It seems a touch premature to call this an out-and-out-preview. Particularly when you consider that the books discussed were Fall 2010 and we are in (checks watch) yes . . . 2010, fall. But the word “preview” here is my own, not theirs. For their part, Abrams recently just wanted to let the local librarian/press community know what they had on the roster and to talk it up with the appropriate amount of chutzpah and hoopla.
In a conference room fair brimming with cheese, bread, wine, and a chocolaty something, we chatted then sat ourselves down for the presentation. Thinking that I would report about this later I sat myself right smack dab down in the front row. I thought I was twenty sorts of clever for that one. Then I noticed that the projector was beaming straight into the back of my head. Huh. That can’t be good.
I suspect that if I was a woman blessed with smooth silken locks the rest of the evening would have progressed smoothly, but as I am frizzy on my best days and shock-headed peter on my worst, the remainder of the presentation was subject to the large imprint of my head on the PowerPoint slides. Skootching lower and lower in my chair merely meant that I looked less like an electroshocked willow and more like a stumpy bush of questionable breed.
Now if you strained your ears correctly, you could just make out the lilting tones of Janis Joplin playing in the background. It didn’t draw too much attention to itself, but appeared to be a nod in the direction of the new bio Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing for teens by Ann Angel.
Jason Wells started us off and then we immediately took a gander at a trailer for a new Graeme Base book, The Legend of the Golden Snail. Note, if you will, who the person is that is playing the piano. It’s mentioned in the credits at the end.
From here Abrams folks noted that with the possible exception of Hereville (and even then, it’s more of a dark blue) the new season sports not a SINGLE black cover. “At a time when YA is looking like a Victorian funeral,” they joked. True enough. More to the point, Abrams covers lack most of the usual tropes you find in MG and YA literature. Gone are the disembodied feet or the Getty Images.
Editor Howard Reeves then introduced four illustrators to us, each unique from the last. First up was Daniel Kirk, author of the newest Library Mouse title Library Mouse: A World to Explore. Kirk actually spoke at the last Abrams event that I attended as well. In this particular case, the man touched upon two interesting incidents he’d experienced that had informed the creation of this series. In the first incident a kid at one of his presentations noted that it was all well and good that he was holding a copy of one of his books, but where was “the real book”? It was a fascinating question. What did the kid consider to be “real”? Kirk came to the conclusion that the kid might be referring to the original book dummy put together to give a feel of the book. Even more interesting to me was the notion that while we call such creations “dummies” here you had a kid who clearly felt it was finer than the final product itself.
The second interesting incident was when Kirk was doing a library signing and the local librarian on duty started complaining about the local library mouse. I’m not sure that Mr. Kirk’s series about such an adorable little creature was precisely what she would have expected from her comment, but that’s neither here nor there.
If there was a theme to today’s talks it may have had something to do with drawing from life. Mr. Kirk, for example, explained how he likes to pose himself, his wife, his kids, his neighbors, etc. when he creates his pictures. He has to have the scenes acted out physically, as did at least one of the other illustrators speaking that day.
The capper came when Mr. Kirk showed a lovely little Society of Illustrators piece of his own.
Kirk I knew. George Bates? An unknown entity. There is good reason for this. Mr. Bates is a surfer, a musician, and he’s been an illustrator for the last 20 years. That said, he’s hasn’t done a lot of books until now. In fact, Mr. Bates treated us instead to a rather impressive showing of some of his New York Times Op-Ed illustrations in which he had to show terrorism without . . . uh. . . showing . . . terrorism. Hm.
The lesson to take away from all this, kids, is that if you draw for the New York Times Op-Ed page, eventually you might be lucky enough to be asked to illustrate a picture book. In this particular case, we are referring to the new Halloween title On a Windy Night by Nancy Raines Day. You will note, if you take a gander at the cover here, that there’s a fair amount of cross-hatching going on. This is sort of how Mr. Bates made his work in the first place. He made his initial drawings small. Then he blew them up so that you could see the lines, and so that he could do some more work on them. Said he, in oil paintings you build up layers. In his art, it’s more complicated. In fact, when he sent in a sample piece and the editors said, “Great! More like that!” he found that he had completely forgotten the process by which he’d made the art in the first place.
At this point we the audience members spent our energy trying to keep the saliva dripping out of our mouths from harming his storyboards. Also, I got to thinking . . . why is it that Halloween more than any other holiday inspires the best children’s illustrations? I suppose the lack of religious connotations is a step in its favor, but there’s got to be more to it than that. Think of books like Only a Witch Can Fly and Ghosts in the House and this year’s The Halloween Kid. Gorgeous, one and all. It’s perplexing.
Bates went on, talking about how he modeled the little boy on the book after his younger brother since, “My brother was the cutest kid that ever lived.” Then he showed us the different layers, sometimes scanned in at 600 dpi and then switched to 300 to add to the texture. All the colors are computer generated, but he also scanned in tracing paper with graphite to give the pictures more pop. “Like doing an oil painting in reverse,” he said.
Mr. Bates closed by saying that he was proud to say that a friend of his has a daughter who kissed every page of the book before bedtime. “I don’t think anyone has ever kissed the Op-Ed page,” he chuckled. Then thought a moment. “Maybe they have for the wrong reasons.”
Exit Bates, enter Steven Guarnaccia. The chair of the Illustration program at Parsons and former Op-Ed Art Director at The New York Times (see a theme here?), I admit that I was not familiar with the fellow. He’d had a previous book out before, however, and that I did remember. Cast your minds back a spell and recall a book that came out a year or so ago. It was called Goldilocks and the Three Bears: A Tale Moderne. I remember seeing it, I admit, but I did not examine it particularly closely.
“I believe that chairs have as much characters as people!” Guarnaccia proclaimed proudly. This probably a good attitude to have when you are working at Parsons. He then proceeded to tell us a bit about Goldilocks, which I appreciated. To Guarnaccia’s mind, the overriding fact he determined about Goldilocks is that she’s the ultimate design critic. Think about it! She’s waltzing into people’s homes, determining whether or not their furniture is worthy of her attention, and even when it is worthy she ends up destroying it in some manner.
The pictures, as you might expect, have a particularly mod feel to them, so I was more than a little surprised when Mr. Guarnaccia cited his respect and hat tips to the Little Golden Book version of this story as relayed by F. Rojankovsky. I saw little of that in the endpapers, where kids actually can get a kind of quickie history in American design. All the bears’ furniture is based on famous pieces, and the endpapers take care to name the object, the date of its creation, and its creator. As the author put it, kids today know Picasso and Monet and all those guys but how many know that the “things” that surround them have authors too?
If book #1 was all about design then it stands to reason that book #2 would be all about architecture, right? Obviously Iggy Peck, Architect is the first title I think of when I think of architectural picture books (and believe me when I say that I’ve actually been asked for them before). Mr. Guarnaccia pointed out that the most obvious architectural tale would have to be The Three Little Pigs. As he put it, “There may have been a leap in making Goldilocks a design critic, but there was no leap in making the pigs architects.”
Therefore, in The Three Little Pigs: An Architectural Tale the three houses built by the pigs are all famous iconic structures. House #1 is Frank Gehry’s own home, which looked like it was made of scraps. House #2 is Philip Johnson’s Glass House. And House #3? I’m very proud to say that I predicted that at least one of them would be Falling Water, but it’s fun to think of the third sturdy structure as the one that looks like it’s mere moments away from falling into the stream. This just leaves the wolf to be Phillippe Starck, complete with motorcycle (cute touch). To my mind the wolf looked like nothing so much as the old Tex Avery wolf from the MGM cartoons of yore.
Fun Fact: Should one wish to turn their handwriting into printed words, you must first enter such writing into a program that makes you write out sentences that contain all the letters in the alphabet. In the old days that sentence was a mere, “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dogs.” Gone are those days. Now it’s sentences like “A yellow Hertz taxicab, not khaki, is the norm.”
Our final illustrator of the night was one Eric Velasquez, who was in a super rush because he had to teach a class later that night (possibly at FIT, but I missed the particulars). His most recent book is My Uncle Martin’s Big Heart by Angela Farris Watkins a.k.a. King’s niece. He also recently illustrated the book Maya Loves to Dance by Cheryl Willis Hudson, which reminded me that Seven Impossible Things profiled him.
Velasquez spoke a little about Maya and the reactions he’s received to it. If you haven’t read the book, this is a title where it is revealed at the end that Maya’s friend is white. I was reminded as Mr. Velasquez spoke of recent discussions in the blogosphere talking about whether or not kids will pick up books with children of other races on the covers. If his experiences are anything to go by, the answer is that kids have no problems with it. It’s the parents that are the difficulty. Twice Velasquez watched as little girls asked for the book and their mothers gently informed them “you don’t want this.” Girl #1 pitched a fit. Girl #2 actually went for her mother’s ear. Ow.
For the Uncle Martin book, the artist decided that his art needed a hook. “And that’s when the trouble began.” At first the difficulty was just that he couldn’t figure out what to draw. Finally, he decided to tackle it by looking at it from the “Well, what if Martin Luther King Jr. was my uncle” angle. After showing Ms. Watkins his storyboard sketches, though, there needed to be a lot of changes. So many that now when you look at the book you can rest assured that it shows exactly how Uncle Martin laughed, napped, stood, the whole nine yards. Mr. Velasquez even found a model at FIT that looked just like MLK (see, it’s a theme today) and used him for the art.
Last but not least we heard, not from an artist, but from author Lisa Greenwald. Lisa’s presence at today’s gathering explained why each of the seats in the room had fortune cookies on them. It all relates to her newest book Sweet Treats and Secret Crushes. Her previous book was My Life in Pink and Green, which is a title I have a great deal of difficulty keeping on my shelves. Kids love them that cover. This newest one is another title for community minded readers, and even has a bit of sparkle on the cover for flair.
All in all, a lovely time was had by one and all. Thanks to Abrams for the glimpse. And thanks too to you guys for reading.