September 13, 2010

April 24, 2010

SCBWI Conference Notes (Episode#4)

To wrap up my winter episodes, since it is April already, I thought it was only fitting to compile some of the helpful information I gleaned while at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators NY Conference.

Jane Yolen (Author)

20 Writing Rules:
  1. Get ride of the “!” – The statement should have enough force all by itself.
  2. Go easy on the adverbs.
  3. Don’t let your characters float – anchor them in action. Show us who your characters are, don’t just tell us about them.
  4. Have fun writing/illustrating.
  5. Be diligent and disciplined (but still enjoy what you do).
  6. Remember you may never be the best but you can always get better.
  7. Passion not fashion – Don’t write what you don’t like even if vampires are all the rage right now.
  8. No one outside a fairy tale expects a happy ending.
  9. Fall through the words into the story. The story doesn’t have to be about your life for it to be about you.
  10. Sometimes simply simple is best. Sometimes it’s not – save your drafts.
  11. Find the right word/phrase even if it takes a while.
  12. The first line better have the DNA of the story in it.
  13. What we need and what we want are not always the same thing.
  14. IMPORTANT: Money flows toward the author. You shouldn’t have to pay to get your work published.
  15. Don’t ignore the landscape in your writing. Children’s literature is very visual.
  16. Read what you’ve written aloud.
  17. When writer’s block sets in, start a new project and come back to the current one later.
  18. Accept the fact that there are some projects that you will never complete.  
  19. Exercise your creative muscle everyday.
  20. Read everything – fiction, non-fiction, adult literature, poetry. You never know what might inspire you.

Jim Benton (Author/Illustrator)

Twelve years worth of Writer’s Digest articles distilled into these two main pieces of advice (As a Writer’s Digest employee and cartoonist, he personally read them all):
  1. Rewrite it. There are no first drafts on the bestseller list.
  2. You are not your work. If someone rejects your work, it doesn’t mean they are rejecting you.

Other Tidbits…
  • Do what you do EVERYDAY. Be a “compulsive creator.”
  • If you are having a hard time getting started experiment – Start with a character, a setting or an event. Most stories are about somebody who wants something but is having a hard time getting it.

All About Picture Books…

Allyn Lane Johnston (VP and publisher of Simon & Schuster’s Beach Lane Books)

Reading Aloud:
  1. Especially for young readers, picture books are primarily emotional. (Because most children ages 0-5 are being read to, the book facilitates the emotional play between two people)
  2. The page turn is crucial to the flow and feel of the story. Often it sets up the narrative arch. (Try writing down the words from a picture book and read them apart from the pictures to get a feel for the natural pauses in the text.)
  3. The form of the writing: the repetition and rhyme must be intentional. When used properly it determines the pace. (ex. Goodnight Moon)
  4. The opening line must be superb. It sets the feel of the entire book so it can’t be obscure like a chapter-book opening nor can it be clunky.

She recommends that all picture book authors/illustrators read:

Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever
by: Mem Fox

Laurent Linn (Art Director for Simon & Schuster)       

The Real Deal About Visual Story Telling:
  1. Make your characters unique by giving them distinctive attributes: There is no such thing as just “a duck” in children’s stories. There is however a Donald Duck. Characters must be individuals.
  2. Borrow from the best – Anything from art history can be used as source material.
  3. Scene/Environment – Everything can be a character of sorts. The trees can describe the tone (the details complete the environment).  
  4. Keep in mind: Because most children 0-5 are being read to, an adult mediates a book’s words. However the pictures are experienced directly by the child.
  5. Action should flow from right to left across the book’s pages (like reading).
  6. Each image should portray some sort of action or at least beg the question “What will happen next.” Unlike a fine artist’s portrait, illustrations can not afford to be still or static. It is not the illustrator's job to document the story. It is the illustrator's job to bring the story to life. (for example compare:)

Paul Zelinsky (Illustrator)

Portfolio Feedback
  • If you are thinking picture books, then portfolio pictures of single subjects, isolated in the center of the page without a background, don't show enough of what picture book art has to do. The more narrative the picture is, the more it looks like it could be part of a sequence of drawings, the more it looks like it is depicting a moment in a drama, the more it will feel like picture book art. Single subjects isolated in the center of the page with a background may or may not be better. There's nothing wrong with seeing one picture like this, but one after another starts to give a wrong impression.
  • Make sure you are as selective as possible in what you put in. Going through many of the portfolios felt like "Wow, good, really nice, good, whoa--what's that doing in here? Hey, here's another one like that." Those last two put a very different complexion on the artist.
  • About variety of styles: Friday morning at the end of my talk someone asked about putting a variety of styles in a portfolio, and I think I answered in a way sympathetic to the questioner's wish to include lots of styles. But when looking through great numbers of portfolios, I found that a portfolio containing a lot of styles became confusing and hard to remember. So I would say now that:
    • If one of your styles is stronger than the others, don't include the others (you can exercise your wish not to be pigeonholed later, in person, by talking to an art director after you've done a book together).
    • If your styles are all equally strong, organize the portfolio with labeled divisions according to style; it would just make the presentation seem more in control.
  • After a certain point, more work is not better. If after ten drawings it is very important to include an eleventh and more, perhaps the first ten weren't strong enough. This is pretty much like my second point, but even if everything in the portfolio is as good as everything else, you don't want to get repetitive, and you don't want to induce fatigue in the viewer.
  • Method of reproduction: The items in the portfolios were printed in all different ways, but I found personally that the ones printed on good matte paper with an inkjet printer making extremely rich, velvety hues and values, could be arresting in a way that the ones offset-printed on coated stock just weren't. Obviously no art director is going to choose an artist just because the sample art was printed in this way, but based on my own reaction, I would think that there is some subliminal effect there-much more of an effect than I felt from snazzy printing and binding of whole portfolios into a book, for instance. That kind of highly-produced presentation could conceivably backfire, it seems to me.

Final Thoughts…

Jaqueline Woodson (Author)

Passing on something Madeline L’Engle said:

‘As we write we should remember the children we were rather than try to portray the children of today because the essence of childhood, the emotional stuff, doesn’t change.’

For more about the conference, see the SCBWI Blog

April 13, 2010

Making Bad Art (Episode #3)

On the heels of my last post about Here Comes The Garbarge Barge and Red Nose Studio, I’d like to pick up this episode with something similar – claymation. While at the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art), I was able to see the current Tim Burton exhibition. As one might expect, it was completely fabulous.


I especially remember being surprised by both the size and intricacy of Burton’s claymation figurines. Though I I’ve always imagined them much smaller, in actuality they are about 12” tall. (I suppose that means the bizarre sets and landscapes Burton made for them to inhabit must too have been much larger and much more elaborate than I originally imagined.) Seeing the lifeless figurines extracted from their stories allowed me to appreciate them as crafted objects. All of the details, from the tiny lace on the corpse bride’s veil, to the nuanced expressions on Jack’s various heads, were simply stunning.



However not all of Burton’s works were so polished or impeccably executed. A few of his early animations were quite simplistic and most contained only fragments of his now distinctive style. There were also several sketches intermingled throughout the exhibit, that though comical, were sort of awful – full of scribbles, grotesque concepts or even (heaven forbid) clich├ęs.

As a perfectionist, I found myself censoring certain images – deeming them too generic. I remember thinking ‘I would not display this or that if it were my show.’ Coincidentally though, one of the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) sessions the following day squarely addressed my qualms.

In his seminar, Jim Benton said that as an author or artist one should be fully prepared and even expect to make bad art. He said that often the fear of producing bad, ugly or boring work sometimes squelches creativity. Adults, Benton continued, especially fall prey to fear because our rational minds betray us. It is all too easy to reason: “if I make bad art, then I must be a bad artist.” Which is a shame he pointed out since bad art has the ability to spark new or often better ideas. Benton went on to tell us about his Happy Bunny series (probably one of his most lucrative licensing projects). It began as a “smart ass” bad idea – a slightly belligerent joke pinned to his studio wall. But when stores like Spencer’s and Hot Topic became more popular, he was able to adapt it for that market. On the other hand, Benton was careful to explain that not all of his bad ideas resulted in such success. Many of them would never amount to anything and thus simply remain piled up in storage boxes.

I think I already knew that bad art could be helpful or even necessary. Being required to make and/or identify it in various classes had already opened my eyes to its potential virtues. Though I guess that knowledge hasn’t ever been enough to assuage my deep-rooted insecurity because I still have a hard time aimlessly doodling and sometimes I still tear drawings out of my sketchbook when ‘they don’t look right’ (I’ve found it a very nasty little habit to break). Benton’s reminder that it’s okay to experiment and make mistakes is one that I’ll probably have to hear over and over before it truly sinks in.

Fittingly, Benton concluded his session by having the audience create a story on the spot. And of course it was pretty bad – but that’s to be expected when there are 800 people contributing ideas all at the same time. It was a story of the impossible love between a platypus and a blender (or “blenda” as pronounced by the Long Island woman who suggested it as a character). Miraculously the tale ended when the blender gave birth to her half-kitchen-appliance-half-mammal-son. (He looked sort of like a food processor in Benton’s drawing). I doubt this story will ever become a bestseller and I don’t even think it inspired me to write a bestseller, but that’s beside Benton’s point. It isn’t always the end product that makes an activity worthwhile. In this case, it was the exercise itself – the act of freeing or stretching the imagination that was important.

(And the bad art that we produced? It was just bad art plain and simple. It didn’t mean that Jim Benton or anyone in the audience was a bad artist.)

February 27, 2010

Speaking of Trash... (Episode #2)

Here Comes the Garbage Barge
Written by: Jonah Winter & Illustrated by: Red Nose Studio

While at the SCBWI conference, I got to hear this book’s publisher speak about the process of bringing it to print. Apparently the book is based on actual events – the 1987 voyage of the Mobro 4000.

Escorted by the tugboat Breaking Dawn, the Mobro 4000 barge set sail on March 22, from Islip, New York carrying 3,168 tons of trash. The plan was to take the garbage to North Caroline where it would be turned into methane. However, while docked at Morehead City, a WRAL-TV news crew, acting on a tip, flew to the coast to investigate. The resulting Action News 5 report, alerted the North Carolina officials who consequently ordered the barge to move on. As the Mobro continued south along the coastline, it encountered further opposition. After being turned away by the Mexican Navy, the Mobro made it as far as Belize. Unable to pass off its undesirable cargo, the Mobro finally returned to New York where it was met with a restraining order, which prevented it from docking. Not until October was the refuse incinerated in Brooklyn, and its ash returned to Islip to be buried.


Though the trip itself turned out to be a complete fiasco, it brought waste management to the forefront of national discussion and it sparked new widespread recycling initiatives. During the next three years, most states passed laws requiring some kind of municipal recycling. The United States went from having about 600 cities with curbside recycling programs to having almost 10,000 (according to

As if that doesn’t already make the project interesting…  

The process behind the illustrations adds another dimension to the story’s message. Each image is actually a photograph of a small-scale model designed and created by the artist. Working as a sculptor rather than a draftsman, the artist built his characters around flexible wire armatures and modeled their features with clay. Everything in their tiny environments was crafted either out of litter from the streets or objects found in the artist’s studio.  


For more about the book see: Red Nose Studio

February 18, 2010

December: Minneapolis, MN (Episode #1)

So it seems I have been terribly remiss.  Over the past few months, I’ve had so much to blog about but I just haven’t taken the time to sit down and do it. So here are a few organically connected episodes…


Of all the work we saw, between the Walker and The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, I was most struck by Michael Kareken’s exhibition “Scrap.”

From the adjoining gallery, Kareken’s enormous painting Scrap Bottles appeared to be purely abstract. However as I got closer, shapes then bottles became distinguishable in the enormous swirling color field. Standing in front of the work, I remember being overwhelmed by its scale (188”x168”) and compositional weight. The bottles near the bottom of the painting were exaggerated – larger than life, while those near the top were smaller and less distinct. This size gradation created the illusion of depth and gave the impression that I was looking up at the refuse instead of out and over it. With no external point of reference, it was impossible to gauge the height or breadth of the heap depicted by the painting. Was it a foreboding mountain or a mound that could eventually be leveled? Regardless, the chaotic lines created by the haphazardly piled bottles made the whole image feel unstable. The recyclables seemed to be on the verge of spilling out of the picture plane – threatening to drown anyone who dared to loiter for too long.

Strangely, despite this constant menace, there was also something disarming about the painting – an element running through the entire body of work. The painting was undeniably beautiful. Each of the bottles was so carefully represented. In the act of rendering them, the artist undoubtedly gave them much more time and attention than their previous owners had. With his eloquent paint handling and subtly nuanced color, Kareken seemed to be asking the viewer to pause for a second and acknowledge the overlooked frappuccino bottle, the salad dressing jar or the olive oil jug. Having out lived their utilitarian purposes, when handled so delicately, these empty containers became objects or forms to consider.

Could the bottles, apart from their contents, be valuable or even beautiful? Could the efficient system that produced them really be so bad? Maybe the menace comes from the way we have chosen to handle them – the excess of them?

I think I was so taken by Kareken’s work because his critique was complex. His treatment of the subject matter, made the work more than just simple environmentalist propaganda. Kareken didn’t hop on the “go green” bandwagon – the fad that has brought us recyclable packaging, carbon credits or reusable grocery store bags nor did he blatantly denounce our ‘gluttonous consumer culture.’ Instead he presented a quiet meditation on the recycling process – one that yields more questions than answers: Will it be enough or will we still be drowned in our good intentioned efforts? Though an inherently restorative process, does it still involve a kind of violence? If so, is it worth the violence?