Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Nowhere Boy cover


I don't always have a chance to read the books for which I illustrate covers. Usually it's a matter of time; the client wants me to get started right away and just gives me a brief synopsis of the book and whatever information I need to know. Sometimes they send me the manuscript to read on my own time, and sometimes they don't. Sometimes the book is still being written, and the client sends me just the first chapter to give me a feel for the story. This was a case where the client sent me the manuscript and I had the time to read it.

Nowhere Boy by Katherine Marsh is the story of an American boy living in Belgium who finds another boy, a Syrian refugee, living in his basement. The two boys, Max and Ahmed, bond over their shared feelings of being unwelcome outsiders, and together they develop a clever plan to get Ahmed into school.

I loved, loved, loved this book. It's equal parts fun and exciting heist, and a deeply touching story of friendship, family and loss. One particular chapter had me weeping out loud, which is not something I expected from a middle-grade book. I should know better than to underestimate middle-grade by now!

Anyway enough gushing. Let's talk about the process.

Nowhere Boy was originally published in 2018, but MacMillan wanted a fresh cover for this year's paperback re-release. The art director, Aurora Parlagreco, told me that she wanted something that expressed "hopeful friendship," and the idea of coming from two different worlds. She suggested a scene from the book where the two boys are riding a bike, with the skylines of Belgium and Aleppo in the background, but she also asked to see a few of my own ideas. Here are the sketches I sent.

I like them all, but I liked the bike one the best, and the AD agreed.

Next, it was time for color. In the book, this scene takes place at sunset, so I really leaned into those colors. Since the scene is already a little on the quiet side (no dragons, explosions or sparkly magic), I thought the colors needed to be really vibrant in order to keep things interesting.

The team asked for a few tweaks, mostly for me to darken Ahmed's skin tone, to darken the clouds behind him, and to make sure that the skylines in the background were clearly different cities. Then I was free to go to final.



I especially like Ahmed looking back over his shoulder at Syria, the dark clouds seeming to reach out towards him, and the symbolism of the boys riding together over a bridge.

As the young kids say, I stan visual symbolism. Did I use that right? Whatever, leave me alone

So here it is, I'm super proud of this cover and I love the type design Aurora did. Thank you for the gig, it was an honor to work on such a wonderful book!

Nowhere Boy by Katherine Marsh is available now, but only the new paperback version uses this cover. If you order the hardback version, the cover is different.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

The Wishner's Masquerade

This is the cover I illustrated for Camille S. Campbell's magical middle-grade adventure novel, The Wishner's Masquerade, which is the second book in The Wishner trilogy.

Camille described the main character, Janet, turning towards the viewer while wearing a dress made of red chiffon that looks like flames, a velvet jacket, and a mask. Behind her is the city of Wishdonius, and flying in the sky is an armored griffin.

I had never drawn a griffin before, much less an armored one, so I was a tad intimidated by this. I looked at other artists' drawings of griffins, as well as photographs of tigers and eagles, for inspiration. Here are the three rough sketches I sent.

Camille was concerned that the griffin looked a bit menacing when he was supposed to be the heroine's companion. So we tried a few more poses to get a more protective feel.

Camille liked the second sketch, so I sent a color rough. Since the brief already called for a flame colored dress and a sunset, that was an easy jumping off point.

When Camille approved the color sketch, I went to final. I knew from the previous cover that Camille is very fond of sparkles, so I made sure to add some extra sparkles in the foreground. The ones on the dress are pretty subtle though, more of a shimmer.

I'm particularly proud of the way the designs in the armor and the velvet jacket turned out.

While I've made this process sound fairly streamlined in this blog post, it actually look me a few months. It was one of the first commissions I tackled after having baby #2. Usually I pride myself on my speed and cult-like devotion to deadlines, but last year kicked my butt so bad. Here, check out this reference photo I took for the main character's hand:

Why was it taken in the dark? Because I was working at night. If I adjust the levels to lighten the background you can see...

...a bassinet, where a tineh bebeh was surely sleeping!

Anyway much thanks to Camille for her patience with me during this process! She was even kind enough to send me a signed copy of the book! <3 <3 <3

The Wishner's Masquerade is available now!

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Mexican Gothic Paperdoll

I never thought I'd add "paper doll designer" to my resume. Do you ladies remember paper dolls??? I used to play with them a lot as a kid! Ah, simpler times!

A few weeks ago Ashleigh Heaton, AD over at Del Rey Books, asked me to design a paper doll as a promo for Silvia Moreno-Garcia's new book Mexican Gothic. The book is a gothic horror set in Mexico during the 1950's, and the main character is a stylish socialite with all sorts of cool outfits.

A chance to draw a paper doll with historically accurate 1950's outfits? Um yes yes I will absolutely do that!! The AD described four outfits from the story that she wanted me to draw - a suit, a casual outfit, a nightgown and a ballgown - and the author supplied lots of helpful historical references, as well as a Pinterest board and a Spotify playlist! Wow!

First I drew the doll base. The character is described as looking like "a young Katy Jurado." I posed for the doll myself, wearing a retro-style swimsuit and some high heels. (But, for once, I will refrain from posting those reference photos on this blog.) Then I just upped the hourglass factor to get that 1950's pinup shape.
Once the base doll had approval, I started sketching the outfits. I looked up specific references for each piece, making sure that the photographs were from the early 1950's. I laid out the outfit sketches along with my references for the team to see.

Everything was approved, so I finished up the rendering. Then I added some tabs and printed everything out on cardstock to see if it worked in real life.

I did have to tweak a few things to make them all line up correctly. Then I sent the doll to the AD. "Wow, she stands up!" she said.

Okay here's the cool part: YOU CAN DOWNLOAD THE PRINTABLE PAPER DOLL FOR FREE! Thank you to AD Ashleigh Heaton for the incredibly fun assignment. I absolutely loved doing this. And congratulations to Silvia Garcia-Moreno on the release of Mexican Gothic! I pre-ordered the audiobook and I'm excited to dive in. (Note: This is an adult horror novel and definitely not for kids!)

Monday, June 22, 2020

Quarantine Routine

I haven't been blogging much for the past year, but it's not because I haven't been working. I had a baby last year, so...that kept me busy. Then in March, when my state dropped the shelter at home order I lost all my childcare, but not my illustration work. While I was thankful to have work when so many people didn't, having my childcare hours instantly double was a huge adjustment. With the general sense of impending doom coming from the newspaper headlines, I was incredibly stressed for the first month or two. (As we all were.)

In April I recorded this YouTube video. You wouldn't know from watching, but I was actually kind of depressed at the time. (As we all were in April.) Surprisingly, this video turned out pretty funny and I'm rather proud of it.

I heard some rumors about how the economic shutdown would surely spell doom for the publishing industry, and I was really worried about my work drying up for a while. While I did have one job canceled because of Covid-related budget cuts, I've still had new and exciting jobs coming in, including one for MacMillan and three for Penguin Random House! So while I can't speak for the publishing industry as a whole, from my view it seems like things are still chugging along.

I've been working on a series of cozy mystery covers for Annie's Publishing, for a series called Scottish Bakehouse Mysteries. These are fun because I just never know what the publisher is going to ask for each time!

I also did some illustrations for the April issue of Clubhouse magazine, including the cover! Thanks to AD Jenny Dillon for the assignment.

Even though my state is reopening, my family has decided that we're going to keep isolated at home for now. We've adjusted to this new capsule lifestyle, for the most part. I only spend 2 to 3 hours a day drawing, and I miss drawing more. I remind myself that it's a chance to spend a lot of time with my kids while they're little and that illustration will still be there once this season passes.

If you're reading this blog, you must be a pretty loyal reader, so thank you. I appreciate the comments and emails that you send to me. There will be more posts in the future as the books I've been working on are released!

Monday, June 8, 2020

Books on Diversity and Race for Little Ones

It's been difficult to know what to do. When to speak up, when to keep quiet so others can be heard. What can I say that hasn't already been said more eloquently by others?

I've been thinking about how I can be a good influence on my preschooler. How can I teach her about race in an age-appropriate way? Predictably, I decided to look to children's books for help. I want to bring more images of people of color into my home. While there are many BLM-themed lists of books going around right now, I noticed that they tend to lean towards books meant for older kids, heavy on history and biographies.

So, here's my small contribution: a (definitely non-exhaustive!) list of picture books about diversity, race and acceptance for preschoolers and toddlers. The links are all to a website called Bookshop.org, a new online bookstore which supports indie bookstores. However, at this time, most of the books are backordered! I guess I'm not the only parent thinking along these lines. I'd encourage you to order from your local bookstore if possible. You could also consider ordering from this list of Black-Owned Independent Bookstores!

The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Rafael Lopez
"There are many reasons to feel different. Maybe it's how you look or talk, or where you're from; maybe it's what you eat, or something just as random. It's not easy to take those first steps into a place where nobody really knows you yet, but somehow you do it."

Say Hello! By Rachel Isadora
"Carmelita loves to greet everyone in her colorful neighborhood. Emphasizing the rich diversity of America's neighborhoods, this simple portrait of a child's day provides a great introduction to the joy of language."

He's Got the Whole World in His Hands by Kadir Nelson
"What began as a spiritual has developed into one of America's best-known songs, and now for the first time it appears as a picture book, masterfully created by award-winning artist Kadir Nelson.Through sublime landscapes and warm images of a boy and his family, Kadir has created a dazzling, intimate interpretation, one that rejoices in the connectedness of people and nature."

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De La Pena, illustrated by Christian Robinson
"Every Sunday after church, CJ and his grandma ride the bus across town. But today, CJ wonders why they don't own a car like his friend Colby. Why doesn't he have an iPod like the boys on the bus? How come they always have to get off in the dirty part of town? Each question is met with an encouraging answer from grandma, who helps him see the beauty--and fun--in their routine and the world around them."

Maisie's Scrapbook by Samuel Narh and illustrated by Jo Loring-Fisher
"Her Mama wears linen and plays the viola. Her Dada wears kente cloth and plays the marimba.They come from different places, but they hug her in the same way. And most of all, they love her just the same. A joyful celebration of a mixed-race family and the love that binds us all together."

All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold and illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman
"Follow a group of children through a day in their school, where everyone is welcomed with open arms. A school where kids in patkas, hijabs, and yarmulkes play side-by-side with friends in baseball caps. All Are Welcome lets young children know that no matter what, they have a place, they have a space, they are welcome in their school."

B is For Baby by Atinuke and illustrated by Angela Brooksbank
"One morning after breakfast, Baby's big brother is getting ready to take the basket of bananas all the way to Baba's bungalow in the next village. Little ones learning about language will love sounding out the words in this playful, vibrantly illustrated story set in West Africa."

You Matter by Christian Robinson
"In this full, bright, and beautiful picture book, many different perspectives around the world are deftly and empathetically explored--from a pair of bird-watchers to the pigeons they're feeding. Young readers will be drawn into the luminous illustrations inviting them to engage with the world in a new way and see how everyone is connected, and that everyone matters."

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Video: How I Book Cover

Kate Messner invited me to contribute to a library of educational videos for kids whose schools have been suspended due to covid. This isn't a polished video, not by a long shot, but my editing program was crashing constantly and I told myself I needed to finish this by the of the day, so it's GOOD ENOUGH. Hope you guys like it, or, at least, find it mildly distracting from the chaos of our current reality.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Ranger in Time: Escape from the Twin Towers

When I first heard that the next Ranger in Time book was going to be set during September 11, I was surprised. Really? Why do kids want to read about September 11?

Then I realized: because it's history to them. They know of it, but they don't remember it.

But you remember it. And I remember it.

I was 15 years old.

An excerpt from my journal

For months, I couldn't escape the tragic images on every magazine cover, every newspaper, every tv screen in every home and store. Everywhere, another photograph or video of thousands of people - mothers, fathers, children, grandparents - plummeting to their deaths. The planes crashing. The towers collapsing. The news played the clips over

and over

and over again.

Maybe it was particularly bad for me because the news was kept on all day at my house, and I was homeschooled. But then again, if it was scary for me, a California kid who previously hadn't even known what the World Trade Center was, I can't imagine how traumatizing it must have been for the children and teens of New York City.

I don't remember how long it took for the news to move on, but once it did, I avoided 9/11 media from then on, even into adulthood. I never wanted to see anything September 11-related ever again. Especially, especially the videos of the planes hitting the towers.

Until two years ago, when I learned that the next Ranger in Time would be set on September 11th, I knew my self-imposed 9/11 media fast was officially at an end. Instead of avoiding 9/11 media, now I was going to be creating it.

"Why would you do this to me, Kate Messner," I whispered at my email inbox.

I promised my art director, Stephanie Yang, that I would finish reading the manuscript before the end of the year. So, true to my word, on New Year's Eve I built a blanket nest on the couch, curled up in the middle and opened up the manuscript with a sigh.

There was a lot of crying.

I cried as I read the book. I cried as I looked at photographs. I cried as I watched the documentary 9/11.

But once I had got all that out of my system, I found that I was able to concentrate on creating the best illustrations I could. Every day was another challenge: how do I draw a stairwell full of people and firefighters?

How do I depict the air quality immediately after the towers collapsed?

In every scene I did as much research as I could to make the scenes accurate to life, to pay attention to the small details in the manuscript, and to represent the great diversity of people who were affected by the attacks.

I was inspired by the text of the book, which I personally think is the best in the Ranger in Time series. Kate Messner did a stellar job of balancing historical accuracy with age-appropriateness. Despite my initial reluctance to read it, I found it totally riveting and read the whole manuscript in one sitting.

Younger generations will have what my generation didn't: a curated view of September 11. My generation watched the events unravel in real time, the adults around us as frightened and confused as we were. Now children have the guidance of adults with distance and hindsight - and I get to be one of those adults. We can give them a history that is real but not raw. Gentle, but still genuine. We can focus the spotlight on the heroes and the helpers - including the furry helpers.

To be a part of that is my privilege.

I don't think I'll make watching 9/11 documentaries on New Year's Eve a tradition, though. Maybe some donuts or something? Donuts and hot chocolate. What do you guys think, sound good?

Ranger in Time: Escape from the Twin Towers is available now.
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