Viva Frank Viva!

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From Trip to the Bottom of the World © Frank Viva.

I love Frank Viva’s “Trip to the Bottom of the World with Little Mouse.”  It is drawn digitally in Adobe Illustrator, yet it has a retro feel. I got to meet the Canadian author/illustrator at the American Library Association Midwinter Meeting in Boston.

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2- page spread from Sea Change ©Frank Viva

He flew down from Toronto where he heads an award-winning graphic design agency, Viva & Co. I was blown away by his new book Sea Change. The book is getting sensational reviews for both its story and graphic design. Sea Change is a Toon Graphic title. That means it is geared toward middle-grade readers. The literary quality and the visual design is so fine that older readers will appreciate its genius.

The pages of Sea Change are filled with playful typography, -the sort we read about in Phil Meggs’ History of Graphic Design. I showed my copy to Prof. Karen Kresge, who teaches advanced typography at Kutztown. She was so impressed she went directly to her computer to preorder a copy.

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Experimental type by Lewis Carroll and Stéphane Mallarmé from “Meggs”

School Library Journal says “Viva’s bold, simple illustrations are whimsical and bring to life the story’s unique characters. The unconventional format of this funny, poignant coming-of-age story will appeal to fans of comics and graphic novels.”

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detail from Sea Change ©Frank Viva

Graphic designer Chip Kidd is a fan: “In ‘Sea Change’ Frank Viva ingeniously weaves words and pictures to evoke that heartbreaking, strange, wonderful moment—when the very worst experience of your life somehow becomes the very best.” 

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It would be a crying shame if the design was extraordinary and the story fell flat. That is not the case here. The story is quite moving, written with an understated grace. The narrative has a great sense of place, namely, a remote fishing village in Nova Scotia. The author’s voice reminded me of Jack Gantos’s popular Joey Pigsa novels, though Viva told me he was not familiar with those books.

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details from Sea Change © Frank Viva

None of the great reviews I’ve seen touched on the chilling anti-Italian bias our young hero  endures. The book is not a memoir, but I asked Frank Viva if he had experienced bigotry as an Italian kid in Canada. “Oh Yes” he said, “I grew up in a very Anglo neighborhood. It wasn’t hurtful, but it was memorable, and it was typical.”

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The drawing style in Sea Change recalls Ben Shahn’s best graphic works. Viva explains that he sketches freely in pencil, then digitally colors the work in Photoshop.

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    A New Yorker cover by Frank Viva

Besides his children’s books Frank Viva is known for his elegant design work for fortune 500 companies and many New Yorker covers. He has come a long way. He told me about his college years delivering seltzer bottles to fifth floor walk-ups in Manhattan. Oddly enough, Ontario College of Art and Design allowed him to pursue his art studies in New York City.

Young Frank once thought he was headed for a career in fine art, but found work as a junior art director when he returned to Toronto. In the 70’s, he was a contributing cartoonist to the short-lived Toronto-based underground comic, “Berford Seaman’s Fabby Thighs and Butter.” I found a cover of the comic online. It bills itself as “a Canadian Magazine Everyone Can Read and Not Understand.

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Sea Change is an important work. It delivers a sea change from the typical design of ‘chapter books’ for young readers. I found myself totally immersed in the story, and I expect younger readers will, too.

Full disclosure: I got a free advance reader’s copy of Sea Change. Not only that, Frank Viva bought me a beer on a barge in Boston Harbor. Really! However, that one strong pint at the Barking Crab did not affect this review.

Science Comics & Global Warming for Kids

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I was driving in my car and heard a radio interview with Randall Munroe. The author and illustrator of Thing Explainer was speaking on Science Friday. I was stunned when host Ira Flatow said to Munroe, “Before you were a full-time comics artist you were a roboticist at NASA…” YOW!  I thought, “How can I do science comics for kids if NASA engineers are making comics?”

I saw his wonderful book and I calmed down as I realized his bestseller is far different than anything I will ever write. Munroe uses only the most 1000 common English language words to explain science. Cells are called, “tiny bags of water you’re made of.” The Mars Rover is “the Space Car for the Red World.” It is a chill formalist exercise I appreciate, but I am not likely to ever try myself.

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Munroe is not the only scientist turned comic book artist, however. I met Maris Wicks at the Miami Book Fair. She is a museum educator at Boston’s New England Aquarium. She was signing copies of her hit informational comic book, Human Body Theater. That book made School Library Journal’s list of 2015 TOP 10 Graphic Novels for Kids.  I have hip friends who used Human Body Theater to teach anatomy to their home-schooled daughter.

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Maris Wicks draws in a kid-friendly style. First Second Books sent me a review copy of her new book, Coral Reefs, Cities of the Ocean. It is is quite wonderful. It has a cute Kawaii feel, but still delivers the goods -educational info on the undersea world. When I met Maris in Miami, she was rushing to that airport to draw while she waited in the terminal for her plane back to Boston.

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Maris Wicks is quite amazing, she can write, she can draw, and she knows what she is talking about. Plus: she clearly has a professional attitude about deadlines.

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Coral Reefs is geared toward middle schoolers, but I read it aloud who to a precocious second-grader who hung on every word. There is one sequence that explains the scientific evidence for global warming. Kids who understand this science will be smarter than several candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. Imagine that.

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Maris Wicks has a great attitude despite the challenges our oceans face. She presents the science, yet manages to be upbeat about the future of the oceans. She tells young readers that even if they live far from the ocean they can help to protect their local ecosystem.

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First Second is also releasing another volume in the Science Comics series, Dinosaurs, Fossils and Feathers, written by MK Reed, illustrated by Joe Flood. Years ago I loved John Noble Wilford’s 1985 book, The Riddle of the Dinosaur. This new book has the same amazing cast of characters. I’m thinking of the humans, not the dinosaurs: Young fossil hunter Mary Anning; feuding paleontologists Marsh and Cope, and the larger-than-life Baron Nopsca. Who knew a paleontologist was the first person to hijack an airplane?

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Joe Flood’s dinosaur illustrations are perfect for the story. His art is detailed, energetic and clearly well-researched.

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Near the close of Dinosaurs is a page that channels Winsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur. Reed and Flood, author and illustrator, are pictured with a Brontosaurus. Earlier in the book they had reported the brontosaurus was not a separate dinosaur. But in 2015, just as their book neared its deadline, the scientific community reinstated the creature.

dinosaurs 1.jpg Both Coral Reefs and Dinosaurs have forwards written by Phd’s. No doubt the editors want to assure parents and educators these books are accurate. From a design standpoint, I would have preferred if these text essays came as an afterword. That said, I love the series so far. These two wonderful books should compel more youngsters to maintain their natural curiosity about the world around us.

Kid Lit Stars, near and far, coming to Kutztown

Selected works from www.mararockliff.com
Selected works from http://www.mararockliff.com

One Keynote Speaker at the 17th annual Kutztown University Children’s Literature Conference is author Mara Rockliff. Mara will walk less than one block from her home on Walnut St. to campus. If you want to hear her talk, don’t knock on her door, come to the conference on April 18.

Cookie-like art © Vincent X. Kirsh for Gingerbread for Liberty.
Cookie-like art © Vincent X. Kirsh for Gingerbread for Liberty.

Thanks to Firefly Bookstore, Kutztown’s hoppin’ indie bookshop, Mara’s Gingerbread for Liberty launched at KU’s PA German Heritage Center. That location made sense as her picture books are grounded in history and geography. We got a sneak peek at her newest picture book, Mesmerized. It recounts a duel of wits in Paris between Ben Franklin and Otto Mesmer.

Me and Momma and Big John. Cover detail © 2012  William Low
“Me and Momma and Big John” cover detail © 2012 William Low

Mara’s Me and Momma and Big John was illustrated by William Low.  The book is a loving tribute to the first woman stone-cutter working on NY’s Cathedral of St John the Divine. Low is also coming to the KU conference from his home near NYC. Low is one amazing painter, adept with both the traditional paint brush and now the digital tablet. The artwork for ‘Me and Momma’ is 100% digital, which surprised me.

William Low in his studio from www.wiliamlow.com
William Low in his studio from http://www.williamlow.com

You may already have a collection of William Low art in your home. He created the ‘Winter Flowers’ stamps for the U.S. Post Office.

Forever Stamps USPS by William Low.
Forever Stamps USPS by William Low.

Another New Yorker coming is illustrator Elijah Cooper. A Yale grad, Cooper parlayed his Ivy League education into a job as a go-fer at the New Yorker Magazine. He paints in a lyrical watercolor style that appears deceptively simple. His Beach won the Society of Illustrators Gold Medal. Dance! was a New York Times Best Illustrated Book of the Year. Other books include his memoir of fatherhood: Crawling: A Father’s First Year.

A small selection of his many picture books © Elijah Cooper
A small selection of his many picture books © Elijah Cooper

Cooper is the author/ illustrator of local favorites including Farm, A Good Night Walk, Magic Thinks Big, and Homer.

Farm, cover art © Elijah Cooper.
Farm, cover art © Elijah Cooper.

Booklist said this about Farm: “Most picture books about farms tend to be slapstick animal adventures rather than realistic views of daily life. Cooper’s latest fills that gap with a quiet, atmospheric portrait of a farm through the seasons.”

Young Adult Novels by Gary D. Schmidt.
Young Adult Novels by Gary D. Schmidt.

I’ve been on the lit conference committee all 17 years. One of my specialties is logistics, meaning I pick up authors at airports, or walk the illustrators from the Bieber Bus station. The committee thanks me profusely, but I really enjoy it. I will pick up Gary D. Schmidt at the airport when he arrives from Maine. I admitted to my colleagues that I was unfamiliar with his work. My Bad, his Wednesday Wars is a Newbery Honor winner and a fave of the committee. I went over to Rohrbach Library to find his books. Guess what? I found a literary bio he wrote about Robert McCloskey, of Make Way For Ducklings fame.

From Make Way For Ducklings © Robert McCloskey
From Make Way For Ducklings © Robert McCloskey

This may not be Schmidt’s most popular book, but I found it fascinating. I’d already read how Robert McCloskey drew real ducks on the floor of his Greenwich Village apartment. But according to Schmidt, he fed the ducks red wine to try to slow his models down!

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New books by Kutztown authors Lisa Kahn Schnell and Kevin McCloskey

Besides Mara Rockliff, two more local Kutztown authors will debut books at the conference. Lisa Kahn Schnell is author of High Tide for Horseshoe Crabs and Kevin McCloskey, (I just love him, -he’s me) will share his Toon Book, We Dig Worms!

The KU Children’s Lit Conference needs your support. The overall economy has improved since 2008, but Pennsylvania education funding has never rebounded. School districts no longer routinely reimburse teachers for professional development expenses, such as educational conferences. It’s easy to blame this on Gov. Corbett and Tea Party Republicans, but Gov. Rendell left PA with over a billion dollars in unfunded teacher pensions. Gov. Wolf says education is his top priority. Let’s hope so. We have enough prisons and casinos.

Illustration by Liz Kane, design and type by Prof. Elaine Cunfer.
Illustration by Liz Kane, design and type by Prof. Elaine Cunfer.

Kutztown University students can attend the April 18th conference for just $10. Teachers, librarians, authors, and other professionals need to pay $70 at this point. It promises to be an exciting event with top-notch speakers. Registration info can be found here.

Hansel and Gretel and Lorenzo and Neil

Lorenzo Mattotti with his original art for Hansel and Gretel
Lorenzo Mattotti with his original art for Hansel and Gretel.

Once upon a time, in 2007, The Metropolitan Opera staged Humperdink’s Hansel and Gretel.  Françoise Mouly, art editor for The New Yorker, helped organize an exhibition at the opera house based on the fairy tale. Contributors included stellar New Yorker cover artists including Roz Chast, Jules Feiffer,  Anita Kunz, Christoph Niemann, Gahan Wilson, and Lorenzo Mattotti.  Mattotti, one of Italy’s most important contemporary graphic artists, contributed a series of large-scale india ink drawings.

All images from toonbooks.com
All images from toonbooks.com

Pictures Came First: Françoise Mouly is also publisher and art director of the influential line of children’s books, Toon Books. She shared Mattotti’s moody artwork with her friend, writer Neil Gaiman. She asked him to retell the tale first written down by the Brothers Grimm in 1812.

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Neil Gaiman, from Toon Book’s Facebook page.

Gaiman, best known for Coraline and The Sandman, took up the task. Gaiman told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour this tale of Hansel and Gretel, of lost children and starvation, resonates in 2014. He spoke of his recent tour of Syrian refugee camps, “talking to Syrian refugees who ran out of food, – telling me of getting permission from their imams to eat cats and dogs, – eating grass, – drinking swamp water. -This is Hansel and Gretel!” Full interview is here.

© 2014 Lorenzo Mattotti
© 2014 Lorenzo Mattotti

“…shadows crept out from beneath each tree and puddled and pooled until the world was one huge shadow.” There is a wonderful visual verbal synergy here. The cadence of Gaiman’s prose flows as swiftly and smoothly as Mattotti’s brushwork.

© 2014 Lorenzo Mattotti
© 2014 Lorenzo Mattotti

In April at MOCCAfest, the comics convention in NYC, I met with Françoise Mouly about a book I’m working on with her. (More on that another day.) She shared with me the proof of Hansel and Gretel. The black and white printouts were neatly folded, fastened together with scotch tape. I held it in my hands and looked at Mottotti’s art for the first time. I found the images remarkably powerful, but not what I expected of a Toon Book. Toon Books are all different, but generally made in a colorful comic book style, with panels and word balloons. Mouly explained Toon Books was branching out with a new line, Toon Graphics.

© 2014 Lorenzo Mattotti
© 2014 Lorenzo Mattotti

She asked me what I thought of the book. I told her it was quite beautiful and I expected it would be a great success. That was an understatement. Gaiman recently read Hansel and Gretel to a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall. The book hasn’t even been released yet and it is already in its third printing. Variety reports Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey and Juliet Blake bought the movie rights to the book.

© 2014 Lorenzo Mattotti
© 2014 Lorenzo Mattotti

The NY Times gave Hansel and Gretel a glowing review. Gaiman said it was the best review of his career. Mouly said it took her breath away: Written with a devastating spareness by Neil Gaiman and fearsomely illustrated in shades of black by Lorenzo Mattotti, the newest version of “Hansel and Gretel” astonishes from start to finish. It doesn’t hurt that the book itself is a gorgeous and carefully made object, with a black floral motif on its pages’ decorated borders, along with red drop caps and tall, round gray page numbers. (Published by Toon Books, the New Yorker art director Françoise Mouly’s venture into richly illustrated books for children, it comes in two formats, with an oversize one that includes an afterword about the evolution of the tale.) Their rendition brings a freshness and even a feeling of majesty to the little tale.” -NY Times. The full review can be seen here.

© 2014 Lorenzo Mattotti
© 2014 Lorenzo Mattotti

Hansel & Gretel is being released Oct.28. For more info, including video interviews with Gaiman and lesson plans based on the book visit Toon Books here. Near NYC? Lorenzo Mattotti is flying from Europe to visit McNally Jackson Books, 52 Prince St, NYC on Sat, Nov.1. He’ll read from the book and share how he makes his pictures. Details here.

A Man of Few Words: DAVID WIESNER

from Tuesday © David Wiesner
from Tuesday © David Wiesner

The great children’s book illustrator Davis Wiesner (WEEZner) came to Kutztown to talk at the 16th annual KU Children’s Literature Conference. The 3-time Caldecott Award winner visited a Communication Design class to share his art and creative process.

David Wiesner sharing his work with Kutztown University students.
David Wiesner sharing his work with Kutztown University students.

Oddly enough, he considered attending Kutztown University but was put off by our art test used in our admission’s process. Instead he attended RISD, Rhode Island School of Design, where he studied with great illustrators including David Macaulay.

March 1989 Cricket cover by David Wiesner
March 1989 Cricket cover by David Wiesner

One of his illustration jobs after college was a cover for the kids’ magazine Cricket. He said he always enjoyed the art school assignments that were the most vague, and this magazine assignment was wide open. The editor said there were several stories about frogs in the issue. Once he began sketching, he discovered, to his great delight, the shape of a frog centered on a round lily pad resembled the classic flying saucer seen in cheesy 50’s science fiction films.

From Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, 1956, © Columbia Picures
From Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, 1956, © Columbia Picures

His cover was a hit and David was inspired to take the imagery further into a full 32-page children’s picture book. The resulting nearly wordless book, Tuesday, won the Caldecott Medal for the best U.S picture book in 1992. David shared his four stage process of book creation. Stage 1: Storyboard, rough little pencil thumbnail sketches of all pages that will appear in the book. Stage 2: a dummy book, or prototype made to the same scale as the final. Stage 3: Detailed drawings for each page.

Stage 2 and 3: dummy, then finished drawing © David Wiesner
Stage 2 and 3: dummy, then finished drawing © David Wiesner

Compare the dummy to the final drawing and you will notice the houses are a lot more detailed. This is because at Stage 3 he gets serious about his image research. In this case, he found photos of homes in Provincetown, Mass, to serve as models from the neighborhood under aerial amphibious attack. He also constructs clay models like the frog below to help him envision the final image.

model by D. Wiesner
Frog model by David Wiesner

Stage 4: is the final exquisite watercolor painting. For Tuesday he used traditional transparent watercolor, (no black or white gouache) applied with kolinsky sable brushes. He makes his own low-tech graphite carbon paper to transfer his finished drawing to stretched Arches cold press watercolor paper.

Detail from Tuesday © by David Wiesner
Detail from Tuesday © by David Wiesner

This was a wonderful opportunity for our KU students to interact with one of the great masters of the childrens’ picture book. David Wiesner is a very busy artist. He is working simultaneously on two big projects now: an interactive tablet-based tale, and his first full-blown graphic novel. The graphic novel is a collaboration with writer Donna Jo Napoli. It has an octopus in it; I can’t say any more.

David’s own web site, www.davidwiesner.com  has much more information about his creative process. I was especially blown away by his step-by-step documentation of the development of one single page from his picture book, Art & Max.

Kate Santee, Illustrator and Roller Girl!

Kate Santee in Kutztown T center, racing against Jerzey Brigade photo © by Tom Gaylord.
Kate Santee in the Kutztown tee, racing against Jerzey Brigade photo © by Tom Gaylord.

Speaking of curious networking, another KU grad, Kate Santee, tells me she got to illustrate a book through folks she met in her role as roller derby racer! Kate recently illustrated a chapter book for young readers. First in a series, Silly Nomads From Palmerston Close is written by Jan L. Lewis and Marcus Mohalland. 

Cover art by Kate Santee © 2013 Mohalland Lewis, LLC
Cover art by Kate Santee © 2013 Mohalland Lewis, LLC

Kate’s freelance design work has been picking up. I asked about roller derby and she was good enough to explain the sport.  “I logo1still skate with the Lehigh Valley Rollergirls.  We play home bouts at Independence Family Fun Center in Schnecksville. I usually play as a blocker, whose job is to prevent the other team’s jammer from getting through the pack. The jammer’s job is to lap the other skaters in a pack, and they score points for each skater from the opposing team that they pass.” 

On the Lehigh Valley RollerGirl site I learned Kate Santee, a former KU honor student was chosen as November’s  “Rough and tumble player of the month” and she is part of the “Special Vixens Unit.”

Silly Nomads?

Silly Nomad illustration by Kate Santee ©
Silly Nomad illustration by Kate Santee © Mohalland Lewis

Kate wrote, “One of the authors is an acquaintance of a woman I skate with; she gave him my business card, and he sent me an inquiry through my website. The project was originally going to be one book, but the authors decided it would be more appropriate for their target audience to make it a series of three shorter books. I’m currently working on the second book and intend to illustrate the whole series.” 

The Silly Nomads are two Jamaican brothers who get into a series of misadventures when they decide to live like desert nomads. My favorite episode occurs when the boys decide they need a cardboard tube from a roll of toilet paper. Mother must have already disposed of the tube, so the boys proceed to flush an entire roll of toilet paper down the toilet.

The clogged toilet episode drawn by Kate Santee © Mohalland Lewis 2013
The clogged toilet episode drawn by Kate Santee © Mohalland Lewis 2013

Book signing in Bethlehem, PA on Dec 20

Silly Nomads is available on Amazon. Or better yet, if you’d like a signed copy, Kate Santee and both authors, M. E. Mohalland and J. L. Lewis will be at Bethlehem’s famed Moravian Bookshop, Fri. Dec. 20 from 4-6pm.  If you can’t make the signing, the Moravian Bookshop will likely have copies on hand for Christmas gifts.

BIG SNOW in Kutztown, PA -Dec.6

All art in the post © Jonathan Bean
All art in the post © Jonathan Bean

Jonathan Bean now lives in Harrisburg, PA, but he grew up in Fleetwood and so, of course, he has often been in Kutztown. The gifted illustrator and author is returning Kutztown to share his new picture book Big Snow at Firefly Bookstore, Friday, Dec 6th from 6-8pm.

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Big Snow has wonderful reviews. Publisher’s Weekly writes “another terrific offering from Bean   -his subtly rhythmic prose and elegant, astute watercolors hit just the right notes of comedy, suspense, and fantasy.”

“This delightful picture book… begs to be read aloud.” – School Library Journal

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The town pictured in Big Snow looks a lot like Kutztown. We see lovely watercolor images of familiar-looking row houses, several Lutheran church steeples, the smokestacks from the old foundry. Matthew Williams of Firefly Books pointed out the most conclusive evidence, “Look at the water tower,” he said, “and you will see the letters ‘K U T Z’!

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Jonathan Bean’s prints can be seen in Harrisburg at Robinson’s Rare Books and Prints. He also sells prints at his online Etsy store. One of his charming works is the limited edition linoleum print of the Big Snow boy.

Firefly Bookstore, 230 W. Main, Kutztown is a wonderful place, a true independent bookstore, supportive of local authors and illustrators. I love the place. Meet Jonathan Bean there 6 – 8 pm on Friday, December 6th. There will be children’s activities and cookies.

Note: Lisa Scheid of The Reading Eagle wrote an interesting story about Jonathan. It is worth reading and can be found here.