Last week I celebrated the publication of my debut children's picture book, WHAT COLOR IS NIGHT? Here is the story of how my first picture book came to be.
I've been a fan of picture books my entire life. One of the first books I loved was TUESDAY by David Wiesner. I still remember the wonder I felt when I opened the book for the first time. In just a few pages, I was lifted off the ground and transported on surreal flying lily pads. I was hooked.
I grew up. But I kept reading picture books. As an overworked dental student in my twenties, I would visit the Kansas City Public Library children's section and return home with a stack of books intended for children ages three to five. I was always paranoid a librarian would tap me on the shoulder and ask what I was doing there. This never happened, of course. Contrary to my imagination, most librarians are very nice people.
My first serious artistic pursuit was comics. Comics became my creative passion as well as a refuge from the long hours of studying the minutiae of teeth. But I still had a heart for picture books. Someday, I thought, I might try to write and draw one of my own.
In 2012, I was sure this time had arrived. Incidental Comics had an international audience and had been featured for the first time in the New York Times Book Review. I knew how to write. I knew how to draw. And now I had the final piece of the puzzle. My wife Kayla and I were expecting our first child. Now that I was a parent, I gave myself permission. I would write and draw a picture book!
Thirty-two pages. A few hundred words. A simple, clear story. Easy, right? It wasn't. Problem was, I only knew how to write and draw comics. Picture books were an entirely new mode of expression. Instead of stacking panels in rows, I was puzzling over spreads and page turns. Instead of telling a story through my semi-autobiographical cartoon avatar, I was creating stories with entirely new and unexplored characters.
Over the next couple years, I started sending rough drafts of books to my literary agent. She showed them to some editors. They were met with what I assume was a collective yawn. Still, I kept trying. I wrote a book about a timid rhino. I wrote another helpful snail. I tried dozens of characters and approaches. I wrote about precocious twins. A magic eraser. A tapir learning to ride a tricycle. They weren't bad, necessarily. But nothing quite clicked. I often felt as if I was trying to summon, say, the voice of Mo Willems or Shel Silverstein, rather than discover my own voice.
Eventually, a thoughtful and experienced editor took serious interest in my stories. We were close, I was sure, to a book. We went through multiple revisions. I was hopeful that this would be my first ever picture book to be published. By this time, it was 2018 - six years after the realization that I wanted to create a picture book.
As the time approached for a new revision, I had the ultimate opportunity for a creative breakthrough: a week in the mountains at the Spruceton Inn Artist Residency. For the first time in my creative career, I would have an entire week free from school, work, and family. I believed a week of solitude in a scenic mountain setting would solve all my creative frustrations. When I returned, I would have a perfect picture book draft no publisher could refuse.
|Spruceton Inn, photo courtesy of Casey Scieszka|
As you might have guessed, it didn't work out this way. The Catskills were beautiful - and covered in a ridiculous amount of snow. The week I stayed at the Spruceton Inn, there was nearly three feet on the ground. I took long walks in the woods, wishing I owned snowshoes. I stayed warm with good coffee and the company of my gracious hosts, Casey and Steven, and Jo, a fellow artist resident.
As for the writing? I was growing increasingly frustrated. Away from my work and family routine, I couldn't get into a good working rhythm. The unlimited creative time had a paralyzing effect on my brain. I would sketch a page, then stare out the window at the snow and wonder what I could find around my room to eat.
The week was not entirely a creative disaster. I read a couple poetry books by Ted Kooser, and I filled my sketchbook with observations from the train ride and my nature walks. The trip directly inspired a few of my weekly comics. But my picture book draft did not turn out perfect. And it was not met with an immediate offer for publication. I was even more artistically frustrated than when I started.
I returned home, thankful to be back with my family and my familiar routines. It was the beginning of spring in Kansas, far from the snowy mountains. I began walking around my neighborhood in the evening, sketching at nightfall, enjoying the warming weather. And I resumed waking up early and working on comics before going off to my day job as an orthodontist.
Less than a month later, I received an email. Ariel Richardson, a picture book editor at Chronicle Books, was intrigued by one of my recent comics, Night. She wondered if I'd consider doing a bedtime-themed picture book. A spark went off in my brain. Ariel's email arrived on a Friday. By Monday, I'd drawn and written a draft of what would become my first picture book, WHAT COLOR IS NIGHT?
Postscript: As for the book that tormented me in the snowy Catskills... I'm proud to say it will eventually become a book of its own (albeit in much different form). Look for MY WORDS on bookshelves next Fall.