The Three Octopus – Mermaid Sketch
Every month I spend some time gathering my thoughts about some aspect of children’s bookmaking that I think might interest others involved with creative projects. All my books have been picture books. It is the form that involves the most illustration, which is what I love best.
A children’s book is a commercial project, and although I don’t think of my books quite in that way, it is important to know that I work with a publisher. When I think of a book idea, I discuss it with my editor. The editor makes the decision about if the idea fits their list. My publisher,Penguin Random House has been publishing my books for over 30 years, so they have a good idea of what to expect.
I became entranced with “mer-creatures” after visiting an elementary school while giving a school talk. The children had drawn pictures of mer-cats, mer-dogs and everything else you could possibly think of. At first I thought of doing an undersea version of “Old MacDonald had a Farm”, with the gardens being coral and sea anemones, but I didn’t feel it carried enough emotion for me. I work on a book for an entire year, and I try to find a story that will be fascinating, and keep me hopping for a full year and beyond. The curiosity and quest to understand somehow bubbles up through the artwork and makes it come alive. One of my favorite stories ever is Goldilocks and the Three Bears. I’ve always felt curiosity is the trait I admire most. I feel it overreaches into all cultures and times. When you are little, so many things you do are being done for the first time. Learning to skate for example, or staying overnight at someone’s house, eating certain foods,you name it. No one can promise a perfectly positive experience, but most of the time the experience is worth it. That bit of knowledge is exciting and makes us feel energized.
When I attempt a new book, first I will write out the story. Sometimes I have an idea for the borders, a little subplot that can add another dimension to my story. Often I’ll just begin and a second story will just make itself known, like a knock on the door. There is the Fed X man with a package, only the package is a new idea. In my undersea Goldilocks I thought that the baby Octopus (the three bears are Octopus in my story) would be made to wear a hat by her mother which she doesn’t like. At the end, the hat, which on closer inspection is a spotted ray gets set free, and the Goldilocks/mermaid gives her a beautiful Tiara. I’ve always loved coral and pearls, so the Tiara will be fun to design. When I was little I wanted a horse desperately, so I drew horses everyday, including the barns they would live in, fancy bridles and all the trappings. It was a very good second best. That’s what the Tiara will mean to me. There is a little childhood memory that is about the wearing of hats too. As children,we had to wear hats and gloves to church and to any trip to Boston, like when we would go to shop for back to school clothes. My sister and I loathed the hats. We sort of accepted a Scottish “fore and aft” hat with ribbons down the back and a pom-pom on top, but we were both tomboys and did not like being dressed up. In later years the “hat” was softened to an embellished headband which we barely tolerated. Many of the seemingly random ideas in my books have strong personal memories associated with them. The wearing of hats seems very funny now, but I think every child understands that feeling.
When I’m constructing my story, I am looking for a “down the rabbit hole” experience. After drawing and painting the dummy in a deliberate way, I am really just waiting for that moment when the story takes on a life of its own, and I loose that deliberate self consciousness. If I can let it happen, strange and resonant ideas will come like a visitation. It’s a very fragile thing and the least criticism or intrusion can break the spell. Sometimes I feel like I’m on a tightrope in the dark, not knowing what will come next. I tell children that telling a good story is equal parts preparation, a little bit construction and another part like digging for fossils. I love it when after I’ve finished a book I’ll realize with a start, that its a retelling of some significant event of my childhood.
Many artists and writers say they feel like they are a taken on a wild ride by their work, and in the best of times I can say I feel that way too. A great story or piece of music has a feel that it has always existed, curious as that might be, like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Although I don’t aspire to that level, I like to feel its a wonderful thing to at least give the creative force a chance to do its magic.
I hope all of you will find that moment when an idea takes you for a wild ride, and you take the leap to see where it leads you.
Happy Reading, your friend,