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!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Midweek Musing— Elizabeth O. Dulemba and Someone Who Won't Take "No" for an Answer

My guest for Midweek Musings this week is Elizabeth O. Dulemba, author and/or illustrator of many picture books for children.  She has just published her debut novel, a historical fiction mid-grade book, A Bird on Water Street.  

Response to the book has been terrific—it has already picked up three awards:  a Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) Okra Pick, a Gold Mom's Choice Award, and it is THE 2014 National Book Festival featured title for Georgia!  

Elizabeth, who goes by e, has generously offered one signed and dedicated copy of A Bird on Water Street as a giveaway prize in connection with her Midweek Musing here.  You can enter the giveaway and read more about e after her answer.

BL:  So, e, welcome to Getting Into Character.  Who would you describe as your favorite character in childrens literature?

e:  Gosh—its hard to choose just one character that I love the most in childrens lit! And what an interesting exercise you set me upon. In looking through my picture book collection (I limited my choice to one genre), I realized most picture books are story-based rather than character-based. 

Of course, the ones that are character based are especially strong and we all heard of them: Skippyjon Jones, Pigeon, Olivia, Fancy Nancy, Mrs. Biddlebox. In fact, oftentimes, the books with strong characters are named after the characters. That's an interesting thing to keep in mind as I write. Hm! 

But you asked me to choose just one, which is a nearly impossible task. So Ill talk about one that I'm enchanted by right now

That would be Lucy from Peter Browns YOU WILL BE MY FRIEND. Lucy sets out with a goal, and nothing will get in her way. In trying to make a friend, she forces the matter, making for some extremely awkward situations instead. Its when she finally stops trying so hard that luck comes her way in the form of a friendly flamingo. 

I can so relate to Lucy. Ive always been goal-oriented and ambitious. Im a go-getter, I make things happen! And it works for me. But I've always thought it would be nice to be the sort of person who sits back and lets things come to them. I consider those to be the cool kids. I am not cool. I worry—what if they never come!? Im not one to wait. Its why I work as hard as I do and reach out as much as I do. I dont have any regrets, as I think my way is a valid approach to life. But it is nice when Flamingos surprise me sometimes, like with Lucy. I get her.

BL: Ive sometimes wished I had Lucys unbridled enthusiasm myself.  She's a real force of nature!  Thanks for stopping by, e.


When the birds return to Water Street, will anyone be left to hear them sing?
A Bird on Water Street is a coming of age story about Jack, the son of a miner growing up in a Southern Appalachian town environmentally devastated by a century of poor copper-mining practices. After a tragic accident and a massive company layoff, the miners go on strike. When nature begins to flourish as a result, Jack fights to protect it, but the cost could be the ruin of everything he loves.

Elizabeth O. Dulemba is an award-winning childrens book author/illustrator with two dozen titles to her credit. She is Illustrator Coordinator for the SCBWI Southern region, a Board Member for the Georgia Center for the Book, and a Visiting Associate Professor at Hollins University in the MFA in Childrens Book Writing and Illustrating program. A BIRD ON WATER STREET is her first novel (Spring 2014, Little Pickle Press). Learn more at

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Midweek Musing—David Lubar, a Decision, and Some (S)wordplay

illustration by Adam McCauley
“It’s no fun having your heart ripped from your body, slammed to the floor, and stomped into a puddle of quivering red mush.  It’s even less fun when it happens three times in one afternoon.”

So begins David Lubars My Rotten Life:  Nathan Abercrombie, Accidental Zombie.  You think fifth grade is tough?  Try going to school after a science lab accident turns you into a half-dead zombie.

Anyone who has read David Lubar’s funny and quirky books has to assume that he has a quick and acerbic wit.  Anyone who has met David Lubar in real life knows it.  The author of thirty books for young readers and teens, he thrives on (s)wordplay, wielding words like an épée—poking, prodding and feeling for the funny bone.

Today, David Lubar visits “Getting Into Character” to reflect on choosing one of his favorite characters in children's literature.

Freddy the Pig:  books by Walter R. Brooks,
illustrations by Kurt Wiese
David Lubar:  Whenever I’m asked to name my favorite childhood book or character, my reflexive response is, “Freddy the Pig. He was a pig who lived on a farm, wrote poems, solved mysteries, and managed to avoid becoming anybody’s smoked breakfast meat.”

While all of this is true – I loved that series as a kid – there’s a problem. I just told you everything I remember about Freddy from my dim, ancient days as a voracious young reader. I can’t recall anything else about the little porker. Happily, I’ve had two more shots at spending time with kid’s books since then: Once, for a decade or so, as a parent reading bed-time and other-time stories to my daughter, and now, for several decades, as a writer for young readers. So I have no excuses. I’ve met slews of characters recently enough that the impressions linger. 

There’s also the problem of whether to be honest, or to try to be impressive. When I see one of those READ posters, with a celebrity holding a book, it’s usually pretty obvious whether we are in the presence of book love or ego (War and Peace? Really? Yeah, right.).  I could pick the Mad Hatter, and cite his philosophical statements. That would make me look deep. Or I could dig up some obscure character nobody has heard of, to make myself look like a kidlit expert. But I want to keep this authentic.

 From In the Night Kitchen,
by Maurice Sendak, 1970
So, who to pick. As I ran some father/daughter favorite bedtime stories through my mind, a chubby face leaped out, and I knew my search had ended. One of the bakers from In the Night Kitchen looks exactly like Oliver Hardy. In my youth, Laurel and Hardy movies were as ubiquitous on TV as Law and Order is today. But a lot funnier. Stumbling across that beloved face in baker’s garb in the middle of a milky fantasy brought back a lot of happy memories. So, yeah. That’s my pick. The nameless baker with the tiny mustache. Because I know that as soon as Mickey zooms away, a skinny baker with a derby on his head will somehow spill the milk, kill the yeast, and set the oven on fire. And then, he will apologize.


Thanks for stopping by, David.  I’m looking forward to reading Wipeout of the Wireless Weenies and Other Warped and Creepy Tales!

David Lubar’s thirty books for teens and young readers include the novels  Hidden Talents and Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie.  His comic zombie story, My Rotten Life, was recently optioned by Minds Eye Entertainment. His popular Weenies story collections have sold more than two million copies.  Each book contains thirty stories that have been described as “Twilight Zone for kids.” The newest book, Wipeout of the Wireless Weenies and Other Warped and Creepy Tales, shows the horrors that can happen when you wear the wrong hat to the bus stop, forget to clean the litter box, play a practical joke with a coffin, or spend too much time on the phone.  

To learn more about David Lubar and his work‚ including his latest book, Wipeout of the Wireless Weenies and Other Warped and Creepy Tales, check out these links:

Web site:
Twitter:  @davidlubar 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Ferreting Out a Name

Its been a while since Ive posted a new character sketch here.  Ive been doing a lot of school visits and gearing up for the release of my next book, Bats in the Band, on August 5th.  

Ive also been doing work on an adult memoir written by my late father-in-law, Sam Keith, which will be published in September (First Wilderness, Graphic Arts Books / Ingram).  More on that book later, but if youre a fan of his first Alaska book, One Mans Wilderness, youll definitely be interested in this new one.

So, time for a new character. Here he is:

Many a creature, in business . . . and elsewhere. . . was taken in
by his dapper attire and quiet demeanor.

Sometimes I know a characters name right away, and sometimes it eludes me.  Does this guy look like a Curtis?  Timothy? Randall?  Maybe this is one of those characters who ought to remain a mysterious and unnamed he.  As to his profession, he may be a banker, a dealer in motor vehicles, or a cardsharp.  He certainly doesnt stay in one place for too long.  

He seemed to want an oval background, to help place him into a particular timeframe, and I think in a finished painting, he needs to be tonal, with just a splash of color—a red carnation in his lapel.  A symbol?  Maybe.

As in the past on this blog, youre welcome to comment on the sketch.  Then Im going to take this guy to finish, and the final painting will go up on eBay.

Thanks for visiting!  And stop by next Wednesday (April 23), when my guest blogger will be the witty David Lubar.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Midweek Musing #6— Judy Schachner and a Furry Companion

Skippyjon works on his Skipposaurus (and eats a pickle),
from Skippyjon Jones and the Big Bones
Among the character-driven childrens books being created today, one of my very favorites is Skippyjon Jones, the irrepressible Siamese kitty who insists that hes a Chihuahua.  His rampant imagination and hankering for adventure get him into a wild variety of troubles, the world he inhabits is an explosion of colors.  The walls of his room are a mess of Skippiti graffiti, and the soundtrack of his life an effervescent fizz of pidgin Spanish.

Im very happy to have the creator of Skippyjon Jones and many other funny and heartwarming books, chiming in on this blog today—the wonderful Judy Schachner, whose imagination must surely be as rampant as her kitty protagonists. And I suspect that Judys answer to this blogs question to its writer/illustrator guests, Whos your favorite character in childrens literature, and why? will surprise you. (And on a personal note:  if youre a cat person and havent read her Oct. 2013 release Bits & Pieces yet, run to the bookstore!).

Judy Schachner's feline friend,
Chicopee, makes a point.
Judy Schachner:  Those who know me well understand that I have been and always will be a cat lover.  It’s not for nothing that I have written and illustrated 14 picture books based on my very own Siamese children alone. My cats have occupied chairs and beds and laps in just about every darn book I’ve had my paws on. So if you were a gambling sort, you might place a bet on the hunch that I would pick a feline as one of my all time favorite characters in children’s books but darlin’ you’d be wrong.

“It was in May, 1918, that a new friend and companion came into my life: a character, a personality, and a ring tailed wonder. He weighed less than one pound when I discovered him, a furry ball of utter dependence and awakening curiosity.”
So begins the tale of RASCAL, the endearing story of a motherless boy and his foundling pet raccoon. The boy was the author himself, Sterling North. It was published in 1963 when I was twelve years old and feeling the uncertainty of a world that would soon claim my own mother’s life.  I never had a pet raccoon, but at around the same age as author Sterling North was when he found his beloved Rascal, I was given a Siamese kitten (a close approximation if you ask me) by my oldest brother Ted. Never doubt the healing powers of critters.

In answering this question about “one’s favorite character” in children’s literature, I was delighted to revisit the world of Boy North and the hilarious antics of his adorable pet. But more importantly, I was grateful to be reminded of what I loved most about this book… the seamless blending of heart and humor that to this day still moves me. With a few minor changes the author could have been writing about me at the same age…
“Often the only occupant of our ten-room house was an eleven year old boy working on his canoe in the living room and thinking  “long, long thoughts.”
 …I asked myself how God could be all knowing, all-powerful, and all merciful and still allow so much suffering in the world. In particular how could he have taken my gifted and gentle mother when she was only 47 years old?”

My mother was just 47 when I read these words…she would die 2 years later. So yeah, that day Boy North became my hero because he had made it to the other side of loss and he had made it with the help of a raccoon.

 “Several nights later I was startled and delighted to hear Rascal’s trill from the pillow beside me, then to feel his little hands working all over my face. My raccoon baby had climbed from his hole, opened the back screen door, and with eyes that could see in the dark made his way to my bed. “

As far as I was concerned North’s raccoon baby Rascal, and my Siamese kitten baby Frankie, were one and the same. In fact that’s pretty much how I felt about the Boy North too. We may have grown up in different times and under different circumstances, he may have been a boy and I a girl but at that point in time while reading those words, we were one and the same.

The starkly beautiful scratchboard illustrations in this book were by John Schoenherr. He would later go on to win the Caldecott award for OWL MOON by Jane Yolen. I thought it best to let the art speak for itself…except to say that John Schoenherr’s depictions of Rascal remain to this day some of my very favorite illustrations in all of children’s literature. The man gets raccoons…just say’n.
John Schoenherr's 1963 endpapers for Rascal 

— • —

Whose portrait is this, anyway?

Judy Schachner was born into an Irish Catholic working class family from New England.  Money was as tight as their apartment was tiny, and though she may not have had the easiest of childhoods, she credits her imagination with helping her survive it.

She can't ever remember a time when she was not drawing and like most budding artists she doodled on everything, including her fathers bald head.  She drew herself into stories where she was the smartest in her class and into a family where mothers lived to be a ripe old age.  In many ways, Judy feels that her own life has resembled the fairy tales she loved reading as a child, complete with a happy ending.  And the best part of this author/illustrators story?  She married a prince of a guy and they had two beautiful daughters and just like the mothers in her earliest tales, she plans on living to a ripe old age.

Described by the New York Times as “…something like the James Joyce for the elementary school–set,” Judy Schachner is the #1 NY Times Best Selling Author/Illustrator of over 23 books for children including Bits & Pieces, the Skippyjon Jones series, Yo Vikings, The Grannyman and Willy and May.  She has won many awards, including the first E. B. White Read Aloud Award.
Skippyjon Jones Snow What, the next Skippyjon Jones book,
arrives in October, 2014.
Bits & Pieces.

To learn more about Judy Schachner and her work, visit her website.