Sunday, April 27, 2008

My wife, the storm predictor

Sunshine rained supreme yesterday at Camp Mabry, during the Cub Scout Adventure Day. But on the morning following the overnight camp, we were just plain rained out.

After the day’s events — some of which included bow and arrow shooting, fishing, and bike riding — clouds crept in and chased the sun away. Clouds so ominous, they seemed to confirm reports of a storm in the far distance.

Many families decided against camping and went home. But then the clouds pushed out to reveal a crystal clear sky. Five other families, plus ours, decided to chance it.

Before nightfall, I pitched the tent and we set up. After dark, we played a game of nighttime Frisbee. Soon, I had a small campfire going. The air overflowed with noises of camp: Squealing children, warbling insects, chattering leaves.

We grilled hotdogs, roasted marshmallows, made S'mores. My wife suggested that we sing songs, but my son and I were worn (Only hours before the Cub Scout event, we'd participated in a 5K family run.). It was my son who first said: "I'm tired; Let's go to bed." So we put out the campfire, made one last trip to the restroom, and turned in for the night. Faster than a thunderstorm could blow through, we dozed off to sleep.

A few hours later, I awoke to my wife nudging my ribs. She wanted to know why the sun wasn't shining. At first, I thought that, maybe, she was talking in her sleep. To some degree, I still wonder if she wasn't. I grabbed my cellphone to check the time, and then reminded her that, at 3 in the morning, the sun was busy shining on China, halfway around the world, to which I earned a little smack to the head.

I tried to go back to sleep, but couldn't. My wife was concerned about something. She was up and down, climbing in and out of her sleeping bag. She paced the floor, which, in an 8-by-8-foot space, was enough to wake even a hibernating bear.

Although I was fully awake, she bent down and nudged me again, wondering if I'd noticed how strong the wind was blowing. I hadn't. Finally she got dressed, unzipped the tent and went outside. When she returned a short time later, she warned that a storm was coming.

The air was cool and moist, and soft flashes of lightening illuminated our tent. In the distance, I heard the quiet rumble of thunder. I wasn't worried; That kind of thing happens often in Central Texas. The weather was teasing us. I buried myself inside my sleeping bag.

For a long while, my wife stood staring out of an opening in the tent, looking as though she was watching a ghost. “If she's afraid of a little rain,” I thought, “next time, us guys will leave her at home.” She closed the tent, adjusted my son’s sleeping bag, and then climbed back into hers. We both fell asleep.

The next voice I heard came a few hours later. It was the Scout Master in charge of the event. He was standing outside of our tent, passing along a message from park security. In the haze of my sleep, I only caught a few of his words: Storm, golf-ball-sized hail, evacuate. Immediately!

We scrambled like eggs to get dressed and gathered our belongings — sleeping bags, luggage, and an inflated, double-sized mattress. Then we darted through an open field and jumped into our van (It took me several trips; I refused to leave anything behind except for our tent.). In a convoy, we followed park security through a maze, past the military museum, to where we took cover inside a cafeteria.

The storm wasn't awful, though the experience scared my son. Rain beat down for about 20 minutes, and then we were shuffled back to the campground to collect our tents before the next round of storms.

How does this relate to children's publishing? Well, it doesn't. But it does recall a camping picture book I've been working on for the past three years. A story weighted down with too much childhood nostalgia. Through this experience, I think I've found the direction my story needs to take.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

April 26th is chock-full

This weekend is the Write in the Heart of Texas Spring Conference, given by The Austin SCBWI. It will feature a fabulous line-up of authors, illustrators, editors and agents. Unfortunately, I won't be there.

Procrastination is a son-of-a . . . well, you know.

As the registration deadline approached, April 26 began to fill up with family activities. Not that I mind, though; I'm still gonna have fun.

First thing Saturday morning, my family and I will run in the Texas Round-Up, a health and fitness initiative. My wife and I have been preparing for the race through a fitness program sponsored by the City of Austin and RunTex. Although there will be a family mile run, we are planning to do at least a 5K. At his school's Race For Education fund-raiser, my son ran 5 miles, so we figure he can run/walk 5K easily.

Immediately following the race, my son and I will spend the day getting our hands dirty — shooting BB guns, identifying wildlife, fishing — at The Thunderbird District's Trailblazer Adventure, held at Camp Maybry. And then, weather permitting, we'll pull out our tents and camp overnight!

Somewhere in there, we're supposed to fit in a wedding and birthday party, too, but somehow I don't think that's gonna happen.

Bummer that I'm gonna miss the conference, and double-bummer that won't be able to hang out with my SCBWI buddies. But somewhere in Lake Austin, there's a large mouth bass with my name on it, and I'm gonna spend the day trying to catch it.

In other news: Congratulations to Varian Johnson! He's on the Path of the Righteous.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The book signing that almost didn't happen

It was Thursday morning, an hour before my signing with Lee & Low Books. I was in the parking garage of the Dallas Convention Center when I found myself with a huge problem: I didn't have enough money to pay for parking.

I knew when I entered the garage that I didn't have enough. A sign at the entrance clearly stated: "Event Parking $8.00, cash only." I had $4.00 and some pennies.

Driving slowly toward the attendant, I planned my next move. "Good morning," I said. Then I flashed her my saddest puppy-dog eyes. She was a sistah, maybe she'd help a brotha out. But she was cold as ice. "Eight dollars," she said in a foreign accent, not even looking at me.

I brandished my cash card, looking away from her as I held it out. "Did you read the sign?" she snapped. "Cash only."

As I sat there wondering what to do, I thought about some Hollywood movies, you know, the ones where the guy crashes the gate and shoots through the airport like he's running a 50-yard-dash. Maybe I . . . well, maybe not.

"I know this is not your problem," I said. "It's my problem. But I need to be at a book signing — I'm the signer — and I don't have $8.00. How can I fix this problem?" I asked. She looked at me as if to ask, "Book? What is a book?"

By that time, I was in a panic. I was due at my publisher's booth in little over an hour, but first, I had to drive back into downtown Dallas. I'd have to park, find an ATM machine, get back to the Convention Center, park again. Then I'd have to find my way to the registration area to get my badge, and then wind my way through the exhibitor's hall — a bustling maze. Booth number one-thousand-something!

"There's a cash machine inside of McDonald's, three blocks down the street." the attendant said. Then she opened the gate so that I could leave.

Problem number two: My cash card has two large rips down its center. It only works in certain machines — it's funny like that. Back in Austin, I know which machines to use and which ones to avoid. Dang! I knew I should'da got a new card a long time ago!

As I left the parking garage, I considered calling Jason, my publisher. I had his cell number. I'd call, explain to him that I'd made it OK, but that I was outside the Convention Center, short four dollars to park. Maybe he'd come outside, loan me some cash. No, I couldn't do that. Considering some of the problems I'd had earlier in the week, he'd think I was a bonafide, unadulterated dork.

When I reached McDonald's, I sped into the parking lot and screeched to a stop. There were maybe six parking spots for the entire restaurant, and they were all filled. A security guard, shaped like an African elephant, watched. He was making sure no one would park illegally. I drove up to him and said, "I just need to use the cash machine. Where can I park?"

"The parking lot is full," he responded.

Thanks for your insight, Einstein.

I drove back into traffic and circled the restaurant. When I noticed a spot had opened up, I slipped back into the lot, got out of my car and locked the door behind me. But then I paused. What if the card won't work? I need a plan B. "Are there any other cash machines in the area?" I asked the guard. "Other than the one inside the restaurant?"

"I don't know," he said, waving me away, his interest detained by a group of pretty, young girls who were loitering outside. I opened my car door, snatched open my suitcase and rummaged through the pockets of my jeans worn the day before. I found another dollar. But I was still short three.

I thought about the other night, when an old woman had approached me in a Walgreen's parking lot, asking for money. Begging, really. Her car had run out of gas, and she was trying to get home to San Antonio. I had been irritated with this woman asking me for money. Even though I'd given her a few dollars, I had looked her up and down. I had sized her up. Judged her. Who is this irresponsible, silly old woman? I thought. And there I was, two days later, in a position to beg for money. I said a prayer. Partly to ask for forgiveness, partly to make my signing in time.

Once inside McDonald's I opened my wallet and pulled out my cash card. I pieced it back together and swiped it through the machine. Nothing happened. The muscles at the nape of my neck reached up and grabbed the muscles at my temples. Together, they tightened around my head like a vice. I had a headache. I felt so stupid! My signing was in half an hour.

Suddenly, the machine came alive and asked for my four-digit pin. My card had worked! I could have kissed that machine were it not visibly filthy. Instead, I thanked God and punched in my digits. Once I received my cash, I shot back to the Convention Center faster than lightening. And made it to my signing fifteen minutes early.

Book signing at Texas Library Association

I had hoped to post a full report about my signing at TLA yesterday, but time won't allow. I had great fun signing my books with Lee & Low Books. The librarians weren't exactly bum-rushing our booth to get my autograph like, say, they were for Adam Rex, Kevin Henkes or Jarrett Krosoczka. But we had a steady flow of people. Most librarians who stopped and took the time to look at my books were very complimentary and purchased one.

The highlight of my day was being recognized by so many publishers as a blogger at The Brown Bookshelf. When I solicited various publishers for review copies of books to possibly feature, most were familiar with our name and initiative, and gladly offered books. Those who couldn't give away their only copies, took my contact info and promised to send books.

I was surprised at the number of election/political themed books being published. It's no wonder, I guess, considering the exciting presidential race going on. In just the short time I was there, I saw Grace For President, Otto Runs For President, Duck For President and LaRue for Mayor. What's up with LaRue?

Reading my last blog post, I realized it could have a dual and unintended meaning. When I said, "I'll be signing my books tomorrow morning and again in the afternoon. But tonight in my hotel room, I'll be working on Ron." Please know that Ron is the code name for a picture book I am painting. Nothing else.

Thanks to Miriam and Jason of Lee & Low Books for their warm hospitality, and especially for their patience (There's a story behind this story which I won't go in to). Also look for Lee & Low to introduce a new website soon!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

My editor and art director reads my blog

I'm honored and thrilled — and maybe even a bit horrified — to learn that my peeps at Dutton actually read this blog. And they like it! There was a question concerning my blog-to-painting ratio, considering Ron is due soon. But all is good, I think.

I do blog a lot, and I write picture books, too. But when I'm blogging or writing, it's only because I'm at a point where I simply can't paint. I'm either waiting for a series of paintings to dry, or I'm tired of painting and need a break.


I'm on the highway in a couple hours, headed for TLA Dallas. I'll be signing my books tomorrow morning and again in the afternoon. But tonight in my hotel room, I'll be working on Ron. Yes, I'm packing my paintings and brushes, my turpentine and reference materials. Instead of staying up late tonight watching CNN and Fox News, I'll paint . . . while listening to CNN and Fox News.

I got my new digital camera, so I'll post a visual report of TLA sometime soon! When I'm waiting for my paint to dry, of course. : )

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Sunday tidbits

I've been so heavily into my paintings, I forgot all about The Texas Library Association Conference next week. On Thursday at 11:15 a.m., and again at 2:00 p.m., I will be autographing my books, Summer Sun Risin' and Black All Around! at the Lee & Low Books booth (#2049). If you're there, be sure to stop by. Say hello. Help me to look popular.

I never did create a Brown Bookshelf T-shirt as planned. I'd wanted to wear it on the exhibit floor, to advertise to librarians about our website and initiatives. No time for that now, but when I do get around to creating the T-shirts, I'll post an announcement over at The Brown Bookshelf.

Regretfully, I'll have to miss the children's book blogger's tea, hosted by Anastasia Suen. The tea is on Tuesday, but I won't arrive to the conference until Thursday. Bummer.

Last week, I received my copies of signed contracts (and partial advance) for Bill, a picture book that will publish with Lee & Low Books. For many reasons, I will not be the illustrator for this project. For one, my illustration style is stylized, playful, borderline cartoon-y. The story is not. The publisher and I both felt an edgier, grittier style would be more appropriate. In addition, I already have two picture books lined up following Ron.

My editor contacted my top two choices for illustrators, and were still awaiting feedback. I'll post updates soon.

I finished the first draft of another picture book. I'll share it with my crit group after at least one full rewrite. At this point, the story is too loose and my main character's personality needs to be better definition. I've been asking myself: What will she do? Characters are defined by what they do and how they respond to conflict.

I got a full week ahead!

Saturday, April 12, 2008

A lesson from my son

Last week while sitting in a doctor's exam room — my son was pseudo-sick again — I picked up an old and tattered Parent magazine. The pages were dog-eared and worn, the cover was missing. It looked like some kid had been eating on it. As I flipped through the pages, careful, so it wouldn't fall apart, I saw a photo in an advertisement. Perfect reference for one of my paintings! The colors, the lighting, the hardwood floors, were exactly what I needed. I ripped the advertisement from the magazine and slipped it into my back pocket. Didn't think twice about it.

"Daddy," my son moaned, as though singing a sad song. "What are you doing with that picture?"

"Shhhh — be quiet," I said, and snarled at him like a pit bull. He's just like his mom. He doesn't miss a beat.

"Are you stealing that picture?" he asked. His facial expression convicted me of a terrible crime, like armed robbery. He was half joking, trying to get under my skin. But he was serious too.

"Did you wash your ears today?" I asked, trying to change the subject. "They look kinda dirty?" I tilted his ear toward me as though studying it for cleanliness. He pulled away.

"Daddy, why are you stealing?" he repeated his accusation, louder. I was afraid the doctor would hear, storm into the room, think I was stealing one of his examination tools.

"Cut it out, man!" I yelled as loud as I could possibly whisper. I started to think: Is it really stealing if I rip a page from a tattered old magazine? Even one long past due for an appointment with the garbage can? Must be, or why would I feel so guilty? Why was I whispering? Why was I so angry at my son that my blood was boiling?

I was stealing. I took the advertisement from my back pocket and put it back inside the magazine. "I was just joking," I said to my son, smiling, not only teaching him to steal, but to lie.

After the nurse finished examining my son, I told her about the advertisement, explained how I'd like to use it, and asked if I could tear it from the magazine. "Take it," she said. "In fact, you can have the whole thing if you'd like. It's ready for the trash anyway."

I picked up the magazine and slipped it under my car keys, hoping my son wouldn't offer more information. He didn't.

"I appreciate your honesty," the nurse said. "Personally, I'd've ripped it out and stuffed it into my purse."

Friday, April 11, 2008

Time to buy a new toy

I was tickled while watching Kadir Nelson's WE ARE THE SHIP trailer. In it, Kadir revealed that he himself was the model for many of the images in the book, that he "suited up" and took pictures of himself. That didn't surprise me at all because, as I flipped through the book (way before seeing the trailer), I immediately recognized Kadir in many of the paintings. That's when I realized that I wasn't alone, that I'm not the only artist who dresses up and stages photo shoots of myself (sometimes several times per day). So I was thrilled he made that acknowlegment in the trailer.

Over the past couple weeks, my digital camera has been dying a slow death, and as of this morning, I think it's taken it's last photo (pictured above). Believe it or not, it's a picture of me, standing at a window, modeling a scene from Little Ron on a Big Mission. Without my camera, I'm stuck.

How does Ron's pajamas gather and fold under his arms as he rests his hands on the window sill? How will the light coming from a lamp affect those folds? Considering the technique I'm using, this problem should have been worked out in my underpainting. I didn't address the problem then, and I'm stuck now without a camera.

Before digital cameras, when I needed photo reference immediately (and didn't want to wait for photo processing) I took pictures with an instant camera, a Polaroid Spectra 2. But at $20 bucks a cartridge for 10 pictures, that wasn't the most cost effective way to work.

So here I am, sitting at my computer, blogging, wasting time not painting because I don't have a digital camera. Have I become too overly dependent on technology?

Maybe so, but regardless, I'm getting a new camera this weekend. Shhh!— don't tell the wife, although I think she's the one who broke my camera (Shhh!— don't tell her that either).

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Forging ahead: Adding color

It's taken me awhile to get used to this technique — transparent color layers over greyscale images — but it's growing on me. These paintings have depth, more so than any of my previous works. They possess a 3-dimensional, jewel-like quality. It's like I could reach right into this painting, grab a plate off the table, and sit it down on the counter behind Ron. This happened by accident. Believe me, I didn't plan it that way.

On the downside, finishing this book is going to take longer than what I'd anticipated — at least another month, which will take me into mid May. Having spent so much time on the underpaintings, establishing values and form, I figured it would take no more than one day to color each image. That. Nada. Gonna. Happen.

If I had it to do over, I'd use acrylic paint instead of oil. I love oil painting. No other medium can touch it's luminous quality. But acrylics dry almost immediately, where oil paint takes it's time. Even though I'm using alkyds — fast drying oil paint — I still have to wait at least a day for the paint to dry before I can paint over it again. Grrr.

OK, gotta go.

P.S. About the bald head. It's an accident. I cut my own hair, and last week in a hurry, I forgot to clip on the little plastic accessory that prevents the clippers from going too low. Took a bite out my 'fro the size of an apple. So, I had to cut it all off.

On the upside, the wife says it's very sexy attractive, so I've decided to keep it.

Monday, April 07, 2008

People watching

If I had time to create yet another blog, I'd call it As Seen Around Austin. I'd post drawings of people I run into while out running errands around this city, like the guy I've pictured here. He works at the art store where I purchased my brushes earlier today.

I saved his image inside my head all afternoon, until I could take a break from work to draw him. I think he thought he was cool, his mascara-painted eye peeking out from under a curtain of hair that covered half of his face. A silver studded belt double-wrapped his waistless jeans. Not sure why he needed a belt at all, his jeans so tight he'd need a pocket blade to remove them. When he dropped my paintbrush on the floor, he struggled to stoop down. His tightly-wrapped jeans simply wouldn't allow his knees to bend properly.

His look is no doubt ├╝ber-fashionable, in certain circles. But inside my circle, the guy's funny. I'm such an awful people watcher. I should have taken my camera to this past weekend's Urban Music Festival. Prime character studies I missed out on.

Maybe I'll find time to start that blog after all. Someday.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Thanks Shel Silverstein

Last night, I read The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein. I must be the last person on planet earth to read this book. It's been out, like, forever. The story affected me deeply.

Once upon a time there was a tree who loved a little boy. And the boy spent a lot of time with the tree — gathering her leaves, swinging from her branches, climbing her trunk, resting in her shade. The boy loved the tree and this made the tree happy. But soon, the boy grew up and went away. And the tree was all alone.

Years later, the boy came back, but only to complain. He was unhappy. In an attempt to make the the boy happy again, the tree offered her fruit, so the boy could sell it for money. He picked her fruit and left, only to return years later. He was still unhappy. So the tree offered her branches so the boy could build a house. The boy cut off her branches and left again. When he returned years later, he was still unsatisfied, so the tree offered her trunk. And the boy cut the tree down, leaving only a stump.

And the tree was happy . . . "but not really."

In the end, the boy came back once again, old with a bent back, and still unsatisfied. But the tree, nothing more than a knee-high stump, had nothing else to offer. So she offered what she had: A place for the boy to sit and rest his tired body.

The boy sat down on what was left of the tree, and the tree was very happy. However, the boy still looked very unhappy.

Such a sad ending. I was bummed. Caused me to reflect on my own life. My mom is a giving tree, too. She gives and gives, happily, never looking for a return. And seldom receives any. Like the tree, my mom gives until she has nothing else to offer. And then she gives anyway.

My brothers and I have, at times, treated our mom like the boy in the story treated the tree. But were mature now and give back. At least we try. But I'll have to try even harder.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Google's been on my street!

Google Street is a pretty cool online tool. Don't know how I'd ever use it, other than for snooping on my neighbors or for checking out the homes of my children's publishing colleagues (Yes, SCBWIers, I'll be checking you out).

Course, the first thing I did was look up my publishers. Here's a shot of Lee & Low Books, the publisher who recently purchased my picture book biography. I've never been to their New York offices, but if I went I suppose I could use this tool to find my way. The building looks cold and scary.

And this is Houghton Mifflin. I guess. Kinda looks like downtown Austin. Hard to tell which building. The image can be panned 360-degrees, rotated and zoomed in on. Heck, I think you can even take a virtual stroll down the street in any direction.

Here is Charlesbridge, the publisher of my next picture book. I'm curious about the For Lease sign. Suppose I could dial the number advertised to find out if my publisher is moving, or if this is the building across the street from their offices.

And, of course, here's my home. Weird thing is, Google took this shot recently, like within the past three days. I know this because it was only three days ago that my tree had absolutely no leaves. I'd pointed it out to my son so he'd notice how quickly the tree would bloom (is that he right word?). I also know because my privacy fence (funny to use the word privacy in a post about Google Street), which can be seen by scrolling, is wilting. It just started wilting in the past month. Now, excuse me, I'm off to look up your address.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

No camping: I can paint!

I just received the best and worst news, all balled-up into one email: The Cub Scout camping trip planned for this weekend has been canceled. Good news because I'm am swamped with illustrations for my book, Ron, and I really didn't have time to go camping anyway. Bad news because my son was really looking forward to the two-day camping trip.

After reading the email, I realized that my weekend was free. I didn't have to pull an all-nighter tonight, painting, as I'd planned. I can paint all day, for the next three days! But then it occurred to me. If we don't go camping as planned, the wife will make me go to a church marriage ministry social on Saturday night. Yuck! Yuck! Phooey! Phooey!

So I shot off an email to the Cub Scout parents: Let's go camping anyway! You don't have to be a Cub Scout to go camping, right?

In other news: Thanks, Amy Bowllan, for the shout out on your blog, over at SLJ. I appreciate that you noticed.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Tuesdays . . . such a rat race

It's Tuesday, and I have such a long day ahead.

I get up and prepare breakfast for my son. Then I make sure he takes a shower and gets dressed. After I drop him off at school, I have four hours to work on my children's book projects. That sums up the first part of my day.

I'll begin the second part of my day in the early afternoon. I'll put in a 10-hour day at the newspaper. No breaks. No time for exercise. No reading or writing.

On the plus side, because I'm working part-time now, Tuesdays are my Friday.

Thank God It's...Tuesday.