Randy Cecil has been illustrating picture books since 1996, with 20 titles to his credit, and several more that he’s both written and illustrated. When he got a spunky rescue dog named Lucy, he thought that she deserved a book of her own, but he couldn’t make it work: he knew the story would be long, but the artwork required was daunting. Then, one day, the solution came to him. When he finished drafting it, Lucy was well over 100 pages – a picture book with the scope of a novel. In it, the lives of three characters intertwine in gentle black-and-white vignettes. There’s Lucy, the ever-hopeful stray; Eleanor, the girl who sneaks her tidbits every morning; and Eleanor’s father, Sam, an aspiring vaudeville juggler who is paralyzed by stage fright. Cecil spoke with PW from his home in Houston, about Pomeranians, Charlie Chaplin movies, and why some paintings have to be thrown away.
What kind of dog is Lucy?
She’s a Pomeranian. She’s pretty much exactly like exactly like the fictional Lucy. She’s full of energy, and she’s incredibly motivated by food! It didn’t take long for me to get attached to her. I work at home, so shes right beside me nearly all the time. So when I realized that someone had essentially thrown this amazing little creature away, it was mind-boggling.
How did you start writing her story?
I had always aspired to do an epic wordless picture book. So in the original story, Lucy started off in Paris, and then she got on an ocean liner... but as I started doing it, I saw how many pages it was going to take. It was such a simple story, but it took a lot of time to draw for the amount of story that you were getting. I felt frustrated with it and put it away.
But I liked the Lucy character being lost, and I liked the length of it. You have time to grow attached to the characters, which is very hard to do in a 32-page picture book. You have time to develop that attachment.
It sat in my brain for several years. And then, one morning, I had almost the entire story pop into my head. Just a complete gift. I scrambled to write it down as fast as I could. I remember that I had no food and I had to go to the grocery store and I thought I was going to lose it. Then I ran into a friend at the store – I hadn’t seen the guy in 10 years! But in the back of my mind I’m thinking “...then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened...” I’m driving in the car repeating it to myself, telling the story over and over so I don’t forget it.
So you essentially worked the entire book out before you showed it to a publisher?
Well, if I were to go to Candlewick and say I had an idea for a picture book that’s 100-odd pages long, I can’t imagine any publisher would have gone for that! But I thought, if I could show it to them, they would see it could work.
I can remember the parts I had to work out later. I knew that in the mornings Lucy has to run past Bertolt’s, and past the one-eyed cat, and past the pigeons in the park; they’re part of her everyday life. But when I drew it all out, it felt sort of empty. So I added the street band that grows instrument by instrument. And the first time you see the park, there’s a woman on the park bench, and a flower in the grass next to her, and then the next time there’s a man on the bench, and then the time after that, they’re sitting together, and he’s giving her the flower.
When you did bring it to Candlewick, what was their reaction? Who did you work with?
I worked with Joan Powers; she was the editor, and Maryellen Hanley was the art director. It took a little time for them to come back because of the logistics of it, but eventually they said, “Yeah, we’d love to do it!”
There were some things we tried to do that didn’t work so well. We tried to vary the size of the images instead of having them all the same, but that didn’t work. The double-page spreads at the openings of the sections were a really good idea; I’m very happy with those.
It’s kind of hard for me to remember now because it’s been several years since I worked on it! It was a year of sketching and drawing on my own, and then I sent it to them, and then it was a year of painting after that.
The paintings took a year?
Yes – a year, almost exactly a solid year, of painting almost every day. I end up throwing half of the paintings out and doing them again.
Why? What was wrong with them?
Oh, it could be any number of things. If the composition isn’t right in the initial sketch, then it won’t be right down the line in the painting. You don’t feel the humor in it, you don’t feel the charm in it. It’s not balanced. And when that happens, you think, “This is a very important moment! And if this doesn’t work, then the whole book won’t work.”
“For want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost...”
Right. But it can go the other way, too – a drawing can look good, and you think, OK, this book is going to work.
The writing is quite restrained – it feels like you let the story tell itself.
I was definitely conscious of trying to keep it that way. Each line has to be from one of the characters’ perspectives. If I ever fell out of that, the writing seemed bad. I have no idea why it works, but I discovered that that’s the way for me.
And the pacing is restrained, too; the story advances at a steady, reassuring speed.
That’s why the varied image sizes didn’t work. It’s very measured, and shifting to larger images or smaller images felt contrived.
Where does the silent-film setting come from?
Amy Ehrlich, my former editor at Candlewick, referred to my characters as Chaplinesque. She was talking about Gator [the title character of one of Cecil’s earlier books], and I enjoyed that comparison. I think I’ve seen almost every Charlie Chaplin movie by this point. I think the sensibility is very similar. His later stuff especially, where there’s more, sort of, gentle farce. In Lucy you can see it in when characters buck authority in a funny way, like when Sam juggles when his boss turns his back, or when Eleanor sneaks food to Lucy, or Lucy steals food from Bertolt. It’s a very gentle kind of subversiveness.
The architecture of the book is all Brooklyn, where I lived for three years. It’s beautiful and it stuck in my head. Now [in Houston] I live in a townhome complex. It’s still like a neighborhood – we run into the same people every day in the same way – but setting the story in a townhome complex just wouldn’t work at all (laughs).
Were you one of those kids who drew all the time?
That was definitely me. I drew nonstop. I remember my mother would drop my sister off or bring her to her dance classes and I would just sit and draw, or I’d draw wherever I happened to be. Always either with pencil or black marker.
With a Flair?
No – remember those sets of markers you used to get, the boxes with all the colors in them? I would burn through the black marker first, then move on to brown, then the dark gray....
So you were more interested in line than in color, it sounds like. When did you start painting?
At RISD [the Rhode Island School of Design]. That’s when I switched from illustration to painting. I had this one professor who taught both. I came in fairly cynical about the art world – you know... all those things people say about contemporary art. And in just one lecture, this professor completely changed my outlook. He expressed his enthusiasm for painting, and suddenly it all made sense to me. At the end of your first year you have to declare your major. This professor’s workload got too heavy and he decided to stop teaching illustration and just teach painting. So I switched to painting. It was a very difficult decision. I had wanted to be an illustrator since the age of four. But my mind was being opened up to so many things!
What are you working on right now?
I have about a month of painting left to go on the third installment of [Barbara Joosse’s] dragon books [following Lovaby Dragon and Evermore Dragon].
Thirty paintings in thirty days?
I wish it was like that. If it’s a double-page spread, it can take three to four days to paint. But I’m so close now that a month seems pretty safe to say.
Color is the difficult thing for me. I can repaint once to correct the drawing, but color is just juggling so many more things. If I don’t like a picture it just eats away at me. When it gets really bad, I start dreaming about going into ceramics....
Lucy by Randy Cecil. Candlewick, $19.99 Aug. ISBN 978-0-7636-6808-2