As part of its year-long, 20th anniversary celebration of picture books, Candlewick Press in Somerville, Mass., went back to its roots, literally – across the town line to Cambridge, where its offices were originally located – to hold its first picture book symposium at the Cambridge Public Library on November 10.
Panelists for From Screen to Book included Tony Fucile, author/illustrator of Let’s Do Nothing!; Scott Nash, author/illustrator of The High-Skies Adventures of Blue Jay the Pirate; Peter H. Reynolds, author/illustrator of the Creatrilogy (The Dot, Ish, and Sky Color); Holly McGhee, founder of Pippin Properties and author of Mitchell’s License (written under the pen name Hallie Durand); and Candlewick art director Ann Stott, author of Always and I’ll Be There. Jenny Brown, children’s editor of Shelf Awareness and interim director of the Center for Children’s Literature at the Bank Street College of Education, moderated the panel, which touched on all things picture book.
All three illustrators, who work with Candlewick, were chosen specifically because they have worked in film and other media besides the traditional picture book. In response to Brown’s question about what they have learned from working in other media, Nash, who has worked in branding and graphic design for the likes of Nickelodeon and PBS, said, “Narrative is king. As artists we’re all divergent thinkers. It’s been important to me to think about what medium is the proper way to tell a story.”
Fucile, an animator for The Incredibles, among others, compared making a picture book to making film. “The process is similar,” he said. Like an animator, a picture-book illustrator must “communicate the internal feelings of the characters, but they don’t move.” And Peter Reynolds, who has worked with technology for 30 years – first with Tom Snyder Productions and now with FableVision – said, “I still think the most powerful technology is a picture book, the real one, the physical one.”
The symposium also covered how picture books have changed. From Stott’s perspective as an art director, the biggest difference is computer-generated art. “Now,” she said, “I don’t feel as guilty asking [an artist] for a change.” Sometimes of course, lines blur among media. When Fucile needed an image of a character dancing, he shot a video of himself “dancing like an idiot.” Then he froze the images he liked the best and used them as a reference for his illustrations.
“I get sensitive about ‘handmade,’ ” said Nash, who uses Photoshop – as well as quill pens – to create his illustrations. “I love having the old tools and then bringing it into technology.” Reynolds, too, enjoys a mix. When he was illustrating The Smallest Gift of Christmas (fall 2013) on a computer screen, he felt that the emotion wasn’t there for one scene. So he grabbed an envelope and quickly sketched what he wanted with a Sharpie, then scanned it in. Reynolds has become so comfortable switching back and forth that Stott noted, “You almost can’t tell now if it’s traditional or digital.”
The conversation also veered into the topic of series, and how to keep them fresh. For Reynolds, that hasn’t been a problem with Megan McDonald’s Judy Moody and Stink books. “Because there are basically two books a year,” he said, “I feel like Judy and her family are my family now.” He describes his newest collaboration for an upcoming series with his twin brother, Paul, as “like collaborating with myself.” Nash, who has collaborated on 50 picture books with various authors, said, “I love collaboration, although I am entering a phase when I want to do more of my own work.”
Stott, on the other hand, has a more mixed reaction. “It’s interesting to be an author published by your employer. I think of myself first and foremost as an art director.” On the writing side, McGhee said she is awed by what an illustrator can do with 400 to 500 little words.
But perhaps Reynolds, who co-owns Blue Bunny Books and Toys in Dedham, Mass., said best why picture book writers and illustrators do what they do: “I love when people say, ‘I need this book.’ As cool as technology is, a picture book is still the tops.”