The author-illustrator team and former publishing colleagues talk about their picture book collaboration.
Lauren Castillo: You are such a talented and prolific middle grade novelist. I’m curious what got you interested in writing a book for the littles?
Lisa Graff: Aw, shucks, thanks, Lauren! That means a lot coming from you, since you know I’ve been a huge fan of yours for ages. I’ve always been interested in writing picture books. Even when I was a kid, I was writing picture books. Honestly, though, I find picture books so much harder to write than novels, because every word has to do so much. I tried out many, many stories before I landed on this one – and I had a trillion different versions of this story, too, before I found the right way to tell it.
Another tough thing about writing picture books, at least for me, is that revising one small part of the text can have a huge ripple effect that alters the whole manuscript in ways I might not have intended. I probably spent about five years, off and on, pulling out this text and playing with it and then putting it away, before you even saw it.
LC: We became friends while we were both working with Frances Foster – you on the editorial side, and me on the illustrator side. I’m curious if you ever shared the idea for It Is Not Time for Sleeping with her?
LG: I didn’t, partially because I hadn’t finished the manuscript until after I left FSG, and partially because I tried to keep my lives as editor and author separate. I’m sure her notes would have been amazingly helpful, though. Frances always seemed to reach deep into a text and pull out some meaning that I never would have found for myself in a million years. Jennifer, our editor at Clarion, is so good at this too. You’d worked with her on books before this one, but one of the reasons I was convinced she’d be the right editor for this project is because when we were submitting the book to various houses she told me up front she wanted to see substantial edits in the text – and I loved the changes she suggested. On the surface, in terms of the number of words I changed, they seemed like subtle things, but they made the story come together so much better than I could have dreamed.
I know you worked at Macmillan too, although we weren’t there at the same time – I didn’t meet you until after you’d left to illustrate full-time. Do you think there’s anything you learned from your days at Henry Holt that has stuck with you as an artist and a writer?
LC: Oh, absolutely. So much. When I began working at Holt, I had just graduated from an MFA program where my focus was children’s book illustration, so I knew the basics of illustrating a book, but having the opportunity to work with the art director and see how a book is made from the publishing side was extremely beneficial. I got to unpack the original art that illustrators mailed in, and examine their brush strokes up close and personal. I saw the many different stages of a picture book, from the multiple rounds of sketch dummies to the design layouts with final art. And I learned programs like InDesign that taught me a great deal about how to lay out my own books with text and art. I could go on and on about all the things I learned while working at Henry Holt. It was an invaluable experience.
LG: And then after you left Holt you illustrated several books for Macmillan, many of them for Frances Foster at FSG, which is how we first met, since I was her assistant there. The first book we worked on together was Alfie Runs Away, which is such a lovely gem of a book. It was a great experience to observe your process, and get a tiny peek at how your brain works.
LC: Aw, thank you, friend! Yes, both Alfie and Frances get credit for bringing us together. Do you feel like your time working as an editorial assistant at FSG helped prepare you for writing in a picture book format?
LG: Working at FSG was a great education for me in terms of what it is that an illustrator does in the process of creating a picture book. Before I began working in publishing, I was of the mind that picture books were author-led, that the text was what drove the storytelling. But after seeing how a talented artist can take a text and make it entirely her own, even to the point of shifting or changing the original meaning of the text in interesting ways, I had such new respect for picture book illustrators. And I knew that when the time came that I finally wrote a worthy picture book, I only wanted to work with the very best. I think I told you this, but I definitely wrote those early drafts of Sleeping with your art in mind. You were the only artist I even considered approaching with this project. If you’d turned it down, I don’t even know what this book would be! I was so overjoyed that you agreed to do it with me. What made you want to work on this book?
LC: Well, first, I was just so surprised to receive an email from you out of the blue saying something like, “Hey, I wrote a picture book... I’ve been working on it for a while... and I’ve had you in mind as the illustrator.” I was very flattered! Then I read and fell in love with the text. I really enjoyed cumulative books and songs as a child, and your sweet cumulative bedtime story felt current, but also like it could have been written back in the ’50s or ’60s. I have a thing for classic picture books, especially the design and packaging of them, so I immediately began to daydream about the final product. Whenever I can visualize the characters and look of the art on a first read of a manuscript, I know it’s a sign that I will be able to bring something to the story as its illustrator.
What inspired you to write a bedtime story?
LG: It’s funny, because now I have kids (one of whom insists on reading this book every night at bedtime, much to my delight!), but when I first started working on this book, I didn’t, so I’m not entirely sure where the desire to write a bedtime book came from. But I think it was likely sparked by my experiences helping to put my two half-brothers to bed. They were both born when I was in high school, so I learned a lot about the ritual of bedtime from them. I’ve always loved how, to very young kids, there seem to be clear-cut steps to everyday events like going to bed – teeth-brushing, PJ-putting-on – and how the repetition of such routines can be so soothing.
Where did your characters come from for this book? Did they develop personalities as you went through the process of sketching, or did they arrive more fully formed?
LC: Every time I begin work on a new book, I’ll first draw the main characters over and over again in my sketchbook until they feel right. Then I collect all my favorite character sketches and create a collage page of them to hang on my studio wall while I’m working on the dummy. This really helps to make sure I’m keeping the characters consistent throughout. I visualized both the boy and his pup in It Is Not Time for Sleeping on the very first read of your manuscript. It was one of the rare times where my initial character sketches are almost exactly what you will see in the final book art.
LG: One of the things I love so much about your illustrations for this book is the dog, Jasper. He’s mentioned briefly in the text but I had no idea he would turn into such a big, adorable aspect of the story itself. How did you settle on this breed of dog to draw? Where did he come from?
LC: Whenever I have an opportunity to include cute, scruffy dogs in a book, I do it! I remember being excited about the inclusion of a family dog when I first read your manuscript. I had a small, scruffy dog growing up, and he was always right underfoot, not wanting to miss a single thing... whether crumb of food or bedtime story. So it seemed to make sense that wherever the boy and his family are in the story, Jasper would be right there, too. I love that you named him Jasper, by the way. When I finally adopt a dog, I may need to borrow that name.
LG: I would be honored if you did!
It Is Not Time for Sleeping by Lisa Graff, illus. by Lauren Castillo. Clarion, $16.99 Nov. ISBN 978-0-544-31930-1