Tag Archive for James Preller Interviews

5 QUESTIONS with Matt Faulkner, creator of the graphic novel “Gaijin”

Today we visit with Matt Faulkner. His award-winning graphic novel, Gaijan, has never been more darkly relevant than it is today. It’s a good time for middle-grade readers to know this powerful story, and to become aware of this chilling, “round ’em up” period in American history. 

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Welcome, Matt, thanks for visiting my blog today. You might appreciate this: I first became aware of you with the publication of The Amazing Voyage of Jackie Grace in 1987. I loved that book –- so richly imagined and, I still think, an accurate depiction of a child’s imagination. Bath time has never been the same for me.

You’re very welcome. I’m happy to spend some time talking with you and happy, too, that we can share our conversation with your blog readers.

Oh, you mean Chet and Gladys? They’re awesome.

In regard to Jackie Grace, thanks, that’s very kind. It was my first author/illustrated book and only the second book I’d worked on. It was tremendously exciting to get that manuscript purchased and also very misleading to me. The misleading part was that I actually sold that manuscript to Jean Feiwel over the phone back in 1985. She really dug the illustrations I’d just done on my first book — a version of Jack and the Beanstalk — and was enthusiastic to get me moving onto another project. We started talking about blackrotarygif2Jackie Grace over the phone and she indicated that I’d have the contract if I just send in a few sketches. And that’s what happened. I can assure you, James, I’ve never sold a manuscript to anyone, ever again, over the phone.

Yet I keep expecting it to happen. My bad.

I agree, phones aren’t what they used to be. So you’ve been at this business a long time. I published my first book in 1986. I think we are all confronted with different ideas of success, but lately I’m most proud of simply having survived. You know, just hanging around all these years through the ups and downs. It can be a tough, cold business. As I recall the line from an old PW article, “children’s publishing is a bunny eat bunny” world. But we’re still alive and kicking.

Oh yes, survival is sweet.

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The fact is — for us to be here, doing what we started doing over thirty years ago is a victory. There have been more than a few times over the past 30 years that I wondered how in God’s name I was going to move forward — how was I going to make enough money, how was I going to stay inspired, how was I going to stay sane within the pressures of being a husband/father while working as a freelance author/illustrator (and all that that implies). So yes, to have this discussion right now — this is a good thing.

Congrats to the both of us.

Speaking of congratulations, I’m so impressed by your graphic novel, Gaijin, which I believe is not only a terrific book, it’s an important book. Tell us about the origins of that story. I gather it has personal significance for you.

 

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Thank you.

Gaijin: American Prisoner of War came from an experience I had as a child and from the experiences my relatives had during WWII. During the summer after fifth grade I read a bunch of books about children who’d survived the Holocaust. It just seems that the librarian who handed me the first book kept right on handing them to me when I’d complete one. Eventually, my mom placed a piece of paper with a name and address before me — a return address from an envelope. She told me that our family had been in a concentration camp in California.

 

Early character study, sketch, from GAIJIN.

Early character study, sketch, from GAIJIN.

I imagine that I was incredulous — after all, concentration camps were something horrible in Europe, not America. Not so, my mom said. She helped me to understand that my great aunt, Adeline, along with her daughter and grandchildren, had been placed in the Japanese American internment camp called Manzanar, during WWII. This was because Adeline, an Irish American, had married a gentleman of Japanese descent and hence, their children were part Japanese. At that time in America, this was enough to send a child to a prison camp in the desert.

At what point did you decide that this story would be best told as a graphic novel?

Fairly early in the process of developing the story I realized that the format of the graphic novel would help me best express the way I felt about the material.

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You didn’t begin your career as a graphic novelist. What attracted you to that medium?

Of late, I feel more and more that this — the graphic novel — is my medium. I don’t feel that I am in any way a rigorous student of this medium. However, I know that I tell stories best in a visual format. For me, a story flows far more readily when the images and text are free to roam across the landscape of the spread, as they can in a graphic novel. It’s far more film-like. The format feels more like the experience of watching a film and to me, creating the frame work of an imagined film for my readers is what I reach for in any book, but most especially in creating a graphic novel.

I can see that, and agree about the cinematic qualities.

It’s interesting that you mentioned my first author/illustrated picture book, Jackie Grace, because that was seen as a bit of a risk in 1986. Why? Because it didn’t follow the traditional picture book form and was, actually, a graphic novel for 6-to-8 year olds. This was kind of a big deal back then and I recall editorial discussions which addressed this risky thing — a graphic novel picture book. It was simply not done in 1985. However, it is done now. And I’m going to do as much of it as I possibly can in my allotted time.

When I look at many graphic novels, I often think, “Wow, that’s a lot of work.” Can you take us through to process of creating this book? How it began? How long it took?

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The idea for the Gaijin began to take a more concrete form following 9/11 when I started to hear the talk of various pundits who were advocating internment for another minority group, American Muslims. That pompous, paranoid talk got me to nail myself to my desk and begin the sketching. But it took another 9 years before Gaijin was sold to Disney/Hyperion and it wasn’t published till 2014.

The book was created in traditional materials — graphite, water color and gouache. I used a brown/blue palette (reminiscent of the olive drab and khaki uniforms) for scenes set in the day time. The hero’s dream sequences were created in a hot, acidic palette.

I spent a a good deal of time doing visual research — visited the sites of both the Tanforan and Manzanar internment camps etc., and created three variations of the sketch layout.

Wait, what?

Yes, that’s right, three separate layouts for the 130-page graphic novel. A little crazy, yes, but I think this was something that had to do more with my inexperience of creating a graphic novel than anything else.

 

Sample of an alternative sketch.

Sample of an alternative sketch.

 

It was fascinating how you introduced the news of Pearl Harbor. Koji and his mother don’t at first realize how it will affect them personally. But the next day they begin to learn, in ways large and small, that the world has changed.

From my research I learned that Pearl Harbor in 1941 simply wasn’t a place that every American was aware of the way it is today. There was so much that was left unexplained and therefore became the source of fear for both Japanese Americans and white Americans. It was important for me to express as best I could this sense of surprise, looming terror and dread.

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One thing that stood out for me in my research was learning that the racism as expressed by whites on the west coast toward Japanese Americans following Pearl Harbor was more than just a response to the attack. That racism was very old and very deeply rooted within California laws. There were many, many whites who were simply waiting to take advantage of the fear that the attack engendered and couldn’t wait for the removal of Japanese Americans so they could take possession of their farms, their homes and shops. From what I’ve learned, as much as it was about fear and racism, it was also greed that fueled the Japanese American internment.

That’s a great point, and I think it’s something we are seeing today. The old hatreds have existed all along, waiting for the right atmosphere in order to emerge. Like Voldemort’s followers, the Death Eaters, waiting for the signal in the sky. Suddenly it’s “safe” to haul out those repressed prejudices into the light of day. But my comments aside, I think you admirably refrained from imposing any obvious editorial judgments in your book. You let the story speak for itself.

Yes, I did try to refrain from inflaming what is already a hot issue. I didn’t think any editorial refinements or judgment on my part would do much to make the point any clearer. In short — we, as a nation, failed on a vast scale. We grossly mistreated over 120,000 people — half of whom were children — because of their race.

It’s shocking and heartbreaking that this moment in American history –- a troubled, dark, confusing time –- is still so relevant to today’s America. What are the lessons to be learned here, in your opinion?

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Lessons?

It’s best to keep it this simple: They’re all our children.

The Japanese American children which we, as a nation, imprisoned in Manzanar and over twenty-five other remote prison camps from 1942 till 1945 were all our children. Similarly, the Syrian child that drowned and whose body was photographed on that beach was our child, too. As a species, we are either going to accept and work with this reality or we’re going to continue to suffer.

Thank you for those thoughts, Matt. I know I asked a lot of you today, but only because I think we need to hear your voice now more than ever. What can we look forward to from you in the future? Have you got a new book in the works?

Thanks for asking. I’m currently working on illustrating a four picture book series about American ideas, ideals and people, written by Ruby Shamir and edited by Jill Santopolo at Philomel.

In addition, my agent, Abi Samoun of Red Fox Literary, is currently shopping two graphic novel ideas for me right now — one is called Burrito Fever, which tells the tale of the annual march of 10,000 crazed bunnies in search the perfect burrito.

The other story is about a young Japanese American who joins the army during 1944 and fights in France with the all Japanese American 442nd Combat team — the unit most decorated for it’s size in U.S. army history.

Again, thanks for inviting me to talk about my work with you, James. I wish you all the best with yours.

Authors and illustrators previously interviewed in my “5 Questions” series include: Hudson Talbott, Hazel Mitchell, Susan Hood, Matthew McElligott, Jessica Olien, Nancy Castaldo, Aaron Becker, Matthew Cordell, Jeff Newman, Matt Phelan, Lizzy Rockwell, Jeff Mack, London Ladd, John Coy, and Bruce Coville. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES. Or use the “Search” function. 

Coming soon: Elizabeth Zunon, Robin Pulver, Hannah Barnaby, and more.

5 QUESTIONS with MATT PHELAN, Graphic Novelist and Creator of “Snow White”

 

Welcome to “5 Questions,” where the number 5 is conceptual rather than literal. Today we feature one of the most acclaimed graphic novelists working in children’s books today, Matt Phelan.

 

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Yo, Matt, I’m over here. Yeah, no, look this way. It’s just weird with you staring off into the distance like that. I’m literally right here. Fine, whatever, let’s just get through this. Take us back to the period before the idea came for this book. Is there a “between books” stage for you, when you are not exactly sure what’s next? Is that stressful? Are you walking around with your antenna up, hoping for lightning to strike? Or do you keep a spare file of “BRILLIANT IDEAS” by your bedside for just such occasions?

My mind tends to wander quite a bit, so I often have new ideas percolating when I should be focused on the book at hand. I have notes for Snow White going back ten years when I was pitching Storm in the Barn. I have a few ideas on low simmer now that I hope to get to eventually.

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That’s how I feel about painting my living room and front hallway (and upstairs bathroom, and guest bedroom, and). It’s all on low simmer. But for you that simmer reached a boiling point. Was there a specific moment, or an image, that came to you? Why that particular period in New York City?

I was thinking about apple peddlers in the Great Depression (as one does) . . .

Naturally.

. . . and my brain connected that with the stepmother in “Snow White.” I sketched an image of a busy street, people racing by, with a single young woman stopped in her tracks before an old hag holding out an apple. I liked that idea so much that I began to think of more parallels for elements in the tale if they were set in the early 1930s.

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Yes, that’s part of the book’s pleasure. It’s cool how you re-imagined the seven dwarfs, for example, as street urchins. In that case, you had to find a balance between making that allusion, but not turning those boys into cardboard stand-ins for Grumpy and Sneezy and Bashful, and so on.

The Seven came to me early on, inspired in part by the Dead End Kids from the movies of the 30s and 40s. But considering their situation –- orphans, runaways hiding in alleys and warehouses at night –- I realized that withholding their names would be of utmost importance to them. That was a clear contrast to the Disney film, where if you remember anything, it’s probably the names of the dwarves. I did give the boys some of the same personality traits in passing, so it would be fun for the reader to make those connections.

The Dead End Kids.

The Dead End Kids.

Those translocations are so much fun. The equivalencies aren’t absolute. It’s not, oh, this kid equals Sleepy. But, well, he does look a little tired.

Bringing the elements of the story like the seven dwarves into the time period started as an exercise, but the more I thought about it, the more I became invested in the characters and what I could maybe bring to this ancient story.

That’s the thing, isn’t it? The challenge in any retelling is to answer that essential question every artist must face, for any work of art: “So what?” In your case, I think you were able to explore a familiar story, turn it around, pull it apart, and discover new elements. Upon reflection, what did you learn about the story of “Snow White” in the process of your work? Did anything surprise you?

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I was surprised about how much it started to mean to me on an emotional level. The scene where the boys reveal their names to Snow became the whole reason to do this book. For me, the book is about how there is more goodness in the world than evil, that there is beauty everywhere despite how bleak things may seem. I wrote the story three years ago, but it sadly seems very timely and relevant today.

I recently wrote my first road trip book, and one of the best things about it, as an author, was that I knew when/where the story was going to end. It’s comforting to know where you are in terms of beginning, middle, and end. You enjoyed a similar luxury in this case.

Yes. I agree. It was refreshing to have a framework to the plot from the start. But the story is so solid that it also allows for invention within that framework.

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Your book benefits from our familiarity with the classic story. Everybody knows it. That known structure gave you more freedom to pick your spots, skip over the boring bits. You didn’t have to fill in every blank space. Would you agree with that?

Absolutely. I also use “chapter headings” which look more like title cards in a silent movie. That device acts as a dramatic shorthand. I could write “Late Night at the Butcher’s” and I’ve already set up not only the setting but an idea of what is going to happen there.

I agree, that was an effective device, a pause but also a jump-cut into the next scene. Hey, it had to be fun killing off the evil queen-slash-stepmother. In the movie that’s such a tense, dramatic scene. The seven dwarfs are not cuddly and cute in that surging, swelling scene; there’s murder in their hearts. The origin material was dark. That had to a challenge for you, to meet that big climatic moment head on. Were you particularly pleased on the day you figured out she’d not only get electrocuted . . . but she could fall off the building as well. Well done, sir!

My ending plays off the Disney one which I think they changed for good reason. In the original Grimm, the stepmother is invited to Snow’s wedding only to find that Snow orders her to dance to her death whilst wearing burning iron shoes (for the amusement of the wedding party). A tad sadistic for our heroine, I think. Disney used lightning, but I opted for her to go up in lights on the marquee of the Ziegfeld theater. The fall was probably a nod to King Kong now that I think of it.

How do you make these paintings? How many are there? I ask because my sense is that when I look at some graphic novels, many individual images appear rushed, unfinished. But in Snow White, I can see –- I think –- the deep care and commitment to every single image. It’s so impressive.

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I use traditional media: pencil, ink, and watercolor on watercolor paper. I’ve made it a rule since my first graphic novel to never ever count how many individual panels are in the book. Each panel is a painting, maybe three to six per page, more than two hundred pages . . . it’s a lot. 

Right, it’s one of those deals where if you knew in advance, if your really calculated the amount of work, it would be hard to get started. Like taking your kids on their first hike. “Don’t worry, kids, it’ll be fun!”

Yeah, the “hike” is not about the number of steps it takes. It’s all part of the greater whole. I wanted each panel to have the correct mood and atmosphere, but at the same time I never wanted one particular panel to cause a reader to stop and dwell on it. I want you to keep moving. Pace is important.

And pace is mostly a function of layout, right? The decision of multi-panel spreads compared to, say, a strong single image. At what point do you make those design decisions?

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The actual sizes of the panels are decided when I’m doing the first loose thumbnail drawings. You are correct about size and number of panels dictating pace. It’s like a musical score, in a way. For Snow White, I did try something a bit different, in that each page was drawn completely fresh on a blank sheet of paper. I had rough sketches to inspire me, but I did not enlarge the sketches and use them on a light-box as a guide like I’ve done before. By drawing it again fresh, I hoped to catch the energy and life of the sketches. If it was wrong, I just drew it again. Watercolor is also a great way to give your paintings energy and unpredictability. It’s hard to completely plan or fix a watercolor painting. You get what you get. That’s an exciting way to work.

I relate that to music. A belief in the positive value of raw performance — live in the studio — including the messiness of it. Rather than, say, polishing a song to perfection. Something vital gets lost in the refinement. The flawed version is somehow better.

I couldn’t agree more. I’d rather listen to something with mistakes played like the musicians’ lives depended on it than a supremely polished “perfect” performance. I’ll take the Replacements over Steely Dan any day.

I know you love music. Do you listen when you paint? Did this book have a specific soundtrack, or sonic influences?

I listen to music when painting and maybe during the writing (but only instrumental music). I do make playlists for the books. Snow White’s playlist had some leftovers from Bluffton, plus soundtracks like Bernard Herrmann’s score for The Magnificent Ambersons and Max Steiner’s great score for King Kong. I also included The Jazz Age, a recent record by the Bryan Ferry Orchestra that arranges Roxy Music songs in a hot jazz style. It’s brilliant.

Yes! I have The Jazz Age. At first I wasn’t too keen on the idea, it felt gimmicky, but then I heard it. Good times. I’ll have to explore the scores by Herrmann and Steiner. Thanks for the tip, Matt Phelan!

 

614852MATT PHELAN does a great job with his website, which he stores somewhere on the interwebs. You can visit for free, but like the Hotel California, you may never leave. Matt splits his efforts between graphic novels (The Storm in the Barn, Bluffton, Around the World), picture books (Marilyn’s Monster, Xander’s Panda Party, and more), and whatever else inspires his attention. Like, oh, listening to Replacements records.

 

 

ABOUT THE “5 Questions” Interview Series: It’s a side project I’ve assigned myself, hoping to reach 52 authors & illustrators in the course of a year, always focusing on one book. 

Scheduled for future dates, in no particular order: Bruce Coville, London Ladd, Lizzy Rockwell, Jeff Mack, Matt Faulkner, and more. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES, and scroll till your heart’s content. Or use the handy SEARCH option. 

Guest so far:

1) Hudson Talbott, “From Wolf to Woof”

2) Hazel Mitchell, “Toby”

3) Susan Hood, “Ada’s Violin

4) Matthew McElligott, “Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster”

5) Jessica Olien, “The Blobfish Book”

6) Nancy Castaldo, “The Story of Seeds”

7) Aaron Becker, “Journey”

8) Matthew Cordell, “Wish”

9) Jeff Newman, “Can One Balloon Make an Elephant Fly?”

5 QUESTIONS with HUDSON TALBOTT, author/illustrator of “FROM WOLF TO WOOF”

 

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I’m kicking off a new, recurring series of posts where I interview one author or illustrator, limiting our conversation to 5 questions, with a focus on a specific book. I’ve got a terrific list of talent planned for upcoming visits — they just don’t know it yet.

Today we get to hang out with Hudson Talbott. And come back next week for a visit with Hazel Mitchell and her dog Toby.

 

Hudson (left) and I got to catch up at the Warwick Children's Book Festival.

Hudson (left) and I got to catch up at the Warwick Children’s Book Festival.

 

JP: Hudson, I love your new picture book, FROM WOLF TO WOOF: THE STORY OF DOGS. You manage to deliver a lot of information within the context of “story.”

Hudson: Thanks, James. I love research and the process of absorbing as much as I can and then distilling it down to its essence. I come from Kentucky. We’re known for distilling.

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And God bless Kentucky for that! But let the record show: I haven’t asked a question yet. I feel like one of the poor fisherman bargaining with a magic fish. I still have three wishes left –- or in this case, five questions!

I don’t think that was a question either. But thanks for calling me a magic fish.

Now that you mention it, you do look a little green around the gills. Maybe it’s the light in here. Anyway! I remember long ago reading Desmond Morris’ classic book, The Naked Ape, and in it he speculated about the first dogs. How they might have come to be domesticated. Which is a poor term for it, as I type those words. Because we’re talking about these wild animals that, over time, became intensely, passionately interconnected with human beings. The beginning of a long relationship. I’ve always found that a fascinating subject, so I was immediately drawn to your book. How did that story begin for you?

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The love of animals, the love of dogs, the love of history. Not facts-and-dates history, but the how-did-we-get-here? kind of history. So it was bound to happen. You and I have this privileged platform to address and explore things that we think matter, or at least, things we’re curious about. That look in a dog’s eyes of knowing, of asking and loving, of aligning him/herself with us had to come from someplace. Plenty of theories about where and when — I like to think that the two species found each other useful and could see the advantage of throwing their lots in together to survive. Like two kids finding each other in kindergarten and growing up together in a rough neighborhood. At some point we both stepped across that magic threshold of trust and realized that we have each other’s backs.

Well said. Do you self-identify more as a writer or an artist? Does one always come before the other? Responding to a similar question, Bernard Waber, who also wrote and illustrated his books (Lyle, Lyle Crocodile, and many more), replied that “The writer in me tries to please the illustrator.”

I think of myself primarily as a storyteller. Whatever serves the story best is my priority. That said, I am a visually-oriented person so usually if I come up w/ an idea for a book I first look at what points in the story would be good “photo-ops” or actually illustration ops. While I’m doing sketches for the plot points I’m also getting ideas for the text, the plot, the characters, etc. It’s not uncommon that something I’ll stumble onto while writing some text will lead to changing the picture, or even the whole story line. So it goes back and forth a lot between art and text. Art is much more expendable to me because there’s always more where that came from. But when I have to throw out a paragraph that I’m attached to but no longer serves the story — that’s painful! Picture books actually have more in common with making movies than they do with chapter books.

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Yes, especially when we consider the storyboarding tradition. After all, movies are simply “moving pictures.” Back to your book, I have to say there’s just a beautiful moment that comes right in the middle. It floored me, because it was such a deep and yet profoundly simple moment to capture. Just masterful storytelling. Before that moment, I was intellectually engaged. But on that double spread, the book stole my heart. I was all in. We’ve been watching the boy slowly gain the trust of this wild creature. They draw closer and closer. Until one day . . . everything changes. Tell me about the thought process that went into that illustration, that pivotal turning point in the book?

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Wow, I should’ve read ahead to this question because I think I already answered it a couple of questions ago. It makes me happy to know that you really got the book, and felt what you felt from it. I started this book with a whole other concept, even another title: The Wolf Who Cried Boy. But when my editor, the brilliant Nancy Paulsen, saw the sketches I had at the end of the book showing where dogs evolved to, she immediately said, “More of that! More of that!” So it got re-balanced to a shortened fictional story leading to an extended nonfiction portion. But that was good because it gave me a chance to get in a plug for saving the wolves today, as well as my own theory that dogs played a strategic part in the development of civilization (with their help we could stay in one place with domesticated herds rather than having to constantly roam in search of wild herds).

Wow, Nancy Paulsen: legend! I was wondering, Do you have a wolf at home?

I have two cats. One does his best to be a dog for me because he knows that’s what I would have if I didn’t travel so much. I had dogs growing up and usually spend more time with dogs at friends’ houses than I do with the friends.

You’ve been at this business for a while, and I guess that’s part of the reason why I connect with you. We’ve both been around the block a few times. Let’s just confess to the world that we still have our AOL email accounts. Can you point to any primary inspirations in your work? Do you have heroes in the business? And tagging on to that question (I’m cheating here, oh Magic Fish), how do you keep your work fresh?

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Primary inspirations: my apparently insatiable curiosity keeps me alive. It also drives me crazy sometimes but at least it keeps me from being bored. My first book [We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story] was a hit and it would’ve been easy to build a career on it but I wouldn’t have lasted long — I’m too restless, there’s too much other good stuff to fall in love with. A quote from Leonardo da Vinci captures it for me: “For in truth, great love is born from great knowledge of the thing loved.” That’s how I remember it anyway.

Yours in AOL,
Hudson Talbott

 

Hudson Talbott is the author/illustrator of many outstanding children’s books, including River of Dreams, O’Sullivan Stew, United Tweets of America, and more. He lives in upstate New York, not far from the town Hudson, not from from the Hudson River. It’s pretty much Hudson, 24/7, when it comes to Mr. Talbott. For more info, please visit his website. Readers might also enjoy clicking on this thoughtful review at Librarian’s Quest.

 

An Interview with Chris Sheban: Illustrating Book Covers, from Rough Sketch to Final

Chris Sheban is a talented artist who has illustrated the covers to some books that you might know and love — all without fanfare. You probably didn’t realize it was him, if you even thought about it at all.

Here’s just a few you might recognize:

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I was very happy when my editor, Liz Szabla, told me that Chris would be doing the cover of my 2008 book, Six Innings. I was eager to see it, and nervous, too, since I couldn’t imagine what he and art director Rich Deas might come up with.

I waited and hoped until one day a jpeg of the cover art arrived in my email.

I was relieved, ecstatic, verklempt. Or go ahead, Dear Nation of Six Readers, insert your own baseball metaphor here. It was a home run. A stand-up triple. A squeeze play, um . . . oh, whatever. I loved it. That luminous blue-green.

Sad to say, I failed to thank Chris. Because I had never met the guy, and we had no interaction whatsoever, and I was raised by wolves. We were only connected by this one book, still clinging to semi-obscurity, and that was it. I should have reached out to Chris, sent a card or box of HoHos, but I didn’t.

for preller interviewRecently Chris appeared on Facebook, sharing a trove of rough sketches in addition to samples of light-infused finishes. I don’t know how Chris achieves it, but his work glows. He was also, I realized, a process guy. Organized too; he saves everything. I wrote to Chris and said, more or less, you may not know me, but I want to thank you for that terrific cover.

Actually — I just looked it up — and I wrote exactly this: “I’ve always been grateful to you for that beautiful cover of Six Innings; it only make sense that we don’t know each other on FB too.”

Chris wrote back and said something I didn’t expect. He said that he loved the story and loved working on it.

I was like, “You actually read it?”

Because up to that point, I didn’t realize that illustrators could read. Kidding! (A little.) But I honestly didn’t expect that he read the whole entire stinkin’ book. When I commented on that, Chris explained, “Absolutely read it. Yes, and read the others, too. Trying to get a feel for the story. Never easy to make one image sum up a whole book.”

So that’s when we got the idea to take this conversation to another level, complete with sketches and rough drafts.

Here you go, sit back and relax . . .

CHRIS SHEBAN: So after reading the manuscript, the first rough thoughts look something like this.

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JAMES PRELLER: I like that, “rough thoughts,” not “rough sketches.” Would it be accurate to say that you see them more as ideas than as drawings?
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CS:  Absolutely. At this “thumbnail” stage, I’m more concerned with the idea. What will make the most impactful cover. Composition is important. Should I focus on the pitcher, the batter, how big should I make him, etc. I’m not thinking about color yet. That comes later. You usually don’t know where the title type will go, but you want to consider that as well. Looking at some of these sketches, I’m not sure I was following my own advice. The pitcher in this sketch at the bottom right looks a bit more like a sasquatch than a human. I’ll worry about that later.
JP: Sasquatch would have made a great closer. Or designated hitter (he can mash, but he can’t field.) Anyway, yes, this is like a writer’s sloppy copy. You don’t want to get bogged down with confining notions of quality.
CS: I work by attrition…if I just do 112 sketches, one is bound to be decent, no?
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JP: That’s exactly how I write haikus. I start with 112 syllables and whittle down from there. While the ultimate goal might be finding “the right word,” when I start out I’m pretty much looking for “any word.” And by “any” I mean: ANY. Just trying to defeat that blank, white page.
CS: When I was working on the cover art for Because of Winn-Dixie, I inadvertently left a great big hole in the middle of the art. The girl and dog were down below, with the mobile homes above. And in the center? Not much. There’s no hard and fast rules about title placement, but generally it’s towards the top or bottom. Generally. You don’t want to draw the eye dead center, where there’s nothing going on but dirt. But I did. The solution? Put the title there!
JP: How big are these sketches?
CS: Each thumbnail is roughly an inch and a half to two inches. Easier to see the whole picture quickly. I sketch on tracing paper.
JP: Tracing paper! I have such happy memories of tracing paper. My father had his own insurance business and I used to go to his office on rare weekends — he had a new-fangled “electric” typewriter and boxes of tracing paper. I drew and drew and drew, usually copying from the Sunday comics. What else have you got, Chris?
CS: Well, here’s a few more rough sketches:
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JP: Too cool. As you delve deeper, you seem to be zeroing in on the drama between pitcher and batter, as opposed to other sketches that are more pulled back. A tighter focus.
CS: Yes, maybe a little more. Sometimes pulling in close can add a bit of drama. I’m not sure why I had the kid sweating in that one sketch. Was there sweating in your story?

JP: My characters never sweat; they perspire. This is literature, after all.
CS: I’m sorry. The sweat may have been a reaction to how I was feeling at the time, worrying about making a half-decent cover. Yes, now I remember. That was me.
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JP: Wow, look at this sketch. It has a sculptural quality, as if baseball had been around in the 1500s and Michaelangelo was, say, a season-ticket holder at the Colosseum, chasing foul balls, shoeing away cats.
CS: The pitcher looks a little disjointed to me. And is that an oven mitt on his left hand? 
JP: Why yes, I believe that is an oven mitt. Obviously this was before the game had evolved, back when players such as Ty Cobb and Three-Finger Brown wore oven mitts. Ho-ho, I digress, a little levity there folks, free of charge. I love this glimpse into your process, Chris. Any number of these would have made terrific covers.

CS: After a little back and forth with the art director, a direction is chosen, then I’ll work up a rough color comp which I’ll use as reference for the finished piece.

JP: How much back, and how much forth, exactly? There must be times when you think, “ACK, they picked the wrong one!”

CS: That’s the danger of sending too many sketches. Inevitably, most will be mediocre, some awful, but maybe there’s one or two that are decent. You hope they go for the best one. If they pick an awful one, you have no one to blame but yourself, because you did it in the first place. Sometimes I’m an idiot.

JP: Actually, once upon a time I packaged books for Scholastic. My art director and I had to go through the “approval by committee” process many times. It’s a lovely experience if you enjoy water torture. There’s a skill in the choices you present, as well as the ones you hold back. Sometimes you try to direct the response; other times, you honestly don’t know.

CS: I tend to fall into the latter category, the “I honestly don’t know if it’s a good cover idea, or just plain bad” category. Sometimes having that second (art director) or third (editor) pair of eyes and opinions really helps if you feel like you don’t have a clue. When sending multiple sketch ideas, I gently suggest which one or two I feel are the best . . . then they pick a different one.

 

JP: At this point, you turn to color.

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CS: These rough color sketches are just pencil sketches that I photocopy to a larger size, then paint with watercolor and some pastel.

JP: Isn’t that cheating?
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CS: Yes, probably so. It would really be cheating if I photocopied the sketch up to size, painted on it, and sent it in as finished art. Actually, that’s something I’m hoping to pull off some day. Cut out all the in-between steps and finicky final art stuff that you worry and fuss over for too long, and end up with a lifeless piece of art.
JP: Well, that’s the constant danger, isn’t it? The over-worked, over-wrought piece of art, like a late-period Steely Dan album. When it gets too polished, you might lose the raw vitality. Refine it to death.
 
CS: Haha. Steely Dan, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder. It’s frightening and depressing to think that with age comes your artistic “Muzak” years. I’m currently working on using the actual rough sketch, with all its grainy, searching lines, as an underdrawing. By working over the top of that, you can keep some of the looseness of the line work showing through. I do this while listening to early Steely Dan.
JP: I’ve seen that strategy before, though my mind is drawing a blank on good examples. It sort of honors the layers of process while also, as you say, keeping the looseness. It’s not something you typically see in cover illustration. In musical terms, it’s the punk aesthetic, where they felt that something powerful had been lost during the refinements of the genre. Down with Pink Floyd! Up with the Sex Pistols! And yes, let’s value the mistakes! It’s that core belief in raw energy at the expense of, cough-cough, revision and improvement. The trick is finding that elusive balance.
 
CS: I doubt the author ever gets to see the sketch ideas. This is awkward . . . maybe there’s one here that you like better than what we ended up with. Sorry.
JP: No, no, I love the cover you ultimately came up with — except, of course, my name should have been bigger (but I always say that). Every time I look at that book, I feel grateful to you. Seriously. Also, I respect and understand the process. I’m the boss of the words, not the cover. There comes a point where the author needs to get out of the way in order to allow the visual artists to do their work without interference. Not me chiming in with, oh, “I imagined him with freckles!” or whatever other suffocating, literal-minded idea I might have.
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CS:  Anyway, from this point the final drawing/painting is done on watercolor paper. The graininess happens with the addition of Prismacolor pencils on the rough surface of the paper.
JP: You know, when people describe Disney World as a “magical” place, I always groan inside and think, How about commercial? Or, I don’t know, admirable in its efficiency? But when I look at your work — and the journey it takes to reach the final cover — it really does feel like something almost magical has occurred. Not awesome, in the cliched, verbal tic sense of the word, but awe-some. Or awe-full, full of awe. Thanks for sharing this with me and my Nation of Six Readers. We’re like the Iroquois that way, btw (but not at all). I’d love to talk more about your books another time, where you live, your picture books, your favorite music, hobbies, whatever. Just basically get to know you better. Can you come back soon?
CS: I would love to. However, after I read what we’ve discussed, it may send me into a mild depression. I may be reluctant to expose my pedestrian nature again.
JP: I hear you, Chris. All of my favorite artists and writers are filled with self-doubt. Can there by any other way? Otherwise you are dealing with raging egotists, and I hate those people. I like your modesty and self-effacement. But know this: Your talent shines forth in everything you create. I admire and respect your work.
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CS: As George Gobel famously told Johnny Carson, “Did you ever get the feeling that the world was a tuxedo and you were a pair of brown shoes?” Thanks for inviting me. I really enjoyed it (I think).
 
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Talking with Cynthia DeFelice: About Writing, Inspiration, the Common Core, Boys, Guns, Books and More

I have long followed and respected the work of author Cynthia DeFelice, who over the past 25 years has put together an expansive and impressive body of work. No bells, no whistles, no fancy pyrotechnics. Just one well-crafted book after another. There’s not an ounce of phony in Cynthia; she’s the genuine article, the real magilla. Last November, I was pleased to run into Cynthia at the Rochester Children’s Book Festival. Pressed for time, we chatted easily about this and that, then parted ways. But I wanted more. Thus, this conversation . . . I’m sure you’ll like Cynthia almost as much as her dog does.

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Greetings, Cynthia. Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule for this conversation. I feel like we have so much to talk about. We first met sometime in the early 90s, back when Frank Hodge, a bookseller in Albany, was putting on his elaborate, gushing children’s book conferences.

UnknownIt’s nice to be in touch with you again. I’ll always remember those conferences​ with Frank Hodge.  He made me feel validated as a fledgling writer.  He left me a voice mail telling me how much he loved the book Weasel.  I played it over and over and over!   In 1992, the Hodge-Podge Society gave the first ever Hodge-Podge Award to Weasel.  It meant the world to me.  Those were great times for authors, teachers, kids, and for literature.

Frank forced me to read your book — and I loved it. So I’ll always be grateful to Frank for that; it’s important to have those people in your world, the sharers, the ones who press books into your hands and say, “You must read this!”

Well, good for Frank! He is definitely one of those people you’re talking about. His enthusiasm is infectious.

We’ve seen many changes over the past 25 years. For example, a year or two ago I  participated in a New York State reading conference in Albany for educators. The building was abuzz with programs about “Common Core” strategies & applications & assessments & implementation techniques and ZZZZZzzzzz. (Sorry, dozed off for a minute!) Anyway, educators were under tremendous pressure to roll this thing out — even when many sensed disaster. Meanwhile, almost out of habit, organizers invited authors to attend, but they placed us in a darkened corridor in the back. Not next to the Dumpster, but close. At one point I was with Susan Beth Pfeffer, who writes these incredible books, and nobody was paying attention to her. This great writer was sitting there virtually ignored.

9780374400200To your point about finding fabulous authors being ignored at conferences, I hear you. It can be a very humbling experience. I find that teachers aren’t nearly as knowledgeable about books and authors as they were 10-25 years ago, and not as interested. They aren’t encouraged in that direction, and they don’t feel they have the time for what is considered to be non-essential to the goal of making sure their kids pass the tests. Thankfully, there are exceptions! You and I both still hear from kids and teachers for whom books are vital, important, and exhilarating.

But, yes, I agree with you completely that literature is being shoved to the side. Teachers tell me they have to sneak in reading aloud when no one is watching or listening.

When I was invited to speak at a dinner, along with Adam Gidwitz and the great Joe Bruchac, I felt compelled to put in a good word for  . . . story. You know, remind everybody that books matter. In today’s misguided rush for “informational units of text,” I worry that test-driven education is pushing literature to the side. The powers that be can’t easily measure the value of a book — it’s impossible to reduce to bubble tests — so their solution is to ignore fiction completely. Sorry for the rant, but I’m so frustrated with the direction of education today.

Well, it’s hard not to rant. It’s disconcerting to think how we’ve swung so far from those heady days of “Whole Language” to today’s “Common Core” curriculum — about as far apart as two approaches can be. I think the best approach lies somewhere in the vast middle ground between the two, and teachers need to be trusted to use methods as varied as the kids they work with every day.

On a recent school visit in Connecticut, I met a second-year librarian — excuse me, media specialist — who was instructed by her supervisor to never read aloud to the students. It wasn’t perceived as a worthwhile use of her time.

Well, that is sad and just plain ridiculous. I was a school librarian for 8 ½ years. I felt the most important part of my job was reading aloud to kids

I didn’t realize you were a librarian. 
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9780374398996Yes, I began as a school librarian. But, really, my life as a writer began when I was a child listening to my mother read aloud.  And every crazy job I had before I became a librarian (and there were a lot) helped to form and inform me as a writer.  This is true of us all.  I had an actual epiphany one day while I was a librarian. I looked up from a book I was reading aloud and saw the faces of a class of kids who were riveted to every word… I saw their wide eyes, their mouths hanging open, their bodies taut and poised with anticipation – I was seeing full body participation in the story that was unfolding.  I thought: I want to be the person who makes kids look and feel like THAT.
And that’s exactly who you became. Which is incredible. This can be a tough and discouraging business; I truly hope you realize how much you’ve accomplished.

Thanks, and back at you on that. I think we have to constantly remind ourselves that what we do is important. I think we’ve all had the experience of being scorned because we write for children. The common perception is that we write about fuzzy bunnies who learn to share and to be happy with who they are.

I loved your recent blog post about the importance of books that disturb us. I’m still amazed when I hear from a teacher or parent –- and occasionally even a young reader –- saying they didn’t like a book or a scene from a book because of something upsetting that happened in it. Conflict is the essence of fiction! No conflict, no story (or, worse, a boring, useless one). I love my characters, and I hate to make them go through some of the experiences they have, but it’s got to be done! Did I want Stewpot to die in Nowhere to Call Home? Did I want Weasel to have cut out Ezra’s tongue and killed his wife and unborn baby? Did I want Erik to have to give up the dog Quill at the end of Wild Life? These things hurt, and yet we see our characters emerge from the dark forests we give them to walk through, coming out stronger and wiser. We all need to hear about such experiences, over and over again, in order to have hope in the face of our own trials.

I admire all aspects of your writing, but in particular your sense of pace; your stories click along briskly. They don’t feel rushed, there’s real depth, but there’s always a strong forward push to the narrative. How important is that to you?

I love beautiful writing, I love imagery and metaphor, and evocative language. But all that must be in service to story, or I am impatient with it.  I don’t like show-offy writing.

The ego getting in the way.

Yes. Even the best writers need an editor to keep that ego in check! I seek clarity — what good is writing that obscures and obfuscates? The purpose is to communicate, to say what you mean. That goes for all kinds of writing, not just writing for kids. Kids want to get to the point. So do I.

Can you name any books or authors that were important to your development as a writer? Or is that an impossible question to answer?

 Impossible. Because there are too many, and if I made a list I would inevitably leave out a person or book I adore. Safer to say that every book I’ve read -– the good, the bad, and the ugly –- all are in there somewhere, having an effect on my own writing.

You are what you eat. Also, your love of nature — the great outdoors! — infuses everything you write.

Nature and the great outdoors, yes.  My love of these things will always be a big part of my writing.  I find that after a lifetime of experience and reading and exploring, I know a lot about the natural world, and it’s fun to include that knowledge in my writing. Sometimes I worry that kids are being cut off from the real world.  But I do know lots of kids who love animals and trees and flowers and bugs, love to hunt and fish, to mess around in ponds and streams, build forts,  paddle canoes, collect fossils — you name it. They give me hope for the future.
Where do you live?

On and sometimes in (during the floods of 1972 and 1993) Seneca Lake in beautiful upstate New York.

Is that where you’re from?

Nope. I grew up in the suburbs of northeast Philly. I came up here to go to college and never left.
Your books often feature boy characters. Why do you think that’s so?
9780374324278You’re right: more than half of my main characters are boys.  I’m not sure why.  And I don’t know why I feel so perfectly comfortable writing in the voice of a 10-11-12 year old boy.  Maybe because my brothers and I were close and we did a lot together?  Maybe because my husband still has a lot of boyish enthusiasm?  At any rate, I am crazy about pre-adolescent boys, their goofiness and earnestness and heedlessness.  My new book (coming out in May) is called Fort.  It features two boys, Wyatt and Augie (age 11) who build a fort together during summer vacation.  I had so much fun writing it.  (I have to admit, I love when I crack myself up, and these guys just make me laugh.)
While writing, are you conscious about the gender gap in reading? This truism that “boys don’t read.”

I am. Sometimes I am purposely writing for that reluctant reader, who is so often a boy. I love nothing so much as hearing that one of my books was THE ONE that turned a kid around, that made him a reader.

I just read Signal, so that book is on my mind today. I had to smile  when Owen gets into the woods and his phone doesn’t work. No wi-fi. It’s funny to me because in my “Scary Tales” series I always have to do the same thing. If we want to instill an element of danger, there has to be a sense of isolation that doesn’t seem possible in today’s hyper-connected world. “What? Zombie hordes coming over the rise? I’ll call Mom to pick us up in her SUV!” So we always need to get the  parents out of the way and somehow disable the wi-fi. You didn’t have that problem back when you wrote Weasel.

9780312617769Thanks for reading Signal.  And, yeah, it’s really annoying that in order to be plausible in this day and age, you have to have a reason why your character isn’t on the phone with Mommy every time something goes wrong.  (Another good reason to write historical fiction!)  In Fort, Augie lives with his grandmother and doesn’t have money for a cell phone, and Wyatt’s with his father for the summer. His parents are divorced, and (unlike Mom) Dad doesn’t believe in kids being constantly connected to an electronic nanny.  So — halleluiah!  Wyatt and Augie are free to do all the fun, dumb, and glorious things they feel like doing!
My friends and I built a fort in the woods when we were in high school. Good times, great memories, just hanging out unfettered and free. I included a fort in my book, Along Came Spider. For Trey and Spider, the book’s main characters, the fort represented a refuge. It was also a haven for their friendship away from the social pressures and cliques of school. A place in nature where they could be themselves. So, yes, I love that you wrote a book titled Fort. I’ll add it to my list! (You are becoming an expensive friend.)
Well, now that I’ve discovered your books, I can say the same. Money well spent, I’d say.
Where did the idea for Signal originate?
The inspiration for Signal came one morning as I was running on a trail through the woods with Josie, my dog at the time.  She proudly brought me a white napkin with red stuff smeared on it.  I thought, Whoa, is that blood?  No, whew. Ketchup.  But what if it had been blood?  And what if a kid was running with his dog and she brought him pieces of cloth with blood stains?  Eww.  That would be creepy!  And scary, and exciting, and mysterious — and I started writing Signal.

You’ve always been extremely well-reviewed. Readers love your books.  And yet in this day of series and website-supported titles, where everything seems to be high-concept, it feels like the stand-alone middle grade novel is an endangered species.

I have been lucky with reviews.  But, sadly, I think traditional review sources are becoming increasingly irrelevant, as blogs and websites and personal media platforms take over. That’s not good news for me because I am simply not interested in self-promotion.  Can’t do it.  Don’t want to do it.  I just want to write the best books I can and let them speak for themselves.  I know it’s old-school, but there it is.  You said that a stand-alone middle grade novel is becoming an endangered species amid all the series and “high concept” books out there, and I think you’re right.  But when that stand-alone book somehow finds its niche audience, when kids and teachers somehow discover it and embrace it as theirs . . . , well, it’s a beautiful damn thing, and it’s enough to keep me writing, for now.

For now?!

Well, my husband is 9 years older than I am and recently retired, and there are a lot of things we still need to do!

Like what?

We have a farm property we are improving by digging a pond, and by planting trees and foliage to benefit wildlife. We stocked it with fish, and enjoy watching it attract turtles, frogs, toads, dragonflies, birds and animals of all sorts. So we like to spend a lot of time there, camping out. We love to travel, and are headed next on a self-driving tour of Iceland. We also have four terrific grandchildren we like to spend time with. I could go on and on with the bucket list…

By the way, I agree about the blogs. I think we are seeing a lot more opinion — more reaction — but less deep critical thought. It’s fine and useful for a neighbor to tell you they hated or loved a movie, but it’s not the same as a professional film critic providing an informed, and hopefully insightful, critique. Yet somehow today it’s all conflated. 

Well, there is a similar phenomenon with self-published books. I’m not a total snob about it, and there are plenty of good books that didn’t go through the process of being accepted by and edited by a professional at an established publishing house. But I’ll repeat that everyone needs an editor. And I’m often amazed at the brazenness of people spouting off in various social media platforms, often without being fully grounded in the subject they are pontificating about. But, hey, maybe I’m just getting to be an old fart.

Yeah, I don’t Tweet either. We’re being left in the dust! My observation is that the “kidlitosphere” is comprised 90% of women. Of course, many of those bloggers are passionate, smart, generous women who genuinely want to see boys reading. But I always think of a favorite line written by one of my heroes, Charlotte Zolotow, where a boy imagines his father telling his mother, “You never were a boy. You don’t know.”

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I don’t think it’s an ideal thing that the blogging world — which has become such an important source of information about books — is overwhelmingly female. Of course, the situation is not at all their fault. 

That’s why it’s so great that there are writers out there like you, Bruce Coville, Tedd Arnold, Jon Scieska, Neil Gaiman, Jack Gantos –- who not only write books boys like, but are out there in schools demonstrating that REAL MEN read and write! I don’t know what we can do about the gender gap other than to be aware of it and to write the best books we can, books that both boys and girls will devour.

Tell me about Wild Life. Once again, you are mining the world of adventure — a boy, a dog, and a gun.

I never got as much mail from kids, teachers, grandparents and other caregivers as I did after that book came out. In our hyper-politically correct world, GUNS = EVIL. You can’t talk about them in school. So where does that leave a kid who spends his or her weekend hunting, who studies nature in order to be part of it, who hunts respectfully, with care, who is enmeshed in family history and tradition, who through hunting feels part of the full complexity of life?

8901928I had to keep silencing the censors in my head telling me I couldn’t put a gun in an 11 year old kid’s hands, unless it was a matter of survival in a book set back in “the olden days.”

I was amazed and immensely gratified to learn that a lot of kids found themselves and their interests represented in Erik’s story. I didn’t write it with an agenda in mind. I simply wrote it based on the experiences I’ve had when my husband and I take our bird dog on her yearly Dream Vacation to North Dakota to hunt pheasants.

Ha! I love that your dog has a Dream Vacation.

I get so much joy from watching her do what she was born and bred to do. I cherish our days out on those wide open prairies, and have learned to see the subtle and varied beauty of the landscape. I was just hoping to write a rip-roaring good story that incorporated all that wonderful stuff. Our hunting experiences have nothing whatsoever to do with “gun violence” of the sort you hear about on TV. It’s been interesting to hear from kids who really get that.

Yeah, I enjoy meeting those kids, often out in the western end of New York State. One of my readers from the North Country sent me this photo. Isn’t she great?

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Oh, man, I love that! We can’t forget those kids are out there.

What’s next, Cynthia? Any new books on the horizon?

Possibly, just possibly, a sequel to Fort. But that’s all I will say, even if you use enhanced interrogation techniques.

Huge-rubber-duck-13--196-pWe do not waterboard here at Jamespreller dot com, and I resent the implication! Those are merely bath toys that happen to be . . . nevermind!

According to the rules of the interwebs, I see that we’ve gone way beyond the approved length of standard posts. Likely there’s no one left reading. It’s just us. So I’ll end here with a big thank you, Cynthia, for putting up with me. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. I hope I’ll see you again in Rochester at the 19th Annual Children’s Book Festival

Yes!  I look forward to seeing you there.  It’s an incredible event, and gets bigger and better every year.