Thursday, September 29, 2005

Martha Stewart? No, Paul Meisel!

Guess what? I came this *click* close to interviewing Martha Stewart here on my blog. But, I got one step better. I got Paul Meisel, the illustrator for the book Jack and the Beanstalk: A fairy tale adapted by Primarius Corporation. This corporation was born out of the hit TV show The Apprentice starring Martha Stewart.

Now, I didn't see the show, and I haven't read the book. For that reason, I won't make any snide comments regarding the Primarius Corporation's attempt to retell a children's fable. And since I've been writing for children myself, I know it isn't as easy as it might seem.

The Apprentice contestants were charged with retelling a fairy tale using the best resources Random House Publishing had at hand. One of those resources was children's book illustrator Paul Meisel. I was more interested in Paul, who describes his illustration style as humorous or whimsical, than Primarius or Martha. Paul was kinda busy, but he did give me a minute to answer a question.

Devas T.: I've read so many negative articles about Hollywood celebrity children's books. I've often wondered about the fortunate, or maybe unfortunate illustrator behind the books. What was your experience?

Paul: The job came through Random House. I've done a few books with them. The first children's book that I illustrated was Monkey Monkey's Trick, published by Random House in 1988. I don't really consider this [Jack and the Beanstalk] a typical "celebrity book". It was written by the contestants in 24 hours, and my art was of course done in the same amount of time. As to my experience, it was interesting to see how these shows are made behind the scenes. There were very specific rules though- as the work had to be the product of the team I really wasn't allowed to offer my opinions or insights. A little bit different from how I normally work.

I worked directly with Carrie and Dawna mostly, and occasionally a few of the other members of Primarius. If you've seen the show, the way they appear is exactly how they were- professional and a pleasure to work with. I'm not surprised they won that task and won again in the second task that aired tonight.

Devas T.: Yes-yes-yes, but what about Martha! Was she still wearing that cute little ankle bracelet we heard so much about, and was she offering any promising under-the-table stock tips?

Paul: I never saw Martha.

Devas T: Lol!...Thank you Paul. I love your art work, and although I will probably pass on this Apprentice book, I will be picking up Mooove Over! the book you illustrated, written by Karen Magnuson Beil. That looks absolutely cool. Thanks for your time.

Paul: Thanks for your interest. Your work looks great. Continued success with your career.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Email dissing

I was just fumbling through my email box looking for that one needle in the haystack note. I finally found that one needle, but I also found several emails that I opened and read, but never responded to.

I get many offers from authors who've visited my website. I am greatful to those people who take the time to view my artwork. And I thank those who send notes with offers. I am flattered. All that said — and I hope I don't sound snobbish now, but — I'm at a different place in my career today than I was maybe 15-years ago. Then, I was itching for any opportunity to illustrate any book that might have any possibility of being published. But I scratched that itch many years ago. Guess I just ain't as itchy no more. Not to say my excitement level about illustrating children's books has waned — that's far from the truth. But I am now more selective in the offers I receive.

Recently, I received an offer from Harper Collins. Did I accept it? Of course! I may not be very itchy, but I'm still kinda hungry. And a book deal with Harper makes for a nice meal.

Typically, publishing houses acquire picture book manuscripts from authors. An author does not need to find their own illustrator before approaching a publisher. Approaching a publisher with an illustrated manuscript is not going to increase an author's chances of getting noticed. In fact it may detract. Art is subjective. What an author thinks is good appropiate art, may not be good, polished, marketable artwork in the opinion of an editor, agent, or art director.

So, am I saying that my art is less than polished, and marketable? No. A brotha's art is polished. Still, I too need to be particular about the manuscripts my art is associated with. If a manuscript is presented to me by an agent or directly from a publishing house — first of all, it's practically money in the bank. Second, it probably represents a quality that better matches my level of expertise.

Publishing houses typically have their own talent pools of artist from which they choose. They choose the author's manuscript. They match the manuscript with an artist. It's my goal to become a part of those talent pools.

When an author approaches me directly with an offer to illustrate their books, in most cases, that's a clue that maybe this manuscript isn't a good match for me. That's not always thee case. I know of many authors and artist who colaborate directly before presenting their ideas to a publisher. Pam Munoz Ryan and Brian Selznick are an example. So unless an author's name is Pam Munoz Ryan, Kathi Appelt or anyone else who's already sold a zillion-and-one award-winning titles, it makes better sense for me to get offers from editors. That's not a slam on the manuscript or the author who is approaching me. It's just that an editor or agent is probably the conduit I need in helping me discern what manuscripts I should be considering.

Now, all that said, dissing your email still isn't cool. I honestly try to return every one. I apologize if yours is one of the six unanswered notes I just found. I'll get to them right now.

I'm off to answer emails.

Unrelated thought for the day: I do love Paul's art, but... are you kidding me?

Monday, September 26, 2005

A-wahoo and a-rootie too-too!

A happy song I learned from my son which describes how I'm feeling right about now. I was able to get my manuscript down from a word count of 2,334 to 1,583, and now down to an all time low of 1,321, just under the submissions guidelines of 1,500 words. And to think, just six months ago, I considered myself a non-word and non-numbers person, although I'm still not claiming a love of numbers. All the while, and most importantly, I maintained the integrity of the story. Cool.

Part of the trick was realizing that some of the details of the story can, and will be told with pictures (Here I am talking like this manuscript has already been sold). It's a picture book afterall. Just going through and omitting words that can be illustrated helped. I think it's important for a writer to think visually. And as an artist, I appreciate when an author provides plenty of visual clues. But the trick, I think, is balance. If a guy's wearing a tall blue polka-dotted hat, there may be no need to say it with words. Let the artist paint it.

Once I started cutting details, cutting became easier. I mean, if there's not much in the way of elaboration on the first few pages, it didn't make sense to end the book with alot of detail words. Cut em!

Somebody better buy my book! A brotha is working hard.
Now the idea of shopping this manuscript around, and the inevitable rejection letters I hear so much about brings me down just a bit. But not enough to change the mood of my a-rootie-too-too post.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Now comes the axe

I just took a word count of my manuscript. It currently has 2,334 words. That's after I tightened up as per Cyn's suggestions. Oh my gosh. I have to cut 834 words, about one-fourth of the manuscript. And I haven't even wrote an author's note. Is the author's note included in the 1,500 word limit? *bristling*

It needs an author's note. With so few words, there won't be any semblance of a story. Back to the writer's board.

I wrote a book!

Ok, I'm no where near finished, but I've completed the initial draft. I've revised it twice. I've shared it with at least two of my published author friends. I'm so blessed to have friends like Cynthia Leitich Smith and Dianna Aston who enthusiastically offered to read and critique my work. Not as professional/fee critiquers, but as a personal favor to me. Now I'm going to take their feedback, edit and reshape.

I'm entering my manuscript in Lee & Lows New Voices competition. In preparation, I've studied many other picture book biographies. I first visited the public library, but me and Dewey Decimal, and those old IBM-ish PCs just don't get along, so I came home and dug out all the biographies I have in my own library. Not so surprisingly, since I am a big fan of historical fiction and nonfiction, my personal library had plenty of picks to peruse.

My favorite: Shoeless Joe & Black Betsy by Phil Bildner, illustrated by C.F. Payne. I've been a big fan of Payne's illustration work for years, even before he got into children's books. I liked the way this book was told. It is kind of long and wordy, but I like the voice. Bildner uses a conversational style voice with catchy colloquialisms which is the direction I'd like to take my own voice. Read some of the reviews on Amazon.

Here are a list of the books which I have in my own collection. Funny, I've been collecting these books all these years and haven't read nary one of them. Until now.

Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride
by Pam Munoz Ryan, illustrated by Brian Selznick

World's Greatest Mystery Man and Escape King
by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Eric Velasquez
I am the biggest lover of magic. I remember having a phone book sized magic book when I was a child. It offered the answers to many magic tricks, but I was a little afraid of the book because it borderlined on the occult.

Wilma Unlimited
How Wilma Rudolph Became the World's Fastest Woman
by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by David Diaz
This book came highly recommended to me by author Dianna Aston. "Study and study this book," she advised me.

Martin's Big Words
The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

by Doreen Rappaport
illustrated by Bryan Collier

Salt in his Shoes
Michael Jordan In Pursuit of a Dream

by Deloris Jordan with Roslyn M. Jordan
Illustrated by Kadir Nelson
I love anything illustrated by Kadir Nelson, but funny, I just read this book two weeks ago, and don't remember anything about it.

Duke Ellington
by Andrea Pinkney
illustrated by Brian Pinkney
I love the rhythm of the writing. I want to write like this. Of course, I love Brian's illustrations.

by Jonah Winter
illustrated by Ana Juan

Home Run
by Robert Burleigh
illustrated by Mike Wimmer
An autobiography of Babe Ruth, however , in my opinion, I think the title of an autobiography should somehow incorporate the person's name, particularly on the cover. The painting of Babe Ruth on the cover is beautiful, but unless I knew what Babe Ruth looks like, I wouldn't have had a clue. I like the way this story is told. It's a sparsely worded poem, but each page features a bubble gum card with more detailed information on Ruth. Creative. Beautifully illustrated.

When Marian Sang
by Pam Munoz Ryan
illustrated by Brian Selznic
A breathtaking book. The illustrations are perfect. This represents more of a wordy picture book, but it is an enjoyable read.

Ella Fitzgerald
The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa

by Andrea Pinkney
illustrated by Brian Pinkney
While I was in the midst of writing an Ella Fitzgerald picture book biography myself, I emailed Andrea with my idea and synopsis of an Ella Fitzgerald biography. Little did I know she and Brian were already under contract to do their own Ella book. I loved theirs.

Lou Gehrig
The Luckiest Man

by David Adler
illustrated by Terry Widener
I studied this book heavily when I illustrated Say Hey! A Song of Willie Mays, so I was thrilled when I moved to Texas and had the opportunity to meet Terry Widener and discuss his process of illustrating this book while sitting on a panel together at the Texas Book Festival.

Satchel Paige
by Lesa Cline Ransome
paintings by James Ransome
It's always been my dream to team up with my wife and write/illustrate a book together. Unless I bend her arms. It. Ain't. Gonna. Happen.

St. Valentine
retold and illustrated by Robert Sabuda

The Babe & I
written by David Adler
illustrated by Terry Widener
Not really a biography, but an interesting story which involves Babe Ruth.

Friday, September 23, 2005

I'm dancing again

I'm in a funk. If you've been a regular reader here, you've heard this song and dance before. Well, I'm singin' and dancin' again. I emailed a customer last week asking them —as nice as I could be, although I wasn't feeling very nice — to please return the artwork I created almost a year ago. Their answer: our "artwork return guy" is busy, he'll get to it next week. My translation based upon past experiences: our "artwork return guy" is busy this week, and he'll be busy next week. In fact he'll be busy indefinitely, call us again next year when he'll still be busy.

I don't get it. Don't publisher's realize that artists need their original artwork for promotional purposes? We use our recently created art to keep them updated on our developing styles, and to keep future projects coming our way. Sure, that's what tearsheets (printed samples) are for, right? But let's be honest here. If they ain't gonna return your original art, they ain't sending no tearsheets either — contract or no contract. I haven't received an under-contract tearsheet in about 12-years. I understand the need to hold onto artwork until shortly after publication. If there is a problem, they need quick access to the original art. That makes sense. But why do they need my art 6-months after a product has been on the market? For the most part, I'm not ranting about trade book publishers. With the exception of one *ahem* whom I won't mention here, they return original art soon after publication. It's every other faction of this business that tends to store an artist work away, on lock up, for eternity, if you let 'em.

I suppose, next week, I can begin the tired old cat and mouse game of sending them another email reminder. And they'll send me a note apologizing, but still won't mail my art back. So I'll wait — not wanting to bother anyone — and call again in a few months. I'll get an irritated response telling me that somebody will call me back. Nobody will. I'm not joking. They. Will. Not. Call. Back. Then, I'll call again only to really irritate them because now they're getting tired of me, and feel responsible to act. Now I've earned my way to being known as that pesky artist guy who they'd better not call anymore because he's just gonna end up bugging them. Grrr.

Now, maybe I should start making color copies or scans of my art before mailing. That way, if I don't get my art back in a timely manner, I'll still have promotional material. Sure. However, most times I'm already working under an unrealistic deadline situation. I'm usually chasing down that FedEx plane with my art in hand, frantically trying to wrap my package with duck tape before the plane leaves the runway. Who has time to build in for copying or scanning art before sending it to a customer?

My art agent is putting together a new book of samples which she'll send to trade book editors and art directors. I have plenty of old work I can include, but I'd like to send some fresh stuff. Will I be able to include these new samples. Probably not. Should I call or send another email inquiry? Dang, I'm tired of silly stuff.

Rant over. I'll be nice again.

Thank you Cyn for blinking my exchange with an agent post, and for introducing me to a new word: blink. Geez, I've seen that word a hundred times and just didn't know. (blog+linking)

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Cool news

I officially received that offer to illustrate a 3-dimensional flip-style book for Harper Collins. I'll be doing backflips down sixth-street in my fruit of the looms, (huh-huh-huh, just kidding...don't unlink me). Anyway, details to come.

An exchange with an agent

I can't believe how many hits I get on my website as a result of having Sheldon Fogelman Literary Agency mentioned there. After checking my Urchin web stats, "Sheldon Fogelman" is #2 on the list of keywords people use to find my website. I used to get about 50 to 60 hits a day. Now I'm getting about 250! With that knowledge, I just have one thing to say: SHELDON FOGELMAN...SHELDON FOGELMAN...SHELDON FOGELMAN.

Anyway, I recently had an email exchange with LInda Pratt, a literary agent at Sheldon Fogelman Literary Agency.

Q. I enjoy haunting the picture book section at local book stores. It's exciting to see all the new titles and styles of art. Lately, however, it seems like there are less picture books being published. That's worrisome because, not only do I want to continue illustrating trade books, I'd like to write some. As an African American illustrator who has been primarily tapped by publishers for African American themes, how will this affect my future in the business?

A. I don't think the downturn in picture book market has hit African-American illustrators more so than other illustrators. In fact, I think proportionately the number of African-American books being published has probably suffered a smaller decrease overall than generic picture books. As you know, many publishers such as Hyperion and Harper have imprints solely dedicated to African-American books with Jump at the Sun and Amistad, respectively, and those lists still need to get filled.

Q. How might I expand my marketability into other areas beyond African American themes?

I think the challenge for illustrators of color is really the same as it is for all illustrators in this market. What seems to be the most productive thing for illustrators at this time is stretch their styles. If one is finding that they aren't getting manuscripts then try to look at what might change that. For example, what type of manuscripts are you most interested in. If you always wanted to do a book illustrated with bears - create some "bear" portfolio pieces. You'd be surprised how many editors say I have a manuscript that stars pigs, and although they might imagine someone's pigs based on their ducks, per se, if they see another illustrator's work that actually depicts a pig, they don't have really stretch their imaginations further. I've heard countless stories of people getting jobs that way. So draw what you love! Another thing that can be done, is if an illustrator isn't getting picture book manuscripts based on what they've shown in prior books, think about what other kinds of books that one might consider. Easy-to-reads, perhaps. Or more increasingly black and white interior illustrations for younger novels. Each of these requires a slightly different art approach than picture book art. Study books in these genres and again, create some sample portfolio pieces in appropriate styles. Lastly, if an illustrator has a secret dream of doing a really serious book or a really silly book, don't keep it a dream. Create sample pieces to show that. I had an illustrator take such a step in the past year that yielded a two book contract for them. In these harder picture book times, we've found that the illustrators who keep bending and growing in their styles give editors an opportunity to consider them in a new light. Editors love to introduce new talent, but they also get the same satisfaction in re-introducing a talent in a new light. It also makes an illustrator feel more productive to be trying to push forward.

I hope that helps! In the meantime, I hope that everything is going well with "The Hidden Feast", and good luck with the "Car" book!!! Enjoy your summer.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005


I purchased the book Pigsty (Scholastic, 1994) when it first published some 12 years ago. Of course, I purchased it because I liked the art. Mark Teague is one of my favorite children's book illustrators. I'm almost embarrassed to say, I never actually read the book until recently. Pigsty is the story of a kid who keeps his room messy — a Pigsty as his mother refers to it. One day, a couple of pigs, who find his messy room quite comfortable, move in. Wendell and the pigs have a good ol' time until they start hogging his pillows and blankets. But when they chew his baseball cards, they've overstayed their welcome. Once Wendell cleans his room, the pigs move out.

I recently read this story to my son, and he liked it. So I thought. However, I had no idea how much this book would impact him. He was suddenly afraid to spend any time in his bedroom. You see, just like his dad, his room gets a bit untidy. He was afraid the pigs might move in, and he didn't find Mark Teague's pigs very cute. So he started trying to keep his room clean so the pigs wouldn't move in.

Now, his dad is another story. Dad don't believe in pigs, at least not the kind that move into people's bedrooms. However the son swears up and down that there's a pig living in dad's clothes closet.

Just discovered that Kim over at Over-caffeinated mom posted on a similar topic today.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Toni Trent Parker

I was saddened to learn of the death of children's book author Toni Trent Parker. I don't know any details behind her death, but she was the co-author of the Black Books Galore! Guide to Great African American Children's books, publisher of Blackberry Express and producer of African American children's book festivals.

I didn't know Toni personally, although I had communicated with her via email occasionally, but my publishers at Just Us Books had this to say: "Toni was a passionate, committed advocate for quality African American children's literature. She was a gifted author and scholar. Toni's organizational skills were legendary and her generous spirit will be sorely missed by thousands of children and adults who were impacted by her love of books. Toni Trent Parker leaves a tremendous legacy that will continue to inspire us."

The spelling issue

Ok, I've received several warnings from people about the spelling on my blog. It took me forever to figure out the problem but, turns out, it's more of a technical issue than stupidity on my part — although, I am no stranger to stupidity. I use a Mac, OSX. Most of the programs I use are classic (before OSX). I create my text in a program called Stickies (classic & OSX). I always run my text through spell check in Freehand (classic version). I create my blog Post in Firefox (OSX). I just discovered 8 months after starting this blog, all this jumping between operating systems just don't work so well. Copied text from Stickie notes will paste fine into Freehand. Spell-checked text copied from Freehand, then pasted into Firefox won't work — therefore what I paste into my blog is still full of spelling fopas — er, faux pas. Oops.

The spam issue
I've lost several emails lately. After receiving one too many adult-explicit spams, I beefed up my spam filter. If I indeed want that stuff, I know how to find it. I don't need little reminders in my mailbox. Since beefing up my spam filter, I get most of my legit emails in my spam folder. I've missed important emails from my agent, other authors and who knows who else. So if you've emailed me lately, and I didn't respond, it's not that I'm stuck up — however, I'm no stranger to stuck up either.

Now my use of commas, dashes and hyphens are still in question.

Friday, September 16, 2005

How'd you do that?

For those that don’t know, my main gig is at the local newspaper. My official title is graphics reporter, but because my illustration skills outweigh my reporting skills, I tend to get more illustration assignments than locator maps — which is good, ‘cause I’m one of those people who’d get lost with map in hand and GPS calling out directions.

Anyway, I sometimes get emails from readers who like my illustration work. Last week, I received an email from a journalism/multimedia teacher. She and a few of her students would like to know how I created a recently published illustration.
I thank her for writing me, and here’s how I did it:

First, I created this sketch using old fashioned pencil and paper. I emailed this sketch to my graphics editor and the sports editor for their approval. They just sit across the room, I can see them from where I sit, but in the age of computers and email, it's easy to be lazy.

Thing is, I created this illustration using a 6-year old outdated version of a program called Raydream Studio on a broken down G4, OS9 Mac. You can just imagine how many times this dinosaur crashed. Could somebody tell my people that graphic designers need equipment equal to or better than the company telemarketers? Excuse my editorializing, I'll get on. Anyway, most 3D programs use the same basic premise: start with 2D shapes, and extrude them into 3D objects. This example should give you the basics of how 3D works no matter what program you might be working in.

Think of 3D as modeling with virtual clay, except that you can't actually touch the model. (however, with newer 3D programs, you can use a putty-type tool to actually mold a model) You will form your clay-like object using three drawing planes: an X plane, Y plane, and Z plane. If you need to move an object, select the appropriate plane and move up or down, left or right.

Modeling: Here, I've taken a basic shape, in this example I've created a circle on drawing plane X. I've extruded the circle along a sweep path. Now I have a 3D cylinder. Using the various planes, I can now manipulate the sweep paths on either plane to get a desired shape. The red shape will eventually serve as my football players lower lip, and neck.

Using various cameras placed throughout the scene (universe), I can see the model from different vantage points. As you might imagine, this can be time consuming because this scene is literally built. Each piece — the nose; eyes; helmet; fingers; palms of hands; shoes; shoulder pads; arms; etc. — are modeled and placed in their proper alignment in order to build this scene.

I've also placed virtual lights throughout the scene to get a desired lighting effect. For special effects, I could have chosen colored lights, light bulb type lights, or even sunlight. I tend to have better luck, at least with Raydream, using distant light which gives a sunlight sort of effect. I can also decide if each light will cast shadows. I try to limit throwing shadows because they can muddy up your image. Besides that, look around you. Most times, depending upon the lighting sources and particularly if you are outside, your body only casts one or two shadows.

I used texture maps to add rough textures to the skull. I also added texture to the football players skin by sampling textures provided from other 3D models provided within the program. After getting the models positioned and lighted the way I wanted, I rendered the image (clicked a button) which basically created my final 3D image. I also created the mask (above right), within Raydream which I later used in Photoshop.

At this point, I finished the illustration in Photoshop, smoothing out rough edges and correcting the colors. Raydream has the tendency to go dark, particularly since it uses an RGB (red, green, blue) coloring environment. To correct colors, I used the "levels" command, and toned down the blacks. There are various ways in Photoshop to color correct, I just prefer "levels". I created details such as the eyelashes; the team logos on the helmets; and numbers on the uniforms in Adobe Illustrator. I also created the background clouds, sky, cracked ground in Illustrator. I placed all these components into separate layers within Photoshop. I basically had 4 layers. Bottom layer was white; next layer was the background sky and environment; the next layer was the players and cactus; the top layer was any graphic details. Once everything was in Photoshop, I fine-tuned everything with the airbrush tool.

That's it! Now, if ya'll could just convince my people to get me some updated equipment, I could do something really dazzling, probably much easier.

Thursday, September 15, 2005


My publisher sent an email today asking if I'd like to say something on the dedication page of The Hidden Feast. Of course! However, in all my busy work, I had forgot.

I'm sure that most readers won't even notice my dedication, but it's important to me. A completed book represents a huge piece of who I am. Much love goes into my books: love of children; love of the craft; love of art; love of the people who have inspired and mentored me. The dedication is special to me because that's when I get to pour all that love out to that one person, or persons. I'm not a touchy-feely person, so saying "I love you" can be quite a climb. Kick me, but that's just who I am.

I dedicated my first book — not a trade book , but a book none the less — to my grandmother who had passed away shortly before I received the book offer. I almost cried as I typed the dedication and sent it to the publisher. When I see the printed book on my shelf, I think of her.

I dedicated my second book, my first trade book, to my mom. For as long as I can remember, she's been my biggest cheerleader, and without her encouragement as a child, I wouldn't have had any books published.

My third book was a combination Valentine's Day story with a Christian message. I dedicated that book to my wife; she's my valentine, and my grandfather because he has been the spiritual leader of our family.

Since then, I've dedicated books to my children, my coworkers back home in Des Moines, and my aunt who is an author of YA novels. It would take more than a blog to describe how these people have shaped my life.

I always thank God.

For this book, I wrestled with who to dedicatee would be. My son's teachers and daycare staff first came to mind. However, he's not at that particular daycare any longer, and probably by the time the book publishes, they'll have all moved on. He attends a private christian school now, but I'm not sure if they'll appreciate a book with talking and partying animals.

I ended up dedicating it to my son:

For Kolby — the best little art critique a dad could have. Thank you for liking my pictures. Thank you for being honest when you don't like my pictures. I look forward to sharing this book with you many bedtimes to come.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Writing rant

A.M. post
Writing a blog, and writing a children's picture book biography are two very different beast. I'm ready to pull each and every hair — even the dyed ones — out one follicle at a time. I have just over a month to finish this manuscript, and although I had planned to write two, I'll be lucky if I can get past the first paragraph of my first rewrite. Grrrr!

I'm ready to punch someone. Any volunteers?

That wasn't much of a blog, but I needed to rant.

P.M. post
I put my manuscript away so I could go do my full time gig. Newspaper has to be put out, you know. I'm not sure what I did differently, but when I got off work, I tried it again. Now it rocks. Not my story per se, but the process is rolling right along.


Monday, September 12, 2005

A note from the authors


Just finally got to see all the illustrations together. Oh my! Illustrations good enough to die for! We LOVE them and think this will be an amazing book. Thanks, Don, for all your hard work. It really shows!
We love the color and the different perspectives are amazing. The animals' expressions are priceless--the slightly evil look on pig's face when he's about to pin the tail on duck, and on all their faces when they are so disappointed to see the cornbread, and on and on. We are hooting and hollering and slapping ourselves silly!

With many thanks,
Martha and Mitch

Children's book illustrators love this kind of feedback. The Hidden Feast is a children's book which will publish with August House Publishing in the spring of 2006

*cheesy smile*

Friday, September 09, 2005

Meet author Varian Johnson

I’m an illustrator of children’s books, although, lately, my desire has been to write. I'm an African American male working in a field dominated by white females, at least on the creative side of the business. Nothing wrong with that. I grew up in Iowa, so I'm used to being the lone black guy on the team, at work, in class or at professional orgaizations. I certainly don't let that fact keep me from reaching my goals. And not to make it seem as though I'm the one and only. The list of African American children's book authors and illustrators is larger than ever before, and continues to grow. But, we're spread out all over the place. That's why I was excited when I met Varian Johnson, an African American — and a male at that — in the mix of Austin’s hotbed of children’s writers and illustrators. I know race shouldn’t be an issue. My eyes should be color blind when I enter the room at a local children's literary event where I am the red polka dot in a world full of plaid. But my eyes aren't no more blind to plaid than anyone elses. By the way, Red Polka Dot In A World Full Of Plaid is the title of Varian’s young adult novel which will publish with Genesis Press/Black Coral this coming November (click here for an excerpt).

It’s always a thrill when I get an opportunity to interview those people whose paths I want to follow. I want to write, so I'm interviewing Varian. I am posting this interview now, but I will also post it again when his book drops later this year, sometime in November.

Devas T.: Where did the idea for this novel come from?

Varian: I came up with the concept for this novel while sitting in the airport. Having nothing better to do, I began brainstorming, trying to create interesting back-stories for the other people sitting in the terminal. Along came a thin, light-skinned, redheaded young woman, and I began creating a history about her. Where was she going? Why was she traveling alone? If she had a best friend, what type of person would he or she be? By the time my flight came, I had created Maxine, my main protagonist, and her best friend, Deke.

Devas T.: How long did it take you to write your novel?

Varian: It will be eight years and one month from when I first came up with the concept of the novel to the publication date. Of course, in between writing the novel, I did a lot of other things: I graduated from college, got married, became a licensed civil engineer, and wrote a few other bad manuscripts.

Devas T.: As an artist of children’s books and products, the word “revision” can be bloodcurdling, that is, unless the words “additional pay” are used in the same sentence. Can you speak a bit about the revision process on your book?

Varian: Revisions went fairly smoothly. Both my agents and editors loved the tone of the novel, and we all felt that the voice and the character development were the most important things about the novel. The changes suggested by my agent were very minor, and I only went through a handful of revisions with my editors.

Devas T.: I myself have been kicking around an idea for a YA novel which would be loosely based upon an experience I had with my daughter a few years ago. I envisioned telling the story from the point of view of the main character, a female. I shied away from this idea because, I mean, when my wife craves Italian meatballs, I want Chinese chicken. I’d get it all wrong. Red Polka Dot In A World Full Of Plaid is told from the female character’s point of view. What were some of the challenges you faced and how did you address them?

Varian: Originally, I didn’t intend to tell the story from a female point of view. However, it was very early in the writing process that I realized that this was Maxine’s story, and that I wouldn’t be doing the novel justice if I didn’t tell if from her POV. I ended up making my main character very tomboyish; that way, I wouldn’t have to worry if she was wearing the correct shade of lipstick or eye shadow.

I find that most young people, irrespective of gender, still feel the same basic emotions. They want to be accepted. They want to be independent. They want validation that they are on the right path. So as far as coming up with Maxine’s motivation, it wasn’t difficult as all.

Devas T.: Since your name ain’t JK Rowling, and you sure don’t look much like her either, I figure you must work a full-time gig someplace. What is your day job and how do you find time to write over and beyond your 9-to-5?

Varian: I am a licensed professional engineer in Texas. I mainly design bridges, although I work on other transportation-related structures as well. It was a lot easier to find the time to write before I got married. Now, I usually end up writing from 10:00 to midnight.

Devas T.: When I get around to writing my novel, someone in the story is going to be a children’s book illustrator. Has to be, that’s what I know best. It may be the main character’s mother, or it may be the next door neighbor’s stepbrother's cousin. But, I’m gonna have to work a bit of me in there somewhere. Did your profession as an engineer come into play when developing the storyline?

Varian: My job doesn’t directly come into play in my writing, although I tend to make a lot of my characters strong in math or science.

Devas T.: My daughter has always been an avid reader. As a teenager, her favorite authors were Eric Jerome Dickey and Omar Tyree. It disturbed me knowing that my then 13-year-old daughter was reading books with such adult themes. Surly, there had to be age appropriate books with characters she could relate to in her school library. Since I wasn’t a reader at all at her age, I was reticent about addressing my concerns, so I said nothing and just encouraged her to keep reading. Now, as I have an interest in writing, and as I begin to research the genre, I’m finding that the selection and variety of books for black teens are blight, to say the least. Now, I find myself worried that I may have trouble selling a manuscript about an African American family. Do you feel your path to publication was any more challenging, or less challenging than the path of other writers?

Varian: Unfortunately, I think it’s very difficult for an African-American author to sell a book featuring African-American characters, especially when race has no relation to the plot or the character. For authors such as Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Paul Curtis, race plays an important part of who their characters are. But what happens to a Black author that wants to write a novel about a kid living in the suburbs? Will mainstream audiences want to read about someone that doesn’t look like them? And if you leave out race entirely, what happens when some art director sticks a blond-haired, blue-eyed teenager on the book jacket?

Devas T.: Yes, that would be just a bit disconcerting for the author who had maybe visualized the story as starring a dark-skinned black kid with dreadlocs.

Varian: I wish I could better answer the question. All I know is that most African-American authors want to portray themselves and their race positively in novels. So despite all the downsides, we still make our characters African-Americans. I don’t think we could do otherwise if we wanted to.

Devas T.: Any tips for African American writers of YA, or writers in general?

Varian: I would suggest that African-American authors of YA, especially upper YA (say, 14 and up) consider some of the adult publishers. YA is in a state of flux right now, with the industry trying to find the magic age range of the group, if there is such an age range. Most upper YA novels will appeal to both teens and adults. And believe me, if a teenager wants to find your book, they will find it, whether it’s shelved in the YA section or the adult section of the library.

Devas T.: I regret to say that I recently had to part ways with my literary agent. They are the best in the business, representing the biggest of the big literary stars. But they didn’t do a thing for me in regards to my art (I’m just a little guy). Now that I’m writing, and I do want to sell my words eventually, I don't want someone who'll soft sell my hard work. I’m not saying anything negative about them, they were top-notch and professional, as most of the art reps and agents I’ve worked with in my career. What was your experience with representation?

Varian: I was a new author with no writing credentials whatsoever. I hadn’t even written a short story before. So, I decided to focus on not only established literary agencies, but also smaller, newer agencies. I signed with an agency that had just opened, so they were more receptive to new authors. Another thing I liked about the agency was that it was small, so my agent had more time to focus on me.

My agent sent the novel out, and after a few near misses, we decided to sign with Genesis Press. They are a small publisher, but there were a number of things I liked about the publisher. They were launching a new “literary” fiction line that my novel would be a part of. Also, they signed a distribution deal with Kensington Publishing Corp., which bolstered their presence in bookstores.

Devas T.: What’s on the horizon?

Varian: Like most authors, I am somewhat superstitious when it comes to discussing my works-in-progress. I will say that I’m putting the finishing touches on a novel that deals with hard choices and second chances. If anyone would like a sneak peek at the first chapter, they can find it here.

Devas T.:! I’ve heard that answer from many writers, and I use it myself when asked the same question about my writing. But, I’m not superstitious, I just don’t want anyone taking my concept and running with it. I feel ya.

Devas T.: Could you speak a bit about developing the characters for your novel?

Varian: I’ve been a member of a fair share writing groups, and I find that good people hate creating bad characters. Not bad as in poorly developed, but more like “bad” as in the type of character that will curse and drink and have sex and shoplift. I think a lot of people have trouble writing edgy YA fiction because they don’t want to imagine that their children are doing such “horrible” things. Teenagers do a lot of good things, but they do a lot of bad things as well. I don’t have any children, and even I have trouble writing about certain things in novels (I hate sex scenes). But if I am going to write YA, I have to portray the good and the bad, and most importantly, I have to be true to the characters. So if my main character grew up on the streets without her mother and father, she’s not going to snap her fingers and say, “Gosh Darn” if someone spills coffee on her Nikes. She’s going to drop a few F-bombs on the unlucky SOB that decided to screw up her day.

Devas T.: Again, I feel ya. But I’m not touching the F-bomb issue. Many bloggers are already running from me as though I were packin’ a pistol in their poolhall.

Thanks Varian, I appreciate your time. Good luck with book sales, and your future endeavors.

To read Varian's blog, and leave comments (don't blurk, blog+lurk, talk to a brotha), click here.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

A recent cover

Times have changed, and they keep on changing. When I graduated high school in 19——, none of our business, the big question for me was, of course, "what are your plans for the future." The answer, without hesitation, was commercial art. I had just graduated Tech High, a vocational-technical high school. I spent half of everyday taking classes in my core area of commercial and advertising art. While art students at other high schools were making art and craft type projects with popsicle sticks, we were designing text fonts, laying out magazine covers with type and photos and air brushing outdoor walkway displays. My art plans raised a few skeptical eyebrows. "You can't make a living in art," my dad warned. So, to raise his eyebrows even more, I added computer graphics to my plans. Only because it sounded kinda exotic.

This was back in the day before anyone could have guessed the direction computers were going to take the field of commercial art. Little did I know that 10 years after I graduated high school, computer graphics would not be so exotic, but the norm.

This is an illustration I created for the Austin American Statesman's NFL preview cover. The story is about how Texas football teams appear to be in a dry spell in regards to making the playoffs. I created this in the outdated Raydream 5. Raydream is a computer program that allows the user to literally build the illustration piece by piece in a virtual art studio. Now, would somebody tell my bosses that the world has moved on and Raydream does not even exist any more. Upgrade!

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Discovering my voice in a buried treasure

I found this little gem while rummaging through my wife's studio office. This book is called Writing With Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process by Peter Elbow. It's kind of dated, but I'm figuring that like powerful art or design, powerful writing is timeless. My wife — unlike me — went to one of those big-time four-year universities where you actually have to read books, take test and think about stuff everyday. So, every now and then while I'm pilfering through her desk in desperate search of a stamp or a staple, I'll discover a little somethin'-somethin' like this. A year ago, before I had any interest in writing, this book would have not been caught by the radar of my artistic eye.

Lately, when I get a second or two, I've been skimming this book and learning more about voice and free writing. And with no training beyond the advice of successful writing friends, I've discovered that I've been doing a few things right. I've been reading. I've been writing everyday (freewriting, poems, prose poetry, etc.). I read out loud. I've been developing my voice.

I think I've either found my voice or, at least, I'm on the right track. The problem seems to be that my voice comes through strong when I blog -- although I don't use that voice here much anymore. But when I try to apply my voice to the books I've been writing, something isn't working, my voice goes stiff. I've been reading a whole lot of books for children as of late, and stiff monotonous writing appears to be in vogue. I don't want to write like that. I want my writing to possess a certain soul, a rhythm without rhyme, a colloquial language, imperfect, that I picked up as a kid. I want my words to be touched, tasted and smelled. I think multi revisions may be the answer.

Another thing I've learned about myself through reading this book is that I tend to write with my real voice, not a made up fictional personality. The thing is, writing in your real voice, besides the tendency it has towards exhibitionism, which I guess all writing is to a certain extent, is personal. Negative feedback on your person can throw you for a loop, especially for beginning writers. I've found this especially true with my anonymous blog. When writing under a pseudonym (although, not fictional), I care less about people liking me, and more about expressing my true self regardless.

So, I guess, back to the writing board, and practice makes perfect.Wait..I mean revising makes perfect.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

A sigh of relief

I was relieved to learn that author Coleen Salley, whom I met earlier this summer at a conference in Tampa, was in Hawaii when Katrina hit, and not at her French Quarter home in New Orleans. The last thing Coleen said to me as we parted ways in Tampa was, "call me next time you are in town." I had such a great time listening and laughing with this lady that I determined that I would indeed contact her if and when I ever made it back to New Orleans.

In other news: The wife and I worked as volunteers at a makeshift shelter in downtown Austin for New Orleans evacuees. Palmer Events center hosted a shelter for misplaced New Orleans residents with minor health issues. Several venues were converted into shelters including Brakenridge hospital and the Convention Center. We spent our day shopping practically nonstop for items that people might need for their temporary stay. We spent at least — if not over — $5,000 and created such a ruckus in a Target store that people started buying extra items for us, and donating to the cause. Practically everyone we saw walking through the store, including author Liz Garton Scanlon, had carts full of water and items they were obviously donating. It was a good day, although I was a bit grouchy having not eaten until well past 2 p.m. Sorry to those who were with me, and thanks to the city of Austin for their generosity.

In still other news:
An American Statesman reporter and photographer recounts their horrific experience covering this tragic event. My hats off to them. My job pays my bills, but no amount of money would have separated me from my family and sent me to cover this story.