Claudia Mills is another of our faculty in the MFA in Children's Book Writing and Illustrating program and MA and MFA in Children's Book Writing program at Hollins University. In my tradition of featuring fellow faculty - today, I'd like to share Claudia's latest book THE TROUBLE WITH FRIENDS. Claudia stopped by to talk about it...

      I’ve written quite a few series in my career as a writer. Some focus on a group of kids, in a school setting, where each book stars a different character from the class. So my Franklin School Friends series celebrates each friend in turn: Kelsey Green, Reading Queen; Annika Riz, Math Whiz; Izzy Barr, Running Star; and so forth. But other series have the same protagonist featured in book after book. My Nora Notebooks series – The Trouble with Ants, The Trouble with Babies, and The Trouble with Friends – features budding scientist Nora Alpers in each title.
      For me, this second kind of series is the hardest to write. My challenge is to have the main character grow and change in each book, as a main character should – but not too much. If she loses too many of the flaws and foibles that made her distinctive as a character, she won’t feel enough like the same person as she moves on to new adventures in each sequel. In each succeeding book, I want my main character to be different (building on her growth in the previous books), but the same (endearing in the same ways to readers who have come to care about her). But it’s never easy to figure out how to do this.
      I particularly struggled with the brand-new, third and final, Nora book, The Trouble with Friends. The first book introduces Nora as a young myrmecologist (ant scientist), who is trying to beat the Guinness world record for youngest person ever to publish an article in a peer-reviewed science journal, and also convince her ant-loathing classmates to love the tiny creatures who are so dear to her. The chief ant-loather is classmate Emma Averill, who dotes on her cat, Precious Cupcake, and squeals with horror at the ant farm Nora brings to school. So I knew that in the second book, Nora would need to get stuck with Emma as her partner for the schoolwide science fair. Book three would bring the differences between the two girls to a crisis point, and then to a resolution.
      Alas, when my editor read the manuscript of book three, she pointed out one big problem. By the end of book two, hadn’t Nora and Emma already made their peace with each other? Hadn’t they surprised themselves by having their collaborative project carry off a prize at the science fair? Hadn’t they already come to realize that their differences could be complementary, rather than conflicting?
      There went the plot I had planned for book three. How on earth would Nora grow and change in this book, how would her friendship with Emma develop further, without denying the ways she had already grown and changed in the previous two?
      After a few weeks of despair, I finally had my break-through. Nora, who so prides herself on being an evidence-based scientist, would totally misread Emma’s invitation to their first sleepover. Because their fourth-grade teacher, Coach Joe, has given the class an assignment to do something completely new over the course of the next few weeks (new sport, new musical instrument, new food, new friend), Nora jumps to the unscientific and mistaken conclusion that Emma’s new project is . . . her. And who wants to be someone else’s project?
      In the course of writing the book, I also gave the kids a new class garden and a new poetry-writing unit in language arts. I love writing poetry, and especially love writing poetry in the voices of a group of kids, where each poem expresses the poet’s personality with all its humorous quirks. So I had tons of fun writing haiku “by” each kid in Coach Joe’s class, as well as ant-themed poems in many forms from Nora (whose love of ants continues in each book – some things never change).
      I also had the pleasure of taking a scene I had witnessed in my own real life and inserting it, suitably altered, into this story. I enjoy writing in all kinds of places – friends’ houses, bookstores, buses, trains, planes, cafes. One day I was scribbling away at a table in a café near my home in Boulder, Colorado, when in trooped a group of fifth graders, attired in tie-dyed 60s T-shirts or Parisian berets. Their teacher told me that they were having a class trip to sit and write poetry in a café, while sipping (or rather, gulping) cups of chocolat and nibbling (or rather, gobbling) croissants. I knew I had to put this scene into a book someday.
      So I did that here: my reward to myself for finally figuring out how to make this third Nora story the same but different, in, I hope, just the right way.

Coloring Page Tuesday - Reading Badger

     This week's drawing is based on the image I did for the graphite workshop hosted by Brian Lies at Hollins University this summer. My theme was 'a cozy spot.' Considering I leave my copy of The Wind in the Willows here at Hollins to read each summer, I had badgers on my mind! CLICK HERE for more coloring pages!
     CLICK HERE to 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 over a dozen literary awards, including Georgia Author of the Year. 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.

Brian Lies' Method

One of the highlights of Brian Lies' visit to Hollins was a slideshow about his process. Ironically, his method is remarkably similar to Mary Jane's, so they were a wonderful compliment to each other. Brian has a new book coming out soon, so I hope to have him back with more on his process. Meanwhile, this was his process for Bats at the Library.
     He does several sketches to come up with the right composition. As he pointed out, the first idea he has is often squared, straight, and not as interesting as his further developed ideas.
He draws in blue line.
And does a final sketch in black and white.
Which he transfers to strathmore.
He works in acrylics and sets his blacks in first.
Then he does a wash like MJ does - his base is Ultramarine mixed with Raw Umber.
Then he stes in his whites. He says this gives him his frame - the darkest and lightest values to work between. He loves working with the similar shades that play next to each other in the shadows.
He works with brushes as small as 00 to get all the tiny details done to achieve the amazing affects he does.
It was such a treat to see the images in real life, as they look superhuman in print! THANK YOU for sharing Brian!

Brian Lies at Hollins!

Each summer in the MFA in Children's Book Writing and Illustrating program at Hollins University, we bring in a famous illustrator to speak and host a workshop. This year, we invited Brian Lies, creator of the 'Bats' series - Bats at the Library, Bats at the Beach, etc. Friday evening he gave a talk about his path to improving as an illustrator and to publication. His talk was fantastic! (And ironically, wonderfully complementary to Mary Jane's demo yesterday, as they both use a base wash. Brian uses ultramarine with raw umber.)
Then on Saturday, he shared his method of using powdered graphite to get quick value into a pencil drawing,
like for his work in Malcolm at Midnight. Here are some of his examples.
The workshop was packed! (Some photos courtesy of Rebekah Lowell.)
Here's Rebekah's work.
Happily, there were enough supplies, so I was able to join in on this one. I'm still a student! (That's what teaching is all about, after all.)
He also brought some of his finishes, which are much smaller than I expected, and all acrylic. This one is blurry, but I put my hand in it so you could see the size.
Knowing that, it makes sense that he sometimes uses 00-sized brushes. Enjoy...

It was especially helpful to see his storyboards and work sketches.

Happily, Brian hung around to join us at our faculty/student potluck at Amanda Cockrell's house that evening. Such a treat to get to know this lovely and talented guy better and learn from him! Thank you, Brian!

Mary Jane's Watercolor Trick

OMG! I have been running around like a headless chicken since I got here. It has been NUTS! But so fun! Let's see if I can catch you up...
     Classes started Tuesday in my awesome, cozy little classroom, where I've set up my studio for the summer. We've already had two classes and they're going swimmingly well. Meanwhile, our newest faculty addition, Mary Jane Begin has been rocking along with her class too. Friday, she taught her students a great watercolor trick. After seeing what she'd accomplished with it - the transparency and depth and sheer richness of color - I was keen to find out how she'd done it. So, she let me sit in on the demo - YAY!
     I'm not going to tell you what the image is called, because if all goes well, you'll be hearing a lot more about it. She starts with references to come up with the composition.
Then creates a pencil drawing on tracing paper.
She transfers this (via copy machine) to Arches Watercolor Paper. Then she swipes a thick watercolor underlayer of Raw Umber.
It looks like this.
Then she pulls out the highlights with a wet brush - it is watercolor after all. She let the students try it out to see what it feels like.
She uses a wide range of brushes for the different taskes.
Then she blocks in large swaths of color. Her palette is simple - cadmium red, cadmium yellow, ultramarine, violet, rose matter, chinese white, antwerp, raw umber, and burnt umber.
Here's MJ with the image, not quite finished yet.
Then she spray fixes the entire image to hold down the watercolor paint. Then mixes gloss varnish medium with the paint to go back in with more opaque color - basically now using a home-made acrylic.
Another seal after it's done and here's the result.
It's not a great photo, but seeing as it's still a little bit under wraps for now, this is all I'm going to share. Just know - it is gorgeous and looks like an oil painting done by the old masters. But it's not! It's watercolors! Can you believe it!? Awesome. Consider my mind blown. I can't wait to try it myself! :)

Friday Links List - 23 June 2017

From Bookshelf: Starfield Library

From The NY Times: What Not to Tell the Kids When the Goldfish Dies, and Other Lessons From Pet Picture Books

From The Federation of Children's Book Groups: An Interview with Francesca Sanna - creator of THE JOURNEY

From the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenaway Website: The results are announced, and a big thank you! Two Americans win both prizes - WOW!

From Nathan Bransford: Writing children's books from the inside out - "So. You want to write children's books. Do you have to know any current, modern day children? Nope." - This is a great article!

From Brightly: Pride and Less Prejudice: 10 New LGBTQ Books for Teens

From Muddy Colors: AD A/B Testing (with business cards) - Very interesting!!

From The Bookseller: Farley, Lee and Ewens win PRH Student Design Awards

Mary Jane Begin on MY LITTLE PONY and making art

This is part of my summer series, featuring creators from our Hollins University MFA program. Mary Jane Begin will be teaching media for the first time this summer, and we are so lucky to have her! I wish I could take her class too! Meanwhile, I have the great pleasure of sharing her work with you, dear readers. So, read on!

e: Hi Mary Jane! What is your creative process, can you walk us through it?
Mary Jane:
My creative process starts with one of two things—a story or narrative prompt supplied by someone else, or a story idea rolling around in my own head. If it’s a story thread that I’ve come up with, my first step is to either let it tumble out onto the paper/screen or start sketching. The muse is somewhat impatient—so I try not to ignore her :) A great book that talks about this is Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. Ideas don’t wait around—they will jump to someone else if you don’t give them attention! Once I start to write and literally draw out the narrative, I try to commit to thinking first about characters and compositions. I ask myself: what is this moment all about? What will be the best point of view for this? What is the emotional content of the scene? What are the characters doing or feeling in this moment that I’m illustrating? My first step is a storyboard or thumbnail layout, then color studies, finished sketches, then color finishes—with approval from the editor at the sketch stages. When I finish all of the paintings, I hand deliver to the publisher for safety…and for a chance to have a celebratory lunch!

e: What is your medium?
Mary Jane:
I play with different mixed media- typically watercolor and pastel/colored pencil or watercolor, acrylic glazing and acrylics. For either method, I start with a ground, blocking in shapes of color all with watercolor. If I’m working with acrylic glazing material using acrylic gloss medium and acrylic paints, I seal the image with fixative to keep the watercolor from moving and then start layering color with transparent, translucent and opaque color.

"Cat in the Red Hat" won a Merit Award and will be included in the International 3x3 Illustration Show—Picture Book category

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?
Mary Jane:
I think that “Heart Art” comes from reflecting your own deeply held beliefs about the world. When you share that which is most important to you- you share your heart. You have to care about the message you impart to children because it can resonate deeply with who they are and what they believe in as they grow. Words and pictures are powerful, magical super powers…we must use them with wisdom and tenderness!

e: Is there a unique or funny story behind the creation of this story?
Mary Jane:
When I was asked to illustrate the first My Litle Pony trade book—I had only a set of toys and a handful of manuscripts from the animated TV series to get a sense of what kind of world and adventure I should create for the pony characters. Hasbro had such faith in me, they went to contract for the books without a manuscript! I then had to wrack my brain to think of a good story. Weeks and weeks passed and I had nothing. I took a nap while on a family vacation—it was raining and we were camping—what else can you do?! This little cat nap let my brain put together 1) the sound of the rain on the tent, 2) the lapping of the lake against the rocks, 3) PONIES! My brain added it all up and I woke up with the idea of sending the ponies on an underwater adventure…hence, My Little Pony, Under the Sparkling Sea was born. Note to self: napping = creative brainstorming.

e: What is your favorite or most challenging part of being a creator?
Mary Jane:
I think the best part about being a creator is that I get to explore so many aspects of inventiveness, and that keeps my brain percolating on the front burner constantly. Creating new courses as a professor at RISD, for an online course in illustration for or CreativeLive, writing and illustrating books and working directly with young children in the classroom (I do workshops with elementary school kids on character creation)—all keep me thinking and making. The most challenging moments are when I second guess myself and have self-doubt. We all have it and it stands with hands on hips—right in the way of the creative flow. Walking with that fear, knowing it’s the most common pitfall for creative people helps to move it along the path and allow me to keep going.

e: Is there something in particular about this story you hope readers will take away with them, perhaps something that isn’t immediately obvious?
Mary Jane:
For my latest title, My Little Pony, the Dragons on Dazzle Island, I was responding to the tragic circumstances of the refugee children around the world needing acceptance, no matter what part of the world they’re from. The story involves island ponies upset with a group of dragons who’ve decided to take residence in the fields of gems that the ponies need to harvest. The ponies don’t seem to realize or care that the dragons are using the gem energy to help warm their dragon eggs, to help hatch their babies. The ponies must get past their own needs to recognize they can help the dragons to hatch their babies, instead of fighting about the gems. Moving past tribal connections to help someone else in need is critical to our humanity, and an important metaphor expressed through a very popular entity: My Little Pony!

e: What are you working on next or what would be your dream project?
Mary Jane:
I’m working on several different stories right now, all with really different sensibilities. One has political undertones, the other is nostalgic and the third is potentially for a new market—China! I will have spent several weeks in China lecturing and providing workshops for universities as well as touring different cities. I think it’s amazing to be able to travel, teach and share my stories with littles around the world. Pinch me! I think I’m living my dream :))

Bio: Mary Jane Begin
      As an award-winning illustrator and author of children’s picture books, a Rhode Island School of Design graduate and professor in the Illustration Department at RISD…Mary Jane feels INCREDIBLY lucky; she gets to do all the things that she loves to do. But in truth: luck + hard work + passion were and are the main ingredients for where she’s at now. It’s one of the reasons that she became the Internship + Professional Development Advisor for her department; she sees it as a way to help students get a running start into the professional realm, to open a doorway and give guidance into an unknown world. As an illustrator, she’s been able to explore painting and color with clients like Hasbro. Her latest books, My Little Pony, Under the Sparkling Sea and My Little Pony, The Dragons on Dazzle Island were a collaboration between Hasbro and Little Brown and Company. She’s worked with Celestial Seasonings, Mead Johnson and Disney, and has received awards from the Society of Illustrators, multiple Awards of Excellence from Communications Arts, the Irma Simonton Black Award, and the Critici Erba Prize at the Bologna Book Fair. Her artwork has been exhibited throughout the country with one-woman shows at Books of Wonder Gallery in New York and Beverly Hills, at the National Museum of American Illustration in Newport, the RISD Museum, Society of Illustrators (NY), The DeCordova Museum, and Storyopolis in LA.
Instagram: mjbegin1
Twitter: @mjbegin1