Kevin Henkes’ gentle brush

Children’s book author-illustrator Kevin Henkes received the Caldecott Medal in 2005 for his picture book Kitten’s First Full Moon (Greenwillow, HarperCollins.)

But that was just a step on the journey that began more than 25 years before when, as a junior in high school, he decided to make a career of illustrating children’s books.The summer after his freshman year at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Henkes set out for New York, portfolio under his arm.

He was 19. His first stop was Greenwillow Books and there he met the publishers founder, Susan Hirschman who, in the words from his website bio “signed him up on the spot.”

Henkes’s first published picture book, All Alone (1981) was followed by a series of icgture books featuring little mice characters — most famously Owen, named a Caldecott Honor Book (1994) and Lilly of Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse (1996.)

“Each book is different. Some come easily, and some are very difficult to bring to completion.
I’ll often think about an idea for months, even years, before I’m ready to write,” Henkes says.

“It’s difficult to say how much time I spend on each illustration. I don’t do each illustration from start to finish; I do them in stages.  I do sketches for the entire book first. Then I’ll refine all the sketches. Next, I’ll do a finished pencil drawing for each illustration in the book.”

He then inks, tests colors for each illustration, then paints in watercolor.

Kevin Henke's "Old Bear"

Time to submit your story in the PB Dummy Challenge

The PB Dummy Challenge crew wraps up its series on the #KidLitArt blog this week with this this post about how to pitch your story to the world and author-illustrator Tara Lazar’s encouraging video in which she shares truths about rejection and “revisions on spec” requests from editors.

Parlay those art skills into children’s book pictures 

"Make Your Splashes - Make Your Marks!" online course

“Make Your Splashes – Make Your Marks!” online course

Learn drawing and painting the fun way this summer. Take Mark Mitchell’s self-paced course Make Your Splashes – Make Your Marks!which teaches a dynamic approach to illustrating children’s books using traditional watercolor. Discover a great secret about drawing (video) and more about the course here.

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Lessons from the Ukraine

Hey, is this a picture book?

As  children’s book illustrators  descend on Los Angeles this weekend for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Summer Conference it’s good to know that inspiration can also come  from other parts of the world.

The video has been circulating around the art blogs in recent days.  We learned of it thanks to the sharing of Austin, Texas game artist and illustrator Amanda Williams.

Twenty four year old sand animator Kseniya Simonova won the  Ukraine’s Got Talent season competition last month with her story about a time when her country lost about one fourth of its population — World War Two.

On the blog  Milk and Cookies someone asks in the comments, “What’s with all the crying?” (talking about the shots in the video of audience members and a Paula Abdul-like talent judge tearing up as they watch Kseniya draw.)  Someone else replies with a brief history of the Ukraine from its independence movement in the 20s, through brutal repression by Stalin, followed by the Nazi invasion and eventual hard-fought Russian victory and concludes, “You would cry too if it happened to you.”

Well, I did cry and it’s not just because I know the history. Kseniya unfolds an unforgettable sequence of illustrations that is of course helped by her artful soundtrack and the TV camera’s shots of her affected viewers. But at the end it’s still about those lines she quickly carves and erases in the sand.

How did she build emotion with her fleeting images? What insights into picture story  craft can we glean from this performance? I have a few thoughts but would love to hear your ideas.

Click on  “Leave a comment” at the top of the post to open the op-ed page.

To enjoy some free videos on the “best secret of drawing or illustrating” click here.

A penguin who waddles in his sleep

Author-illustrator Sarah Ackerley signs "Patrick the Somnambulist" (Blooming Tree Press) for a young fan at Bookpeople.
Author-illustrator Sarah Ackerley signs “Patrick the Somnambulist” (Blooming Tree Press) for a young fan at Bookpeople.

The prose is just so beguiling that I want to quote the whole thing — word for word — the whole picture book up here on the blog.

The book would be Patrick the Somnambulist, published by Blooming Tree Press.

The author-illustrator would be Sarah Ackerley, a member of our Austin, Texas  SCBWI group (who recently moved with her husband to San Francisco.)

It’s about a normal penguin child — normal except for one thing: He gets into crazy  situations in the middle of the night.

His parents take him to a doctor who assesses his problem: somnambulism. “a fancy word for sleepwalking,” we are told.  With the diagnosis comes acceptance and with acceptance comes confidence, and — well, I’ve already given away too much.  Oh, well with confidence …let’s just say you too could end up on Late Night with Conan O’Brien.

Inspiration came from Sarah’s own husband who will sometimes do silly things while asleep, like look for his ‘missing wallet’ in the blender, or prepare a bowl of cereal for himself.

Loving Your Label” was the headline of a recent Canadian review podcast about Sarah’s book. Husband and wife/parent team Mark and Andrea  devote an entire six minute episode to “Patrick the Somnambulist” on Just One More Book :(A podcast about the childrens books we love and why we love them, recorded in our favorite coffee shop) .  “It’s an instant hit with everyone in the family,” exclaims Mark.

Andrea exults how a label and the understanding that comes with it can sometimes free a self. “It’s like I’m an introvert. I’m acting freaky because I’m an introvert,” she says.

You can listen to their fun conversation here.

Original sketch that inspired the story of Patrick

Original sketch that inspired the story of Patrick

While making ready to move from Texas to the S.F. Bay area,  Sarah graciously conceded to an interview by How to be a children’s book illustrator.

“The story started with a sketch,” she says. “The way I write is I usually have a mental image of the funniest page where it all grows from.”

You can see that sketch above. The parents discover the sleep-walking Patrick standing in the bathroom, a roll of toilet paper over one arm, a toothbrush in his hand, and a toilet plunger stuck on top of his head.

“The parents are looking up like he’s weird, and the whole story absolutely did unfold around that image,” Sarah says. “It took me like an hour to write. I was seeing the pictures as I wrote.  The words kind of poured out like I had the complete story. Then I just went back and crossed out the weaker lines.”

Drawing a Patrick character that satisfied her took a little longer. “I have all kind of images for him. It’s pretty funny to see where he started and where he wound up. He looked really bad for a while. He started out looking like a squash.

“I checked out an enormous stack of books on penguins and I started drawing them from all angles. I l looked at no cartoons, because I wanted him to look like a real penguin. HIs lack of personality is almost the point — I wanted to capture his animal ‘penguineness.'”

Sarah wanted Patrick to look more like a penguin than a cartoon penguin and to not have a cartoony 'personality.'

Sarah wanted Patrick to look more like a penguin than a cartoon penguin and to not have a cartoony 'personality.'

Sarah had not worked in watercolor before Patrick. But she knew a thing or two about the art making process. She’d earned a BFA at the University of Texas at Austin, majoring in studio art. (She later finished an M.A. in Elementary Education.)

She’d never illustrated a book. “I thought every picture book was done in watercolor. That was the medium that illustrators used,” she says.

With a little guidance from a $5 watercolor ‘how to’ book, “I did these tiny, tiny images the size of my fist.. on cheap watercolor paper with blocks of typewritten text glued in…I scanned it in at Walgreens and had it bound with a spiral binder at Kinko’s Copies.”

She brought her creation to an Austin SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) picture book dummy-making demonstration given by artist Regan Johnson.

Regan, who had just taken the job of art director for Austin-based publisher Blooming Tree Press, worked with Sarah to come up with a second, larger more professional dummy.

“I wasn’t straight up accepted,” Sarah says, “But it was, ‘Can you develop this a little further and we’ll talk?'”

"Patrick the Somnambulist" defining moment -- once a sketch, now a finished watercolor painting for the inside of the book.

"Patrick the Somnambulist" defining moment -- once a sketch, now a finished watercolor painting for the inside of the book.

For her finished art Sarah used professional grade Grumbacher watercolor tube paints. On 140 lb. cold pressed watercolor paper she painted  over outlines she’d made with a Calligraphy pen. The pen lines smeared a little because the ink was not waterproof, “but I kind of liked the results,” she says.

“I had a lot of troubleshooting problems that I solved in a round-about-way. But it worked out. Making the book was how I taught myself watercolor.”

Sarah’s busy on a number of great new projects, including a picture book about a delightful owl character  with…well, let’s just say a different sleep disorder.

See Sarah’s blog, and her website,  Sarah Ackerley Illustration.

Author illustrator Mark Mitchell hosts this blog and offers an ongoing online course in drawing and painting for children’s book illustration.