Critter Lit interview with author/illustrator Corinna Luyken!
Happy Thursday Critters! Today, I’m thrilled to share an interview with Jen Betton, the debut author and illustrator of HEDGEHOG NEEDS A HUG. I met Jen while we were both in school at Syracuse. I was working towards my BFA in Illustration when I took an intro class on Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, taught by Jen, who was an MFA Illustration student at the time. Adobe Illustrator is actually the only program that I use when I work digitally…which I have Jen to thank for. I’m not sure I would have learned it otherwise. Thanks Jen!
I'm so excited to share Jen’s work with you all today, and I’m sure you’ll see why. Her watercolors are GORGEOUS! And she has this tremendous ability capturing light….I’m a huge fan of her work and I hope you will all go out and read HEDGEHOG NEEDS A HUG!
So without further ado…please welcome Jen Betton!
Where do you live?
I recently moved to the Dallas area, so I’m still getting connected with the Kid Lit community here.
When did you know you wanted to make picture books?
I always loved picture books; I never really grew out of them. It just took a while to give myself permission to pursue it because I thought I needed to do something more practical! I loved painting and I loved stories, so creating picture books was a natural combination of those loves.
Tell us about your debut book as an author and illustrator?
HEDGEHOG NEEDS A HUG is the first book I’ve written as well as illustrated! It is about a Hedgehog who feels down in the snout and droopy in the prickles and so goes looking for a hug, but other creatures don’t want to get close to his spines! Fortunately, he finds someone else who is feeling the same way.
I came up with this story while I was brainstorming story ideas that involved animals who have a physical characteristic that is at odds with what they want. I love stories where the character has a goal that inherently creates conflict!
One thing that helped me figure out my story structure was understanding the heart of the story. This is the essential, core theme of the story, beneath the surface-level action. I was brainstorming the ending and I had to decide how Hedgehog would finally get his hug. Hedgehog could have hugged another hedgehog (someone just like him) or a turtle (someone who would not be hurt) but I had an “aha” moment where I understood that empathy was important to the story, and I quickly realized that Hedgehog needed to give Skunk a hug.
Can you share a bit about your process?
If I’m writing the story, then I start with an outline. I really have to get the structure of the story right, and the first draft is almost in bullet points. After that I might start weaving small thumbnail sketches into a storyboard while concurrently revising my manuscript. After I have the basic story arc hammered out, I keep writing, tweaking, polishing. At the same time I’m working on the storyboard with rough sketches, trying to get the composition, the page turns, the expressions right. I try to not to get too far into the drawings until the manuscript is fairly firm, because it’s like working a Rubik’s Cube – every change affects every other part of the puzzle.
Next, I start working on finished drawings. For this stage I usually gather a lot of reference materials, sometimes getting friends to pose for photos or taking a trip to the zoo. Then I’ll do some color studies. After all those steps are approved by the art director, I’ll start on the finished paintings. I transfer the drawings to my illustration board, and then I jump in with watercolor. After I’ve taken the painting as far as I can, I’ll often add a bit of colored pencil or pastel for details. Once it is scanned, I’ll touch it up a little bit in Photoshop.
What do you do to shake the rust off or get new ideas?
Inspiration, community, and perspiration! I get inspired by both books and people. Reading the beautiful books that others have created and seeing how they solved problems teaches me a lot. I find conferences to be energizing - rubbing shoulders with creative pals. My imagination also responds well to discipline, so participating in Storystorm or checking in with critique buddies for some accountability really helps me. And sometimes it’s really helpful to just do something for fun without expectations of how it will turn out.
Any art supplies you can't live without?
Strathmore 500 Illustration board. Totally different way to watercolor, and I love it!
Soooo many!! John Singer Sargent’s watercolors are stunning. I love Trina Schart Hyman, Min Ji Kim, Lizbeth Zwerger, Christian Birmingham, Scott Gustafson, Greg Manchess. A couple newer illustrators I love are Jessica Lanan and Corinna Luyken.
Dream project or book to work on?
Something with a sense of wonder or otherworldliness, like Ocean Meets Sky by the Fan Brothers or The Brilliant Deep by Kate Messner and Matthew Forsythe.
What's up next for you?
I’ve been working on a new story, called ANITA’S FLOWERS, which is about perseverance, failure, friendship, and finding your gift. Hopefully it will be ready to submit soon!
I’ve also been working on some goodies for HEDGEHOG NEEDS A HUG: coloring pages, an activity kit, bookplates, etc. There is also a teacher’s guide by Marcie Colleen. You can download them here.
And last, but not least, favorite 80s movie?
Princess Bride and Adventures in Babysitting
Jen Betton loves to draw and make up stories with her pictures. In Kindergarten she got into trouble for drawing presents on a picture of Santa, and she has been illustrating ever since. She wrote and illustrated HEDGEHOG NEEDS A HUG, published with Penguin-Putnam, and she illustrated TWILIGHT CHANT, written by Holly Thompson, published with Clarion.
She has a BA in English, and a BFA and MFA in Illustration. She lives in the Dallas area with her husband and two children.
For more information about Jen Betton and her books, visit her online at www.jenbetton.com or follow her on Twitter: @JenBetton.
TO ORDER a copy of HEDGEHOG NEEDS A HUG ring up your local bookstore, or click here.
Want a chance to win a copy of HEDGEHOG NEEDS A HUG?! Comment on this post or share it on Twitter. One lucky winner will be selected Thursday, September 20th! US addresses only please.
What's up on deck? Tune in next week for a Critter Lit Craft Post.
These days, I'm surrounded by trucks. Literally. If it's not the toy trucks I'm constantly picking up around my house, it's the real ones driving up and down my street. We live in a national park, so there are always front loaders, dump trucks, and skid steers readily on display, working on the trails, dealing with fallen trees, or some other park-related need. And this week, my neighbor is having his driveway paved, so bonus, we have a cement mixer on full display. My two-year-old is in heaven. He could sit and watch these trucks all day long. Seriously. Needless to say, he loves trucks. Here's a sampling of our current bedtime rotation:
Notice a pattern? All trucks, all the time in this house! I had always heard that kids go through phases. The truck phase. The dinosaur phase. The princess phase. And so forth and so forth. But it's not until you're in the midst of it that you realize how all-consuming it is. Obviously, my household is currently living through the truck phase.
This is the first time I've experienced being a parent of the same age group I'm writing books for. It's a rather strange thing. Every night we read three books, and my son always requests at least one book he specifically wants to read. The rest are up to me, which allows for some variation. Thankfully, most of the books he loves, I love too. But then again, I do this for a living so I'm picky about what I add to our home library.
Over time I started to notice a pattern amongst all the books he loves. And no, it's not trucks. We do actually read books without trucks in it...sometimes. Trucks or not, all the books we end up reading together over and over again offer additional details in the pictures for my son to spot. He pours over each page, trying to find Goldbug (Cars and Trucks and Things That Go) or Zombie Truck (Monster Trucks) or identifying all the different types of trucks (Truck Truck Goose). More importantly, though, he can connect to the characters. He's at an age where he understands wanting to help (Little Blue Truck), being sad or protective (The Digger and the Flower), getting confused (The Mixed-up Truck), or being impatient (Sheep in a Jeep). All of these books have total kid appeal. Does it get cuter than Betsy Snyder's elephant driving the fire truck on the cover of Tons of Trucks? No, it doesn't. Could you get a better hook than Anika Denise's Monster Trucks? Nope. Because kids LOVE monsters and trucks! It's brilliant. We literally read that book on repeat.
The 2-3 age is amazing. Kids are sponges, soaking up everything you give them. His memory astounds me and he is learning words at such a rapid rate. One night we were reading Truck Truck Goose, which if you haven't read it, only contains a few words. My son didn't know the word "piano" before reading that book. But he kept seeing Goose pulling around a big, red piano on each spread. Which is a hilarious thing to drag to a picnic in the first place. But that's what makes this book so great. Because kids drag around ridiculous things all the time. Like when my son goes to the potty and has to bring his monster truck with him. He's not going to play with it in there. He just wants to know it's close by. Like Goose and his piano. My son kept asking me what the piano was until he'd committed it to memory. Now we read that book and he points out the piano every time. The word piano isn't even in the book. But the story and illustrations provided him with a new vocabulary word and an interactive way to learn it. Now that's pretty cool.
So what does this all mean? It means don't underestimate kids. Ever. THEY ARE REALLY SMART. Seriously, they pick up on everything. Recently, I had a conversation about using the word "digger" vs. "excavator" in one of my books. The concern was that kids might not know the word "excavator," which is a fair point, some may not. But in all the time I've heard my son talk about trucks, he's never once said "digger," unless he's referring to a name like Digger in The Digger in the Flower. Because he knows it's an "excavator." It's like those kids who can't spell their own name, but they can rattle off the most ridiculously long dinosaur names, unpronounceable to most adults. Unless of course, your household is going through the dinosaur phase...in which case, kudos to you!
So if you don't have a kid on hand to watch like a science experiment for your next book idea like I do, then you need to do your research. Read everything you can get your hands on in the age group you are writing for. Which books are doing really well in that group? Which books aren't? Find the pattern, then find the hole and figure out how you can fill it. I don't think I would be creating a wheel-based board book series with HarperCollins next summer if it weren't for my two-year-old and his obsession with wheels and all things trucks. It's a strange thing to be raising my market, but I'm having a blast.
Until next time, happy writing!
(Want more info on the books I mentioned? Click on the cover images above.)
What's up on deck? Check back next Thursday for an interview and giveaway with GO FISH and KNOCK KNOCK author Tammi Sauer!
This past spring, I had a wonderful experience participating in Writing with the Stars, a contest for aspiring authors and illustrators to win a free three-month mentorship with a published author or author/illustrator. The contest is run by Tara Leubbe and Becky Cattie, two sisters, who not only write together, but take the time to run this contest, offering wonderful opportunities to unpublished authors and illustrators. Which as you know, is what we are all about here at Critter Lit.
Make sure to check out Tara and Becky's website if you haven't already done so: www.beckytarabooks.com. The contest will start up again this December.
Contest applicants get to submit their work (either a manuscript or dummy) to a mentor of their choice. I was stunned with all the amazing work I was sent as a mentor. It was such a difficult decision to pick one mentee to work with, but ultimately Sandra Salsbury's work stood out to me immediately. The first thing I noticed was how well she handled her medium, watercolor. But the second, and what really struck me, especially with regards to picture books, is how great she is at composing different perspectives of storytelling.
I've had the opportunity to get to know Sandra and her work these past few months while mentoring her on her book dummy, MR. FLUFF IS MISSING. I hope you enjoy her work as much as I do!
So without further ado, I'm thrilled to introduce Sandra Salsbury!
Where do you live?
I live in Berkeley, CA, just below hills full of hiking trails and down the street from one of the best bakeries.
When did you know you wanted to make picture books?
I originally enrolled in art school because I loved to draw, but I spent most of my time floundering around with my art, not really knowing what I would do with it after graduation. It had never even occurred to me that there were people out there making picture books. In my last semester I ended up, on whim, enrolling in a children's illustration class with a local illustrator, LeUyen Pham. This was back in 2006, so there was no way for me, nor any of my classmates, to know what a gift it was to be taught by someone like LeUyen. It felt like there was suddenly a place where my art made sense and it was almost absurd that it hadn't occurred to me before. I ended up enrolling in an MFA program after to focus my portfolio on children's illustration and creating picture books has been my goal since then.
Can you share a bit about your process?
My process sort of looks like thinking, then writing, then drawing, then rewriting, then redrawing, and then more thinking and drawing and writing. My stories go through many iterations, first in my head, then in a word document, then on sheets of paper with squares printed out. I usually work in three different sizes of sketches. The smallest is to figure out the overall flow of the story and the pages are small enough that they all fit on one sheet of paper (I will do 3-6 of these, typically). The next size is to figure out the composition of each page. I try to draw 4-8 versions of the page to find the best one. Sometimes the first one is the one that works, but sometimes it's the 8th. The largest size is the most refined version and it's the pages I use for my dummy. Some pages will only have one version, but some will have to be drawing again and again, as I made small changes in the story. And even at the end, you don't know how well a story works until you have put it together into a little book with pages that turn, so I end up with 5-8 final dummies. While working on the dummies I will also do character sketches and art samples to figure out my style and by the time I get to the final paintings, all the hard work is done so I put on an audiobook and get some "reading" done while I paint.
What do you do to shake the rust off or get new ideas?
I am lucky to live right next to a number of beautiful trails and it seems like my brain does its best thinking while my legs are moving. If I am stuck on a project or I can't think of an idea, the solution is always to take a long walk. Sometimes I have to take a lot of walks, but eventually when I let my mind drift away from the problem at hand or I stop trying to come up with a good idea, something will pop into my head. The best answers are the ones that feel obvious because then you know they are simple enough to work.
Art supplies you can't live without?
Arches 140lb cold press watercolor paper. I have tried switching papers, but I am so familiar with the way the paper absorbs paint and water, that using anything else feels like learning how to paint all over again. People always ask about paint brands and brushes, but paper is the true hero of watercolor paintings.
What an impossible question! I love Holly Hobbie's watercolors, Judy Schachner's expressions, Dan Santat's design, Jon Klassen's simplicity, LeUyen Pham's body language, Lorena Alvarez's colors, Chris Appelhan's characters...
Dream project or book to work on?
My dream project is just to write and illustrate (and get published!) my own story. I want to take something from an idea in my mind to a book on a shelf.
And last, but not least, favorite 80s movie?
The Princess Bride. Any other choice would be inconceivable.
Want to know more about Sandra or her work? Visit her online at www.sandrasalsbury.com or you can follow her on Twitter @SandraSalsbury
Recently, I was asked a question about the placement and use of art notes in a picture book manuscript. I get this question a lot. Especially from picture book authors-only. Most illustrators understand when they do and don't need to art note, especially since they have the advantage of knowing what will or will not be illustrated along with the text. So if you're an author only, you have to get creative, and consider the illustrations as you write your text.
So, when should you art note your manuscript? Here is my simplest explanation:
ONLY INCLUDE AN ART NOTE WHEN IT IS IMPERATIVE TO UNDERSTANDING THE TEXT.
Here's an example: say your story is about a monster that only exists in the art. You never mention the monster in the text. The story isn't about the monster. It's about the boy the monster follows around. But in order to know that the monster exists when reading the manuscript, you need to include an art note. Make sense?
Let's say your story has an action sequence, with a lot of sounds and fun read-aloud bits. But it's not necessarily clear what is actually happening in the action. Art note it. This means the illustrator will understand your intention, but be able to amplify the sounds you've provided to marry the art and text together fluidly.
Now that you know when to art note, what should an art note look like?
I prefer to italicize and change the text color of my art notes. So if the manuscript text is in black (which all of yours should be, this isn't fourth grade, and pink isn't an acceptable font color for submission!), then I like to pick a light to medium gray for my art notes. And yes, even as an illustrator I use art notes. I probably use more art notes that an author-only does. I know what I want spreads to look like, so sometimes I will be very specific in my art notes, especially during the submission process. Editors are not always visual people, and the art director won't be reading your manuscript first, an editor most likely will. So make it easy for them to understand. Don't give them a reason, like lack of clarity, for them to pass on your manuscript.
This is what an art note in one of my manuscripts typically looks like:
[Art Note: ... ]
For me, using italics and changing the text color to gray, helps the art notes stand out from the body text. Not only do I think this helps anyone who is reading my manuscript for the first time, but it also helps me during the revision process.
Where should you place an art note within the manuscript? Before or after the scene to which you are referring?
Usually, I place my art notes after the scene I'm referring to in the art note. But you can also list them first. It just depends on what the scene requires and why you are using the art note in the first place. For example, if you need the art note to set a scene, that either has no text or very minimal text, I would suggest listing it before. I've done this from time to time when I'm planning to use an art note as a way to clarify what I will be showing in the art, that won't be explicitly said in the text.
So what should you keep in mind when including art notes? Here is a few tips that can go a long way:
TIPS FOR USING ART NOTES
- Always read your manuscript aloud. To yourself and to others. You should be doing this regardless, but it will definitely help you understand if you need an art note or not.
- If you are an author-only, consider how your text will allow an illustrator to add their mark to the story. Have you left enough room for them? A truly successful picture book is one that effortlessly marries the art and text together, even if it's done by two different people.
- Don't be descriptive. Again, only art note if it's imperative to understanding the text. Don't add in art notes with descriptions of the characters, what they are wearing, the setting, etc. If the reader will need any of these things to understand your story, then you need to art note it. But otherwise, you are trying to micromanage the illustrations and you need to stop. As an illustrator, I can tell you, it's very annoying.
So go out there and art note correctly, or not. Either way, now you know, and hopefully this post will help you when deciding whether or not to include an art note in your manuscript.
If you have a question you'd like to see answered here on Critter Lit, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until next time, happy writing!
To say that last summer was crazy would be an understatement. Within a matter of three months I finished Brobarians and we sold our house. By the end of the summer, we were in tow with a baby and dog and no place to live (our house sold much faster than we anticipated). Thankfully our parents were willing to take us in until we could close on a new house (we bid and lost out on FOUR houses until we found our current house, which was totally worth the wait, but still it was crazy!) Here’s a look at some of the photos I took while making Brobarians last summer:
Until next time,
Making the cover for any book is stressful. So many things factor into the design and overall look. And of course there is the ultimate question bouncing around in the back of your mind...Will this cover sell this book? For most books I work on, I go through many revisions before I settle on the right look for the cover. So far my record is 40 cover sketches (When Blue Met Egg). Thankfully Brobarians didn't require quite that many. Here's a look at the sketches that lead up to the final cover I chose for Brobarians with the wonderful team I worked with at Two Lions:
I think I was a little gung-ho on this one. We ultimately didn't go with this option because we didn't want to give away the fantasy scenes included in the interior of the book. This is where the reader sees how the brothers actually see themselves in their imagination.
Although this really conveyed the action and energy of the story through the movement of the brothers running, we wanted readers to connect with the characters, which is tough through a profile image.
Now we were getting somewhere. We could see the brother's environment, we had a head on perspective to connect with them. But, by closing Iggy's eyes, the reader loses the connection with him. So this cover option didn't make it either.
I tried a variation on Cover Sketch 3 by doing more of a close-up on the brothers. Obviously Iggy's eyes closed was still an issue, but I wanted to see if a close-up would make a difference. Ultimately, we felt that we understood the context better if we could see more of the background and the objects they were holding on to.
Again, super gung-ho. I loved the idea of this cover, but it would have given away too much. And this spread in the book is one of my favorites. Having gone this way for the cover would have taken away from the climax of their battle scene.
While I was sketching all of the cover options, this was one of my favorites. But after some back and forth over it with the team at Two Lions, we decided the attitude the boys had was a little too much and didn't really reflect the feel of the book.
Finally, we had a winner! I say finally like seven sketches is a lot, it's really not. But I was thrilled with this sketch and so happy that the team at Two Lions loved it too. It showed the environment, the brother's personalities, and the feeling of the book. It was the whole package! You'll also notice we dropped the hyphen in the title. We thought this would be much easier for readers when looking for the book in a search engine. Next, we had to make the jacket...
Here's the final sketch.
Then I created the rest of the art for the jacket. Now I needed to add color...
This is how the art looks when I send it to my editor and art director for approval. Everything is taped down so that I can still make changes. I had run out of drafting tape at this point and all I had left was floral wasabi tape, thus the patterned tape everywhere. I don't glue anything down until the very end.
Then the book designer goes in and lays out all the copy on the flaps and spine of the book. We went through a few changes with this until we settled on the perfect one. I'm thrilled with how it all came together. I worked with an amazing team of people at Two Lions.
Ta-da! Here's the final cover! I'd come along way since the cover I submitted with my book dummy during the submission process:
So all that for one cover - no big deal right? I hope you enjoy Brobarians as much as I do. For more information about the book or to pre-order Brobarians, click here.
Until next time, Happy Reading!
At the end of this month, my newest picture book BROBARIANS with Two Lions, an imprint of Amazon Publishing, will pub on March 28th. I'm so excited to share this book with all of you for many reasons, but mostly because I never thought this book would be published. I honestly didn't think anyone would get it. It's weird and quirky and has nods to the writing of John Milius, who isn't exactly the poster boy for childhood. Yet here we are, a month out from publication thanks to all the fabulous people at Two Lions who believed in it too.
Let me start from the beginning. My husband has this list of must-see movies. He's very particular about them and feels that they are necessary to be a well-rounded viewer/human being. In other words, if you haven't seen them, he won't think much of your movie taste. What can I say, he's particular about his movies. One of the movies on his list is Conan the Barbarian, written and directed by John Milius, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. I know what you're thinking. Really, that's on the list? Yes. And like all of you, I thought could this movie really be worth two hours of my life? But my husband insisted. Apparently my life would be stunted without it this viewing experience. So we watched it. And to be honest, I hated the first half hour of it. It was campy, cheesy, and completely ridiculous. But then something strange happened, I started to enjoy the campy, cheesy, and completely ridiculous dialogue. It was so over the top. This movie represented everything I would typically pass on, but for some reason it all worked. By the end of the two hours I loved it. And better yet...and book idea was forming.
I realized that the voice of Conan the Barbarian is what really sets it apart. I don't mean Arnold's voice, but rather the words of John Milius, the writer. This is the same guy who wrote Red Dawn, Apocalypse Now, Dirty Harry, etc. An over the top, larger than life writer and director in the movie business. In fact, if any of you have seen The Big Lebowski (another movie on my husband's list) the character played by John Goodman is based on Milius. I imagine you have to be pretty bold to create his resume. Days after watching Conan, the voice stayed with me.
And then I remembered a story my husband told me about he and his brother when they were little. My husband is two years older than his younger brother. By the time his younger brother was walking around with a bottle, my husband had already been weened off of them. But that didn't change the fact that he still wanted one all the time. So on occasion my husband was known to steal his younger brother's bottle and go hide behind a chair while he gulped it down. This lasted a whole of five minutes before their mom would figure out what had happened and take the bottle away. Apparently this became a household routine.
So between the Conan voice bouncing around in my head and the story my husband told me...BROBARIANS was created. As soon as the idea popped into my head, I wrote the first draft in one go. The story went through many, many, many drafts and revisions. But finally I was ready to create a dummy and send it to my agent. She must have thought I was crazy the first time she read BROBARIANS. I knew it was going to be a tough sell because the voice was so adult. But I also knew that's where the humor was. This idea of babies juxtaposed with this over-the-top narration was too funny not to try.
We went out on two rounds of general submission and magically two houses were interested! I couldn't believe someone was going to let me publish this book. Even now I still feel that way. Ultimately we felt that Two Lions and Amazon were a great fit for BROBARIANS.
After finishing the book, I received the best editorial letter yet, to which my editor said:
"I can say with certainty that this is the only time I have ever said this to anyone: thanks for watching Conan the Barbarian."
So...here's the point of this post: you never know where your ideas will come from, least of all a movie night with your husband starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Who'd of thought?
I'm thrilled to share BROBARIANS on March 28th! I hope you all find it as funny as I do!
To pre-order BROBARIANS, please click here.
Make sure to check back during the month of March for more posts about the making of BROBARIANS!
Create what you love. And do it every day.
At 31 this is what I would have told my 24-year-old self when I started in publishing.
It sounds relatively simple right? Wrong. Or at least, that’s how it was for me. Specifically the do it everyday part. I didn’t keep a sketch book. I didn’t write everyday. I didn’t think about new ideas all the time. I’d come up with a book idea. Write it. Make a dummy. And pitch it. If it sold, I’d make said book. Exert a serious amount of energy and then feel like I needed a three month vacation. And then repeat the whole thing all over again for the next book. Which isn’t exactly wrong. The problem was that I was treating my book career like a hobby. A career is not something you do occasionally. It’s something you invest your time in everyday. And I love my job. So why wasn’t I investing my time?
For me it was easy to step back and say I deserved a break after completing a book. It takes a lot of work! But I found when I looked at it like this, it started to feel like a burden. And writing and illustrating is not a burden, it’s a privilege. Truly. So I realized it was time for a radical change. Which is funny because 2016 was insanely full of them for me and my family, so why not add one more?
This past August we sold our house, bought a new one (but not without being transient for three months at my parents and in-laws with a baby and dog in tow). Renovated the new house because it was a total disaster. Moved in two days before Christmas and basically reinvented our whole work schedule. It was a massive overhaul. And it changed everything in the most difficult and best way possible.
It’s 6:19am right now and I’ve already been up for an hour and half.
This is what I do everyday now. Including Saturdays and Sundays. Which today is Saturday. I wake up at 5am and work for a solid four hours before most people start their work day. And I do it seven days a week. I know what you’re thinking…I can’t do that. I can’t wake up that early. I’m too busy. (I know this because those are all the things I said when my brilliant husband suggested this to me.) He told me that in an average work day, people are only truly productive for four hours, which is crazy considering most people work a job from 9-5 everyday. So why couldn’t that work for me? It would certainly allow me to be a mom and take care of my home and family in a much more efficient way than I was already, let’s be honest, struggling to do.
It’s all about commitment to craft. Do you love to create? Great. Do you love creating so much that you would get up and do it at 5am? Because that’s what it takes. Everyday. Even if you have another job. I’m not saying you have wake up at 5am like I do, but you do have to be committed to making time for your craft each and everyday. I picked 5am because I like feeling like I’ve already worked a solid block of time before the day has really started, that and I have a 18-month-old son. This is the schedule that works for me and my family. You have to find what works for you.
Because here’s the thing - if you keep waiting for extra time to come along for you to create your next idea, it won’t. Time doesn’t give a crap about you or the millions of things you have to get done everyday. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of mornings I get up and everything I write is terrible and my drawings are awful. But I still keep going. I push to get through those four hours even if it’s killing me.
Here’s what a typical morning looks like:
5am: Roll out of bed, which is difficult every morning. I don’t think that will ever change. Especially when my dog (a mid-sized portable heater) snuggles next to me. She is not supportive of my early morning drive.
5:10am: Some sort of stretch or repetition of ten to get blood flowing. My hands are stiff in the morning. And my brain is fuzzy. This helps. Seriously. I know it sounds silly, but it works.
5:10-6am: Draw. Anything. As much as I can. Whatever pops into my head. I use Japanese PiGMA pens and whiteout for corrections. I started using this method for a few reasons. I generally stay away from black ink in my work, it always feels too harsh or heavy. I tend to prefer grey or navy ink or a simple pencil line. But my goal is to make intentional lines, no second-guessing myself, and pencil encourages hesitation. The more I used the black ink, the more confident I became in the lines I was making. Going directly to ink, rather than creating a pencil sketch first, pushes me to be decisive with my line. Now, of course, I still make plenty of bad lines and change my mind about the drawing as it comes together - thus the whiteout. But I find that my morning sketches have a way of maintaining the integrity of the line I intended because I haven’t sketched, used a light table to transfer, and then created the finish. The first drawing is the finished drawing.
6am: Then I post one of my morning sketches. This is a relatively new thing. I’m horrible at social media. But I found that posting a drawing everyday makes me feel accountable to something. Like if I miss a day, everyone will know. Which isn’t really the point, the drawing is for me, but thinking this way is encouraging. Keep drawing. Keep creating.
6am-7am: Write. I allocate a solid hour to NEW creative writing every morning. Not editing. Not a book I’m currently under contract for. But new ideas. This part is really difficult for me. I tend to self edit a lot as I write. I work on just getting words on the page in this hour. The computer I write with doesn’t have access to internet intentionally. The internet is a time succubus that doesn’t care about the creative work you need to do, so ignore it.
7am-9am: This is when I do the work I’m contractually accountable for, like new books or illustration jobs. Currently, I’m working on finishes for my new book, DON'T FORGET DEXTER.
9am: I walk out of my bat cave and see my little man. This is my favorite part. Because this is the part where I actually feel like I’m devoting time to my craft and my family. I don’t feel torn between carving out time during the day to work or play with my son. This schedule allows me to do both and feel good about my use of time.
The rest of the day is spent working during the time my son is napping. Before I did the 5am wake-up, I’d get really stressed out because I could only work during his naps. Sometimes he would wake up early, sometimes he wouldn’t sleep at all. I couldn’t focus. And it felt like I wasn’t able to get anything done because of constant interruptions. But now, by the time he’s up, I’ve already worked four hours, so anything else I’m able to accomplish is a bonus.
Then at some point, I take a walk with my family, to reboot and think about new ideas.
Now obviously, everyone’s schedule is different. People have day jobs, kids, and a million other responsibilities. And I’m not suggesting to all of you that this is what you have to do to be successful with your craft. All I can tell you is that this is how I feel successful on my own terms, without external pressures telling me otherwise.
*Also, in case you’re wondering, my husband is self-employed and works from home too. Which means I have to make those four hours count. I have to hustle. We both do. There is no day job income to fall back on for us. This is the price we pay for the freedom to create and spend time with our son everyday.
If you get anything at all out of this post, I hope it’s this: don’t waste time waiting around for the perfect moment to create because it will never come.
You have to make time for what you love.
My husband and I read to our son every night. And every night it's always so tough to pick what books to read. My husband just grabs books off the shelf at random, without even looking. I, on the other hand, sit there staring, as if its the most important decision I'll make all day. It's usually not, but that doesn't change the fact that I still do it every night.
Over the years, I've amassed quite the picture book collection, as I'm sure you can imagine. Some as a bookseller, some as an illustrator, some as an author/illustrator, and now, as a mom. It's funny how my tastes have changed since becoming a mom. Before I would buy books that had really amazing art, I didn't pay that much attention to the story. As someone who came to publishing as an illustrator first, the writing in any book always came second to me. If I didn't like the art, I wouldn't buy the book. Period. Even if it was an amazing story. Now, I want the whole package. I expect amazing art and text. If I'm going to add it to our collection, it better be good. Like really good. It's the same attitude I have when I create my own books. I have to make a brilliant book so it can hold it's own against millions of other books. So that someone will want to add it to their collection and share with their family. The way I do.
There are so many books to choose from, even among the collection we've already created based on our family's tastes. My son is still young enough that he isn't really picking books out himself just yet (unless is a very loved and chewed copy of Little Fur Family - what can I say he loves the "kerchoo" part, laughs every time).
So here's my list of five books that every time I read them I think "man, I hope I'm this good some day." They are the books that I never tire of reading. Some old, some new. The ones that are just so good, no holes, nothing I would change. Perfect in my opinion.
I've focused this list on storytelling, although every single one of them has amazing art that deserves it's own shout out.
1. INTERRUPTING CHICKEN By David Ezra Stein
It’s time for the little red chicken’s bedtime story —and a reminder from Papa to try not to interrupt. But the chicken can’t help herself! Whether the tale is HANSEL AND GRETEL or LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD or even CHICKEN LITTLE, she jumps into the story to save its hapless characters from doing some dangerous or silly thing. Now it’s the little red chicken’s turn to tell a story, but will her yawning papa make it to the end without his own kind of interrupting?
This might be my favorite read-a-loud of all time. Seriously. It's that good. This one is on my list for a few reasons. One, I never get tired of reading it (which is always a good starting point). Two, at 1 1/2, Jack actually pays attention throughout this entire book, which always amazes me. And three, the DIALOGUE. It's pitch perfect. Every word choice is spot on. The conversation between Papa and Little Red Chicken reads like any parent with their child at bedtime. Little Red Chicken is impatient and impulsive, she can't wait to interrupt, because after all, she knows what's going to happen. I find that when I read this book aloud, I don't have to think about the inflections in my voice, or the best way to tell the story for my son to understand what's happening. It just naturally happens because the text is so good. Keep in mind this is a book that won a Caldecott Honor, and I'm telling you how wonderful the text is. I haven't even mentioned how amazing the illustrations are. Two styles in one book! That's how great this book is.
2. AND THEN IT'S SPRING Written by Julie Fogliano, Illustrated by Erin Stead
Following a snow-filled winter, a young boy and his dog decide that they've had enough of all that brown and resolve to plant a garden. They dig, they plant, they play, they wait...and wait...until at last, the brown becomes a more hopeful shade of brown, a sign that spring may finally be on its way.
Every time I read Julie's words, it hurts. They are just so good. Personally, I think she is one of the best writers in children's lit, not just picture books. Her WORD CHOICE is exquisite. Every line seems perfectly constructed. Each word meticulously chosen. I once read that J.D. Salinger agonized over every word choice. Each one had to be perfect or he'd cross it out. I imagine that is what it's like for Julie. Her words are captivating and ask you to run away with them in such an effortless way, which of course I'm sure she would say otherwise. Here is my favorite passage:
and the brown,
still brown, has a greenish hum
that you can only hear
if you put your ear to the ground
and close your eyes
Just beautiful. Oh, and did I mention the art is created by Caldecott winning illustrator Erin Stead. Any illustrator looking for a lesson in perfect composition and execution, look at this book. The illustrations are absolutely stunning and there are so many lovely details to look for on each page.
3. THE DAY THE CRAYONS QUIT Written by Drew Daywalt, Illustrated by Oliver Jeffers
Poor Duncan just wants to color. But when he opens his box of crayons, he finds only letters, all saying the same thing: His crayons have had enough! They quit! Beige Crayon is tired of playing second fiddle to Brown Crayon. Black wants to be used for more than just outlining. Blue needs a break from coloring all those bodies of water. And Orange and Yellow are no longer speaking—each believes he is the true color of the sun. What can Duncan possibly do to appease all of the crayons and get them back to doing what they do best?
Okay, let's be totally honest here. This is one of those books that the first time I read it I was like "Dammit! I wish I'd thought of that!" I remember I was standing in Anthropologie of all places, that's how big the book had gotten already (I know, I know, how had I not seen this sooner...what can I say it was the summer I got married, things were crazy). The entire CONCEPT is absolutely brilliant, as you all probably already know. And not just that, but the voices of each crayon are so funny. I think Peach crayon is my favorite. The humor in this book is just off the charts. Every color, relationship, and concern is so well thought out. And this was a debut picture book paired with Oliver Jeffer's illustrations! It kills me, it's so good! A must have for any picture book collection.
4. THE NEW SMALL PERSON by Lauren Child
Elmore Green starts life as an only child, as many children do. He has a room to himself, where he can line up his precious things and nobody will move them one inch. But one day everything changes. When the new small person comes along, it seems that everybody might like it a bit more than they like Elmore Green. And when the small person knocks over Elmore’s things and even licks his jelly-bean collection, Elmore’s parents say that he can’t be angry because the small person is only small. Elmore wants the small person to go back to wherever it came from. Then, one night, everything changes. . . .
This is not only my favorite new sibling book, but it's also one of my favorite books of all time. I think the VOICE is what really sets it apart. Elmore Green does not want a new sibling, he won't even refer to him by name, just "The New Small Person." He has no interest in sharing his jelly beans, especially the orange ones, or tv shows, or his collection of things. Everything about Elmore is so spot on with what a kid would actually do and say. I love how the two brothers finally come together in the middle of the night after Elmore has a nightmare and the new small person proclaims "Go away scary!". This book is clever and sweet all at once, punctuated by Lauren Child's whimsical cut-paper illustrations.
5. IN A BLUE ROOM Written by Jim Averbeck, Illustrated by Tricia Tusa
Alice is wide, wide awake. Mama brings flowers, tea, a quilt, even lullaby bells to help her sleep. But none of these things are blue, and Alice can sleep only in a blue room. Yet when the light goes out, a bit of magic is stirred up. Pale blue moonlight swirls into her bedroom window. Then the night swirls out, around the moon and into the universe, leaving Alice fast alsleep in a most celestial blue room.
This is a one of my favorite bedtime books in our collection. I have loved this book since it came out and I was hand-selling it as a bookseller in The Children's Book Shop in Boston. Jim Averbeck does such as amazing job creating the mood of this story. Throughout the story he references the all the senses, colors, and creates a feeling of total relaxation. I can smell the lilacs, feel the warm tea, and hear the soft sound of lullaby bells chiming in the breeze. This book is like a warm comfy quilt wrapped around you before you drift off to sleep. And perfectly illustrated by the always amazing Tricia Tusa who paces the final lines of the book in one of the best succession of spreads I've ever seen in a picture book. Love love this book.
Please take a moment to check these books out from your local library if you get the chance. They are wonderful reads!
Welcome to Critter Lit!
A new site where you can receive FREE one-time critiques on picture book illustrations and manuscripts.
The idea of Critter Lit had always been there, but it wasn't until recently that I felt it was time to finally launch it. 2017 has started out rough for most Americans. Everywhere I look people are fearful and uncertain about the future. So now seems as good a time as any to look to the future, to embrace it, to help raise it up!
So how can I make a better world for the next generation? The answer seems impossible and although I'm just one person, there are at least two things I can offer: advice and experience. The best way I know how to do that is through books. So, what does that mean exactly?
Well, for starters it's time to give back. There are so many up-and-coming writers and illustrators who need a chance to tell their stories. But unfortunately publishing has become more and more competitive, to the point where it's nearly impossible to break-in. Critiques are expensive. Conferences even more so. And getting your work in front of an agent or editor seems unattainable.
So here's a crazy thought...FREE one-time critiques from someone in the business. Me.
I want to help you shape the books of tomorrow in hopes that they will make a difference for the next generation of readers.
I wish all of my time were up for grabs, but unfortunately it's not. I have a family, responsibilities, and my own creative projects to develop, just like all of you.
So here's my promise: all first-time critiques are FREE. Additional manuscripts or passes, dummy critiques, and page breaks are available for an additional fee. There's no obligation. If my advice or suggestions helped you, great! Come back and maybe we can work on something else together. If not, hopefully you gained something out of the experience to take with you along your creative journey.
My hope is that your work gets published. There were many people who helped me on my road to publication, and for them I will forever be grateful. People who donated their time and advice without question. Because that's the best thing about the children's lit community, we support one another.
So here's my chance to support you.