Saturday, September 20, 2014

Marla Frazee, Picture Book Creator Extraordinaire

Marla Frazee put it right out there as she began her recent presentation to a group of kids and adults at my library, saying: "I love going to work every day and drawing pictures all day long." And, in a nutshell, that's exactly why Frazee's books are so wonderful: she draws from the heart.

Photos of Marla Frazee by Jeffrey MacMillan

 Her newest picture book, The Farmer and the Clown, is just the latest demonstration of the way that Frazee pours her heart and soul into her work. The Farmer and the Clown focuses on the unlikely bond between an elderly farmer and the young clown he briefly befriends when the clown accidentally falls off his circus train and lands on the farmer's property. The book is wordless, but Frazee's illustrations convey a world of emotions. She shows how the rather monochrome world of the farmer is brightened by the red-and-yellow-suited clown, just as he finds joy in in this new and unexpected friendship. The illustrations are stunning in their power to touch the reader, whether child or adult, and The Farmer and the Clown already has garnered boatloads of critical acclaim and is being touted by children's book experts as a top possibility for the 2015 Caldecott Medal.

I've long been a Frazee fan, attracted by her keen drawing skill as well as by the way her illustrations reference past illustrators yet still seem so fresh. Her illustrations for the Clementine books by Sara Pennypacker, for example, bring to mind -- as Frazee hopes -- the classic drawings by Louis Darling for the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary. Perhaps most importantly, Frazee, a two-time Caldecott Honor winner, is a visual storyteller. She creates illustrations that engage both her emotions and, she hopes, the emotions of her readers. As she tells Roger Sutton, editor of The Horn Book in a recent interview: "... I feel like that's the big question when it comes to illustration -- how do you convey emotion in a picture? Not only over the span of the book, but in each individual image, each spread. What are you trying to say emotionally, and how do you show that emotion?"

In person, Frazee is a bundle of energy, and clearly enjoys meeting her fans, particularly young fans. As Frazee told the audience gathered at my library: "Here's a secret -- kids can read pictures better than grown-ups." Frazee then proceeded to lead a demonstration of this statement, briefly showing an illustration of two seemingly identical black-and-white dogs, the stars of her book,  Boot & Shoe, and asking the audience if they saw any difference between the two canines. Adults (including me, I'm afraid) shook their heads, while kids' hands immediately shot into the air. Frazee called on one young participant, who pointed out that one of the dogs had all black legs, while the other dog has white legs, ending in black "socks."

Marla smiles as I introduce her to the library crowd.

 So it's no wonder that, when she was interviewed on the children's literature blog, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, by blogger Julie Danielson, Frazee said: "... the picture book audience (is) the most discerning, observant, critical, and appreciative group that we illustrators will ever have the privilege of serving." Or, as Frazee and her long-time editor, Allyn Johnston, wrote in a 2011 essay for The Horn Book: "While the words in picture books are meant to be read aloud, children can read the pictures on their own. They don't need to be taught this skill and are, in fact, way better at it than grownups. They study pictures for story, meaning, character, setting, plot, and motivation and for a parallel, counterpoint, or secondary narrative. They notice everything, which obviously includes any mistakes."

Frazee herself was only a child when she knew that she would someday become a children's book illustrator. At her recent presentation, Frazee showed an illustration that she had done when she was little more than a toddler. It was hard to tell exactly what it was supposed to be, but Frazee's mother somehow saw early talent in her daughter and saved numerous drawings like these. Frazee created her first picture book in the third grade, prompted by her somewhat bossy best friend Lisa who said she would write the text and Frazee could illustrate it. Their teacher entered it in a statewide contest and the book won. Two years later, Frazee's fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Holcomb, predicted that Frazee "would illustrate picture books, painting outdoors in a sunlit meadow. So far, no meadow," as Frazee said in an interview with Something About the Author.

Actually becoming a children's book illustrator, however, took a lot longer than Frazee ever expected. After graduating with an illustration degree from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., Frazee was readily able to get work as an illustrator for advertisements, magazines and educational publications. She created team characters for the National Football League that were made into plush toys, designed Happy Meal boxes for McDonald's, and did toy design for Mattel, Milton Bradle, and Parker Brothers. But it was twelve long years -- filled with rejections from publishers, before Frazee illustrated her first book, World Famous Muriel and the Magic Mystery, written by Sue Alexander and published in 1990.

At that point, Frazee thought she was finally on her way to achieving her goal of being a children's book illustrator. But it was actually five more years before she illustrated her second book, That Kookery!, written by Margaret Walden Froehlich. The book was named a "notable book" by the Association for Library Service to Children, and it marked a turning point in Frazee's career. Looking back in an interview with WETA's Reading Rockets, Frazee noted that, until that point, "I wasn't telling stories with my pictures. I was doing something else with illustration, and in other areas of illustration that's appropriate. If you're doing advertising, you might have to communicate a message ... with your pictures. In educational publishing, it's teaching something with your illustrations. In toys and games, it might be a decorative thing that you're trying to do. With children's books, it's storytelling. I didn't have that component really developed."

These days, Frazee is considered a master visual storyteller. She also now writes some of the books she illustrates; the first book that she both wrote and illustrated was Roller Coaster, published in 2003 and a favorite among young readers in my library who love to pore over the riders' faces. In 2009, Frazee won her first Caldecott Honor for the hilarious picture book, A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever, which she also both wrote. A year later, Frazee won her second Caldecott Honor for All the World, written by Liz Garton Scanlon. Other favorite Frazee books of mine include The Seven Silly Eaters, written by Mary Ann Hoberman, Stars, written by Mary Lynn Ray, and The Boss Baby, both written and illustrated by Frazee. That book, Frazee told us, is being made into a full-length feature animation film by DreamWorks. She added: "I'm very interested to see how they take a 32-page picture book and create a full-length film!"

Meanwhile, I'm going to place a bet right now that The Farmer and the Clown wins either a 2015 Caldecott Honor, or the Medal itself. It's just that good. And I'll close this blog with a laugh; in his recent interview with Frazee about the book, Roger Sutton noted that "it's kind of amazing when you think about what we can get away with in picture books. If you just described this situation -- a child gets tossed off a train, in the middle of a desert, and there's this old man, and he comes and takes the child to his house." Frazee responded: "Trust me, I know. Those closest to me will ask, 'What are you working on?' and I'll say something like what you just said, and they'll say, 'Oh my god. Are you serious?'"

End Notes: Thanks to Marla Frazee for a marvelous evening; thanks also to her editor Allyn Johnston for helping things go so smoothly. Thanks to Politics & Prose, especially Kerri Poore, for booking this presentation at my library. Huge thanks to my talented neighbor and friend, professional photographer Jeffrey MacMillan, for taking the photos of Marla that really make this blogpost look great. And finally, thanks to Simon & Schuster for the review copy of The Farmer & the Clown.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The "Uber-Talented" Eleanor Davis

Eleanor Davis has been a star in our Children's Room for some time. Kids just learning to read love her graphic novel reader, Stinky, while her book, The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook, is one of our most popular graphic novel check-outs among young readers.

 But Davis' recent presentation at our library (part of our partnership with Politics & Prose) wasn't about kid stuff. Instead, Davis was focused on her new graphic novel for adults, How To Be Happy. Even more than that, her presentation, which was riveting, fascinating and more than a bit confounding, was rated PG-13. (Davis herself gave it that rating because of strong language and discussion of sexual topics).

It was a thought-provoking presentation of truth and lies, woven together and mixed with Davis' lyrical commentary and artwork that is simply stunning in its emotional impact and artistic vision -- much like her new book. After the program, Davis noted that she was tired of talking about her life,  and figured that presenting variations on her life -- mixing truth with falsehood -- would make things more interesting. It certainly did, and it was entertaining for me -- a former reporter -- to be taking notes on Davis' talk and then suddenly be told that the facts presented in that section were "90 percent lies."!

 While I've read How To Be Happy a couple of times and am awestruck by Davis' imagination and artistic talent, I would have a hard time trying to review it. The book is a series of short stories, each done in a different artistic style, so there are many different pieces to interpret and review. And I'm still very much a neophyte when it comes to graphic novels. So let me link to a couple of folks who do know graphic novels and are fans of Davis' work in general and of How To Be Happy in particular.

In his April 19, 2014 blog for Forbidden Planet, Richard Bruton noted that, "Eleanor Davis is, without question, a major young creator," adding: "Despite (her) changing styles, the constant is an incredible storytelling sense....." You can read more here.

Eleanor Davis signs books for a fan.
 And Tim O'Shea, in an interview with Davis published on June 30, 2014 on says that "her work often strikes me as the comics equivalent of an interpretive dance. I have no other way to describe the core response that her work elicits from me. I look repeatedly at some of the pages in this collection (How To Be Happy) and still find something new each time." O'Shea's interview with Davis can be read here.

Best of all, take a look at what my library colleague, graphic novel guru Dave Burbank, has to say about Davis and her work here.

My only disappointment of the evening was when Davis said she wasn't planning to do a sequel to The Secret Science Alliance. Noting that she frequently gets letters from young readers asking for a sequel, Davis said that the book just took too much time, even with the lettering help from her talented graphic novelist husband, Drew Weing. But Davis urged disappointed readers to follow Weing's web comic, The Creepy Casefiles of Margo Magoo, which she likened to The Secret Science Alliance. I've just started reading it, and I'm enjoying it so far. Perhaps Weing will publish a book someday containing the entire story. That's how it goes these days in the comics world. Things that start as web comics can become big sellers in published print form -- just look at the success of Smile, Raina Telgemeier's best-selling graphic novel that started as a web comic.

One last note on Davis. In searching for information about her on the Internet, I discovered that she had been invited to do a Google Doodle a few months ago. Like all of Davis's work, it is quirky, beautiful and incredibly unique. Check it out in this interview that Davis did with Michael Cavna, who covers comics for The Washington Post and who deserves the credit for correctly labeling Davis as "uber-talented."

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Raina, Dave, and Jimmy Show

If you know a kid who likes graphic novels (and who doesn't?), then you likely are familiar with books by Jimmy Gownley, Dave Roman, and the reigning queen of kids' comics, Raina Telgemeier. So it was no surprise to see a big crowd of excited kids and parents yesterday when the three graphic novelists presented a program at Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C.

All three have won top awards for their work, and they've also been among the first wave of those filling the new -- and ever growing -- market for graphic novels for kids. Gownley's Amelia Rules books are beloved by our library's young readers, who especially enjoy the feisty Amelia. Roman's two Astronaut Academy books may be set in outer space, but readers love the fact that the characters face the kind of everyday friendship challenges that every kid understands. And Telgemeier's books, especially her Eisner Award-winning graphic memoir Smile, are among the most popular in our entire library. Kids are just fascinated to read about the emotional consequences of the dental drama that Telegeimer endured in middle school and high school.

At Saturday's event, the trio focused on presenting their newest books before taking questions from the audience. Gownley went first, talking about his new graphic memoir, The Dumbest Idea Ever!, which details how he created and self-published comics as a teenager. Gownley's initial efforts at creating comics were scorned by his best friend, who told him: "You should make a comic book about kids like us!" As Gownley told the crowd on Saturday: "I thought that was the dumbest idea ever, but it changed my life." Gownley's decision to create comics "about kids like us" resulted in the best-selling Amelia Rules series, which has shot him to stardom in the world of kids' comics.

In my library, kids who have read The Dumbest Idea Ever! have loved it, and it's become a word-of-mouth favorite. As Telgemeier does in Smile and her newest book Sisters, Gownley uses the graphic memoir format to both entertain and inspire kids. This trailer gives a sense of the pleasures readers will find in The Dumbest Idea Ever!.

Roman's Astronaut Academy books, meanwhile, feature wild characters (time-traveling pandas, dinosaurs with wheels, etc.) and over-the-top humor. Roman's books, featuring black-and-white artwork done in a manga/anime kind of mash-up style, are set in an outer space boarding school where the most popular sport is Fireball.  In the first book, Zero Gravity, we meet our spiky-haired hero, Hakata Soy, whose impressive quiff is more than a match for Tintin's. As a new student, Hakata is just trying to figure out the social hierarchy at the astronaut training school when suddenly he must cope with defeating a villain designed to look just like him.

In the second book, Re-Entry, Hakata and other Astronaut Academy students are eagerly awaiting the upcoming Fireball championship. Then disaster strikes, in the form of a shape-shifting monster, who is stealing and eating some of the nine hearts with which each student is endowed. As in the first book, Roman packs each page with action and hilarity; check out this book trailer to get a sense of Roman's style.

I titled a previous post "Raina Reigns" because her first two books, Smile and Drama, are so popular in my library. Her newest book, Sisters, has already become a "best-seller" among our young patrons. It's easy to see why, since Telgemeier once again displays a natural command of the emotions experienced by kids and teens. As she explained to the crowd at Politics & Prose, Telgemeier hadn't planned on doing another graphic memoir, but the legions of Smile fans kept begging her to tell more about her life. "I decided that since people seemed particularly curious about my sister, I would write a story about our relationship." Telgemeier added her sister was the first reader for the book, and it wouldn't have been published without her approval.

As her "framing device" for telling the story, Telgemeier said she decided to use a roadtrip from California to Colorado that her family took when she was 14 and her sister Amara was nine. As Telgemeier tells of the trip's many ups and downs (a snake plays a pivotal part), she also uses flashbacks to show how much she wanted a sister and how disappointed she was in the sister she got. Woven into the story is the increasing tension between Telegemeier's parents, who eventually divorced. As in Smile, Telegemier displays a genius for deftly combining poignancy and hilarity  as she captures the ups and downs of being a kid. Telgemeier gives a further glimpse into her book and her writing/drawing process in this charming book trailer.

Telgemeier, who clearly delights in meeting her readers, remained unruffled at Saturday's program when a young fan asked during the Q&A time whether she and Roman -- her husband -- would ever have kids. "I like kids very much," she said adding that she enjoys spending time with her baby nephew. "But we'll have to see about kids -- maybe someday." Roman, meanwhile, pointed out that Telgemeier wouldn't have as much time to publish books like Smile and Sisters if they were to have kids. Smile took five years to write and draw, Telgemeier said, adding that she also was working full-time at another job at the time. Sisters took less time because Telgemeier now focuses full-time on making comics, but even so, it didn't happen overnight; Telgemeier said she wrote the "script" or story in a month, and then it took her another year and a half to do the artwork.

Other questioners wanted to know why the trio decided to become graphic novelists. Roman noted that, "for us, comics is what we do. Whenever we get an idea, it's a comic book idea." Gownley added that he was happily stunned when he first discovered comics at the age of nine, and quickly decided that's what he wanted to do with his life. For Telgemeier, reading Calvin and Hobbes for the first time "was like a lightning bolt from the sky that came and hit me over the head... and I said 'I want to do comics!'"

Final note: Happy Birthday to Politics & Prose which is celebrating 30 great years in the book-selling business today!

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Marvelous World of Mouse Guard

The first thing you notice about the Mouse Guard graphic novels by David Petersen is how beautiful they are. Yes, the stories are real rip-roaring animal fantasy yarns, but it's the artwork that really pulls you in and keeps you turning the pages. Petersen has a distinctive artistic style, featuring finely-drawn characters and eye-catching, digitally-colored illustrations. It's a style that has won Petersen numerous fans as well as critical accolades, including the prestigious Eisner Award.

 But Petersen's own artistic vision took years to develop, as he told a crowd of Mouse Guard fans gathered recently at my library. "Early on, I tried to emulate other people whose work I liked," Petersen said. "But I was never really happy with the way my things turned out.... I'm not saying that drawing by copying other people's styles is a bad thing -- that's how we all learn.  I'm just talking about slowly shedding the ideas of other people... so you can learn to be you."

In his talk, Petersen talked about his childhood in Flint, Michigan, a city that many think of as urban and gritty. Yet where Petersen grew up, he could be surrounded by woods in a five minutes' walk, something he believes has totally informed his work. Just take a look at any Mouse Guard book and you'll quickly become immersed in what Petersen calls "the natural world."

 As a fine arts major at Eastern Michigan University, Petersen thought he would become a children's book illustrator. At the library program, he showed part of his portfolio, including an illustrated story that he wrote and illustrated called The Mouse and the Cardinal. Petersen joked that he quickly learned that "inter-species love was off-limits in the children's book world."

Another key influence for Petersen was his love and knowledge of role playing games, such as Dungeons & Dragons. He loved the games, and he enjoyed the friends he made as he played the games. At the program, he showed a picture of three of his good friends -- all role-playing game buddies -- each of whom has become a character in the Mouse Guard books.

The Mouse Guard books "are silly on the surface," Petersen said. "They're about mice who are walking and talking on their hind legs. But it's not a silly story," he added. And he's right -- the Mouse Guard books comprise a range of literary genres and emotions. While the characters are mice, they are stand-ins for human readers who will readily relate to their fears and joys. It's worth reading Petersen's FAQ on his website to learn more background about Mouse Guard, including this statement: "For David, mice became a perfect representation of being an underdog, having the world stacked against you, and having enemies with all the advantages of size and might."

 So far, there are three main Mouse Guard books written and illustrated by Petersen. He says the first book, Fall 1152, "helps readers learn the characters and their stories." Here's how Petersen describes, on his website, the overall world-building scenario for the series: "... mice struggle to live safely and prosper amongst harsh conditions and a host of predators. Thus the Mouse Guard was formed: more than just soldiers, they are guides for common mice looking to journey without confrontation from one village to another. They see to their duty with fearless dedication so that they may not simply exist, but truly live."

The second book, Winter 1152, is a "character-driven story," Petersen said. School Library Journal noted that the book "follows the darkening adventures of the brave troops of the Mouse Guard as they battle the elements, predators, and even other mice in order to secure their way of life. The high-quality artwork found in the first volume carries over into this one." Their final verdict: "Combining a tale of action, romance, comedy, and tragedy with the graphic-novel format results in a top-notch work with wide appeal."

 All of this intricate artwork and story-telling takes time, however. As Petersen told the library crowd: "It was taking me so long to get going on the third book, that I decided to do a spin-off of the series called Legends of the Mouse Guard." Petersen's idea was that he would ask other graphic novelists to contribute stories that members of the Mouse Guard might have told in the local tavern, adding that "I draw the bar scenes." So far, two of these Legends books have been published "and we're about to start on a third volume." Petersen particularly likes to spotlight talented new graphic novelists in these books, as a way to giving back to the community that helped him get his start.

Last year, Petersen published The Black Axe,  the third volume in the Mouse Guard series. "It's a prequel," he said, adding that it is set about 40 years before Fall 1152. This November, he will published another Mouse Guard book, Baldwin the Brave and Other Tales. That book will be a mix of four stories that he wrote for Free Comic Book Day, plus two new tales.

One of Peterson's models for the Mouse Guard books.
Petersen has done other things besides the Mouse Guard books, including doing illustrations for the popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics. But it's in the Mouse Guard books that he really can show his prodigious artistic talents, as well as his attention to detail. Petersen wowed the library crowd when he showed slides of the models that he builds -- from cardboard, mainly -- of buildings, ships and other locations that are featured in the books.

 Overall, Petersen's talk was a hit with our library audience, which included both kids and adults.  One young reader asked Petersen during the Q&A why the mice often wear cloaks in his books. The audience loved Petersen's answer: "I had no idea what mice anatomy would look like if mice stood on their hind legs. So I just wrapped a bunch of fabric around them."

Next year is the 10th anniversary of the Mouse Guard books, and Petersen's publisher, Archaia Comics, will be putting out what Petersen calls an "over-sized" collection of his art from the books. Petersen also plans to begin working on a fourth Mouse Guard book about the Weasel War of 1149, something referenced in the other volumes. Clearly, Petersen has plenty more Mouse Guard stories to tell -- good news for all of his fans!

Note: thanks to Dave Burbank, a library assistant and the graphic novel guru at my library. You can read more about Petersen's work on Dave's Comics blog. Also thanks to Esther Kim of Fantom Comics in Washington, D.C. who brought copies of Petersen's books to sell to eager fans.