Tag Archives: character studies

From On-Line to HANDS-ON: Let’s Draw Stories!

Register NOW for Joy Chu's hands-on workshop, Illustrating Books for Children, Wednesday evenings 6:30-9:30pm, 6/28-8/21/13, extension.ucsd.edu, ART 40011. Immerse yourself!

Exercise your art chops!

Summer Solstice! What could be better after a full day’s work (or sunning & surfing — hey, we’re in San Diego!), or sight-seeing around San Diego, than hunkering down, and drawing pictures with other passionate story-tellers?

We’ll do hands-on drawing-and-sharing, in class, in person, at the beautiful UCSD Extension campus in La Jolla, CA. Examine the latest picture books, plus a few timeless classics. And address aspects of the current children’s book market.

Join us!

Class:        Children’s Book Illustration – ART-40011
Instructor:  Joy Chu
Dates:       June 26 – August 21  (9 meetings)
Day:           Wednesdays
Time:         6:30pm – 9:30pm
Location:  Extension, Room 128

Required books: 

Writing with Pictures: How to Write and Illustrate Children’s Books (paperback) :: Uri Shulevitz   ISBN: 9780823059355

Ed Emberley’s Drawing Book of Animals (paperback)
:: Ed Emberley   ISBN: 9780316789790


Don’t delay, sign up today!
Purchase textbooks @ UCSD Bookstore,
or at amazon.com

extension.ucsd.edu.  Register now.
Ask about ART 40011

Fee:  $250 / $275 after 6/10/13


One Artist’s Dummy Exercises

Illustrator Denise Hilton Campbell was among the participants at my UCSD Extension class, “Illustrating Books for Children” last Spring.


She has an extensive portfolio of published works for advertising and print.

While she and I had worked together (I as art director/designer at Harcourt; she as illustrator) on several book jackets, she had never tackled the children’s picture book genre.

While Denise’s preferred medium is watercolor . . .


. . . she also possesses superb drawing skills.

On her illustration blog, she chronicles her explorations into book dummying. Some highlights:

“… I didn’t give much thought about the fact that there was a process involved in writing and illustrating a good picture book. I thought you just drew 32 pretty illustrations and threw in some words! That all changed with the class and now I’m hooked. . . this is an example from [the] simple 8-page dummy. . .” — Denise Campbell


“. . . [on to] a 16-page dummy. . .”— DC

“. . . You get the idea…[the 8-page and 16-page dummies] were both wordless stories. An exercise in telling a story without using words as crutches. Finally we tackled the 32-page dummy (above). . . “— DC

You can follow Denise’s own picture story on her process in creating her class assignment sketches, here.

And check out the many finished pieces she produced post-class here. A sampling of her progressive experiments with one double-page spread from the above mentioned 32-page dummy follows, below . . .




Holiday Tip:  Gift your favorite creative person with an Art Class!

Course title:  Illustrating Books for Children (ART 40011)
Instructor:  Joy Chu
Dates: January 7th – March 9th, 2013 (nine weeks)
Fees: $275  [early bird special: $250 if enrolled by 10 Dec 2012]
To register: 858-964-1051; ucsd.extension.edu


♫. . . Research While You Sketch . . . ♪

Attention all new children’s book illustrators!

Seeking inspiration?

As you get ready to immerse yourself into your selected picture book story, write yourself a grocery list of what your story needs. This might include:

  • The names of each major character(s)
  • Subsidiary characters
  • The locale of the story
  • Time of year; day

Then turn each item into a new sub-list that will form the basis for your story scavenger hunt.


LalouImagine this is a main character, illustrated above (art by Debbie Tilley, from The Gallaudet ASL Dictionary for Children, coming 2013. See Debbie’s portfolio here. Check out her bibliography here.)She could be:

  • 5-years-old
  • has older brother who’s deaf (she’s not)
  • is fluent in American Sign Language
  • dances a jig when happy
  • loves movies with animals
  • hates celery
  • wants puppy badly
  • loves doggie-in-window on sight.
  • puppy understands ASL! (how?)

The above list can then be turned into a series of quick character sketches.

Then move on to the next item on your list, and repeat the exercise. Make sketches of each item. And so on.

Case in point:  Check out how artist Peter Brown applied himself to Aaron Reynolds‘ manuscript,  strategizing his approach to Aaron‘s tale, The Creepy Carrots.

Use the melody to “Whistle While You Work,” substituting the title heading at the top of this page for the first line of the lyric, then humming the rest.

You’ll jump start your creative juices as you discover a treasure trove of inspiration. Yeah!

We found The Gingerbread Man!

Here's where "The Gingerbread Man: Loose in the School" story begins! Words + Pictures = Magic!  The best picture books are the epitome of the smooth teamwork between author, editor, artist, and art director/book designer. Here’s one case study of such a collaboration.

Many kindergarteners around the country have been successfully averted from first day jitters at school when the alert goes out that a cute little gingerbread boy is lost on the school grounds, and must be found!

Author Laura Murray relates one cookie’s side of the story in The Gingerbread Man Loose in the School, corroborated by Mike Lowery‘s action-packed illustrations.


click to enlarge

Joy Chu:  Tell us about the genesis of The Gingerbread Man Loose in the School. Where did it all begin?

Laura Murray:  I was a teacher before becoming a writer. The Gingerbread Man Loose in the School was inspired by a Kindergarten Gingerbread Man unit I taught at the beginning of each school year.

We compared and contrasted different versions of the Gingerbread Man story and used Gingerbread Man activities for each subject.

JC:  Which versions of the Gingerbread Man story were covered in your class? This is of particular importance to beginning illustration students — that traditional tales can have a unique perspective, dependent upon the story-teller and/or artist.

LM:  The teachers that do the GB Man unit use different versions of the story to compare and contrast, but I personally liked versions that had variations in setting, plot, main characters, illustration style, or culture.  We used Venn diagrams to discuss similarities and differences of each version. The titles I typically used were:

The Gingerbread Man  by Jim Aylesworth (traditional tale)
The Gingerbread Boy  by Richard Egielski (set in New York)
The Cajun Gingerbread Boy  by Berthe Amoss (Cajun “flavored” version, different characters and setting)
The Gingerbread Baby  by Jan Brett (different characters and ending)
The Masubi Man: Hawaii’s Gingerbread Man by Sandi Takayama (different setting, characters, ingredients, etc.)

[clockwise, from top left]

Various versions of "The Gingerbread Man"

But at the end of the unit, our freshly baked Gingerbread Man always managed to escape from the classroom!

JC: Funny!

An excerpt from the Teacher List of Clues for the Gingerbread Man School Hunt
Detail from the
School Hunt List
(click to enlarge)

LM:  We hung missing posters and searched the halls, discovering crumbs and dropped candies, as we asked school staff where he might be. But he always found his way back to our classroom on his own — “one smart cookie!”

JC:  So it’s really a CONSPIRACY!!! The entire upper grade student body plus faculty are in on it.

LM:  Yes, the faculty knew that the GB Man would escape on a specific day and they would  join in the fun, often letting the class know that “he just ran through the office, or that they had tried to catch him but he was too fast…”

My students absolutely loved this unit and would come back years later asking if the Gingerbread Man had escaped yet. Even though we read many versions of the Gingerbread Man story during the unit, there was not one that mirrored the fun of our school Gingerbread Man chase. So I decided to try and write a new version.

I started wondering what adventures the Gingerbread Man might have had while he was out and about, and then I began to ask what if. . . ? What if the story was set in a school? What if the story was told by the Gingerbread Man himself? What if he was trying to find the class who made him, instead of running away from them?

Those “what if” questions helped me imagine a Gingerbread Man adventure that was sprinkled with fresh, funny twists to set it apart from the traditional tale.

I wanted the story to be from the Gingerbread Man‘s point of view, so I started asking him questions. What did he want? What was getting in the way of what he wanted? What exciting, funny, or mischievous things could he do in a school?

I joined SCBWI… and then a local writing critique group. The Gingerbread Man Loose in the School went through over 50 drafts before it was submitted to a publisher.

Author Laura Murray at a school visit for "The Gingerbread Man Loose in the School"This is the school library where they recreated scenes from the book (above);  a kitchen area with pretend ingredients to make him;  his “cozy” house that the class made him;  the GB Man stuck on the ball . . .

. . . the missing posters on the windows (above);  and a finger play poem on the pad behind me (below). Amazing!

Background image created by the class for Laura Murray's school visitIt was quite spectacular and SO much fun! They even rented a GB Man costume (see below, left) and had him greeting the kids as they came into the presentation in the gym!

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  . 

[Mike Lowery, illustrator, and Cecilia Yung, Art Director, joins us for the discussion that follows. —JC]

JC:  How was Mike Lowery chosen for this project? Did you review illustrators with the editor?

click to enlarge

Cecilia Yung:  Ryan Thomann (the book’s designer) had a poster from Mike Lowry of a pirate bunny (left) that we all loved.

We were at first concerned that he doesn’t show much setting in any of his samples. But we decided it might work if we can find a more graphic way to show the school, and that’s how the floor plan idea came up.

JC:  What form did the original manuscript take?  In other words, was it typed like a screenplay, given that the final book is a hybrid graphic novel/picture book?

LM:  I submitted it to Putnam as a four page, typed document, with rhyming couplets. It was approximately 900 words — which is long for a picture book, but I thought it worked in this case,  because there is so much action.  It did not include art notes. I hoped that the text was vivid enough to “paint the pictures” in the editor’s mind, and to lend itself well to an illustrator’s vision.

[See the first page of what the manuscript format looked like (below left). Note that the book title subsequently changed from this version.— JC]
A detail from the original manuscript of "The Gingerbread Man Loose in the School"

A detail from page one of the original manuscript (click to enarge)

CY:   The plot is mainly a chase scene, so we really could not have covered the story with the usual scenes and spots. 

JC:  Was it envisioned as a comic strip hybrid at this point? Or did this evolve through many thumbnails and book dummies?

Mike Lowery:  I had been working on the manuscript as a straight-forward picture book, with the illustrations on each page or spread focusing on one tiny segment from the text. It wasn’t working at all because there were so many great, little actions, descriptions of characters, etc.

I just had to figure out a way to break up the text and show a LOT more on each page.  After almost a year of working on it like this, I finally had the idea to make it into the sequential or “comic book” format.

CY:  Mike suggested the sequential comic book format, and we agreed that it really solves many of the problems.

ML: From there it was a breeze, and the book became a lot of fun to work on.

JC:  I love the opening line:  “I began in a bowl. I was not yet myself — just a list of ingredients pulled from a shelf….  It’s funny! Were you amazed at how the text was broken up, and the decisions behind the pacing? There’s 75 separate pictures panels total, from very small multiple-series to stand-alone single-pagers, plus one double-page spread.

LM:  Thank you. I love that line too because it pulls readers in, as they wonder  “Who begins in a bowl?” I revised the beginning many times with my critique groups, but I was determined to keep that first line.

I story-boarded the text during revision and before I submitted it, to see where possible page turns might occur and to check the pacing of the story.

The format of the text in the book is actually very close to how it was submitted in manuscript form — in couplets or four-line stanzas.

JC:   Who was the editor?

CY: Nicole Kasprzak shepherded this through the initial manuscript, sketches and most of the final art, and Susan Kochan finished off the project at the end.

ML: I pitched the idea [of the sequential comic strip format] to Nicole initially with some fairly worked-out drawings, as opposed to rough sketches, because I definitely wanted the crew to get on board with the idea. They did, and the book turned out much better because of it.

For some reason I was incredibly nervous that they wouldn’t like the idea, and I’d get stuck working on something that I just wasn’t happy with.

CY:  We suggested the floor plan so that we can move through the school. We asked him to differentiate the various types of spaces—cafeteria, gym, nurse’s office, art room etc.

The evolution of text during the making of a picture book (above): The text changed for the first floor plan illustration, after the GB Man finds the school nurse. It went from “Your class passed my office just minutes ago” to “Your class turned the corner just minutes ago” because it worked better with the floor plan illustration.


JC:  Did the editor share all illustration sketches with author Laura Murray? Or perhaps you [Cecilia and book designer Ryan Thomann] and the editor collaborated on what guidelines to best support Mike Lowery with?

CY:  I think Nicole shared sketches with the author at key points.

LM:  As an author, it is like Christmas when you get to see the first sketches! You know your characters well, but it is a bit of magic when an illustrator brings them to life!

Yes, I loved Putnam’s floor plan idea and Mike’s comic-panel format!

And yes, the character dialogue was in the text from the very beginning. Since the book is written from the GB Man’s point of view, I wanted the story to have lots of active dialogue rather than just narration.

CY:  I believe that this was Mike’s first or second book, so we worked very closely with him at every stage. This book took quite a while. There were many, many rounds of sketches and final art almost two years from assignment to delivery of the final loose ends. We made a lot of suggestions for developing the characters, finding different ways to show the school setting, and varying the scale and the vantage point.

We worked with Mike extensively on the final palette for consistency and legibility. We also proofed and press proofed sample pages to determine the reproduction of the color.

JC:  I like the fonts selected! Did Ryan Thomann work with Mike as to what to hand-letter? And what text to colorize?

type sample of the "Dr-Eric" font, used for the title display

"Dr-Eric" font, used for the book title (click to enlarge)

CY:  Mike started off hand-lettering the text, but we were worried about the mix of caps and lower case for such a young reader. Ryan worked with me and the editor to find a font that looks hand-lettered. Mike then combined that with hand-lettered words in color, for emphasis.

Bokka-font, used for the text.

Bokka-font, used for the text. The illustrator provided key words, hand-lettered and colored (click to enlarge)

LM:  It was awesome to see how well the chosen font fit, how certain words were bolded or colored to give emphasis, and how capitals were used to set the dialogue apart — a lot of thought and work from the illustrator and design team! 🙂

JC:   The Gingerbread Man himself — he is endearing, with that round head. Whose idea to make him childlike?

ML:  We went through several stages of revisions for the character. From the beginning none of us were really pushing for him to have the standard gingerbread “cookie” look.  When I spoke with Nicole at the very beginning of being asked to take a look at the manuscript, she made it clear that she was drawn to the personality of the characters that I draw. So I wanted to work that style into the gingerbread man, for sure.

CY:  We went through many rounds of character sketches. My comments to Mike at the time: “It may be useful to think of this as a cookie with personality, rather than a cookie made with dough and icing by kids that comes alive.

Developing a character through facial expression...

Developing a character through facial expression...(click to enlarge)

This means that he could have a full range of human facial expressions. The mouth can be be dimensional and mobile: opening, closing and smiling really wide. The eyes are better once they are able to close and lower, but perhaps the position of the eyes and the pupil can move, and we can hint at the presence of eyebrows to help convey a wider range of emotions.”

JC:  Beginning illustration students (and creative writing beginners)  always ask this:  Did the text get altered in any way as the drawings evolved?

CY:  Yes, the author made quite a few changes to the text as Mike developed the sketches.

LM:  Nicole showed me Mike’s work prior to starting on Gingerbread Man. She also shared the initial character sketches, the first round of book sketches, the colored version of the sketches, and the F&Gs. I was able to comment, look for consistency with the text, and shout out my enthusiasm for the illustrations at each stage :-)!

JC:  Laura, do you recall communal decisions? Discussions [between the book collaborators] of what actually happened at your school?

LM:  Mike and I actually did not get in touch with one another until after the book came out. I think publishers like to give each artist his/her space to create a unique interpretation of the work.

Gingerbread Man exploring the school

I was fine with that. Mike gave the illustrations layers and elements that I could not have imagined. I didn’t expect to, nor did I want to, have a say in his creative process.

If I had comments or questions, I posed those to my editor.  So, I don’t really recall discussions about specific details with this book.

I hoped that my vision written in the text was clear enough, yet open enough, to allow Mike his own unique interpretation of the visuals, along with guidance from the wonderful art design team at Putnam. But I would certainly be open to any questions or discussions on details, etc. with future books. 

JC:  That is awesome! A true collaboration, and what sparkling results!

[Specal note:  A sequel is in the works. Yes! — JC]

LM:  There were a few small alterations to the text that did not change the plot, but flowed with the illustrations and dialogue a bit better. The one that we pondered over for a while was the text for the MISSING poster illustration. The original text mixes the GB man’s narration with the text of the childrens’ Missing poster, and it made the format of the illustration tricky. So the text was changed from. . . .

The poster said MISSING: From Room 23.
And right underneath was a drawing of me!
If found, please return him as soon as you can.
We think he is lost. He’s our Gingerbread Man.


And there on the wall was a drawing of me!
The poster said: MISSING From Room 23.
If found please return him as soon as you can.
We think he is lost. He’s our Gingerbread Man.

. . . . so we could get all the narration in one place, and all the poster text to follow.  This may seem like a simple enough text revision, but it actually took longer than one might think due to the rather rigid pattern of writing in rhyme and rhythm. Here’s the final illustration:

JC:  I must confess you got me when Gingerbread Man declared “I’m in somebody’s lunch!” — and it was strategic that this scene would happen on a right-hand page. Makes you anticipate the next page turn!

LM:  Great!  And yes, this is a very natural and fun place for a page turn.

JC:   What did the art look like in person, at the Original Art Show (at the Society of Illustrators Annual 2011) Exhibition)? The copyright page says it’s “… rendered in pencil, traditional screen printing, and digital color.”


ML:  The drawings always start out really rough with just pencil.  I draw over that with pencil again on tracing paper.  From there my process goes in a few directions.

Mike Lowery at work

Mike Lowery at work (click to enlarge)

For some of the larger areas of color, I mask out an area on a screen printing screen using tape, and print out large areas of flat color.  I scan in these prints, and overlap the drawings that I made in pencil.

For a lot of the smaller areas of color, I wouldn’t have time to print out every single piece, so those are finished in Photoshop.  I have lots of old screen print textures scanned — I teach this as part of one of my classes at SCAD, so every quarter I add 30-40 new textures to my collection — that I use in my final illustrations.

CY:  Mike delivered digital files. The Original Art Show displayed a framed giclée print of the final art.

JC:   Cool and groovy endpapers! Whose idea?

CY:  Ryan worked with Mike to put this together.

Endpaper sample

Endpaper sample (click to enlarge)

JC:  Tell us about the teacher’s materials that’s offered at the author’s website, and the poster.

LM:  Some of Mike’s artwork from the book was used in the teacher’s guide on my website. A wonderful author/teacher colleague, Natalie Lorenzi, prepared the 28-page guide of curriculum-linked ideas and activities for me to include on the website as a resource for teachers/librarians/parents. Putnam also has it available on their website.

Laura Murray’s FAQs about writing (click here)

Mike did quite a bit on the poster, providing the maze, coloring page, and all the artwork.  I provided the text for the Gingerbread Man School Hunt and the cookie recipe.

One teacher, Margaret Oliver, has been in touch with me and was SO enthusiastic about the book and her student’s reaction to it! She even sent me a GB Man bingo card they created for the classroom and Missing posters that her students colored.  I have them hanging on my office wall. Here is one (below):
Missing poster colored by students

“Gingerbread Man Loose in School is the complete package! It’s fun, engaging, full of action, and it has extras – a removable map in the back of the book, and a website with even more ideas. As a teacher, I appreciate its strong use of visual supports and rhyming to increase comprehension for young readers. Laura Murray has immediately become one of my favorite authors, and I can’t wait for her next book!”  — Margaret Oliver

The Horn Book‘s book review
(they LOVED it!)
Read more reviews here

@ Everyone:  Questions? Post them in the comments box below!

Comments? Post them here! . . . . and do check out Mike Lowery’s projects and sketches at his blog . Why? Because it’s

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On Illustrating and promoting “The Grand Plan to Fix Everything”

Today we feature the illustrator for Uma Krishnaswami‘s latest book, The Grand Plan to Fix Everything (Atheneum), Abigail Halpin. Art director Debra Sfetsios also joins the conversation, along with author Uma Krishnaswami, plus a few surprise guests. . . .

Illustrator Abigail Halpin, with some of her "warm-up" drawings

Joy Chu: I LOVE the drawings on your blog! You sketch beautifully. Is that sketch of the roller derby girl a self-portrait? And are you really “…115 pounds soaking wet…”?

Abigail Halpin: As far as the “115 pounds soaking wet,” the sketch isn’t me, but I’m actually that weight. Unfortunately, this has led to the demise of my fantasies of joining a roller derby league. 😉

Joy Chu: Would you tell us a little about yourself? How did you get your start?

Abigail Halpin: I got my start illustrating Susan Patron’s, Maybe Yes, Maybe No, Maybe Maybe. I have a degree in graphic design and worked as a designer for several years, but my dream since childhood was to illustrate picture books. During the day I’d work on logos and websites, then come home and draw continuously. At this point, I’ve transitioned to doing mostly illustration work and I love it.

cover from "Maybe Yes, Maybe No, Maybe Maybe" by Susan Patron

Cover from "Maybe Yes, Maybe No, Maybe Maybe" by Susan Patron

Joy Chu: How did this assignment begin?

Abigail Halpin: Art director Debra Sfetsios at Simon & Schuster sent me an email asking if I’d be interested in a story about a girl who moves to India. My curiosity was immediately piqued and she emailed me a copy of the manuscript to read. I absolutely loved the story, so from here we moved on to working on character sketches, nailing down the look of Dini and her companions. Once the characters were established, sketch ideas were brainstormed and then I moved on to drawing those.

Joy Chu: In what form did you transmit sketches?

Abigail Halpin: I scanned my sketches and made a PDF proof of them, which I emailed. From here, I made edits based on feedback, tweaking and fixing everything until it was okay to move to final art. Some sketches were quickly approved, others needed a bit more work, but at the end of the day, I think all of the edits really helped push the book to look great.

Joy Chu: The copyright page says you rendered art in pen and ink, then added color (or black half-tones) digitally.

Abigail Halpin: The illustrations are done in pen and ink, then I add greyscale shades in Photoshop. For final art, I was provided with information to upload my files to Simon & Schuster’s FTP server. Before doing this though, I checked to see what file format the art department needed my files in. For this project, I provided art as EPS files.

Joy Chu: The jacket: Was it your idea to have Dini appear in front of a map of India?

Abigail Halpin: The idea for Dini and the map was Debra’s. I think it was a terrific concept and really tied Dini to her new home. I provided a couple different variations on the theme and it was narrowed down to the one that’s on the cover now.

preliminary sketch for jacket of "The Grand Plan to Fix Everything"

One of the cover sketches (including the original title)

Abigail Halpin: I’ve sadly never been to India, so relied on books and the Internet for research. One thing I kept coming across was the vibrancy and beauty of the land and with the color palettes and decorative ornaments, I was hoping to capture that on the cover.

How long did it take to complete this assignment?

Abigail Halpin: I began character sketches in May 2010 and the entire project was wrapped up by early October.

[Art director Debra Sfetsios pops in for a visit]

Joy Chu: Did you or Abigail supply the hand-lettering for the title display?

Debra Sfetsios: Towards the end of getting sketches (always a good thing to do when basing art off of text, is to to make sure all text is final), I asked her to do the book and chapter titles. I thought that they would add to the fun feeling of the book.

Joy Chu: I also like the decorative elements sprinkled on the title and half-title pages.

Debra Sfetsios: Something that I thought could, and did add to the beauty and the ethnic aspect of the book.

Joy Chu: Did you view any Bollywood movies or recommend any to Abigail?

Debra Sfetsios: The editor did a great job describing the look she thought that we needed for Dolly. But no, I didn’t recommend a Bollywood movie, but certainly Abigail nailed it.

Joy Chu: It was a great idea to include the map of India on the jacket. I kept wondering where Swapnagiri was! And I didn’t realize until recently that the paisley pattern as we know it originated in India.

Debra Sfetsios: So much of the story had to do with the two “best” friends communicating to each other across the Atlantic, it felt crucial to add the map. It is also nice to have the characters on top of another layer…It made for a more interesting graphic. It is something that also gives the readership a true sense of “place”.

Joy Chu: Were any research-like queries addressed to Uma via you and the editor? In other words, scrap material for Abigail’s use?

Debra Sfetsios: Yes, we needed a lot of help for placement, the actual spellings and the newest names of cities in india. A few of India’s cites were recently renamed.

Joy Chu: How was Abigail chosen for this project?

Debra Sfetsios: I gathered up a few different artist choices that I felt could add to the flavor of the novel. Abigail was really the perfect choice for this age group, mainly girl readership. Her color work is vibrant and fun, great for the jacket art. Her black and white work is just as strong as her color work, which was a major plus because we needed a number of interior illustrations as well. Then there was there were the details to work out as in the budget and the given deadlines.

Interior art (Maddie and Dini, viewing Dolly Singh movie)

Interior art of BBFs Maddie and Dini, enjoying Dolly Singh movie

Joy Chu: Did you go over samples from your files with the book’s editor?

Debra Sfetsios: I always include the editor in the choice of the artist, since she is closer to the content and the author. So I did review the samples of the artists that I pulled for this book. And in this case, we were happily on the same page with who was the best person for this project.

character studies for Dolly Singh

Various Dolly Singh character studies

Joy Chu: What sort of feedback did you get? What aspects were revised? Seems to me having scrap or feedback is essential for a story like this one. Did you watch any Bollywood movies to get “in-the-mood”? Any clips on youtube to recommend?

spot art of fan photo and notebookAbigail Halpin: In terms of feedback, some was ironing out the look of a character in a particular scene (i.e, making an expression more exaggerated, altering an emotion or fixing where a character might look a little off) and some was more about the accuracy of an illustration (for instance, making sure I had the right species of monkey or having Dolly’s sari wrapped correctly was very important). I did listen to Indian music while working on sketches — Pandora radio (www.pandora.com) is great for this! Off the top of my head, I can’t remember particular videos, but I did see, “Koi Mil Gaya,” which was lots of fun.

Joy Chu: Do you work same size, or up-size at the same percentage throughout?

Abigail Halpin:I work the same size for the illustrations. For some of the more complex scenes (like the engagement party), I did draw the work slightly larger (maybe by about 25%), then scaled down in Photoshop. This allowed me to get more detail into the image.

Engagement party scene

Joy Chu: Which books and sites were the most helpful? And Bollywood movies? I’d love to show an appropriate one from youtube, to give some background for our readers. The best friends’ love of Dolly is the central driving force, after all….

Abigail Halpin: I used Flickr a lot for photo reference, mostly to get a sense of the look and feel of India. I looked at lots of Indian movie stars online in an attempt to capture Dolly’s glamor. One book that I really liked was an old Time Life photo book of India — I think it’s out of print, but there were so many gorgeous photographs of the country in that.

Joy Chu: It was a lot of work. I counted roughly 12 full pagers, 9 large spots, 9 small ones, plus a full-color wrap piece for the jacket.

Abigail Halpin:It was a lot, but everyone I worked with at Simon & Schuster was terrific. Also, Uma’s story is a total gem and offered so much fabulous material to illustrate.

Joy Chu: Awesome stuff, Abigail!

[Author Uma Krishnaswami was delighted with Abigail’s depiction of her story. She joins us here]

Joy Chu: I’m enjoying The Grand Plan to Fix Everything tremendously! I love the spirit of the text. Its voice is as light as a Bollywood musical — despite the serious issue of two BBFs being split apart by a continent!

Your picture book “Out of the Way! Out of the Way” was what first attracted me to your work. Your bio states you travel back-and-forth between your home in Aztec, NM, and India. Do you also live part-time at the Vermont College of Fine Arts (where you teach), or is this for a short-residency type class? Now that’s a lot of traveling!

Uma's picture book, "Out of the Way, Out of the Way"

Uma's picture book, "Out of the Way, Out of the Way"

Uma Krishnaswami: The MFA program at VCFA uses a low-residency model, so everyone’s on campus twice a year for residencies. The rest of the work is done through mentoring, with up to five students assigned to a faculty advisor. Even so, it is a lot of traveling, but that’s just the nature of this work, I think. So many children’s writers and illustrators travel to speak in schools. I do some of that as well, but not nearly as much as some people I know.

Joy Chu: I love how you combined the elements of what’s important to an 8-12 year old girl’s life — best friends; movie fans sharing girly stuff; hints of first love; new friends — while giving us a window into Indian culture through their crossed paths with a movie star. What inspired you to use a Bollywood actress as its fulcrum?

Uma Krishnaswami: I guess I was looking for something that Dini could be passionate about, something that could simultaneously unite a pair of friends and bridge a geographic divide. Bollywood movies felt quite natural. Also, I was amused by the notion that Dini could be resentful about having to go to India and leave behind a Bollywood dance camp — in Maryland!

Joy Chu: Is Dolly based on a conglomerate of Bollywood actresses? Would you name names for us? 😉

Uma Krishnaswami: I’m sure she is, although I didn’t deliberately merge real movie stars to create her. If I had to choose, I’d say she’s “Shabana Azmi meets Gracy Singh.” She can do the wide-eyed roles. She’s beautiful. She’s got flair. But she’s also smart and she often marches to her own, eccentric drumbeat. And she can dance. I think she may be Gracy’s long-lost sister but don’t tell anyone!

Joy Chu: I find myself visualizing your characters simply by your descriptions of their actions. And I love their musical sounding names! And the chirpy Priya.

Uma Krishnaswami: Thank you. They didn’t get that way all at once, I can tell you. It took many, many revisions to find the right combinations of traits and longings, not to mention the circumstances that bring them into play.

Some names dropped right into place for me. Dini was Nandini for a long time and she wasn’t working as a character. Then a student of mine with that name told me she’d wanted to shorten it when she was younger. “To what?” I asked. “Dini,” she replied. I was hooked. It was the perfect name and it came with its own back story of the differences between generations. What could be better? I asked my student for permission to use both her name and her childhood motivation, and she was gracious enough to agree.

interior illustration

Priya and Dini (foreground, left to right)

Priya the chirper — I love Priya. She can do what I can’t–whistle. Chickoo Uncle’s name also came from nowhere and fell right into place and it dictated who he became in the story — a mild-mannered, nervous young man with a silly nickname.

Joy Chu: Did your editor (Caitlyn Dlouhy) share any of Abigail’s preliminary sketches with you? And did you provide feedback to help her along?

Uma Krishnaswami: Yes, it was quite a wonderful process. My comments weren’t that extensive. Abigail Halpin really captured the energy of the girls right away.

In fact in the last rounds of editorial work, I put up a photocopy of one of her sketches in my office. It was the one of the two girls together, painting their toenails. When I got stuck I’d look at them and they always helped me get back to the emotional space I needed.

Dini (right) and Maddie do their nails

Best friends Dini (right) and Maddie do their nails

I did have a few comments on the jacket sketch, to do with place names on the map and the location of the fictional town of Swapnagiri. It was wonderful to offer these suggestions and then to see them translated into images in the next round of the art.

Joy Chu: I’d love to include a youtube clip of a scene from a typical Bollywood movie that both Dini and Maddie would love. This is to get our readers “in the zone”, so to speak. Would you recommend a link or two? Or of the musical sounds that Priya imitates?

Uma Krishnaswami: How about the title song from Chak De India? Or the rain dance from Lagaan?

But you have to remember that Dolly is fictional and the movies she makes wouldn’t be typical Bollywood. Dolly may be gorgeous but in her movies, she’s also a tough cookie. She brings villains to justice, she rights wrongs, and she tells the guys who want to marry her to take a hike. That’s not your average Bollyplot.

But the dances and the glitter — Dolly has those too. That’s what draws the girls in, but I’d like to think it’s the social justice themes, the sense of the world being in the end a good place, that make them loyal fans.

Lal encounters a monkey

Monkey encounter!

Joy Chu: Did you provide material for the book trailer?

Uma Krishnaswami: Yes, I started out thinking I could do the trailer on my own, so I actually plunked in the video footage I took in the Nilgiris last time I was there, and pictures from Takoma Park that I’d gotten through people I knew.

I played with title slides a little, but at some point my iMovie abilities just hit a wall. The transitions were clunky, and I was spending way too much time trying to get things to work and ending up with a big mess. I also knew there was no way I could add a music track and make it work. So I asked my son if he’d help and I am most grateful that he came to my assistance.

Joy Chu: Your son Nikhil Krishnaswamy, spells his last name differently from yours. Is there a reason? His spelling matches that of your Out of the Way, Out of the Way illustrator (Uma Krishnaswamy), another coincidence.

Uma Krishnaswami: Yes, my husband spells his last name with a y, and Nikhil does too. Yes, yes, I married a man with the same last name. No, no relation. I kept my letter “i” because I’d always figured I wouldn’t change my last name when I got married. But illustrator Uma (the one with a “y“) — that was pure coincidence.

[Here is the book trailer for The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, put together by Nikhil Krishnaswamy, who also joins our conversation]

Joy Chu: I’m so pleased that you are available to answer questions about the book trailer — which is delightful.  Did your mother surround you (and your family) with stories while you were growing up?

Nikhil Krishnaswamy:  Yes.  Even before she got her first book published (when I was seven), our house was full of books.  Both she and my father read to me regularly until I was about eight or so, starting with picture books/early readers, and eventually full-length novels.

Joy Chu:  Where are you currently located, and what do you do during regular hours?

Nikhil Krishnaswamy: I’m currently living near Columbus, OH, but I’m moving to Boston this fall to start my Master’s degree.  My last job was as a video game programmer at a company near here (my bachelor’s degree in is computer game development), but due to complications with Microsoft, my contract on the project ran out, so I’m between jobs now. I’ve got a few iPhone/iPad games in the early design stages, and a few other hobbyist projects I work on during the day for the time being.

Joy Chu:  Where you were raised?

Nikhil Krishnaswamy: I was born in Bethesda, MD and lived in the DC area until I was ten, when my family moved to northwest New Mexico.  I went to college at DePaul University in Chicago between 2005 and 2009, and I’ve lived here in OH for about eight months now.

Joy Chu:  Was this your first iMovie?

Nikhil Krishnaswamy: No. I’ve been working with video editing for years now, and I’ve long since lost count of the number of projects I’ve done.  I started with it in my freshman year of high school, and have since used various software packages—often iMovie (because it’s free for Mac users), but also Adobe AfterEffects and Final Cut, to name a few.  Though I have no formal training in video editing (aside from a few classes in college), it’s something I enjoy and that I’ve been told I have a pretty good eye for.  This is, however, my first book trailer.

Joy Chu:  Uma, your website provides an Activity Kit chock full of discussion topics plus a recipe. How was this all pulled together?

Uma Krishnaswami: That was thanks to the wonderful team at Blue Slip Media . Sarah Shealy and Barbara Fisch worked with a curriculum consultant and a designer to put that kit together. I did check the content and I added a little something to that recipe. Barbara and Sarah are PR goddesses in my estimation.

Barbara Fisch: PR Goddesses? You mean we have to change our business cards?? But seriously, I think the authors and artists do the hard work. We just find ways to spread the word.

Joy Chu: What a terrific 21st century concept for book promotion — The blog tour!

Barbara Fisch: It is really a collaborative effort. Uma has such a terrific network of friends and colleagues who contribute to the conversation about children’s literature.

We often create giveaways connected with blog tours, but this one was inspired by the sensibility of the book — light and fun! 🙂

Join the celebration by participating in 
A Grand Giveaway!

Three lucky Grand Prize winners will each receive one copy of The Grand Plan to Fix Everything along with a starry assortment of bangles and trinkets that Dolly Singh, famous famous Bollywood movie star, would adore!

An additional 3 runners-up will receive a copy of The Grand Plan to Fix Everything.

To enter, send an e-mail to GrandPlanGiveaway@gmail.com. In the body of the e-mail, include your name, mailing address, and e-mail address (if you’re under 13, submit a parent’s name and e-mail address). One entry per person and prizes will only be shipped to US or Canadian addresses. Entries must be received by midnight (PDT) on 6/30/11. Winners will be selected in a random drawing on 7/1/11 and notified via email.

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It began with a story idea…

Mike Austin is both author and illustrator of “A Present for Milo,” the first iPad app by the Ruckus Media Group created from an original story.

Mike was a full time illustrator/graphic designer for many years. We’ll look at how the seed for “Milo” was planted and grew, from its beginnings as a traditional book dummy, to interactive iPad app.

We will also meet his agent, Rubin Pfeffer of East/West Literary Agency, who subsequently sold a 3-book deal for “Milo” and Mike Austin to Blue Apple books.


Milo, the original inspiration of "A Present for Milo"

Milo, the original inspiration of "A Present for Milo"

1. According to the Ruckus Media Group blog, the idea for Milo actually began 15 years ago, when your daughter was two. Has the story changed very much over that time?

Mike Austin: The concept behind the story really didn’t change all that much from the original idea of a cat/mouse chase around the house.

We (my daughter and I) were wondering what the heck Milo did all day besides eat and sleep! We thought maybe he’s actually running around all day, and that’s why he’s so tired all the time.

Milo the muse. . . .

Milo the muse. . . .

It’s funny because it wasn’t really thought out very much. I just sat down and started doodling and writing a very simple story, with the only intention being to draw funny pictures with my daughter before bed.

Rubin Pfeffer: It’s the simplicity of the story that yields all the charm!

2. How did you meet your agent, Rubin Pfeffer? Did he help you realize your vision for Milo?

Mike Austin: I hadn’t been actively seeking an agent, so when I received an email from Rubin (last March or April), I was thrilled!

Rubin had seen portfolio samples of my work on one of the illustration portfolio sites. He was interested in seeing more, and possibly collaborating on some projects. The feedback and insight I got from Rubin was invaluable. I think he’s a Jedi.

Rubin Pfeffer: Truth be told, his wife Jing Jing Tsong‘s work first struck me and going through her portfolio, I came upon Mike. They are both marvelous talents and I am eager to shepherd Jing into the world of children’s content. Both Mike and Jing are developing very young, playful stories.

3. You fleshed out Milo using traditional bookmaking methods:  Storyboard; character studies of Milo; a schematic of his domain etc. before moving on to the book dummy, yes?

Mike Austin: Well… for the most part, although I didn’t really know the right way to go about it at the time.

My illustration style and approach to design is completely different from what it was 15 years ago. After digging around some boxes on a shelf under the house, I found my original dummy. It was cringe-worthy.

I spent about a month redrawing everything in my current style, and laid out the book the right way, with a lot of helpful feedback from my wife, illustrator Jing Jing Tsong .

Cover from the 1995 book dummy for "Milo"

Cover from a 1995 book dummy for "Milo"

I sent a pdf to Rubin. He suggested I tweak some things, which I did and then it was basically ready to show potential publishers.

Current cover/iPad design

Current iPad version of cover design

Double-page spread from 1995 book dummy

Double-page spread from a 1995 book dummy

Corresponding iPad version of opening scene

Corresponding iPad version of opening scene

1995 version another double-page dummy spread

1995 version of another double-page dummy spread

Current iPad version of tunnel scene

Current iPad version of tunnel scene

Rubin Pfeffer: Mike, I didn’t see that (version of the) Milo style — hmmm, pretty cool.

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