Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Abbreviated dreams

Something about the "teens," the pre-World War I era from around 1910-1917, has always drawn me— America in apparent innocence, before two world upheavals.  Of course, that "idyllic America" was only idyllic for a segment of the population.  There was plenty of darkness to go around.

Characters are coming to me from this era, and I'm not sure where they're going.  There may be a book in this— I'm just free-spinning, listening to their voices as I draw.  This one above started out sweet, and grew wistful as she came onto the page.  Though I come from a line of teachers and I see teaching as one of the highest professions, in that era there were only a few career opportunities open to women—most likely secretary, nurse, or teacher.  I started to think that perhaps this wasn't her life's aspiration.

What do you think she might have chosen, given wider and more equal opportunities? [note:  this post has been edited for clarity]

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Firebrand

A group of new characters is starting to talk to me, and it's time to get them on paper.  These all seem like critters from the 1910-1920 timeframe.  This guy is an all-American type, the passionate and perhaps a little theatrical country preacher.  I think he speaks with GREAT inFLECtion, and ain't nobody gonna nod off in the pews while he's getting going.  

Friday, June 3, 2016


"Sucker"— graphite and white gouache, 6/3/16

It's the start of summer, my school visit schedule is winding down, and I'm looking at several months of nothing but working on my next book.  Thought I'd do a little stretching this morning—I haven't drawn anything in probably a month, except for student-suggested demonstration drawings in schools.

A small group of characters is beginning to natter at me, searching for a story, and thought I'd explore one of them this morning.  I decided to sketch this pensive-looking, suited rabbit, and he ended up on a grassy hillside.  There are things I don't like about it, but as it was a "rough draft" and not something I revised the way I do the work that goes in my books, it seems right for the blog.

The title?  As I drew, I wondered what he was thinking about.  Why has he settled down where he is? What's wrong?  I sketched the stump into the background to add interest, and then felt that it looked a little too blasted, too intentional.  It needed a little shoot coming from it to make it more individual.  

Stuff from life always filters into artwork.  We had some trees taken out last spring as a defensive measure against their falling on our house—and one oak stump in particular sprouted dozens of these shoots this spring.  As I sketched the shoot here, it occurred to me that in horticulture, these shoots that come from the base of a tree or in places you don't want a branch are called suckers.  And I like the sympathetic vibration which that term has with the rabbit's emotional state.  I'm thinking he feels as though he was taken in by someone or something, and he's feeling both ashamed, and troubled about what to do.

What do you think?

Friday, January 1, 2016

Getting Misty About an Old Classic

Misty, by illustrator Wesley Dennis
Recently, I've been filling in gaps in my reading, looking at books that I neglected over the years.  I just found a paperback copy of Marguerite Henry's Newbery Honor-winning MISTY OF CHINCOTEAGUE at the "book shack" at our town's sanitation facility (AKA dump).  I'd never read it because I'd dismissed it.  In a snarky, boyhood way, I had classified it as a "girl book," as in "I LOVE HORSES!!!!" (surrounded by lots of scented-marker hearts).

I couldn't have been more wrong, in a variety of ways.  It wasn't at all what I'd thought.  Perhaps part of my problem was that it has always been a "big name" book, and growing up, I knew of it as merely  "a horse book."  So I automatically assumed it was one of those horse books that I saw girls in my classes holding.  BLACK BEAUTY.  MY FRIEND FLICKA.  THE BLACK STALLION.  I didn't see other boys carrying those books around.

I'm including a piece on Misty of Chincoteague in this blog about characters because I was so surprised by what I found.  Misty, herself, is a surprisingly small character in the book.  She doesn't even appear until a third of the way through the story.  I'd always assumed it was all drippy, horse-love-y adulation about Misty, from page one.  Misty, Misty, MISTY!!!

But in reality, it's primarily about Paul and Maureen Beebe, the Chincoteague Island kids who love horses and who craft a plan to earn enough money to purchase Phantom, a wild horse they're sure they'll be able to capture during the annual Pony Penning Day on Assateague Island.  Misty comes into the story unexpectedly during the roundup of wild horses, as Paul chases Phantom through the underbrush, and discovers that Phantom has a foal.

Grandpa's ear hair fixation is a little upsetting.
I was also surprised that Paul is such a large character in the book—dare I say he's the main character? His sister Maureen, to me, felt secondary to Paul.  Again, I write this always believing that Misty was a "girl book"—girl finds horse, girl loves horse, horse loves girl.  Life is good.

Yet this isn't what I found in the story.  In fact, most of the main characters are male.  Paul seems to be more present, more vividly drawn than Maureen.  Grandpa seems the second most vivid character, with a distinctively crusty and dialect voice (why don't other characters in the book sound like pirates?), whose biggest character trait seems to be messing about with his ear hair.  He feels much more present than Grandma, who's a loving person, but is far less clearly defined.  

I haven't read any scholarship on Misty of Chincoteague—was Marguerite Henry's choice to emphasize Paul over Maureen a realistic reflection of actual roles of men and women around horses on Chincoteague, or an inherent sexism of the times (the book was published in 1947)?  Who was the original intended audience for the book?  Was it assumed that girls would read books with male protagonists, but that boys wouldn't read books with female protagonists (such as The Hundred Dresses, a 1945 Newbery Honor book)? There are numerous subtle reminders of 1940s gender "status" throughout—at one point, Paul vaults over a fence, while Maureen slips through the rails.  In the illustration below, Paul stands with feet spread wide, hands on hips, and Maureen kneels on the ground.  In the illustrations, Maureen is wearing a dress—might a clam-digging, farm-working girl have worn dungarees instead?  It may be wrong to apply our current understanding of gender roles to a 1947 book, but I did notice them—possibly because they ran so counter to what I'd expected.
Grandpa, Paul and Maureen

But back to Misty.  Again, I was surprised at what a small part of the story Misty plays.  [Spoiler alert, for that ONE person out there who hasn't already read it!]  Misty is a lively and delightful foal, and loves Paul and Maureen and her new life as a domesticated horse.  And when Paul releases Phantom to swim back across the water to Assateague Island, Misty stays behind, contented with her life with humans.  

Is it just me, or do other readers wonder if Phantom is going to be corralled next year by someone less full of heart than Paul and Maureen, and sold off to some horse-breaker?  Yet the resolution to the story—Misty stays behind, Phantom gets to return to her wild-natured state—is a happy one, gently foreshadowed for us by Grandpa's reminders that foals are essentially "kicked out" by their mothers, and have to become independent horses on their own.  It gave me the simple satisfaction that a certain kind of older fiction provides.  I feel like a better person for having read this book, at long last.  I only regret that I didn't read it when I was a boy.


Friday, October 17, 2014

Ferreting out an old sketch.

I sketched this guy exactly six months ago today, but never got around to finishing him until now.  Here he is. . . and I'm not sure I trust him any more in tonal color than I did in the blue pencil sketch I did on April 17th.

I asked about a name for him back then, and my favorite was "Mr. Pole" (which sounds particularly Beatrix Potter to me).  Any new ideas for his name, now that he's in color?

A lot has happened since April.  My latest bat book, Bats in the Band, came out August 5th, and if you scroll down on this blog, you'll see my "What I Did With My Summer" essay about creating fiberglass bats to go on our new Batwagon. We've done a lot of events to support the book.

We also launched my late father-in-law's new memoir, First Wilderness:  My Quest in the Territory of Alaska.  (Reminder:  if you've seen the PBS documentary about the guy who built a cabin in Alaska with only hand tools—and especially remember his wooden door lock and spoon—you may know Sam Keith's first book, One Man's Wilderness).

Monday, September 15, 2014

Building Character (s) and a Batwagon (Part 1)

First off, a warning:  this will be a long post. If you want to skip ahead to the photos, that's fine.

Since May, I've been gearing up for the release of Bats in the Band, which was published in early August.  Prepping our car for the launch involved a tremendous amount of fabrication—carpentry, plumbing, sewing, sculpture and fiberglass work.

In the past, my wife Laurel and I have decorated one of our cars while promoting a book, finding that it generated a lot of interest at bookstores.  Here are some of our past designs:
Bats at the Beach:  our first BATSmobile, a Jeep Cherokee.  Its nice, boxy shape was great for graphics.
Bats at the Library:  A Toyota Prius, small and efficient, and the rooftop bat made up for the car's un-imposing size.

Bats at the Ballgame:  our Nissan Cube, also great for graphics.
MORE:  a bird's nest on top of the Nissan Cube.

For Bats in the Band, we needed something musical.  We wanted kids at book events to be able to experiment with making sound, with no rules.  There would be tuned drums, triangles and other instruments that kids might already be familiar with in music classes, but ones which perhaps they didn't have at home.  There's not a lot of time in music class for chaotic, free play, the "what if I do this?" moments that help us find our own ideas,  our own groove.  

But we also wanted the car itself involved.  We needed some bats on the roof.  But we needed some way of playing the car.  Stretched wires you could pluck?  The worrier inside me envisioned lacerated fingers.  Drums attached to the car's exterior?  I didn't want bolt-holes in the finish.

Then the answer:  Blue Man Group.  We've seen them twice—fun art jokes. . . and that PVC pipe organ!  What if I built one of those?

The worrier kicked in again.  
1)  It can't hang too far off the side of the car—we'll clip a passer-by, or leave gouges in the sides of a whole line of parked cars.

2) It has to be secure.  Nothing can fly off the car at 60 miles per hour.

OK, so it has to come apart, somehow.  The long pipes, of different lengths, will go in a box on the car roof.  The vertical pipes, including the opening you hit, will detach and stow in the car when we drive.  Simple, right?


Because I was building from scratch, everything was about feasibility.  I'd never played, or even seen, a PVC pipe organ up close.  Which end of the pipe does the sound come out of?  If the horizontal pipes are in a box, will people even hear the sound?  Turns out the sound comes from the end you strike, so that's OK.  How do turns in the pipe affect the sound?  Will it still sound OK?

If the pipes come apart in the middle for stowing, does there have to be an airtight connection for the notes to sound?

Over the course of two months, and lots of experimentation (can I fabricate my own hinges with skateboard bearings and epoxy? can I build the whole thing so it just unfolds from a box on the rooftop?), the Batwagon developed.

The bat characters were another issue altogether.  My first thought was to have an entire animatronic bat band on the roof, perhaps powered by a windshield wiper motor (anyone want to buy one? I have an extra).  Problem:  they won't stand up to sustained almost-hurricane winds on a car roof when I drive.  They have to come off.  Problem:  I haven't built an animatronic figure since high school (maybe that's another blog entry), so how will I do a whole band—in time?

The bats became simpler as time pressure grew.  Not a whole band, just the conductor from the book, and a guitarist.  No motors.  Maybe just gimbaled and weighted midriffs, so wind will make them rock back and forth.  OK, just solid bodies after all. . . but the wind will move their wings.

I started work on the conductor bat, and decided to buy a toddler's tuxedo and build the conductor to fit, rather than trying to sew a tux to fit a bat I'd built.  That proved to be a great idea that saved me countless hours of tailoring.

I started with a form made of a swim-training float and a pair of dowels.  
I covered the form with bubble wrap to fill out the shape, then with white duct tape, to create a smooth surface.

Trying out the tux shirt and jacket.  The form seemed to fit well.
I didn't want the mess or health concerns of working with fiberglass cloth (dust), so I used drywall mesh tape as the base for the fiberglass resin, which worked OK, but later I learned that strips of old sheet, covered in resin, worked much better.  After three or four coats of resin, the form was rigid enough to support the head and wings.

The body form with drywall tape.
Next, I created two bat heads.  I started with a rough wooden form, then added clay to it and sculpted the ratty-looking character head.  A halved ping-pong ball, squeezed slightly, made a better smooth eyeball than I could have sculpted.

The wooden form.
Clay and a halved ping pong ball, paper ears.

Metal shims go in to help release the plaster mold.

I covered the clay form with Vaseline as a release, then layered on strips of burlap and plaster of Paris.
Layers of plaster and burlap create the mold.
The hardened mold, broken open
The mold halves came apart easily, and I filled each with resin and strips cut from old bed sheets.  When the resin hardened, the halves came out of the molds and were re-joined with more resin and strips
Two fiberglass resin shells held together.  This thing doesn't look like a bat!  It looks more like a cicada.  I sprayed the eyes with black Krylon paint so they'd shine.


The conductor's head is joined to the body form, and the ears, which will be coated in fiberglass resin, are attached.  Guitarist bat's head is on the table.
Close-up of same.  Looks more like a rat than a bat!

At work on the ears.

Time for fur!  Craft fur, left over from some old project, gets Super-Glued onto the front of the ears, folded around back, and trimmed.

Now I stretched and glued a single piece of craft fur over the face, cutting darts and trimming the fur as I went along.  This was really stressful because I didn't know whether I'd cut a large enough piece of fake fur to begin with, or whether I'd mis-cut and ruin the whole thing.  
Craft fur being applied.
Working on the guitarist's face.  Note late night darkness outside garage windows.

Time for the toddler tuxedo!
The tailoring challenge was re-working the sleeves so that they opened along their length, not at their ends.
Kinda looks like someone's shredded the tux.   At moments, I didn't see how it was going to come together.

Sewing the wings—opaque cloth for the "bones," and transparent cloth for the  wing membrane.
The conductor, almost ready for his close-up.  When both bats' fur was in place, I neatened it up with a pair of electric clippers.
The guitarist needed something to play, and I'd found a plastic Disney Pixar "Cars" guitar at a flea market.  I disassembled what I could, masked off various parts, and gave it several coats of Krylon plastic paint.  Some hand-painted trim details helped it to look like a real guitar.

Back in the garage, I'm finalizing the shoulder attachment mechanism for the conductor bat.
Here are the boys in the dining room at 1:30 AM, just a few days before the book launch concert.  Finished!

So here's the finished bat wagon, with the PVC pipe organ and the two musician bats on top.  Next post: making the PVC pipe organ.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Matt Faulker and a Big-Headed Kid

If you haven't seen Matt Faulkner’s new graphic novel, Gaijin:  American Prisoner of War yet, you should.  I’ve long admired his consummate draftsmanship and fluid use of color.  But I’m reading Gaijin now, and partially because of the virtuosity of the word/picture storytelling and partially because of the subject matter (Japanese-American internment camps during WWII), this book is hitting me the way Art Spiegelman’s Maus did when I first saw it, way back when.  The palette of warm browns and reds here, with an occasional splash of blue, is rich and welcoming, and pulls you right in.  As George Takei writes, in a blurb on the book’s jacket, Powerful . . . Matt Faulkner tells his tale with fierce graphics and moving delicacy.”  And if the man who played Sulu likes it, well . . .

Today, Matt Faulkner answers the Midweek Musings question:  Who is one of your favorite children’s literature characters, and why?

Matt Faulkner:  I gotta be honest, I wasn’t a big reader as a kid. It wasn’t till I ventured into that rough patch some call middle school that I started to appreciate the fantastic gift that reading books became for me. But prior to that, I was first and foremost a guy who dug cartoons. One of my favorite characters was “Charlie Brown.”  Now, I also have to admit that I loved Charlie first and foremost because of his wonderful animated shows on t.v.  I recall nearly losing my mind when the t.v. guide reported in 1968 (I was 7 at the time) that “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” would be running back to back in early December. Of course, it didn’t hurt that “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” would be the chaser for these gems at 8 pm. I’m still recovering from the cartoon bliss I experienced that evening.

With that said, I want it also to be known that I still have a box of well-worn “Charlie Brown” books I gathered since the age of 5 or 6 and I also count my first copy of “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” as a prized possession in my kid’s book collection. And, of course, I own all three animations— “Charlie Brown,”  “Grinch” and “Rudolph."
"Charlie Brown and the Alphabet"
by Matt Faulkner, 1st grade, 1967
So, you see, I consider Charlie Brown to be my first literary love. Why Charlie Brown? Fact is—I just dug him. I dug the way he was drawn by Mr. Schulz. I dug the zig zag design on his shirt. I dug his dog. I dug his round head, which I could never seem to make as perfectly round when I was drawing him. I dug his kite getting stuck in the tree and the way Charlie would talk to the tree as it devoured his kite. And I got the “why” of Charlie’s point of view, too. I saw that life had a way of dumping far too many lemons on him, yet, he kept at it. And, I loved how he kept himself, too, when everyone else wanted him to be someone else. And, I’m a little ashamed to say that, I also loved laughing at the never ending troubles which visited upon Charlie. I remember howling with laughter at the frames that depicted Charlie’s fountain pen dumping ink onto his book report, his desk, Snoopy and himself. Hilarious! In hind sight, I guess I'd say that it was his Buster Keaton/Charlie Chaplin quality that drew me to him. Or perhaps it was the Hokusai-esque economy of line that inspired me to copy and redraw Charlie, over and over again. 

Of course, I wasn’t aware of these reasons at the time. Back then, I just loved him.


Award winning children's book author and illustrator Matt Faulkner has over 35 illustrated books to his credit since he began writing and illustrating them in 1985. He enjoys working on projects of both historical and fantastical natures (and he concentrates very hard not to get them confused). His author/illustrated book A Taste of Colored Water (Simon and Schuster) was recently chosen by the School Library Journal as a significant book for sharing concepts of diversity with kids. And the San Francisco Chronicle calls his recently released graphic novel, “Gaijin: American Prisoner of War” (Disney/Hyperion) “superb!”

 Matt is married to author, national speaker on early literacy and librarian Kris Remenar and lives with their children in the lower right hand corner of Michigan. 

Learn more about Matt and his work here:

Matt’s upcoming books, both 2015:

•  Groundhogs Dilemma by Kris Remenar (Charlesbridge)
A fun tale that shares the travails of Groundhog as he works to tell it like it is and make his friends happy!
•  Elizabeth Started All the Trouble by Doreen Rappaport (Disney/Hyperion)
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth- just a few of the American Super Heroes you’ll read about who fought for the vote for women and so much more in this dramatic book!