The title is everything!

Award-winning New York City  illustrator Lisa Falkenstern is working on illustrations for her new children’s picture book.  But she and her editor are having trouble deciding on the perfect title. So Lisa has put out an S.O.S.

Lisa's baby dragon

Lisa's Baby Dragon

She’s asking all readers of How To Be A Children’s Book Illustrator to help her out! Help her choose the best name for the book. Because she knows that good titles rule. Because the title is the most important decision an author and/ or her publisher probably make on any given book. Good titles sell books. Blah titles seal their doom.

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Lisa has staked out several firsts here.  It’s the first first picture book that she has authored.
It’s the first time that this blog has been asked for help by an artist colleague.  And it’s the first official reader poll that this blog has conducted in its two year history.

How did the dragon story come about?

Lisa: Long story. I keep a file of images that give me ideas for illustrations. I had a photo of an antique silver eggcup that had chick feet sticking out of a realistically done egg. I liked that and when I got around to working on the idea, the chick became a dragon and lost the claws. It didn’t work. then I played around with the egg and it became an Easter egg. So now I had a portfolio piece.

At that time,  while attending a New Jersey SCBWI [Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators]  meeting, a friend and I were invited to join another writing group, the Hunterdon County Children’s Writers and Illustrators.  We did and it was my husband who suggested I turn that dragon painting into a story.  I did and when I showed up for a first meeting, to my everlasting shame,  I showed up with a story called The Easter Dragon. I worked on that and got a dummy ready for an SCBWI workshop. I showed it to an agent and he pointed out that it wasn’t an Easter story, it was a dragon and bunny story. I went back to work on it, took out Easter, added a hedgehog to the characters, showed it to the same agent and he wasn’t interested.

Not deterred,  I kept working on it and finally showed it to the publisher at Marshall Cavendish at an SCBWI  conference who liked it, but had suggestions. About four revisions later, she liked it enough to buy it.

All that from a photo of an egg cup!

Rabbit and Hedgehog -- two friends

Rabbit and Hedgehog -- two friends who befriend a baby dragon in Lisa Falkenstyern's yet-to-be-named picture book bought by Marshall Cavendish. This spread by Lisa may or may not appear in the finsihed book.

Could you give a brief synopsis of your picture book story — even if it’s just a taste? (We won’t give away much of the plot since the book is not out yet.)

My story is about two friends who come across a baby dragon. And what starts out as fun changes to problems. Let’s just say that things things that are cute small, don’t necessarily remain that way when they grow up,

Why did you choose a picture book format instead of an older, more complex treatment of a dragon story?

I’m an illustrator, not a writer. Until now the most I had written were pithy memos to members of my co-0p when I was president, and that was twenty years ago. I never even had the urge to write. I started to write when I realized that I needed to control what I wanted to paint and that was the simplest way. And — this might sound crass to the purists — I wanted to make the most money I could, doing what I wanted and writing and illustrating a picture book mean 10 percent royalties instead of 5 percent. Plus, I made the basic mistake of beginners. I thought, “How hard can this be?”

White cat with veil

White Cat with Veil, illustration by Lisa Falkenstern

Have you always been interested in dragons and sword and sorcerer style fantasy?

I am interested in fantasy but not the usual way it is meant. More fantastic than fantasy. but I have always liked dragons, but never had an occasion to paint one.

Was the story accepted by an editor whom you had already worked for as an illustrator or cover artist?

I had already illustrated a book, The Busy Tree for Marshall Cavendish and I knew the editor and publisher, Margery Cuyler and the art director, Anahid Hamparian. I had done a few book covers for Anahid and I may have mentioned a few hundred times that I was interested in illustrating children’s books.

Why do you think you and your editor are feeling a little stuck coming up with a title that you both like for this story?

This just seems to be a hard book to title. The whole time I was working on it I was calling it Rabbit and Hedgehog Make a Friend.  But Margery  Cuyler wanted the word “dragon” in the title.And it’s not just me. I have been asking everyone I know for suggestions and no one can come up with a title.  Since this is my first book, I wanted a really great title — something like The Wind in the Willows — that type of title.My running joke is, would Where the Wild Things Are been that famous if it had been called Max Goes to Bed Without his Dinner? Where The Wild Things Are is such a great title for a book, so evocative that it makes you want to pick it up. I mean it’s a great book without the famous title, but I just wonder how many great children’s books remain undiscovered behind a bland title and cover art?

Of these titles that we’ve listed here in the poll, which are your suggestions and which are your editor’s?

Dragon in the House came from a friend in the Hunterdon County Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group. The “There’s a…” got added by Marshall Cavendish and they also came up with A Dragon Moves In. To me they are fine. I like them.  But I keep thinking there may be a better title out there somewhere…

So we’ve added in a “write-in candidate” box to the poll.  Do you mind
our including this as part of  our focus group poll (with the understanding that our voters aren’t expecting remuneration — or a cut of the action for their suggestions)? However, if Lisa does select one of the write-in suggestions to be the title of her book, she’s offering to give a signed print of  her art work  to the creative person who comes up with the “perfect title.”  (We’ll  just need to figure out a way to identify the write-in voter. It might have to be the honor system, which shouldn’t be too hard for the readers of this blog — illustrators being honorable by their very nature.)

I’m not proud. I need all the help I can get.

Walrus by Lisa Falkenstern

Walrus, illustration by Lisa Falkenstern

What stage are you at now with your work on the book?

I’ve just started on the final drawings for the book. I should be done by November.

Have you found the process of creating your own picture book extremely fun, vexing and /or challenging?  Is it everything you thought it would be?
After this experience will you be ready to try another one?

I have to say the process of creating a children’s book is one of the hardest things I have ever done. Mostly because it is the first time I’ve done it. Learning all of the subtleties of making a book that works on all levels has been an eye opener. Now comes the painting part, which is different than anything else I have done.

So I hope I lose weight and not gain it by the time I am finished.

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Mark’s note: I took the matter to my online class last Thursday evening. You can see the chat that ensued while we studied Lisa’s  baby dragon.  (Of such casual discourse great decisions are sometimes made. Well, you can see at least a bit of consensus developing here. But don’t let it influence your vote.)

I voted for “Problem Child.” But, again, please make your own wise choice.

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T: dragon bebeh yay!

K: Oh Lisa this ones great!

T: Lisa’s work is wonderful: wow so cool!

TR: that’s a serious Easter egg surprise

KF: Very cute!|

S: What’s the story?

K: ye? dragon in a Easter egg?

K: lol

Mav: Love that smirk!!!

D: Surprize!

KF: And the smoke!

T: wow

Ti : such detail…

D: she rocks!

S : This is quite beautiful.

T : title for this or the dragon one?

KF: Very realistic!

L: how about “problem child”

S: Do you know what her medium is?

K: thats cool

KF: Or “What Dragon?”… if they’re trying to hide him.

T: very nice

Ti : it’s so fun

Ta: this is very Berkely Breathed chicldren book style

K: I like this spread

Ta: Dragon in the house

M: I like Kim’s suggestion – What Dragon??

KF: Dragon Moves In

Ta: or there’s a dragon in the house

Ti: i like “dragon in the house” — it’s like “mouse in the house” but it’s not the typical animal in the house…

Mav: Dragon in the House

SCM: Perhaps narrowing it even further, even with a kid’s

perspective: “the Dragon in the Bedroom.”

Ta: dragon moves in has been done & it’s liknked to a very

poor early reader in my mind

L: it seems less about a “friend” than raising a “problem child”

Ti: ooh–dragon in the bedroom is fun!

D: ‘Dragon in the House’ or ‘What Dragon?’

S: Dragon in the House.Mav: what’s the story line???

S: I like [SCMs] idea of using a specific room… Dragon in the bedroom,

kitchen, bathroom, basement?

T: knowing the storyline would help more

Ta: “Dragon in the House!” w/that dragon egg on the cover

or expressional faced rabbit & hedgehog

KF: “No Such Things as Dragons”

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Porcupine Fish, illustration by Lisa Falkenstern
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From Lisa’s website: Lisa Falkenstern has been a professional illustrator for more than 20 years. She graduated from Parsons School of Design and has studied at the New York Academy, School of Visual Arts, Art Student’s League, National Academy School of Fine Arts and Cooper Union.

Her client list includes: Borders Group, Simon and Schuster, Random House, Putnam, Bantam Doubleday Dell, Pocket Books, Scholastic, Marshall Cavendish and Golden Books. She has been in numerous shows including, the Society of Illustrators Annual, CA Annual, and Print. She was in the show The Fine Art of Illustration at the Hunterdon Art Museum.

Recently she’s has been chosen to be in the Showcase’s 2007 Best Illustrators 2007  Edition. She is a member of the Society of Illustrators and is in their permanent collection. She’s a Gold Medal winner of the Society’s Member Show. 2007 edition.

She’s had shows in the N.Y.C. Metropolitan area. Besides her illustrations she also does portraits. Lisa generally works in oils, but also in egg tempera, acrylic, and digital.

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Author-illustrator Mark Mitchell hosts the “How to Be A Children’s Book Illustrator” blog. He teaches an online course in drawing and painting for children’s book illustration. Click to discover the best ever drawing secret.

” I wonder how many great children’s books remain undiscovered behind a bland title and cover art”.

Conference debrief

More than 200 children’s book writers and illustrators (aspiring and professional) converged on a little Unitarian church just north of Austin for the 2010 Destination Publication SCBWI conference January 30.

Poet Liz Garton Scanlon and Illustrator Marla Frazee

Poet Liz Garton Scanlon and Illustrator Marla Frazee talk about their many months of collaboration with each other and Beach Lane Books V.P. and publisher Allyn Johnston who was their editor.

Guests and speakers arrived from Texas and everywhere for a day of inspiring presentations and professional critiques of manuscripts and portfolios.

“The most expensive people — all  those who were trained by the great editors Ursula Nordstrom and Margaret McElderry are gone,” agent and former editor Mark McVeigh said in his rivetting keynote,  “Defending Your Muse.”

Still children’s publishing is  “not an industry in ruins, but in transition,” he continued.  He spoke about the emerging digital media and mobile media (Kindle, iPhone, etc.) marketplace.  But he kept returning to the sovereignty of language, individual creativity — and the Emily Dickinson poem he keeps in his wallet.  You can read  Mark’s recapping of his time with us in Austin and see the full text of the Dickinson poem  on his agency blog .

Later in the day  Curtis Brown agent Nathan Bransford elicited a gasp or two with his comment that he sees 15,000 to 20,000 submissions a year and might take  four to five clients per year from that pile. Yet his presentation hit inspiring notes.  He refers to the Austin conference in his publishing news packed- blog.

Liz reads one of Marla's e-mails

Liz reads one of Marla's e-mails

“Designing the ‘page-turns‘ is the most important thing,” asserted two-time Caldecott Honor illustrator Marla Frazee in an extraordinary presentation on the the picture book creation process.

“Use the page turn in the narrative when you want the mood to shift and your images to really stand out,”  she continued.

“Save diagonals for the most dramatic parts of your story. They’re like exclamation marks!”

Marla demonstrated how she filled the imagery for  All the World (2010 Caldecott Honor book penned by Austin poet Liz Garton Scanlon) with imagery from her own life  — landscapes of the central California coast,  her grandfather,  a favorite cafe — even the outdoor chairs and tables from the student union of her alma mater — props, settings and people that mattered a great deal for her.

A wonderful interview by Julie Danielson in her blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast will give you a sense of the presentation by Marla and Liz and contains much of the same imagery.

In a special breakout session with the illustrators Marla discussed the artist’s voice, characterization and setting as the  foundation for illustrating books for children.

“I’ll start with a sketch trying to get to know the character. It’s about digging into the character.”It doesn’t have to be complicated. If you can get the reader to feel the emotion your character is feeling,  you’ve won most of the battle.”

As for setting,  details are important. “It should feel like you’re opening up a world.

“It’s really a matter of putting the time in.”


Poet Liz Garton Scanlon watches illustrator Marla Frazee discuss the cafe scene in the 2010 Caldecott Honor Book "All the World"

spread from "All the World"

spread from "All the World"

Frances Yansky's portfolio in the illustrators' portfolio display room.


Marla Frazee (bottom left) visits with attendees at the conference breakfast

While the illustrators soaked up Marla’s words and instructive  slides,  writers were treated to presentations by Newbery Honor author Kirby Larson, agent Andrea Cascardi (Transatlantic Literary Agency) ,  Editors  Cheryl  Klein (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic) and  Stacy Cantor (Bloomsbury, USA), writer and former Farrar, Straus and Giroux editor Lisa Graf, and author Sara Lewis Holmes.

Attendees also heard from our own power gang of authors Liz Garton Scanlon, Sibert Honor author Chris BartonNewbery Honor author Jacqueline Kelly and Shana BurgPhilip Yates, Jennifer Ziegler, Jessica Lee Anderson and P.J. Hoover and power illustrator Patrice Barton in a fun panel discussion moderated by author Julie Lake (a former regional advisor of Austin SCBWI)


Long time Austin SCBWI illustration chair Christy Stallop

Longtime Austin SCBWI illustration chair Christy Stallop.

Illustrator and writer Erik Kuntz

Illustrator and writer Erik Kuntz shows illustrator pals a picture from his book " A Dog a Day"

Conference illustrators' hangout

Illustrators had their own portable building to hang out in. Left to right around the circle starting with Christy Stallop are Amy Farrier, Clint Young, Mike Benny, Don Tate, Kim Edge, Jamie Adams, Erik Kuntz and Diandra Mae

Here’s an Austin SCBWI round-up (so far) of blogposts on the conference:

Marla Frazee shows an early storyboard for "All the World"

Marla Frazee shows an early storyboard for "All the World"

Audrey and Amy Farrier

Audrey and Amy Farrier

Rumor has it there was a national SCBWI conference in New York City that same weekend.

OKAY,  it wasn’t a rumor.  It was the giant Winter Conference. Here’s the SCBWI team blog coverage of that major annual event that somehow messed up and booked the same date as ours.

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Author-illustrator Mark Mitchell hosts this blog and teaches the  self paced course  Make Your Splashes; Make Your Marks! Drawing and Painting for Children’s Book Illustration.

Newbery Honor author Kirby Larson and Mark Mitchell

Newbery Honor author Kirby Larson and author-illustrator Mark Mitchell

Success panel

In the line up photo of the panel, Regional adviser Tim Crow is introducing the panel and left to right are Jessica Lee Anderson, Chris Barton, Patrice Barton, Shana Burg, Julie Lake, Jacqueline Kelly, P.J. Hoover, Liz Garton Scanlon, Philip Yates and Jennifer Ziegler.

In the line up photo of the panel, Regional advisor Tim Crow is introducing the panel and left to right are Jessica Lee Anderson, Chris Barton, Patrice Barton, Shana Burg, Julie Lake, Jacqueline Kelly, P.J. Hoover, Liz Garton Scanlon, Philip Yates and Jennifer Ziegler.

Scene by Marla Frazee from "All the World"

Scene by Marla Frazee from "All the World"

Illustrators decorated mirror frames for the silent auction.

Illustrators decorated mirror frames for the silent auction. Assemblage photo by Christy Stallop


Have you drawn an animal today?

Knowing as we do that drawing children, people and  animals is the stock in trade of the children’s book illustrator, let’s draw a difficult animal subject today.

We’ve brought in guest instructor Jon Gnagy to help walk us through it.

Gnagy was the best drawing teacher (maybe the only drawing teacher?)  on television.  He taught Andy Warhol and millions of other American kids to draw during the 1950’s.

I can’t say that he taught me exactly, though maybe he did, but he was a little advanced.  I was all of three years old when my mother (a painter) and I would watch his show together.

But I think he planted lots of seeds and questions in my unconscious. I remember even at that tender age being flabbergasted by his demos. “How does he know  this stuff?” I remember asking myself.  I still wonder about that.

‘Old School’ drawing doesn’t seem to go out of style.  It doesn’t matter if it’s in a courthouse mural by Thomas Hart Benton or a children’s book illustration by Marla Frazee or Tasha Tudor or Robert McCloskey. It just always stays cool. Ask any kid.

The graphic images Marla Frazee renders with such assurance resemble the classic book illustrations of — well, the Jon Gnagy days, the 1950s. They don’t feel  ‘dated’ because they bring us kids, people, animals and landscapes that kids (and the kid in us) can relate to. These subjects when rendered capably seem only to accrue in value.

For a better look at Marla’s work, here’s an animated trailer for All the World,  a picture book illustrated by Frazee and penned by poet Liz Garton Scanlon.

Liz Garton Scanlon

Liz Garton Scanlon addresses the Austin chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) on a packed second floor of Austin's famous independently owned bookstore, BookPeople.

Yes, I know that both of them and the book and Jon Gnagy, too have been on this blog before. (Good subjects deserve repeated mentions. )

Scanlon and Frazee are scheduled to talk about their work together at the Austin SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) annual conference Destination Publication on Saturday Saturday, January 30, 2010.  Caldecott Honor artist Frazee will deliver the keynote for illustrators  and also reviewportfolios, as will talented  illustrator Patrice Barton.

Find the full conference  lowdown and registration form here.

Henry Holt Books for Young Readers Creative Director Patrick Collins will review portfolios a month later  at the Houston SCBWI  conference.

Mark your calendars for  Saturday, February 20, 2010 and download information and a registration form for the Houston conference  here.

Liz Garton Scanlon
Liz Garton Scanlon speaks on intuition at the November 7 meeting of Austin SCBWI.
Liz Garton Scanlon
An editor told Liz that she had “an eye for observation and an ear for rhyme.”
So she focused on these strengths to produce her picture book poem All the World that is now garnering great reviews and making all the right 2009 book lists, including most recently a Parents’ Choice Gold Medal.
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Author-illustrator Mark Mitchell hosts this blog. Mark teaches children’s book illustration at the Art School at the Austin Museum of Art and through the “Make Your Splashes; Make Your Marks!” online course.

ck Collins of