Kidlit County, Little Elliot's Neighborhood

Little Elliot, Fall Friends

Every Autumn, my family would make a pilgrimage to Wilcklow Orchards in New Paltz, NY. We’d spend the day hiking through rows of apple trees, sampling the different varieties (for quality control, of course), and procuring enough apples to ensure that my mother could bake enough pies to see us through to the new year. It’s no surprise to me (and probably not to my loyal readers) that apple pie is one of the heroes of my new book, Little Elliot, Fall Friends.

Fall Friends, the fourth book in the Little Elliot series, came out the same day as All the Way to Havana, but I wanted to wait to talk about it so that I had proper time to reflect on each book. In All the Way to Havana, we go on a trip from the countryside to the city, while in Fall Friends, we journey from the city to the countryside. Elliot and Mouse travel to the country for a reprieve from urban life, where they experience all the delights of the fall season. During a spirited game of hide-and-seek, Elliot is suddenly lost. The day is saved due to a combined effort by Mouse’s savvy, the kindness of strangers, Elliot’s instincts, and a piping hot apple pie in a window.

Until very recently, I lived in large cities for my entire adult life. Like Elliot, my days were filled with weaving through the busy sidewalks trying not to get stepped on in the pursuit of finding that perfect cupcake. But some days, the city can be a bit much. No matter where we live, it’s good to get out of our bubble, and every city dweller will find themselves in need of fresh air and quiet (though some of us prefer a private beach resort over a bumpy country road, but still!). Sometimes, we are able to travel to a place that’s so different that it can overwhelm us in unexpected ways. While it can be exhilarating going to a completely different place, it can also be scary. You leave your familiar world behind, and you’re left vulnerable. In a way, you lose yourself. But through this act of casting off your identity and being immersed in another world, you can find a whole new part of yourself that you never knew existed.

In these divisive times, it’s important to remember that there are many places and people outside of where you’re from. There’s a growing rift between city and country in America, and I am hoping to reach out to our friendly country neighbors via my polka-dotted urban ambassador. Both places have much to offer, and there exists great potential for many friendships if people are willing to be vulnerable, experience different communities, and meet different people. 

And when you’re lost, remember to always follow your nose…

Behold! The power of pie!

Please visit my website to order your copy of Little Elliot, Fall Friends, read reviews, download the activity sheet, and more! Join me at Books of Wonder in NYC on Sunday, October 1, from 1-3PM for the book release party, or check out my events page to see where I’ll be presenting next. 

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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

Worm Loves Worm PRIDE Giveaway

Usually, when I think of Pride month, I think of celebration and acceptance. But this year, I think about loss. In the wake of the Orlando massacre, I feel emotionally exhausted. I also feel a need to do something.

I am a member of the LGBTQA community and the children’s book community. Since there aren’t too many of us who belong to both, I thought this might be an area where I can help bring about change. That was the reason why I illustrated J.J. Austrian’s beautiful book, Worm Loves Worm.

Worm cover 2

It is so important that children see lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and ally characters in books. My wish for them is to live in a world of acceptance where people are trying to understand and appreciate each other’s differences. Our visibility is crucial. LGBTQ people need to be seen as real three-dimensional human beings. The inability for some to see us as human beings with real hearts and minds makes it easier for them to fear and hate us. We can help our kids be good friends and allies. We can help “different” kids love themselves. Books like this one for the youngest readers are a great way to start.

In honor of Pride month, and in memory of the victims of Pulse nightclub in Orlando, I’m donating 20 copies of Worm Loves Worm to schools around the country, courtesy of Balzer + Bray. Enter to win a copy for your school! Just tweet this this post on Twitter and include the hashtag #wormloveswormpride. On June 30th, we’ll select 20 random schools and mail you a copy!

Happy Pride month everyone!

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Some resources:

Worm Loves Worm also appeared on this awesome list that the Advocate published: 21 LGBT Picture Books Every Kid Should Read. Another great resource for middle grade and young adult queer titles is Lee Wind’s blog, I’m Here, I’m Queer, What the Hell do I Read?

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Illustration Station

How to Kill Your Babies

I’ve got bad news for you. The beautiful baby that you gave birth to, loved, and nurtured, has grown into a monster. It must be stopped, and only YOU can stop it. I am of course speaking about the picture book that you’re working on, specifically the beautiful chrome car bumper you just drew, or the building facade that took you 5 hours to ink, or the cherry blossom tree that you spent 2 days painting (how can you mess up a tree, right?). Well, you’ve been missing the big picture. Literally. Take a nice step back and look at your entire composition. You see it now, don’t you? That bumper is actually not supposed to be shaped that way. The turret that you painstakingly drew each shingle on is out of perspective! And that cherry blossom tree is somehow crooked (but it’s a TREE!). I can see you mouthing that involuntary expletive. Go ahead, let it out, because this is going to suck. You are going to have to kill your baby.

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Geez man, let it GO!

I know what you’re thinking, “SCREW YOU, MAN! This is the best bumper I’ve ever drawn!” I hear you, because I just drew the best bumper I’ve ever drawn, and it was not shaped the way it is in real life (let’s blame the tricky chrome reflections in my reference!). But guess what? That crazed automobile collector who is going to buy my book because they know every minute detail about ’54 Chevys IS going to see that the bumper is inaccurate, and she WILL email me to complain about it (and maybe even give it a menacing review). AND, that’s on ME. If I’m making a book about cars, and I blatantly disregard the details that are going to make car enthusiasts swoon, then I’m not doing my job, and I’ve lost my credibility.

the bumper in question

the bumper in question–I also forgot the keyhole!!!

It’s not just about being technically accurate. You could be working in a completely abstract style that excuses you from lots of formal “art rules.” The fact remains: if there is something in your composition that is calling too much attention to itself in a way that has nothing to do with the plot, you’ve just pulled your reader out of the story! This is the LAST thing you want to happen. No bumper is that precious.

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This can be applied to writing, illustrating, and all other creative endeavors.

Don’t cry yet. Do the job first, mourn later. It will be easier for both of you this way. You’ll erase the best bumper you’ve ever drawn, but you’ll save the rest of the drawing you’ve made. Plus, you just proved you can draw an amazing bumper, so why can’t you draw it again? Your drawing is going to be stronger because of this.

Whnicetryo knew erasers could look so threatening? Pick it up. Erase the bumper. Draw a better one.

Here’s a gentle reminder, friends: It’s probably not THE best drawing or painting EVER made in the HISTORY of Art, right? If you put it next to the Mona Lisa, would she turn to look at it and be all, “OH, DAYUMN!” I didn’t think so.

Take heart. Your baby will return, maybe not specifically as a car bumper, but as a really amazing overall piece that you can be proud of!

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Kidlit County

Worm Loves Worm

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to celebrate the book release of Worm Loves Worm! To read a full synopsis and starred reviews, visit this page.

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I had the great honor of illustrating this important story written by debut author, J.J. Austrian. This was much more than just another project for me. It came at a poignant time in my life, and in our nation’s history.

We are all a little different. This has been a fact that I’ve been reminded of daily. For most of my life, I doubted that I could ever be married. This wasn’t because I thought that I was incapable of finding true love; it was because the law would have prevented me from Continue reading

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Kidlit County, Little Elliot's Neighborhood

Now on Exhibit!

Tales of Tails: Animals in Children’s Books, a new exhibit at Seattle’s Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, features our own Little Elliot and many other  friends!

Tale of Tails

“Children from 3-11 can examine and explore how stories use animals to portray human qualities.”

You’ll see artwork and/or books created by  Brian Won, Catia Chien, Isabel Roxas, Jason Chin, Salina Yoon, Gene LuenYang, LeUyen Pham, and many more.

The Wing Luke is a beautiful museum, part community center, part time capsule, situated in Seattle’s International District (or what other cities may refer to as Chinatown). Their mission is “To connect everyone to the rich history, dynamic cultures and art of the Asian Pacific Americans through vivid storytelling and inspiring experiences.”

Tail of Tales 2

Tales of Tails is on display now through mid-December.

 

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Kidlit County, Little Elliot's Neighborhood

Little Elliot, BIG WINDOW, Part 2: Christmastime at Books of Wonder!

Christmas is upon us! Books of Wonder asked me to dress their window again, this time for the holidays (here’s what the first window looked like in August). Elliot and Mouse have been busy little elves, helping Santa wrap up presents! They might have read a few pages along the way, just to make sure everything was good.

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There are lots of books by friends in the window:

A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd
Hug Machine by Scott Campbell
Have You Seen My Dragon? by Steve Light
Five, Six, Seven, Nate by Tim Federle
El Deafo by CeCe Bell
Outside by Deirdre Gill
The Misadventures of Sweetie Pie and a BIG copy of Polar Express  by Chris Van Allsburg
and more!

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Books of Wonder also has signed copies of Little Elliot, Big City available for order! Get a copy for someone special this  Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanza/Festivus!

Also, I wouldn’t have been able to get all this done without the help of the lovely Samantha Berger, who makes GREAT kids books:

Crankenstein
Martha Doesn’t Say Sorry
Martha Doesn’t Share

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