Archive for October 2009

The Striking Viking Story Pirates

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SVSPlogoPirates pillage, plunder and sail the seven seas but beware-these swashbucklers now steal your children and turn them into…storytellers! The Striking Viking Story Pirates is a non-profit group of adult actors who perform musical sketch comedy based entirely on stories written by kids. The Story Pirates offer an in-school creative writing and drama workshop series, called the Play/Write Program that has lead to the award-winning sketch comedy show performed every Saturday at The Drama Book Shop in New York City. The show features the group’s “Greatest Hits” comprised of the funniest songs and story adaptations performed in the outrageous spirit of Saturday Night Live.

The Story Pirates’ Saturday show turns The Drama Book Shop into a miniature Broadway boasting a photograph Wall of Fame dedicated to the kids behind the stories personalized by hand-scrawled autographs. The show is hosted by pirate puppet, The Striking Viking and begins with the catchy rendition of The Day My Head Got Stuck In a Bar Stool about a young boy who follows his dog’s lead which begs the question of “why would you do what a dog does” from his exasperated parents.

The adult cast is a hilarious ensemble that’s able to mix handcrafted costumes and at times, even genders, to 100_5345capture the unadulterated wonder of children’s imagination.  The Story Pirates appeals to the humor of both kids and parents alike as evidenced in the musical about the miracle of money sprouting on a boy’s head in “Money Head Allan”. The boy comically panics at his discovery while fleeing the clutches of money-grubbing Goldman-Sachs. The Story Pirates is highly entertaining and interactive allowing both the brilliance of the cast and the impressive talent of the children, to truly shine.

Story Pirates, produced by Jamie Salka, first introduced its program in 2003 and has primarily been showcased in the tri-state area. It has recently taken to the road in a national tour spanning ten states in three weeks. I caught up with Jamie shortly after he returned from the tour to learn more about the story behind the ‘Pirates’ and its treasure trove of kids’ tales.

Please tell me about how The Story Pirates came to be.
JS: Story Pirates grew out of a theatre company that me and my friends were apart of at Northwestern. Our goal was to create theatre for kids that didn’t feel like children’s theatre. We were trying to create something that was not only non-condescending but also something that was genuinely entertaining for both children and adults.

100_5350How did Story Pirates expand to now, a 100 story pirates?
JS: It just really started to build over the last five years. We started out with a cast of 12 actors and we started with a pilot program at a public school in Harlem. That was the first year. Last year, we were at over 100 schools around the country and it has steadily built over time.  We have not spent a lot of money on marketing. What happens is, one teacher has talked to another. One principal has called another. Parents come to see our show at the Drama Book Store and they call their relatives and they call their friends and  they tell them about it. It grows by word of mouth.

Tell me about how the workshops work. If a school contacted you, where you go from that point?
JS: The program we are most well known for is the public “Play/Write” program. The word “play” and the word “write”. It’s really a combination of those two things. When we go into a school, we present a three-part process. The first is a “greatest hits” version of our sketch comedy show, followed by a series of writing workshops, followed by two story performances featuring stories that kids have written in the writing workshops. The greatest hits show is a series of 8-10 of some of the funniest sketches we found from kids all around New York and all around the country. It’s intended to allow the students to get excited about their own imagination and the possibilities for stories that they want to write. It’s intended to inspire and entertain them and prepare them to create their own story. We try to capitalize on the excitement that the show built by teaching a series of writing workshops shortly after the greatest hits. The writing workshops can last anywhere from a series of four workshops over four days or four class periods to a series of 12 workshops over the course of a semester. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we can have a residency for an entire year. Then we have a culmination of all the writing that the kids have done and a celebration of the work we’ve created.

What are some of your favorite stories that kids have submitted?
JS: It’s almost a trick question. In my heart, I have loved every story that a kid has ever submitted to us. We really believe that 100_5359every kid has a story to tell and that every kid’s ideas are worth hearing. It’s our philosophy that Story Pirates is not a writing contest. I certainly have stories which I think have made terrific adaptations. There is a story called The Day That I Got My Head Stuck in a Bar Stool that is one of the quintessential Story Pirate stories that we perform at almost every school we visit.  It’s a story that we’ve been doing since the beginning of Story Pirates. It’s so funny. It’s our opening number and there are schools that we’ve been going to now for five, almost six years. When we go into these schools and perform the song, the kids are screaming the lyrics along with us and they’re dancing the choreography along with our actors.

What are some things that you’ve learned about children since you started Story Pirates?
JS: The lesson that we keep learning is how smart these kids are. How powerful their imaginations are. How sensitive they are to the world around them and how original they are as writers. When you take kids seriously and give them an opportunity to really express their words and ideas, it is amazing how far they can go.

100_5344Tell me a bit about the Ranger’s Apprentice National Tour.
JS: We were approached by Penguin Books Young Readers Group. They had seen our show and were trying to put together an authorless book tour. The Ranger’s Apprentice is a wildly popular young adult book series and the author, John Flanagan, is in Australia. We wanted to do a different book tour so instead of bringing John out from Australia, they asked Story Pirates if we would create a show based on the Ranger’s Apprentice book series. We said that we would take the assignment on the condition that we could create a show that was really interactive-that was based on participation from the kids in the audience. The kids would be really shaping the show. We ended up creating a piece that is very much based on the first book in the Ranger’s Apprentice series but is never the same from show to show because the kids in the audience create the experience.

The Ranger’s Apprentice series starts off with a section about tests and challenges that these young apprentices are put through in order to figure out who will be their mentor and who they will apprentice for. We created a show where kids from the audience volunteer and that our brought up on stage and subjected to challenges where they either have to prove their strength or prove their intellectual ability in front of an audience. It really honors the kids in the audience. Any kid who is watching and, particularly the kids who are brought up on stage to go through the tests and challenges, are appreciated in front of a big group of people for their own ideas.

Thanks to Jamie Salka and The Story Pirates for inviting me to one of their fabulous shows and to Optivion for the fantastic photos!

Written by corvusblue

October 30, 2009 at 6:33 am

Harry and Horsie

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3587232470_5d181e8f74Harry and Horsie is an intergalactic journey of stellar friendship. After a restless night, Harry and his plush friend, Horsie, seek out the Super Duper Bubble Blooper. The Blooper’s bubbles freely flow until suddenly, they begin to buoyantly carry everything in their wake-including Horsie! As Horsie floats further into space, Harry sports his best cosmonaut gear and races his rocket towards the stars. Author Katie Van Camp‘s weightless and fluid story is colorfully complimented by illustrator, Lincoln Agnew‘s retro graphics. The “blooping” of Harry’s toy and the “zoom” of his atomic rocket splash across the pages in cosmic comicbook imagery. Van Camp’s story is an ode to every kid’s wish for a space odyssey which Agnew wonderfully renders in the poster art spirit of 1950’s sci-fi. Harry and Horsie shows that facing the final frontier may be a feat but going to the ends of the universe for a friend is truly heroic.

Harry and Horsie Collage

Written by corvusblue

October 27, 2009 at 5:41 am

Going to the Halloween Extreme with Tom Nardone

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Tom NardoneExtreme is the outrageous brainchild of Halloween maestro, Tom Nardone. Extreme takes pumpkin carving to the next level-where hand drills put the super in “super gooper scooper” and a dremel puts the cheap, chip carver to shame. Nardone’s demonstrated use of power tools and pyrotechnics has inspired a whole legion of quirky, pumpkin designers and has lead to his wildly popular book, Extreme Pumpkins. Nardone’s successful “diabolical do-it-yourself” designs are also featured in the sequel Extreme Pumpkins II and continues with other Halloween hijinks in the recently released, Extreme Halloween. Tom has been featured on Conan, Regis and Kelly, The Travel Channel, Good Morning America, The History Channel, and MTV.

How did you get into Extreme Pumpkin carving?
TN: Every Halloween, I’d carve a pumpkin-or three or four-for my porch. I’ve always tried to scare kids. I lived in this neighborhood outside of Detroit-it was the first safe neighborhood outside of Detroit. So, people that lived in Detroit who had kids would literally pile ten kids into a minivan and drive them up to the neighborhood that I lived in. We’d get about a 150 trick-or-treaters a night. When you did something festive, like carve pumpkins, the kids really loved it because they were from Detroit and didn’t really have any neighborhood of their own. So, I started to carve Pumpkin Monsterpumpkins and one day, decided to see if I could do it with power tools. Between my buddy Matt and I, we have every power tool in the universe so we tried everything we had. While we were trying the different tools, I decided that I had to make a website out of it and called it Extreme Pumpkins.

So, what ideas are in your latest book, Extreme Halloween?
TN: It has all sorts of Halloween ideas like crazy costume ideas but not elaborate ones.  More like lazy, last minute ideas.  There are a million people out there who can create some sort of costume idea that no one has seen before but it takes a thousand hours to create. This book just keeps it simple. It also has suggestions for decorating your house, ways to scare kids when they’re trick-or-treating and recipes-how to make silly foods and drinks.  There are also some large pumpkin sculptures to display on your lawn like a scorpion.  One of my favorite parts of the books is the section on ways to scare kids who are trick-or-treating which I call “Candy Traps”.

Nardone-ScarecrowWhat’s an example of a “candy trap”?
TN: There’s one that’s called The Dark Doorway. It’s real easy. You open your door all the way and then you take black fabric-two pieces-and tape them up in the doorway.  At nighttime, without much light on the porch, it will look like the door is open and the kid is just looking into a dark, empty house. You stand right behind the dark fabric and then stick your head between the two pieces of fabric so that it looks like your head is popping out of nowhere and then you yell, “Rah!”. It scares the bejeezus out of them, especially if you’re wearing a mask.  Another one that I make is called the “Trash Barrel”.  You just take a trash barrel-a new one, not a smelly old one-although I suppose if you had the stomach for it, you could use an old one.  Then I cut it up, to make a sort of  transformer suit out of it which you can crouch down into it. When you crouch down, it looks just like a trashcan. So, you have your accomplice-in my case, it’s my wife-handing out candy to the kids that come to the door.  The “trashcan” is posted near the door. So, the kids run up and get the candy from my wife. As they’re leaving, they’re busy looking at their bags to see how full it is.  Then, all of the sudden, someone jumps up where there was no one before and screams. And THEY FREAK OUT! Then, they walk a few feet away and hide behind the bushes to watch the next group of kids be scared.  You can easily scare 100 kids in a night.

Do you have any upcoming appearances or book signings?
TN: I’m doing some book signings but they’re mainly in Michigan. I do some paid gigs but there are only a few of those.  The TV appearances usually start to book up around the beginning of October. Last year, was Regis and Kelly and Conan O’Brien.

How was that?
TN: It was awesome! I love to go to those things. They treat me great. They’re always super receptive to any ideas that I have and they think it’s funny.  I think it’s hilarious because you’re on the show with real stars. You’re on backstage with someone like one of the Olsen twins and real celebrities and then, there’s me.  They ask me what I do and expect me to say something like, ‘I cure cancer’ but instead I respond with, ‘I carve pumpkins’.

I noticed that a lot of your friends help create some of the videos on Extreme Pumpkins. You have one group in particular called The Bump-n-Uglies. Who are they?
TN: One of them is a friend of mine who works for me and the other is his brother. They’re a tag team of wrestlers.  The name of Pumpkin Killmy website is called Extreme Pumpkins and by talking to me, I neither sound nor really am very extreme.  One time, I tried to record a video promo of myself saying, “This is Tom from Extreme Pumpkins!”. I looked back at it and thought, ‘you look like the biggest idiot in the world’.  This isn’t going to work. So, I figured out that I need to be the straight man and that I need a couple of clowns-colorful characters. The guy that works for me is a riot.

What other projects are you working on?
TN: I’m working on some ideas for a fourth book but it’s more of book about how to be a fun Dad.  I’m also trying to be a pumpkin ninja.  That’s my theme for this year’s activities.  I’m trying to mix the art of “ninjitsu” and pumpkin carving to see what I get. I make new pumpkin designs each year but what I think makes the website funny, is that I come up with new ways to carve the pumpkins.  This year, “ninjitsu” is the theme. I already bought a ninja costume and a sword on-line.

Are you going to embroider a pumpkin on it somewhere?
TN: I’ve made shirts with pumpkins on them before because if you go to the store to buy anything with a pumpkin on it, it looks like an old lady, beaded sweater or a giant pumpkin shirt. I made my own pumpkin shirt for when I went on Conan.  You know what-you know how ninjas wear headbands (I don’t think that they actually do), I’m going to make a pumpkin for the center of the headband.

You could get some pumpkin nunchucks.
Yeah, I ordered some nunchucks, too. They’re only  $6.99! I’m also going to do some video of my ninja carving technique.  If I’m seen flipping around, it’s all a camera trick.

Little Fictions: Interview with Teetering Bulb

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3-of-heartsThe art of illustrative duo, Teetering Bulb, feels like a watercolor spiral that is just hinting at the  beginning of a vaporous mystery. Kurt Huggins and Zelda Devon create provocative pieces of art that read like “little fictions” from their “pocket-sized apartment” in Brooklyn. They have worked for such clients as Realms of Fantasy, Scholastic, Inc., DC Comics and Wizards of the Coast and have been featured in Spectrum. Teetering Bulb are also the creators of webcomics; The Dreaded Question and King of an Endless Sky. Kurt and Zelda kindly took the time to share their thoughts on mandibles, serendipity and the nature of illustration.

1) Your website bio mentions that you collect ‘neat, weird things’. What was a recent weird thing(s) that you picked up?
It’s been a while since we’ve been able to add to the curiosity shop that is our house. We’ve been burdened with purchasing the practical. Although the practical does have it’s own charms: yellowed paper from hard to find art course books, the chipped paint of second-hand flat files, and the rich stain of an antique drafting table. Several months ago, while out acquiring some useful item, we ran into the carcass of a black lacquered whale. This piano appeared to have been thrown from the fourth floor of the adjacent brownstone. Luckily, the whale had suffered no fractures of the mandible, and with our house keys as screwdrivers, we freed the entire keyboard. Now our studio wall is adorned with a piano’s smile.

2) What and who inspires you?
Some of the books on the easy-to-reach shelf are a lot of the Golden Age Illustrators. Dead guys like J.C. Leyendecker, Dean Cornwell, Mead Schaeffer and N.C. Wyeth are a constant reminder of who we want to be when we grow up. We’re also big fans of Herbert Paus, Frank Brangwyn, Alphonse Mucha, Ivan Bilibin, Albert Dorne, and Austin Briggs. Then there’s a few of thedragon-egg2amazing Japanese printmakers including Kawase Hasui and Yoshida Hiroshi. Hidden artists of the animation industry, including Paul Felix, Nicolas Marlet, and Nathan Fowkes. I really could type my fingers into a pulp.

3) How did you begin your studio? Describe an average work day for you. First you wake up and then…
…we go back to sleep. Honestly, there doesn’t seem to be an average workday, it all shifts based on the demands at the time. We start around 11 in the morning and can often work till 2 or 3 am. Sometimes later if a deadline looms. The studio began accidentally. We both worked as graphic designers, but kept a blog of drawings and stories to keep our spirits up. By serendipity, a couple of folks stumbled across our work and asked if we would draw something for them. Two years later, we’re consumed by illustration full time.

4) What sort of mediums do you use and what would you like to experiment with more?
Everything is drawn in pencil and then scanned in to be digitally painted. While the computer is wonderful, I think we’d both like for the work to be finished with traditional materials. There’s a certain joy that comes from having a physical piece at the end of an assignment.

5) How do you work as a couple (how do you coordinate illustrations, etc.)?
I’ll let you know when we’ve figured that out.

justicars6) What are some current or upcoming projects that you’re working on?
Our big project right now is King of an Endless Sky for We’re also currently working on assignments for Godiva, Pearson Publishing, and DC/Vertigo comics.

7) What advice would you give illustrators who are just starting out professionally?
Make sure that you love what you do and be prepared to work very hard, and I mean coal miner hard. I’d also recommend moving to a city that is known for the type of work you want to do. Editorial, book covers, and advertising work seem to primarily happen in New York. Most Entertainment work happens in Los Angeles. While the internet supposedly allows you to work anywhere, I think you need to establish yourself at one of these hubs first. Most of our success probably hinges on us living in NYC. Also, it does seem to take anywhere between 3-5 years for an illustration career to fully blossom. Unless you’re lucky. If your auspicious days have yet to come, just keep going. Don’t give up. If you love what you do, chances are, other people will too.

Teetering Bulb Collage

There Be Monsters!

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Optivion won an er…ummm…surprise today from Quirk Books. It was a copy of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. I caught the exciting event as it unfolded….


Written by corvusblue

October 20, 2009 at 9:33 am

There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly

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MuttInk_OldLadyThere Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly is a repetitive folktale that puts a morosely funny spin on the food chain. Illustrator and designer, Jeremy Holmes, embodies the ‘old lady’ in a lanky book that reveals her gastronomic journey through the pages of her torso. After absurdly consuming one creature too many, the old lady (“she dies, of course”!) meets her end, still clutching a fly swatter against her ornate fly pendant. The last page ends with the old lady’s bespectacled eyes closing. Each page is beautifully rendered in vintage detail of collage cut-outs and aged paper. Holmes’ highly original interpretation of the old folktale breathes new life into an otherwise grim story. His found object design heightens the old coot’s quirkiness and makes a book that is as much a showpiece as it is a story. Perhaps we’ll never know why the old lady swallowed the fly but Holmes certainly gives us a fascinating incentive to find out.

  • Reading level: Ages 4-89780811867931_large
    Hardcover: 18 pages
    Publisher: Chronicle Books
    Language: English
    ISBN-10: 0811867935

Written by corvusblue

October 18, 2009 at 10:50 pm

On a Dark, Dark Night

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Dark Dark lrg for PSPsiteOn a Dark, Dark Night is told through the terrified eyes of a little boy and his cute companion, a pudgy pup, who awake to find a witch prowling throughout their house. In the true fashion of fear, the little boy and his faithful dog silently follow the witch from room to room as she threateningly towers above his siblings.  Author Jean M. Cochran’s rhythmic storytelling emphasized by the staccato sounds of fear-the “boom, boom, booming” of the heart and the “knock, knock, knock-ing” of knees-is a beam of light throughout the dark, dark night. Jennifer E. Morris cute illustrations capture the comical side of horror-where fright is really something familiar and where ‘witches’ would sooner cook you breakfast than eat you up. Morris also adds such clever details as robot sheets (where I can get a set?!) and an illusionary “Hooked on Fishing” hat. On a Dark, Dark Night is a lighthearted and lyrical tale that dissolves shadows into silly distortions and assures us that it’s still OK to hide under the covers.

Hardcover: 32 pages
Reading Level: Ages 4-8On a Dark, Dark Night
Pleasant St. Press
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1935025007

Written by corvusblue

October 17, 2009 at 8:00 pm

If You’re Reading This, It’s Already Too Late: Interview with Pseudonymous Bosch

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thenameissecretSecrets can be told behind closed doors. Secrets can be hidden in a handshake. Or a chocolate bar (as Bosch can probably attest to). Most secrets, though, are just dying to be told. Author and impostor extraordinaire, Pseudonymous Bosch, takes the dangerous plunge of narrating the mysterious adventures of Cass and Max-Ernest with The Name of This Book Is Secret illustrated by Gilbert Ford. Cass, a compulsive survivalist and her chatty chum, Max-Ernest, explore the cryptic origins of a box labeled The Symphony Smells. As their investigation ensues, they encounter a magician, secret societies, alchemy, some more secrets, and other things that would require me to suddenly leave the country, change my name to Bruhelda and quietly tend to sheep herding for the rest of my life. Bosch continues, with both fair warning and anguished forthcoming, the enigmatic exploration of Cass and Max-Ernest in If You’re Reading This Book, It’s Already Too Late and the resigned, This Book Is Not Good For You. “Only bad books have good endings” states Bosch however the notorious narrator reveals (after much chocolate bribery) that good beginnings can also make great books in the following interview.

1) When and how did the need for all this secrecy begin?
Hm, if I tell the secret story behind THE NAME OF THIS BOOK IS SECRET can we keep it just between you and the thousands of readers of your blog…? Very well.

The truth is, I first wrote the book in elementary school. Not as a student, alas, but as a volunteer. I was part of a program called Writing Partners wherein fourth and fifth-grade students were partnered with adults outside their school for the purpose of exchanging writing through the mail for “comment and critique.” As peers, writer-to-writer, you understand, rather than as grown up and child.

My writing partner, May, sent me poems, stories, and a terrific cartoon strip she’d drawn about a chocolate bar that was afraid of n271963being eaten. I didn’t have anything to send so I decided to write her a novel– but I couldn’t think of a title I liked, no matter how hard I tried. Well, maybe that’s because the name of this book is secret, I thought! Then I asked myself what the book should be about. The answer was obvious…a secret! I started by sending a few pages that I wrote under duress minutes before they were due.But May’s reaction (and the reaction of her friends) was so enthusiastic that I was soon sending larger installments, and I kept writing long after my volunteer stint was over.

A key feature of the program was that I was supposed to remain anonymous. Hence I became Pseudonymous Bosch. May, meanwhile, always signed WP May (for Writing Partner May), the name that appears on the dedication page of my book.

And the rest, as they say, is secret history.

2) You seem like a well-read fellow. What sort of books and things do you like to read about?
Books about chocolate, of course! My all time favorite being CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. (As you know, my third book, THIS BOOK IS NOT GOOD FOR YOU, is all about chocolate, and there are those who accuse me of stealing the idea for the book from Roald Dahl. But I prefer to call my book an homage.) I should say that I also quite like mysteries. Tonight, I plan to reread a few stories by Edgar Allan Poe in honor of the reenactment of his funeral.

3) What else would you be doing if you weren’t writing, reading, and keeping secrets?
Eating chocolate. Dark chocolate. Maybe cheese. Stinky cheese.

4) How did these books get published in spite of your warnings?
I will tell you this much: when I first met them, my publishers had a lot of fun with me by donning white gloves and pretending to be members of the Midnight Sun. (At least I hope they were pretending!) They gave me quite a scare. After that, I was willing to do anything for them…

9780316040860_388X5865) Have you ever been tempted to reveal your identity or come close to someone finding out who you are?
I will take the fifth here.

6) What other secrets and adventures are in store for Cass and Max-Ernest?
There is a not-so-secret secret pattern to the Secret Series. Each book concerns one of the five senses. Book 1, which features a box of scented vials called the Symphony of Smells, concerns the sense of smell. Book 2, which features a magical ball of sound called the Sound Prism, concerns hearing. Book 3 has the Tuning Fork and concerns taste–in particular the taste of chocolate. Book 4 I am working on now and I don’t want to give too much away. But it’s going to be called THIS ISN’T WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE and it concerns the sense of sight naturally. That leaves, you guessed it, touch for Book 5.

7) Where else will the…er, umm…impostor be appearing?
My spies tell me that the Impostor will next be appearing Wed Oct 14 at 4pm at MRS. NELSON’S TOY AND BOOKSHOP in La Verne, CA–about half hour from downtown LA. At the end of the month, I, er, I mean the Impostor!, will fly to Austin for the Texas Book Festival. There he is scheduled to appear with Jon Scieska and Rick Riordan on a Halloween panel about series writing…

Speaking of Halloween, if you don’t mind, I’d like to close by plugging a new book, HALF-MINUTE HORRORS, an anthology of very very short very very scary stories. My contribution is called THE ATTACK OF THE FLYING MUSTACHES and it’s creepy indeed. Proceeds from the sale of HALF-MINUTE HORRORS go to First Book, an organization that gives books to children in need. Readers can write their own half-minute horror stories and post them at –Boo!

All in a Day by Cynthia Rylant & Illustrated by Nikki McClure

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All in a Day Book CoverAll in a Day is like finding a fortune cookie planted beneath a sturdy oak tree.  “A day is a perfect piece of time to live a life” begins this lyrical tale by Cynthia Rylant which reaffirms the beauty of life through simplicity. Rylant’s grounded prose is illustrated by artist Nikki McClure’s craft of cut-paper prints. Stunning silhouettes of a young farm boy planting seeds and hand feeding a chicken capture the salt of the earth spirit that promises both the cycle and chance of life. All in a Day brings rain and broken things but it also gives hammocks beneath the warm sun and dandelion wishes flying across an expansive sky. Rylant’s story is a reminder that the day belongs to you. “So live it well and make it count”.

Hardcover: 32 pages Hang on to your hat

Abrams Books

Language: English


Reading level:
Ages 4-8

Written by corvusblue

October 11, 2009 at 7:36 pm

The Fortunate Events of Lemony Snicket Illustrator Brett Helquist

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bad-coverComics, chance and magazine covers culminated in the fortuitous success of illustrator, Brett Helquist. Brett is best known for (or worst known for if you-know-who had his way ) illustrating A Series of Unfortunate Events by the lugubrious Lemony Snicket.  From The Bad Beginning to The End, the series hesitantly tells the tales of the hapless Baudelaire orphans. Brett has also illustrated such 20th century classics as the Green Knowe Chronicles by L.M. Boston and the adventurous stories of literary legend, Leon Garfield. He has also captured the art of art scandal in Blue Balliett’s, Chasing Vermeer. In my first phone interview (yes, there is a person behind this machine), Brett and I discussed sharks, the lore of pirates and just how fortunate events can truly be.

1) What inspired you to draw growing up?
When I was young, my earliest memories of art were the daily comic strips in the local paper that my Dad got. I used to love those things. So, my first aspirations were to draw a comic strip but that never went very far (laughs). My favorite was Alley Oop. When I was young, art was hit and miss. It came and went for me. Sometimes, I did it obsessively and then other times, I wanted nothing to do with it. I think during my high school years, I didn’t have any interest in it at all. I was in my twenties before I ever committed to it seriously.

2) Did you ever try to do a comic for a newspaper?
Not for a newspaper. When I was young, for a short while, I was writing one of my own. It was about a family of sharks. Who knows where that came from. It was just something I did for my own pleasure.

3) What inspires you now?
Well, that’s tricky. I love images of all kinds. When it comes down to it, I just love a good picture. It doesn’t matter if it’s a photograph or painting or a drawing. I still go to the museums when I can and I look for a good comic book now and then. My biggest influences are my love of traditional, Asian art. Japanese and Chinese, especially. Also, the American illustrators from the Golden Age like Howard Pyle and N.C Wyeth.enemy-at-green-knowe

4) How did you promote and support your work when you first started out as an illustrator?
I got to New York on an internship and that kind of paid my way for a few months. That and some savings I had. I think the first effort on my own was the cover of the
Times Book Review. I thought that was it. I thought that was just going to shoot me right to the top and that was going to give me all the attention I would ever need (laughs). I think that it was close to a year later that I got my next job. Early on, (I don’t know if they still do this anymore) all the magazines, design houses and publishers had a day each week where they would take portfolio drop-offs. I just had four or five copies of my portfolio that I kept out at all times. I knew the schedule of when drop-off days were. When I was able to get money to print some mailing materials, I would send things through the mail. I just kept doing those things for several years and in the meantime, I had a job as a graphic designer to pay the bills. Over the years, jobs would start coming in every few months and then it would start to build from there. Then the Snicket books were published and the work really started rolling in. That was seven years after I had started.

5) How did you get involved with the Lemony Snicket series?
Well, I don’t think it was as exciting as most people want to hear. I met Tammy Shannon, an artist agent. She had expressed some interest in representing me and I wasn’t sure if I wanted an agent at the time. She asked if she could just show my portfolio around while I thought about it. I thought, there’s nothing I can loose. So I gave her my portfolio. A week or two later, she called me with a job illustrating two books by a new author. It was The Bad Beginning and The Reptile Room. I had never done a book before. I had been mostly doing editorial work. It was a book that made me laugh and a chance to illustrate a book which Vermeer-coverwas something that I had been wanting to do. So, I agreed to do it. I don’t think anybody knew what was to come.

6) How do you usually approach a new project?
Well, I read it first. It seems obvious but I know some illustrators who don’t. Even on a job where I’m just doing the cover, I read the whole book so I can really visualize the world. I pretty much work from my head. I don’t use reference much, so it has to be really vivid in my imagination. After I’m done, I go back and re-read it a little more carefully. During the second reading, I’m looking for image ideas. I usually scribble those down. They’re these cryptic, rough sketches that I have to notate because if I don’t, a day or two later, I can’t even tell you what they are. If a book is well written, everything should be there that you need.

7) You did a book that you both illustrated and authored called, Roger, the Jolly Pirate. How did that story come about?
The editor of The Unfortunate Events books told me that she wanted to do a picture book with me. Writing is kind of difficult for me. I struggled with it in school a lot. So, I had never fancied myself as a writer but she said that if you have an idea for a picture book, I can help you with the writing. I thought it was a chance to learn something and didn’t think it would end up being a book. So, I took a stab at it. I always loved pirate stories. My favorite book when I was young was Treasure Island. There was a period when I would only read Jolly-Roger-cover-scanpirate stories. So I thought, if I’m going to do a story, it should probably be a pirate story. I had never been able to find a very satisfying explanation for the why the [pirate] flag was called the Jolly Roger. It sounded like there needed to be a funnier explanation than the ones that the historians had come up with.

8 ) What other projects are working on and promoting this year?
I’ve got a second book that I’ve written and that I’m in the middle of painting called Bedtime for Bear. I did a picture book adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol which just came out. There’s a small novel by Neil Gaiman that I illustrated that’s just out in the stores call Odd and the Frost Giants.

9) Will you be making any appearances?
I will be doing a signing for the “Christmas Carol” book at the Books of Wonder on the 28th of November.