I was the guest blogger on the Penguin Blog last week... so I thought I'd recycle these in the event anyone didn't see them. Sort of a 'summer vacation' for the blog while I work on some summery projects around the house.
What led you to create Cromwell Dixon's Sky-Cycle?
It all happened quite accidentally. One day at the library I came across a book of photographs from 1907. It was so captivating I couldn't put it down. Looking through the book at home I was stopped in my tracks by a photograph of Mrs. Dixon in her victorian dress and hat out riding hundreds of feet up in the air on a crazy looking dirigible! The surreal effect of this photo was the spark that started me down the long road to the book Cromwell DIxon's Sky-Cycle.
I thought to myself, 'Someone simply must do a children's book about this story! It's too amazing not to!' I guess that someone turned out to be me. One sunny afternoon I sat in a lawn chair in the backyard and wrote out 12 pages that eventually became the book.
The cover to Cromwell Dixon's Sky-Cycle is striking. How did that come about?
The cover was very much a collaborative effort. We did several versions... the one that was chosen is amazing. This cover was re-worked by the excellent team at Putnam. They really captured the vintage era exactly. Cecilia Yung and Katrina Damkoehler created the design framework and the wonderful lettering. I did the background artwork. Timothy Travaglini helped to refine the simplicity of the concept with key suggestions like… 'add more blue sky... simplify the outline... make the buildings farther away'. It's interesting how little nudges like that helped to guide the final outcome. It was a fun collaboration. Because I can work with both real and digital mediums, I was able to suggest changes with Photoshop. I'm not sure if I'd have felt so confident if I hadn't also been the author. Because I did this book in a final digital format, it was easy to be flexible about everything.
And of course the editor, Timothy Travaglini made the initial choice by inviting me to do this book in the first place. So my gratitude is without bounds in that regard. It's fortunate to find editors who share your own interests.
Did you do much research for the book?
Yes, and it was all very exciting. I know that sounds odd, but my days spent at the Seattle Public Library looking through old magazines from 1907 seemed like an adventure. The things I found were just amazing. I was fascinated by the many magazine references to flying that were precursors to the actual fact... before anyone really could fly. The fiction preceded the reality.
It was fun to read the accounts of the early aeronauts. Back in those days there would be a newspaper article with all the details about every balloon flight... who was on board, how the landing went, etc. And everywhere in the newspaper there were so many very odd stories by today's standards. It was such a different age. The advertisements were highly amusing and informative.
I love going through old magazines like that. I call it 'spelunking in history'. What's especially intriguing is that I often feel like I may well have been the last person who opened this same page in a book in over a century.
What's your favorite part of working on a book?
My favorite part of any book is always creating the first rough sketches… the process of discovering new ideas and characters, when it's all so flexible and anything is possible. That's when making a book has a feeling of discovery. It's like going on a treasure hunt. It's exactly the same feeling of fun I used to have as a child when we'd go treasure hunting for junk in the alley. That's my favorite part of making any book. Then, with each revision and finishing step afterwards, the open-ended joy tends to get narrowed down.
What part of book-making do you like more... writing or illustrating?
I think for an author-illustrator, making a book is like paddling a canoe. We have to paddle on the writing side a bit and then paddle on the drawing side a little to get where we want to go. Generally the words come first, but I can hardly separate the two. I think it's funny that there isn't even a word for book-makers who do both. Maybe there needs to be a new word... 'Illustriter' or 'Writeastrator'. I also think it's odd that on the titles of children's books by author-illustrators it often just says 'by' so and so. I figure after all the work of making the pictures from the blank page, at least it ought to say 'written & illustrated by'.
What other books have you done lately?
One recent book I both wrote and illustrated is 'One Smart Cookie' with Albert Whitman. It's a fun story about a dog who reads in a family of non-readers... a very important topic, in my opinion. The modern phenomenon of kids preferring electronic gadgets to books is a topic that has been in the headlines a lot lately.
Also I did the the illustrations to 'The Grandma Cure' with Dutton Books. It's a fun story about two grandmothers behaving like kindergartners, quarreling over their grandchild.
I'm currently writing and illustrating a new travelogue sort of book, which looks to be very fun. I can hardly wait to start the artwork. I've also recently done books for Kane Press, Mundo and a fun chinese folk tale 'The Dragon Painter', with Usborne. I recently did a licensed character book with Rosemary Wells. Most of my books are online at my website... www.johnnez.com.
Were you trained as an artist?
Not really. I think most artists are self-trained, since it's something that no one can really teach you. I had four months of formal art school at the Parsons School of Design, which I really enjoyed, but I couldn't afford more. I guess going to art school was an excuse for moving to New York. I did get to take a class with Maurice Sendak, my artistic hero, so that was fabulous. I already had a big portfolio of illustration and I had already had a degree in English. I was impatient to get out and begin freelancing in New York City. In the years since, I've been lucky to apprentice with Mercer Mayer. It was a great experience to be able to work as his 'ghost illustrator’ on many of his 'Little Critter' books. That was sort of like art school and an honor for me since I used to study his work when I was first beginning to dream about becoming an illustrator.
You can see more about my new book and a video book trailer at the book's web site http://www.cromwelldixonsskycycle.com/