Smart Dummies moves into its final week this week, with the finish line looming Friday. The fast-paced, free challenge for aspiring picture book creators and visual storytellers of all stripes is wrapping up its fourth year. Founder Dani Duck says she wanted to relax the challenge a bit this year, lengthening it by an additional month and making it a little cozier, homier, less reward-driven and more community-focused, with Dani interacting more one-on-one with participants, rather than publishing daily guest posts by illustrators, teachers and other Kid-Lit bloggers and marshaling door prizes (free online courses, books and other giveaways for participants who post comments and meet their goals.)

Despite this year’s more leisurely pace, Smart Dummies’ strict adherence to schedule meant you snoozed, you fell behind. Still the posts with numerous resource listings are up and they’re yours for the asking if you sign up on Dani’s blog before Friday.

There’s a free Smart Dummies how-to booklet in PDF format for you if you do, and the chance to meet new Kid-Lit kindred spirits.

“You DO NOT have to identify as an Illustrator to enter this competition,” Dani writes. “Having said that: this is a competition that will require you to be artistic. The idea is to come up with a submission-ready dummy. I will do my best to give some ideas for illustration styles to help you start your path as an Illustrator.”

Dani has also launched a new social media initiative, Spring into Writing to “encourage writers to have fun with their writing,” she says. It’s replete with its own Facebook Group and Patreon Page. Like Smart Dummies, it profers a free instructional booklet.

So much caring for a demanding, elusive art form. And so many resources generated by one person (and a mom of two rocket-fueled young boys at that.)

For these reasons, it felt important to talk to Dani even in the waning weeks of Smart Dummies 2019

Mark: (00:06)
Danny Duck with me. She’s in Vancouver, Canada.

Dani: (00:09)
Surrey. Close close to Vancouver.

Mark: (00:13)
Like in England.

Dani: (00:13)
Like in England. Yeah. It’s hard to search [local] things on the internet because I always get England things.

Mark: (00:22)
So Dani Duck. I’m Mark Mitchell and I’m in Austin, Texas. We were just comparing weather notes a minute ago. It’s cool up where Dani. it’s nice and toasty down here and the sun is blazing. What is Smart Dummies?

Dani: (00:35)
It started out as an event for just picture book people, but now it’s kind of, I didn’t want to limit it. I have so many friends in different areas. I didn’t want to limit it to just picture books. So it’s now anybody who’s working on an illustrated book for publication. My reach is mostly Kid Lit. But somebody who is working on an older work [work for older ages] they’d be fine coming in and joining because most of the things aren’t specific to picture books.

Mark: (01:01)
Visual storytelling, right?

Dani: (01:02)
Yeah, so all pretty much the same. So absolutely free. if you want to come see and there’s a signup page, I hope people sign up. It’s more for my information, for numbers, just to see how many people are coming in. Was.

Mark: (01:18)
Is this the first year you’ve done your own YouTube tutorial videos? I really enjoyed the one on taking those geometric shapes and turning them into characters.

Dani: (01:27)
It’s kind of interesting what you can do with all these different, simple things. I tried to do little schedules so that people know what’s gonna go on for the week. I’ve got videos on how to do simple character designs. Also the bodies. I’m also trying to do more book reviews now. So I’ve got some fun book reviews mixed in. Character turn- arounds, so that you know what all your characters look like. Critique groups we do. There is emotion, so different emotions on the same character. And, oh this is a great one. Rachel Armington. She’s got a whole video for us about making models and, and I think it’s going to help a lot of people out. I really want to try making some clay models. This week is dummy drawing. How done is done because still questioning how done do I need my images to look. Perspective in loose drawing. Information for people either at editing their story or starting a story that that is brand new. Here’s the Smart Dummies private group. Here I try to post all the stuff I have in my blog, so if you don’t see it in your email, you have access to it here. There are some great things that people have come up with themselves to show. For the rest of this year, were just working up, finishing our finals and then the last week, October, I’ll talk about submissions. I mean it’s really more of a month of making good habits. There’s going to be work. There’s going to be kids. There’s going to be lots of things that you have to do. But if you can do a little bit each day, then you’re making progress.

Mark: (03:09)
Can people still jump into Smart Dummies [2019]?

Dani: (03:11)
Sure. Why not?

Mark: (03:13)
Can you tell us a little bit about your own background?

Dani: (03:16)
I’m, I’m from Ohio and I went to Bowling Green State University. Then I moved here with my husband. He’s a Canadian. So I moved with him to BC. In 2011 I had a son. And then in 2015, I had another son. It wasn’t until after I’d finished my degree in 2007 that I took, well, a grad class in picture books taught by Dominic Catalano. He was a new teacher and he had been illustrating for years and he was trying to start a program there. He was a really good teacher. He taught me a lot and some of the stuff that I came up with for Smart Dummies was because of him. Like this outline for how to set up [a picture book illustrated page. It’s basically what my illustration teacher gave to us in 2007, a basic outline of how you set up a page. I’ve adjusted it since then, but I couldn’t find that online – information on how you have to have the bleeds and you have to have this gutter. How big was the gutter? I can’t find it online. More of that information is available now, but when I had started Smart Dummies, I kept having to look things up and I could not find that information.

Dani: (04:32)
It’s really hard going from working in fine arts to going to illustrating. I was working very literally in fine arts. So so it’s hard going from working very literally – drawing would you see – to making up things, and taking elements [from a variety of references.] Pretty much anything’s okay to draw. It’s just letting yourself believe that after you’ve been told that you can’t make anything up. I think I paid $1,500 for that [Bowling Green State U.] illustration class being advertised. Class. Whereas now I can go online and take courses for a lot less and get just as good of an education. Like your class.

Mark: (05:11)
What about SCBWI? [The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators?]

Dani: (05:13)
I didn’t do that until I came here. There’s one in BC. We are very small – Western Canada. That’s the problem. It’s all of Western Canada. So I know some people around the area. There are more people now. There are a lot more illustrators anyways. I think there were like five or six when I was showing up to some meetings. And you know, a lot of people are doing really well with picture books here. So it’s really good being part of this community.

Mark: (05:40)
Do you remember how the idea for Smart Dummies first hit you?

Dani: (05:43)
I was doing Story Storm, from Tara Lazar, which was Picture Book Idea Month. Now it’s Story Storm. I did a few other ones. I know Meg Miller had one and I can’t remember what that one was and that I was doing the Chapter Book Challenge with Becky Fyfe and the 12 by 12 with Julie Hedlund. I was doing these and they were lots of fun and the #KidLitArt group on Twitter. They had [a picture book dummy challenge] which is great – absolutely great. But it was over a six month period. And I thought it would be great if there was a dummy challenge that was a little bit shorter term. I had worked on this dummy and got it done in a month. It’s not something I’m going back to and working on, but I had gotten the pictures done within a month. I thought this could be a great challenge. And that’s kind of how it got started. I didn’t see anybody else starting the challenge, which I would have liked.

Mark: (06:35)
You needed the challenge for yourself?

Dani: (06:39)
I needed it for myself and honestly, I don’t know if I actually get more done during that month because I’m running Smart Dummies and not actually [working as much as I’d like on my own dummy in those weeks. ]

Mark: (06:51)
You started in 2015 and you’ve been doing it every year since then.

Dani: (06:56)
I’ve been doing it every year.

Mark: (06:57)
How has Smart Dummies changed since 2015?

Dani: (07:00)
I’m telling you what to do about different things.

Mark: (07:03)
You’re teaching.

Dani: (07:04)
It’s as if I’m teaching lessons.

Mark: (07:06)
On so many topics this year, topics like turning public domain stories into picture books, making up the script for illustrators, thumbnails, basic and advanced character design.

Dani: (07:16)
I’m trying to give people some information that they might not find otherwise or just give them the confidence to start.

Mark: (07:26)
This information is hard to find, particularly for illustrators, like you said. Even now it’s difficult. Even in art school, sometimes there’s so much they have to teach you, like with the digital world, there isn’t time to cover traditional illustration as much as some students would like.

Dani: (07:43)
I’m glad I didn’t take illustration school because I’ve taken a couple of classes. I’m taking your class and I’ve taken Mira’s [Mira Reisberg‘s] class (Children’s Book Academy.] I went to school for fine arts and in some of the areas, I don’t know if I got such a great education. In other areas.areas I did.

Mark: (08:01)
It’s kind of the luck of the draw sometimes.

Dani: (08:03)
The ones that I know of online like your two, and then also SVS [Society of Visual Storytelling] and Storyteller Academy. I think they’re all good places to learn and I think you’re going to get more of a concentrated view of what you need to do by doing online courses right now rather than spending so much money in… I’m still paying on my student loans.

Mark: (08:28)
What will success for, for Smart Dummies 2019 look like for you?

Dani: (08:34)
People actually got something out of the event, even if they didn’t finish their dummy. And I think that’s the most important thing is for them to at least get started and get going, because I think that’s one of the hardest parts is to get started and to continue.

Mark: (08:50)
[Smart Dummies] is a rich resource because of your generosity and your passion for the subject.

Dani: (08:55)
I’ve had so many people who have told me things and taught me from their blogs and it’s just that I don’t feel right to hold onto this information. The weird things is, when I was in fine arts, I felt like it was almost like everyone out for themselves, Maybe they would share some information, but I always felt like they were holding back. And in the Kid Lit community, everybody shares everything. They try to help everyone out. I think maybe the writing community is the same way for novels. But I think with the Kid Lit community, they just want everybody to succeed, do well and get their books published and have a great time.