Book Review: A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever!

At the SCBWI conference there was a bookstore selling books by authors and illustrators in attendance. Having just won a Caldecott Honor a week prior, a little book called All the World (written by Austinite Liz Garton Scanlon, Illustrated by Marla Frazee) seemed to be getting All the Attention. So mid-way through the day, when it was announced there were only 3 copies left, I hastily made my way to the bookstore, brutally pushing little old ladies out of the way when necessary. I still wasn’t quick enough. All the World was sold out. It turned out to be a blessing, however, because instead I picked up another Caldecott Honor book by Marla Frazee titled, A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever!

I’m so glad I found this book! Even though All the World is very good, this book is more along the lines of what I’m looking to do.

First off, it’s illustrated by Marla Frazee, so needless to say, the pictures are wonderful and fit the text as seamlessly as a soundtrack. But how is the story itself? After all, Marla is known as an illustrator, not an author.

I think she nailed it. The characters feel lively & real, and she clearly knows what makes young boys tick. The average boy (especially when he gets together with a friend) is not interested in museums or learning about flowers at nature camp. Marla knows and shows that young boys are happy to be left to their own devices, which most often include: rough-housing, eating junk food, and playing video games. She doesn’t forget how adults present “edifying” activities for children, but understands that ultimately it’s the children who decide what interests them.

Not everybody likes this view of children, and many still believe that picture books must show how children should behave rather than how they do behave. Taking that a step further: some people believe children’s books must show how the world should be as opposed to how it is. (examples: this amazon review, and this blog post) I have no problem presenting an alternative world to kids – a Utopian vision for example – but to gloss over reality and pretend everyone is “perfect” represents a covert form of moralism, which I find repugnant and obsolete since the days of Ursula Nordstrom.

I think those who complain that this book has no moral, fail to see the subtle lesson contained within. Marla allows this lesson to go down as sweet as syrup, so that you don’t even know you’ve learned something important about life. I think that’s the way to do it.

Personally, I learned a lot of lessons from this book – especially about illustration and the craft of picture books. For me, it was an education on the pacing and layout of picture book illustrations. I enjoyed how Marla used many illustrations on a single page, weaving them in and out between the text, creating action and a sense of cohesion. I also liked how she avoided repetition by breaking up these multi-illustrated pages with glorious, full, double-page spreads. It allows the reader to take a break from the action, rest, and enjoy the beautiful scenery. I also learned how speech bubbles, which are traditionally found in comic books, can make a wonderful addition to children’s books as well.

Finally, I learned a thing or two about humor in kid’s books. Often time it seems that children’s books resort to cheap laughs by using potty humor (and it’s true: young kids do love booger jokes), or over-the-top silliness. In contrast, in this book Marla Frazee uses a quiet kind of humor boarding sarcasm. A favorite device she uses is incongruent text and image. For example, at one point it reads, “He had never been away from home for an entire week, so he was very sad when his mother drove away.” Yet right under this text it shows the boy with a great big smile on his face yelling: BYE! At another point it reads, “Nature Camp was just so great.” And the picture shows the boys hiding inside the house on a beautiful day, speech bubbles reading: “Wanna go outside?”, “Nope.” I love how Marla gives her audience credit by allowing smart humor. It’s a smart choice on her part. Most of the children I know have a more sophisticated sense of humor than their adult counterparts.

Yikes! This review became much longer than I expected, but there’s just so much in this book. I recommend it to anyone, but especially to writers and illustrators working on their craft.

SCBWI Conference, Part II – Summary of Plot & Characters

When I was a child, we moved around a lot. I’m not sure how many schools I’ve been to, but I’m certain we never stayed in one place more than 2 or 3 years. As a naturally shy child, it was difficult being “the new kid.” Often times I’d find myself dreamily wandering a grove of trees on the outskirts of the schoolyard.

My first SBCWI conference brought back those same emotions each “new kid” feels. The moment I walked in the door, it felt like everyone else knew each other and was comfortable in their environment, while I knew nobody and just prayed it wasn’t too obvious how I wanted to jump out of my skin! In a situation like this, Child Dallion would have clammed up and imitated wallpaper. Adult Dallion dove right in.

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So I arrive at 7am, grab a plate of breakfast, and go to find a seat. Empty tables are plentiful. No Dallion! You’re here to network, goddamn it! Oh yeah. I choose a busy spot at random and ask if the seat is taken. Luckily it’s not and I’m able to sit with some seemingly friendly women. Some introductions ensue and it becomes obvious the people here don’t bite. What a relief! I’m becoming more relaxed.

Breakfast ends quickly and we congregate in the assembly room. The first speaker: Mark McVeigh – editor turned agent. His talk is entitled: The Publishing World, the Economy, and You: Staying True to Your Muse During Tough Times in the Industry. Luckily, he only touches on Greek Mythology briefly. I love mythology as much as the next artist, but we came to this conference to get The Dirt, and Mark expertly dishes it out. He tells us that the industry is in transition. The advent of the Kindle and e-books is transforming the publishing world and current business models. He tells us it is a chaotic time. The Staff at many Publishing Houses are being changed and many experienced editors have been let go (including Mr. McVeigh, himself). Change is coming! Change is coming!! And change is frightening – but Mark tempers his message with humor and assures us: where there is trouble, there is also opportunity.

Many speakers follow throughout the day, including Cheryl Klein (editor extraordinaire), Andrea Cascardi & Nathan Bransford (agents who educate on how to find and work with agents), and Kirby Larson, Jacqueline Kelly, & Liz Garton Scanlon (ALA honored writers, giving us the inside scoop on the writing/getting published process).

There’s so much information, by the time lunch rolls around my head is swimming. As one of the last people to get a plate of food, I discover seats at tables are now much harder to come by. I scan the room and see 3 open spots. With limited options, I choose to sit next to a guy with a neon green tie. As good fortune would have it, I’ve inadvertently sit next to Sibert Honor Author Chris Barton! We chat about his book, The Day Glo Brothers, and about his future projects (which sound incredible). He asks me questions about myself and seems genuinely interested in the answers. Chris strikes me as a swell guy, and as he gets up to leave, promises he’ll check out my work on the Illustrator’s tables. Then, I turn to my immediate left and find I’m sitting next to Philip Yates, picture-book author of The Ten Little Mummies and A Pirate’s Night Before Christmas! We get along well and I ask if one day he’d critique my future picture-book manuscripts. He says yes and gives me his email address. This networking thing is easy!

The highlight of my day finally arrives: presentations by two time Caldecott Honor Illustrator, Marla Frazee. Coming up with the perfect illustration to “dance with the words” is certainly no easy task, but Marla does a marvelous job illuminating her working process, and challenges us illustrators to “always mine the scene for emotion.” Her powerpoint presentation shows us the staggering amount of drafts and revisions it takes before the final artwork is achieved. She even shows us a photograph of a three-dimensional model house she constructed — just so she would know the environment in which her characters lived! The amount of thought she puts into each project is unbelievable. Ms. Frazee is a living testament for us illustrators: success doesn’t come easy, but if you put in your work it can come.

After an amazing Q&A panel and book signing extravaganza, the day is finally done and I’m exhausted! I stumble to the Illustrator’s tables to pack up my stuff. Just then, an elderly woman approaches and asks if I would help jump-start her car. With the amount of good fortune I’ve had today, I quickly agree. As we stroll into the winter parking lot she thanks me again and says that this kindness will earn stars for my crown. The phrase makes me smile. Not necessary, I tell her – I’ll gladly do it anyway. But she insists and I don’t press the issue.

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So that sums it up. I’d like to thank all the people with the Austin SCBWI who volunteered their time and made this event such a huge success! I’d also like to congratulate Debbie Gonzales for her position as the new Regional Advisor, and incoming Illustrator Chair (and friend) Mark Mitchell, who has guided me along this path. I look forward to seeing many of you at future events.


Breakfast with Austin SCBWI Crew
Foreground: Marla Frazee (peach colored shirt & necklace)
Midground: Moi! (burgundy sweater)
Background: Mark McVeigh (bald dude in suit, standing near door) speaking with fellow illustrators Erik Kuntz and Don Tate.
(Photo courtesy Mark Mitchell)

SCBWI Conference, Part I – The "Portfolio" Strategy

Okay, so an illustrator going to an SCBWI conference obviously wants to bring some artwork to show. The thing is, I don’t have a portfolio! It’s not that I’m too lazy to put one together, but it’s complicated because my work is stored in multitudes of sketchbooks, and due to my working style (and preference for conserving paper), there isn’t one drawing to a page which I could simply rip out and slap in a portfolio. Often I’ll have many drawings on one page, and this lends itself beautifully to being scanned, cropped, and showcased on… say… an online portfolio.

Plus, nowadays, with the prevalence of internet access, it doesn’t seem resourceful to divide one’s attention between an online portfolio and a physical portfolio — especially when a physical portfolio can only be viewed by one person at a time, while the alternative is available for everybody, all the time.

Of course, online portfolios aren’t perfect. Not everyone carries internet access around with them, nor would they be inclined to immediately check your site anyway. As I see it, the trick is grabbing someones attention, giving them a taste of your work, and leaving them something to remember you by. I decided to accomplish this with unique, hand-drawn business cards.

These are some of the cards I drew and photographed the night before the conference. On the back, it simply says: dallion.com. During the conference I displayed six of these cards at a time, along with a picture book I created (A Very Special Nut). These were displayed right next to the other illustrator’s portfolios, and while it may be true that I did not showcase the breadth of work as some illustrators, I certainly succeeded in standing out, which in events like this, is clearly important. Overall I’m pleased with the manner in which I presented myself and would do it again.

It’s funny, because it was after I began making these cards that I remembered a book I had read many months ago, called Ignore Everybody, by Hugh MacLeod.

If it can be said that someone invented original artwork on business cards, I guess Hugh would take the honor. That’s what he does, it’s his thing. So did I steal his idea? I dunno. Not consciously. Bit if you’re tempted to call me a thief, I have a card for you too.

Dallion’s Big Day!

The annual Austin SCBWI regional conference is only days away, and I’ll be there.

For those unaware, that awkward acronym stands for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, a powerful international organization capable of making Kings of mere men (or ruthlessly crushing them underfoot).

Gulp.

This is my first foray into the world of professional authors and artists, but fear not! Thanks to my cleverly concealed flask of scotch, this Saturday I’ll be confidently stumbling my way through masses of publishers, agents, authors, and illustrators (and hopefully learning a few tricks along the way).

And what a group we got! Only a week ago the American Library Association announced its 2010 Awards (which includes the eminently prestigious Caldecott and Newberry Awards – these are the Oscars of Children’s Literature, folks!), and turns out, resident Austinites won more than our fair share of honors, PLUS these people will be in attendance and speaking at the conference! Exciting stuff indeed. My former Children’s Book Illustration teacher sums it up wonderfully on his blog.

Am I nervous about the conference? A little. But really there’s nothing to lose. I suspect it may be high stakes for some authors and illustrators who will be bringing manuscripts and portfolios, looking for contracts. While I too will be bringing some of my work, I have nothing to show to publishers, nor am I looking for an agent at this time. Basically I’m not there to sell myself. I’m there to learn and meet some interesting people. I’m still a student!

And what a curriculum!