I recently did an illustration for the website ReadBrightly.com for their 1st year anniversary. Brightly is a website run by Penguin Random House that helps moms and dads inspire the love of reading in their kids. The picture ended up on a bunch of promotions for the site, which was really cool. I thought it would be fun to detail some of the process here on the blog.
Here are a couple of the sketches I sent to the art director. She decided to combine the “tree” picture with the “birthday party picture”.
So we ended up with this version, which has a birthday party in a tree, of course.
Here’s how it looked colored in, with pen and ink and watercolor.
It’s now being used in Brightly promotions on a “book truck”, stickers, a gift box, and even this beautiful cake.
Hopefully these characters will return again someday to have more adventures!
My wife Jenna sings “Landslide” by Stevie Nicks, with me accompanying her on banjo. It’s one of my favorite songs. Not to “wife-brag”, but I submitted it to the Tony Trischka School of Banjo and he said she sounded like Natalie Merchant.
Picture books can be funny in all sorts of ways. Sometimes it’s a silly and wonderful illustration. Sometime it’s just the right turn of phrase that brings a chuckle. Sometimes it’s a catch phrase that a child can shout out over and over. But however it happens, there’s nothing better than seeing a child laugh out loud at an illustrated book.
There are lots of funny children’s books out there. But I thought I’d make a list of my favorites. Here we go!
Harry G. Allard Jr. and James Marshall
Pretty much anything from James Marshall could make this list. Everything he did was dry, subtle and hilarious. But my favorites are the ones he made with Henry G. Allard. This includes the sublime “Ms. Nelson is Missing”, but the funniest ones to me are the Stupids. Everything this family does is ridiculous and, well, stupid, but the books don’t feel snarky or insulting. Instead, the characters are lovable and charming, and you can laugh along to their antics completely guilt free.
The Monster at the End of this Book
Jon Stone and Michael Smollin
I unusually don’t care for children’s books that are too “meta”. Sometimes it takes you away from the real story and seems too clever by half. But this one is an exception. Every time Grover implores the reader “Don’t turn the page!” heightens the tension and leads to a wonderful surprise. Also, if you have a good Grover impression, this is a great time to pull it out!
Mind Your Manners, B.B. Wolf
Judy Sierra and J. Otto Seibold
A hilarious fractured fairy tale from Judy Sierra and J. Otto Seibold. The story is lively, but it’s the illustrations and the little touches that make this book so funny. (I read it sever times before realizing that B.B. Wolf lives in a retirement home). J. Otto’s character designs are fantastic, and his graphic depiction of burping cannot be beat. Plus, the book a ridiculous theme song that is awesome to sing along to.
Blue Hat, Green Hat
Again, you can really take your pick with Sandra Boynton; she has so many funny books. But this one gets by far the biggest reactions from my family. The words are very repetitive, which lets young kids follow along and get the joke. And who doesn’t want to yell out “OOOPS!!” as loud as they can every two pages?
Teacher from the Black Lagoon
Mike Thaler and Jared Lee
This book spawned a whole series of similar titles, but this is the classic. It perfectly captures the fear of the first day of school. What if you teacher is a monster? Then you’re doomed for the whole year! And the oblivious glee that Jared Lee takes in depicting the horrible things “Mrs. Green” does to her students is priceless.
To start off this blog, I wanted to write a little bit about a picture book project that I’m currently working on. The book is about one of my heroes, Pete Seeger. I play the banjo, and I had thought for a long time about writing a book about one of the banjo greats. But things changed after Pete Seeger passed away. I’m a long time Pete Seeger fan, but I noticed that the news hit me much harder than I expected. I thought I was a cynical and hardened New Yorker, but for days afterwards, I found myself watching endless streams of YouTube videos of Pete Seeger. Here are just a couple.
I also learned a lot more about his political work and activism. About his work in the south fighting for civil rights, and his work with union organizing. About how he refused to testify to the The House Un-American Activities and was blacklisted for decades. For a truly inspiring read, the whole transcript is here: http://www.peteseeger.net/HUAC.htm
I started reading all the books about Pete Seeger that I could find, but it soon became overwhelming. How could you distill so big a life into one little picture book? What would you include? What would you leave out? This was going to be quite a challenge.
After getting discouraged, I stumbled upon something unexpected. Later in life, Pete Seeger turned his attention to the environment. He focussed his work on his beloved Hudson River, which by the 1960’s had become a floating sewer. Pete’s idea was to build a replica of a “Hudson Sloop”, one of the most beautiful boats that had once roamed the river. After stuggling to organize a group and raise money for the project, the boat was launched in 1969.
When the boat was launched, the crew sailed down the river, throwing concerts along the way. This raised publicity for river and earned money to help fund the cleanup. A tradition was started, and every year a concert series called the “Clearwater Festival” is held to bring attention to the river and the environment.
These days, the boat is also used as an education center, and it helps teach kids about river ecology and the environment. Thousands of students set sail each year on the boat, and learn how important it is to preserve the river.
Once I had my topic, I threw myself into researching the boat and Pete Seeger’s group. It’s an incredible story. It’s an example of a group of regular people getting together and making a difference.
After reading Pete Seeger’s accounts however, it definitely seemed like there was something missing. Pete Seeger was a very positive person, and his version of the story made things seem very easy. But nothing important could be that simple. I contacted the Clearwater organization, and found out that their archives were at Marist college on the Hudson. Here’s a picture. It’s an incredibly beautiful place.
I drove to Marist and found a treasure trove of old magazines, newspapers and company documents. Bit by bit the story got fleshed out. The struggle to get people to care. The difficulties in raising money and organizing. Why building an 18th ship was actually very complicated. And about the triumph of launching the ship and the struggle that continues to this day.
The picture book is still a work in progress, but I’ve really enjoyed the process so far. I’d never done anything historical or biographical, and it was a fun challenge. For instance, how could I draw Pete Seeger so that he looked like himself, but still fit in my style? And how could I recreate the time period? (Lots of reference is the key). Some of my attempts are below. We’ll see what happens with it.
This year I went to the Clearwater Festival for the first time. It’s an amazing event. It’s impossible even for a cold-hearted New Yorker not to get swept along with the positive spirt and energy. These are people who truly believe in their cause, and aren’t afraid to put themselves out there. And the Clearwater Sloop floating out on the Hudson is an amazing site. Here are some pictures from the event.