Speaking as the illustrator here and not as an author, the hopes and expectations one imagines for the artwork, may, uncannily like kids, head in directions not anticipated when confronted with the reality at the drawing board. All the prepping and research seems to have been turned on its head and what you are looking at half way through the project is not what you thought you’d see. Now what? This is not necessarily a negative provided you can get a grip on yourself, accept the possibility of a change in plans, and make the adjustments to successfully adapt. As the project unfolds we eventually arrive at working in a way that seems comfortable and right. There’s even a strong temptation to redo the first batch of finishes because they don’t match the quality- or vision- of the later ones. And sometimes that actually happens because you want to be proud of how that kid- er- book turns out.
So far, most of what I’ve pointed out sounds fairly dis-incentivizing. Someone reading this would rightfully ask, why take up such a challenge and spend a considerable amount of time behaving like a determined but sleep-deprived parent for a half year or so, much to the concern of your spouse? Well, one reason is faith that all the hard work will be worth it. And, as is so often the case with kids, it is. Ultimately, if you don’t love what you are doing you’re in a lot of trouble. And no matter how frustrating the going gets, you don't give up on the images and what you're putting together.
“Hot Dog! Eleanor Roosevelt Throws a Picnic” is the seventh book I’ve illustrated for the wonderful folks at Sleeping Bear Press. My first collaboration, in 2004, with Elissa Grodin, titled “D is for Democracy” was the beginning of a truly unique relationship with editors and art directors at Sleeping Bear. We like each other. More important, the folks at Sleeping Bear ‘get it’. They have great trust in the illustrators they match with writers, provide minimal but smart editorial feedback, and consequently the attitude from their offices is always upbeat and positive. Whatever pressure I feel is self generated, a desire to match their enthusiasm with the best imagery that I can create.
The great irony about “Hot Dog!” is that we had signed the contracts and such a good six months before we found out that there was a movie being produced about the very same event. It was a charming flick, “Hyde Park on the Hudson” that starred Bill Murray as a very convincing Franklin D. Roosevelt. I had mixed reactions at first to the announcement of the movie hitting the theaters a good year before Hot Dog!'s publication but as time went on saw it not as a spoiler but as a complement to the book. No matter, I deliberately avoided seeing the movie until I was well into the project and feeling secure about the direction. It became a reference source for clothing colors and scenery in a few of the images. The actual picnic itself plays a small role in the flick.
Reference. I can’t think of any children’s book I’ve done for Sleeping Bear that didn’t involve some investment of time in reference hunting. More often than not, the research felt like 50% of the entire project. If the content is historical the need to get things right initially, before artistic license is allowed to enter, is crucial. Whether it is American history, the military, Greek mythology or the Roman Empire, having as solid a foundation in picture reference is a must. We can gripe about Google for any number of good reasons but the access to picture reference is inestimable. What would take many trips to libraries or picture reference outlets can be done from your studio. One of the side benefits to reference hunting on Google is the access to all sorts of tangential information in a matter of moments. A leads to B leads to G. It turns into a side obsession; to learn as much as possible related to the subject and the people involved so as to bring something extra to the images. Even when the illustrations are approached in a lighter, more humorous, caricature-like format, the information gathered from the research alows me to bring some insight into the characters of the subjects.
Google was great but extremely limited in visual reference pertaining to the barbeque, an event that was not really open to press photographers. Plan B. A goodly amount of time was spent at the Roosevelt Museum/Estate at Hyde Park, which has an extraordinary research library. How could it not? It’s also a beautiful set of estates to visit. You feel the history as you walk around. The staff was very helpful, if a bit business like, but as I looked around the library room it was apparent how many people were sitting at tables doing research. A lot. I was just one of many who journeyed in and out on a daily basis. It was here that, after explaining my mission to the staff, I was brought a number of folders from which a small grouping of photos from the barbeque emerged. The pictures seemed casual, not really professionally photographed. But they were there, and there was just enough to get an approximation for what I needed to portray, including the Native Americans who were invited to perform for the guests. As was the case I also searched for reference of as many angles of FDR and Eleanor from that period so as not to be locked to a few set facial shots. The King and Queen of England were also reasonably well represented. FDR’s customized auto was there as well which I had the opportunity to photograph. The treasure trove of photos of Eleanor created some fascinating observations. It’s very easy to think of her as an awkward ugly duckling sort of woman. But a number of pictures, especially from her youth portray a certain distinctive charm to the features. Her Uncle was Teddy (pronounced Teedy as I have come to learn from Edmund Morris’s bio).
The reference hunting actually never stopped. It went on till the very end. Some of my original sketches took drastic turns as I found photos that countered what I had envisioned. I also suspected the movie would make it difficult to just adlib details.
My original thoughts were to portray the event in a very loose, light manner, but once the actual transition to finishes happened they become more solid, atmospheric, whimsical balanced with some seriousness. It was somewhat disconcerting. At certain points I was not entirely sure which direction the images were heading, or if they even needed to stay strictly consistent in attitude. That’s not a comfortable question to ask. One assumes from a children’s book standard that consistency is very important. And, as mentioned earlier, as the book progressed and I got more comfortable with the characters I insisted on redoing some of my earlier pieces out of dissatisfaction with the original portrayals. In the end I was pretty satisfied with the finished entity. As is the case with a book of over 20 illustrations, some felt more successful than others. But the overall look was very pleasing. This is probably the first book that I’ve done for them that really felt like a kid’s book. All the others have been A-B-C’s, wonderful instructionals but following a certain design format specific to Sleeping Bear. This one not so. It has a more relaxed feel and the type complements the illustrations rather than acting as the counterpoint.
Many thanks to Felicia Macheske, who art directed, and Barbara McNally who edited, two women I've had great fun working with on previous books. Thanks to author Leslie Kimmelman, who couldn't have been nicer or more helpful providing me with historical data to add clarification to certain scenes when I was stuck.
A selection of illustrations that worked for me, some sketches, and sketches that got tossed.
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