Each season, adorable, memorable picture book characters make their debuts, but only a few—such as Peter Rabbit, Curious George, Ian Falconer’s Olivia, Mo Willems’s Pigeon—become childhood touchstones for the readers who embrace them.
This fall, editors at two publishing houses are putting hefty resources behind characters they think have the potential to take off in a big way. At Henry Holt, Little Elliot, Big City by Mike Curato had a brand and a logo before the first book was even released. And at HarperCollins’s Balzer + Bray imprint, editor Alessandra Balzer commissioned three books and an easy reader series on the strength of Kelly Light’s vision for her heroine, who makes her debut in Louise Loves Art. Here we take a closer look at each title’s unusual path to publication.
Almost since he left Syracuse University in New York for Seattle, where he spent a decade working as a graphic designer, Mike Curato has been doodling Elliot: a small, polka-dot elephant. “He represents a younger me,” said the small-of-stature Curato, who grew up in Nanuet, N.Y., and has spent the past year introducing his alter ego to booksellers. By the time Little Elliot, Big City was released on August 26, the diminutive pachyderm already had fans. Holt has kept Curato busy since BEA, meeting booksellers, the media, and young readers.
“I’m so grateful about how enamored people already are with this character,” said Curato. “Reading the book aloud to a preschool in New York was a great thrill, and it was so sweet to see the kids reacting to the book. I can’t say I’ve ever experienced anything like that before.”
Curato majored in illustration at Syracuse but paid the bills by doing freelance graphic design for Microsoft and Amazon, while filling his sketchbook with drawings of Elliot in his free time. “I would send out postcards and not get any response at all,” Curato said. Friends encouraged him to get involved with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, but it took him a while to attend a conference, and longer still to enter his portfolio in the showcase at the 2012 SCBWI Midwinter Conference in New York City, an annual vent that puts unpublished artwork before the eyes of editors and agents. “I thought going to the New York conference would allow me to start networking,” he recalled, “and that maybe within a few more years, I’d get that big break.”
Curato’s drawings of Elliot, including one of the elephant peering longingly at cupcakes in the window of the Speranza Bakery, earned the showcase’s top prize. “Speranza means hope in Italian and, at the time I drew it, I was seeing what I wanted, not being able to reach it, but having hope,” Curato said. “It’s a really magical image for me.”
Before the conference ended, Curato was swamped with requests for meetings from agents and publishers. He signed with Brenda Bowen at Sanford J. Greenburger Associates, because, though Curato had captivating artwork, he did not have a finished dummy, and Bowen had expertise in many areas. “It was a huge benefit that [Brenda’s] been an editor, a publisher, and is also a writer,” Curato said. (Bowen publishes under the pseudonym Margaret McNamara.)
Bowen got him a three-book deal with Laura Godwin, v-p and publisher of Henry Holt Books for Young Readers. “I’ve been looking for something like this for years and what I mean is that all the pieces were there,” said Godwin. “So many times you see a unique idea or a really sweet character, but you can’t tick off all the boxes. With all the competition now, it can’t be, say, three of the five boxes. It’s got to be all five in order for something to take off.”
Godwin says in addition to being “charming, sincere, appreciative, and funny,” Curato has already proved himself by working in a creative field within Seattle’s highly competitive tech community. “He knows what’s involved to succeed in a tough field, and he’s willing to put in the work,” she said. “This is also a labor of love for him, so there’s a lot of excitement and that’s contagious. But the most important thing is that he’s incredibly talented with a unique style. That’s the key ingredient, and all the other stars are aligned around it.”
Holt took the unusual step of creating a Little Elliot logo for Curato’s character, and is beginning the branding with the very first title (the second book, Little Elliot, Big Family, is scheduled for fall 2015). Visitors to this year’s BEA took home Little Elliot tote bags, and a MerryMakers plush doll is in production. Curato will tour this fall with appearances at bookstores and schools in several cities across the county, and, because they are Elliot’s favorite sweet, Holt has partnered with local cupcake shops for many of the in-store events. Curato, who moved back to New York late last year, will also appear at three fall regionals: PNBA, NAIBA and SIBA.
Godwin’s favorite image in the first book is a spread that illustrates how Elliot feels after he has provided a helping hoof to someone even smaller than himself. It shows Elliot high on a mountaintop with his new friend Mouse. The single line of text reads, “Elliot felt like the tallest elephant in the world.”
“It’s the visual representation of an emotion, and I think that’s what Mike is so good at,” Godwin said.
It also describes how the artist himself is feeling these days.
Postcards from Long Island
Kelly Light, author-illustrator of this fall’s Louise Loves Art, remembers Curato’s splashy debut at that 2012 portfolio showcase. A longtime SCBWI member, she said it was memorable not only because it was so good but because she and Curato shared an alma mater: both graduated from the College of Visual and Performing Arts at Syracuse University, though they were not classmates (Light earned her degree in illustration and animation a few years before Curato enrolled).
After graduating, she, too, left New York, hoping to break into animation in Los Angeles, but returned a few years later, unable to make ends meet with the work she was getting. Instead, she took a job in Manhattan drawing cartoon characters—Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Snoopy—for the manufacturers of licensed merchandise. Like Curato, what she really wanted to do was create picture books, and by 2012, she had her foot in the door at two publishers, having been hired to do covers for Erin Soderberg’s The Quirks and Jenny Lee’s Elvis and the Underdogs.
She also had an idea for a character—a wealth of ideas really—about a girl whose need to make art was as central to her being as breathing. She created a postcard with the girl collapsed in joy over her drawings with a single line of text: “I love art! It’s my imagination on the outside.”
“I mailed a postcard to everybody I could think of, and, because I live on Long Island, they got to Manhattan the next day, and all day long, my phone rang and my email in-box filled up,” Light recalled.
One of those calls was from Alessandra Balzer, asking, “Who is this character and what’s her story?” Light recalled. “I answered in one really long run-on sentence.”
Light knew a lot about the character because the idea for Louise had been percolating for years, born of the artist’s frustration at how devalued art instruction had become in her daughter Maggie’s elementary school. “At her school, art was on a rotating schedule of once every six days, so with holidays, testing, and school vacations, she might get art twice a month,” Light said. “When I was a kid in the ’70s, we not only had more art classes—we’d do a diorama in social studies, or a bulletin board in English, always something to reinforce visually whatever we were learning. [Maggie’s] school was so hyperfocused on testing that everything else got pushed aside.”
How would an “art-crazy” kid like Light have coped? Light wanted her character to inspire children who read the story to pick up pencils or crayons themselves. “In the world of picture books today there are a lot of girls who have strong loves and obsessions, but a lot of times it’s about clothing or being super girly,” Light said. “What if there was a character whose obsession was her need to create, who valued her imagination over being a princess?”
She named the character in honor of the sculptor Louise Nevelson, whose work Light first encountered on a third-grade field trip to an art exhibit at Rutgers University. “There was this huge, crazy installation of found objects by her, which I loved,” Light recalled, “But what struck me hardest was that Louise Nevelson was a girl. We had learned about Picasso and seen a picture of Van Gogh’s Starry Night but then we went on this field trip and my reaction was, ‘OMG, a girl did this.’ ”
Still, though Light had a character with a story to tell, the words did not come easily. For a year, the only text she had were the two short sentences she had used on her promotional postcard. Balzer was not concerned. “When Kelly came in to meet the team at Harper, she brought us all this incredible behind-the-scenes material to show how she had developed Louise’s character and she introduced us to other characters in her world,” Balzer recalled. “It wasn’t meant to be a pitch at all, but it was clear that she had envisioned this whole rich and vibrant world and there was so much more of the story to tell. We were blown away—by her and her vision—so we decided to extend the series. It was an easy decision.”
Balzer signed her up for three picture books about Louise and four I Can Read books—an unusual step, Balzer admits, because at that point, like Curato, Light had no finished dummy. What she did have were hundreds of pages of drawings. “It was like a silent movie. I hung all the spreads in my studio and would walk back and forth, talking out loud, but it took a long time to actually commit to writing the few words in the book,” Light said.
“Once the story and artwork were done, I was floored by how she exceeded our expectations,” Balzer said. “We also loved where the story came from—a celebration of creativity to counteract the alarming reduction of art classes in schools. It’s a message that is so needed.”
Light has also had a busy season leading up to the September 9 release of Louise: a bookseller tour, Children’s Institute in April, the Decatur (Ga.) Book Festival in August. At BEA, she participated in the Author Speed Dating—and ran into Curato, whom she had last seen at a retirement party for one of their favorite Syracuse professors.
“I was like, ‘Mike, can you believe we’re both here?’ ” Light said.
Curato feels the same sense of astonishment. “It still knocks the breath out of me when I think about it,” Curato admitted.