July 26, 2018

Kidlit Loves All Kids: The Need to Create Books for Children With Mental Illnesses.

I want to talk about a something that is dear to my heart, that is unfortunately a topic that I think many of us would prefer to avoid: mental illness. Even typing those words I can feel the heavy stigma associated with it, but in this blog post, I want to share my own personal experiences and hopefully we can all get a better perspective on how our craft, as children's book writers and illustrators, can better help the mental health of our child readers.

When I was little, I often had stomach aches during day and nightmares at night. Many kids have those sorts of issues, but for me, they were manifestations of undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Most people associate PTSD with those who have served in the military, but PTSD can occur among anyone who suffers from a traumatic event, and often goes undiagnosed among survivors of child abuse. For me, certain smells, sounds, and phrases could make me freeze up into a little ball as they reminded me of events I had lived through. I was a friendly kid at school, but on the inside I felt very alone and hopeless. And I didn't feel safe enough to reach out to the adults in my life. More than 20 years later I was diagnosed with PTSD, and although these events still affect me, with my family's support and with the help of my therapists, I've learned to cope with my trauma.

As a kid, before I had this network of great people,  I found my strength and comfort in books. I felt like books understood me when others didn't. They empowered me, and helped me bear the unbearable. I wrote a blog post about my gratitude for them last year, but, in light of recent events in the news, I've been thinking about other children out there with similar experiences. Do they have books that speak to them? Do they see themselves in the books they read?

According to the National institute of Mental Health1 in 5 children, at some point during their lives, will have a mental health crisis. That's a little over 20%. That would be at least 5 children in your average American classroom. To me, that is a shockingly high statistic. In addition to that, every year, about 43.6 million American adults (or 18% of the total adult population in the United States) suffer from some type of mental illness, to include enduring conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. 

There are more people with mental illnesses than you might realize. It likely affects some of the children you know, and some of their parents too. Why then are there so few characters in children's  picture books through middle grade books, that have mental illnesses or children that come from broken homes? And why is there such a hesitation to include darker themes?

Matt de la Peña wrote an article, Why We Shouldn’t Shield Children From Darknessthat I deeply appreciated. In it he said: 

"A few weeks ago, illustrator Loren Long and I learned that a major gatekeeper would not support our forthcoming picture book, Love, an exploration of love in a child’s life, unless we “softened” a certain illustration. In the scene, a despondent young boy hides beneath a piano with his dog, while his parents argue across the living room. There is an empty Old Fashioned glass resting on top of the piano. The feedback our publisher received was that the moment was a little too heavy for children. And it might make parents uncomfortable. This discouraging news led me to really examine, maybe for the first time in my career, the purpose of my picture book manuscripts. What was I trying to accomplish with these stories? What thoughts and feelings did I hope to evoke in children?

...Loren and I ultimately fought to keep the “heavy” illustration. Aside from being an essential story beat, there’s also the issue of representation. In the book world, we often talk about the power of racial inclusion — and in this respect we’re beginning to see a real shift in the field — but many other facets of diversity remain in the shadows. For instance, an uncomfortable number of children out there right now are crouched beneath a metaphorical piano. There’s a power to seeing this largely unspoken part of our interior lives represented, too. And for those who’ve yet to experience that kind of sadness, I can’t think of a safer place to explore complex emotions for the first time than inside the pages of a book, while sitting in the lap of a loved one."

This idea really resonated with me. While YA has done an admirable job on this front, we haven't made similar strides in picture books to middle grade. I recognize the absolute value of the #weneeddiversebooks movement, and the steps it has taken to diversify our idea of protagonists, but our definition of diversity needs to be inclusive of those whose lives are touched by mental illness.

There is still a stigma attached to mental illnesses, and it seems like it is inappropriate to talk about these conditions, like it's airing dirty laundry. But this secrecy and silence reinforces all these negative stereotypes. Childhood can be hard enough with a mental illness, but we need to make sure that we write more books that don't make it harder for our readers.

Books were a saving grace in my troubled childhood. It's my hope that as advocates for children, we reach out to all children with our stories. All children need to feel seen and understood. #KidlitLovesAllKids

Some books that feature mental illness:

-Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham
-The Red Tree - Shaun Tan
-The Bridge to Teribithia by Katherine Paterson
-Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand 
-The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Recommendations of writing themes:

-Kids or parents with mental illnesses.
-Characters that go to therapy.
-Healthy coping skills with trauma.
-Kids with scary home lives.

More articles or resources.

March 26, 2018

Overcoming fear and becoming the our best artistic selves.

I had a conversation recently with an arty friend. She was telling me about her fear of pursuing her passion of illustrating children's books. She believed that she just wasn't "good enough." The conversation broke my heart, but I could identify with how she felt. I certainly have had my own doubts and struggles. So how can we conquer these fears and become the artists that we want to be?

"You can't build a reputation on what you are going to do." 
-Henry Ford

1. First you have to start.

This seems so obvious. But how many of your projects, and how many of your goals are still just a dream? (I'll be honest I have quite a few sitting in a box in my studio. And I need to change that.)

But when we do start, I do think it's important to have specific goals. We need to ask ourselves; "Who am I as an artist? What exactly do I want to illustrate? And what I am I passionate about?"

The more specific you are, the less time you will waste in pursuing something that will distract you from your goals. I can paint in many styles, and someone once asked why I didn't advertise that I can paint realistic portraits. Well, because I don't want to paint realistic portraits. I want to illustrate children's books and magazines in the styles that I like. I want to write my own kidlit stories. So everything I do artistically, and recreationally for that matter, is serving that very specific goal.

2. Create A LOT of art.

We've all heard the adage that it takes 10,000 drawings for you to become a master at drawing. We need to draw a lot of art garbage before we get really good at drawing. I have a mountain of terrible sketches that I have happily recycled. Terrible art is not indicative that I am a terrible artist. It's part and parcel of my art process and how I visually problem solve. The more we create art, the better artists we become. 

Quote by Ira Glass, Poster art by Nikki Hampson

3. Acknowledge your fear.

"Are you paralyzed with fear? That's a good sign. Fear is Good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember [the] rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it. Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates the strength of resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that the enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul."

-Steven Pressfield's The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles

"The empty space is the great horror and stimulant of creation. But there is also something predictable in the way the fear and apathy encountered at the beginning are accountable for feelings of elation at the end. These intensities of the creative process can stimulate desires of consistency and control, but history affirms that few transformative experiences are generated by regularity.
When asked for advice on painting, Claude Monet told people not to fear mistakes. The discipline of art requires constant experimentation, wherein errors are harbingers of original ideas because they introduce new directions for expression. The mistake is outside the intended course of action, and it may present something that we never saw before, something unexpected and contradictory, something that may be put to use."

4. Have the courage to continue.

In order to be successful we need to find courage within ourselves to keep working despite our self-doubt. Vincent Van Gogh started creating art within the last 10 years of his art, and it is comforting to know that his early works were pretty crummy. (Compare these examples from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain showing his early drawing compared to one completed two years later:)
Carpenter, 1880 and Woman Mourning, 1882 by Vincent Van Gogh

But even with his anxieties and despite all the awful art he created earlier in his artistic journey, he kept creating. Through his hard work and stick-to-itiveness he eventually evolved into a master artist that we know and love today. 

So friends, let's just take it one drawing and one painting at a time. If we have the courage to start and continue in our calling as kidlit creators, I know we will all be creating some beautiful art.

"Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts." 
-Winston Churchill

Art by Meridth McKean Gimbel (me)

November 06, 2017

How to Get Work Done While Raising Kids: Interviews with Four Freelancing Mommies.

Freelancing is hard. You go from job to job, feast to famine... My hat is off to all the freelance mommies out there. (I had no idea how hard it would be until I became one.) You have to balance the needs of your children in your house, still meet your deadlines, and maybe take a shower on a regular basis. I feel like sometimes I am on top of my schedule and other times I am overwhelmed by doctors appointments, dishes, lost library books, etc. There is no right or wrong answer to finding balance in taking care of a family and freelancing, but I always find it helpful to know how other freelance mommies do it. 

So I declare this week to be the week of the Freelance Mommy. I've interviewed four fabulous freelance mommies to see how they manage it all. I'll be posting each of their interviews separately on the Kidlit Artists website

The lovely ladies I will be interviewing are:

Candace Camling
You can find Candace's interview here.

Lorian Tu Dean
You can find Lorain's interview here.

Mary Reaves Uhles

You can find Mary's interview here.

Zara Gonzalez Hoang

You can find Zara's interview here.

I hope you find them as inspiring as I do. Best of luck to you and me and all the freelance mommies out there. Pats on the back all around. We can do it!!

September 20, 2017

Yippee Skippy! I won an award!

Hi there creative friends! 

Last weekend I was delighted to attend SCBWI SanFrancisco's Illustration Intensive. It was absolutely brilliant!  (A big thanks to the SCBWI-SF South Team!)

 I was able to listen to Dan Santat, David Caplan and Kristine Brogno inspire us illustrators on how to approach our craft.  It was a lovely day and I am still digesting all the knowledge that was imparted by these industry giants. And I'm pleased to say that I won an Honorable Mention at the Illustrator Portfolio Showcase! 

Left to Right: Dan Santat, Honorable Mention Winner - Deborah Melmon,
Best in Show Winner - Jun Cheng,
Honorable Mention Winner -Me (!!), David Caplan 

Squeeeee! Happy dance!

June 16, 2017

Literary Lifelines

I went through a series of traumatic events when I was a child that unfortunately still affect me as an adult. When I was young I didn't know that my experiences were not at all normal. Thanks to many years of therapy, I've been able to deal with the trauma, but I've often wondered what was it that got me through as a kid. I felt I had no one to talk to, or identify with. I didn't know that adults could or would help me. I didn't have the common sense or maturity to put everything into context. So what was my saving grace? Books. Books were my lifeline.

As soon as I could walk my mother took me, my siblings, and our red Radio Flyer Wagon to the library. Every week we would fill out the entire wagon with books. It was already a habit for me to read.  So when things got unbearable for me, I turned to my books. If I ever needed to escape from the day-to-day I could always be carried off by a tornado to the Land of Oz, or fall through Alice's looking glass. I knew that if I needed strength, that Matilda Wormwood would take a stand with me and invent a delightfully wicked punishment for the baddies. It felt as though the characters from some of my favorite books were reaching out to me. I gained strength and comfort through them and their stories. I am so grateful for all the kidlit creators, whose books I grew up reading. They have helped me through some very dark moments in my childhood.

 I feel like it is important to share my wounds with you because I know my experience isn't singular. Unfortunately there are so many other children out there that are suffering; children that need relief, children that need to know they are not alone,  children that need your empathy, children that need your stories.

As kidlit creators, we will likely be a lifeline for some other child. Let us keep that in mind as we are creating the stories and crafting our illustrations. What we do is important. What we do does makes a difference.

February 21, 2017

Putting Together a Dummy the Smart Way

Ok. So you've poured your blood, sweat, and tears into a picture book dummy and it's time to present it to an art director, an editor, or maybe at a conference. How in the worldy world do you put that blasted thing together?!  Here are a few tips and tricks that have helped me and that hopefully will help you too. 

Woohoo! I've finished my roughs. Now what?!

1. Scan your roughs and label them.

After you've completed your rough sketches for your dummy (big pat on the back to you), scan them in full sized at 300dpi. In my case a spread's full size is 11x17. I try to label my roughs in the least confusing way possible. I use the picture book's initials and then the page number so that I can easily identify them and organize them. (So an example for my dummy would be MMWCUHB_4-5.tif)

2. Open up InDesign.

Truthfully, I knew next to nothing about Indesign before putting together a booklet. The program seems pretty intuitive, for this simple task. Create a 'new document.' Put in the number of pages you need in your dummy, and click the facing pages button.

When you open up your new document, it should look something like this.

3. Place Roughs in the empty pages

You can drag and drop files into the empty pages that you see above. Once you've inserted all your spreads, make sure that you right click on your rough -> click on Display Performance -> click on High Quality Display. If you don't some of your illustrations may end up looking pixelated. 

4. When emailing your dummy, export it as 180 dpi as a PDF.

And congratulations! You are done. Let's go celebrate with a cookie!

...oh wait. You want to print your dummy?!  Ok. Hold on. Just a few more steps. 

This is where it get's wacky, so pay attention!

5. Open up your individual spreads in Photoshop.

Open up the spreads and cut them in half. (No, really!) 

So this 11x17 spread will become...

two 8.5x11 pages.

6. Open up Indesign and create a New Document.

Only this time don't click 'facing pages.' 

Your document should look like this.

7. Drag and drop your divided spreads into the pages.

8. Export your pages as a 300 dpi PDF.

Do not click the spreads button.

9. Take the file to FedEx Kinkos to print.

Tell them to print your PDF file as a booklet

I am not sure why you need to have the pages separated, but anytime I have tried to print a booklet at Kinkos, they have always had me separate the spreads. The nice thing about having Kinkos print the dummy, is that they have a printer that will perfectly align the pages, the paper is nice and not too costly, and it gets stapled for you. Easy peasy. (Somewhat.)

Perfectly aligned pages. Yippee!

Now if you are heading to a conference, all we need to do is attach the dummy to your portfolio. (For this example, I'm using a screw post portfolio.)

10. Attach a string or ribbon to the dummy.

Take the printed dummy and open it at the centerfold. 

Use an x-acto knife and cut a slit in the pages about a 1/4 of an inch down.

Attach the string.

Tie a loop at the other end of your string.

Place the loop on one of the portfolio's posts.

Screw the portfolio back together.

Gently pull the string.
Voilà! All done. That wasn't too complicated, was it? ;)

Now, about that cookie... Nom! Nom! Nom!

August 08, 2016

2016 SCBWI-LA, Part 2: Illustration Intensive Brilliance

I am a big Illustration Intensive fan. Creative people, in this industry, have to be life-long learners. Sophie Blackall, this past weekend, talked about herself improving as an artist and compared it to yoga. Even when you are improving, you can always stretch deeper, reach farther... I love that analogy!

I was particularly excited for this intensive because I have never done am intensive that focused on character design.  I am sure you are familiar with #WeNeedDiverseBooks. This is something I feel really passionate about. I've moved around a lot, and many of my friends and their kids, that are from a variety of different ethnicities and races, are not usually represented in picture books. So this intensive started off by prompting us to draw someone from a specific race or ethnicity, from our imagination, and afterwards by reference. After using my imagination (which was occasionally reliable for this sort of thing), it was incredible to see reference of a broader spectrum and larger variety of people belonging to a certain race or ethnicity.

Next we analyzed facial expressions and were prompted to illustrate that emotion on an animal or object. This was all very fast paced... you had to be on your toes in this intensive! One of the prompts that I had a hard time wrapping my brain around was an angry barn. I wish you could have seen the other illustrators designs. There was so much talent in that room. Here is my very disgruntled owl for you. :)

Art director Laurent Linn, who worked in Sesame Street for many years, brought some puppeteers to act out some seenes for us. Something interesting I found out was that a majority of the puppets in Sesame Street are not built with a smile. So when you think you are seeing a smile, or a warm expression, or conversely an angry expression... it is ALL body gestures. 

Later on, we watched some live actors act out scenes or emotions. They emphasized that the less cliche their actions were, the more sincere and impactful the moment could be.

It really was a brilliant intensive. Before we came to the intensive, we were all asked to bring studies of 3 original animal or human characters. Here are mine:

We analyzed what was working and what was not working. Afterwards, we had some time to synthesize what we had learned and to sketch our characters. I think I want to develop a story out of this little witch. 

Anyway, it really was peachy. Next time I create a character, I will have a lot more to think about. Alrighty, back to work. Good luck to you and me on our projects!

2016 SCBWI-LA, Part 1: Crispy nuggets of wisdom. Yum!

It's been a week since the LA SCBWI summer conference was over.  I am delighted I went, and sad it's over. I have a mountain of notes, so I thought I'd share a few blurbs and quotes with you that knocked me off my socks, pointed me in a new direction, or gave me a warm fuzzy hug. 

Pam Muñoz Ryan
"Any success in writing is the tip of an iceberg of accumulated failures." - Pam Muñoz Ryan

"If you are not struggling, you are setting your goals too low." - Pam Muñoz Ryan

Justin Chanda
"Diversity is not a trend. Diversity is not the new Vampires." - Justin Chanda 

"Children's Book people are good citizens of the planet." - Justin Chanda

Melissa Manlove
When creating quirky picture books Melissa Manlove said,"You can't do things badly. But if you do them well, you can do whatever you want."

Jon Klassen
"Don't wait 'till you get better to start." - Jon Klassen

"You don't have to own success or failure." - Jon Klassen

Marie Lu
"There is no such thing as 'being behind.' Everyone goes at their own pace." - Marie Lu

Lauren Rille
When writing your picture book story, Lauren Rille says, "Pack all the pages with heart and emotional punch."

"Don't be precious with your work. Especially at the beginning." - Lauren Rille

Carole Boston Weatherford
"A premise is a promise that your manuscript will deliver on." - Carole Boston Weatherford

Susan Rich

"We expect picture books to be revisited a gazillion times... to stand up to weary parents and antsy toddlers, over and over again. - Susan Rich

Sophie Blackall
Concerning your ideas: "Do not hoard what seems good for later." - Sophie Blackall

Richard Peck

"If our readers don't like the first line, they'll never see the second." - Richard Peck

It was such a delightful conference. I'm so grateful to meet knew friends, rejoice with old friends and their successes, and to be reinvigorated and rejuvenated on my own projects. Like I said, I'm sad it's over. But I'm happy to be home, working on my projects, with my corgi sitting happily on my feet.

(Do keep posted for Part 2. I'll share some of my character sketches from the illustration intensive sometime this week. Yippee!)