Mike: Usually, when I begin a book, I start with sketches of Elliot in various situations. Then, I start writing about each drawing that stands out to me. I go back and forth until a story starts forming. I don’t really set out with a theme in mind, I arrive there through the process. As in life, we don’t know what some experiences are about until we have some distance from it. Then, we can see the full picture and say, “Oh! That’s why I went through all of that! Life was teaching me X lesson.” Once I feel confident that my story has a beginning, middle and end, I start sharing it with my editor, Laura Godwin. We go back and forth with ideas for how to tighten up the book. To make my illustrations, I draw with pencil on paper, scan, and color digitally. Also, I spend a huge amount of time doing research. The Little Elliot books all take place in late 1930s New York, so I try to be as authentic as possible.
e: What do you think makes an illustration magical, what I call "Heart Art” - the sort that makes a reader want to come back to look again and again?
Mike: I think Heart Art is that element of an illustration that cannot be said with words (the whole reason why we need illustrations to accompany a text). A good illustration speaks directly to the soul. It’s a vulnerable truth that tells the viewer that someone else understands what they’ve been through and how they feel, much like music. This isn’t something one learns. It’s the result of the artist searching for the right visual elements that stir something in their being. It’s the part of the illustration that isn’t technical, but is more unto a sixth sense.
e: What was your path to publication?
Mike: I went to Syracuse University’s illustration program from 1999-2003, where I realized that I wanted to focus on picture book making. After graduation, I tried to break into publishing on and off for ten years, working as a graphic designer in the meantime. In 2012, I attended the SCBWI winter conference in NYC, where I was fortunate enough to win the portfolio showcase. In most of the illustrations in my portfolio, I featured a character I had been drawing for years, a small polka-dotted elephant. Brenda Bowen (who is now my agent) slipped her card into the portfolio. The next day, I received emails and phone calls from several publishers inquiring about who this elephant was and what was his story. By summer, Little Elliot went to auction and found a home with Henry Holt Books for Young Readers at Macmillan.
e: What is your favorite or most challenging part of being a creator?
Mike: I think my favorite part of being a creator is that magical moment when I am able to make something that makes me happy. I don’t mean that in a prideful way, it is more about witnessing the Art Heart that you were just asking about. I have a poet friend who once told me that when she’s performing, it’s her time to talk to God, and everyone else gets to watch. It’s a feeling that’s worth its weight in gold.
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Mike: For me, the book is about confronting fears, and how to be a good friend to someone who is afraid. Life is full of scary rides, but when friends stick together, they can get through them.
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