Libraries are wonderful places for children, but also for...dogs? Oh yeah. Lisa Papp walks us through her picture book, MADELINE FINN AND THE LIBRARY DOG.
e: Hi Lisa! What is your creative process, can you walk us through it?
Most often, I am sparked with an idea while out in nature. Those are the times I’m marveling at something…how the tiniest bee fits perfectly inside the miniature thyme flowers, or the white tuft of a milkweed seed sailing overhead – I want to know where it’s going to plant itself, and why. I love the breeze moving across the meadow grasses – it’s crisp and has its own whisper, its own blessing, or maybe ‘encouragement’ is a better word. It always makes me excited to start something new. Or take something I’ve got in a new direction. A deeper direction.
From there, it’s pencil to paper. Ideas, notes, sketches. I try to keep with the original inspiration before I lose it. Sometimes it’s a scene I hope to convey, other times the first steps of a picture book. With picture books, I try to keep it as simple as possible, and not ask those intellectual questions till later. The real energy of a book comes now.
After some toying around, if I still feel it has potential, I will start to play with pictures…favorite scenes, character sketches, etc. By now, I know if I love it enough to, A. Show it to a publisher, and B. Put in all the work that needs to be done before I can show it to a publisher. (ie. a finished book dummy with readable sketches, clean text, and possibly a finished piece of art.)
When I’m figuring out a book, I surround myself with every kind of inspiration: favorite artwork…..color moods….compositions….things that are so simple I could admire them for hours, as well as things that are beautifully intricate. Anything that will help me tell this story visually.
When it comes to thumbnails, those tiny sketches that lay out a book, I can get overwhelmed pretty fast. Unlike the original inspiration, I have to remind myself that it’s not going to get done in an hour, or a day, or even a couple of weeks. It’s careful work, and requires a lot of problem solving, so patience is key. But when it reaches that point, just beyond frustration, to that bit of light where you feel you really have something, it’s very rewarding.
(Click the image to see a larger version.)
e: What is your medium?
I learned how to paint in watercolor in art school, and it remains my favorite medium. Watercolor is so fresh and free. Yes, it’s easy to screw up a painting, watercolor is not very forgiving. But if you can allow it some freedom, and not try to control it so much, you can get wonderful results. My best paintings have that nice balance of looking fresh and clean but not overworked. Of course, I have my share of muddy, overworked pieces too. In that case, they’re called ‘color sketches’ – you know, that thing you’re supposed to do before you start the finish so you solve all the problems ahead of time. I’m not sure if it’s laziness, or just the free spirit in me, but I always want to get right into the heart of it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, it’s a valuable step on the path to getting something decent. Also, when I paint, I love to surround myself with art that is far superior to mine. Lisbeth Zwerger for instance. She can handle, or I might say ‘guide’, watercolor in beautiful ways. She’s definitely one of my inspirations.
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?
Ahh, that’s the trick, isn’t it? One thing, I think that helps is to remember that I am painting this illustration for myself. There is a way I can do this that is uniquely me. And that’s my job, to express my own unique take, my own vision for this piece. For Madeline Finn, I can so easily relate to her bond with animals. That’s second nature to me, so to express that love was easy. It may have been a different scene for someone else, not better, not worse. Just different.
I think with illustration and writing, you’re given the opportunity to show who you are inside. To express a part of you that’s only you. And you have to trust that. You have to believe you’ve got something to share. There is great freedom when you aren’t trying to force something, but rather having a lovely conversation with the page, a back and forth. I like to listen to music when I work and when I hear a favorite song, I can immediately imagine the scene as if it’s a movie. I just want to bring the emotion to life. People respond to that honesty on the page. They find a piece of themselves there. I think that’s what Heart Art (and Heart Writing) would be.
e: Is there a unique or funny story behind the creation of this story?
None, other than one afternoon seeing a bunch of beautiful dogs in all shapes and sizes walking into the library. Of course my husband and I had to follow them in. The dogs settled themselves on the floor of a bright, sunny room alongside their handlers. A couple minutes later, the kids arrived. It was like watching a dream. The kids chose a book, then a dog. And for an hour and a half, we watched them read stories to the dogs. It was pure magic. I couldn’t believe these programs existed. I only wish school had been that way. I’d probably be a lot better at math.
e: What was your path to publication?
Hmmm . . . It might have begun back when I was parking cars, working my way through art school. Or when my wonderful watercolor teacher, Bill Senior, taught me how to paint textures. It may have started on that glorious summer day when Rob (now my husband) and I set up our art on homemade stands in a park and made our first sale. Perhaps it was those first advertising jobs illustrating toenail clippers, expandable pants, and those miracle scissors that could cut hair as well as cable wires. I suppose it officially started with illustrating my first picture book, Rudolph Shines Again, by Robert L. May. What a treat! I loved painting all those animals. It really set me on the path of storytelling. One I can’t imagine ever getting tired of.
e: What is your favorite or most challenging part of being a creator?
Favorite: bringing something to life. A character. A scene. Most challenging: deadlines. In other words, knowing you MUST be creative by 2:00, or else. It’s wonderful, and challenging, to bring a picture book to life. Working on all those tiny thumbnails, telling that story with pictures, taking the reader on a visual journey – hopefully one they’ll enjoy. It all happens in that early stage. This is your time to speed up, or slow down a scene, to invite the reader to feel what’s happening. It’s the same with novels, just on a grander scale. You have more time, a little more space to take the reader’s hand and share this adventure with them.
e: Is there something in particular about this story you hope readers will take away with them, perhaps something that isn’t immediately obvious?
We all have a gift to give. That is true of every living thing. Many of the dogs featured in the book are former shelter dogs now living a new life helping children. I’ve been so blessed to spend time with these amazing dogs and their wonderful people. I call them my ‘therapy dog family.’ And I love to share their stories. I guess my hope is that readers will experience the love these dogs have to offer, that they will in some way take in the beauty of being accepted just as you are. I hope the words and illustrations will plant a seed of kindness and self assurance – one that will grown nice and strong.
e: What are you working on next or what would be your dream project?
I have a few Madeline Finn adventures I’d like to explore. And I am working on an illustrated middle grade novel that I’m head over heels in love with. Besides those – a dream project? Hmmm, I would love to create a nice, magical, nature-y book showing off the secret world of birds, fairies, and flowers.
e: Sounds great, Lisa! Thanks for stopping by!
MADELINE FINN AND THE LIBRARY DOG is published by Peachtree Publishers. CLICK HERE to learn more.