Same Old Story?

The spark for my new picturebook Owl Bat Bat Owl came from this Christmas card Michael made for me:

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One day as I looked at it I thought, ‘bet it would really horrify those owls if another creature moved in on their branch,’ and the idea was born.

As soon as I began sketching my little owls and bats I realised I was riffing on a familiar theme, one I’d explored before in The Long March (1998) and also in I am I (2006), and I was directly referencing this Native American symbol I had come across when making The Long March:

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For the Choctaw this is a river symbol*. Gary Whitedeer explained to me that the Choctaw say that just as you cannot stand on both banks of a river at once, you cannot belong to two cultures, but sometimes the river narrows, the banks come closer together and you can reach across and touch someone on the other side.

This idea really resonated with the story I was writing in The Long March.The Choctaw had been through the awful trauma of displacement, which had resulted in huge loss of life through hunger and disease. In 1847, the worst year of the Great Famine, they sent aid to Ireland, reaching across an ocean to help another people going through what they had experienced.

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When I came up with the idea for I am I (2006) I quickly realised that I was referencing that river symbol again. The two boys in the story are divided by a river, each yelling about who owns their valley, each full of ego and pride and hate, but when they see the damage their words have done they ‘reach across’ to each other in empathy.

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In Owl Bat Bat Owl the river is replaced by a branch. The resident owls are horrified when a family of homeless bats turn up seeking refuge in their tree, but then the wind blows up a storm and the two families experience near catastrophe…

I told the story of The Long March with several thousand words and detailed realistic illustrations. I only used a few hundred words in I am I but those words morphed and twisted into barbed wire, a dragon, birds, making it very much a story told visually. With Owl Bat Bat Owl I have dispensed with words completely and the whole story unfolds through images alone.

It is my first wordless book, my first all-animal book and the first time I’ve illustrated a book entirely with digital art, but for all its difference and newness it is indeed ‘the same old story’. I am writing again about displacement, difference, empathy, friendship. The river symbol which Gary Whitedeer showed me in 1996 has run through my work, gifting me story after story, or the same story reimagined. The three books look very different but that river runs through them all.

Owl Bat Bat Owl (Walker Books) will be available on October 6th.

*some Native American tribes see this as a snake symbol.

Sketches with Wolves!

When we were in Ipswich MA with Barbara and Ed we went to see the wolves in nearby Wolf Hollow. Wolf Hollow is a centre dedicated to educating people about all things wolf and it was fab to see these beautiful animals up close.

I bought some wolf cards to send home. Ed, Michael and myself had some fun doodling on them.

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Everyone got an Ed wolf, a Michael wolf and a Mel wolf…

…and for once the cards got home before we did.

 

Click here for info on WOLF HOLLOW

Corn Dolly

They were teaching folk how to make corn dolls at the Concorde Museum so I had a go. A museum guide helped me through each step.

If you want a closer look, click and scroll. Roll mouse over images for captions.

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Then I placed my corn dolly in an authentic New England window to set her off to best effect!

 

Photos © Michael Emberley

On Authors’ Ridge at Sleepy Hollow

 

Louisa May AlcottOn Saturday we were back in Concord MA and made the pilgrimage to Sleepy Hollow cemetery. We passed through the Authors’ Gate, climbed up to Authors’ Ridge and went looking for the Alcott graves. It was nearly 6pm and we had the place to ourselves so it felt all the more special to stand a while at the resting place of Louisa and her Little Women.

Other famous writers buried on the ridge are Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Thoreau and Emerson, contemporaries and neighbours of the Alcotts.

Other Little Women posts:

At Home with Jo March

Jo & Amy & Me

Why 32 Pages?

Picturebooks are mostly 32 pages long for several reasons. One is paper size.

The maximum size sheet of paper a press can take depends on the size of the press itself. However, paper needs to maintain stability as it goes through the press and the larger the sheet in a four-colour print run, the more likely it will stretch slightly as it gets inked, causing the colour to go out of register. So there are limits to how large a sheet of paper is used for a picturebook run.

Depending on its dimensions, a 32 page book may be printed on 1 single sheet (16 individual pages on either side = 32), or split between 2 sheets of paper, each with 8 pages on either side.

The Sleeping Giant was printed on 2 sheets and the images below show the imposition proof of the first section. Because this is a test proof it’s on cheap thin paper. Also it has been rolling around our studio for several years which is why it’s so crumpled and tatty!

Giant-section 1-test sheet Giant-section 1otherside-test sheet I’ve added the page numbers on top so you can see the way the imposition works – the 16 pages are organised on the sheet so they will all end up in the right place when it is folded by the folding machine. Once the imposition sheet has been folded to check this, the print run can go ahead. The imposition print is also called the ‘blue copy’ because it was formerly printed only in blue.

On this close up of the imposition sheet you can see the fold/trim lines which don’t appear on the final printed sheets. Some artwork is ‘bleeding’ over the trim line. Illustrators always add ‘bleed’ (10-15mm) to images to allow for slight shifts when the folded section is trimmed on three sides.

Fold&bleed&trimlines -test sheetPicturebooks are many different shapes and sizes but ultimately they need to fit within a certain size of paper to be competitively priced. Sometimes publishers produce over-size books, or one which is extra tall or extra wide, and some picturebooks are pushed to 48 pages (an extra 16 pages/1 sheet) – but extra sheets mean an extra print-run & time & ink and all add to the cost. Picturebooks also come as 24 pages, 40, 56, but the pages are always in multiples of 8. You can’t add or subtract a random number of pages – say 2, or 4.

The thing is, while paper size and cost may be the main reason why the 32 page picturebook is the most common, it is a length which works very well. A 24 page book is quite short, so is often used for baby books, while 48 pages may feel like the story is being dragged out. 32 pages has a Goldilocks’ rightness to it!

 

Note for any illustrator thinking of creating their first picturebook: the publisher looks after these technical details of preparing the art for print. Also, they will decide the size and dimensions with you. If you want to rough up an idea within ‘acceptable’ dimensions try finding a book that is a size and shape which you feel suits your idea, and use its measurements as a guide. Bear in mind that paper sizes vary a little worldwide and that the publisher may suggest changes, so don’t get too wedded to an exact size too early in the process.

Picturebook Journey, from idea to published…

…told mostly through images. Click on any image for a closer look.

New-Kid-1The idea for The New Kid started when I observed a small girl in The Happy Pear coffee shop. Something about the way she was wearing her coat resonated with me, reminded me of myself as a child… the above on-the-spot sketches and first version of text are dated 3rd January 2010.

New-Kid-2Early draft of the text which I printed out and immediately covered in edits. There were many rewrites and edits through-out the process, right up until I sent off the final art.

Early thumbnails as I tried to work out the story visually. I did this alongside shaping the text. Again, I wrote notes to myself all over these – change this, change that. These are working roughs, all about getting the idea out onto paper, not about making nice drawings.

Then I did sketches to find my characters. Ellie is based on the little girl I saw so I had her set from early on. The others had to emerge…

These images are from a set of more coherent roughs – I’m still working small, three spreads to an A3 sheet of paper – but I’m getting closer each time to how the book will look. I did at least three versions of the book at this size, copying the images which were working and changing/tweaking/losing others with every layer of reworking.

When I was happy with how it was working I made up a full size dummy and sent a copy to my agent (now I’d make a PDF and send it too). She showed it to Hodder and I had a contract! Yay! This was, I think, mid 2011. The work described above was done in two/three/four week runs, with gaps in between doing other things.

The editors then sent me comments, suggested some changes, pointed out weak spots…

New-Kid-18…and I took most of these onboard as I knew they would improve the book. One or two things I didn’t agree with, so we discussed and compromised, or I left those out. I did another set of full size roughs, there were a few more tweaks and finally…

…a set of ‘finished’ roughs – a set as close as I could get to the final images before going to colour. Last chance for major changes, so everyone looked at them very carefully. I roughed in the text as already planned with the design editor. Text needs to be placed where it reads well, looks well, and is not too near gutters or edges. There needs to be room to allow translations into languages, such as German, which will need more space. As the text in this book is sitting on the images I needed to make sure I didn’t paint fussy texture or dark tones underneath.

It was finally time to begin the finished art:

I worked in acrylics. It was very labour intensive and took about six months to complete – 15 spreads averaging two weeks a piece (some 1 week, some 3), and of course a few hit the bin along the way.

I referenced loads of images as I worked, some to ensure drew the animals/vehicles correctly, others were for colour reference. I had taken many photos a friend’s dog, and of a street in Cobh, other images were from books and the internet.

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Then came the endpapers and the cover. The cover is very important as it is what makes people pick up the book in the first place – I’ll blog about that journey another day.

I sent off the art by courier and then a month later a set of colour proofs arrived – my absolute last chance to pick up errors in the text and tweak the colours if any of them looked strange. The colours in the final book will never exactly match the art; the best that can be accomplished is a close match with no odd colours. A few changes were needed – a spelling fix on the title spread, one spread looked rather dark, and the skin tones in two  had gone a little peachy.

The book headed off to China to be printed and bound. It can take six months to a year  to arrive back and be distributed to shops. I got my first copies in May 2014, so it had taken 4 years and 4 months from initial idea through to published book. About 10 months work spread out over that time, it’s hard to tell exactly; I was working on other books in between.

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It was a fairly typical picturebook journey for me; other writer/illustrators have different or similar processes and take less or more time. Michael discusses his process here: miss-brooks-story-nook-the-art-part-1

This post is especially for the students and staff at Marino Institute of Education, where I have very much enjoyed being this year’s writer-in-residence.

 

Strandbeest Strolling

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Our favourite exhibition last year was Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests at the Peabody in Salem. It was so good we went twice. We brought  Barbara (above, walking a Beest) and Ed, and two other friends with us for the second visit.

Fun, playful, intricate, fascinating, poignant – I could fling adjectives at it. We were let play with two little Beests, take them for short walks. A larger Beest was set in motion for us and the crowd gasped as if a baby elephant had trotted into the room. The Beests in motion really are like living creatures. They are quirky and beautiful and complex, and the thinking behind them is too. Click and scroll for larger images.

This link brings you to Theo Jansen’s website and a beautiful video of various evolutions of his creatures, in motion.

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Beginnings…

When I’m finishing a book I’m already anticipating the day I can start the new one  pulsing inside my head. This time there are three ideas – an older picturebook idea which wants a sample colour illustration, a new one which needs to be roughed up into a dummy, and a novel. To be honest I’ve already begun sneaking a few hours on these over the last few months – I wrote three chapters of the novel while we were in the US and did some work on one of the picturebook texts. In fact, both of us snuck a little work on other projects while on holidays…

…so you’d think that the minute I sent off Owl Bat Bat Owl I’d be straight into the next project, right? I thought so too. I always think so and I’m always wrong. After a few euphoric hours end-of-book ennui sets in and has to be gotten over. Himself was also at the end of a book. We took a few days off and went west.

When we got back I was raring to go. The novel was first on my list but I decided I couldn’t write another word until I made character sheets. I cleared the kitchen table to spread out the profiles as I made them. I’d written two when I realised I needed to hoover. The whole house. And put on a wash.

Then I realised I couldn’t possibly write about my characters while the ones in the book I was reading were in my head. I made a hot chocolate and curled up in a chair to finish reading it – totally necessary from a work point-of-view, I promise.

Next day a couple more character descriptions made it onto A4 coloured card and hit the table before I found myself on my knees cleaning the kitchen cupboard doors. I couldn’t possibly ignore the drips and fingerprints on them for another moment, despite managing to do so perfectly well for three years a fair while.

Meanwhile Michael, having sent off all the interior art for his book, still had to design a cover. But first he headed off to Woodies to get some plywood to make the bullet-proof case he will post the finished cover in – art is sometimes damaged in transit.

However Michael came back with plywood PLUS several lengths of wooden plank. The piles of books and work dotted around the house were getting on his nerves so much he absolutely had to make a new set of bookshelves and some work-in-progress shelves to go beside the computer desk. Twenty-four hours later we had new furniture and he finally began his cover designs.

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I now had a table full of character sheets but felt compelled to sort and arrange my projects into the new work shelves. At the end of which I realised I wasn’t ready for the novel – it needs more research. Instead I will get cracking on the two picturebook ideas… though I’ll need to clear off my drawing desk first. I’ll go do that now.

I will. Cross my heart. Just as soon as I finish writing this blog.

the end…The End…no, really, THE END.

Finishing a book can turn into a cascade of endings. I’ve been ‘finishing’ Owl Bat Bat Owl for months. All the main interior art was ‘done’ before we headed to the USA for Thanksgiving, but that still left the title page, endpapers and cover, so I set to REALLY finishing it when I came back.

Then came the tweaks and corrections. Bits and pieces which my editors had spotted – these post-its adorned the print-out of the art they sent me. I peeled them off as I fixed them…

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But there was even more fickity feckity stuff I spotted myself. And stuff Michael pointed out – it often takes a fresh eye to notice things this late in the game. So many things to sort that I had to list them image by image, then go through methodically and tick them off as done.

This is my first time illustrating a book digitally and I found it involves way more tweaking than usual. With physical art there is a point at which tweaking could destroy the piece so you have to just let it be – with digital you can go on messing indefinitely.

So there were tweaks to the tweaks… some from the editors and some more of my own. I felt as if my head and shoulders were actually inside the computer and my depth of focus was permanently reduced to two feet. I was vacillating between ‘I hate this book, I don’t care what it looks like’ and ‘steady…steady…not long now…one more push and it will all be over…’

There have been books where ‘I don’t care’ won the day so I’ve got to live with those flaws I was too tired to fix. This time ‘steady, steady’ won – I even pulled the cover back from my art editor for more tweaks (one for Michael, two for me) after she’d already given it the thumbs up. But the thing is there will always be flaws, stuff which could have been better. You could go on fixing and polishing indefinitely – how do you know when to STOP?

Usually it’s the publishing schedule that dictates when you have to let go at last but the problem with all that final polishing is you risk your art losing vital energy, spontaneity, freshness, so at some point IT HAS TO END. It’s the same with a novel. In theory you can keep reworking; in reality (in my opinion) books can die from overworking. You’ve got to abandon* this book and take what you’ve learnt onto the next one. When I finally put the memory stick of files in the post I was at the stage where I could no longer see the images as images, the characters as characters – they had become just so many pixels. I was way beyond doing positive work on it so it was time to let it go.

The End.

And then, having already downed my celebratory whiskey, an image bounced back with some comments I couldn’t ignore because I agreed with them… grrr! Three days later…

THE END.

Until, that is, the proofs arrive…

*A poem is never finished, only abandoned. Paul Valery