Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Virtual Mentors for Picture Book Makers

Hello! It's Whatsit K. Mann this time. Or Jennifer K. Whatsit, if you prefer.

When it first became clear to me that what I had to do with my life was to become a maker of children’s books, it occurred to me that my learning curve might be kind of steep.

My degrees were in history, and then in architecture--not in art or illustration, or writing for children.

And since I was potentially chucking a very decent and happy career as an architect, for something in which I had almost no skills, I knew I had to learn how to do this thing well. But I wasn't going to be heading back to school to do so anytime soon.

So, I rounded up a whole bunch of mentors and we got down to business!


I mean I rounded up a whole bunch of virtual mentors. 

Virtual--as defined by Mr’s Merriam and Webster-- is “Being such in essence or effect though not formally recognized as such.”

Mentor--as defined by Mr’s Merriam and Webster--is “a trusted counselor, or guide.”

My virtual mentors are my trusted counselors or guides. But they are my mentors in essence only. I conjure them in my imagination by learning as much as I possibly can about their work, because I wish they could be my actual, real-life mentors. I can almost hear their voices. But I have only ever met one of them.

They are masters whose wisdom, skill, and knowledge I can solicit whenever I need to get better, go deeper, solve a prickly problem, or be inspired. They stand behind me and direct my work over my shoulder, or scan through my dummies and offer feedback and suggestions for improvement. They do all of this quietly and behind the scenes, and entirely in my mind.

I found my virtual mentors by looking at mountains of picture books. 

After a while I noticed there were some books that I kept going back to. I couldn't get enough of the wonderful art, or the touching or funny or totally odd stories. 

In order to understand what drew me to those books, I looked very very closely.

I typed the stories out word for word. I read them aloud over and over in various voices to understand the rhythm and word choice. I copied the art. I emulated techniques and styles, and even searched the Internet for interviews and articles that provided insight to how the artists made their unique and sometimes mysterious art. 

Occasionally, I found concrete answers. Sometimes I had to guess and experiment myself.

I went over the books I loved the most with a fine toothed comb, and held them almost as close as my nose to analyze brush strokes and tell-tale textures, and discern word choice and structure, or how each scene contributed to the narrative arc.

I learned to look at the copyright page of many picture books for clues the artists sometimes include about their choices of materials and processes.

I drew entire books in thumbnail form in order to analyze pacing and composition and page turns and narrative arcs.

I looked between the lines and underneath the layers of color and texture for the deeper meaning of what these brilliant people had to say, and seemed to do so effortlessly.

I learned that none of it is effortless! These authors and illustrators made it look easy, but that was part of the charm of their work. In fact, they had developed their skills through grit and hard work, determination, mastery, and practice. 

And as I studied these masters, I was able to find a path to my own voice, my own style, my own way of making children’s books. By looking closely and analyzing and sometimes mimicking their wonderful work, I absorbed a bit of their wisdom, a few of their skills, insight into their process and point of view. Experimenting with their techniques opened up new ways for me to create my own work.

What a great and important education.

And it never has to end. I make it a point to read, comb through and analyze mountains of picture books on a regular basis. It's continuing education, and it's cheap, or free, and ultimately priceless.

So, I will send you off to educate yourself with a list of some of my very first virtual mentors.  Maybe you can spot their influence in my work. So many more have joined them since I started this most excellent journey (as you can begin to see in the photos above) but these listed below remain my rocks, and I will be forever grateful for all the wisdom and advice they have given me since I started this wonderful pursuit.

Starting with these two:

Although she is neither author nor artist, one of my most important virtual mentors is UrsulaNordstrom. Her incredible wit and wisdom is forever captured in the book of her letters, Dear Genius, The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, collected and edited by Leonard S. Marcus. 

Also, Martin Salisburyeditor of several excellent books about children’s books, and Maria Popova of the excellent blog, Brain Pickings. They are two of my favorite contemporary curators of excellent children’s books. Follow their lead, and you will be educated.

And some of the others, whose work is featured in this post:

That's it for now.
Next up, November 4, will be Kevan Attebury, with a post about doing our work away from the office or studio.

Thanks for visiting, all.



Wednesday, October 7, 2015

ERS Goes Undercover

Greetings, Blogfriends!
Whatsit Stanton here . . . curious about what's under the covers :)

When I received the proofs for my picture book, Henny, I was delighted to see the plans my art director at Simon & Schuster had for the hard case cover come to life. I love that Henny has a distinctly different identity beneath her simple, cheerful jacket:

It got me wondering about what lies beneath the dust jackets of other picture books, so I thought it would be fun to share some of what I found after taking a peek at my own collection.

As I undressed the books, I discovered that most of them have hard case covers that exactly match their dust jackets. For these books, there are no hidden surprises, but there is most certainly delight at the repetition. More is better, right? Case in point, Whatsit Kevan Atteberry's colorful and super fun, Bunnies!!! (2015) 

As I went along, I set aside the books that, to whatever degree, had hard covers that varied from their dust jackets. 
Here are some highlights, roughly categorized by type—some old, some new— from my modest but ever-growing collection of picture books:

 Here are a few no-title, no-image covers:
Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman (1978) picks up the beautiful blue background from the jacket.

Steig’s Brave Irene (1986) plain cloth cover takes off on Irene’s red scarf, hat, and mittens.

Maurice Sendak's, We Are All in the Dumps With Jack and Guy (1993) has, in spite of its bold jacket, a remarkably plain brown paper cover.

Then there are those with predominantly plain covers that have embossed teasers hinting at what's inside:
The classic, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (1978), with an embossed, to-the-point image!

Two little embossed ants creep onto the otherwise blank cloth cover of Chris Van Allsburg's Two Bad Ants (1988)

Barbara McClintock's Adele & Simon (2006) has a subtle embossed cat on the case, a nod to the drawing Simon is holding in the image on the jacket. 

I was especially delighted today when my copy of Phillip and Erin Stead's Lenny & Lucy (2015) arrived. The warm golden foil images on the case tie in with the raised and comparably golden title on the dust jacket:

Then there are covers where, instead of the title dropping out, the image drops out:
Crow and Weasel by Barry Lopez, illustrated by Tom Pohrt (1990)—a beautiful classic with a handsome blue cloth cover with a golden foil title.

This case title for Robert L. Forbes's collection of animal rhymes, illustrated by Ronald Searle, is a shiny blue—making it pop on the sunny yellow cloth cover.

Here are a couple of books where the title drops out, but the jacket image remains:
House of Dolls (2010), by Francesca Lea Block, illustrated by Barbara McClintock 

The Leaf Men, by William Joyce (1996)

And then, there's the unexpected:

May the Stars Drip Down (2014), by Jeremy Chatelain, illustrated by Nikki McClure, has a partial jacket, reminiscent of clouds.

When I first picked up Scott Magoon's I've Painted Everything! (2007), I didn't think it had a jacket—a tactile surprise because it looks and feels exactly like the cloth case cover!

And to get a star, you have to take the jacket off this early printing of Jennifer K. Mann's latest book!

Here are some more undercover delights, in no particular order:

hello! hello! (2012) by Matthew Cordell 

Don't Lick the Dog (2009) by Wendy Wahman

Z is for Moose (2012) and Circle Square Moose (2014) by Kelly Bingham, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky

Apple Cake (2012) by Julie Paschkis

Ninja (2014) by Arree Chung

Mo's Mustache (2013) by Ben Clanton

The Quiet Book (2010) by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Renata Liwska

The Crows of Pearblossom (2011) by Aldous Huxley, illustrated by Sophie Blackall

For more glimpses of what lies beneath, be sure and check out Travis Jonker's 100 Scope Notes blog posts featuring a sampling of covers from 2013 and 2015:

Thanks, friends! See you next time!

Next up:  October 21st—Whatsit Jennifer K. Mann talks virtual mentors!