Category Archives: writing for children, writing process, picture books, musc and writing

The Story of Little Wolf

Every book has its origin story. For Little Wolf’s First Howling, which launches April 11, that story begins and ends with collaboration and play.

In November 2014 John and I found out we were going to be grandparents. We bought a wolf puppet for the expected baby and were goofing around with it on the drive home when Little Wolf started howling with an Ella Fitzgerald-inspired vibe. We cracked each other up, so I tried working some of our play into a picture book text. John and the puppet were my first collaborators on Little Wolf.

But it is my sister Kate Harvey McGee whose name is beside mine on the cover. Kate gave the illustrations their luminous color. So I thought I’d give over my blog post today to some thoughts about what made our collaboration so much fun.

First, we have history. Kate and I are the third and fourth children in a family of five kids: four girls and (finally) a boy. We shared a bedroom most of our childhoods and spent lots of time coloring together, redecorating our room, making up stories with our stuffed animals and getting in trouble for laughing when we should have been going to sleep.

In the year I was a senior and she a freshman at Sonora High School, we worked together every week before home football games painting a huge Wildcat head that was leaned up against the goal posts for the football team to burst through as they took the field. That’s the last time we made art together.

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Until September 2015 when she agreed to provide the color for Little Wolf.

To backtrack a little — Candlewick Press editor Katie Cunningham and art director Heather McGee offered to publish Little Wolf in July 2015. Heather talked to me about the challenges of printing a book that takes place at night; a book with so much black. She explained that instead of the usual CYMK four plate process, this book would be printed CYMKK, two black plates. In other words, I would need to provide the black and the colors on two separate layers.

Since the artwork had to be in two layers, I knew just who I wished would do the color. About ten years ago my sister Kate turned her talents from landscape architecture to plein air painting with pastels.

I love her work, especially her sense of color and composition.

Little Wolf takes place at night in the wilds of Yellowstone, I could imagine how Kate would paint that light and beauty.

We made samples to show Katie and Heather what we had in mind. In November 2015 they welcomed my sister Kate on board.

One more hurdle: Kate and I would both have to learn Photoshop to make this work. (Much thanks to Kevan Atteberry for helping me with this.)

Five months of intense artmaking began. I created the black layer a conventional way, painting with white paint and black ink in gouache resist technique. This I scanned and adjusted in Photoshop, then emailed to Kate who lives near Corvallis, OR.

Also working in Photoshop, Kate created a pastel palette and “painted” the colors in layers under the black layer.

Every time she sent back a spread, I would open the file with bated breath. Every time it was a revelation.

Collaborating with Kate was fun because we trust what each of us brings to the table. We share a similar aesthetic. It was fun to be making something together and good to have each other’s advice to figure out when a piece was done.

Mostly we worked each in our own studios, but twice we met to work side by side. Once for a magical weekend at Arch Cape on the Oregon coast, where the nights were starry and the days sunlit. And once in Seattle as we wrapped up the project. We turned in the interior art April 2016.

Then began the design for the cover. Color proofs one and two. ARCs. Gratifying reviews (three stars!).

This story that began while playing with a wolf puppet grew to carry the truth about the importance of singing your own song – as well as the joy of singing with one you love.

YOU ARE INVITED

The launch of Little Wolf’s First Howling, Tuesday April 11, 7 pm at Secret Garden Bookshop in Ballard, 2214 NW Market St., Seattle. Come help us wolf down refreshments and howl along with family and friends to string bass accompaniment. Feel welcome to bring your pack.

Also – Special Storytime April 12 at 11 am. at University Bookstore, 4326 University Way NE, kids department.

p.s. One more collaborator — As part of my ongoing effort to include Izzi in as many blogposts as possible, here she is posing for reference for Big Wolf on the cover.

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How I Spent National Children’s Book Week

You can spot Charlie’s Corner bookstore in San Francisco’s Noe Valley by the line up of strollers on the sidewalk out front. Five times a day they serve up storytime delights to an SRO audience of kids and their caretakers.

Our two-year old grandson is a regular on the mushroom stools there and each time we visit we are blown away by a program that includes books and puppets and music, usually led the proprietor, Charlotte Nagy aka Charlie. There’s this sense of community: storytime begins with a song that welcomes each child by name. And love of books: each book is read in “voices” that fully animate the text.

From a perch on a mushroom stool, I had dreamed that Little Wolf’s First Howling might someday be part of a Charlie’s Corner storytime. So I asked Candlewick, my publisher, if we could line up a reading when the birth of our second grandson prompted another visit to San Francisco.

Unbeknownst to me, Charlie had already picked up on Little Wolf’s scent. She was reading an advance copy at storytimes, howling along with kids to it several times a day. Charlie dons her own wolf headgear for the readings. She told us every howling session is different, depending on the “wolves” any given day.

My visit was smack dab in the middle of National Children’s Book Week. When I met Charlie, she greeted me with, “We love your book.” Turns out she had hoped that the author of Little Wolf would come to visit all the while I was hoping to be a visitor. We decided to split up the reading. She took the part of Little Wolf, reading his howls with gusto and panache.char corner_3

Charlie suggested we finish up with You are My Little Wolf (to the tune of You are My Sunshine). My grandson Emmett stepped forward to strum the ukulele as I played the chords. Yet another dream come true. Altogether my favorite celebration of Children’s Book Week ever. Thanks to all the Charlie’s Corner gang – Elise, Christine, Katharine, Jeffrey, and Tiffany, and most especially to Charlie herself – for a howling good time.

LISTEN

I spent a lot of time playing the ukulele in 2015, including ukulele camp at Fort Worden where one of my teachers was Aaron Keim. Aaron and his wife Nicole form the duo The Quiet American, picking and singing their way through the folk Americana songbook. He’s a gifted teacher, too. While leading us through his transcription of John Fahey’s Sunflower River Blues, he advised: “By the time you start working on a piece, you should listen to it so much that it is already living in you.”

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The duo called The Quiet American: Nicole and Aaron Keim of Hood River, OR

I like that idea: listen until it is living in you. I know how that feels for a song and also for a story. In fact, I think songs and stories dwell in the same heartful place.

It is a mysterious process, bringing a story into the world. You head out with a few phrases, a character maybe, a situation. You tell yourself your story, imagine it into the world scene by scene. Pretty soon, if you listen closely, that story you are making begins to make itself, you meet anew the story that has been living in you.

I know I am not alone in this way of looking at the writing process. Back in the early 2000s when I was teaching at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Katherine Paterson often came by. She told us that after a certain point in drafting a novel, she feels her attention switch from generating characters and plot etc. to listening to the story that is already on the page, and shaping the book as that material dictates.

My sister Kate McGee, who is a pastel painter in Philomath, OR, is collaborating with me on illustrations for LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING. I ran this listening idea by her. She said she comes to a point in every painting where, if she pays attention, it starts bossing her around in its effort to become what it is meant to be.

We talked about this while looking at the black and white layer I’d just painted for one of the spreads. We were both listening and paying attention to what the piece still needs. I will make the changes digitally, then email that layer to Kate so she can add the color. We are new to using Photoshop for our artwork and are swimming upstream – but how fun to work together on a project!

And it’s great to have another pair of ears to listen as we find our way through the woods.

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Final spread for Little Wolf’s First Howling, due out from Candlewick Press in 2017.

(to hear The Quiet American play Sunflower River blues on the ukulele click here)