Archive for Upstander

A Conversation About Book Covers with Illustrator Deborah Lee, A Rising New Voice in Children’s Books

 

Back in the halcyon days of school visits, I’d often get questions about my book covers. People tend to assume that the author sits back in a stuffed leather chair, calling the shots. That’s far from the truth — I only sit on cinder blocks! My shorthand answer is that as an author, I’m responsible for the interior of the book. Every single page. But the cover? That’s the publisher’s. They’ve invested money in the book, talked to sales representatives, editors, designers, artists, bean counters, and endured actual meetings. Seriously. They go into windowless rooms and hammer it out. They want to sell the book, too.


What I mean to say is that the process is mostly out of my purview. Take for example my upcoming book, Upstander (Macmillan, 2021). One day my editor, Liz Szabla, sent me a file and said, more or less, “Here’s the cover, hope you like it.”

And you know what? I did, a lot. I found out the name of the illustrator, Deborah Lee, and wrote to thank her. Deborah was willing to answer some of my questions. Here she is now (I know, I’m excited, too).

 

First off, who are you? Could you give us some quick background? How did you get into illustrating book covers?

Hey! I’m a Korean-American freelance illustrator who works primarily in the publishing and editorial industries. And to be honest, I’ve only started working independently this year—before, I was working at LinkedIn and Lyft as a designer and illustrator for a year and a half while juggling freelance illustration. I was a designer for a while because I didn’t pick up my current profession as a career choice until my senior year of college. (Unfortunately, the university, which is strongest in engineering, has no resources in illustration, so I was pretty much on my own for that.) It was my final semester when I had some presentable work ready to show, and the stars aligned when my current literary agent found me through social media, which began my career in publishing. The rest is history!

So this is all new. How exciting. Where do you live?

I live in Oakland, CA, which is across the bay from San Francisco. But next spring we’re moving back to Pittsburgh, where my partner and I graduated from college. We miss having seasons and cheaper rent.

So let me see if I’ve got this right. One day you get offered a book cover job for something called, Upstander? They tell you how much money you’ll make and you say, “Okay, fine, I’ll do it anyway.”

Couldn’t have said it any better.

Ha, it’s pretty much the story of my career.

HOWEVER, I do love drawing book covers! They’re some of my favorite kinds of projects—the sketch ideas come by much more easily since there’s already a clear narrative in place. A lot of my quick freelance assignments tend to look for illustrations about very abstract concepts and current events.

I understand that, as fate would have it, you were already familiar with my Jigsaw Jones books.

Yes!! It’s been a long time, but my brother and I borrowed most, if not all of the books from the library when we were growing up. I’m sure we had some of the boxed sets too!

That’s pretty cool. Obviously you were an amazing kid. Back to the cover. Do you work from a designer’s concept?

The designer, Mike Burroughs, gave me some pointers in regard to symbolism (eye and speech bubble emoji) and mood (loneliness, tension) but luckily, I still had creative freedom! Mike was also looking for something more conceptual and less narrative-based, but reading the book helped anyway so I could take notes on any key scenes that could inform the cover as well. Also it helped me understand Mary’s (the protagonist) conflict enough to depict her facial expression as appropriately as I could. There’s a lot going on in her life.

Do you try to deliver a variety of approaches?

Definitely! I remember intentionally keeping one sketch without the emoji that Mike was looking for, just in case. I also varied the amount of literal vs conceptual elements in each one. But over all, telling different stories with each concept shows the design team that I’m flexible, and not super stuck on just one idea.

 

 

Finally, the publisher selects one and says, “Perfect! This is exactly it! We just want you to change a few things . . .”

That did happen! At first I made Mary look a little too young, which wasn’t that difficult to fix. I also had the speech bubble display some indistinct text, which was replaced by the blurb that’s seen in the final deliverable. Thankfully this was a very straightforward project—Mike was really easy to work with!

“The final deliverable.” It’s that kind of insider lingo that keeps a Nation of Readers coming back to James Preller Dot Com! I have to tell you, Deborah, I’ve shared our cover on Facebook and your work has received so many compliments. People seem to really to be intrigued by the cover. There’s a sense of mystery to it that, I hope, will draw readers into the story. That is: Thank you!

And thank *you*!!! I’m so glad it resonated with everyone—especially with how little the cover reveals about the story.

So what else are you up to? Have you done other covers? Do you hope to illustrate your own books? Hang in fine museums? What’s next? 

Whew, so since 2018 I’ve been working on my debut authored/illustrated graphic memoir called In Limbo with First Second/Macmillan. It’s the most daunting and laborious project I’ve ever been took on—I treat that project alone like a day job and a half.

Oh, my goodness. That looks incredible. Just a staggering amount of work. I want it now. 

All-in-all, it’s a rewarding process and I can’t wait to see it in full by Spring 2022.

Could you tell us more about it?

In Limbo covers my time during high school as a severely depressed and abused teenager with an identity crisis as one of the only Asian-American kids in my year. It’s dark—so much so that my editor at First Second/Macmillan had to remind me constantly to put in lighter scenes in the beginning stages of the draft! While I’m not complete with the final pages yet, I can already say that this book has taught me not only the graphic novel process, but also it brought a ton of insight about myself. Basically the longest therapy session ever. I’m very grateful to have been given this chance.

Sounds like a story you had to tell. I’ll be looking for it.

And while I work through that one, I’m illustrating another graphic novel (authored by Tina Cho) for Harper Collins called The Other Side of Tomorrow, which is publishing around 2023. I’m very lucky to be working on these projects—and for now I’m most looking forward to having physical copies of both books in my hands!

Yes, that’s a beautiful moment in the life of a creator. The first time holding it in your hands, the satisfaction of, “I made this.”

As for covers, I have done one other before this for a middle-grade book called Invisible Boy. That one was tricky—it talks a whole lot about child trafficking, so I had to be careful with how I depicted that. And again, one of my favorite kinds of projects. Crossing my fingers for more of these!

 

 

Well, Deborah, it’s been a pleasure to get to meet you. Such an exciting time in your career, just as you are lifting off into the stratosphere. I’m absolutely positive that we’ll be hearing a lot more from you in the future. I’m glad all those Jigsaw Jones books did you some good. I wish you the best of luck — and thanks, again, for our book cover. It will always connect us, and for that I’m very glad.

Haha, thank you so so much!! (I’ll be needing it!)

UPSTANDER Flap Copy, Full Cover

In order to read the actual cover image, you’ll likely need to click on it and fiddle around with it — unless you have bionic eyes. In which case, congratulations, that must be awesome.

I thought my editor, Liz, did a great job with the flap copy:

Mary O’Malley’s only brother, Jonny, is fading away before her eyes, losing a battle to drugs and addiction. Mary’s mother, too, has become absent and distracted. It’s like living in a house of ghosts, and Mary doesn’t know where to turn.

It seems the only person who might understand is Griffen Connolly. Mary had thought Griff was too cool, too popular, for her. But now he wants to hang out with her—and listen. Can she trust him?

Meanwhile at school, things are only getting more complicated. When two girls Mary thought were her friends decide to slam another girl online, Mary tries to look the other way. She needs to call on her inner strength—and the kindness of a new student— to survive a fractured family, bullying in school, and friends who might not be what they seem.

Copyediting Process: The Final, Final, Final Edits

The only thing that matters is the final book

in the reader’s hands.

Nobody cares how you got there.

If it was on time or three years late.

If the first draft sucked.

If the edits were massive or minor.

Nobody reads a crappy book and thinks,

‘Yeah, but wow, he really nailed the deadlines!'”

 

I have not been as all-in with ye olde blog as I used to be when I began it back in May of 2008. Part of that has to do with the general trend away from blog readership to shorter, faster, dopier forms of social media (I am not on InstaGram or Twitter; only Facebook). 

But I remind myself of this blog’s central mission: To pull back the curtain on one writer’s career and process, which I still hope is a worthwhile endeavor. 

To that end: Below, please find an exact copy of my “final, final, final” corrections for my upcoming middle-grade book, Upstander, as emailed to my editor, Liz Szabla. This is the last chance to get things right. 

By this point, the editing process has already gone round and round, back and forth, up and down. Liz tends to concentrate on the macro, the big picture; a team of talented copyeditors bring it down to the micro level. In this book, for example, I had some troubling issues with tense. Somewhat embarrassing, since I pride myself on producing fairly clean manuscripts. We had to sort through that mess. Back and forth, back and forth. Finally, I got my last-last-last chance: speak now or forever hold your peace. We are in Microland. The nitty and the gritty.

Weariness sets in. A part of me doesn’t feel up for yet another painstaking read-through. So the task is to summon that energy, put myself in that space once more, and read once more with that critical eye. Hard because I thought I’d already done that several times before. At the same time, I don’t want to over-think things and foul up perfectly good work. 

Anyway, for this round, I mostly concentrated on deletions. Finding words I could cut, fussing with pronouns, one last search for any typos or repeated words. Minor stuff, and not a lot of it. For Upstander, I quietly waged war on commas, since I’m sometimes prone to an excess of pauses. By this round, however, that mission was more or less accomplished. All good except for the fact that I was hating on Chapter 6 [Ghosts]. It was too slow, too interior, too wordy, too much — and maybe too clever. So I took an axe to it, chopping away sentences, paragraphs, pages. Rare for me at this late stage, so I did it apologetically, knowing that I was giving the designers more hassles than they might have expected. Don’t get me wrong: I like this book a lot. Very proud, in particular, of the substance use disorder theme. There are things I wanted to say, with compassion and sensitivity, putting a face on the impact of this terrible disease. But Chapter 6 was bugging me.

Side Note #1. These edits, and an earlier round, are NOT represented in the Advance Reader’s Copies that are available in digital form at NetGalley. (Educators and reviewers may request a copy directly at NetGalley; contact me if you have any problems.) 

Side Note #2. Here is one absolute truth that I have learned across 35 years as a published author: The only thing that matters is the final book in the reader’s hands. Nobody cares how you got there. If the book was on time or three years late. If the first draft sucked. If the edits were massive or minor. Nobody reads a crappy book and thinks, “Yeah, but wow, he really nailed the deadlines!”

Is it perfect now? Ha, ha, ho. Heh-heh. That’s funny. Well, no; not perfect. But for now, all things considered, the best we could do. 

Here’s the note I sent to Liz, an author’s last attempt to get it right . . . 

 

UPSTANDER FINAL, FINAL, FINAL EDITS

10/2/20

16, Line 9: DELETE “a while of”

17, Line 2 : REPLACE “boys” with “Griff”

22, Line 20: DELETE “and tightened.”

26, Line 8. DELETE “, she said,. NOW READS: “Stop. Just stop.”

26, Line 9, REPLACE “She” with “Mary”

CHAPTER 6: Yuck.

LIZ SZABLA, Note: I just feel like this is a weak chapter and too long. It’s been a problem from the beginning. How about these cuts? At same time, I don’t want to create huge headaches for the designers. This is the only chapter where I do this to you guys.

27, Line 4-9: DELETE: “The same tug . . . zoning out.”

28, Lines 11-12: DELETE: “The real brother . . . for good.”

28-29, Line 17: DELETE Paragraph that begins, “Mary could tell.”

DELETE Next Paragraph that begins, “Ghosts are weird.”

29, Line 11: DELETE “At least . . . a shower.”

31, Line 23: DELETE “, Mary mused,”

32, Line 8-10: REVISE AS: “Their father’s death was harder on Jonny, though he never said much about it.”

41, Line 6: REPLACE “she” with “her mother”                 

73, Line 2: INSERT “old” between “his” and “friends”

121, Line 5: DELETE “for two weeks.”

122, Line 6: DELETE “two-week”

130-131: Line 21+: DELETE “Sometimes Mary felt . . . happening?” THEN REPLACE “She” with “Mary.” NOW READS: “. . . woods beyond. Mary longed for . . . .

151, Line 2: REPLACE “thin” with “insincere”

151, Line 14: DELETE “The deep freeze.”

152, Line 19: INSERT: “the day ended and” between “was glad when” and “the final bell”

157, Line 1: REPLACE “like” with “as if”

162, Line 5: REPLACE “usually” with “had”

166, Line 9-10: DELETE “, and after a pause finished”

174, Line 18 : REPLACE “He’s” with “He was”

227, Line 19: REPLACE “tomorrow” with “the next day.”

235, NOTE: After Line 16, place add BREAK SPACE – not sure what you call that, though we’ve done it a few times in book – so we can push handwritten note to top of page 236. Think it makes sense, the shift, and will look much better.

UPSTANDER Cover Reveal, PDF Now Available on NetGalley

I’m happy to announce that my new middle-grade novel, Upstander (Macmillan, May 2021), is now available on NetGalley. The book is a stand-alone companion to Bystander, exploring themes of internet bullying and substance use disorder. 

Readers can request it through this link: Stomp here!

Thanks for your interest and support.

 

Pro Tips: Finding Inspiration at Home & Across the Street

Every once in a while I talk “writing process” in the hope that educators or readers might find it remotely interesting. I even include Pro Tips! Anyway, ahem, there’s two paragraphs in Upstander (Macmillan, Spring ’21), a sequel to Bystander, where I can directly trace my inspirations. One inspiration comes from artwork by my daughter, and the other is from my neighbor across the street. For our purposes, we’ll call him Bill LaDue.

In Upstander, Mary is struggling with a number of challenging issues. A minor arc is her relationship with her mother’s boyfriend, Ernesto. Of greater importance to the novel is her older brother’s substance use disorder, its impact on the family, as well as Mary’s shifting friendships at school.

Here’s the unedited scene, just two paragraphs that will appear in the middle of the book. I don’t think you’ll need additional setup:

On the day before her brother moved out, Mary sat in the backyard at a reclaimed picnic table that Ernesto had “rescued” from someone’s garbage pile. He did that a lot. Drove around in his pickup truck on garbage day, often returning with curbside items of questionable quality. A riding lawn mower that “only” needed a new fuel pump and starter switch; a boat that leaked; a set of ancient, rusted golf clubs; a battered ping pong table that lacked a net. He has a weakness for broken things, Mary mused. The thought sank down into her belly, like a small stone dropped into a well, and it made her appreciate Ernesto just a little more.

Mary set out her art supplies. Paper, brushes, watercolors. She painted a seated female figure, facing away, balancing a stack of rocks on her head. It was a strange, almost magical image and it pleased Mary to make it. An hour passed. Very quietly, Jonny sat down beside her. He wore pajama bottoms and a T-shirt. His hair was wet from the shower. Mary didn’t comment, but she felt surprised. He didn’t usually show much interest. Why was he here?

 

It’s important to me that even minor characters are, to the best of my ability, fully realized. It’s a source of pride, actually. Who was this Ernesto guy, dating Mary’s mother and spending time in her house? Finding the answer was deceptively simple: Make something up! After all, that’s what writers do. 

I looked across the street at my neighbor’s house, the fabulous LaDues: Bill, Erin, and Charlie. Bill is a good man, a friend, funny and kind. And he has a thing for curbside “garbage.” He’s constantly pulling over for discarded curbside items, seeing value where the original owners did not, and hauling the derelict items home. Bill’s pals gently tease him about this affliction. The boat that doesn’t float, the four riding lawn mowers all in some state of disrepair, and so on. Just today, Bill posted this on social media:

He wrote, with more than a little self-awareness:

Cleaning out the camper. I kind of feel like I absolutely need each and everyone one of these things: 2 extra sets of golf clubs, 8 or 9 coolers, a bevy of beer brewing equipment never used, 2 ironing boards (Erin’s), cushions for a hanging chair (we no longer have the chair). Hey, you never know when this stuff might come in handy.

 

So that’s Bill. And now, because Bill lives across the street from me, that’s Ernesto, too. And as Mary comes to understand it: He has a weakness for broken things.

Yeah, that’s the key to whole character. It’s all you really need to know about Ernesto. I love him for that quality. Ernesto sees the potential, the upside, in everything and everyone. It made Mary appreciate Ernesto just a little more. And it’s something I admire about my neighbor Bill, too; he’s a romantic at heart, an old softy, bless his soul.

Mary, like my own daughter, Maggie, likes making things. She draws and paints and sews and creates. When it came time to describe one of Mary’s paintings, since that’s what she was doing in this scene, I thought of one that Maggie made last winter, which now hangs in her bedroom:

 

I guess I didn’t have to “make something up” after all!

Funny how that works.

So that’s today’s Pro Tip, young writers. Take a look around, be a sponge, soak it all up. As my neighbor Bill attests, “Hey, you never know when this stuff might come in handy.”

Maybe writers are junk collectors, too.