In Okinawa Japan with my grandson Brian
Although summer time usually includes a vacation for many, for me, I am gearing up with the illustrations for my new book. This July it is THE MERMAID AND THE THREE OCTOPUS. Every month I pause for a time to talk about where I am in the process of my book in hopes that you may share my interest in creating books and drawings for children.
What I’ve accomplished so far is a retelling of the classic Goldilocks and the Three Bears story, and I’ve created cartoon-like illustrations in a 32 page book dummy. I completed the dummy and then went back and reworked the ending, changing the images after completing the first version. I wanted a final spread showing the mermaid with her new and old friends swimming away through the beautiful coral reefs. But to get the full effect of the undersea gardens I wanted a double page spread. The book actually ends on a single page. For the last page, page32, I show a happy ending for the octopus family, especially baby octopus who after a big commotion and confrontation finds herself with a gift from the mermaid, a beautiful pearl and coral tiara. The beauty of working on a dummy is the ability to change things when they become clear In the language of pictures, before too much time is spent on the finished spreads. I make the dummy with typing paper cut to about 2/3rds the size of the trim dimensions in the actual book. The trim size is one of the first things I, the editor, and the art director, decide on. Since I have done two “Goldilocks” books in the past each with a different trim size, I chose a size that would leave room for my border idea. In the original story the three bears go for a walk while their porridge cools. In my undersea version they go for a stroll but the baby octopus is unhappy because her parents make her wear a peculiar and she thinks, ugly, hat. In the borders she tries to lose the hat. That makes it an especially happy ending when the baby octopus ends up with a gift from the mermaid, a beautiful tiara. I find that children enjoy a little humor and I am hoping they will think its funny that the baby octopus is given a live hat.
I have always loved porcupine fish. They remind me of ocean going hedgehogs. It seemed natural that the mermaid would be traveling with a friend, and that the friend could move the story forward by prickling the grumpy octopus. I had to walk a fine line between making the octopus mad by having their things eaten and played with and just being curious. The funny looking porcupine fish makes the scenes kind of funny. I have a reference book called FISHFACE and it is full of very expressive fish faces, although its anybodies guess what the fish are really thinking. I have been to the New England Aquarium twice since starting my book, and it is easy to get lost in the world of fish in the central tank, and in the reef fish exhibit. Sometimes I am amazed I have a job where its important to look at fish! The trouble is like iridescent birds, it’s impossible to capture their beauty. I have an invitation to see the aquarium’s octopus from the aquararist’s side but a date hasn’t materialized yet. I have seen Anna the octopus twice from the public’s side, but she is remaining very shy. Apparently octopus have very individual personalities, and for now, Anna is settling in. I’m very glad I saw a baby octopus in the wild in Okinawa while snorkeling. It was right beside a baby Lionfish. That is a beautiful but venomous fish that lives in the coral reefs in Okinawa. When reading the hard to find but wonderful A DIVER’S SCRAPBOOK by John Chandler he remarks that if a sea creature does not move away from you, ask yourself, “Maybe it doesn’t have to?” Luckily when I went snorkeling my son in law gave me booties and gloves along with the advice not to poke anything.
The fun part of painting the illustrations is reliving my underwater experiences, although they were fewer than I would have wished, knowing what I know now. Two of the adjustments I have had to make are how everything is almost weightless, as in the mermaid’s hair and how almost every view fades into deep blue. The other adjustment must be utilized in painting the fish. Almost every fish guide show the fish from the side, while in reality they are seen in all perspectives. Add to that, many sea creatures are iridescent and some, like the octopus change color and shape plus some are see-through!
Because I set my story in Japan I am very glad I lugged back lots of big colorful books about that culture. My story is set in the olden days, so I rely on art books too. On the twelve or so trips I’ve taken to Japan I have brought back toys, antique printed indigo cloth and folk art. If anyone has visited Japan they will recognize lots of references to Japanese culture. The octopus wear kimonos and Okinawan hats (except for Baby). Even the seashells and coral shards found on the beach I brought home have found their way into my pictures. Even if the child knows nothing about Japan, it is nice to think their frame of reference has widened a bit. I think that is why as a child I loved reading THE JUNGLE BOOK about India, ALADDIN AND THE MAGIC LAMP about Persia and THE STORY ABOUT PING set in China.
Happy armchair traveling, or even better, the real thing!
Your friend, Jan Brett