Tuesday, September 18, 2012

David Gardner talks about illustrating Sarah Gives Thanks, research, r-rated fiction and g-rated drawings, the Wizard of Oz, and so much more

Although I've written kids'  books, primarily in the Wishbone series, I really know nothing about what goes into illustrating them--and I find it fascinating. So I'm thrilled to have writer David Gardner here to talk about the book he illustrated, Sarah Gives Thank, about how one ahead-of-her-time woman brought Thanksgiving to our country. Thanks, David!

So, I know you write adult novels. What do you have to do to get into the mindset of illustrating books for children? 

As a kid, I was always drawing or hunched over my coloring book with a fistful of Crayolas, so its pretty easy for me to change the channel and get back into that mindset. I'm not always thinking about my audience when I write for adults, so I do have to sometimes consciously remind myself: Hey, you're drawing to appeal to a second-grader. Oh, and teachers, librarians, moms, dads, grandparents, who actually buy and read these books to kids most of the time. Good thing I was raised to be a people-pleaser.  

I'm lucky in a way: By default, my "child's brain" -- which is in charge way too much of the time, if you ask my partner -- seems to think in pictures. When I'm writing adult fiction, my middle-aged "adult brain" kicks in naturally and delivers scenes, characters, dialogue. But when I illustrate for children, I ask myself, OK, what would I have liked to see when I was six or seven? 

When I'm stuck on a picture, it helps to ask: How would a child see this scene? I'll try kid's-eye-view sometimes, a low camera angle. In the case of this book, I included Sarah Hale's five children whenever possible, and I love that Mike Allegra, the author, included Sarah as a young girl. Kids want to see other kids, not some middle-aged lady the whole time. 

I'm not sure why, but while my fiction tends to come out R-rated (else I get bored), my drawing and painting has always tended toward a G-rating. But the adult fiction writing does inform the illustrating. For example, Mike started and ended the book with Sarah's family celebrating Thanksgiving, a lovely touch, emphasizing the arc of Sarah's life. I realized I could emphasize that movement in the illustrations by repeating the same composition from the beginning of the book at the end: Sarah's holding a baby in both pictures, but the final image takes place fifty years later, and she's holding her grandchild. 

I'm really curious about the process. How does it work? Do you have the words per spread and just come up with artistic ideas to go along with them? Do you collaborate with the author?

 I didn't collaborate directly with Mike. In fact, we weren't even in contact until the book was finished. That's typical with picture books. It can cause friction when an author has ideas set in concrete about how their story should be depicted -- of course, this is their "baby"! -- but that can slow things down and cause bad feelings. This is like making a film, its a collaboration. My job as the illustrator is to bring my own vision to the table.

To get started, the Art Director at Whitman, Nick Tiemersma, sent Mike's manuscript to me. I was impressed by the way Mike told Sarah Hale's story, with humor, but respect, and his structure was exciting, moving back and forth in her life, not straightforward. Images popped up in my mind right away. I love history, depicting different periods. I jotted and doodled in the margins. I read it several times, sketching out quick visual ideas, noting themes, verbal cues, that popped into my head. 

Often, text placement is up to the illustrator, but word placement on each spread was handed to me on this one. but Nick broke the text down, placing the words on each page, making brief suggestions on what to illustrate on each spread. Text placement is crucial in a picture book. Like music, it's best when it has a flow, a rhythm. It can make or break an emotional moment. Emotions are critical -- what the characters are feeling, and what emotional response the story wants to elicit from the reader. 

Just out of curiosity, I asked Mike about his role before I came on board. Here's his response:

MIKE ALLEGRA: When I submit a manuscript for consideration, I indicate where I want page breaks. Although Sarah Gives Thanks was trimmed a bit after I submitted the story, my page breakdown ideas remained largely intact. The editor, Kristen Otsby, and I saw eye-to-eye on a lot of things and that was one of them.

As for the illustrations, Kristen wrote up a verbal description of what she wanted to see on each spread and shared this info with me. Her ideas were excellent for the most part; in most cases I only suggested little changes.

On several occasions Kristen was stumped as to what should go on a page and she asked me to think something up, which was cool. For one spread  she and I couldn't come up with anything at all -- so she said, "David'll come up with something." And, boy howdy, did you; it turned out to be one of my favorite illustrations in the book!

What kinds of research do you do to get all the details just right?

Tons! Until the deadline looms dangerously close. That's the only thing that stops me. I started with a written biography on Sarah Hale I found on Amazon. It only had a few pictures, but it was invaluable in filling in some of the gaps that wouldn't have fit in a picture book, things like American life from about 1790 to about 1870. I had to study Sarah the way an actor would, to learn that she was small, petite, delicate, feminine, and feisty, always on the move, and moving quickly. And she looked young for her age, people said. 

I found dozens of details about clothing and setting online, mostly on Google Images, but dates and facts can be sketchy -- or just plain wrong -- so I had to do a lot of cross-referencing. I assembled an entire notebook broken down into decades, everything pertaining to design. I explored illustrators of that period, especially George Cruickshank and Thomas Nast, and got a lot of ideas for composition and styles. I wanted to refer to nineteenth century illustrations, updating them for modern kids. I found great fashion plates from Godey's Ladies Book, which Sarah Hale edited, and tried to capture their flavor. The actual Ladies Book covers, I found online and Photoshopped them in. Our local library had a few good costume and architecture history books. Sarah's early house in New Hampshire is gone, so that was a real search, but I found descriptions and woodcuts from the early 1800's, and I relied on other homes of the period. 

I watched "Little Women" (the Wynona Ryder version) for the mature Civil-War-era Sarah Hale, and, for Sarah as a young woman in the 1820's, "Sense and Sensibility" starring the goddess Emma Thompson, was perfect. I love watching period movies anyway, and they're invaluable to get a sense of how these characters actually move in these costumes and settings. Some costume and set designers, especially in recent historical period films, are amazingly accurate. I read texts on costume design -- I love finding out weird facts anyway. Like the fact that magenta was a fashionable color in 1860s fashion because the dye hadn't even been formulated until then. So the very last spread has one of Sarah's daughters wearing a bright magenta ribbon. And I found a lithograph of 80-year-old Sarah with ink black hair, which mystified me until I learned that, in the late 1800s, women routinely dyed their hair black to cover the gray (although coloring hair was frowned upon -- think of Belle Watling in Gone With the Wind, that hussy!). 

What I also love about the book is the portrait of a feminist before her times--a woman who insisted she could get a college education at a time when it was deemed frivolous and unnecessary for women, a woman who wrote for love, and then to support her family. Can you talk a bit about that?

D:  I'll confess I fell in love when I read that Sarah Hale wrote for love, then found a way to actually support herself and five children doing it! Knowing that she was so intelligent and determined certainly informed my drawings of Sarah. That's one thing I hope comes across in the illustrations: her rather modern blend of feminine and masculine. I wanted to capture this in the spread where Sarah is marching down the printers' row as an "editress." She walks side by side with a man, or slightly ahead of him, and he is clearly her assistant. She is feminine, in her black silk dress and shawl, hair up, but she's outpacing him, and she's the only woman in the room, and it all seems perfectly ordinary. I like to think that's how she saw herself, succeeding with an innate confidence and grace. She seemed to move easily and securely in a world dominated by men -- she edited Poe and Hawthorne and Emerson, after all. She had to believe in herself! 

She scorned fashion as being silly, and she wore widow's blacks until she died, but she also was known for dressing up every black dress with a frilly collar or tasteful flowers trimming a sensible hat. She wasn't obstinate or eccentric. She fit in, she was of-her-time, but she saw women as being as important to society as men. Women have a unique role to play in the world as nurturers, providing spiritual support for a culture. That was one of the impulses behind her push to make Thanksgiving a national holiday.  

What's obsessing you now and why?

Well, narrative drive, for one thing. In picture books as well as novels. What makes a reader -- kid or grown-up -- want to turn the page? What's the best arrangement of words and pictures to allow that alchemy? 

And I'm a politics junkie, which goes along with a love of history, perhaps. I'm trying not to obsess about the upcoming election. I'm reading a lot about the Sixties. The parallels between then and now are pretty fascinating. Why do we humans keep making the same mistakes over and over? Why does history repeat itself? I obsess about that.

Oh, and religion. Hillary Clinton said that religious conflicts would be our biggest concern in the decades ahead, and I see she's right, more everyday. Underneath all of this, I guess I'm ultimately obsessed with mysticism, for lack of a better term, this benevolent mystery that's playing itself out around us all the time.  

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

 Hmm. . . "What's your dream project?" I would love to illustrate The Wizard of Oz, and have plenty of time to research L. Frank Baum's era, the early 1900s. It's so rich visually. And then, there's that leap Baum made into the fantasy world of Oz. What a cool challenge to try to get into his mindset and imagine something that feels "right," but not derivative of anything we've seen of Oz before. I happen to think the best children's stories (any stories, for that matter) come from the same place as our dreams, the collective unconscious, maybe. Could I find that same place Baum visited in his imagination? 

Guess we're back to mysticism again.

And thank you, Caroline, for your great questions and for the opportunity to talk with you about "Sarah"!


Cathy Mealey said...

Love this interview! I'm completely envious of David's talent, and I really appreciate the historical research he completed to ensure the accuracy of his illustration details. In my next life I want to be an author-illustrator!

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