I took a trip last week to Los Angeles, mostly to attend the Society of Children's Books Writers and Illustrators' summer conference, but also to see my little sister Meg, an animator living in that city. Here is what most inspired me:
1. From the incomparable Mem Fox, who I creepily wish was my best friend: Listen to the cadence of music and the rhythm of poetry until it becomes ingrained in your mind. Good children's book text will lull like a poem, even when the action is dynamic, so be sure to read your text aloud.
Mem, you have a voice that could tuck people into bed. You remind me of Bing Crosby, whose comforting voice is what I imagine hot buttered rum to taste like, even though I've never tried it.
P.S. I heard Mem speak at Book Expo in 2014 and she was just as delightful then. Her agent and author panel was also very useful in discussing how a picture book should work. She spoke at length about writing from the emotional heart of your experiences, something that Jane O'Connor seconded in her speech.
2. Dan Santat (this year's Caldecott medalist)! I heard him speak several times, and his panel on illustration by design and writing as an illustrator were both inspiring and educational. Two best piece of advice: 1. draw the pictures in your story first and then add the text. This will prevent wordiness and allow the pictures to do the bulk of the telling. 2. Think of your story concept like a thesis statement. Everything in the book should push in that single direction. Dan, your advice in many ways changed how I would teach and how I would draw. After your classes, I'd change both my portfolio and how I would execute my dummy.
P.S. If I had known he was making a face, I totally would have matched that. Believe it.
3. Adam Rex. Adam made an interesting point that's long been on my mind: he said that children's books do not have to be sweet or pat. They can leave kids with weird feelings and give them strange dreams. Considering that many of my favorite books were very weird and downright scary when I was a kid, I wonder now if there's still an audience for it. I see fewer weird and creepy books these days. Let's keep the creep in books, please.
P.S. Adam, I met you before at Books of Wonder when you and Neil Gaiman were signing for the original Chu's Day. You were awesome and gave me free portfolio advice. That's cool. I think I need to put that out into the universe to add to your general coolness.
4. Varian Johnson. My favorite advice of his was one that my hard working nature, fueled by my half German heritage, really believes in: We all deserve to be part of the conversation but only if we are willing to put in the hard work. Don't rely on the muse: get to work every day, no excuses.
For those of you who haven't read Steven Pressfield's The War of Art, I recommend it. He talks about the excuses artists and writers make to stop doing the creative work--and more importantly, the trudge work--necessary to get projects completed.
5. Molly Idle: Her talk focused on the concept of play. She saw the muse as a gift that we must accept, and that creative play breeds ideas. I know this to be true; creativity is a muscle. The more often I flex it, the more ideas I have. If I am idle (no pun intended), my creativity goes to sleep.
P.S. Molly, apparently I am your döppelganger. Several people congratulated me on your speech, and I was happy to take the praise for you. But I'm glad we got the chance to meet so that I could pass those good wishes along and prove that I am your double. But I'm growing my hair out, so it won't last for long. :(
6. Jon Cepeda: He touched upon an illustrator's constant companion: fear. Leave it aside, he said, and if it comes calling, pretend it doesn't exist.
7. Shannon Hale: One of the talks that made me laugh the most (but not the only one that made me tear up), Shannon demolished the idea of writing what we know. Write what we love, she said. Dan Yaccarino had a sort of counterpart to this: write from the deepest part of yourself. Even still, that doesn't have to be what we know best. Her appeal to include boys and girls in recommendations for traditionally gendered books was eye-opening.
8. Kwame Alexander (this year's Newbery Medalist): Kwame picked up on Varian's idea of work. His stories of grit in times of frustration made me want to buckle down even harder. Thanks for showing us that we are not alone in the struggle to make it in this creative world.
P.S. Kwame, I sat next to you and talked to you about bacon. I did not know it was you. I talked with the Newbery medalist about bacon. Hmmm. What does that say about me? But given the chance, I suppose I'd talk to you about bacon again.
9. The Illustrator's Intensive was useful all the way through. Helpful advice from John Rocco: consider carefully the color keys to the picture book. It can be used for mood as well as to show how character's relate to each other. Also, remember to let your pictures breathe. It's not necessary to draw everything in one picture. Focus instead on how to best tell the story.
John, I have met you twice before, and each time you gave me bits of advice. It was really fun to listen to your whole talk, and it was really enlightening. Plus, you seem like you are fun to hang out with. Behold the badassery:
10. Melissa Sweet appealed to the art historian side of me. The research she put into her work, blended seamlessly with her creative style, made for illustrations that made biography sing in unexpected ways. I wish I could have had these books as a child, when I was devouring biographies at the library when we lived in Killeen, TX. She also repeated this idea of thesis: what's the one word of inspiration that describes the book?
11. The Homework Panel: While definitely the most uncomfortable, this was very useful. I hoped they would not pick my work to critique, but they did. I'll admit, I cringed when it came up on screen. But in hindsight, the advice was solid. Don't color by object, but by scene and readability. Remember value as a tool---blur your eyes to make sure each part of the drawing is visible. The assignment was a before and after: I chose black and white translated to color. The top two were the images I submitted. The bottom includes some value changes in Hans' clothing and his bagpipes, and in the leaves.
12. There are parts of Los Angeles that look like Mars. Left: Vasquez Rocks.
13. Last but not least, the food in LA was yummy. NYC, you need to step up your taco game. Sushi bigger than your hand? Sodas that taste like Superbowl Sunday? Candy corn taffy? And the Salvadorean pupusas? Oh yeah.