Monday, January 30, 2006

New brushes!

For every one book that I've illustrated, I wear through several dozen paint brushes. But one brush has lasted for at least 12 years, and it just keeps on keepin' on. It's a Windsor and Newton flat #10, and it cost about $29.00. Surly, at the time, I must have got it on sale because I never pay any more that $4.00 for a paint brush, though every now and then, I'll splurge and go as high as $8.00, if I'm in a good mood.

This weekend, I decided to use part of my prize money to get some more good brushes. I set out Saturday morning along with my 4-year old son, and zipped up to Jerry's Artarama. We both grabbed the little hand-held baskets they pass out as you enter the store, and were pointed in the direction of their top quality oil paint brushes. Now, all brands of brushes have a slightly different feel, so I decided to experiment and purchased a variety of brands, and sizes. I completely disregarded pricetags because I knew my mind wouldn't let me buy an expensive paint brush if I knew how much it cost. That day, price was no option because in addition to having my prize winnings, I had just received the first-half advance from Dutton for illustrations on Ron.

So my items are rung up, and the total came to $250.00. Ouch, I did kinda flinch, but I bought my brushes regardless. But once I got home, I decided to compare prices to those where I normally get my supplies online — Dick Blick (another blog for another day). I discovered that I had just paid twice as much through Jerry's Artarama so, needless to say, I was back on the road headed north to get a refund. Turns out, when I got there, I had forgotten and left one of my bags at the store. They returned the bag to me, and started scanning each brush to credit back my MasterCard. Thing is, I didn't recognize any of those brushes. They weren't brushes that I had picked out. Turns out — I forgot — my son had his own shopping basket. He had picked out his own top-of-the-line paint brushes, and they ended up in my purchase. Little bugger.


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Unrelated question: Is it a black thing; a man thing; a pretty person versus an ugly person thing, but does anyone else have trouble cashing advance/royalty checks? The bank —and I've been through several — always gives me a hassle about cashing my advance checks, making me wait 5- business, or more days before I can have access to the funds. Always!

Friday, January 27, 2006

Progressing again



Showing it again

All this talk of children's books and writing and blogging and conferencing and researching, and cartooning, might lead one to forget what I really do for a living: work for the newspaper. The above is an illustration that recently ran in my hometown newspaper. I wasn't too happy with the turnout, but because it received so many nice compliments, I figured I'd run it here, too.

Sketching it again
Sketches for Justin have been approved with minor adjustments. The challenge is that they made their selection of me based upon my art for the book Summer Sun Risin'. The thing is, my art style evolves as frequently as my hair. Asking me to re-create something created three years ago is difficult because...well, I've been there; I've moved on and hopefully have grown. Many children's book illustrators have a trademark style that they use for each successive book. I don't do that. I keep evolving, each work being something slightly different than what I've done in the past. The sketches I submitted didn't exactly match the style they had in mind, so I'll need to spend the weekend revising them to better suit their needs, while somehow remaining true to where I am as an artist today.

Painting it again
I am so psyched up about starting the final artwork for Justin and the Best Biscuits in the World. This time, I've decided to use oil paints. After looking through my portfolio, I realized that my strongest pieces of art were done in oil. I started using acrylic paint because of tight deadlines but acrylics lack the lumosity of oils. And besides that, nothing quite stimulates a brotha's senses more than blocking out a cerulean blue sky over a burnt sienna wash. That, and the aroma of paint thinner... Ah, heaven.

Reading it again
Finished reading Scorpions by Walter Dean Myers. Loved it. The drama of it kept the pages turning, and I read this book in less than two weeks. Pretty good for me considering how long it normally takes me to read a book. I especially liked the way Myers wrote this book in small chunks, scene-by-scene within chapters. I tend to write in hunks and have been having trouble transitioning between scenes. Guess I don't have to force it.

Next read: Unforgivable Blackness by Geoffrey C. Ward. Temporarily, I'm sitting YA aside to return to what I absolutely love — adult historical biographies/historical fiction. I am a sucker for a story about an African American man who overcomes great odds. Women, too — I loved The Black Rose — but of course, I relate better to a man's struggles.

Feeling it again
About three years ago, I almost lost the use of my hands due to repetitive stress. Actually, the doctors never did conclusively diagnose what was wrong, but I had a very scary, and painful couple of years. The pain level finally subsided, but never completely went away. To this day, drawing, mousing, or typing any more than 10 minutes just plain hurts. My doctors prescribed a wonder cure which I stopped taking because it cost a small fortune. Besides that, it’s an anti-depressant, and I ain’t depressed. This stuff tricks your brain into not realizing how much pain one is experiencing. Lately, my hands have been telling me that it’s time to pull that little trick again, at least for awhile. Sigh.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Postponing research for a month

Well, this weekend, I won't be travelling to South Carolina after all. I had planned to make a weekend getaway trip for research on Ron. His childhood home was in a small rural town there. All week long, the city has been celebrating in his honor, and this Saturday, they are having a special wrap-it-up do-dah at a local museum.

Taking a trip to small town South Carolina hasn’t proved so easy. I attended a black storyteller’s convention in Myrtle Beach during the early 90s while researching a book on African Myths. As I recall, getting a flight into Myrtle Beach wasn't so easy then either. It required four flights, the last one on a claustrophobic double-propeller plane which was so small I couldn’t completely stand up without hitting my head on the ceiling. It vibrated so violently that my wife and I were quite shaken by the time we made our quick exit.

Planning this particular trip didn’t go any easier. There is no direct flight into this little town, and I couldn’t find a flight with a reasonable price that would get me any closer than 100 miles. This will be just a weekend trip, so I don’t want to spend a great deal of time on the highway.

Making this trip, and getting accurate photo reference is imperative. The South Carolina countryside will make for a beautiful backdrop, and having access to the historic old building in which the story is set will cement the authenticity of my paintings. The building isn’t open to the public any longer, but I’m told that I can get access by contacting the person with the magic key, and so far the person with the magic key hasn’t returned my phonecalls. I hate red tape.

I'm still making the trip but, now, I’m going to try to go in March. Ticket prices should be a bit better buying this far out, and I’ll visit my aunt since it now looks like I’ll have to fly into Raleigh.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Yes, I passed up a Pinkney!

You'll have to excuse me, I'm not a very happy brotha at the moment. Some folks describe me as being aloof, operating my life out in left field. I've always rebuffed that description. However, today, I'm publicly proclaiming my doofus status.

Many people have played a part in getting me to where I am today as an illustrator of children’s books. However, it was two people who changed the direction of my career. They are artist, Brian Pinkney, and his wife, author/editor/publisher, Andrea Davis Pinkney. Ten years ago, I mailed samples of my art to Brian, and he passed them along to his wife who, at the time, worked as a senior editor at Simon and Schuster. Soon, she started up her own imprint, Jump at the Sun, under Hyperion. There, she went to bat for me, and as a result, I received my first offer to illustrate the children's book, Say Hey! A Song of Willie Mays.

I had long been a big fan of the Pinkney's before this book offer. I had been collecting this couple's books since I made the decision to enter this field. I've done my best to keep in touch with Andrea (I really don't want to pester Brian), but because I've never made a trip to New York, I've never had an opportunity to meet my heros.

All that said, guess what? I literally stood right alongside Andrea Davis Pinkney at least half a dozen times at this past weekends ALA conference, and I had no idea who she was. Yes, go ahead, punch me. I mean, my eyes kept telling me, "hey that lady looks just like Andrea Davis Pinkney." But because she was in the Scholastic booth, my mind kept telling me, "no, stupid, that ain't her."

The woman I saw — several times, I must emphasize — was running that booth like a captain runs a ship — efficiently. She didn't look author-ish. She looked publisher-ish.

Earlier today, the realization of my mistake became clear. While reading "who's moving where" at Harold Underdown’s Purple Crayon, I discovered that Andrea started working at Scholastic in November. She's the publisher for hardcover and early childhood books.

Immediately, I shot off an email asking her if she were at ALA.

Yes, she was.

I'm not a sports fan, and I’m not impressed by Hollywood. My heros are children's book authors and illustrators. I missed my Michael Jordan moment.

*sigh*

Monday, January 23, 2006

The awards!

Of course, everyone already knows about today’s ALA award announcements, so no need to extrapolate here. "Show Way" by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Hudson Talbott received a Newbery Honor, which threw me for a loop. I should probably be embarrassed to admit here that I didn’t know picture books qualified for the Newbery. I thought "Show Way" would fall under the Caldecott category. Do I have this right, wrong, or am I simply furthering my foolery? Either way, I’m rushing out to get this one…well, after they attach the little metalic seal. Congrats to all!

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Revisiting ALA


Photos clockwise: me with Lee & Low Books editor, Louise May; Author/cartoonist, David Davis and I share our books; dinner with Linda Ayers, Diane Roberts and Chris Barton; me with...um, Elvis.

There's one thing I forgot to mention in my previous post about ALA -- I did have a good time. Good times weren't exactly rollin' at the time I last posted but, overall, it was a good experience, and I made some very significant contacts. I thank author, Chris Barton, who invited me to tag along with him. Anyway, here's a rundown of my personal highlights:

Bumped into children's author, Colleen Salley. And she remembered me. Well, kinda.

While standing in line for coffee, I came face to face with Horn Book editor, Roger Sutton. He had no idea who I might be, and I wasn't sure about introducing myself. After reading his blog, which I do several times a week, I wasn't sure if he'd cordially shake my hand, or slap me. Coward I am, I just looked. And, I spent the remainder of the conference hating myself for missing a great photo opp.

Ran into authors David Davis and Jan Peck. I first met them last year at a literary festival in Dallas. David is the nicest redneck I've ever met. I say that with great fondness, and respect; you'd have to be familiar with him, and his books to get the meaning behind that statement. He went out of his way to introduce me to his publishers at Pelican, as well as those at Highlights magazine. I'm grateful to him.

Picked up an early run of my next book, The Hidden Feast (August House). Looks good.

Met with Louise May, Editor In Chief at Lee & Low Books. She made suggestions for revising the Bill manuscript, and spoke in a language that suggested to me that, if I can get this right, they may acquire. Exciting!!

President and publisher of Dutton Children's Books/Penguin Group (USA), Stephanie Owens Lurie walked up to me and introduced herself, welcoming me "to the family." This completely caught me off-guard, and left me stammering and babbling and trying to catch my breath. I just recently signed on with Dutton to illustrate Ron, and she recognized my name, probably having recently signed my contract herself.

Took a trolley ride to dinner at Mi Tierra Cafe & Bakery. Author, Chris Barton and I dined with author's Linda Ayers, and Diane Roberts. Diane is a gem who I'll never forget. I had two fantastic margaritas, and two not-so-fantastic tacos. Diane treated us all to Mexican pralines. Yum!

A big hug from author Cynthia Leithch Smith, and an even bigger hug from author Dianna Aston. Dianna's excitement was behind the news of my New Voices Honor. I also purchased her new book, An Egg is Quiet, in which she signed. Greg Leitich Smith also schooled me in the differences between winter meetings, and summer conferences.

Before we hit the road, Chris introduced me to an editor at Charlesbridge, Judy O'Malley, who incidentally, I believe, was someone who played a role my getting the Sure As Sunrise book. Judy remembered me, gave me her business card and invited me contact her. I will.

In the same conversation with Judy O'Malley, literary agent, Erin Murphy, also offered me her business card. I mean, Chris Barton hooked a brotha up.

I also spotted author, Varian Johnson. I met many other folks, but I'll never remember all the names.

Low point: A lady walks up to me, eyes real big, excitement on her face. She looks at my nametag, then at my eyes, then back at my nametag. She says, "Oh you're!— you're....um, you're nobody."

High point: Finding that internet cafe. I really needed to sit down, or I wasn't gonna be very nice anymore.

Biggest challenge: Finding someplace in the hotel room that was air-tight where I could stash my hot sweaty socks, so that Chris wouldn't think a squirrel had crawled into our room, died, and rotted. The refrigerator? I'm not inclined to say. Also, trying not to snore, talk, scream, or make any other bodily noises while I slept was kinda tricky, too.

Most promising connections: Judy O'Malley; Mark Siegel, who is the editorial director for an imprint that publishes graphic novels. I told him about my cartoon series I've been blogging; Louise May; Pelican Publishing Company (referred by David Davis); and Jeri Gibson of Hampton Brown (one of my first art agents). Erin was also a promising contact, though, I will need something to show her, and I don't have anything yet.

Number of advance YA novels I was given or purchased: 15

Number of unbound picture books I received: 8, most excited about Peggony Po: A Whale of a Tale by Andrea Davis Pinkney (my first book editor), illustrated by Brian Pinkney.

Bloggin' from ALA

So, why am I sitting here, back in a dark corner, at one of this year's most important library/publishing conventions? Because I've been walking nonstop for two days; I'm tired; I've had enough, and there ain't nowhere else to sit down but this internet cafe -- unless you'd want to sit on the floor. Don't put it past me, my feet hurt so bad yesterday, I copped a sit-down right on the floor with a bagel, and a cup of coffee -- eyes so menacing, they dared anyone to question me. This is a great convention -- don't get me wrong -- if you are a librarian. But if you're a wannabe half-way famous artist trying to make a hook up with an editor/publisher/art director, then this internet cafe is probably your best bet since I keep getting referred to publisher's online submission guidelines.

Turns out, I should have done my preliminary homework. This conference is strictly a business conference without the fanfare and star appeal of the summer conference (so I'm told). There's not many authors or illustrators here to sign books, and the few that are here have been doing the same thing I've been doing -- wandering the floors, chit-chatting and networking best they can. I did learn a little trick today, though. I was advised to get a little green author's sticker to mount on my name badge. This signifies to everyone that I'm not a librarian, but an author, or in my case, an illustrator. It worked. Yesterday, I was practically begging folks to talk to me. Today, folks are walking up introducing themselves. I was even approached by two publishers, both of whom didn't even notice me yesterday without my magic green sticker.

I did have a few memorable moments including a very productive and cordial sit-down meeting with Louise May, Editor In Chief at Lee & Low books. I'll post more later but, for now, I just need an excuse to be somewhere, anywhere, anyplace but the exhibit floor. I think I'll make this internet cafe my home for the next few hours. I'm sitting here with the most determined expression I can fake, hunched over this keyboard, pretending like I'm doing something really important, while CB is out hob-knobing with the big cats.

I wonder if anyone would be willing to give me a foot massage? *looking at those around me*

Nope.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Promotion

How come whenever networking opportunities present themselves, I'm always empty handed, without self promotional materials? Do you know how many times I end up in a conversation with someone influential, and have nary a business card on me? Ok, not this time. Last night, I threw together a quick flyer to take along to this weekend's ALA conference. Included on the flyer are images of my most recent books, Sure As Sunrise: Stories of Bruh Rabbit and his Walkin' Talkin' Friends (Houghton Mifflin, 2004), and The Hidden Feast (August House, 2006). I'm looking forward to seeing some advanced copies of the Hidden Feast at the August house booth.



I really should change the photo of myself. It’s a year old now, and I don’t look like that any more. Stress ain’t been very nice to a brotha over the last year. I’m always shocked when I finally meet an author or illustrator and they don’t look anything like their photo because their promotional photo is old, while they are older, bigger, grayer and wrinklier (I made that word up). Did I tell you about the time I met…

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

It's official

Yesterday, I received my official notification letter congratulating me on the selection of my story as a Lee & Low Books New Voice's Honor Award Winner (webpage to be updated, I'm assuming after this weekend). Along with the letter, I received a $500 check. The top of the letter is stamped with a silver award badge displaying the publisher’s logo. At this moment, I'm feeling so ex-officio, if you know what a brotha means. With the exception of re-reading the letter a couple dozen times, I didn't waste any time framing it along with a copy of the check, and some corrugated cardboard. The cardboard is fitting of the subject I wrote about (I don’t know why I still feel the need to keep my subject a secret, when it won’t be a secret much longer).

I had planned all along to frame the letter, even if the contest didn't didn't turn out as I hoped. Somehow, faking satisfaction with a poorly dealt hand would at least make me feel better. Kinda. So it's nice to be able to frame the letter with "congratulations" in the second sentence. Makes up for all those Society of Illustrator rejection letters I've received over the years (and winning that competition actually cost the winner more money).

I don't want to build my hopes up for a big disappointment, but the letter ends with: "...I will also be getting in touch with you soon with editorial comments so we can begin the revision process. I hope to be able to acquire this story for publication...look forward to working with you on this project..." Am I wishful thinking? Am I reading too much into this?

I'm looking forward to a sit down meeting with Lee & Low’s Editor-in-Chief at this Saturday's ALA conference in San Antonio. Geez, I hope I'll be able to talk. In situations like this, my tongue tends to knot up, and I babble off topic until somebody stops me.

So, what am I going to do with the prize money? Spend it on myself. Actually, it's not as bad as it sounds, although I feel awfully guilty saying it. I'm going to reinvest the money in my children's literary endeavors. Neither the electric or phone companies will be getting my prize money — I refuse. I've always wanted some really nice paint brushes. I normally use the cheapest of the cheap brushes. I'm also going to get some detailed anatomy books; some general pictorial reference books; an Ott-Lite Truecolor Swiveling Floor Lamp (I’ve always wanted one of these); and I may take one of Anastasia's writing/school visit courses, if I can fit it into my crazy schedule, and if it's not already full. Then, there's that conference this weekend.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

And speaking of celebrity books

Ted Kennedy?

The "C" word. I bought a celebrity book

Step back. Once again, I think that I may have done something that goes against the grain. I don’t do these things for the purpose of drawing attention to myself. I’m just being me. Hold your breath, Now, here it goes: Today, I purchased a children’s picture book. "Big deal. Whoopie!" Right? But, step back a bit further, here goes again: Today, I purchased one of those dreaded celebrity written children’s books! Gasp! —Shhh.

Now, I have to admit, because I’m an artist, most of the books I pick out, I do so because I am attracted to the art. In fact, I don’t actually read many of them. I just drool over the images. That’s the way it’s been for me every since I was a kid. But immediately, I read this book. After hearing so many negative things about celebrity children’s books, I felt I needed some sort of justification for slapping down my $17.50. Then I stood right there in the children’s book section rationalizing why I should, or should not support a book that I, indeed, liked. I mean, I liked the story; I loved the illustrations. But, now I’m gonna be a traitor. Yes, that’s how I felt.

The book I purchased was Marsupial Sue presents The Runaway Panake by John Lithgow, illustrated by Jack E. Davis. Marsupial Sue, the kangaroo-ish star of the book, and her animal friends, put on a play in their neighbor. It’s basically a very creative re-telling of the Gingerbread man. It’s full of little songs, and has a CD with music performed by Lithgow. Jacks illustrations are done in ink and dyes. They are fun, animated and hilarious. I don’t know much about John Lithgow, other than his weird stint on the TV show "3rd Rock from the Sun." But what difference does it make. Because he’s a movie star, he don’t have a right to write a children’s book, should he so desire…or be recruited?

You mean, if at the age of 42, I suddenly decided I wanted to act, and packed up my bags and headed to Hollywood, no one should take me seriously because I’ve illustrated children’s books for the past 20 years? Even if I can act? I can't, but hypothetically speaking.

Now, I’ve heard some of the arguments. Some say, good writers, your average, everyday Joe will get squeezed out the business because publishers are so focused on the Madonna’s of the industry. Some say that most celebrities can’t write, and that publisher’s don’t care. Others say that because celebrities get such high advances, everyday Joe authors won’t get the same marketing attention. I’m sure some of these things may be true. But, I do believe there will always be a market for good writing whether one is a celebrity, or an average Joe. And just because one is an actor or singer, or politician, or sports figure doesn’t mean they can’t write. In fact, aren’t most children’s writers moonlighting as authors? How many of them do you know that write children's books full-time? Now, true, I’ll probably never command tripple-digit advances like those of Madonna, or Jamie Lee Curtis, but I chose my career. I chose to be a commercial artist, not a rock star, or an actor, or a television news anchor. My choices don’t demand multi-million dollar book deals. One might say, "Well, I don’t want to dance onstage wearing nothing but a pointy bra and blonde hair dye like Madonna." Fine, but don’t complain about what Madonna’s making in book advances. I mean, the market pretty much dictates these things. And as far as bad writing goes, isn’t it the job of a good editor to help a story along? Even if the person's name is Katie Couric?

I have to admit, I sort of allowed myself to buy into this whole celebrity snobbery of children’s books. With the exception of a couple Spike Lee/Kadir Nelson selections, I refused to purchase them. But after my discovery of "Marsupial Sue presents The Runaway Pancake," I’m gonna keep my eyes open for children’s books with quality writing, and quality illustrating regardless of how bright the star is behind the book.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Random thought

As evidenced in my previous post, blogging can allow for some pretty poor, unfocused, first draft-ish publishing.

Dr. Martin Luther King Day

Not to put a damper on the meaning behind why we get this day off. I mean, it is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day — give him his props. The thing is, if we ("we" starts in the black community) don’t do something to better inspire/teach/correct/mentor/parent our children, I’m afraid that the children of the dream will continue to do just that. Dream. Here’s a recent comment I received from a reader:

I have been looking around in my *expletive* town for a book with your illustrations for months. I have been to all the bookstores in town. Even the giant one and I had no luck. I made a sad observation. I have not found a single children's book with illustrations / stories of black kids. I was surprised and disappointed.

That is sad. In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I’m taking my 4-year old son to the bookstore and buying him a book. And I’m gonna read it to him. Of course, knowing my son, he’ll probably read it to me.

Friday, January 13, 2006

My voice has been recognized, again!

Good news. The Austin Chronicle (scroll down to the second graff), a weekly news/entertainment/feature magazine described my blog as: "…an articulate and funny voice… with more insight and humor than any commentator in town."

Wow! Of course, that makes me feel great. Thing is, they don’t even know it’s me. They’re not speaking of this blog, Devas T. Rants and Raves! Nor are they speaking of my Children’s book blog (I plan to discontinue). And they’re not even talking about my super-secret anonymous blog that I try not to talk about here. See, I started a 4th blog — shhh! Now, I know what you’re thinking: "Devas T., are you really writing or illustrating any children’s books in the midst of all this blog writing?" And the answer is, yes, I am. This fourth blog is where I simply cross-post the things I write and cartoon on my super-secret anonymous blog.

After reading the comments in the Chronicle, I became really mad at myself. All these years — my entire life — I’ve been telling myself that I can’t — when actually, I can. I can write. I don’t make that statement with a spirit of bravado, not at all. What I’m saying is that all along, writing did, in fact, fall into my realm of "can do." I didn’t know it because I was too focused on what I can’t do. Now, measuring the efficiency of an algorithm, I can’t do — don’t wanna do. Run a touchdown in the final six seconds of the game, I can’t do — don’t wanna do. But with study, practice and determination, I can write! Can do, wanna do.

The thing is, realizing that I can write, and being recognized by others as capable, or as the Chronical described me, "a gem," scares me. I’m not sure that I’m ready for that kind of lable. I mean, I’m completely confident in my visual/artistic abilities. I’m a good artist right now, and provided that I don’t get hit by a truck this afternoon, I will be a good artist tomorrow — I know that. This writing thing, I have to take it a day at a time.

After living 41 years with a can't do attitude, I'm now wondering what all have I missed out on.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Photos that aren't me, and a big conference

Don't throw rocks at me, I know you do it, too. I Googled myself. It's actually been a year since I've done it, so I'm not as self-indulgent as you might think. However, I do need to get a few things straight. Yes, this is me. And this is me. And so is this.

But this is not me. And neither is this, or this. And thank God, neither is this.

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In other news: In a couple weeks, I'm gonna catch a ride with CB, and head on down to San Antonio for a big reading/library conference. Cool. But I hadn’t done my home work. I wasn’t very excited. I kept thinking how cool it would be to go to a real conference like the big, BIG mid-winter meeting, you know the one where the Newbery, and Caldecott awards are announced? How cool would that be? I had resolved to settle for whatever conference was coming to San Antonio. Well, upon further investigation, I discovered that this conference is, in fact, the big, BIG mid-winter meeting where the academy awards of children’s literature will take place. Now I’m excited!

And I even have an important sit-down date with an editor to review a manuscript I wrote! Other than that, I plan to stand in long lines and chase down my favorite authors and illustrators for autographs.

Breakthrough

At least, I think I've just had a breakthrough. I haven't received word to start finals on Justin and the Best Biscuits in the World, so I spent some time yesterday reading and re-reading the manuscript for Ron, and quickly sketching out some ideas. The cover image immediately came to me! I can’t wait to further develop this idea. The story is set in a Carolina library in the 1960s, so I thought a visit to the city, and to the library would be great for research as well as a fun getaway. I’d like for the interior architecture to be convincing and authentic, so photos are must.

I figured a phone call to the library, letting them know of my intentions to feature them in a book, likely to be carried on their shelves, would result in a red carpet roll-out. That ain't happen yet. The original library is no longer in use. But it still exists as a historical monument, and is adjacent to the new building. It isn’t open to the public, so basically I need to find someone with the magic key who'll allow me access inside. And I need to have all this pre-arranged so I don't waste a trip. It's been kind of frustrating because so far, I've been pointed in at least half-dozen directions, with still with no clear-cut answer. But it’s only been a day. Remember: I have a problem with my get-it-done-tomorrow-mentality.

I think the family of the main character in this book still lives this same city. I'm going to contact my publisher to find out if it's cool to contact them. I'd like a photo of the person as a child, and his mother, to use as reference, though my paintings will be done in a stylized realism. I'm also hoping the family might have more influence with whomever, so I can get access to that library. But, I'm gonna tread lightly. And, I may not contact them at all. Still pondering that.

I love the research part of illustrating books — it's the red-tape part that gets me flustered.

Oh, I'm rambling: What about the breakthrough? I just made contact with somebody at the library, who put me into contact with somebody, who passed my message along to somebody else who is going to call me back...sometime. Well, that's better than nothing!

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

I’m not alone after all

Ok, this post has more to do with adult literature, than children’s literature, but it’s somewhat related to things I’ve been recently discussing. Author, Linda Dominique Grosvenor, struck a chord with me in her recent blog, “Their Eyes Were Reading Smut,” by Nick Chiles. The author, blogs about his feelings of sadness and shame as he looks over the current landscape of African American literature, or so-called “street fiction,” and how it seems to be the wave of the future. Interesting read, I thought.

As I read the post, I thought about my visit to the bookstore this weekend. I bought two Valentine’s Day picture books found in the children’s section of the store. Hearts & Kisses, by Michelle Knudsen, is illustrated by Janee Trasler. Janee is a cyber-friend of mine. The book is heart shaped with a cute, race-neutral little girl and her dog. The other book features fairly erotic (cover flap description, not mine) poetry. It is marketed to African American children, and is shelved right along side Hearts & Kisses, as well as other toddler board books. Don’t misunderstand me, this book is beautifully illustrated by one of my favorite illustrators, and I enjoyed the poems as well. But some of the naked, and near naked images were racy enough to make my 4-year old son blush. I bought the book because I'm a big fan of the illustrator, and…well, I’m an adult, and I don’t mind erotic poetry…or images for that matter. I’m giving Hearts & Kisses to K; I’m putting the other book on a shelf out of his reach...but near the wife's.


Geez, I really don’t like Word. It doesn’t like my English, and keeps underlining my sentences with squiggly lines that remind me that I need to take some basic grammar classes.

Monday, January 09, 2006

My two favorite children’s picture books of 2005

Kadir Nelson is the illustrator of both my favorite children’s picture books for 2005. My original choice for best illustrated book was HEWITT ANDERSON’S GREAT BIG LIFE written by Jerdine Nolen, and illustrated by Kadir. As soon as I sat down to write the post, I discovered Kadir’s second book to publish in 2005, HE'S GOT THE WHOLE WORLD IN HIS HANDS. After receiving it in the mail, I couldn’t choose which one I liked best, they are both outstanding works of art. It’s my prediction that either of these books will be Caldecott and Coretta Scott King Award contenders, if not winners.

The other day, my son walks into my studio. He picks up the picture book that I had just received in the mail. "Daddy!" he says. "This little boy looks just like me!" His face was lit up bright as an Olympian torch as he displayed the book for me to see. HE'S GOT THE WHOLE WORLD IN HIS HANDS is a beautifully illustrated version of a timeless spiritual. I cracked up laughing at my son because character on the book cover — a young African American little boy with a squinty-eyed wide grin — does, in fact, look just like my son. My son makes that face a thousand times a week. It’s a confident expression of a child with high esteem, one that has been praised and has received the gift of a blessing by his parents. I am so pleased that African American kids have books like this, books with characters that look like them.

When I was my son’s age, we had Dick and Jane, Dot and Spot. Nothing wrong with Dick and Jane, or Dot and spot, but black folk didn’t exist in their world*. Actually, as a child, I don't even remember questioning it. I mean, that’s just the way it was.

Sometimes I allow myself to get frustrated, feeling like I've somehow been pigeon-holed into illustrating one kind of children’s book. But the expression on my son’s face was a reminder why I need to focus on books specifically for African American kids.

In an email exchange between Kadir and I, he made these comments about the technique in creating the art for Hewitt Anderson:

"I don't use live models for my children's book work. I pretty much know my way around the figure to get by without models. My color choices usually have to do with mood and setting. I'm very logical about this. Time of day, environment, what have you. For the visual style of the book, I figured I would use a blend of Africa and Europe. You can see this by the rolling hills and the Afro/Euro costumes and architecture. The story is about the dynamic between big and small, and I tried to emphasize this in each illustration. It was challenging but made it a lot of fun. As far as my process, I am not very different from other illustrators. I do thumbnail sketches, more finished sketches followed by plenty of research. And then onto the finished illustrations."

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Now, all that said, my wife gave me the biggest compliment I’ve received in awhile. After my raving all over the house about HE’S GOT THE WHOLE WORLD IN HIS HANDS, she says to me: " I love the book, but, I think you could do just as well." That made my day. But, I know I’m not batting in the same league as Kadir, though I’m gonna keep working at it.

*I was wrong, while doing a quick internet search of Dick and Jane, I discovered that black folk did exist in Dick and Jane's world, introduced in the 1960s. Though, my school didn't have these, that I remember.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

I was long over due for an SCBWI meeting

I learned a long time ago that if you can hold your breath, suck in your gut, crunch your abdominal muscles until they are practically touching your spine — you can prevent your stomach from growling while attending a quiet but large crowded gathering. I had the opportunity to put these skills into practice this morning when I attended a long overdue SCBWI meeting.

Since I've lived in Austin, I've only attended, maybe, two meetings. I have this problem with getting active with anything that involves social interaction. Had they figured out a way to video stream those meetings right to my computer screen, where I could participate all by myself, I'd have been an active participant a long time ago. But I went; I'm so glad I did, and I'm still alive, though $18.00 poorer ‘cause I can't visit a Barnes and Noble without purchasing something.

Author Julie Lake led the meeting. Her discussion, The Zen of Revision, was very informational, covering much in the short time we spent there. I now have all sorts of ammunition in which to attack my writing goals. When this fall's SCBWI conference rolls around, I'd like to have a complete finished first draft novel, and at least 10 pages that are agent-ready for prime time show.

I walked away with two things ringing in my ears:

1. Write the dang novel. Each time I sit down to write, I let too many things stop me from proceeding. A little voice in my head starts telling me that I'm not good enough, not educated enough, not smart enough. It tells me that in order to write a novel, I need to have a Vermont College, or equivalent degree. The voice says that my ideas aren't interesting, and that getting published will be too hard, if not impossible. It likes to remind me that I'm black and tells me that no one cares about books for black kids anyway. This voice is so loud that I end up setting my novel and picture books aside.

2. I won't write the dang novel in a day. When I was in high school, I worked as a burger flipper for a chain restaurant. The motto there: work with a sense of urgency; get it done, and get it done fast! As a commercial artist/illustrator I've lived by those same principles. Deadlines are tight, and in most cases, the end product can be held in your hands, if not the next day, in a fairly reasonable amount of time. So the idea that it may take anywhere from three years to a lifetime before I even get some agent or editor interested in my work does not mix well with my get-it-done-tomorrow mentality.

But, I'm gonna try anyway.

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On a scarier note: While at Barnes and Noble today, I noticed that actor, Michael J. Fox, is currently on the cover of AARP! Oh. My. Gosh! He ain't much older than I am. I'd better get this novel written if I don't want to do my first book signing from the nursing home.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Coverboy!



Matthew McConaughey don't have nothing on me. Kinda. The actor recently made the cover of People Magazine's "sexiest man alive" issue. I, however, made the cover of my publisher's spring catalog, August House 2006. They didn't exactly recognize my charming good looks as People did with McConaugey, but that's ok. My wife's little reminders will suffice.

Actually, I'm not pictured at all; But my artwork is. I was thrilled to discover that they used my book cover art from The Hidden Feast (to release April 2006) on their Spring 2006 catalog cover.

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In other news: Yesterday I mailed off sketches for Justin. After doing a bit more research, I realized that there isn't really any reason to use a code word; Justin has already been published. I will be re-illustrating it for the school market. Justin and the Best Biscuits in the World is written by Mildred Pitts Walter, and first published in the mid 80s. It is a 1987 Coretta Scott King Award winner! Silly me, I had no idea.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Exciting stuff

An excerpt from an email I received from a professional superior today. Ok, gosh, my boss. This is mandatory:

Here is how I thinking we could proceed:
1. Get the addresses of the venues
2. Buy a GPS device to get Longitude and Latitudes of the venues
3. Find G-points (GeoCode) of the venues if we can’t get to the actual site
4. Learn how to code the javascript
5. Find a server to host the map
6. API address for the host site from Google
7. Host the final map on and post it online

So, how come I'm not dancing on my toes about this like the other artist in my department seem to be?

Monday, January 02, 2006

For my blog birthday, I offer blogging tips

I've been blogging for a year now! Yea! This doesn't necessarily make me a specialist on the subject, but I have learned much, and I've done it enough that I can offer some tips. Here's my suggestions for children's writers and illustrators who are considering starting a blog:

1. Blog often. Unless your name is Michael Jackson or Brittney Spears, blogging any less than once a week is not enough for the world to remember that you even exist. Don't feel like every post must be something profound. A short post more often is better than a long rare post.

2. Be yourself. I like my crackers dry, not my blog reading. Let your personality shine through. Use humor. If your blog reads like a phonebook, lighten it up. The entertainment factor in blogging goes a long way. The thing is, the world of writing and illustrating for children's literature is much more political than I ever imagined a year ago when I first started doing this. Political correctness is abound in these circles, and you can't always speak your mind if you want to stay relevant. Use discretion in the topics you write about, but let your readers get to know who you are. I've made some mistakes during my first year of blogging. I let it all hang out...a bit too much. But, I'm not sorry. I think creativity is about closing your eyes, taking some chances and learning from your successes as well as mistakes.

3. Talk to us. Use a conversational style of writing. Blog like you speak. I went through a stage where I was trying so hard to be literary (whatever that is). I would go through a theasaurus trying to find words that sounded intelligent when, in fact, I probably made myself sound really stupid. If the word "prolegomenon" is not typically a part of your vocabulary, using it will make you sound like a wanna be egghead.

4. Don't be a stranger. The social/networking aspect of blogging is almost as important as the writing aspect. Use blogging as a getting-to-know tool. If I read a blog that speaks to me, I leave a note letting the author know. The author will appreciate that. Commenting is also an invitation for others to come visit your blog. I've met so many people through comments I've discovered on other people's blogs. I'm a very quiet person in my non-blogging/writing/illustrating life. I don't talk much. Quiet people don't attract much attention to themselves. Works the same way in the blogosphere. Unless you are promoting your blog in other arenas (yahoo groups, speaking engagements, advertising) how else will you reach potential readers if your not a social blogger (a blurker (blog+lurker)?

5. Link up. This is what the internet all about. If you are discussing a particular author/illustrator/publisher/blogger, add a link to the person/entity you are writing about. Adding a link to a statement adds, I don't know, credibility/value/weight/ to your post. Also, use a blogroll. A blog roll is a list of blogs that you read with links to those blogs. It usually is added to the sidebar of your blog. I've discovered many a blog through other people's blog rolls. The thing is, you'll need to occasionally check on those you've linked to. Some folks just stop blogging, or close up shop without notice. One time I linked to an Austin, Texas site thinking I was providing my readers with more info about Austin. What I didn't know — until sometime later — is that the site contained pornographic body art pictures several clicks in, so you'll need to check things out to be sure.

6. Don't be afraid to toot your own horn. People will love to celebrate with you. I really do like hearing about my colleagues successes. It boost me and offers hope. Share your successes, but, also, share setbacks, things that don't quite go your way. Be human.

7. Stay on focus. If you blog is about children's illustration, it's probably not a good idea to blog about your choice of political parties, or your thoughts about religion. My first six months were spent blogging about everything else but illustrating and writing for kids. If you don't stay on target, you'll scare your readers away, particularly if you are saying things they don't want to hear. Blogging, in most cases, is free, so open another blog (anonymous). There, you can write about your frustrations about the war, or people who eat too much cake, and take up twice their space in airline seats. (That's what I did, create an anonymous blog, and my blogging life is much happier now that I don't have to worry about offending an art director, editor, reviewer, or whomever). On a side note: my anonymous blog tends to be more popular because, there, the topics are varied, and I can say what I want.

8. Write a blog entry, not a book. I hate to admit this, but I won't read a really long blog entry in it's entirety unless it is just that dog-gone compelling. I have several blogs I'd like to read each day, so I won't spend much time with a post that goes on and on and on and on and on and — you get the point? I only peruse the long ones, and if I'm not hooked in the first few sentences, I'll bookmark them for later reading (later usually never comes). Try to use the two scroll rule: don't make your reader have to scroll through your blog post more than twice. The third scroll will likely be to find the next blog. Edit your post down to a digestible read (yes, I know, this is a long blog post, too).

9. Add visuals when you can. The saying, "a picture is worth a thousand words" much applies here. When I have a major speaking event (I didn't have many this past year), I take along my digital camera. I could simply write about my adventures, but visuals, in my opinion, can help bring your adventure alive. Newspapers, online news stories, magazines, and books use visuals. Use them to help break up the grey (text boxes). You don't need any fancy paid web hosting. Use a free service like Flickr.

10. Have fun. I sometimes allow blogging to turn into work. When I get tired, I let my readers know, I'm on break. If I have nothing in particular to blog about, I don't. Instead, I'll write for my own personal growth. Find a writing prompt over the internet, or find an interesting news story to "arm-chair quarterback" write about.

Last but not least, use spell check, and a program that will flag your grammar, but keep in mind, in my opinion, blogging is a much more casual venu. So what if you have a few fax paus, but at the same time, keep in mind that many editors do read blogs.

Happy New Year, and Happy Birthday to my blog!

XOWANGA!

My blog, Devas T. Rants and Raves, has been recognized by one of the sweetest people I’ve met in cyberspace during my first year of blogging. Author, Rinda M. Byers, has honored me on her blog with The XOWANGA Award for 2005. It is given by Xangian bloggers (bloggers who blog on Xanga) to express great exhilaration and excitement. Rinda is the sole judge of who gets this award, and that’s fine by me because I can’t think of anyone who has buttered my ego more by leaving positive comments the way she has.

Rinda has described my blog as having provided her with "so many enjoyable reading moments throughout 2005!"

Thanks Rinda!

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I'd also like to thank a few other bloggers who have supported me in various ways. Some have highlighted my post on their blogs, others have added me to their blog rolls, and many have regularly left supportive comments. (I know there's many others, but I'm looking at the children's publishing community): Cynthia Leitich Smith, Chris Barton, Varian Johnson, Kim (One Over-Caffeinated Mom), and Susan Taylor Brown. Ya'll've made my blogging experience that much more enjoyable.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Proverbs and idioms



Half Price Book store's 2006 calendar features proverbs, idioms and other colloquialisms. It also features two of my illustrations, the cover illustration, and one for the month of April. The idiom I chose to illustrate is "mad as a hatter" (above). I created a humorous illustration, although the origin of the idiom isn't so funny. Click for more info.

Happy New Year, though, since I wrecked my wife's mini-van yesterday, possibly totaling it, I'm...well, mad as a hatter. We are all ok (shook up, but safe) thankfully. So, guess who'll be driving that brand spankin' new, sporty little car I just purchased three weeks ago? Not me, now I'll be riding the bus. Again. *sigh*