School Visits in Snohomish, WA

Last year The Marvelous Thing That Came from a Spring was selected to be on the Washington State book list. This meant that students all across the state were reading my book along with other fabulous picture books, until one book was voted their favorite.

The Marvelous Thing did not get the grand prize, but a librarian in Snohomish enjoyed the artwork so much that she inquired if I would be willing to travel across the country to visit her school, Seattle Hill Elementary. As a writer and illustrator who rarely gets a chance to leave his apartment in Brooklyn, the idea of seeing the Pacific Northwest sounded like an enticing adventure I couldn’t refuse.

In order to get me to Snohomish, other schools would have to contribute so that the total cost was not burdened on one school. The librarian held a PTA meeting and was able to generate enough interest from three other schools to share the cost of my expenses. It was decided in a year, I would give 9 presentations in 3 days at 4 different schools: Riverview, Dutch Hill, Cascade View, and Seattle Hill.

To prepare, I practiced driving (a lot has changed since owning a car in 1996!), and I took on speaking engagements for illustrating covers for the SCBWI NY chapter and National Winter Conference, as well as local school visits.

A year later, with snow just beginning to thaw, my plane landed in Seattle. I drove a rental car through rush hour traffic an hour north to Snohomish. I arrived at twilight to a beautiful town with a main street hosting a variety of restaurants and antique shops. The vibe was laid back and friendly, where everyone said “Hi!” when passing. It reminded me of a modern day Norman Rockwell Americana. And I was fortunate enough to visit the library near my hotel, where a book club meeting was jam-packed with parents and kids to hear Kirby Larson give her presentation on her Newbery Honor book, Hattie Big Sky.

And the nine presentations I gave?!

I’d heard that Mercury was in retrograde the week I’d be in Washington, and since I’m superstitious, I came prepared for a disaster. I’d packed an extra zip drive, exporting my presentation to both power point and keynote, packing extra pens, water, etc. Even with some technical glitches with microphones, the show was a success.

On the plane ride home, I reflected over 2,000 plus students I’d encountered, the friendly librarians I’d shared stories of Harper with over lunch, and the town of Snohomish. I felt like Bilbo Baggins. I’d traveled across the map on quite an adventure, overcoming obstacles, and I’d made some new friends along the way.

But the most satisfying ending to my journey was returning home to Harper! 🙂


Rotten! by Anita Sanchez will be released Tuesday, January 22. It is a picture book/chapter book hybrid targeting 3rd-6th graders (and even adults!), and covers all different aspects of decomposition. The text is light-hearted, with clever, child-friendly analogies about the science behind death and rebirth.

Below are some of the layouts and illustrations I created to go with the text, ranging from the funny– to the whimsical — to the serious and reverent (in the case of the funeral over a compost pile image).

A recommended read for anyone interested in the basics of composting their garden, understanding the science behind decomposition, and grasping a better understanding of all that ends and begins again.

ITCH! Everything You Didn’t Want to Know About What Makes You Scratch

I illustrated an 80 page chapter book for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt called ITCH! Everything You Didn’t Want to Know About What Makes You Scratch by Anita Sanchez. It is considered a “grossology” science book for 2nd grade-6th grade. But most of my adult friends enjoy reading it, too so there’s something for everyone in it.

Because the subject matter was a little challenging (bedbugs and lice!), I talked with the librarians at The Clinton Hill Library, asking their advice on how I should illustrate it before I began. They gave me health science books on the birds and the bees and Where did I Come From, which I remember reading when I was a kid. It turns out, the only way to tackle sensitive or particularly gross subject matter is through humor.

Anita Sanchez had already written the informative and accessible text, so my job was to make it whimsical, scientific, and FUNNY. I took inspiration from silly symphony cartoons I remember watching on the Disney Chanel when I was a kid. I found vintage ephemera to photograph, trying to give off the illusion of science projects, insect boxes, and bulletin boards with data, old slides, and film reels.

The follow-up book, called Rotten!, will be out next year, and it is 116 pages about all things that decompose. Some of the images can be solved with humor, and some of them are more serious and must be portrayed with reverence. I look forward to sharing that next January!

Below are some of the images from the book ITCH! without the text.

How The cookie Crumbled Art

Here is some artwork for How The Cookie Crumbled. It is about the true and not so true stories of how Ruth Wakefield invented the chocolate chip cookie. Whether you are an inventor, or political (fake news), a history buff, or just love a good chocolate chip cookie, there is something for everyone in this story.

Lampedusa Concert Tour this fall!

I was asked to design the poster and t-shirt for a folk concert tour benefit for the Jesuit Refugee Service called Lampedusa, named after the island that most refugees pass through upon entering Europe.

It had been a while since I had been given a shot at illustrating an advertising campaign, and since it was for a good cause, how could I say, “no?”

The branding (logo and colors) had already been decided by the PR Firm promoting the event, so I needed to design the picture around what was already in place. Since Lampedusa is an island and many birds also migrate there besides refugees, I decided to play with those elements to see if I could connect it to music. (click on the picture to see detail!)
Whether it was a bird on a bobbed wire fence turning to written music, a paper boat transporting music across great distance, or the African Wild Flowers allowed to bloom on the island, nothing was quite hitting the mark. I tried a message in a bottle but that didn’t work. Then I tried something playful: a guitar playing music, morphed into an island with migratory birds.
I was delighted to hear they chose this concept! Behold: the poster for the tour!

The tour is traveling to several cities including New York. Check the Jesuit Refugee Service Website to see if the tour is stopping near you!

The Golden Age of Non-Fiction

In 2009, the Common Core State Standards were launched for public schools across the United States. The goal was to get students to read informational text. With librarians scrambling to order non-fiction, publishers met their demands by producing more non-fiction picture books.

Since publishers have shown an increased interest for informational text, more non-fiction manuscripts have been produced, and some of them are pretty innovative. These manuscripts are generally more sophisticated and targeting an older child, so the artwork in narrative non-fiction picture books has also become more complex and experimental.

After combining three different illustration techniques in the non-fiction, Mr. Ferris and His Wheel, and having favorable results, I wanted to push my illustration style further for the next book.

I looked at a lot of cool non-fiction published in the past five years, and the artists I especially liked were those that pushed the boundaries into photographed 3-D environments.

FridaYuyi Morales’s Frida resembled a Frida Kalo Barbie doll photographed in 3-D environments.

balloonsMelissa Sweet combined her pencil and watercolors with found objects and created a relief artwork that was later photographed in Bullets Over Broadway. She played with the typography and the graphic layout in The Right Word:Roget And His Thesaurus, marrying several hard-to-achieve skills into a seamless book.

stardinesAlthough Carin Berger has not done non-fiction, I had my eye on her cut-out collages she married effortlessly with found objects in the graphic layout of Stardines.

For The Marvelous Thing…, I knew I wanted to come up with my own method of working 3-D that was different from the other artists mentioned above. After I made a diorama for the title page of my book, Atheneum asked me to do most of the book that way.

Although I work in both traditional and digital media, the end result is always digital. This freed me up to do just about anything, as long as the digital photo met the expectations of the publisher. For this project, I optioned to draw everything on a cintique where I could make corrections easily, and print out the characters from my color Canon.

This strange mix of digital art turned to printouts turned to 3-D models turned to digital photos, became the basis for how I worked. Although the drawings give a definite nod to the past, this method could only be created in the digital era, where desktop publishing works seamlessly with digital photos of high quality printouts. Even the semi-gloss sheen of the printer paper for the floor reflecting the shadows of the characters is a reminder that this artwork could only be made today.

Below is an example of the title page constructed entirely from computer printouts and found objects that determined the way this book would be illustrated.

I’ll post more about my process for how I created the art the closer we get to the September 13th release date.

Scbwi Winter News Bulletin and Interview

Here is a cover that I illustrated for the SCBWI Winter Newsletter.

The SCBWI only has one requirement for their covers: a kite must be incorporated somewhere on it. I knew that I wanted the kite to represent more than a kite at face value, so I sketched three concepts: A kite that could be a book, the tail being a bookmark; a kite as a portal, an escape from winter; and a kite as a lucky star, a new year wish. They chose the new year wish!

Inside the bulletin they included an interview of me.

The Maypop Kidnapping

Here is a cover I illustrated for Lerner called The Maypop Kidnapping by C.M. Surrisi. The story is a fun mystery about a girl who is convinced her teacher has been kidnapped. Since it takes place off a coastal town in Maine, I was art directed to showcase the setting in the sketches. After several twists and turns (just like the book!) we ended up with a final. It was only after I completed the cover that I discovered the true identity of the author was Cynthia, who attended grad school with me at VCFA. Talk about a Scooby Doo-ending!
This cover image was created in doc martin dyes, adobe illustrator, and brought together in photoshop on my wacom cintiq. Below are some of the sketches leading up to the final cover.

An MFA in Writing

In 2013 I enrolled in Vermont College of Fine Arts for my MFA in the Writing for Children and Young Adults Program. Although I already had a career illustrating children’s books, I wanted to be able to generate work for myself during my down time. Since the school is low residency, I was able to work from my apartment in Brooklyn (giving me further credibility as a “shut in”) and commute to Vermont twice a year for 11 days at a time.

And so began 2 years of balancing school with my illustration career. With only 15 hours of free time a week, I lived and breathed children’s literature. On weekends I wrote stories. During weeknights I read books and wrote essays. I used my lunch breaks for revising, and I listened to audio books whenever I drew, shopped, or exercised.

I’m happy to say that not only do I have an MFA with a bunch of manuscripts to pitch, but I am also a master at doing two things at once.

This is me reading my creative thesis during my final residency:

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