How do you do your illustrations?
All of my illustrations are painted in gouache (which rhymes with squash). Gouache is a water-based paint that can be used either thick or thin, depending on how much water is added. I paint my pictures on illustration board which is like a really nice white cardboard. I usually paint my illustrations larger than they appear in my books. This way I can easily add all the detail I like to include in my pictures. When I start an illustration, I almost always begin with the background (sky, grass…etc.) and then work to the foreground. The last thing I paint are the little sparkly highlights like the shine on a person’s nose or the twinkle in an eye.
Do you use a computer to do your artwork?
No, I don’t. Some people think I do because my pictures are so smooth and flat, but it’s all paint.
How long does it take you to paint a picture?
It depends on how much detail I add. A simple scene may take a day or two, but a complex image with a lot of detail might take as long as four weeks to complete! On average, a typical spread (that’s a picture that goes across two pages) takes me about two weeks to finish.
Where do you get your ideas?
Story ideas come from all different places. Sometimes I think of a picture first and then write a story around it. That’s how “Down to the Sea with Mr. Magee” happened. Sometimes I recall something from my childhood, like a game I used to play. That’s how “If I Built a Car” developed. An article in a magazine can also spark a story idea. That’s how I came up with “The Circus Ship”. I even had a dream once that I thought would make a good story, so you never know where an idea is going to come from.
Do you write the words first and then draw the pictures, or is it the other way around?
It’s usually a combination of both. I start by preparing a story map. This is a simple piece of paper with rectangles drawn on it that represent the spreads of the book. Then I draw a small, rough sketch of the illustration in each box and add a few descriptive words, like “Magee sees whales”. Pacing is crucial. I have to make sure the story introduces the character(s) first, presents a conflict second, and then time the story so it builds to a climax and leaves room for a resolution at the end. Sometimes I’ll do several story maps until I get it just right. After that, I start writing the final copy.
How long does it take you to make a book?
My best guess is about a year, but that’s hard to answer exactly because I don’t sit down and write a story from beginning to end. I write in rhyme and rhyming verse doesn’t just flow out of me. It comes a few lines at a time and usually when I don’t have a paper and pencil handy, like in the car or in the shower! But if I DID write a story straight through it would probably take me a couple of months, with all the revising and tweaking I do. I start the final artwork after the story is finished. The illustrations for “If I Built a Car” took me nine months to complete. So a year is about right.
How do I get a book published?
First, do some research. Join The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (scbwi.org) and pick up a current copy of the Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market. Both are excellent sources of useful information. Second, find out which publisher would be right for your story. Go to a library or bookstore and look through the children’s books. What houses are publishing stories similar to yours? Finally, keep in mind that the children’s book market is extremely competitive. Publishers are becoming more and more selective on what they choose to publish, so be persistent and patient. Getting rejected by publishers is part of the game, but if you believe in your story, don’t give up.
Do I need an agent?
Literary agents definitely help, especially if you’re planning on sending your story to one of the bigger publishers, but there are several smaller houses that don’t require an agent. If you’re a first time writer, I think a smaller, local publisher is your best bet.
How do I get an agent?
This is the tricky part. It’s really a Catch-22. A lot of agents won’t take you unless you’re a published author, and a lot of publishers won’t look at your manuscript unless it comes through an agent! Again, if you’re new at this, start with a smaller publisher. If they publish your story, you’ll have one book under your belt and then you’ll have something to show an agent. Agents are very busy, and if they’re going to invest their time in you, they want to make sure you’re serious about becoming an author and can deliver the goods.
Do I need to have my story illustrated before I send it to a publisher?
NO! This is the biggest mistake most first time authors make. They think they have to have a complete package, story and pictures, before sending it out. It actually HURTS your chances of being published if you do this! Unless you’re a professional artist, with a portfolio of printed work, don’t even worry about the illustrations at this point. Typically the publisher chooses the illustrator and matches your story with the right artist. Your only concern should be to get your manuscript into the hands of an interested editor. The art will come later.
Would you illustrate my story?
I’d love to, but again, it’s not for me to decide. If your story is accepted by a publisher and they think my illustrations would be the perfect fit, they may send me your manuscript to consider. You never know…
Do you sell your paintings?
I’m not selling any of the originals from the books I’ve written, but if you go to the “prints” section of this website you’ll find some “Mr. Magee” and “If I Built a Car” prints for sale there. On the same page, you’ll find a list of original paintings that I’m selling from the “Mercy Watson” series.
Why do so many of your books take place in the 1950s and ’60s?
This is the stuff I grew up with! I love the way things looked in the ’50s and ’60s. The colors, shapes and patterns were so bold and bright and it’s fun to paint them in my illustrations. Plus, when I was sketching my first book, I was trying to figure out what kind of car Mr. Magee would drive. I couldn’t picture him in a modern car, so I put him in a 1961 Rambler American. It just felt right. Also, the story seemed more believable if it took place back then, for some reason.
Are YOU Mr. Magee?
No, but we probably share some characteristics! My wife thinks Mr. Magee looks like my brother, but I didn’t plan it that way. Some kids call me “Mr. Magee” and that’s fine as long as I don’t end up with his bad luck!
Do you have a dog named Dee?
I have a dog but she’s not called Dee. I have a yellow lab named Pearl.
How did you get to work with Kate DiCamillo?
Ann Stott, the art director at Candlewick Press, asked me if I’d like to illustrate some stories about a pig named “Mercy Watson”. She’d seen my pictures in the “Magee” books and thought I’d be perfect for the series. When I heard they were written by Kate DiCamillo, I jumped at the chance!
Have you met Kate?
Yes, several times. Usually we’d get together for signings when a new “Mercy” book came out. Not only is she an amazing writer, she’s a wonderful person as well- smart, witty, funny and she has a great laugh which she uses often.
Who inspired you to become an author/illustrator?
Probably the two people that were most influential are Dr. Seuss and Robert McCloskey. I love Dr. Seuss for his amazing use of words and rhymes. His lines are almost musical. And Robert McCloskey’s illustrations are my favorites. He created such a sense of place in his illustrations. Plus they are full of detail which I love.
Do you have a favorite author? Illustrator?
Besides Dr. Seuss, Kate DiCamillo is tops on my list of favorite authors and not just because I was lucky enough to work with her, what she does with words is magical. I’m also a fan of Jane Yolen, John Scieszka, Lisa Wheeler and Cynthia Rylant. Besides Robert McCloskey, some of my favorite illustrators are William Joyce, Adam Rex, Mark Beuhner, David Wiesner, Lane Smith, Tony DiTerlizzi, David Kirk and Mark Teague. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg! I could add many, many more names to both lists and I’m sure I’m forgetting some very key people.
What are some of your favorite children’s books?
I have so many favorites I could go on forever, but here are a few that come to mind- “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble” by William Steig, “Terrific” by Jon Agee, “Swamp Angel” by Anne Isaacs, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky, “Fanny’s Dream” by Caralyn and Mark Beuhner, “The Orange Book” by Richard McGuire, “Zen Shorts” by Jon J Muth, “The Wreck of the Zephyr” by Chris Van Allsburg and “The Arrival” by Shaun Tan.
Do you illustrate other things besides children’s books?
Sometimes. I used to do a lot of editorial illustration, mainly for children’s magazines. I think that’s what led me into children’s books. I’ve also illustrated a poster for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, several L.L. Bean catalog covers, t-shirts, games and even the lobster license plate for the state of Maine!