I don’t often enter contests, but this past summer I opted to enter one with the Society for Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators. It was a new contest, called the Narrative Art Award. Disclaimer: I didn’t win.
Well. I didn’t win the contest. I did, however, work hard and quickly enough to pull off three brand new illustrations for my portfolio, each of which stretched my skills as an illustrator and storyteller.
I almost gave up before I even started. The theme was “Mystery” in celebration of Sherlock Holmes’s anniversary in 2017. I sketched and worked and wondered my way through several different ideas, none of which seemed good enough, clever enough, smart enough, or pull-off-able enough.
I finally decided to forget the whole detective theme and simply showcase three characters (a must) going through the beginning/middle/end of their story (a must) with a hint of mystery: where did the dragon’s fire go?
Now for the process photos. In the past year, I’ve become much better at the sketch/grayscale and value study/then paint process. While it seems like that might slow me down, it actually speeds me up, because I don’t lose time trying to pick colours. Once I have my values, I can pick a colour scheme and just work. The guess work is gone. I love this approach.
Here is the selection of main colours I used as my colour scheme. I use color.adobe.com to help me out.
I stand for kindness, respect, love, hope, and kindness. Above all else – above math concepts and spelling, above scores on standardized testing – I stand for these things.
I stand with all indigenous people, muslims, LGBTQ, immigrants, alter-abled, women, the disenfranchised, refugees, all people of colour, veterans, survivors, and anyone feeling alone and scared.
If you would like to join in, then create your own and share it for free with the hashtag #artistsforlove. You don’t even need to be an artist. You can just be someone who feels called to stand with the world, and all of the people who live within it.
A funny thing happens when we start taking our writing seriously – we realize we aren’t very good.
But one solid way of improving the craft is to listen – and hear – the voices of our audience, who in turn are – most of the time – also our characters.
The #1 writing rule you will find is to “write what you know.” This is sometimes disputed, but overall, I hear and read that one the most. Unfortunately, I have no idea what being a 12 year old girl in 2016 looks like, feels like or sounds like, in a really authentic way. But sometimes, a 12 year old girl appears in your manuscript, and you need to speak for them through the character who has arrived.
The thing that most adults do best? They filter. They hear a kid say something and they add their own adulty filter, and that sucks.
Rather than looking for a way to infuse my own morals/beliefs/ideas/creativity onto my audience, I am letting them do some of the heavy lifting. I’m lucky – I’m a teacher. I hear and see a lot of kids every year. But teachers are really good at filtering, too. I’m learning that in both teaching and writing, it is best to observe like a scientist – without bias. At first, anyway.
Examples of weird/funny/awesome things I’ve heard kids say, that are begging to be written and turned into a characters voice:
“I can’t wait to grow up and have a boy propose to me. I’m planning my DREAM rejection. Like, maybe he is going to take me up Mountain Everest. And when we get to the top he gets down on one knee and asks me to marry him. ‘No.’ Then he’s like WHY DID I TAKE YOU UP HERE THEN?”
“I’m going to name my kid (says her own name). Like in the Gilmore Girls, when Lorelai names her daughter Lorelai. That’s awesome.”
“My hands are the same size as my moms, but they’re not as THICK.”
“When I get married, I’m having a SIXTEEN LAYER cake. You’ll need an elevator to get to the top of it!”
“Do hippies not like sugar? ‘Cuz I think my mom is hippie.”
These are real examples and they come from 10-12 year olds. They could easily be used to kick start a character or to write a picture book.
The challenge is to hear what the kid is saying, word for word, phrase for phrase, and to pick up on the specifics of the wording so that you can have a bit of a sense of who that kid is. It is being revealed to you through the things they say and the way they say it. Then, you can go off and filter it – respectfully – in order to build onto these words and turn them into your character’s own being.
I’m not saying to write your story/book based ENTIRELY on what a kid has said, but if you need to write a 12 year old girl’s perspective and you’re a 31 year old man? (Hello, that’s me.) It’s time to research, and to find a way of listening to kids without judging, filtering, embellishing or editing (until it’s time to write the actual story) – because a 31 year old man has no idea what the world is for a 12 year old girl, and has no idea how a 12 year old girl speaks and acts and inflects … until they have listened for a while, without conversing, and gotten a sense of the words that are unsaid.
This is the work of a writer. It is research, it is observation, it is acting and playing pretend. It’s fun, and it’s hard. Now go listen.
Oh Dear, Geoffrey! by Gemma O’Neil is a stunning piece of art.
Just look at this cover. How could you not buy it? How could you not fall in love? If you’re worried that you’re just infatuated, I dare you to open it up and read the story, take in the tremendous artwork, and then you will realize: it’s love.
I picked it up when Kingsley was just a couple of months old while shopping for some books for school. The stunning use of negative space, bold use of colours and textures, and the depth of artwork was truly what grabbed me. My inner artist was SCREAMING in excitement. This felt fresh and vibrant. I had to have it.
Kingsley, it seems, felt the same.
At such a young age, he couldn’t really move around, but he could definitely look around. Not many books commanded his attention quite like this one. He was thrilled to see the pictures and giggled when I would recite the chorus: Oh Dear, Geoffrey!
This is the book I first started to read in true “read aloud” fashion. You see, my wife and I split up our weekends: I get up early on one of the days while she sleeps in (“sleeps in” is a relative idea; 7am instead of 6am is sleeping in!), and then we switch. I usually use this time to read to him, even now that he is a bit over a year. Back then, I would place him in his bouncer and he would stare at the book as I read it. If he was crying, it always stopped him. Gemma O’Neil’s words and artwork saved my sanity more mornings than I can count!
Now that he is a little older, he still loves to interact with the book. He points at the meerkats, birds and monkeys the most. We count them find ways of incorporating math, even though he is too young to grasp concepts. It’s crucial to make this part of his vocabulary and culture, so we do it anyway. There is a spread that says how Geoffrey has so many friends now, he can’t even count them. The page shows off a number of animals, so I model counting them and pointing at each one, and then adding up the birds and the monkeys, and so on. If I was teaching Gr. 1 this year, I would have this in my classroom.
It is a quick read, with only a line or so on every spread. (For those non-writer/artists of picture books, you may be wondering what I mean: a spread is when a piece of art spreads across two pages. This book is mostly made up of these spreads.) The text is even quirky and curls around the artwork, takes on larger, more bold fonts, and truly engages the reader with the words. It is impossible to read this book in a monotone fashion.
By the end of the book, you’ll fall in love with clumsy Geoffrey and you’ll drop your jaw at the final illustration. It is stunning.
If you only have money for one book this month, make it THIS one. You will NOT regret it.
I give this book a totally edible rating, according to the Creative Daddy rating. If I was in the business of giving out awards, I would also award it with the “Saved My Sanity Without Annoying Me Award”.
See more of Gemma on her website, including process pictures of her picture book dummies (that’s what we call our outlines and storyboards in the story making world): http://gemmaoneill.co.uk