Ruth Sanderson's CASTLE FULL OF CATS - guest post!

I am thrilled, tickled, elated to have Ruth Sanderson, the Co-director of the MFA in Children's Book Writing and Illustrating Children's Books at Hollins University and also my boss and colleague, here today to talk about her latest picture book, CASTLE FULL OF CATS. Ruth is hands down one of the best illustrators in children's literature, so read and learn!!!
I’d love to share the process for creating the cover illustration of my new book A CASTLE FULL OF CATS, released by Random House this year.
As you can see from my initial storyboard sketch, I envisioned the cover as a view looking out a window with cats watching the outdoor activities from the inside of the castle.
At the next stage, I created a more detailed cover sketch to focus on the queen's "favorite" cat. I also depicted the cats and kittens in a much more active and playful role, indicating the queen and the king outside in the garden. And, I played with how the title of the book might fit on the cover illustration.
In the final cover sketch, I brought the queen's cat closer to the center and looking directly at the reader while still allowing the queen and king to be seen through the window.
In creating the finished illustration for the cover, I wanted the window to really stand out, so I created a maroon wall in the background, actually painting it in acrylic over the watercolor painting to get a really solid effect, and because a dark, even color is so hard to create in watercolor! When I submitted the illustration, the editor and art director felt that it was too dark...
and suggested I make the wall pink…Here is the revised cover, with the pink wall painted in acrylic on top of the maroon color. Yes, it was very time-consuming to paint around all those details. But we are not done yet! After giving the art to the designer, problems arose.
      A note—The marketing folks asked that the title be changed. I coined the word "Castleful," to indicate there were a ton of cats in the castle, and am very proud of it, but apparently anyone searching for a book with "castle" in the title would not find my book, so we had to split my word to "Castle Full." Inside the book it is still "castleful," read as one word, like "spoonful."
The designer was having a very hard time making the type stand out against the background. The art directer even photoshopped the curtains to make it simpler, shown here, but it just looked too busy. In addition, she felt that the pink wall was too bright. When she and the editor approached me about making yet more changes, and major ones, to the artwork, I agreed. The cover was simply too busy, as you can see. I had to fix it! And I decided on a blue for the wall to make it recede more and focus interest on the bright center of the illustration.
I started with the full size digital image of the cover, because changing to a blue wall would not be easy. I really did not want to put a third coat of acrylic paint on that wall! SO, I started in Photoshop with my pink cover image. I duplicated the image as another layer and changed the whole picture to blue, and then painstakingly worked to combine the two layers into one.
I painted a new window with a single sheer curtain in watercolor on a separate piece of watercolor paper, no king and queen, then scanned and Photoshopped it in so the type would hopefully read nicely on top of it.
Above is the final image with the blue wall. I was a bit sad that the king and queen can't be seen outside, but feel the title reading well was the most important concern. And the cats are the stars of the book.
A week was the (almost) final cover design. I loved the new typeface the art director chose. Note the kitten kicking the word "of" in the title! The type color was still under discussion, but this was VERY close to perfect! After some discussion, it was decided that the word “cats” would stand out more in a shade of red that matched the couch, and that was the color chosen for the final design. [See the very top image.] My art director Nicole de las Heras from Random House did such a marvelous job on this, and was so patient and easy to work with, through all these changes. It really helps to have a great team to work with at a publisher, to make a successful cover design.

Thanks so much for stopping by, Ruth! To see more of Ruth's amazing work, check out her blog!

Coloring Page Tuesday - Piano Playing Tiger

     Did you know I used to play piano? Yup - ten years of lessons. But it's been about 15 years since I've had the chance to play. Here at Hollins, President Gray was kind enough to loan me a book of music - Clementi's Sonatinas, which I grew up playing. It was hard to find a window, but I finally did and I played Clementi for about a half hour. The truth is, I was horrible. But the good news is I didn't forget everything and enjoyed myself immensely. I wonder if I'll have access to pianos in Edinburgh?
     CLICK HERE for more coloring pages!
     Sign up to receive alerts when a new coloring page is posted each week and... Please check out my books! Especially...
my debut novel, A BIRD ON WATER STREET - winner of six literary awards. Click the cover to learn more!
     When the birds return to Water Street, will anyone be left to hear them sing? A miner's strike allows green and growing things to return to the Red Hills, but that same strike may force residents to seek new homes and livelihoods elsewhere. Follow the story of Jack Hicks as he struggles to hold onto everything he loves most.
     I create my coloring pages for teachers, librarians, booksellers, and parents to enjoy for free with their children, but you can also purchase rights to an image for commercial use, please contact me. If you have questions about usage, please visit my Angel Policy page.

Children's Book Characters at Hollins

Fellow Professor Ashley Wolff has created the most adorable figurines of classic children's book characters to be placed around campus during our MFA in Children's Book Writing and Illustrating and Certificate in Children's Book Illustration programs. She launched them at this year's Francelia Butler conference. They were a huge hit! Ferdinand was my fave:
Here's Ashley with Eeyore!
She also did the caterpillar from THE HUNGRY CATERPILLAR, Frog from FROG AND TOAD, Winnie the Pooh and Piglet and several others. What a charming addition to our program!

I have MORE! Ashley sent more photos along... One of our student's (Kassy Keppol) children are with her this term and they helped cut out and paint...

The results were wonderful!

These will go up every year, scattered around campus, along with our fabulous direction sign. More on that soon...

Martin Brown: Everyone Can Draw!

The illustrator of the Horrible Histories series, Martin Brown, recently gave a talk about Everyone Can Draw! at the Shetland Library. Learn about shape and expression in cartooning - great advice! Click the image to go watch at the Scottish Book Trust website.

Jennifer Anderson presentation!

The Chair of the Art Department at Hollins University and an Associate Professor of Art, Jennifer D. Anderson recently talked to our students about her gorgeous cut paper work.
These amazing pieces take her upwards of 60 to 80 hours to create. I can believe it! But the results are so worth it - they are simply stunning. Even more so when their hung in such a way to create shadows on the walls behind them.
Our illustrative world is focused on creating books, so it was a nice break to hear the perspective of creating art for art's sake from this seasoned pro!

Illustrator Challenge #10

Choose a favorite image and draw a small copy of it (about 3"x5") in black and white using all the values in the value scale you created last week.

Alexandria LaFaye's PRETTY OMENS - Guest Post

Today I welcome one of my colleagues at Hollins University, Alexandria LeFaye, who is celebrating a book birthday. She's here to talk about PRETTY OMENS. Take it away Alexandria...

Following the Signs: The Beginnings of Pretty Omens
by Alexandria LaFaye

      I blame boredom and Paul Janeczko for the beginning of PRETTY OMENS, my new book with Anchor and Plume press. Okay, so maybe I should say that it was really my penchant for snooping while I'm waiting for a friend (sorry) and the fact that Paul gave me permission to write a novel-in-verse.
      Here's how it happened, I was waiting for a friend to get ready so we could go to an event–probably a reading, but sadly, I can't even recall which friend it was. If you're that friend, feel free to remind me where we were headed that night. In any case, this word-loving friend had a word-a-day calendar of archaic words and had pulled off a stack of days/words to "catch" and left the stack in a bowl nearby, so I started leafing through and found "cried back" a set of words meaning to cry so hard at the death of a loved one that the dear soul is brought back from the dead.
      This folk belief is probably a response to near death experiences where someone "came back" from the brink of death only to be altered by a lack of oxygen. As I learned when I researched the belief, many people believed those who were cried back were touched by the devil. People saw death as a part of God's plan and altering that plan meant opening the person up to temptation. Often, those who came back returned different (probably a result of brain damage). In any case that idea inspired me to write a book about a girl who was cried back and then shunned by her community because they feared she was touched by the devil. She was touched all right, but by God and given the gift of prophecy. The trouble was, like Cassandra from Greek mythology, no one believed the girl when she warned them what was coming.
      I imagined that she'd draw the demons as they came to her, so they became "pretty omens."
      I tried unsuccessfully to write the book again and again. I knew I wanted it to happen in the South at the turn of the 20th century or even the roaring twenties, one of my favorite periods. Why the South? It's steeped in Christian and folk beliefs that often intertwine, and when I worked on the book I always heard Appalachian folk songs in the back of my head. Setting and premise aside, the piece never came together until I had dinner with the poet Paul Janeczko. He was about to give a reading and talk for the graduate program in children's and young adult literature (and now illustration) at Hollins University (It's a great program, check it out.)
     Paul planned to talk about his book Worlds Afire, which I love. And though it's often called a novel-in-verse, it's really a collection of poems on the same event. That night, at dinner, I told him about the trouble I was having with my book. He suggested that I give it a try as a novel-in-verse. When I asked him if he thought I could really pull that off, he said something along the lines of, "Sure, why not?"
      Why not, indeed. I sat down shortly thereafter and crafted the first poem "Moon Baby" and Cass Anne Marie Pettibone was born--literarily, of course.
      Things worked out pretty well in the end. Turns out Paul was right. I could write a novel-in-verse. Here's what he had to say about the finished product:
      "In LaFaye’s strong, fast-paced novel-in-verse, the voices of her characters ring true, the language dazzles, drawing the reader into Cass Anne’s story of love and redemption, religious intolerance, and belief."
      So the moral of this blog is never leave an author unattended in your front room and don't wait for permission to try a new form.
      Speaking of new things, you'd like to order a copy of PRETTY OMENS, please do: And read more about the origins of PRETTY OMENS at Goodreads.

Guest CeCe Bell!

CeCe Bell visited our students the other day at Hollins University to talk about her Newbery honor-winning and now Eisner honor-winning EL DEAFO.
Her talk was amazing honest and touching. Ruth Sanderson helped with questions. I had the pleasure of joining her for an early dinner before-hand. Happily, CeCe doesn't live far away, so we'll have both her and her husband as our visiting authors and illustrators next year. Can't wait! Meanwhile, as CeCe says...

Coloring Page Tuesday - X-Ray Tetra

     Back to the alphabet images, I thought I'd get one of the hardest letters out of the way this week - X!
     CLICK HERE for more coloring pages!
     Sign up to receive alerts when a new coloring page is posted each week and... Please check out my books! Especially...
my debut novel, A BIRD ON WATER STREET - winner of six literary awards. Click the cover to learn more!
     When the birds return to Water Street, will anyone be left to hear them sing? A miner's strike allows green and growing things to return to the Red Hills, but that same strike may force residents to seek new homes and livelihoods elsewhere. Follow the story of Jack Hicks as he struggles to hold onto everything he loves most.
     I create my coloring pages for teachers, librarians, booksellers, and parents to enjoy for free with their children, but you can also purchase rights to an image for commercial use, please contact me. If you have questions about usage, please visit my Angel Policy page.


Every year at Hollins University, several of us road trip down to Floyd, Virginia (worth the click) for an evening of fine entertainment. Here I am with Karen Coats and Stan.
Ashley caught up with us a bit later and painted a picture of a great up-and-coming band called Big Virginia Sky.
Floyd is part farmer, part hippie, part bluegrass, part mountain - a sweet little town where all sorts of folks gather on weekends to play music. The sidewalks are set up with little insets to make room for all the groups who want to play and the folks who want to listen.
There are formal and impromptu stages scattered all around town.
Most of the folks are amateurs playing for fun. One of the best groups hangs out in front of the public bathroom.
Tourists meander from band to band enjoying the different tunes (mostly bluegrass). I counted seven bands outside that night, but I think I missed some.
Or you can go into the Country Store.
I think it's been there longer than the town. Crowds gather inside like sardines waiting for the primo bands to play.
Because these are the bands you can clog to. And the most unlikely folks get up and get stomping'! I'm pretty decent at faking it, but I'm quickly reminded how horrible I am at clogging when I try to copy the folks around me on the dance floor who know what they're doing. Ellen and Delia gave it a good try too.
That first summer trying to clog in rubber-soled shoes convinced me I needed a good pair of cowboy boots - we all wear them there: Me, Ashley, Chip and Sheree.
What a great night. It's like magic to be surrounded by friends and that much heel kicking' music!

James Gurney's Gurney Studio

Do you know about James (Jim) Gurney's tutorial videos? There are several of them ranging from painting with oils to creating stop-motion animation like this one - Clementoons™. Click the image to go watch on YouTube.
CLICK HERE to see previews of all his tutorials, subscribe to his YouTube channel, and register to watch the entire tutorials!

Illustrator Challenge #9

Draw 10 boxes in a row - about 1"x1". The first box stays white and the last box goes as dark as you are able to get it (hopefully without embossing). Fill in the boxes in-between in a gradient from light to dark. Work slowly, build up the pencil. Keep your edges neat. Keep the value even. This is a value scale which can come in handy for all sorts of future work.

Friday Linky List - July 17, 2015

From The Amherst Bulletin (via PW): Renaissance Man Eric Carle Museum opens new exhibit on late illustrator Fred Marcellino

From The Guardian (via PW): Top writing tips for new children's authors from top editors

From The Guardian (via PW): 150 Years of Alice in Wonderland - in pictures

From PW: Authors, Booksellers & Agents Call for DoJ to Investigate Amazon (to investigate if Amazon has a monopoly on the retail book sales business

From School Library Journal's Betsy Bird's Fuse #8: When Clothing Approximates Sexism (and other woes)

From 100 Scope Notes (at SLJ): The Newbery Title Frankenstein, Create your own Newbery title

At Horn Book: Louis Sachar Talks with Roger (Sutton)

From Authors Helping Writers (via SCBWI Belgium): The Hardest Part of Writing Good Character Arcs - and How You Can Make It Look Easy!

From Washington's Top News (via PW): Vending machines in Anacostia provide free children's books


I've had the great pleasure of getting to know Dennis Nolan each summer at Hollins University as he spends time here with fellow MFA in Children's Book Writing and Illustrating Professor Lauren Mills. Dennis is old school, one of the golden age illustrators. He knows everybody in the business, teaches the up and coming at Hartford University, and inspires the rest of us with his impeccable skill and story-telling sensibilities. I'm thrilled to have him on today to talk about his latest picture book, the perfectly wordless THE HUNTERS OF THE GREAT FOREST. Take it away Dennis!...

      During the long process of mental wandering and rejected story ideas in my sketchbook, the idea for the Hunters of the Great Forest happened, as most of my picture books, as a complete and instantaneous thought. I scrawled it out across a single page storyboard before I lost the narrative as it played out in my mind like an animated film. The final very much resembles my very first rapidly drawn conception, yet only after many frustrating attempts at putting together a story that felt complete and rounded. Constructing the book, designing characters and architecture, deciding on the particular bird to use, experimenting with a palette of colors and whether to use pen and ink or pencil, took considerably longer than the flash of inspiration that revealed the story.
      With the storyline in place, I began the process of discovering who would populate the great forest, at first trying human like proportions, but after many versions, settling on inch high hunters composed of spheres and spindly legs that were a bit more insect like and allowed for gestures and postures that would add a humorous component to their character.
     I drew many hunters, young, old, male, female, heroic, and silly, before choosing the ones who would take the long journey into the giant trees. Keeping their personalities, costumes, colors, extra gear and weapons, distinct and unique helped to propel the action and enliven each illustration. I filled a sketchbook with designs of characters, toads, birds, ants, and mushrooms.

     I drew compositions with trees and rocks from a bird’s eye view to an ant’s eye view until I had exhausted the possibilities. And when my vision was finally taking place, I began the process of collecting reference.
     I spent hours in the woods, taking photos of tree roots, branches, and holes where nests might be built. Rocks and the muddy bank of a creek, for a rejected picture of the hunters crossing the water, were photographed from many angles.
     I built inch high hunters from wire and polymer clay and they were set among the landscape for scale helping me to envision the final images. I sculpted each hunter again in clay, at considerably larger than one inch tall, so I might understand their anatomy and proportions, but in the end had to be realized through gesture drawings and quick sketches.

     A village was built to scale using foam core and set in the sun to check perspective and shadow, drawing inspiration from storybook and cottage architecture, with quirky details to be added at the drawing stage.
     After I built the village to scale using foam core and set in the sun to check perspective and shadow, drawing inspiration from storybook and cottage architecture, with quirky details to be added at the drawing stage. The particular challenges of telling a story in pictures, without a single word of text, called for each character to project emotions which could be clearly read, as well as the building of suspense and dramatic surprises and conclusions through the use of extreme perspectives and telling details.
     All the reference was finally combined in pencil drawing that included not only all the characters and the landscape, but the values of the light and shadow as well. It was then that I experimented with the final look of the paintings, finishing a number of pages using different media and different palettes of colors. I tried black and white, sepia, full color, graphite, and colored pencil and wash before settling on pen and ink and watercolor. The choice felt right for the kind of story I was telling, with action, suspense, humor, and comical personalities.
     I used a dip pen and dark brown acrylic ink for the line work on watercolor board over my initial pencil drawing. The pencil was then erased and the entire picture received a wash of raw umber watercolor. This was followed by a wash of raw umber and ultramarine blue to take advantage of the granulating effect of the pigments. Some of the pictures required additional washes of yellow ochre or burnt sienna to set the groundwork for trees or rocks, or a blotting out of color for clouds. When all of the paintings were at the same level of finish regarding inking and background washes, I began the detail work of the hunters and their costumes, mushrooms, tree bark and rock textures, the dragonfly, toad, tufted titmouse and chipmunk, using concentrated watercolor washes and a few touches of colored pencil. The fairly unified background and the violet shadows bind the book together as the hunters move from early morning to night.
     After trying a number of fonts for the display type I decided on hand lettering that also added to the overall character of the book.

     Me: And we're fortunate to have the lovely results! THE HUNTERS OF THE GREAT FOREST feels like a classic to me along the lines of Chris Van Allsburg's JUMANJI, James Gurney's DINOTOPIA, or Maurice Sendak's WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. Check it out and I know you'll love it as much as I do!