Archive for the ‘Children's Book Illustration’ Category

Recently I have noticed an alarming trend in children’s books. The words are gone. In many cases the illustrations now carry the brunt of the burden in telling the story, a huge change compared to most children’s books of thirty years ago. Not a problem unless you try reading a story aloud to a small group of children, and you find yourself having to ad lib to fill in the plot or the flow of words is so choppy each page feels unrelated to the previous one.

More and more I hear that picture book texts should be as brief as possible, that anything that can be shown in the pictures should be cut. No adverbs, few if any adjectives. But in my opinion, the balance between text and art has swung too far to one side. Texts have been whittled back until read alouds are often choppy and the reader finds they have to fill in the transitions. The writing is sterilize, the poetry in the prose slaughtered. That’s not to say less can’t be more, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of the oral presentation. Picture books, after all, are intended to be read aloud to a child. They should be pleasant on the eyes AND on the ears.

It’s no surprise really. That’s what publishers want because they claim that’s what buyers want. I understand that today’s children have short attention spans, but every child I ever knew was perfectly happy to listen to a story, or perhaps several, if it meant they could stay up longer or avoid another work assignment. So maybe it’s the parents, teachers, and librarians who have been crying out for shorter reads. I get it. Time in school is at a premium more than ever. Parents are tired after a long day doing the work of three people thanks to labor cuts, their time for parenting is over-taxed and full of demands. What has happened though is that the flow of texts and vocabulary has been dumped in favor of brevity.

Perhaps things will shift back again some day. Storybooks that emerged out of a strong oral tradition will return in popularity and the picture book market will once again tolerate the well-written but wordier story that is not only entertaining, but a song to the ear because of its rhythm, rich vocabulary, and thoughtful literary devices. There will be context to introduce listeners to new and marvelous words, and memories will be challenged to stretch in recalling favorite passages.

In my opinion there is a reason the words have traditionally come first and that’s coming from someone who started this business as an illustrator.


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This past weekend my son Ian and I spoke about writing and illustrating children’s books at the Central Coast Writers Conference, organized by the wonderful Judy Salamacha, and held at Cuesta College in beautiful San Luis Obispo, California. We were honored to be a part of an event that included such a talented and enthusuiastic faculty. Jonothan Maberry was a keynote speaker and Mark Coker, creator of Smashwords was another. Interesting bookends. On one hand you had a prolific author reminding us that with hard work and years of dedication to craft an individual can still make a living at this writing thing. On the other, you had someone telling us there is an alternative.  Everyone wins–or do they?

With diminishing sales of hardcover books, distributers like Ingrams cutting back on warehousing, and a rapid increase in competition amongst titles, there are some definite losers in the fray. For one, readers. I’m not hearing anyone discuss the need for self-publishers to employ copy-editors. I can personally account for several times when one has saved my publishing ass. Sure everyone seems concerned that self-publishers will be diluting the literary world with their babble, but what about the proliferation of misconceptions and falsehoods. On more than one occasion while researching for a project I have often found factual contradictions even amongst primary sources. Without gatekeepers, these lies will continue to reappear in new works. Ultimately the responsibility lies with the author as it always has, but fresh eyes can make all the difference. Without a fact checker literary credibility will suffer just as visual credibility deteriorated with the advent of Photoshop. It will be like the difference between a documentary and a movie “based” on a true story. Eventually a reader will be unable to tell what to believe–not that that isn’t already somewhat of a problem, but at least there are still factual watchdogs on the staffs of most publishing houses working to limit the proliferation of false information.

The other issue that seems to be the dark unknown is how authors and illustrators of books, particularly picture books, will continue to make a living? Twenty or so years ago a highly reputable editor told me that if you could maintain ten books in print, you could make a living off of your work. I’m hear to tell you that’s no longer possible. The shift began years ago and many authors found they needed to augment their incomes with speaking, teaching, and in my case painting murals. With the recent economic woes, shrinking advances, sluggish sales, the demise of Borders, it’s only become more challenging.

I do support the idea that all people should have a right to express themselves in print – digital or ink. But I also believe that it should be possible for the best writers and authors to make a satisfactory living from their work. I tend to be an optimist, so I’m going to cling to the idea that with time most of us will find a way to make it work. Why? Because most of us can’t imagine NOT writing or illustrating. Ultimately time will tell.

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Last night on Celebrity Apprentice the challengers were asked to create a children’s book. The impression was that the book was written in one day and  illustrated almost simultaneously. To add insult to injury, the main character had to be based on one of the celebrities. What a surprise! Both teams insisted that the book should have a moral and squabbled over tired storylines that in the “real” world would have been turned down flat.

Once again TV has scewed reality so grotesquely that it is hardly recognizeable. The true reality is that writing a 32- page picture book requires long thought, craft, and an understanding of age appropriateness. Hitting children over the head with a moral is NOT art; it’s nagging. No child wants that.

What I found particularly amusing was that the network brought in illustrators to do the art as if to say anyone can write a  book for children, but not everyone one can illustrate one. Take it from someone who has spent years doing both, writing is no easier than drawing.

In the end, both books were proclaimed well-done and Donald Trump even offered to publish the winning title. The myth that anyone with a little name recognition should be writing for kids continues to be bought and sold. Sorry kids.

And sorry Donald Trump., but you’re fired.

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Have you ever noticed how time tends to sneak by us when we’re not looking? Our work seems to swallow us up. I used to know what day of the week it was. Not so much any more.  The other day I wrote the wrong month down on a check (Yes, on rare occasions I still write checks). And now and then I can’t remember what year it is. Now that’s sad, but also a symptom of not taking the time to, well, mark the time.

As an illustrator, though, my job is to be observant, and sometimes within my work, I need to illustrate time-or at least it’s passing. But how DO you show the passing of the years, months, and hours?

The first step is you actually have to stop long enough to note its earmarks. Take yesterday. I went for a brief stroll though my garden, something I do every day. At first it appeared to be still in the hard grasp of winter, but when I stopped long enough to really look, I discovered nature was providing all sorts of clues that a new season was at the door–unfurling nectarine buds, rain-kissed iris, absent birds returned. It made me realize that, while time is a man-made contrivance, I can draw it IF I see it .

I started thinking . It’s too easy to incorporate clocks into my art. That always feels like a cheat. How else can I illustrate time? I looked around and found a well-worn corner on a patio seat cushion, the pool level had dropped, clouds had moved across the sky, the fire pit cover was rusted, termites had gone to work on a piece of firewood. That’s when I realized TIME is PROCESS. That I can illustrate.

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So I’m down to the last three illustration for my new picture book, THE HEEBIE JEEBIE JAMBOREE. It feels like I’ve been celebrating Halloween for a couple years now. That’s okay, though, because I love Halloween. My latest discovery is painting to books on my ipod. Can’t imagine why I never thought of this before. Today I finished listening to Terry Pratchett’s NATION. The man is a genious. I just can’t get enough of his humor, and what a story! So now when I mess up an illustration you will hear me cursing Locaha’s name. My kids think I’ve been hitting the cooking sherry again. I love just messin’ with them.

So do you listen to books ?  What are some of your favorites to recommend?

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Last week was the launch for my new books, Ogg and Bob: Meet Mammoth and Ogg and Bob Life with Mammoth, both written my my son, Ian, and illustrated by yours truly. Huge thanks to everyone who helped me celebrate, especially to the incomparable Anastasia Suen, Michelle Markel at the Cat and Fiddle, Elizabeth Dulemba (who had her own book launching), Mitali Perkins, and all the wonderful Tweety birds who helped celebrate on #BookBDay. The week was a great success, and come next Monday, October 18, I’ll be announcing the winners for each day, so be sure to check in at my website http://www.maryannfraser.com/ to see who won. Each winner will be receiving a piece of original art. If you haven’t left a comment, there is still time.

I am also in the midst of illustrating a new book, The Heebie Jeebie Jamboree, which should be out a year from now–assuming I make my incredibly tight deadline. I also was asked last minute to hang a show at a local cafe, Cafe Valentino. The fallout of all the hoopla, painting, and hanging was that something had to give, and it was the blog. So I’m back and digging in–or out, depending what side of my computer you’re on.

By the way, I just finished reading Jay Asher’s, Thirteen Reasons Why. What a brilliant concept, and such an important message– everything affects everything. The accolades are well-deserved.

Great stuff going on over at Nathan Bransford’s blog. He’s out of the office for the week which would be a serious loss for those of us who love his blog, but the guests he has lined up are doing an amazing job of holding down the fort. Check it out.

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Some years ago I worked for an advertising agency and my boss teased me on a daily basis that he had “discovered” the secret to creating art. I desperately wanted to learn this secret. After numerous bribes, unbridled flattery, and out adn out pleading, he finally deemed me worthy and revealed “the secret” to me. And, you know what? I’d known it all along. It’s the thing that makes all  creative work successful whether it be visual art, music, writing, choreography, or cake decorating. The Secret? True art solicits a response. It might be revulsion, amusement, anger, fright, or any other of a number of responses. It is not about soliciting envy or admiration. Nor is it about caling the creator to mind. Art is about feeling something and expressing it clearly. Art is striking at the heart of truth and hitting the mark.

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