Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Now that he has more than two dozen books to his credit, Brian spoke at the Children's Book Guild of Washington DC about how he got his start and his latest book Moonshot which won a Sibert Medal in 2009. He, like many of us, got his start purely by chance. Brain was at The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) taking a class with David Macaulay. His teacher happened to be talking to Avi who had a new idea for a book and needed an illustrator, "Did Macaulay know any student who might be interested?" Yes, he did, and Avi and Brian became collaborators and the result was City of Light City of Dark which garnered a star in Publishers Weekly.
After that fortuitous and successful start Brian has never looked back. He told us that ever since early childhood in Texas that he had been encouraged to draw, especially by his mother who was a teacher. His father ran a soft drink bottling company and brought scrap paper home for him to draw on, so Brian always had a ready supply of materials. His fascination with vehicles showed up early and he had some slides to prove it. He drew other pictures including the characters that he saw on TV and would make his own books featuring characters like Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street. He loved dinosaurs and his favorite book was The Rise and Fall of Dinosaurs by Anthony Ravielli who ironically was really known for his golf illustrations not dinosaurs. Brain also loved books by Richard Scarry and Tolkien. In the latter, he was drawn to the maps and strategies that Tolkien presents to his readers. It appealed to that part of the brain that absorbs facts.
During his undergraduate years at Brown University, Brain created a comic strip. As an art major, he really loved telling stories through pictures and it wasn't until he went to RISD and started taking classes with great children's artists like David Macaulay that he found himself truly in his element. For him, discovering Harold and the Purple Crayon was an AHA! moment. As mentioned previously, when he met Avi, Brian did look at the manuscript, because at that time he was focused on midterms. Fortunately, thanks to David Macaulay, he was able to work on illustrations for the manuscript as a class project. His work with Avi did not end there as he then became the illustrator for the "Poppy" series.
As early as 1995 Brian was thinking about space program, and in particular the Apollo flights. He had a great job at the Office of Career services at Harvard where he worked part time answering phones and checking IDs. This left him time to read books about the Apollo missions and he spent time watching films, documentaries and just about anything he could find relating to the Apollo program. The program pulled at him - he found a sense of beauty, mystery and adventure about traveling into space. In essence, these astronauts were flying on a controlled bomb - going and doing things in a place where they had never been done before. He harkened back to Whitman's poem the Learn'd Astronomer. The mystical part really appealed to Brain and he signed up for an astronomy class. He summed up the Apollo program as "the best funded piece of performance art ever."
His interest finally became a book and in 2000, Brian wrote about Apollo 18. For those who may not remember that is the flight where they lost contact with Mission Control when they were the first to see the back of the Moon and then they showed the Earth on Christmas Day and read from Genesis in the Bible. His problem was that he had too much text. It was the same when he wrote Dinosaur at the Ends of the Earth which is really a picture book for older readers. He knew it was a problem, but really didn't take it into consideration in his book. Even though he had purchased a copy of a book detailing the exploits of the expedition, he did not include a reference in his source notes.
Luckily, his thesis advisor, another well known author illustrator, Emily McCully, worked with him and Brian began the process of narrowing down his text. He still had his great interest in the Apollo program and had a dream that he had missed the window for submitting a manuscript to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Moon landing. So he woke up and started doing more research. He offered an interesting bit of advice to nonfiction writers - after undertaking all the reading and research, wait five years and what you remember will be the main points worthy of inclusion in your book.
How does Brian work? He starts with his text, then scrawls and next builds sketches - really he has two different books - the drawings and the text. He has learned all about his subject matter and now he is ready to make a book. He sent a dummy of Moonshot to his editor and was given the green light to go ahead. Back Brian went into research - he wanted his artwork to be more original and to tell the story through his pictures that would be different that what previous author and illustrators had produced. Brian had everything from a Buzz Aldrin action figure on his shelf to trips to see Saturn rockets and the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM). The latter is one strange ship. NASA had put photographs and information up on the Internet and there was an incredible wealth of information to draw upon. For Brian little things became important, like getting the shadows right by using models and looking at NASA photographs. The decision of where to land on the Moon and when was a big issue because you want the Sun at your back. It was also important to figure out the page turns in his 48 page book. Through his art, Brian was able to introduce information that never appeared in the text such as a picture of the astronauts families.
For him, the most complicated part of explaining the mission was the transitioning. How the rocket separates and reassembles. His editor said of this section "it just doesn't sing." Time for revisions. Finally, Moonshot was finished and Brian got the first page proofs - his dream had become reality. He finally produced a nonfiction book that does indeed sing. His favorite part of the book is the lift off sequence. The real challenge was developing the cover. He showed his audience at least twenty variations. Brian said that he really had to fight to keep the back cover the way he envisioned it. The cover tells the story of what the book is about, but the publishers want to use the back to promote other books. Brian wanted it to be an integral part of the story and he won that battle.
Although Brian has quenched his thirst to produce a book about the Apollo program, but he is blogging about the other missions. Last year at the request of Neal Porter, he and Jan Greenberg combined their talents on a book about Appalachian Spring - a Ballet for Martha. In this case the text was prepared by someone else, but he had to make the pacing decisions. His research included sitting in and watching the Martha Graham dancers and taking photographs for future reference. One very interesting fact for me was learning that the dance premiered at the Library of Congress in the Coolidge Auditorium. This book is due out in the fall of 2010.
In Moonshot, Brain's choice of media was ink and watercolor with the black in acrylic and the stars were created in guash on hot press watercolor paper. He remarked on the process among the trio (editor, graphic designer) and his comment was "I want the director to be a fan," which is a direct quote from Tom Hanks which Brain feels is also applicable to creating a book. He is able to listen to the art director and take advice as he feels appropriate, but the author/illustrator usually has the last word. For example, in Moonshot, it was keeping the back cover the way Brian wanted it.
Brian is still working hard on nonfiction books and his next one will be about steam locomotives - who did what and facts including information about the transcontinental railroad.
Publisher and Editor