While I was getting ready for the beginning of the Mentor Program, I was very excited and quite nervous too. I could have done without the unexpected visit to the vet for a wounded cat and the car trouble the day before I left, but it all worked out. The cat only needed a "lampshade collar" instead of surgery and the car...fixed itself. Go figure. I guess it kept my brain occupied. Since my return I have been processing everything I learned at the beginning of the 2009 Nevada SCBWI Mentor Program. (Beetle illustration copyright by Kristen Schwartz)
I don't know if it was the genius and authenticity of the faculty, the timing, or a little bit of everything that made this the best SCBWI event I have been to over the years. (Of course, Suzanne Morgan Williams and Ellen Hopkins did a brilliant job organizing it!) Overall the tone was hopeful and the information accessible with each presenter giving lots of examples for better comprehension.
I have read and read about illustrating picture books and gone to conference workshops, but there is nothing like being in a small group with the luxury of asking lots of questions. I was able to get answers to questions that had been worrying or hindering me in some way. Some questions seemed silly to ask, but from my roots illustrating botanicals, notecards, and logos, children's publishing is a foreign land with lots of mysteries. Each question was treated respectfully and seriously. (Not to say there wasn't plenty of humor.)
Yuyi Morales walked us through her picture book process from beginning to end and Laurent Linn, Art Director at Simon and Schuster, took us through his process of art directing a picture book. Laurent Linn said that children's publishing is an industry that truly cares about children. I would take it further and say that children's publishing also gives generously to the people that aspire to work in the field. No wonder it feels like home.
It's a humbling experience to start over as an illustrator in a new genre, but with Yuyi Morales mentoring me, it feels obtainable. In our first meeting I shared the "thumbnail storyboard" of my folktale. If you are unfamiliar with thumbnails or storyboards in this context, they are a very very rough and small map of the layout of a picture book. I wasn't completely happy with my first layout. I guess you might say it wasn't consistently magical. It became clear after talking with Yuyi that I needed to think from a different point of view to stir up the visual magic. That night I woke up and realized that I was in the middle of rewriting my folktale. I continued on - awake this time - taking out the elements I didn't like and emphasizing the ones that I did. In the end I felt more connected with the story.
Laurent Linn gave a presentation on the difference between picture book illustrations and non-picture book illustrations. He presented examples of both - comparing and contrasting - emphasizing the fact that picture book images are not static. They make an emotional connection with the viewer and tell a story. They are also not portraits. This presentations was pivotal for me. My illustrations for Faery Medicine are character studies for the stories that accompany them and are not necessarily for the children's book industry. They are definitely more in line with portraits. As I pondered more of my work, I had to laugh when I remembered that I used to call my botanical illustrations "botanical portraits". What Laurent said clicked. I get it. It's the big simple secret that was right in front of my nose...the one in the portrait.
I could go on and on listing every pivotal moment. The truth is, every moment was pivotal. Even listening to writer Jane Yolen affected my illustration process. I looked forward to hearing her speak because I like her work, but I was surprised at the outcome. It was truly an amazing conference.
Since I've been back, I sent Yuyi the rewrite on my folktale and I'm waiting for feedback before I do another thumbnail version of the illustrations. Well, actually I already did another one. I was too excited not to, but I expect to do another one after she reads my rewrite as she will probably have suggestions for revisions and pacing on the story. It's all good practice. So, I leave you with my most recent storyboard inspired by a Vietnamese folktale. Stay tuned for more!
(Horizontal lines on the page represent text placement. The vertical line down the middle of the illustrations represents the gutter or space between pages.)