality so they last.

© Image of Florence’s studio

“As a person with dyslexia, if am going to struggle with reading, it better be nonfiction, because I want to learn something.”

NightFlight

After illustrating for 45 years, where do you store all your original work?

My original work can be found in museums and universities and I have some 350 pieces in private collections. I also store some in my studio and have two storage facilities.

WendellinPlane

What attracts you to illustrating nonfiction children’s books in particular?

As a person with dyslexia, if am going to struggle with reading, it better be nonfiction, because I want to learn something. Nonfiction may not be the most popular genre for children, but it’s so important. I want to inspire children to learn about history and to get outside and develop a respect for the natural world and all its glory. I never felt the need to have children myself, but I enjoy having a metaphorical presence in their lives through my nonfiction books.

© Wendell in a 1927 Waco plane

“I never felt the need to have children myself, but I enjoy having a metaphorical presence in their lives through my nonfiction books.”

Many people think authors get to decide what the illustrations in their picture books will look like.

Heartland coverIf a young, unknown author is lucky enough to get a contract to write a book, he or she has no say in who illustrates it or what the pictures will look like. But the authors I work with are accomplished and well known, and I always work directly with them – some of them on numerous books. My wife, Florence and I have done four picture books together, and we’re working on more. I illustrated three books for author Diane Siebert. Then one day in 1989 I got an idea for another book, so I called her editor to see if Diane would consider writing a poem about the heartland. Three weeks later I received a glorious poem, and a new book was born. I am so pleased that the book is being re-released this year.

Can you explain how your illustration process typically works for a picture book?

thelasttrainFirst I speak to the author about his or her vision of the story. Then back in the studio I start sketching. I create a full dummy presentation based on collaboration with the author and feedback from the editor at the publishing house. Then it’s time to paint the original illustrations, sharing them with the author for feedback. I make the final touches and then they are off to the printer. I typically complete three books a year, so it takes about four months for each project.

“The second reason is that there isn’t any benefit to being difficult to work with. If I am truly a creative person, I should always be able to come up with different solutions.”

Do you ever disagree with changes an editor wants you to make?Yosemite Falls art

I rarely disagree with editors for a couple of reasons. First of all, there’s often more than one right way to achieve positive results, so it’s best to keep an open mind. The second reason is that there isn’t any benefit to being difficult to work with. If I am truly a creative person, I should always be able to come up with different solutions.

© Image from How Big Could Your Pumpkin Grow?

Do you feel overwhelmed at times with your workload?

Of course, and there are always potential projects that never see light of day, because there isn’t enough time to get to them. From idea to finished book, it takes two years to get it all through the pipeline. You won’t hear me complaining about feeling tremendously overbooked though, because I am grateful for having had a steady stream of work for 45 years. During the last recession, I didn’t sign a contract for a year and half, but I had so much backlog, I was always working. An illustrator or author always wants to have a book in queue.

I understand you and your wife have traveled all over the world, often visiting a place before painting it. Do you paint from photographs, observation or from memory and do you ever paint on the spot or always in the studio?

Florence & Wendell MinorI painted directly from nature for years, and when I have the time, I still sketch on site. I take a lot of photographs to capture perspective, but I never copy the photos I take. I tap into my electronic memory bank, which is quite full. When I am out, no matter where I go or what I am doing, I take note of atmospheric conditions. Due to my three-dimensional thinking, I am able to store what I see in my mind and remember it in detail to use any time in the future.

© Florence and Wendell Minor

That’s quite a spectacular gift you have. When you have finished a book and it has been published do you criticize your work as many other illustrators tell me they do?

Oh yes. There’s always something you wish you’d done differently. Plus with every just-published book, I think instantly, why did this take so long to paint?

Can you tell us how you managed to capture the mightiness of the giant sequoia so incredibly well in the beautiful picture book Sequoia, written by the talented Tony Johnston?

new Sequoia coverIn order to depict the grandeur of a tree that is 275 feet tall and 100 feet wide, I had to accentuate the obvious by exaggerating reality as much as I could. Angle and light are important too. I wanted to capture what it would be like to stand in the sequoia forest and feel the mightiness of the trees and hear the close up and distant sounds such as the ambient wind whistling high on a branch or a ground squirrel chattering nearby. You’ll notice that I created a horizontal two-page spread to paint one enormous tree.

Before you got started illustrating Sequoia, were you familiar with these trees, and did you know they live for thousands of years?

Yes. I was so fortunate that Dr. Stephen Sillett and Marie Antoine from Humboldt State University shared their upper story tree photographs and research with me. Stephen is a botanist who studies the ecology of redwoods and sequoias, and he and wife, Marie climb these trees to study old growth. They were married between two redwood trees and even spent their honeymoon up in one of those trees! I call Stephen and Marie “Protectors of the Forest.”

Sequoia longIs it known how the Sequoia lives for as long as they do?

The life span of these trees remains somewhat a mystery. They come from ancient species that manage to adapt well to different environments and survive where other trees cannot. However, sequoias are a threatened species. One of the main problems is that the climate where they grow is getting drier.

They are truly fascinating trees. What’s the number one question you are asked when you are the visiting author at schools?

What’s your favorite of all the books you’ve illustrated? I always answer the same way with, “The one I haven’t done yet.” I ask the children if they have brothers and sisters and if their parents love one more than the other. Naturally they tell me their parents love all their children the same. That’s how I get them to understand why I simply can’t choose a favorite book.

© Image from Sequoia

WendallMinorsAmericaExhibit

© by Ed Hyman The Wendell Minor’s America Exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum in 2013

“Don’t ever stop dreaming, because if you don’t have a dream, you’re never going to escape from wherever it is that you don’t want to be.”

Do you find it rewarding to visit schools?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve seen underprivileged children get excited because they are handed their first book to own. They ask, “Is this book really for me? Can I really keep it?” If I can reach one out of 100 children, then I know I’m doing the right thing. I tell them . . . You can write or illustrate too. Everywhere you look, there is an idea. Ask questions. Why is that the way it is? Maybe that’s an idea for a book. Most ideas come from reading. The more you read the better you speak and the more you’ll know. We all have shortcomings and struggles. Many people have overcome great obstacles, and you can too. Everyone of us has potential. If you’re a slow learner, that’s okay. Don’t ever stop dreaming, because if you don’t have a dream, you’re never going to escape from wherever it is that you don’t want to be.

© Wendell at Edward Hopper’s studio in Truro on Cape Cod

“We tend to think in terms of great art as that which is already recognized.”

How fortunate those children are to meet you! Do you believe that to be an artist a person must have natural talent? Or can a person develop an art ability through motivation and hard work?

1553593_10152107981153895_1061869049_oIt’s hard to say. Great art can come from any person any place any time. Someone can collect scraps of junk and put it together in a brilliant, original way. We tend to think in terms of great art as that which is already recognized. People judge success by those who are already known and don’t often consider talent that has yet to be celebrated. For those out there practicing their craft, it’s a bit like playing the lotto. Sometimes it just happens. But the key is to be persistent and true to yourself and your own style. You’ve got to work until it takes all the energy out of you. It’s a marathon, steady and strong. Too many new creations get a lot of attention because they are the latest thing, but they don’t have staying power, and they fade as fast as they came. It’s the long game that counts.

© From the book Heartland by Diane Siebert. Heartland will be republished  by David Godine Books for a 25th Anniversary edition

EH Sunday Morning

Your Edward Hopper book looks extraordinary, and I can’t wait to read it. What draws you to his work?

© Image from Edward Hopper Paints His World

Hopper-jacketEdward Hopper is my hero. He struggled for years on end, having to look for illustration work in place of painting to pay his bills. It took him many years to sell his paintings, but he kept at it. By the time he was 50, he had a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art. I so admire his work. He is known for oil paintings but was also a master at etching and watercolor. It’s stories like Hopper’s that inspire me to keep working. I also love the story of John Audubon and was thrilled to illustrate Bob Burleigh’s book, Into the Woods. Audubon was torn between who his father wanted him to be and what he wanted to do. He was somewhat of a lost soul for a while, with no direction and experienced a series of failures. But he loved to roam in the woods to 61UGu5IBFQL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_observe birds, and one day decided to paint every bird he could find. The rest, we know, is history. I seem to be attracted to people who don’t fit into the system and go against the grain, somehow managing to rise above it all by contributing in innovative ways. It’s that monomaniacal pursuit of something that results in great success.

“Painting can be compared to going through a tunnel. At first everything is light but then there is a period where you can’t see where you’re going. You’ve got to stick with it and stay on course, because there is always light at the end of the tunnel.”

Do you ever experience creative blocks with your painting?

Yes, at times when I am just getting started, and it can be frustrating. Painting can be compared to going through a tunnel. At first everything is light but then there is a period where you can’t see where you’re going. You’ve got to stick with it and stay on course, because there is always light at the end of the tunnel. I tell myself it’s not about instant gratification, rather I must continue on and have faith that it will work out. And it almost always does.

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Do you think the physical book will soon vanish and be taken over by digital technology?

24652_10151490689113895_560064832_nA book is the purest of all man made designs. It’s an important part of our history and culture. A physical book has a function that simply cannot be replaced by an electronic device. Books are the most user friendly devises for the human brain, as our brains are analog. The proof is in the fact that the physical picture book is more popular than ever before. A child needs to hold it, manually turn the pages and admire the artwork. Digital reading provides information, but not knowledge. It may have its place with some books, but I believe children’s books are here to stay.

© From Morning, Noon and Night by Jean Craighead George

“Overconfidence is the most dangerous trait an artist can have, because it only works for the short term.”

When you started illustrating and writing children’s books did you ever imagine you’d have the great success and long career you’ve had?

I guess I’ve always thought that if people think you are successful, then you must be. But I don’t concentrate on that. I am always thinking about what I can do better next time and what I have yet to try. Overconfidence is the most dangerous trait an artist can have, because it only works for the short term. I like to surround myself with the most talented, down-to-earth, humble people because they know there’s so much more to learn and do. Accomplishments should speak for themselves.

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What are some of the unique ways you feel validation for the outstanding work you do.

At a class reunion, one of star linebackers from my high school came up to me and said with sincerity, “I really admire what you’re doing with your life.” I was blown away, because he wouldn’t have given me the time of day back in high school. In another story, I received an email from a woman who said she saw my name on her son’s favorite book so she and her husband named their new baby, Wendell after me. That was quite an honor.

“The only tangible evidence of immortality lies in lines of text or paint on paper.”

I’d say so! Do you ever think about the fact that with every illustration in every book, you are possibly leaving your mark for future generations?

That is the hope. The only tangible evidence of immortality lies in lines of text or paint on paper. Some survive, and others 1025798_10151682025008895_1734678156_odon’t. I only know where my work is when I’m alive.

© Illustration for Atlantic Monthly,  circa 1990

“Most people want safety, but nothing great comes from taking the easy road.”

Knowing what you know now, if you could give yourself advice on illustrating as a new art school graduate, what would that advice be?

SketchingGrandCanyon97Become a plumber! No, seriously, what I’d tell myself is believe in what you’re doing. Be patient, passionate, persistent and work until you perspire. You may have many different types of creative jobs until you find what you really love to do. Approach every venture with same amount of consistency, and work with an entrepreneurial spirit. Find a way to make it work. Take risks. Most people want safety, but nothing great comes from taking the easy road.

© Image of Wendell painting outdoors in 1997

 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Wendell, I thank you for the opportunity to hear your personal story and discover a bit about what lies behind your creative genius. Your words and your work are sure to encourage artists who dream of having a career as successful as yours. I wish for my walls to be covered with your remarkable paintings.  May you keep on creating masterpieces for children and their parents and teachers to admire, and may you never find yourself in a slaughterhouse again.

Readers, visit Wendell Minor’s website.

Read my review of Sequoia, a book I highly recommend.

– Written by Debbie Glade

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The Genius of the Lion and the Bird: Interview With Marianne Dubuc

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Marianne Dubuc is a Canadian children’s book author and illustrator, who taps into her wonderful childhood memories for inspiration to create her literary treasures. Little did she know when she got the simple idea to put together two unlikely animal friends –  a lion and a bird  – her world would be turned upside down. The book, The Lion and the Bird, first published in French (Le lion et l’oiseau) , was published in 2014 in English (Enchanted Lion Books) receiving phenomenal praise by all who read it. I ranked it #1 on my Picture Book of the Year 2014 List, and for good reason. The story and artwork are so moving, they brought me to tears. The Lion and the Bird bring forth every positive human emotion and remind us all what is most important in our lives –  true friendship, compassion and love. What’s most remarkable about this perfect picture book is that for Marianne, the entire process of writing and illustrating it came to her completely naturally. She makes it all seem so gloriously effortless, and today she reveals the inside story of the simple genius behind her literary masterpiece.

© Copyright – Image of Marianne courtesy of the author

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“The Lion and the Bird is about the ones we love, how to be with them, but also about how to let them go. And how to let them come back into our lives.”

What inspired you to write The Lion and the Bird?

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I was trying to find a new book idea for my publisher Éditions de La Pastèque, with whom I had done La Mer in 2007, my first book ever. La Mer is about two characters, a cat and a fish. I wanted to write a story about two new characters, and The Lion and the Bird came to me.

lamer_20When I was younger, I had a few friends with whom I lost touch throughout the years. One day I was really sad about it, and my mother said, “Marianne, sometimes in life friends drift apart. But your paths may cross again one day in the street, ten years from now, and your friendship will be back as if nothing ever happened.” And that is exactly what happened to me with some of my friends. What my mother told me has stayed with me always, and life made it come true for me. Being an only child, friends were really important to me growing up. The Lion and the Bird is about the ones we love, how to be with them, but also about how to let them go. And how to let them come back into our lives.

© Copyright – Image from La Mer (The Sea) courtesy of Marianne Dubuc

Why did you decide to use a lion and a bird as opposed to other animals?  lionandbird_dubuc4

I liked the thought of an image of a bird sitting in the lion’s mane. And I knew I wanted to pair a small animal with a much bigger one. It all came to me at the same time, I guess. I like to use animals as characters for my stories, as I prefer to draw animals rather than humans. Also with animals, they carry significations. The lion is usually stronger, the bird more fragile. But here the bird flies away and leaves Lion alone and sad. These feelings are accentuated by their animal references.

I’m so glad you paired them together, as I was attracted to the unlikeliness of a friendship  between such different creatures. When you were writing, did you anticipate that the book would be enjoyable for adults and not limited to a young reader audience?

Not exactly. But I love picture books myself, so I write my stories for everyone who wants to read them.

What mediums did you use to illustrate?

Watercolor, pen, and colored pencils.

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“And the vignettes just seemed to tell the story better, with small moments of happiness (or loneliness).”

Your illustrations are extraordinary, and I wondered how you came up with the round house and the idea to use little vignettes of images in addition to two-page spreads.

lionandbird_dubuc5The round house must have come from my childhood. I often use images in my work, which clearly were inspired by things I saw in books or from television shows from when I was younger. It’s not that this happens consciously, but images from my childhood are very present and influential in the creation of my illustrations (colors, a mix of details to form a house, moods, etc). And the vignettes just seemed to tell the story better, with small moments of happiness (or loneliness).

“Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes you don’t know if it will work until the book is printed and published.”

I’m so glad you told the story that way. Your ability to depict the cycle of the seasons is remarkable.  Was this a natural process for you to achieve or did you toy at all with how to get this passage of time across to readers?

It came spontaneously, like a song, with a rhythm. When I write a story, it all happens really quickly and instinctively. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes you don’t know if it will work until the book is printed and published.

It sure worked here! There are so few words in the story, yet emotion is so vividly presented. The emptiness  lionandbird_dubuc16Lion feels is beautifully depicted, particularly in the illustration of him standing small and isolated in the corner of the page, gazing up into the blank white sky after Bird has flown away.  How did you manage to portray such strong emotions that a child would be able to understand with so few words?

I first wrote the story in images, with the intention of adding text, but as little as possible. I guess that is why children can understand so much of the emotions, because the images make a significant part of the storytelling.

When you finished writing and illustrating this book did you realize just how special a story you had here?

718XJ3sQp2LNo! I was not aware of the strength of the book until I got my first copy and read it. Then I felt a rush of emotions. I thought that if my own book can touch me (I usually only find mistakes and am annoyed by parts of my work), it had to be good. Still, I don’t think it is perfect, but I know I will always be very critical of my work.

So many writers and illustrators tell me that they see the flaws in their work. But I can tell you there is not a single change you could make to improve this already perfect book! What do you hope children take away from reading The Lion and the Bird?

They can take away whatever they see in this story. But I hope they understand the importance of friendship, and of caring gateau_coverfor their friends, and letting them be free if that is what they need. And also to have faith in life, I guess.

When you are not writing, what do you most like to do?

Being a mother of two small kids. I love being with them the most.

“Just do it. Don’t over think it. Go ahead, try it.”

What advice do you have for someone who wishes to write and illustrate an outstanding picture book?

Just do it. Don’t over think it. Go ahead, try it.

Marianne, you make writing and illustrating a picture book seem easy, but we know that picture books are most challenging to get right. Your talents are many, and I’m quite sure I am not the only person who has placed The Lion and the Bird at the top of the list of the best of the best picture books of all time. Thank you so much for sharing your artistic process with us, and may you keep on creating literary masterpieces to share with and enlighten the world.

© Copyright – All images from The Lion and the Bird courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

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Visit Marianne’s website here.

Visit Enchanted Lion Books here.

Read my review of The Lion and the Bird here.

Buy The Lion and the Bird here.

Read my List of the 15 Best Picture Books 2014 here.

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