7 | On “Mermaids on Parade”

Tell us about MERMAIDS ON PARADE. How did you get the idea of creating your book about this unique Brooklyn event?

Melanie Hope Greenberg: MERMAIDS ON PARADE was an idea which grew out of community. In 2005, during an author visit at the Brooklyn Central Library, the Division Managers told me what was missing on their bookshelf. They said children get excited to read by seeing themselves or their own environment in books. That gave me the seed to my future vision.

Adding serendipity, around the same time I was invited to join a Brooklyn local performance art troupe, the Superfine Dinettes, and march in the upcoming Coney Island Mermaid Parade. The invitation gave structure to the vision.


Superfine Dinettes

Superfine Dinettes


As the writing process started I interviewed the Dinettes at dance rehearsals and while creating costumes at the “Tail Factory”. One of the Dinettes said that marching in the parade helped her “come out of my shell”. That became the theme of the book. I took photos of dazzling costumes and learned how to make a mermaid tail.

Tim Travaglini first heard my request to show him a dummy in Los Angeles at the 2005 National SCBWI. We’d been crossing paths traveling as SCBWI faculty for a few years. I did not tell Tim any specifics of my book idea in LA. When I presented my book proposal to him as a manuscript with storyboards in NYC several months later, he took it right away.

Tim was already a fan of my artwork. Plus, I’d done my research and knew there were no other picture books published on my subject matter. I need to add that, having published 16 picture books, I am coming from a different perspective than if I were brand new.

Erin Taylor: On books that you are the author as well as illustrator, do you create the visual story and then add the words, or do you do the writing first?

Melanie Hope Greenberg: Good question, Erin. It’s a mix. Mostly, I start with a story idea, outline the idea on “the map” or the thumbnail grids to see the 32 page sequence. Words start to flow better when I have visual references. 

The visual references can just be the map, not the compositions for each spread. Those visuals come later or during the grid and storyboard phases. Things shift in these phases. What works in our minds might not translate well to art or words. Or the pacing is off and shifting text to a new spread or omitting text means the art needs to change sometimes. 

All the hard work is done in these early stages. Once the kinks are worked out, painting the book is fun, and there’s a map you’ve created to help navigate the job.


Thumbnail storyboard for MERMAIDS ON PARADE



I create a thumbnail grid. It helps me see the overall sequences of scenes in a 32 page picture book. Usually, books start on pages 4/5. I had so much to share in MERMAIDS ON PARADE that I started on pages 2/3. The dedication and copyright pages were combined on the last page, page 32.


Enlarged storyboard

Enlarged storyboard for MERMAIDS


My thumbnails get a bit larger to create storyboards, combining text with art. Here is where I start to see things in terms of camera angles. Close-ups, long shots, looking down, over a shoulder. What works with the text in that scene? Does each turn of the page have something new to offer? The storyboard is a good place to figure out the pacing of the text.

Erin Taylor: I’ve been doing a lot back and forth with balancing art and words in my dummy, too- it’s really one big puzzle! But the writing part is much harder for me, and the editor for my story asked me to keep it to one or two words per spread. Now another question! When I was in New York for the conference a lot of editors/AD showed examples of all the revisions an illustrator goes through before the book is finished. Do you go through several storyboards or dummies during your process in the early stages when trying to get the art/words worked out?

MHG: Yes, I go through at least 5-10 storyboards/dummies. Yowza, this job is not simple. I have a copy machine that I cannot live without.

Erin Taylor: I’ve gone through several storyboards, on my second dummy! Not complaining, just hoping to get a little closer to nailing it on this next one!

It’s a picture book about a dog and a cake — Allyn Johnston from Beach Lane is the editor who likes it. She suggested using the same word (cake) in different ways “Cake?” “Cake!” that sort of thing- with a few other words thrown in here and there. I have gotten past the first challenge of coming up with an a different ending. She thought the first one was too predictable — which I could see. Now I just have the writing to do. I think she is a really good editor so I want to at least give it a try.

MHG: Of course, give it a try. 

PS, tell your book ideas to ONLY your most trusted friends and colleagues.


32 page book dummy for MERMAIDS

32-page book dummy for MERMAIDS


When I feel satisfied with my storyboards, I enlarge the sketches and place the text into a 32 page dummy, or prototype book. This is what an author-illustrator sends with a submission proposal (cover letter, manuscript, color sample) to an editor or publishing house to get a book contract. If an illustrator is chosen to paint for a particular author, the process is the same: thumbnails, storyboards and dummy.

Joy Chu:  Good point about the value of revision.

 Diane D’Andrade (friend and former Harcourt acquiring editor) tells me that the average number of total picture book manuscript revisions is 17. Yes, you heard right. 17. Not tweaks. Complete REVISIONS.

When she said that, I replied “ONLY 17???”  


Erin Taylor: @ Melanie: That is good advice- thanks. Have only shown dummy to a few people — when people ask about the project I say it’s about a dog and a cake. I don’t give much more than that— it’s too complicated to try and explain the plot of a picture book w/o the pictures.

Erin Taylor: @Joy:   17… WOW.

I had one more thought on the subject of the revision process.  I can’t count the number of times I have been approached by a new writer who wanted me to illustrate a story they were going to self-publish. The reason for their wanting to self-publish is because they do not want an editor touching their story and changing it.  Or they want to be in more control over what the illustrator does. I don’t want to produce a book this way. I think that editors/art directors can see things that authors or illustrators do not, and all of those revisions,  storyboards, and dummies make a great book, and not just an okay one. The only author/illustrator I can think of in the history of children’s books whose work editors did not touch was Dr. Seuss.

MHG: Touché Erin! When I was the 2005 SCBWI Golden Kite Award judge, I looked at 300 books. I really saw how the self-published books had many obvious flaws. Text and art did not match up, or art was not composed correctly, such as important elements painted in the gutter (the crease in the middle of the book). 

Getting a book published professionally is not a fast fix. A team develops with one’s editor and art director. The collaborative effort keeps polishing the idea until there’s shiny, vibrant words and art.

JC: I’ll betcha Dr Seuss rewrote his words way more than 17 times. And read them aloud a bazillion-fold to Smallville types of all stripes (in other words, children).

MHG: Pretty sure the neighbors think I’m daft talking to myself   🙂

Erin Taylor: I guess I thought the Golden Kite Awards were only for books that were published by a publishing house? 300 entries, wow. I was the featured illustrator on the SCBWI website last summer and I got bombarded with people wanting me to illustrate their book for self-publishing. I was irritated by the ones who thought that their work was perfect, and did not need anything changed. They wanted full control over how I would illustrate — and one guy asked if I could have it done in a couple weeks because he was in a hurry!!

I watched an interview that Ted Geisel’s wife, Audrey gave. She said the one thing that would just make him so mad was when other authors or illustrators would come to visit, and talk about getting a book done over the weekend. He took the process seriously and yes, I am sure he made more that 17 revisions!

JC: Re: SCBWI Golden Kite requirements. I just looked at the submission guidelines. Are self-published books handled as a separate category? I see there’s publisher-submitted rules, and then there’s individual-submitted rules. 

It’s true about self-published books standing out for their relatively amateurish handling of text and content, art, and overall typography and layout. In many such cases, ego seems to trump good business sense.

MHG: When I received the award books they came to my mailbox randomly. I put them in boxes alphabetically by publisher. I had to log in their data. They were all together, trade and self-published books on one long list. The books shifted around in the boxes as I got closer to the short list and eventually the winners.

 A craft is perfected over and over. It takes perfected skills to make a craft look so easy.

Erin Taylor: @ Melanie:  So over a period of time you got 300 books in your mailbox?! Did you keep them after the judging or send them back?

Erin Taylor: @ Joy:  Ego, yes. Good business sense would understand how hard it is to make a profit and how much work it would be to market and sell the books (and time = money, too.) I’ve seen it happen with some self-publishing ventures I turned down.

MHG: I kept the winners and asked the illustrators for signed bookplates.  😉   I kept a few books for myself that I loved. My friend’s children got some books. And the major bulk went to two school libraries in NYC.

Erin Taylor: Sounds like a lot of work but I bet it was fun to see such a wide array of stories and different styles. Nice that you donated the rest  🙂

MHG: I learned what makes a book the “cut above” the rest. My craft only got better reading all those books with a critical eye.


Detail from final art

Detail from final art


The shy main character in MERMAIDS ON PARADE has come out of her shell. Many silent stories build a tapestry of layers that transcend and enhance the text. This opens discussion with young readers.


The winner!



JC: @ Melanie: This is a carry-over of Janis Marziotto’s original query, which appeared during Question 5.  

I believe Janis is addressing the issue of working on someone else’s story vs. your own story. 

For example, when you worked on Anne Rockwell’s manuscript, Good Morning Digger. It is understood that the illustrator is never in direct contact with the author (all non-pros are often shocked by this basic rule of the book biz), but rather with the editor and art director. 

On the other hand, the author must have been in on your process in terms of factual information and pictorial details on your book dummy. Would you share how such a collaboration works, and in particular, with Anne? 

I’m sure inquiring minds will want to know how you juggle machinations involved with books like Good Morning Digger with your overall routine. 


JC: PS: And for reference, here is the original question:

Janis Marziotto: “I’d like to know more about your process about working your illustrations into someone else’s story. How do you start? Do you let the story speak to you and whatever pictures pop into your head those are what you go with? As a writer, when I look at pictures, the pictures speak to me in words.”

MHG: @ Joy: Usually the authors and illustrators never meet. I have been fortunate in my career that I have met many of my authors. Anne Rockwell and I met and connected, and she bravely requested my art for her book at Viking. Once I was on board, Anne, a highly skilled professional picture book author and illustrator with over 150 books published, was extremely gracious and very professional to step out of the way of my vision. We had no collaboration once her vision was handed over to me to embellish. I really appreciated that room.

MHG: @ Janis: When I read a manuscript that is not my own,  the author’s visual writings bring up images in my mind’s eye right away.  Many of my early doodles go on a pad or right on the thumbnail grid at times. I try to get the image from my mind onto paper quickly. Then research comes in. I might loosely sketch a digger, but I need to see what one really looks like for the final art.

JC: @ Melanie:  Did you attach any scrap or photocopies of your references to your sketches? Just to show the editor you did the prerequisite homework? And did you visit construction sites yourself?

MHG: My goal is to show all the homework synthesized into the illustration. However, it can’t hurt to have a sketchbook with you. IIlustrator  Dan Yaccarino brought his sketchbook to editorial meetings, and some published picture books came from that.

 Yes, I did visit a real construction site right near my house that was painted in GOOD MORNING, DIGGER. There was also a digger underneath the Manhattan Bridge that’s in the spread 
where ‘Digger’ is resting on a mound of dirt. I also borrow books from the public library as research or look on Google Images.

Janis Marziotto: Thank you.

JC : @ Everyone: You can see GOOD MORNING, DIGGER at these links: Children’s Literature Network / Writer Anne Rockwell http://www.childrensliteraturenetwork.org/aifolder/aipages/ai_r/rockwell02.php

Look inside the book at Amazon.com
:  http://www.amazon.com/Good-Morning-Digger-Anne-Rockwell/dp/0142408239

JC: Anne Rockwell sent her comments earlier today on working with Melanie on GOOD MORNING, DIGGER, printed below with her permission.


“I had written GOOD MORNING, DIGGER, originally with the idea that I would illustrate it. But I was having a lot of problems with arthritis in my right thumb, and couldn’t see myself taking on an illustration project that required so much detail so that little kids could imagine themselves making those big machines *work.*

I met Melanie at a conference in Findley, Ohio. We made friends readily. Something in Melanie’s work–the bright colors, the childlike eye for detail, and the urban settings — reminded me of my own way of approaching artwork for little children. I asked her if she’d be interested and she said “yes”.

The rest was up to me, and I was scared, because editors and/or art directors don’t welcome meddlesome authors — even when the author wrote the words with very specific images in her mind’s eye.

The editor agreed to take a look at Melanie’s portfolio. But by some miracle, the head of the department had also seen Melanie’s work, and hoped something would come along she was right for. So things clicked.

As an illustrator myself, I wouldn’t want an author breathing down my neck and saying “But I thought she’d have curly hair…” or the like. So I stayed put. I waited patiently until I saw f&gs and found them perfect.

I should say that I find my texts very straightforward, and if the illustrator just paints what the words say, they’ll be fine. Melanie did just that. It’s there in the composition, the color, the point of view.

Picture books for young children are books where they read the pictures, while listening to the words, and author and illustrator must both understand that so the story is seamless. Children and their parents tell me they love this book. And I do too. 

Thank you, Melanie, for making DIGGER and his pals live.”

— Anne Rockwell | Sept 1, 2010


Chris Demarest: I did a similar thing for a book called ALL ABOARD. The idea was an ABC book that had a feel of old travel posters. When it finally came to working on samples to show the art director, Ann Bobco, at McElderry Books, I couldn’t make it work. So I told Ann to find someone else. Artist Bill Mayer was brought in, and he did a great job. It’s an interesting position for an illustrator to be in. It reminded me of George C. Scott turning down his Oscar for Patton. He said if other actors had also portrayed the same role, and they still felt he was the best, then he’d take it. The point is, every artist will make a story different so kudos to you, Anne for being brave and letting go.

JC: Chris raises an excellent point. You can hand a variety of illustrators exactly the same story, and each one will offer their own special vision — without changing a single word. 

You could wind up with a comedy, drama, zombie tale, satire, mystery, period piece, or super-realistic portraiture. We did this in my classes with Red Riding Hood and The 3 Pigs. Illustrators can really illuminate a fine manuscript. The possibilities are endless! 

For example, I can envision how Ms. Melanie Hope Greenberg might render  Red Riding Hood, The 3 PigsSnow White, or The Wizard of Oz. Perhaps they would take place all over Brooklyn, or all five boroughs, at a costume party. And at the very end, there would be a huge cheering crowd, and a welcome-home extravaganza by a B-52s/jug band! Plus a book-signing party at the best diner in. . . . Queens?

Chris Demarest: @Joy:  Thanks for expanding that. Using Melanie’s neighborhood and her artistic style is a great example. An author, of course, has a vision while they write a story, but unless it’s central to the story, ie non-fiction, it could take place almost anywhere.  My son, years ago, played one of the Lollipop Guild in a production of the Wizard of Oz. The Munchkins emerged from a giant Duncan Donut box and the WWOTW came in leather on the back of a motorcycle! Break out of the box, illustrators!

JC: Wotta image, Chris! And wotta memorable production that must’ve been.

 Me, I’m already envisioning a double-page spread: a Melanie version of the Emerald City, swarming with mermaids, construction workers, and other wildly costumed folk. And high in the sky, a witch riding a giant souped up Dirt Devil vac, sky-writing :   “G O T  –  S T O R Y ?. . . . .”

Chris Demarest: LOVE IT!!!!!!!!
  This would be a great art project: a giant mural with several artists interpreting the same thing. Fun for your class to try.  Frankly though, I’m more the Dyson ball kind of guy!

MHG: I’m missing all the fun. Had no idea there was a good conversation going on over here. Love the visuals, Joy and Chris.  🙂

JC: @ Chris: Hmm. . . mayhaps this will be the next mid-term project in class. Hahahaha!

  @ Melanie: Now I’m seeing Melanie versions of all the profile pix in my FB Friends gallery. Time for more coffee. . . .


MHG: Thank you Anne, for that wonderful recap of our connection with GOOD MORNING, DIGGER. I really enjoyed illustrating that book. The text was quiet and that made it quirky for an urban environment. Your language just right for very young children. My colors tried to match your voice to set the mood. Thanks for being brave enough to ask Viking to look at my art. Forever grateful

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