Author-illustrator Sarah Ackerley signs "Patrick the Somnambulist" (Blooming Tree Press) for a young fan at Bookpeople.
Author-illustrator Sarah Ackerley signs “Patrick the Somnambulist” (Blooming Tree Press) for a young fan at Bookpeople.

The prose is just so beguiling that I want to quote the whole thing — word for word — the whole picture book up here on the blog.

The book would be Patrick the Somnambulist, published by Blooming Tree Press.

The author-illustrator would be Sarah Ackerley, a member of our Austin, Texas  SCBWI group (who recently moved with her husband to San Francisco.)

It’s about a normal penguin child — normal except for one thing: He gets into crazy  situations in the middle of the night.

His parents take him to a doctor who assesses his problem: somnambulism. “a fancy word for sleepwalking,” we are told.  With the diagnosis comes acceptance and with acceptance comes confidence, and — well, I’ve already given away too much.  Oh, well with confidence …let’s just say you too could end up on Late Night with Conan O’Brien.

Inspiration came from Sarah’s own husband who will sometimes do silly things while asleep, like look for his ‘missing wallet’ in the blender, or prepare a bowl of cereal for himself.

Loving Your Label” was the headline of a recent Canadian review podcast about Sarah’s book. Husband and wife/parent team Mark and Andrea  devote an entire six minute episode to “Patrick the Somnambulist” on Just One More Book :(A podcast about the childrens books we love and why we love them, recorded in our favorite coffee shop) .  “It’s an instant hit with everyone in the family,” exclaims Mark.

Andrea exults how a label and the understanding that comes with it can sometimes free a self. “It’s like I’m an introvert. I’m acting freaky because I’m an introvert,” she says.

You can listen to their fun conversation here.

Original sketch that inspired the story of Patrick

Original sketch that inspired the story of Patrick

While making ready to move from Texas to the S.F. Bay area,  Sarah graciously conceded to an interview by How to be a children’s book illustrator.

“The story started with a sketch,” she says. “The way I write is I usually have a mental image of the funniest page where it all grows from.”

You can see that sketch above. The parents discover the sleep-walking Patrick standing in the bathroom, a roll of toilet paper over one arm, a toothbrush in his hand, and a toilet plunger stuck on top of his head.

“The parents are looking up like he’s weird, and the whole story absolutely did unfold around that image,” Sarah says. “It took me like an hour to write. I was seeing the pictures as I wrote.  The words kind of poured out like I had the complete story. Then I just went back and crossed out the weaker lines.”

Drawing a Patrick character that satisfied her took a little longer. “I have all kind of images for him. It’s pretty funny to see where he started and where he wound up. He looked really bad for a while. He started out looking like a squash.

“I checked out an enormous stack of books on penguins and I started drawing them from all angles. I l looked at no cartoons, because I wanted him to look like a real penguin. HIs lack of personality is almost the point — I wanted to capture his animal ‘penguineness.'”

Sarah wanted Patrick to look more like a penguin than a cartoon penguin and to not have a cartoony 'personality.'

Sarah wanted Patrick to look more like a penguin than a cartoon penguin and to not have a cartoony 'personality.'

Sarah had not worked in watercolor before Patrick. But she knew a thing or two about the art making process. She’d earned a BFA at the University of Texas at Austin, majoring in studio art. (She later finished an M.A. in Elementary Education.)

She’d never illustrated a book. “I thought every picture book was done in watercolor. That was the medium that illustrators used,” she says.

With a little guidance from a $5 watercolor ‘how to’ book, “I did these tiny, tiny images the size of my fist.. on cheap watercolor paper with blocks of typewritten text glued in…I scanned it in at Walgreens and had it bound with a spiral binder at Kinko’s Copies.”

She brought her creation to an Austin SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) picture book dummy-making demonstration given by artist Regan Johnson.

Regan, who had just taken the job of art director for Austin-based publisher Blooming Tree Press, worked with Sarah to come up with a second, larger more professional dummy.

“I wasn’t straight up accepted,” Sarah says, “But it was, ‘Can you develop this a little further and we’ll talk?'”

"Patrick the Somnambulist" defining moment -- once a sketch, now a finished watercolor painting for the inside of the book.

"Patrick the Somnambulist" defining moment -- once a sketch, now a finished watercolor painting for the inside of the book.

For her finished art Sarah used professional grade Grumbacher watercolor tube paints. On 140 lb. cold pressed watercolor paper she painted  over outlines she’d made with a Calligraphy pen. The pen lines smeared a little because the ink was not waterproof, “but I kind of liked the results,” she says.

“I had a lot of troubleshooting problems that I solved in a round-about-way. But it worked out. Making the book was how I taught myself watercolor.”

Sarah’s busy on a number of great new projects, including a picture book about a delightful owl character  with…well, let’s just say a different sleep disorder.

See Sarah’s blog, and her website,  Sarah Ackerley Illustration.

Author illustrator Mark Mitchell hosts this blog and offers an ongoing online course in drawing and painting for children’s book illustration.