Illustration Station, Kidlit County

All the Way to Havana

When I was a kid, I loved collecting Matchbox cars and Hot Wheels. I would “drive” them up railing highways and turn carpets into parking lots. My favorites were the classic cars with big fins and chrome eyeliner. As I got older, I went to antique car shows. Once when I was about 12, I got to see a Tucker ’58 in person, and it was one of the highlights of my year. I couldn’t tell you the basic mechanics of how a car operates, but I could stare longingly at a classic car all day. I drew a lot of cars in my childhood. Little did I know that one day I’d get to illustrate my favorite friends on four wheels.

Today is the release of All the Way to Havana by Margarita Engle . Stating that it was an honor to work on this book seems inadequate. To illustrate something written by such a distinguished poet (now our Young People’s Poet Laureate) made me a little nervous. The book is the brainchild of our editor, Laura Godwin, who has also edited all of my Little Elliot books. (Little Elliot, Fall Friends also comes out today, and I will be writing a separate post about the making of that book, because I want to give each of my “children” their due). She has never steered me wrong, so I had to trust that she trusted me.

Margarita wrote a beautifully simple text. A boy and his family take a road trip from the Cuban countryside to the busy streets of Havana. They have a bit of car trouble before they hit the road, but after some time under the hood, father and son soon get things rolling. We get to see a lot of classic American cars along the way, and the family arrives at a cousin’s birthday party by sundown. It’s just another day in Cuba. But in this brief, seemingly ordinary tale lies the story of an entire people. I was excited to be a part of this, and also overwhelmed. But Laura said I could draw cars and cool buildings, so I thought, why not?

Margarita said this is her favorite spread in the book because it reminds her of her childhood.

I was born and raised in the States. I honestly knew very little about Cuba aside from it being an island off the coast of Florida. Cubans are communists and cigar smokers. In history class I learned about the Bay of Pigs, and there’s that scene in Godfather II that takes place in Havana. That summed up my expertise. So, what gave me the right to illustrate this story about everyday Cuban life? There seemed to be only one option, which was to go there and experience it for myself. Granted, one week in a place isn’t enough to become an expert, but it beats a Google image search.

I took several years of Spanish in middle school and high school. Guess how much of it I retained? No mucho. I messaged an old college friend and fellow artist, Erick Ledesma. Would he like to go to Cuba with me and act as a translator? He said yes, and I am eternally grateful. I would not have had the successful trip I did without him (and there would have been a lot fewer laughs. and less beer). I dedicated this book to Erick, “mi hermano viajero.” We’ll always have Cuba, friend.

Erick, me & “Cara Cara”

We travelled to Cuba in September, 2015. I took a few thousand photos, and have barely shown any of them. Stay tuned for a barrage of pics from the trip on my Instagram account. We took a cab from the airport to Havana. It was a Russian car from the 80s. Erick and I were silent for a while. We peered out through rolled down windows (no AC), while the diesel infused wind whipped across our faces and reminded us “we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Right away, we saw the old American dinosaurs: Chevy, Ford, Oldsmobile, Cadillac, Mercury, Pontiac. Some sparkled as if they just drove out of 1956. Others were jalopy frankensteins, rusted and altered beyond recognition. Every now and then, a swayback horse trotted past pulling a crude buggy with truck tires while Castro looked down from a billboard that read ¡Viva la Revolución! Erick struck up a conversation with the driver. His son was able to leave the country as a professional musician. He boasted like any proud father, but admitted that he wished his son was back home. “I’d rather be poor and eating with my family than rich and eating alone.” The statement set the tone for our trip.

El Malecón is a coastal road that winds along the Havana shoreline.

We stayed with Margarita’s cousins, Julio and Isabel, at their casa particular (a state sanctioned B&B) in Habana Centro. They are both doctors, but struggle to make ends meet. The casa particular is a new enterprise for them. Julio works at the hospital, and used to also deliver pizza in his off time. Everyone does what they need to do to supplement the spare rations. Centro is mostly residential with the occasional storefront or restaurant. The crumbling buildings stand in stark contrast to the polished tourist center of Habana Vieja. Cracked paint, a makeshift door, the outline of what was once probably an ornate cornice show us the ravages of time and economic hardship, yet these buildings stand proud. They’re still standing. They’re still homes to proud people who also press on in the face of adversity.

Did you know that baseball is Cuba’s most popular sport?

We spent the first few days of the week walking around Havana taking reference shots. Between the classic cars, old architecture, and street vendors singing about their wares, Cuba really does feel like a time capsule. Then without warning you’re pulled back into present tense. In one plaza, a hoard of people squeeze in tightly to try to get cell service. Across the street, a giant tour bus squeezes through traffic.

Julio helped us find a driver to take us on a road trip. I wanted to experience the journey that the family in the book makes. His friend Rey arrived with his wife, Marbelis, and their 1954 Chevy 210 Series, AKA the Delray. Yes, he shares a name with the car model. She’s in good shape, if not a little rough around the edges. The Chevy has been in Marbelis’ family for over 30 years. Though the old American engine still works, they took it out to preserve it and installed a Mercades engine. This is no small feat, considering that in 2015 the average Cuban earned less than $100/month. Parts are rare, and those you can buy are pricey. As part of my research back at home, I watched Cuban Chrome, which I recommend watching if you want to get an idea of the pitfalls and triumphs of car repair in Cuba.

The engine on the right is made up of parts from many other machines, not all of them cars.

We headed out of the city on a highway. The decaying pastel structures gave way to a lush green landscape. Every few miles a crowd waited for a bus to Havana. Some piled into almendrones (communal taxis)—more than one would think imaginable. We stopped at several farms. Erick and Rey explained what we were doing. Everyone was very welcoming while I traipsed around with my giant camera. A woman hung laundry on a line while men tinkered with farm equipment. A small boy insisted that I meet his guinea pig. We drove south, passed through the beautiful French architecture of Cienfuegos, and stopped in Trinidad, a small colonial village on the southern coast where Margarita’s parents met. Unfortunately, Trinidad is not featured in this book, simply because 40 pages wasn’t enough visual space to cram it in. However, it meant something to visit a town that Margarita has ties to, and that we were traveling on roads she and her forbearers once traversed.

The next day, we drove all the way to Havana.  I tried to take in the whole scene. Palm trees and Plymouths. An old friend, and two new ones. And this big blue hunk of metal, a symbol of past and perseverance, the most incredible automobile I have ever had the honor to ride in. “Does the car have a name?” I asked. Rey and Marbelis were puzzled. “In the US, sometimes people name their cars,” Erick translated for me. They smiled at the novelty of this. “What is the name of the car in the book?” they asked. “Cara Cara,” I said. “Well, then that is her name now!” This remains one of my favorite moments.

There’s so much more about making this book that I want to share. And there’s so much more of Cuba that I wanted to show in this book. All I can do is hope it’s enough. Margarita said this book is about peace, about bringing two neighbors together: the Cubans in the book, and the Americans reading it. Neighbors should be friends. While some of this book may seem very foreign to some, I hope that they can also see the universal themes of family and the roads we take, some bumpy and others smooth. If one neighbor can see the road the other is traveling on and discover a familiar feeling, then maybe that is enough for me.

Read these art notes to learn more about the process of illustrating this book. To read the four starred reviews or to order online, please visit my site. To hear even more about this book, listen to this podcast interview with Matthew Winner of All the Wonders. ¡Gracias!

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Kidlit County

What’s Your Favorite Color?

Today, an exhibit opens at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, featuring work from the upcoming book What’s Your Favorite Color?, by Eric Carle and Friends (I’m one of the friends!). You’ll be able to see the original drawings for my piece in the book, as well work by Lauren Castillo, Bryan Collier, Etienne Delessert, Anna Dewdney, Rafael López, William Low, Marc Martin, Jill McElmurry, Yuyi Moralies, Frann Preseton-Gannon, Uri Shulevitz, Philip. C. Stead, and Melissa Sweet. What a lineup, right!?

You can join us there on Sunday, May 7th from 1 to 4PM, for a book release celebration! I’ll be there, along with Etienne Delessert and William Low. We’ll each be doing a little presentation, and there will be activities for little friends, as well as a performance by the Amherst Regional High School Dance Theatre Ensemble.

What’s Your Favorite Color? comes out on May 2nd and the exhibit is up through August 27th. All royalties from this book will be donated to The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.

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Illustration Station, Little Elliot's Neighborhood

Little Elliot, BIG FUN is here!

I’ve never been a thrill seeker, at least when it comes to amusement parks. While I’ve slightly expanded my joyride repertoire, I still prefer my feet on the ground, and an ice cream cone in my hand.

"Keep that ground where I can see it!"

“Keep that ground where I can see it!”

One time, when I was very little (…ok, I was 14), a group of friends convinced dragged me onto a ride at an amusement park. It was a big platform that was connected to a giant sun by a very long arm, which would rotate around the sun to a height of (by my estimation) ten thousand feet. Apparently, my face looked something like a mood ring before I fainted on my friend, woke up, and nearly threw up Exorcist style. But my buddy Jim squeezed me tight with one arm and cupped his other hand over my mouth and screamed bloody murder until the technician stopped the ride early. I almost died. I mean, I thought I was going to. But I didn’t. My friend was there for me, and after we got off the devil’s slingshot, we had a really good time.

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In Little Elliot, BIG FUN, Elliot and his friend Mouse go to Coney Island to see the sights and ride the rides. Mouse wants to go on the wet rides, the dizzy rides, and the fast rides! Poor Elliot is not up to it. Even when he tries to take it easy, the chaos of Coney Island sends Elliot on a pandemonious misadventure and Mouse on a wild goose chase.  

funhouseLife presents us with many rides. Some are more inviting than others. Sometimes we have to get on rides that we don’t want to get on. While it’s great to have friends around to have fun, it’s these scary times when we really need friends close by. In this book, Little Elliot and Mouse continue to show us what friendship is all about, but this time they also show us great courage. Elliot musters the courage to face his fears, while Mouse has the courage and patience to be there for him.

beachLike Elliot, I have been afraid of lots of rides, both at the park and in my life. I’ve been very blessed to have many friends who double as heroes. I hope that I have been able to return the favor from time to time. It’s important to know that you’re not riding this roller coaster alone. We need to be good friends and hold each other’s hands…and maybe also a vomit bag.

Why Coney Island?

Luna Park at night c.1937

Luna Park at night c.1937

While I was doing research for Little Elliot, Big City and Little Elliot, Big Family, I looked at many photos and films ofNew York City during late 1930s and early 1940s. Eventually, I stumbled upon Ken Burn’s documentary, Coney Island. After watching it, I knew exactly where Little Elliot and Mouse should go next. The old film clips are totally mesmerizing. Nothing quite says “summer in New York City” like Coney Island. I love living vicariously through Elliot, who gets to see an enchanting world that is lost to us.

Coney Island was once a skyline of towers, turrets, and minarets. At its brightest, it was the product of visionaries that transported its visitors to a world of dreams and possibilities. It was, in its way, a wonder of the world that showcased the very heights of humanity’s imagination and innovation. At its darkest moments, Coney Island was scandalous, financially ruinous, and even morally reprehensible. It’s eventual downfall reminded us that joy is fleeting. Little Elliot, Big Fun walks the tightrope of hope and fear, and Coney Island is the perfect backdrop.

So much research!

It was a lot of FUN making this book, and also a lot of WORK! I did more research for this book than Big City and Big Family combined! What made it extra challenging is that not much of the Coney Island of that time still exists. The boardwalk was plagued by fires, while other parts of it were demolished by a certain opportunistic developer. In the early 20th century, Coney Island consisted of three large amusement parks: Luna Park, Steeplechase, and Dreamland, plus many small independent rides and stands. Most of what you see in BIG FUN is based on Luna and Steeplechase, while Dreamland burned down in 1911 (a real shame because it was truly enchanting and I would have loved to have drawn it in the book). It was challenging deciphering blurry vintage black and white photographs, and then trying to envision what a scene might look like from a different perspective.

Some iconic rides still stand, like the Parachute Jump (which is just decorative now), the Cyclone, and of course the Wonder Wheel, which is at the very height and heart of our story.

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I went to Coney Island several times to take photos and enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of the boardwalk.

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Dan and Katrina on the pier with the modern day boardwalk behind them.

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Ruth wolfs down a “Coney Island Red Hot”

Katrina and I ride the Wonder Wheel!

Katrina and I ride the Wonder Wheel!

Speedy (1928)

Aside from the documentary I mentioned earlier, I also watched many films featuring Coney Island, including Speedy, The Devil and Miss JonesEnemies: A Love Story, and for some added levity, The Warriors.

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photo by Morris Engle, 1938

I looked at many photographs, and my favorites were by Morris Engle, which I certainly reference in some illustrations in the book.

Pip and Flip, Reginald Marsh, 1932

Pip and Flip, Reginald Marsh, 1932

I also looked at many artists, including Reginald Marsh, Paul Cadmus, Harry Roseland, Benton Murdoch Spruance, plus many other nameless illustrators who created posters and other advertisements for Coney Island.

artist unkown

artist unkown

Easter Eggs!

I’ve hidden away a few surprises in the book as a thank you to some of my friends who have been there for me when I’ve been afraid.Berger'sBurgersThis Berger’s Burgers billboard is in honor of my friend and queen of wordplay, Samantha Berger, who I am making a book with soon!

Flora&HenryThis lovely couple is actually Flora and Henry from Martha Brockenbrough’s The Game of Love and Death.

GodwinaThere is a portrait of my magical editor, Laura Godwin, in the endpapers…

RuthRuth Chan is serving ice cream and 1930s realness on page 16.

stuffiesPage 19 features cameos galore, including Georgie & Feta from Where’s the Party?; my favorite childhood stuffed animal, Ricky Raccoon; my husband’s childhood teddy bear, Willy; my friend Sarah Jane Lapp‘s bunny, aptly named Bunny; the awesome bird friend from Boo-La-La Witch Spa illustrated by Isabel Roxas; and Snuggleford Cuddlebun from Samantha Berger’s Snoozefest!

ElephantColossusDon’t miss the double gatefold towards the end of the book! On the right side page, you’ll notice an elephant standing amongst the buildings. Well, that is also a building! In fact, it is the Elephantine Colossus, which was at one point or another a hotel, concert hall, and amusement bazaar. Elephantine_Colossus_Side_ViewIt stood on Surf Avenue from 1885 to 1896, when it burned down in one of Coney Island’s many fires. Though technically it wouldn’t have been around for Elliot to see in the late 1930s, I couldn’t resist paying tribute to our lost pachyderm palace.

SuzieThe “Suzie” is named after my mom.

Have Fun!

You can purchase a copy of Little Elliot, BIG FUN at your local bookstore or any major online retailer. Signed copies are also available from Books of Wonder. You can also visit my website for more information, links, and to check out my other books!

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Illustration Station, Little Elliot's Neighborhood, Mikesville

Today, I Have a Book

Today is the day that I have everything I’ve ever wanted. Who knew it was possible? There was a time I didn’t think it was.

I’m back in Seattle this week, celebrating my book release at Elliot Bay Books, going to my friends’ wedding, and spending some much needed time with old friends who I haven’t seen in a long while. I was having dinner with one friend, who is amidst a life-changing project. She relayed to me how tumultuous it’s been since she made the decision to really commit to her dream, how one minute she experiences euphoric highs, and the next she’s weeping in the pits of doubt. Her story sounded very familiar to me.

It wasn’t long ago that I had a full time job in graphic design, a career I was proud of that paid the bills and also served as a creative outlet. But it wasn’t my dream. I was telling other people’s stories through branding, but not my own. It didn’t fill me up the way creating a drawing did. What was I making that spoke my own truth? What would I leave behind? How on earth could I get a deal making a picture book, the one thing that gleamed like a beacon in my daydreams, when the odds seemed so slim.

blizzardI was a failure. I would try to make a painting, and it didn’t come out how I wanted it to. Or I would start and never finish. Or I would write down ideas and never start. Or I wouldn’t do anything but sit and stare into space and think about how it was all totally impossible. I prepared myself to accept that it probably would never happen for me. That being a grown up meant facing realities. That it was vain to put faith in one’s talent. That it was folly to think you could live up to your heroes. How arrogant. How stupid.

But amidst it all, there was Elliot, a friendly face that I would doodle in my sketch book. He was so kind and forgiving. He did not judge these hostile feelings. His heart was so pure that he glowed in my darkness. He was the innocent part of myself that I managed to protect, the vulnerable child that didn’t quite fit in. He was so little, but pressed on. Into Elliot, I poured my empathy, love and hope. I couldn’t deny him these things. When I finally started to create finished drawings of him, I felt as though I was fighting for my life. He was the key to keeping my dreams alive. I would give him my hands and eyes and heart. I would make something just for me, something that made me happy.

In hindsight, it’s all quite clear. When faced with the prospect of real happiness, our inner demons are unleashed. The saboteur whispers in your ear, “no, you can’t.” But what it’s really saying is: “No, you can’t try to be happy because what if you fail? We will never recover.” But those are convenient lies. I did try, and I did fail, but it didn’t break me. I tried and tried and tried and tried, because what’s the use in giving up? Eventually, I tried and I won. I’m not even talking about my book deal. I’m talking about the magical day that I finished a drawing of Elliot and I was proud. I felt transported to a time when I was little, just making drawings to give to my Mom. It felt easy, and made me smile. I loved Elliot so much. He felt alive, and that meant my dreams were alive. And yes, I decided then that I would muster the audacity of pursuing my dream, because if I didn’t, then why was I even here?

Today, I have a book. It’s about my friend Elliot, whose little spots and big heart saved my life. He means so much to me, and I hope that you all take very good care of him.

xoxo
Mike

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Little Elliot's Neighborhood, Uncategorized

The Countdown!!!

We are now just a MONTH away from Little Elliot, Big City’s release, and it is consuming my every waking moment. “August 26, 2014” has been flashing in my head like a Las Vegas casino sign for months. This is just a brief little post to air out some of the excitement that has been percolating. It has been 2 YEARS since I signed with Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, and over a year since I finished the artwork for Big City. I’ve had moments where it has felt like the book will never actually be published, that it will always be in this limbo of being done but unseen. And now, finally, the big day is just weeks away. In an effort to keep my sanity, I have started a countdown via social media to get me through each slow-as-molasses day. Every image features a little sneak peek of art from the book! Here is today’s:

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Man, I could really use that red velvet cupcake about now too. The good news is that there will be cupcakes at both of my release parties! Come celebrate with me on August 28th at Elliott Bay Bookstore in Seattle, or on September 5th at Books of Wonder in New York City!

Also, if you’re not following me on social media yet, please like my Facebook page and follow me on Twitter so that you can countdown with me! I will be doing a blog tour in August that you won’t want to miss, and that will be a great way to keep up!

Most importantly, check out www.LittleElliotBigCity.com for info on how to pre-order the book.

29 DAYS!!!!

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