Saturday, February 20, 2010

Insights into the Mind of a Child

This morning, through a series of chance coincidences, I found a lecture given by Dr. Andrea Marmor on the development of a child's mind. The topic is really fascinating and I think this video is a remarkable resource for anyone creating media for children.

Lately I've been pondering which age group I want to create for. Writing for a 6 year old is much different than writing for a 10 year old, and writing for a 14 year old is another ballgame altogether. While this may be obvious, it's a little harder to discern what these different age groups can comprehend and enjoy. This lecture really helps me begin answering some of these questions.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Morning Excercise

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Children's book writers are allowed to cuss, right?

I was on my way to an a illustrator's critique group put on each month by a few guys from the Austin SCBWI. It would be my first time attending and I was excited. I got it my car, headed west down Ceasar Chavez, north up I-35, west on 38 1/2 Street, and BAM! Traffic at a standstill. "Must be construction," I thought as I cut my way down some side streets trying to find an alternate route. Detour signs littered the road. "Oh no! The Austin Marathon is on today!" I remembered, while cursing the chicken-legged men in their short shorts.

I spent a good 30 minutes trying to find a route to the critique group. I even went way north and tried to come down Lamar. No luck. The critique group was isolated, surrounded by a moat of runners.

"North Lamar... I don't get up here often," I mused. "Maybe I'll stop by Half Price Books." (the best used bookstore warehouse in the world, for you underprivileged non-Texans)

So that's what I did, and even though it wasn't my first choice, perhaps it was fate which brought me to cart away a pile of life changing books.

First up, The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker. List, $60. HPB: $19. A huge book, weighing probably 15 pounds, it has every New Yorker cartoon published from 1925 to 2004. Many of the 68,000+ cartoons are actually printed in the book, the rest come on 2 CD's. Some of these cartoons are so brilliant they give me shivers. I guess I'm weird that way.

These two were published in 1937.

And since graphic novels seem to be all the rage these days, I picked up a few titles from a great publisher called Top Shelf Productions. These aren't your superhero comics, folks. These are amazing feats of visual art - and literature too!

My favorite so far is Dear Julia, by Brian Biggs. It has breathtaking artwork and a fascinating, suspenseful story which plays out like a foreign film (and not one of those crappy, hard to understand foreign films). I highly recommend this book.

Another Top Shelf book I found was an autographed copy of James Kochalka's The Sketchbook Diaries. Basically it's just a daily journal in cartoon form. Most of the entries I find pretty boring, the funny part is: I can't stop reading it!

The drawings are so simple and the situations so mundane, it actually inspired me to start a cartoon journal myself! I'm no Indiana Jones, but my life feels a heck of a lot more exciting than his!

And then today, I was walking near the river/nature area near my house, when I was struck with an idea for a middle grade chapter book (I blame Because of Winn-Dixie!). It was crazy, everything just came to me at once! Plot, characters, settings, everything! And while I suspect it's natural for a writer to fall in love with his own ideas, I really believe I have an objectively good book idea on my hands!

Cartoons, graphics novels, picture books, chapter books, short stories, long stories, dumb stories, smart stories.

I could go in any number of directions, but I still don't know what the fuck it is I'm doing.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

If I have to draw one more goddamned kid, I swear I'll...!

PS: Me in 20 years if I haven't been published.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

More Kids

Been practicing children, trying to add a sense of movement and weight.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Classy Kids

I had an email conversation with another illustrator recently, and she suggested that since I'm aiming to do children's books, perhaps I should start displaying more drawings of children in kid-centric situations. Duh, Dallion!

More to come as they're done.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Oliver Jeffers

Morning Faces

Saturday, February 6, 2010

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.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

SCBWI Conference, Part III - Before & After

Two cartoons comparing how I felt when I arrived at the conference with how I felt at the end.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

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.


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.


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)

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Morning Excercise