‘Twas the Night Before Christmas Aboard the ‘Black Sark’

An interview with children’s author, poet and humorist Philip Yates about the digital illustrations done by Spanish illustrator Sebastia Serra, in their new picture book, sure to be another Christmas Classic “A Pirate’s Night Before Christmas.”

'Sir Peggedy' visits the pirate ship in "A Pirate's Night Before Christmas"
‘Sir Peggedy’ visits the pirate ship in “A Pirate’s Night Before Christmas”

Two of my two all-time favorite Holiday Season picture books are by members of my own children’s writing group. One is Santa Knows by Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith, illustrated by Steve Bjorkman (Dutton). The other is the new  A Pirates Night Before Christmas, by Philip Yates, illustrated by Sebastia Serra (Sterling .)

"A Pirate's Night Before Christmas" by Phillip Yates and illustrator Sebastia Serra
“A Pirate’s Night Before Christmas” by Phillip Yates and illustrator Sebastia Serra

Another is the classic A Child’s Christmas in Wales by the poet Dylan Thomas,  because of the fascinating wash illustrations by the great Edward Ardizzone. (David R. Godine, Publisher.) But that is for another post someday.

But how amazing is that when the first two quintessential Christmas picture books you can think of happen to be by writers from your own tribe,  in your own town?

Yates is a poet and humorist as well as an author, and in “Pirate’s Night Before Christmas, he applied all three gifts to a sea-yarn retelling of Clemment Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas.”

“I wrote the whole story by asking questions and putting myself into this workd that is uniquely the pirates,”  he told Cynthia Leitich Smith in her children’s and YA literature blog Cynsations. “That’s what writing successful picture books is all about — asking the right questions and letting the answers come in the most heartfelt way. ”

How would pirates celebrate Christmas? Yates wondered.

They would be too bad and mean to deserve a visit from Santa,  so they would need their own ornery ‘sea dog’ version of Santa — and he would drive a marine sleigh pulled by seahorses!  The rhyme structure of Moore’s classic Night Before Christmas poem is anapestic tetrameter (also found in Dr. Seuss’s beloved Yertle the Turtle and Cat in the Hat, Yates told Smith. “It’s a breezy, whimsical, magical form that just flows beautifully and is highly contagious when read out loud.”

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To prepare to put new language and new word pictures into old poetic forms, Yates steeped  himself  in pirate lore — “the grammar, the slang, the history, the parts of the ship… ” Yates said in the interview.

Actually composing the poem took him only two days. He sent the ms out to five publishers and received offers from three!

He went with Sterling, who offered first. Sterling pulled in talented Spanish illustrator Sebastia Serra.

Serralives in a village on the  Mediterranean coast near Barcelona.

Children’s book illustrators and pirates have a special relationship with each other  that pre-dates Disney and Johnny Depp. Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth leap to mind, as does Gustaf Tenggren.

Serra’s pirates evoke wooden toys, marionettes and bright-colored sea creatures.  So they’re sweet and child-like, as toys often are but there’s also something oddly menacing about them, as there should be — particularly that  ‘outlaw santa’ who goes by the name, Sir Peggedy.

Pirates — even cliche pirates —  are never cute — not in the best  depictions of them that resonate with children and the child in all of us. Robert Louis Stevenson knew this.  Long John Silver had us wondering up until  the very end of Treasure Island  if he was a bad guy or a good guy. We were never sure, not even after turning the novel’s last page, although he usually treated young Jim Hawkins decently.

As in the word portraits of pirates, pictures of pirates must include some minor key notes — disturbing elements  in the colors, details of the caricatures, or the ‘spirit’ behind a scene (even when the Christmas socks are hung from the bowsprit with care.)

Pirates in children’s picture books can be poignant and a tiny bit  endearing.  But if they come off too cuddly, they’re just wrong!  Children get this.  And so do Yates and Serra.

Serra's pirate ship from "The Pirate's Night Before Christmas"
Serra’s pirate ship from “The Pirate’s Night Before Christmas”

Yates talked with us about the illustrations that appear in his book.

 When you were writing, were you imagining the pictures in the book-to-be? Did you kind of visually  “thumbnail” the whole work in your head?

Or did you mainly focus on the language of the poem — already sort of knowing  that the stanzas would  work as a rollicking, page turning, picture book experience.

A lot of the creation of the narrative involved inserting pictures in my head as I wrote.  I knew the structure of the poem’s anapestic meter so well that I trusted the language to guide me on the voyage. The poem already works and has stood the test of time for nearly 190 years. Since the language was already there, I just had to pop in the images that worked best.

I immersed myself so thoroughly in the pirate world that the images came first and guided the language. For example, in the opening stanzas, I couldn’t hang stockings from chimneys so I had to research how pirate ships looked and where a stocking would hang and it wasn’t until I came across a picture of a bowsprit that  I realized it was a perfect place to hang a stocking.

But with what? Well, I found illustrations of ships that used tar to make repairs and since tar rhymes with thar,the two came together in perfect synchronicity.

I’m not an illustrator, but the book truly was guided by the  “picture” first, the “narrative” second.

From "The Pirate's Night Before Christmas"
From “The Pirate’s Night Before Christmas”

Were you permitted any kind of  communication with Sebastia Serra during the illustration process? 

The whole discovery of Serra was simply amazing and all credit is due my editor at Sterling Publishing. Serra had submitted a portfolio to Sterling and one look at his artwork and they knew he was perfect.

All the communication regarding the artwork was done between Serra and Sterling, or Sterling and me. I never spoke to him by phone,  communicated by email, or anything. It would have been heavenly to talk to him, but sometimes you have to trust your art director and this was a case where I totally put my trust in them from the start.

Were you given an opportunity to share ideas about the art? (Or did you even want such an opportunity?)

I had very little to give since the art was so splendid. I almost think it was eerie how perfectly he captured the world I envisioned. But there were tiny things like “I want to see more seaweed on Sir Peggedy,” or “His tooth needs to be golder,” since this was boldly expressed in the verses themselves.

I also wanted more  people of all colors and races because pirate worlds were pretty diverse, when you think about it.

Any insight into why your editor at Sterling selected  Sebastia to illustrate?

His artwork was modern, moody, had an edgy quality to it that was appealing. Similar to Lane Smith, I think. Lots of clutter, but I mean that in a postive way. Detail upon detail. He could also handle crowds of pirates in one picture, which, when you look at the illustrations, you can see this was necessary. They were also struck by the world he had created on his own with my language as the starting board—the monkey running around, the fish hanging on the Christmas tree, the treasure map with it’s unique geography. It was all in the details.

'Sir Peg' with the men. Illustration by Sebastia Serra
‘Sir Peg’ with the men. Illustration by Sebastia Serra

What was (is) your reaction to his art for the book when you saw it?

I was overwhelmed, to be honest.  As I said earlier, it felt like some telepathic thing had been going on between us. After seeing all the illustrations together for the first time, it almost felt like he had looked over my shoulder the whole time I was writing it, it was that spooky. But mostly, to be honest, was the feeling that I had accomplished what I set out to do—I had given him enough of this world so that he could go off on his own and expand it and give it his own twist.

At one reading recently, a parent came up to me and she thought I had done the illustrations and was surprised when she saw Serra’s name on it.

She said that the language and the visuals so perfectly meshed and how did it manage to come out without me even being in the same room with him. I was also proud because now he has several illustrator offers on his table, thanks to the Pirate’s success.

Have you done any kind of teamed promotional activity with Serra? Or are there plans to team the two of you somehow on the promotional circuit?

Phil Yates
Author Phil Yates

Well, Sebastia’s in Barcelona, Spain and here I am in Austin. He has promoted it as best he can, but I imagine that  it’s difficult to translate Clement Moore’s poem from English into Spanish without messing with the rhyme or meter in some way. I imagine the story can be told successfully in Spanish because the pictures are so great. I do hope to meet him some day and he is eager to team up again on another project, but now it’s difficult for both of us to get together.

[Serra created the  illustrations for the book with pencil and ink on parchment,  then he digitally colored the scene’s. See the interview with artist Serra in the next post.]

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Mark Mitchell, who wrote this post, teaches an online course in children’s book illustration, Make Your Splashes – Make Your Marks!   See Mark’s free video series about the best secret to better drawing.

A Prism of Isms (but Not a Prisoner!)

…There is glory to be found in doodling.

A Declaration of Art!
A Declaration of Art!

      Illustrator and Fine Artist Theresa Bayer, who has written and taught before in these pages, cogitated on the following statement for  a while before she finally got it the way she wanted it.  Then she ran it on her blog .  She calls it The ‘Fun Art ‘Manifesto. 

     I thought she expressed it so beautifully that I asked her if How To Be A Childrens Book Illustrator could help her spread the word.

     Sorry, there is no place to sign your approval on the bottom like America’s  forefathers did on the Declaration of Independence.
(I asked.)

     But you can post a comment on her blog — or post one here and I’ll forward it to Theresa. And while you’re at it, link to a picture on your own art blog that you deem a good example of this new (and old) genre.

     OK, then. Ready? Let’s take our Tennis Court Oath

                                           The Fun Art Manifesto
                            © 2008 Theresa Bayer www.tbarts.com

     Somewhere between the noble realm of Fine Art and the mighty realm of Illustration, lies a curious little field that is coming to be known as Fun Art.

     Although Fun Art is neither fine art nor illustration it has elements of both. It doesn’t seem to have an official history, although it’s probably been around as long as there have been artists. Fun Art may have a future, but no one is betting on it. Fun Art is simply Now.

      Like fine art, Fun Art is all about being individual, having something interesting to say, and saying it in your own voice. Unlike fine art, Fun Art does not take itself seriously. There are no weighty ponderings about symbolism or realism or abstract outsiderism or any other kind of ism. There are no isms in Fun Art, yet Fun Art embraces all isms. Fun Art is a prism of isms, but not a prisoner of isms.

      Like illustration, Fun Art is highly accessible, can easily be read and absorbed and has the same immediate visual and popular appeal that good illustration has. It can be cute or corny or even commercially appealing and that’s OK. Unlike illustration, Fun Art can stand alone and without a story or product to enhance– although it can also be narrative.

      Fun Art is joyful, even when veers toward dark and edgy. There is a zingy energy to it that doesn’t depend on gravitas; its finest examples express a genuineness that goes beyond any commercial concern, even if the subject matter happens to be highly salable. You might call some of it a glorified doodle, but that’s OK too, because there is glory to be found in doodling.

An Artful Moment
An Artful Moment

      Fun Art has its own set of challenges. Just because it’s humorous or easy on the eyes does not necessarily mean it’s easy to make. Fun Art is of the imagination, and drawing straight from the imagination is a tall order. Foreshortening, perspective, lighting, composition, and fascinating little details are difficult enough when drawing from life. Doing all this from the imagination can be brain wracking indeed–some form of reference is always a help and can inspire an artist greater heights of creative fancy. Any art that is worth looking at is something an artist has put a lot of work into, and Fun Art is no exception. Composition, color, expression, freshness, detail, and originality are every bit as important in Fun Art as they are in fine art and in illustration.

    What deep insights can possibly be had out of Fun Art? None whatsoever, unless by now you’re alive to the notion that joy and humor are meaningful enough to take seriously–in a lighthearted sort of way of course. No angst, no snobbery, no credentials in Fun Art. All it requires is daily practice and a passion for wackiness. Now that’s fun!

Theresa Bayer  Theresa Bayer, a professional artist in Austin, Texas 
received her B.F.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. See examples of her work at her
website  and blog .

A new milieu for an old art form: Erik Kuntz and a spellbinding (kid-friendly) “Hex Libris”

But perhaps the World Wide Web can do for the old newspaper “funny pages” what Manga has done for comic book and graphic novel publishing.

 

Who is the creature lurking in the library in Erik’s Webcomic? I think I know, and I’ve entered Erik’s contest, but I can’t share my guess with anyone. But I will say this much — it’s a character from a book we know. After all, the strip is Hex Libris, in which Kirby, the main character is charged with taking care of a ginormous enchanted library. 

Ever read a novel that just comes to life before your eyes? Well, Hex Libris seizes that theme and runs down the field in an unexpected direction with it. The webcomic by designer- writer Erik Kuntz of Austin, Texas began as a New Year’s resolution. So did his illustration blog A Dog a Day Project  that features Erik’s unstop able canine imagery — with doggy bites of daily commentary.  But that’s a subject for a future post. 

Erik was thinking of the classic Nancy Drew stories of the 1950’s, mulling  how they compared to and contrasted with the Nancy Drew graphic novels being created for today’s teens.

“I wondered, ‘What if there was a place where characters could wander out of their books?’ ” Erik says. “‘And what would happen if the real Nancy Drew ran into the punky Manga style Nancy Drew?'”

Our hero Kirby meets them both as a result of his new archival responsibilities. And so it is inevitable that the trio and who knows who else (stay tuned…) join forces to solve a mystery or two.

Kirby’s story unfolds in  semi-weekly panels that move us cleanly, easily — even sweetly —  through space and time.  We care about Kirby and Amy (a girl who likes him) and teen girl detective Connie Carter ( the “original” Nancy Drew) and even the little old lady (or is she a witch?) who leases Kirby the uptown apartment that, somehow, magically contains a Library of Congress-like basilica within its tiny walls.

Erik hatched the idea at last year’s Summer Arts Workshop at California State University. He studied comics and animation in the summer program.  He knows and adores comics.  He’s studied under Scott McCloudthe author of Understanding Comics, Re-inventing Comics and other titles all about the ‘language’ of an art form that goes back to well, let’s just say paintings on cave walls. 

One of the teachers at the summer workshop, comic book writer-illustrator Trina Robbins encouraged Kuntz to see it through  — his Hex Libris storyline.

“I’ve done so much study over the last few years as to what makes a comic a comic as opposed to an illustrated story,” Erik says. “It’s a constant struggle between what needs to be put in the picture and what needs to be said ‘out loud’ in words.”  For inspiration, he looks to the late “father of MangaOsamu Tezuka and the late  E.C. Segar, the creator of Popeye and Thimble Theatre.

Kimba the White Lion  was my favorite show as a kid,” Kuntz says. “It was cartoony without being overly simple.”

“I like the older style of newspaper comics, where the adventure strips had a more realistic look.”
As much as he enjoys comic books,  Erik says, “it’s the comic pages in the Sunday paper that I most enjoy and try to emulate here — their sequential nature and the art style and sense of humor — especially from the 1940s to the 1950s, where they could work bigger and there was more possibility.” 

Alas, the gorgeous graphics of Prince Valiant (Gary Gianni carries on with the storybook imagery first created by Hal Foster in 1937) and For Better or for Worse  (Lynn Johnston) have been scrunched to near-insignificance as newspapers continue to shrink their content. 

Newspapers themselves seem to be folding (no pun intended) as a mainstream media and the ultimate cartoon delivery vehicle. But perhaps the World Wide Web can do for the old newspaper “funny pages” what Manga has done for comic book and graphic novel publishing.

“I think every artist who does children’s or cartoony stuff would do well to look at the web as an opportunity.” Kuntz says. “There is a huge number of people publishing strips. Often the content is poor. You won’t ‘get’ it if you weren’t out drinking with the cartoonist and his friends the night before. Other webstrips cater to extremely specific readers, such as Penny-Arcade.com.  “If you don’t know anything about video games, you’ll be mystified by the strip,” he says. 

“There is a stunning amount of good work out there. There are quite a few brilliant child-friendly comics.  More kids are reading comics on the Web. Half of them are newspaper strips in syndication — the traditional old newspaper strips like Calvin and Hobbes, which is being run again and again on the Web. That’s where kids go now to read Calvin and Hobbes.  My browser opens all the comics I want to read each day in tabs. I don’t read them in the newspaper any more.

“I decided some while back that the Web would be an ideal way for me to do an old fashioned serial strip.  It’s an inexpensive way to put work out there and a much easier way to get in front of somebody. With the Web and the 2.0 social networking, everyone’s sharing things, pointing their discoveries out to each other.  It’s a new milleu. It’s an old art form, but a different way of delivering it.

Some cartoonists endeavor to make an income from their sites. “The business model is web advertising, or accepting donations or sale of merchandize, such as T-shirts, mugs or print versions of their work. Others are willing to do it for free,  for the artistic expression or to have an online portfolio or as just another way of posting,” Erik says. “It’s an interesting way to get people to your site. ”

 February panel of

 He begins by writing a synopsis of what’s going to happen in the chapter, without the dialogue.

“With a serial strip, just like in the Sunday funny papers, you kind of need to have a stop every day. You want each page of the comic to be a beat  Each one has to be a sort of mini cliff hanger. And each chapter must have its own arc. That’s the other thing I work with to get right.”

Then he sketches in the panel and the individual frames. Once upon a time it was pencil on paper. “But now I’m working directly on the computer, starting with rough sketches in Corel Painter using my Wacom Cintiq tablet monitor,” he says. “To be more precise,  I use Painter’s Mechanical Pencil brush set to a light blue color.”

“They look a lot like my traditional sketches look, since I use a col-erase blue to do my roughs on paper,” he says.  “I’m most of the way done with this roughing, I have some poses to adjust, some faces to finish and I’ve got to fix the perspective on the backgrounds, which are currently just scribbled in.  Oh, and I need a background in the final panel. Painter has a perspective grid,  which is useful for simple 2-point perspective, so I’ll be using that to get the kitchen sorted properly.”

 

 

Erik’s ‘pencil rough’ for the March 13 panel of “Hex Libris”, except he’s done it digitally, using the “mechanical pencil” brush  (set to blue) in Corel Painter.  

“I stay with Painter through the inking process. Then I bring the whole thing into Illustrator to do the lettering. Once in a while when I’m out and about with my sketchbook, I capture a pose I want to use and scan that in and mix it in with my computer sketches.

“When I ink, I use a variety of Painter’s Ink Pen brushes — mostly the Smooth Round Pen one. For the next one, I’m going to experiment with the tools that more closely imitate traditional comics inking brushes. It’ll be looser and I am not certain whether I’ll like it. I’ll know in a day or two when I get to the inking.”

Erik incorporates a slight shading  – a barely perceptible yellow layer — behind his “inked” panels.  The off-white tinge “warms up” the strip and maybe subconsciously evokes the nostalgia of newsprint, Erik believes. “That kind of pulls it together for me,” he says.

He imbeds his URL on the bottom left and his copyright information on the bottom right. 

Erik and his wife, writer-actress-comedian Maggie Gallant own 2 Bad Mice Design in Austin, Texas. He teaches classes (for children and adults) in animation, digital art and digital cartooning at the Austin Museum of Art Art School.  The “Hex Libris” webcomic can be found at http://hexlibriscomic.com/

Mark Mitchell writes for How to be a Children’s Book Illustrator and The Admiral’s Blog    An award-winning author illustrator, he also teaches classes (for adults) in children’s book illustration at the Austin Museum of Art Art School.