Friday, October 6, 2017

Making Red & Lulu: One Last Minute Change

Spoiler Alert: This post contains information about stuff that happens toward the end of Red & Lulu. 

Caveat to the Spoiler Alert: But one thing I realized while working on this book is that I don’t think spoilers really apply to picture books in the same way they apply to, say, novels or movies. A picture book might take five minutes to read, but if all goes right, a kid is going to want to read it again and again, even though they know exactly what is going to happen after that first 5-minute read. That’s why I feel okay sharing some details that might be considered “spoilers”. Hey, you might even say there’s even a big, sparkly spoiler right on the front cover of the book...

Red & Lulu is my nineteenth book as illustrator, and my ninth as author-illustrator. You might think that after two decades of making picture books, I would pretty much have it figured out by now. But unfortunately, you would be wrong. I’m still learning how picture books work, and I learned a lot working on this one.

Here’s something I learned on this, my nineteenth picture book: sometimes you need to let the reader do some of the work.

Before Red & Lulu was even printed, I decided to try it out at a couple school visits, to see how it worked as a read-aloud. Over the past few years I had shared many versions of Red & Lulu with friends, family, and a few fellow author-illustrator types, so I had gotten plenty of helpful feedback. But this would be the first time sharing the final book, as it would appear in print.

At this point, first proofs had been printed, and stapled review copies were ready to send out. So this was very late in the process. I had digital files of all the spreads, so even though I didn't have a physical copy of the book, I could easily share it with an audience as a slide presentation.

So I read it to a few groups of kids, and it went really well. But there was one part that didn’t feel quite right, and I wasn’t sure why. In a pivotal scene toward the end of the story, where Red finally finds the tree and is reunited with Lulu, kids didn’t seem to be reacting the way I expected them to. Here are the pages I’m talking about.

And then you turn the page...

When I read the words “Their tree! More sparkly than ever, but definitely theirs!” I expected to get some sort of reaction from the crowd– cheers, gasps, some sign of joy or excitement. But it seemed like as I read those words, I was the only one who was really excited about it. It felt weird. 

One night, I was laying awake in the middle of the night thinking about this, going through the words and the page turns, trying to figure out what the problem was, and I had an idea.

At my next school visit, I tried something different. When I turned the page after the words, Then he turned the corner, instead of saying Their tree!, I didn’t say anything. I just waited for a bit and let the kids look at the picture.

And something really awesome happened. There was this great moment when some of the kids realized that this might, in fact, be Red and Lulu's tree. I heard a few little gasps, and quiet whispers of “Their tree!” and “I think that’s their tree!”. But they didn’t know for sure. There was still some mystery and wonder. That is what I was missing before.

There is a thrill in realizing that this might possibly be the right tree. But by starting that page off with “Their tree! More sparkly than ever, but definitely theirs!”, I was telling the reader with absolute certainly that this was definitely their tree, and I was robbing the reader of that moment of discovery.

So I wrote to my editor and art director and explained the situation, along with this image, showing my suggested changes:

This was very late in the process to be making changes, so I wasn't sure how thrilled they would be about my suggestion. But they agreed, and we made the change. Here’s how those pages ended up in the actual book:

Then you turn the page...

Now, the picture does more of the storytelling, and there is a feeling of wonder as you head to the next page. By removing the words, “Their tree! More sparkly than ever, but definitely theirs,” I am asking the reader to do more of the work, and providing the reader with that moment of discovery that I was robbing them of before. Clearly Red thinks this is his tree- he is chirping with glee. But we don’t completely know for sure until we turn the page.

What happens next? You’ll have to read the book to find out! 

Spoiler alert: It all turns out okay in the end.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Making Red & Lulu: A few things readers might not notice (but I hope they do!)

Every picture book creator has probably experienced this at some point:

You’re at a book signing, sitting at a table. On the table is a stack of hardcover copies of your brand-new book, hot off the presses. You spent a whole year working on it, and years before that thinking about it, and planning it. You poured your heart into it. And now it’s here. You’re proud of this book, and so excited to finally share it with readers.

A customer walks up to the table. She flips through your masterpiece in about twenty seconds, then looks at you, smiles, and says, “Cute!”

A part of you dies inside.

It’s a strange thing, spending months, or even years, creating something that can be flipped through in twenty seconds, or read completely in five minutes. I know that plenty of people will read Red & Lulu quickly and not think much about it, and that's totally fine. I hope those people still enjoy it. But I also hope that some people slow down, take their time with it, and dig a little deeper into the story.

And when they do, here are a few things I hope they’ll notice. 

Note: Since you’re reading this, you’re probably not one of those people who’s going to flip through my book in 20 seconds! So for you, whether you're a teacher, librarian, parent, illustration student, or anyone else, hopefully these are a few points you might find interesting and/or helpful when you’re sharing the book with kids, or just for yourself.  Thanks! 

1. The role that the evergreen tree plays in the story...
Red & Lulu is a story about change. Cardinals, like humans, are creatures of habit. They mate for life. They do not fly south for the winter. Some even make their nests in the same tree year after year. Red and Lulu live in a big, beautiful evergreen. It is the center of their world, the foundation of their lives.

I felt that the evergreen was the perfect symbol for this story about dealing with change, because even its name, evergreen, implies permanence. But of course, it is a living thing, and as unthinkable as it is for Red and Lulu, it is temporary. 

To me, the tree in Red & Lulu represents all that stuff in our lives that seems really important, but actually isn't. Maybe it's the house where we live, or the work we spend our days focused on. The tree brings great joy to Red & Lulu, and ultimately it is the tree, and their shared love of music, which leads Red back to Lulu. But in the end, they are okay without it, as long as they have each other.

2. The role that the song O Christmas Tree plays in the story...
Red and Lulu’s favorite time of year is winter, when people decorate their tree with lights, and gather near and sing: 

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
Thy leaves are so unchanging… 

These lyrics are repeated a few times throughout the story. I chose this song not only because it is probably the most famous song ever written about a Christmas tree, but also because it reinforces the idea of this tree seeming permanent to Red & Lulu, making it all the more unthinkable when their tree is taken away. 

Thy leaves are so unchanging…
Red stands out against an almost monochromatic color palate
3. The role that color plays in the story

On the first pages of Red & Lulu, color is used to help show the passage of time through changing seasons– cool blues of winter, warm yellows of spring and summer, orange and browns of autumn. But once the tree is taken away, the color palate is very limited. As Red ventures into unfamiliar territory in his quest to find Lulu, I wanted him to stand out against a nearly monochromatic background.

But when Red finally finds Lulu, their reunion is celebrated with an explosion of color, thanks to the bright multi-colored lights on their tree.

4. An underlying theme in Red & Lulu: we are all connected in ways we'll never know
In early drafts of Red & Lulu, I debated the extent to which the family who lives in the house next to the tree would be a part of the story. Would they notice Red and Lulu in their yard? Would they notice when the birds were gone? Would they see Red and Lulu in the city, and wonder if those might be the same birds? In the end, I decided to make the people’s connection to the birds more like I’ve experienced in my life.

They try their best to keep the bird feeders full. But sometimes they forget. And one day a squirrel makes his way to the feeder and eats all the bird seed, as squirrels do. And because of that, Red needs to venture out one chilly morning to find some food. And because of that, he’s not around when the trucks arrive to take their tree away.

Nobody in the story is doing anything wrong, from the family deciding to donate their tree to Rockefeller Center, to the workers doing their job by chopping down the tree, to the squirrel trying to find some food. But all of these actions effect others in ways they never know. 

Anyway, I could probably ramble on for longer, but I'll stop there. Thanks for taking the time to read this. I hope it helps you enjoy Red & Lulu a little bit more. 

In my next post, I'll share a story about a very last minute change I made to Red & Lulu, after reading it to an audience of kids at a school visit and realizing something wasn't quite right.