I did a rather big guest blog over at Picture Book Makers about my series of interactive books featuring cats.
I’ve been working as a picture book writer and artist for about fifteen years now – that is, as a published one. I’ve been making books all my life, pretty much. Before I could write, I drew and dictated them. My mother pierced bundles of my stories with a cast iron hole punch, and she said: “Behold the strength of your mother’s arms.” My father gave me binders to keep them in and said: “What are you going to make next?”
A page from my diary.
I was surrounded by books about everything that anyone in the family had ever wanted to know. Our walls were lined with bookshelves. My parents took me to the library weekly to take out as many as we could carry. It was awesome. I taught myself to read very early, because I had the notion that I could find anything I would ever need in books.
"I am Henry Finch" seems to be doing well since it was published earlier this year, it's getting good reviews and I keep meeting it in bookshops. - People have asked me about illustrating Alexis' texts, how we work together seeing that he is also an illustrator and I am also a writer. So I thought it would be good to write this MAKING OF.
So, first of all Alexis wrote the text - I had asked him to write something about finches because I like them. Then he showed it to me.
I could see the book straight away. It made me laugh a lot. It was pretty much perfect.
At the first few presentations, people weren’t sure about the philosophical aspect, whether it would get across to small children. I was sure that it would, and kept crudely fingerpainting rough illustrations on my ipad. “Look, look, this will be awesome!” I insisted, drawing more and more beady-eyed lumps with stick legs. The monster was just a wild scribble, and the night paint-bucketed in. I drew a picture of a finch thinking of himself, and Ben Norland, the art director, laughed and said: “Oh, I think I see…” so we started working on it. After that it seemed like every week there was someone else who saw the latest version, went “Oh I see…” and started laughing.
I think that moment is heart of the whole story. A finch, hardly more than an anonymous scribble, sees himself and realises that he is somebody. His thought is identical to himself in that very moment. Truth, but no meaning, no future, no past… he could stop there. It’s a perfect moment. But he goes on, and that, I think is the greatest thing he does: he keeps thinking when he doesn’t need to, that’s what leads to all the rest.
I wanted the finches to be all the same but every one unique, that’s why I used fingerprints. Henry is always printed with the same finger, actually, and no one else has that particular print. While working on the book I started to recognise my friends’ fingerprints. I fingerprinted everyone who came to the house or the studio for a few weeks to get a good collection - I needed big thumbs for finches in the foreground and daintier ones for the background, also different shapes for different moods. Finches change shape a lot. I used to keep finches myself, so I know. I love finches more keenly than any other kind of animal, I think, they are amazing little creatures, brave, resilient and funny.
The linework is drawn with my favourite fountain pen. I always carry that one.
The beast is painted in watercolour because that’s how I instantly imagined it. I have a fear of marine invertebrates which I know most people don’t share. I figured that referencing them, I will be able to feel scared enough myself to draw a convincing monster without making it so frightening that small children will hide from the book. - Its internal organs are a mixture of drawings of sea creatures and cross sections of the human inner ear. It’s just a particularly odd-looking organ, the inner ear, and it amused me that the beast has one in its guts.
The actual design of the beast is a collaboration with Alexis - we spent an afternoon playing a drawing game with watercolour blobs, and I assembled the parts that seemed right.
I put a lot of little interactions in between the finches so that the book would be fun to look at even if you don’t follow the text, and tried to make the more conceptual philosophical pictures accessible enough that each one could be discussed separately, in simple terms, without the text. The page where Henry understands the circle of life pertaining to his part of the world is supposed to be like a little story in itself, but one that you can grasp in one moment, like a thought. Comics are great for that, showing any amount of time presented as one moment, and not even linear but as we experience it - everything interrelating. The rest of the book is paced in a linear manner, mostly by page turns, but on that spread you can spend a moment or an hour, see all at once or follow the threads, say “It is!” or speak about everything you see.
click to make bigger!
I am very glad about the way this book came together. If I hadn’t been so excited that I fingerpainted those hurried digital scribbles on the spot and made someone laugh with them, I wouldn’t have known to keep the art this simple. If Alexis hadn’t been doing workshops turning blobs of watercolour into creatures, I wouldn’t have thought of making the design of the beast into a drawing game. - Working with Alexis makes these accidents easy because he really knows how to improvise.
I hope that people will like Henry Finch as much as I do. I had him tattooed on my arm, to remember what I learned. Keep thinking, keep listening, speak, because You Are, and It Is.
One of my first books was Shark and Lobster's Amazing Undersea Adventure - a tale of Shark, who is afraid of Tigers, and his best friend Lobster.
It was very hard to write - I had already written one draft years before when I was still in school, and now I had to learn how to rewrite and edit and make a picture book story of it.
One thing I did then, which I've kept up since, is make a diary for my characters to see what they got up to and who they actually were.
I did find out a lot about Shark and Lobster this way, almost none of it made it into the book, but that's not the point of character development work.
I thought it would be nice to stick it on my blog so that you can see how I work (or how I worked when I was starting out in 2001 - I've gone lest wistful over the years, but my approach is still very similar).
Here you go!