What’s selling? Does anyone know?

UPDATE ON OUR WOZA WOZA POEM: Yesterday we got skunked. Not a soul advanced the Woza Woza cause after we added Sandy’s brown-clad creatures. As your host I will take it upon myself to add a 5th line to keep us on track. See what you can do with it and send me some 6th lines. Thanks!

Today I saw something I’ve never seen before,
A sea of cinnamon swirls surfing the forest floor.
Leaves you say? And well you may, but more it seemed to me,
Tiny brown-clad creatures surfed that swirling sea.

Tiny brown-clad creatures wearing leather hats

We’ve settled into a poem told in couplets with hexameter lines (six beats per line) composed in mostly iambic meter. Who wants to add the second line of the new couplet?

Hello everyone,

Let’s have a little talk about the market for books these days. This Wednesday you’ll read an article by our friend Ken Slesarik about a recent experience of his regarding the poetry market. In anticipation of Ken’s piece and the general conversation it will generate, I’ll kick things off today with some notes about picture books.

One of the sites I follow is CCBC-Net, a listserv encouraging awareness and discussion of ideas and issues critical to literature for children and young adults. CCBC-Net members explore a wide range of topics in contemporary literature for youth, including multicultural literature, translated books, outstanding, and award-winning books, equity themes and topics, the book arts and book publishing, and more.

A theme during the first half of November is: A Paucity of Picture Books. I quote: “We can see it on the shelves: fewer picture books are being published. A recent New York Times article (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/08/us/08picture.html?_r=1 ) says that the picture book ‘is fading,’ noting that not only are fewer being produced but also stating that fewer parents are turning to picture books, especially for school-age children. But production costs and bookstore sales can’t tell the whole picture book story. During the first half of November on CCBC-Net, we invite you to share your stories and observations about current picture book publishing and its impact on children, schools and libraries, as well as your thoughts on the importance of this singular literary form.”

Normally I read these conversations without commenting on them but now and then I venture forth with an opinion. That was the case here. This is my response.

Regarding a Paucity of Picture Books:

I think there’s more than parental pressure and price involved in the equation for the drop in picture books. There seems to be a societal shift in the nature of what sells. I noticed a change in the way children responded to their picture books between my first title in 1969 (The Boy With a Drum) and my 1980 offering, Detective Bob and the Great Ape Escape. Detective Bob was written with the television generation in mind. The missing ape, which Detective Bob would never seem to see, appeared in every scene. The story was essentially a visual joke that appealed to children raised on laugh tracks and quick solutions.

Now I think we’re suffering from the effects of computer games that demand even quicker solutions, tons of action, and a cacophony of noises. Kids don’t think they’re having fun unless their eyes and ears are being bombarded with a fast and furious stream of stimulation.

Give such children a picture book that doesn’t shout or move, the old-fashioned sort that stimulates their imagination, and I fear that many of them are quickly bored. The buzzword among editors these days is “quiet.” As in, “Loved your story but it’s a little too quiet for today’s market.”

The noisy/action factor may be changing the paradigm so that traditional stories, no matter how finely spun, are being ushered out of the market — in part because of the pressure from schools and parents to achieve at a greater rate scholastically — but also by an electronic industry, which is supported in large measure by those same parents and other adults who tend to shop elsewhere these days for recreational activities for their children.

If you have thoughts or comments of your own, I hope you will share them. Thanks in advance.

Dan Burr today

Today you’ll meet Dan Burr, one of the most talented artists working today and my collaborator on Pirates. You met another wonderful artist earlier — Cheryl Harness — and coming up is still another gifted artist, Rob Shepperson, with whom I worked on Vacation and bugs.

Now for today’s treat: Heeeeere’s Dan!

by Dan Burr

Q – How does on artist prepare for becoming a book illustrator?

That is a great question, I think being an artist/illustrator has to come to you naturally, it’s not something you can force on a person. Kids that draw all the time, turn into adults that draw all the time and eventually do something with their talent or find a career doing something else that will pays the bills. My preparation as an illustrator didn’t start until I hit college, I was fortunate to have a professor who was an illustrator and knew about the world of illustration. He introduced me to the world in which I now live. An education or introduction of some sort is important to enter any serious profession (not that art is serious), As a professional illustrator, you better have some idea what will be expected of you, hopefully you get that from someone who cares and knows a bit about it.

Q – How closely do you usually work with the author?

Sometimes not at all, sometimes a bunch. I don’t know which I prefer either. Authors can bring insights to my work that I may never have thought of or they can be so stifling that you what to tell them to illustrate the thing. I always wonder what the author thinks about the work I do for their book, and sometimes worry that I missed the mark but so far have been lucky in that regard. I really enjoyed working with David on our book Pirates, we are kindred spirits (Pirates) and we think very much alike and that made for a great book.

Q – How long do you usually need to do a complete book project?

I can illustrate a 32 pager in 13 weeks (painting time), I prefer more time but deadlines are deadlines, It usually takes me a while to get everything ready for a project, the sketches and all the research take a fair amount of time and then I have to line up models and costumes etc, etc. I usually hear about the project at least a year in advance and then like always I procrastinate until I have 13 or so weeks to really dig in and get it done.

Q – What steps do you take from idea to finished work?

I usually start with some of my really crummy thumbnail sketches that start my mind working, I hopefully can turn them into a little better version of a sketch that will eventually lead me to research and collecting the information that I need to make the paintings believable and the environments complete. Sometimes this can be a painfully slow process and sometimes if I’m familiar enough with the subject it goes quickly. The sketches then get revised a few times to solve design issues or anything else that looks wrong, when the sketches are finished, off I go to the finished painting.

Q-How much do you revise your work?

If I get lucky and pull it off the first time, not much, If I can’t seem to visualize the image and start with a poor sketch or concept, it plagues me through the whole process until I revise and fix what is bugging me. This can mean repainting that image or sometimes several of the images that just don’t seem to be working. I try to work it out while in the sketch stage but sometimes problems slip by unnoticed until my 12 yr old comes to the studio and says, ahh… Is that a dog or a small horse pulling that wagon? Kids these days…

Q- How do you use the computer as a tool for your art?

I was educated in a very traditional school of art, drawing and painting was taught with traditional mediums, I spent the last15 years of my career painting with oils on traditional surfaces to complete my illustration projects. In 2004 I took a Photoshop class to see if it would be a viable tool to help accomplish my work, I really learned a lot and realized that I could paint in a way that mimicked my traditional work. It took a while to make the complete transition from traditional to digital but finally decided that in order to stay competitive I would have to keep up with technology and make the switch. Today I do all my work on the computer using Photoshop to paint digitally in a way that my clients have come to expect over the span of my career.

Q- What advise would you give authors that would help an artist make a better book?

Write good books. If the words are great the images come easy and the process for me is less complicated. I like working with authors, it nice to get their insight and understand some of their expectations, sometimes I struggle coming up with or starting a project, a talk with the author can make all the difference and get the juices flowing. As an illustrator it’s always nice to be given the freedom to do what we do and create images that do justice to the words. Authors have to trust us to take their words and make the books come to life. As the writer of the book don’t be afraid to offer an insight or two to help the process along, but don’t try to control the process too much or the illustrator can’t do what he/she has been hired to do.

Q- Which usually comes first, the words or the art?

When I am working on a picture book, I usually need the words to help see the images, having said that, sometimes it works the other way around and the pictures come first. In the book “Pirates” the process evolved back and forth, starting with some images I had swimming around in my head, and then the author (You, David L. Harrison) sharing ideas that he thought would make good poems and pictures. “Pirates” was the ideal situation, author and illustrator working together on the same page to make a book. I always have paintings in my head just waiting to come out, some belong to stories and some don’t, the trick is to make sure they find a home in a great story.

My sincere thanks to Dan. If you have questions or comments, plese post them below in the comment section.


Cheryl Harness today

Hi Everyone,
A sobering thought for the day: we are now 1/26th the way through 2010. If you haven’t read anything interesting or written anything good this year, better get started.

Now I proudly introduce my buddy Cheryl Harness. I do have the BEST friends!

Wimpy New World
by Cheryl Harness

I started out with a pencil. Or, more likely, a Bic pen. Paper. Manual typewriter. These were what I used when I headed out on my so-called writing career back when knighthood was in flower. Okay, a little more recent than that; it’s been 25 years since I began writing, aiming for publication. Ronald Reagan was in office. Now he’s off in the Blue Beyond along with all of the other dead people and their pets and there’s been many a change since then. Ready or not though we may be, a boatload of further changes and transitions are bearing down on us and so, say I, stating the obvious, it’s always been.

I was still designing greeting cards at Current, a paper-products company within sight of Pikes Peak when I typed out my first history book. It’d be an oft-told-but never-as-I-was-gonna-tell-it tale about the hundred-or-so hardy pioneers who survived a particular Atlantic crossing in the autumn of 1620. After the manuscript was accepted (Huzzah! That’d show all those other kids in high school I wasn’t as much of a lost cause as I appeared to be; a dork then and now, but a published dork!) I revised and revised then my job was drawing the pictures – with a pencil on pads of tracing paper. Here’s how high-tech I got: I used my VCR to freeze-frame scenes of windblown passengers on a Mayflower manufactured in around1946, in the MGM prop department. After all, it wasn’t as if I had a 17th century ship close at hand. The movie? A creepy-but-earnest Pilgrim epic with Gene Tierney, Spencer Tracy, and Van Johnson, all in living Technicolor.

Transfer the rough drawing to the illustration board. Refine the drawings. Visualize a moment lost in time. Give thanks for library books + the photographs I took for reference, at Plimoth Plantation, where re-enactors demonstrate life as lived at the time/space intersection of 1627/Plymouth, Mass. (Put that place on your bucket list. http://www.plimoth.org )

I’m mindful of details and creating expressions on the faces of people engaged in the greatest adventure of their lives. Paintbrush in a jar of water (out of which my cat Merrie loves to drink). Apply the brush to pigments, so wondrously named. Naples Yellow. Burnt Umber. Viridian Green. Ivory Black – sort of a contradiction, no? Cerulean Blue. So you paint, small decision by small decision, stroke by stroke, as painters have done for hundreds of years. For those English faces, a delicate bit of Raw Siena + Rose Madder and a blush of Cadmium Red – some feverish cheeks and red noses on those wayfarers, poor souls. What a damp, cold, and ghastly journey that must have been!

This book was published in the era of Bill Clinton, by Bradbury Press, part of Macmillan, which became Maxwell-Macmillan, folded into Simon & Schuster. Now, some 17 years later, folks can buy an Aladdin paperback of Three Young Pilgrims, but not, perhaps, in their neighborhood bookstore. More likely they’ll come across it online somewhere and click. I devoutly hope they will. Clicking, tapping is what I’m doing, on a laptop parked on top of my carry-on luggage, here in the Los Angeles airport… now up here in the clouds, traveling home to Missouri in a manner that would have overwhelmed and astonished the Pilgrims or anyone else in their long-gone world.

A bit overwhelmed am I, coming back from a big, fat, 4-day seminar, learning about all that is expected of anyone who expects to be culturally viable: Want to be my Facebook friend? Watch for me on You-Tube. Be on the lookout for my Tweets. And this recalcitrant old Boomer is going to get LinkedIn by sundown. It’s definitely on my to-do list anyway. Time and technology are moving like runaway trains. Uncertain I am, but I intend to be heartened by those Pilgrims’ fortitude – except for that one poor soul, young Mrs. Bradford who fell or more likely jumped overboard into the sea; Gene Tierney played her in that sappy movie. Let’s not focus on her. Grateful I am, wimp that I am for being able to travel WAY higher, faster, cleaner, and drier than those Mayflower passengers. What we have in common is this: They didn’t know just as we don’t know what’s in store in our complex times, what might be asked of us, but we can be en-couraged by the examples of those who’ve gone before. Who we are is who we have been.

My thanks to Cheryl. Thoughts and questions are welcome!


Cheryl Harness tomorrow

BULLETIN: We’ve just received the 21st Word of the Month poem for January from adults. That’s the most so far and we still have until January 23 to hear from other poets with poems inspired by “time.” As for our young poets, so far this month we haven’t received anything, but this is about when they usually started coming in.
REMINDER: In case you have forgotten how to post your Word of the Month Poem or have never joined my blog before, here’s how to do it:
1) At the top of the blog page click on the long box marked Adult Word of the Month Poems.
2) Scroll to the bottom and you’ll see something that says LEAVE A RESPONSE.
3) Cut and paste or type your poem into the box marked YOUR RESPONSE.
4) Click on the box below that marked SUBMIT COMMENT.
That’s all there is to it. See you soon.

I promised you on December 8 that you’ll hear from Cheryl Harness one of these days. Today I’m pleased to post Cheryl’s bio so you’ll have time to bone up on her before tomorrow. Because that’s when you’ll meet Cheryl in person, blog-wise. I’ll post her article and you’re going to be glad I did!

Cheryl Harness of Missouri has written and/or illustrated nearly 50 books, including THREE YOUNG READERS, a 5-volume series of Cheryl Harness Histories, published by the Nat’l Geographic Society; her award-winning GHOSTS of the WHITE HOUSE, and a critically acclaimed novel for young readers, JUST FOR YOU TO KNOW. Additionally, she travels throughout the country, entertaining audiences of children and grownups, speaking about her books, drawing pictures, and occasionally, playing her harmonica.Info about Cheryl’s school visits, about her latest books, The Harry Book (her comic book bio of Pres. Truman) and, Grab Hold of the Past (part snappy memoir, part essays & web-links regarding all things historical, can be found at www.cherylharness.com  as well as at a far out new nonfiction author website: www.inkthinktank.com .