Book producer Margie Blumberg adds something new to the tried and true

Children’s book illustrators would do well to make note of the pathfinders as the tectonic plates of publishing, communication and commerce are shifting under our feet — as we speak.

Content providers are rushing to the market, knowing that this day and age are like the Oklahoma Land Rush. In a matter of months, the virtual “land grab” will be over — the first round of it anyway.  The dust will have settled and the publishing landscape will be changed. Those trade books with a foothold in the new media will have an edge.

One of these pathfinders is Washington D.C.  author, publisher and patent holder Margie Blumberg, who is making her children’s books available as not only hardcovers but as iTune downloads for iPhones and iPads. Her two picture books,  Breezy Bunnies and Sunny Bunnies, featuring the art of English illustrator June Goulding.

She blogs about grammar and has an e-book available for all ages on the subject, and she’s exploring other formats as well for all her books.

Margie Blumberg, Publisher

Margie knew she wanted to write at an early age.  But like many writers, she took a detour on the way to her dream (in her case, law school and legal internships at the Food and Drug Administration and the Center for Science in the Public Interest).

Undeterred in her heart’s goal, she self-published what she describes as an “autobiographical recipe calendar.” It featured delightful comic strip illustrations by illustrator John Thompson chronicling the  trauma Margie says she faced as a young adult when her doctors ruled out chocolate for her for the rest of her life!

So she was already thinking outside the box,  or “the book,”  embedding her personal yarn and favorite dessert recipes (sans chocolate)  in a desktop calendar!

With co-author Colleen Aagesen, Margie went on to write Shakespeare for Kids: His Life and Times – a biography with 21 activities for kids for the Chicago Review Press’s For Kids series.

But the frosting on the cake (not chocolate, we hope) in preparing her for life as a contender in the new publishing/media was the award of a patent in 2008 for an electronic memory pad. She tells us more about that in the interview.

Margie graciously answered our questions about her books, her apps and collaborating with U.K. illustrator June Goulding on her first digital project.  Breezy Bunnies, a book for the i-Pad, and Sunny Bunnies, a hardcover trade book  are both available through  iTunes as downloads and apps for iPhones. Two other books in the series are in the works.

So let’s meet our New Publishing pathfinder.

Hi Margie! You’ve created a publishing company at a time when the industry is going through a remarkable transition and you’re also reaching out to a broad market range “From illustrated books for preschoolers to nonfiction books for adults” as you state. Why did you set up this challenge for yourself and what do you see as the challenges and opportunities in a marketplace that seems about to redefine itself?

Margie: Our goal is to create books of distinction that satisfy the universal need to connect to the world through art and words.

I founded MB Publishing, LLC, a few months before the publication of Avram’s Gift in May 2003. Technology then was not what it is today. Now, with the advent of Kindle, iPad, etc., the industry is redefining itself.  Assuming books made of paper survive [as I write this, my order from Amazon.com has just arrived], I hope the elimination of book returns will be part of this defining moment. In terms of our economy, I think apps could not have come along at a better time. For the price of one hardcover book, a family can download about five to eight picture book apps. That’s great for families on a budget (that’s most of us in America) and it’s wonderful for publishers, too.

Breezy Bunnies Spread

Spread from "Breezy Bunnies:  illustrated by June Goulding

Do you see your market as trade, mass market or education or all three and more? How are you engaging these markets?

I am a trade publisher. One of my biggest challenges is to get the word out about my company’s books—whether in paper or app form. That’s every publisher’s challenge, actually. That’s why there are so many social media experts, SEO experts, and PR experts. Blogs like yours are wonderful also for discussing issues, of course, and to bring attention to work and ideas that might otherwise be hidden from view.

I have engaged Susan Raab of Raab Associates to get the word out about my company and the books that I produce. She has done a marvelous job in reaching out to the media. I have also engaged an SEO expert to help people find my site, which includes information about each book, look-inside features, and downloadable coloring pages. I’d love to hear from Web site mavens and readers alike as to what else my site could offer to make it more engaging and worthwhile.

How can your illustrator help you in this process?

June Goulding has a blog (http://junegoulding.blogspot.com/) with which she keeps in contact with fellow illustrators worldwide. They are a very friendly and supportive online community, and June is able to share news about her work whenever she wants. In general, I think illustrators can help publishers by doing book signings, reaching out to children at local schools and libraries to show their work and inspire future artists and writers, and keeping in touch around the world through their blogs and via groups on LinkedIn or SCBWI, for example.

Sunny Bunnies

Sunny Bunnies, a conventional picture book by Margie Blumberg, illustrated by June Goulding

How did you find June and can you describe the process of working with her on both the traditional and i-Pad books?

After searching through hundreds of portfolios online and scouring children’s book departments, I found June’s portfolio on a site that featured 100 other illustrators. I fell in love with her style immediately
and e-mailed her about my interest in working with her on my “bunny books” project. Naturally, she asked for details (and she was thrilled because bunnies are her favorite to draw) and after a few back-and-forths, we talked. You should know that she is a modern-day Beatrix Potter, taking in hurt or stray animals, such as hens and birds and hedgehogs, and bottle-feeding them back to health. In her compassionate and capable hands, Carrot Cake Park is a beautiful and reassuring place for children.

June and I have a nice routine. As soon as I have “finalized” the text, I e-mail it to her to live with for a week or so. Then she plots out the book in thumbnail form. When I receive her thumbnails, I call her at home in Bristol, England, to listen to how she envisions the illustrations in the
layout, page by page and spread by spread. It never ceases to amaze me how two people—once perfect strangers, separated by an ocean and a language (British English is often quite different from American English, we have learned)—are able to see so completely eye to eye, book after book. By the way, this same simpatico feeling happened when Laurie and I worked together on Avram’s Gift.

It’s during this thumbnails phase that we can spot big problems—perhaps we have too many full-bleed double-page spreads in a row,  for example. If we can move around verses, or turn some spreads into spot illustrations, we do that. It is now that the rhythm and pace of the story and important page turns are set before we move on.

Next come the pencils. Any problems in the text—if they haven’t been caught already—are glaring now. I go off to my little corner and try to figure out a better verse or a better segue or perhaps a better word. I’ll often ask June for ideas, as she’s living with the text as much as I am by this point. I like brainstorming this way, and June doesn’t seem to mind (I think). [June Goulding: “I don’t mind. I like to bounce ideas around.”] Often it comes down to just a few different words, but sometimes I’ll have to create a whole new verse. If it’s a problem with the illustration, on the other hand—for example, which direction the hayride is going in (this was an issue in our fall 2011 *Busy Bunnies*), we talk it out. June has asked me to draw out my solutions, but it’s usually much better when June draws out thumbnail sketches of possibilities based upon our conversations. The obvious solution usually presents itself this way—and June doesn’t have to be subjected to my dreadful sketches.

The thing about the word *problem *is that I actually *like *to work out these issues. It doesn’t always feel like work because I’m enjoying the process so much. I remember how I loved my favorite books growing up; if any of our bunny books become a child’s favorite or part of a happy remembrance of childhood, then, well, I’ll be thrilled.

iPad book Breezy Bunnies scheduled for hardcover publication this summer

Breezy Bunnies, written by Margie Blumberg and illustrated by June Goulding

Once pencils are done, June decides upon a palette. She sends me illustrations of the two main characters, each wearing the outfits we talked about but in several different color combinations. I must sound like a broken record by now, but we inevitably pick the same two color combinations for “the kids.” Once the palette is set, June begins to paint. She uses watercolors, ink, and colored pencils. June’s art is a gift, and every time she e-mails me new finished  illustrations, I feel as though I’m being showered with presents.

By the way, if we ever discover a problem in the illustration after the art has been scanned, June fixes it in Photoshop.

How do you, as a publisher and author, foresee illustrators working on these new digital children’s books that will soon be zipping at near-light-speeds into the consumer market ?

Because of the way PicPocket creates the apps, I don’t see too many differences yet. Illustrators will always be focused on creativity. Whether they work with watercolor, oil, pencils, pen and ink, or digital software, creativity will always be the key.

The one area that needs extra attention right now concerns the sound aspect of the app. Now that parents and children can touch something on the screen—a duck, for instance—and a sound is heard, artists and writers will be thinking more and more about new opportunities for adding sound elements to the app. Lynette Maatke, the co-founder of PicPocket Books in Silver Spring, Maryland, has a wonderful ear for sounds. After we go through the book, discussing which sounds will be important and fun, she goes to work locating the MP3 sounds.

Other book app developers and illustrators are doing more with animation. And I’ve seen others creating apps utilizing different camera angles—close-ups, wide shots, etc—and orchestrations. How fun! A book app can be as close to the real book-reading experience as possible or it can be like a cartoon or it can be something in between.

But no matter how sophisticated the software or the end product, it all comes down to the story and the illustrations: Whether static or animated, if the words and the art work beautifully together, well, that’s everything really.

From a spread illustrated June Goulding

Double spread page illustrated by June Goulding for Margie Blumberg's "Sunny Bunnies"

How is conceiving, writing,  illustrating, then publishing an electronic children’s book for a mobile digital device different from those same tasks in the creation and publication of a traditional illustrated children’s book?

At this point, I’m not creating books specifically for a digital device. The
new scanning technology allows each reader to manually move across the page at his or her own pace, so creating an app with pages instead of spreads is not something that I feel we have to limit ourselves to. I suppose I’m lucky that I got into apps at just the right time for these bunny books, which have lots of spreads.

Sunny Bunnies came out in hardcover first. Then it became an app, after Breezy Bunnies Breezy Bunnies which isn’t in print yet, was designed in the exact same way as Sunny Bunnies. My plan is that once all four books are out as apps, we’ll bring them out in a boxed set of four small hardcover books. Of course, by that time, technology may have evolved to the point where children’s books can be carried around in a flexible device that allows readers to interact with the story in a landscape format. Once the technology for children’s books can mimic the hardcover’s or paperback’s look and feel, then I think we will be in a new era. Apple should create a washable device called iPictureBook—or perhaps something fun like iPB&J (PB & J = Peanut Butter and Jelly), the idea being that even kids with sticky fingers can enjoy their books.

Right now, PicPocket Books, the publisher to whom I’m licensing the bunny books, simply needs jpegs of the art (including cover and endpapers) and the title and copyright pages; my text is sent separately in a Word document. Therefore, June, Andrew Smith (my graphic designer), and I don’t have to worry about choosing a charming but readable font anymore. For my part, the publisher asked me to find the narrator for the books. I held taped phone auditions with young actresses through Imagination Stage in Bethesda, Maryland. Once Lynette and I decided on the perfect narrator, we all gathered at the studio to record the first two books. I was able to help with readings of lines and we all got to see how a recording studio works. The engineer was fantastic. He noticed everything and was patient with us as we redid lines wherever necessary.

You mentioned that your graphic designer was Andrew Smith. What happens to the role of designer in such books? Do they now become multi-media designers?

I work with graphic designers on my hardcover and softcover books. And my full-color e-book on grammar, too, required a cover designer and an interior designer. As for the apps of the picture books, our full-bleed art makes a design for the frames unnecessary. However, a designer is a must for the covers and the title page. I work with Andrew Smith at PageWave Graphics on the bunny books.

Avram's Gift by Margie Blumberg, illustrated by Laurie McGaw

Avram's Gift by Margie Blumberg, illustrated by Laurie McGaw

Whenever the conversion does change the layout—on Kindle, for example—you need to work with a converter—or learn how to do it by yourself. I hired Joshua Tallent to convert my chapter book, Avram’s Gift, into a book for Kindle.

What is the royalty or fee arrangement for illustrators who work on MB titles? Or if that is too specific a question, what is the compensation model for illustrators of e-books and multi-media children’s products generally?

This is an area that is in flux right now and is being discussed by publishers, authors, and illustrators. I’ve heard of percentages ranging from 24% to 50% (for authors and illustrators to split 50-50). There’s much debate and terms are being redefined, but for my company, with regard to the picture books, as I am also the author, I give a 50% royalty to June for her illustrations.

In your FAQS about illustrator submissions, it sounds like you would be receptive to illustrators who work in traditional mediums, such as watercolor?

Absolutely. I love the use of traditional media. If I owned an art gallery, I would fill it with children’s book art and animation cels. So instead, I buy books.

How do you work with Emma Walton Hamilton as your editor in the production of your books? What is that like?

In a word, it’s a joy. I initially contacted Emma via e-mail, and we communicated by e-mail throughout the editorial process. We have since spoken on the phone and we did meet for lunch when she was in town (Washington, DC), but the bulk of our work together has been conducted electronically. Some may think that this sounds cold or distant, but you don’t know Emma. Her warmth and integrity—and her enthusiasm for books—shine through every word of her thorough critiques and her editorial work. Her e-mails sparkle with encouragement. When we finally got to meet in person, she was even more fabulous than I had imagined!

Art by June Goulding

Art by U.K. illustrator June Goulding for Margie Blumberg's "Sunny Bunnies"

You are now one of the pioneers in this world of electronic children’s books. What made you decide to bravely charge into this world of new
publishing technology on your own instead of waiting for capital intensive
giants like the major trade publishers, like Random House or even the newly formed Ruckus Media Group to develop the technologies, strategies and markets for this new book and interesting them in your traditional books?

I know it’s the dream of most writers to simply write and not be bothered with the details of printing books or developing apps or working with artists and designers. But my inclination is to write, work with artists,  and produce. It’s a lot of work—but fun, too!—to be responsible for the whole book. When I bake, I don’t want to make just the batter—I want to bake the cake and ice it, too. I am so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had in working with my graphic designers and with June Goulding and Laurie McGaw. And I had a really great time researching photos and art for my grammar book, as well. As for the apps, I know I could have waited, but waiting is not my strong suit. And the experience of being involved in the first wave of this new technology is not to be missed.

Also, in July, PicPocket Books was chosen as a Huggies MomInspired™ Grant Award recipient by Kimberley Clark Corporation. They will be using the support that comes with the grant to implement additional features to the platform, increase marketing efforts, and add new titles. The award includes individual consulting with one of the nation’s top PR firms for help with branding and marketing. So while PicPocket may not be a giant, it’s certainly on its way!

And now for the technology part of our interview, Margie: How did you come to invent a memory pad and get a patent on it? Does this tie into the production of electronic books?

“Necessity is the mother of invention.” It’s so true. I was trying to remember how often a medical event was happening each night, and when I couldn’t recall the number in the mornings, I decided to invent something that would help me (and others) record events. I shared the idea with a nurse who works in a retirement community, and she told me that the memory pad would certainly make her patients’ lives easier—and hers as well. The patent process was long (about 4 years), and now that it’s done, I’ve begun talking with app developers to create a memory pad app. At the time that I thought of this invention, apps were not yet in our vocabulary.

The app for the memory pad is not related to the e-books. Much as I wish I could, I can’t turn to PicPocket Books and ask them to develop this app.

From "Sunny Bunnies" by Margie blumberg, illustrated by June Goulding

From "Sunny Bunnies" by Margie Blumberg, illustrated by June Goulding

What new projects are you working on with MB Publishing? What other
kinds of books and “thinking outside the book” projects would
you be interested in publishing?

I have recently signed a contract with a new writer to publish her middle-grade novel. June is working on the pencils for Busy Bunnies (for fall 2011), and then we will finish the 4-book seasonal section of our Carrot Cake Park series the following year with Snowy Bunnies.  At some point, we’d love to send the bunnies on adventures abroad. In addition, Laurie McGaw and I are just in the talking stages but we are seriously considering writing a play about our friendship of 10 years and counting. Although we’ve met only once (for 90 minutes on my birthday in Philadelphia over dinner)—she lives in Canada and I live in Maryland—we’ve become the best of friends, talking sometimes every day (e-mail is not lively enough for us).  We’ve helped each other celebrate in happy times and cry through a few horribly painful and sad times. Ours is a friendship that also thrives because we can discuss breakfast, art, men  and kids and always find the funny as well as the poignant. I hope we can do the play. Also, there is a cookbook on MB Publishing’s horizon. I won’t be the author, but I will definitely be one of the tasters.

I would love to work with June and a software designer/developer to create a game based on the sights, sounds, and characters in Carrot Cake Park. I’m also interested in mysteries and reference books, and I would enjoy publishing more chapter books.

It is fair to say, then,  as I said in the introduction, that you’ve been drawn to publishing since your teens, or at least since your 20s when you did your desktop calendar Is There Life After Chocolate? with cartoons and recipes?

Yes, it is. By my teens, I knew I wanted to write books when I grew up. And in my twenties, when I had to give up chocolate, I had one of those light-bulb moments: I had just stopped eating chocolate when I wondered to myself, “Is there life after chocolate?” I was obviously feeling very sorry for myself (at the time, I worked in an office where chocolate-covered donuts were always available). Immediately, I thought that that question would make a cute title for a recipe calendar. I got to work writing the cartoons and eventually started working with a cartoonist (John Thompson) who brought it all to life. I’m now gathering the cartoons to make them available on Zazzle.com. I think they will look great on mugs and mouse pads and other such essentials of life!

Thank you Margie for a wonderful interview!  Read more about Margie and her publishing company, MB Publishing.

Ramp up your command of American-English by checking in with Margie’s blog, The Scoop on Good Grammar.

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"Moon Bear" by Brenda Z. Guiberson and illustrated by Ed Young

"Moon Bear" by Brenda Z. Guiberson and illustrated by Ed Young, published by Henry Holt and Co.

Moon Bear

Any new children’s picture book with illustrations by Caldecott Medal winning collage artist Ed Young is an occasion, and Moon Bear,  written by Brenda Z. Guiberson is no exception.

Moon Bear tells of  a  ursine breed  that hides in the mountains and valleys of southern China and Vietnam. This picture book beautifully produced by Henry Holt and Co. features some of the best page spreads ever created by Young.  With poetic language  and riddle-like questions, Guiberson delivers interesting nonfiction account of a female Moon Bear’s daily travels and travails, most of them involving her hunt for the next meal.

This  endangered species of Asian black bear is distinguished by a white marking on the chest.  Every bear appears to be wearing a white bandanna kerchief — or a bib in a fancy Italian restaurant.

Moon Bears eat bamboo shoots, ants and berries, in lieu of the spaghetti and meat sauce they would undoubtedly also eat if they could find it in the forest. They build their nests in trees. And they seem to possess a special genius for staying out of sight. They’re as elusive as the Abominable Snowmen. And yet they’re captured in considerable numbers in Southern China and kept in confining cages. The book tells us this much in an epilogue — without going into more explanation.

Young’s page designs bring us up close to our subject bear so that we have a real sense of her movement, her presence and spirit.  Made of scraps of colored paper, magazine photos and found objects (such as bamboo leaves), the imagery is kinetic, fresh and bright with contrast.
Guiberson’s language and Young’s pictures fuse nicely to introduce us to a mysterious animal.

Read our 2008 interview with Ed Young. He talks about how he lost all of his original collage illustrations for the picture book Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein —  just before turning them in, and what it felt like to start over with them, with a short deadline looming.

"Moon Bear" double page spread collage illustration by Ed Young

"Moon Bear" double page spread collage illustration by Ed Young

Children’s and YA author Cynthia Leitich Smith gives an in incredibly generous and instructive interview to Julie Danielson at the Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast blog about the six year gestation of her newly published  picture book Holler Loudly,  illustrated by Barry Gott (Dutton).  The  interview includes some wonderful pagespreads from the book — original outline drawings and finished illustrations. You might also want to check out Barry Gott’s sketchedby book tumblr page .

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Children’s and YA author Greg Leitich Smith, meanwhile has posted on the recent bumper crop of children’s and YA  books by Austin, Texas authors and illustrators.  Illustrators Patrice Barton (Sweet Moon Baby: An Adoption Tale, Layla, Queen of Hearts) , Don Tate (She Loved Baseball: The Effa Manley Story), Laura Logan (Nonna Tell Me A Story) and Keith Graves (Chicken Big).  He cites 22 new children’s and YA books just out by Austin area authors and illustrators, most of them in the Austin SCBWI chapter. Read Greg’s post here.

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Sweet Baby Moon by Karen Henry Clark with illustrations by Patrice Barton

"Sweet Baby Moon" by Karen Henry Clark, illustrated by Patrice Barton

Really nice guest post by my friend, illustrator Patrice Barton on Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s blog, Cynsations about the difference between picture book and chapter book illustrations. She also talks about her own illustration process. Read the post here. Her latest release is the gorgeous Sweet Moon Baby: An Adoption Tale by Karen Henry Clark (Knopf.)

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Holler Loudly by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Barry Gott (Dutton)

A trifecta children’s book launch party at Austin’s BookPeople on November 14 for Austin, Texas SCBWI authors Bethany Hegedus (Trouble with a Capital “T– (Delacorte,, for ages 9-up),  Brian Yansky (Alien Invasion and Other Inconveniences Candlewick, for ages 12 and up)  and Cynthia Leitich Smith (Holler Loudly – illustrated by Barry Gotts – Dutton, for ages 4 and up ) drew a big crowd, including much or most of the Austin SCBWI membership. (We’re our own biggest fans.)

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Bruce Foster, the Houston-based paper engineer profiled in a recent How To Be A Children’s Book Illustrator post has attracted media attention in a  USA Today review for Charles Dickens‘ A Christmas Carol: A Pop-Up Book, illustrated by Chuck Fischer, and a Dallas Morning News feature for, among other accomplishments, his engineering of the official Warner Brothers’ Harry Potter, a Pop-Up Book, illustrated by Andrew Williamson.
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December 15 is the  cut-off date for early registration for the Austin SCBWI 2011 Regional Conference – February 18-19 featuring Caldecott Medal-winning David Diaz and National Book Award YA Novelist Kimberly Willis Holt. Read more about the event and register for it here.

Trifecta Book Launch Party featuring Austin SCBWI authors

The cleverly stocked refreshment table at the Trifecta Book Launch Party at BookPeople featuring Austin SCBWI authors Brian Yansky, Bethany Hegedus and Cynthia Leitich Smith and many other authors, including Anne Bustard (serving chili at the table) and Jennifer Ziegler ( in black leather jacket.) Writers Sean Petrie and Jan Baumer stand behind Anne.

Austin SCBWI Trifecta book release party

An eager audience of parents, children, teachers and lots of Austin SCBWI members are ready for authors Brian Yansky, Cynthia Leitich Smith and Bethany Hegedus at BookPeople.

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Children’s author-illustrator Mark Mitchell hosts the Children’s Book Illustration and Illustration Course blogs.

Learn a big secret for dramatically improving your drawing here.

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‘Twas the Night Before Christmas Aboard the ‘Black Sark’

'Sir Peggedy' visits the pirate ship in "A Pirate's Night Before Christmas"

‘Sir Peggedy’ visits the pirate ship in “A Pirate’s Night Before Christmas”

Two of my two all-time favorite Holiday Season picture books are by members of my own children’s writing group. One is Santa Knows by Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith, illustrated by Steve Bjorkman (Dutton). The other is the new  A Pirates Night Before Christmas, by Philip Yates, illustrated by Sebastia Serra (Sterling .)

"A Pirate's Night Before Christmas" by Phillip Yates and illustrator Sebastia Serra

“A Pirate’s Night Before Christmas” by Phillip Yates and illustrator Sebastia Serra

Another is the classic A Child’s Christmas in Wales by the poet Dylan Thomas,  because of the fascinating wash illustrations by the great Edward Ardizzone. (David R. Godine, Publisher.) But that is for another post someday.

But how amazing is that when the first two quintessential Christmas picture books you can think of happen to be by writers from your own tribe,  in your own town?

Yates is a poet and humorist as well as an author, and in “Pirate’s Night Before Christmas, he applied all three gifts to a sea-yarn retelling of Clemment Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas.”

“I wrote the whole story by asking questions and putting myself into this workd that is uniquely the pirates,”  he told Cynthia Leitich Smith in her children’s and YA literature blog Cynsations. “That’s what writing successful picture books is all about — asking the right questions and letting the answers come in the most heartfelt way. ”

How would pirates celebrate Christmas? Yates wondered.

They would be too bad and mean to deserve a visit from Santa,  so they would need their own ornery ‘sea dog’ version of Santa — and he would drive a marine sleigh pulled by seahorses!  The rhyme structure of Moore’s classic Night Before Christmas poem is anapestic tetrameter (also found in Dr. Seuss’s beloved Yertle the Turtle and Cat in the Hat, Yates told Smith. “It’s a breezy, whimsical, magical form that just flows beautifully and is highly contagious when read out loud.”

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To prepare to put new language and new word pictures into old poetic forms, Yates steeped  himself  in pirate lore — “the grammar, the slang, the history, the parts of the ship… ” Yates said in the interview.

Actually composing the poem took him only two days. He sent the ms out to five publishers and received offers from three!

He went with Sterling, who offered first. Sterling pulled in talented Spanish illustrator Sebastia Serra.

Serralives in a village on the  Mediterranean coast near Barcelona.

Children’s book illustrators and pirates have a special relationship with each other  that pre-dates Disney and Johnny Depp. Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth leap to mind, as does Gustaf Tenggren.

Serra’s pirates evoke wooden toys, marionettes and bright-colored sea creatures.  So they’re sweet and child-like, as toys often are but there’s also something oddly menacing about them, as there should be — particularly that  ‘outlaw santa’ who goes by the name, Sir Peggedy.

Pirates — even cliche pirates —  are never cute — not in the best  depictions of them that resonate with children and the child in all of us. Robert Louis Stevenson knew this.  Long John Silver had us wondering up until  the very end of Treasure Island  if he was a bad guy or a good guy. We were never sure, not even after turning the novel’s last page, although he usually treated young Jim Hawkins decently.

As in the word portraits of pirates, pictures of pirates must include some minor key notes — disturbing elements  in the colors, details of the caricatures, or the ‘spirit’ behind a scene (even when the Christmas socks are hung from the bowsprit with care.)

Pirates in children’s picture books can be poignant and a tiny bit  endearing.  But if they come off too cuddly, they’re just wrong!  Children get this.  And so do Yates and Serra.

Serra's pirate ship from "The Pirate's Night Before Christmas"

Serra’s pirate ship from “The Pirate’s Night Before Christmas”

Yates talked with us about the illustrations that appear in his book.

 When you were writing, were you imagining the pictures in the book-to-be? Did you kind of visually  “thumbnail” the whole work in your head?

Or did you mainly focus on the language of the poem — already sort of knowing  that the stanzas would  work as a rollicking, page turning, picture book experience.

A lot of the creation of the narrative involved inserting pictures in my head as I wrote.  I knew the structure of the poem’s anapestic meter so well that I trusted the language to guide me on the voyage. The poem already works and has stood the test of time for nearly 190 years. Since the language was already there, I just had to pop in the images that worked best.

I immersed myself so thoroughly in the pirate world that the images came first and guided the language. For example, in the opening stanzas, I couldn’t hang stockings from chimneys so I had to research how pirate ships looked and where a stocking would hang and it wasn’t until I came across a picture of a bowsprit that  I realized it was a perfect place to hang a stocking.

But with what? Well, I found illustrations of ships that used tar to make repairs and since tar rhymes with thar,the two came together in perfect synchronicity.

I’m not an illustrator, but the book truly was guided by the  “picture” first, the “narrative” second.

From "The Pirate's Night Before Christmas"

From “The Pirate’s Night Before Christmas”

Were you permitted any kind of  communication with Sebastia Serra during the illustration process? 

The whole discovery of Serra was simply amazing and all credit is due my editor at Sterling Publishing. Serra had submitted a portfolio to Sterling and one look at his artwork and they knew he was perfect.

All the communication regarding the artwork was done between Serra and Sterling, or Sterling and me. I never spoke to him by phone,  communicated by email, or anything. It would have been heavenly to talk to him, but sometimes you have to trust your art director and this was a case where I totally put my trust in them from the start.

Were you given an opportunity to share ideas about the art? (Or did you even want such an opportunity?)

I had very little to give since the art was so splendid. I almost think it was eerie how perfectly he captured the world I envisioned. But there were tiny things like “I want to see more seaweed on Sir Peggedy,” or “His tooth needs to be golder,” since this was boldly expressed in the verses themselves.

I also wanted more  people of all colors and races because pirate worlds were pretty diverse, when you think about it.

Any insight into why your editor at Sterling selected  Sebastia to illustrate?

His artwork was modern, moody, had an edgy quality to it that was appealing. Similar to Lane Smith, I think. Lots of clutter, but I mean that in a postive way. Detail upon detail. He could also handle crowds of pirates in one picture, which, when you look at the illustrations, you can see this was necessary. They were also struck by the world he had created on his own with my language as the starting board—the monkey running around, the fish hanging on the Christmas tree, the treasure map with it’s unique geography. It was all in the details.

'Sir Peg' with the men. Illustration by Sebastia Serra

‘Sir Peg’ with the men. Illustration by Sebastia Serra

What was (is) your reaction to his art for the book when you saw it?

I was overwhelmed, to be honest.  As I said earlier, it felt like some telepathic thing had been going on between us. After seeing all the illustrations together for the first time, it almost felt like he had looked over my shoulder the whole time I was writing it, it was that spooky. But mostly, to be honest, was the feeling that I had accomplished what I set out to do—I had given him enough of this world so that he could go off on his own and expand it and give it his own twist.

At one reading recently, a parent came up to me and she thought I had done the illustrations and was surprised when she saw Serra’s name on it.

She said that the language and the visuals so perfectly meshed and how did it manage to come out without me even being in the same room with him. I was also proud because now he has several illustrator offers on his table, thanks to the Pirate’s success.

Have you done any kind of teamed promotional activity with Serra? Or are there plans to team the two of you somehow on the promotional circuit?

Phil Yates

Author Phil Yates

Well, Sebastia’s in Barcelona, Spain and here I am in Austin. He has promoted it as best he can, but I imagine that  it’s difficult to translate Clement Moore’s poem from English into Spanish without messing with the rhyme or meter in some way. I imagine the story can be told successfully in Spanish because the pictures are so great. I do hope to meet him some day and he is eager to team up again on another project, but now it’s difficult for both of us to get together.

[Serra created the  illustrations for the book with pencil and ink on parchment,  then he digitally colored the scene’s. See the interview with artist Serra in the next post.]

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Mark Mitchell, who wrote this post, teaches an online course in children’s book illustration, Make Your Splashes – Make Your Marks!   See Mark’s free video series about the best secret to better drawing.