Friday, June 24, 2011

What's Your Wish?

Her wish is secret. What's yours?
It's technically been summer for two days now and I'm sick of cold weather, cloudy skies, and wool socks. Enough already- this is bumming me out. I need some vitamin D.

But you know what made me happy today? I saw a true harbinger of warm weather in my yard: our first dandelion. Thank the gods! For me, dandelions conjure all sorts of greatness. Rub them under your chin, and a child can tell you whether or not you like butter. (I do.) You can saute their greens. (I have. In butter.) Ray Bradbury made his into wine. (I could, I guess.) But here's the very best thing: you can make a wish on them. And Carolyn Conahan wrote the loveliest picture book about it: The Big Wish (Chronicle, 2011). Can you tell from the picture how much my daughter loves it?

Carolyn told me all about her idea and a bit about how she got it all down on paper. Plus, she gave me and her artistic daughters such a wise piece of advice which I'll share with you now. Read on, and don't forget to make your own wish!

AB: Please tell me about The Big Wish. What kernel of an idea set you off and running with this story? When did you first get the idea?

CC:Out walking in my neighborhood one morning, I came on a yard that was all dandelions, from side to side to side. Tall, vigorous dandelions, like someone had been tending them, fussing over them. Growing them on purpose. But why would someone grow dandelions? I answered my own question: For the wishes, of course. But so many–they must be going for the world record!  I loved the idea of a world record wish. It got me thinking about how all different people might wish all different things. And wondering: If you had the chance to make such a wish, (For the record. For the world!) what would you pick? How would you pick? 
Daydreamy, isn't it?

AB: For this book, which types of ideas came first: images or words?

CC: The sight of those dandelions on that slope of yard really struck me. So of course I doodled some notes and noodled with a few color sketches. But I try to get the story more or less worked out before I get too, too, involved with the drawings. I have a tendency to go off on tangents and draw a lot of pictures I can't use when the story changes direction. (Very sad.) I won't say it's a complete waste of time, because fun and useful ideas happen in the process, but it drains away energy, too. I like to finish a project once in a while.

AB: Could you talk about your process for creating the illustrations for The Big Wish? What medium/ media do you use?

CC: I bought a LOT of yellow paint, and I slopped it around with some green and blue for that weedy, sunny yard, springy-summer sky sort of look. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) I tried out different looks for the place and the people, sketching characters on the bus, and around the neighborhood. That was fun.
Media is watercolor on paper. (I like watercolors for portability and easy clean-up.)

Dynamic wish-making!
AB: Could you talk a bit about the stylistic choices you make for your book illustrations?

CC: Ohhhhh. That sounds so serious and decisive, which I am not. Of course I want the illustrations to suit the story, to harmonize with it, or deepen it, or pack it up and take it exciting new places... or all those things. Every story has it’s own feel and “voice” so the pictures should, too. I wouldn’t like to do the same thing over and over.

AB: Who are some of the editors/ art directors you’ve worked with?

Depends on how far you want to go back, and if you want to count editors for whom I did revisions which did not result in a contract. No? O.K. Fine. I've worked with Marianne Carus, Debbie Vetter, Gail Pyszka, Julia Messina, Ron McCutchan, Lonnie Plecha, Karen Kohn, Sue Beck, and Kristin Scribner (among other people) at Cricket. Meredith Mundy Wasinger, Mark McVeigh, and Sarah Pope at Dutton Books. (I almost-but-not-quite-maybe-someday worked with Meredith again at Sterling) Nancy Koupal was the editor, and my husband, Mark, designed the books I illustrated for SDSHSP.  Emily Mitchell and Susan Sherman at Charlesbridge. Julie Romeis, and Kristine Brogno at Chronicle. Nice people, one and all! I've been lucky. 

AB: Correction: WE, your fans, have been lucky, Carolyn! I also love the work you do for Cricket Magazine. Can you tell us a bit about that, too?

Bug antics in Cricket Magazine.
CC: I draw the comic and the bugs making comments in the margins, and I illustrate the crossword (crossbird) puzzle. They are a splendid, funny, creative and dedicated group of people. I feel lucky to be working with them. It's been very good for me.

AB: What about the picture book medium appeals to you? Any interest in exploring the graphic novel format?

CC: I like words and pictures together, telling stories. I'm working on a couple of stories that I hope to do as graphic novels.

AB: What sorts of things inspired you to write and illustrate? Did you always want to do both? Did you want to do this when you were a kid? If not, what did you ‘wish’ you’d be doing?

CC: Good ideas inspire me to write and illustrate. Yes, I’ve always wanted to do both. When I draw, I am thinking of stories. When I write, I see pictures. This is pretty much all I ever wanted to do, except for a brief period when I enjoyed riding horses at top speed over jumps cross-country. But this sport (Eventing) requires buckets of money and I had none. 

AB: Did you study to become an illustrator? A writer? If so, where and how?

CC: Not really. I studied (more or less) a combined program at Reed college and the Pacific Northwest College of Art, but it was loosely organized at that time (or I was) so I was never quite sure what was required when. I think my educational “plan” at that time was to avoid acquiring any marketable skills. 

AB: Good grief. You just put into words my own previously unvoiced life plan. Ah well. Do you stay in touch with any of the teachers or students? How have they (either teachers and/or students) helped teach you how to write and illustrate for kids? What were the major lessons that you took away from PNCA?

CC: I actually haven’t kept in touch with people I knew at PNCA. I was still in my feral child stage at that time, not well socialized. (Still working on that.)

Love these pups.
AB: Come on, Carolyn- you're social enough, and besides: I like you! Can you give us a run down of the books you've worked on?

CC: Way back, I illustrated 3 books in a series for Capstone, which fell into a deep dark hole during a company reorganization and never saw the light of day, then 3 books in a series for Morehouse.
Discontented, yet proud.
Then I wrote and illustrated The Twelve Days of Christmas Dogs, published by Dutton. (Fall 2005)
I illustrated The Discontented Gopher, by L.Frank Baum, and The Prairie-Dog Prince, by Eva Katharine Gibson, both published by The South Dakota State Historical Society Press. (2006 and 2008)
Then I illustrated Bubble Homes and Fish Farts by Fiona Bayrock, for Charlesbridge (Spring 2009)
And that brings us to The Big Wish, which landed on shelves in May. Yay! 

AB: We proudly display your dogs, prairie critters, and farts on our shelves.Can you tell us a bit about you path to publication?

CC: It was long. And meandering. And long. Once I started meeting regularly with a critique group and going to conferences, I started making progress, too. Learning my craft, and proper practices, making good friends and useful connections. 

AB: What did you read as a kid?

CC: Books. (Sorry, couldn’t resist that one, either.) Good books, bad books, comic books, billboards, signboards, newspapers and magazines. Cereal boxes.
Lush pictures; great science.

AB: Which artists have influenced you? What did you like looking at as a child? What impressed you?

CC:  When I was a kid I loved field guides. The field guide to birds, (eastern, western, european, etc...) and mammals, reptiles and amphibians, clouds, native plants, animal tracks... I wanted a pet jaguarundi. 

AB: What current authors and illustrators do you enjoy these days?

CC: There are so many! So many of them are local...  and I've been reading a lot of Catherynne Valente. But, in a disgustingly mom-ish sort of way (feel free to avert your eyes) I have to say my daughters are my favorite writer/artistic types these days. G is working on her master's at M.I.T.,  and writes fantasy/science fiction. She enjoyed spring break at the Dell Awards with her pack of prize-wining young writer friends. K is writing and illustrating and type-setting and printing and binding her stories at Reed, where she also dances with a flaming sword. (That’s it, I'm done. You can look now.)

AB: Carolyn, that’s far from disgusting- that’s truly fantastic. What’s the best piece of advice you wish your daughters will heed? The one you wish you had taken to heart when you were young?

CC: Don't be so determined to take every mistake personally. 

AB: That is a wise wish, Carolyn. Thanks for sharing it with us. 

Read Carolyn's inspired manifesto: In Defense of Dandelions.  You'll be glad you did.