Fly! is a picture book targeted to 2-4 year-olds, but its universal theme of self-discovery through perseverance is a message parents can appreciate.
The protagonist is a young fly. If he were a child, he’d be a toddler. He looks to his peers — the spider, the pill bug, the beetle — to figure out how to function in the world. These other bugs are able to do things that our hero finds challenging. It’s frustrating and hard, but give him the chance to use his imagination, move his body, discover his wings, and do what he does best . . . fly.
Fly! is a simple story, told in just 13 words. It’s also an activity book — in the most literal sense. Single verbs and corresponding action images propel the plot forward. Each action flows across one double page spread to the next. The entire book is made of action verbs that invite kids to wiggle, roll, and jump by imitating the insects.
With tremendous help (and patience) from my editor, Kelly Delaney, and senior art director, Isabel Warren-Lynch, we refined, streamlined, and improved the story and characters. They helped me turn a message and a character into a real book. It must be real. Here’s the announcement in Publisher’s Weekly.
Most of my blog posts talk about the steps in my process. I’d like to use this post to share just a small part of the process involved to produce a children’s book.
I’ve been illustrating other people’s ideas my entire career, so it’s exciting to illustrate my own. Most of my assignments have been single illustrations, so the idea of developing a character with consistent personality and physical appearance is new to me. It’s much harder than I thought. You get so close to your own work that it’s hard to see the big picture. Concepts, characters, and drawings become too precious. It’s wonderful to have the input and advice of a good editor and art director.
Some author/illustrators begin with a story, while others begin with a character, and build a narrative around that. For me, Fly! began with the concept that a fly can fly and things developed from there. It occurred to me that every insect has its own unique ability and function, just like people. Ask any parent with two or more kids. They will tell you each of their kids has a core personality that was apparent from birth. Each child is unique. They just are.
Publishing, I’ve discovered, is all about collaborating, adjusting, and making positive compromises. Choosing an oft-maligned fly for a protagonist is a fun challenge.
Try to draw a cute fly!
Here are some of the initial sketches I drew months before I even approached Knopf.
This is my first layout — also known as a book dummy. This sequential series of page sketches provides visual notes to help with the developing the plot, action, and characters. It’s all very loose and casual.
The layout begins to gel. I tighten up the loose sketches. The core concept of the book is becoming more obvious.
I presented a color dummy (below is a mock-up of the cover) to Isabel at Random House, and to my good fortune, editor Kelly Delaney felt it had sufficient appeal to pick it up — but it needed work!
First, we developed the fly character. Eventually, he has six legs (hey, he is an insect after all), we decreased the size of his eyes, and placed them to the side.
Here is a screen shot of the next revision of the dummy title page with art direction notations.
Here is the final version of our hero pondering his wings.
See how the legs of the grasshopper act as a “page turner” or “teaser” to entice the reader to see what’s next? Children can imitate the action. It’s good for kids to get up off the couch and wiggle, jump, march, swing . . . You get the idea.
For the endpapers/pastedown of the book covers, Isabel suggested that I create realistic renderings of each insect shown in the book. Factual text near the art helps teach children a bit more about each insect. I enjoyed doing two different illustration styles for the same book.