See the Author / See the Illustrator

As most of us are aware, pic­ture book authors and illus­tra­tors sel­dom get to meet each oth­er. Cer­tain­ly not before a book is pub­lished, unless there are research points to check. 

Once in a while, a duo cre­ates sev­er­al books togeth­er and they get to know one anoth­er. We’re curi­ous about how that works. Meet David LaRochelle, author, and Mike Wohnout­ka, illus­tra­tor, of six books togeth­er (so far), three of which have become a series. How do an author and illus­tra­tor work on a series?

David LaRochelle
David LaRochelle
See the Ghost
See the Ghost
Mike Wohnoutak
Mike Wohnout­ka

Their most recent title is See the Ghost: Three Sto­ries about Things You Can­not See, pub­lished by Can­dlewick Press in July 2023 (978−1536219821). This fol­lows See the Cat: Three Sto­ries about a Dog (Theodor Geisel Award win­ner) and See the Dog: Three Sto­ries about a Cat. So now it’s a series!

When and how did the ghost tap you on the shoul­der, inspir­ing you to base the third book in the series on some­thing invisible?

David: Can­dlewick expressed an inter­est in a third book even before the first book was pub­lished. I knew that the book had to fit the for­mat of the first two, and I want­ed its title to con­tain a seem­ing­ly con­tra­dic­to­ry state­ment. I didn’t get very far with See the Sea or See the Sheep: Three Sto­ries about Scary Ani­mals, but when I came up with the idea of ask­ing read­ers to see some­thing that couldn’t be seen, I thought kids would find that funny.

Mike: David’s cre­ativ­i­ty nev­er ceas­es to amaze me. When he told me had an idea for a book in the series, I thought it would be some­thing like: “See the Mouse” or “See the Duck.” I was blown away by David’s idea of a sto­ry about things you cannot see. So clever.

What par­tic­u­lar chal­lenges did you have with this book?

David: Besides com­ing up with a new theme, the biggest chal­lenge for me was com­ing up with a third invis­i­ble char­ac­ter. A ghost and the wind felt like nat­ur­al choic­es, but beyond that, I was stumped. A thought? An invis­i­ble alien? Nei­ther of those felt right. I was grate­ful when I final­ly real­ized that the third char­ac­ter could be invis­i­ble sim­ply because it was so small. That’s when I jot­ted down the idea of a fairy named Trix­ie (although her orig­i­nal name was Teeny).

Mike: Draw­ing invis­i­ble things sounds like it would be easy, but there were some chal­lenges. For exam­ple, there were some scenes where so much was hap­pen­ing, such as when Max and Baby Cakes get blown around by a wind­storm dur­ing their pic­nic or when the Fairy releas­es a burst of mag­ic, that I strug­gled to depict all of this action on just the right hand side of the book. Final­ly it dawned on me that I could expand these illus­tra­tions onto the left hand side of the book that was usu­al­ly reserved for the nar­ra­tor. I don’t know why it took me so long to real­ize this, espe­cial­ly since I had used this tech­nique in the pre­vi­ous two books, but once I did, it gave me the room I need­ed to depict these moments as dra­mat­i­cal­ly as possible.

David, how many drafts of the man­u­script do you believe you went through before the final book? What tools do you use to make your revisions?

David: I didn’t real­ize there were so many drafts till I went back and checked my files! It began with a lot of brain­storm­ing in my sketch­book, which is also where I first sto­ry­board­ed the idea to see how com­fort­ably it filled 64 pages. Then I made a dum­my with sim­ple sketch­es out of fold­ed paper. After receiv­ing com­ments on the dum­my from Mike and my writ­ing group, I made a revised sec­ond dum­my which I sent to my edi­tor, Andrea Tom­pa. After hear­ing her com­ments, I made a third dum­my. And then we began the process of email­ing small­er changes back and forth until we reached the point of finess­ing tiny details, such as adding an extra “e” on “Wheee!” or chang­ing a punc­tu­a­tion mark. If I knew how many revi­sions a book was going to take, I some­times won­der if I’d be too daunt­ed to even begin!

David LaRochelle's sketchbook
Two pages from David LaRochelle’s sketchbook

Mike, do you have to revise your illus­tra­tions often dur­ing the process? If so, what tools do you use to make changes?

Mike: Of course there are always revi­sions. This usu­al­ly hap­pens dur­ing the sketch­ing stage. I work tra­di­tion­al­ly not dig­i­tal­ly. I use brown Pris­ma­col­or® pen­cils for the sketch­es and Acry­la® Gouache paint for the final art. When I’m done with all the pen­cil sketch­es I will scan them into my com­put­er and make minor adjust­ments to the sketch­es in Pho­to­shop. After assem­bling all the sketch­es and lay­ing out the whole book with the text in place, I will cre­ate a PDF port­fo­lio of the book and e‑mail it to the pub­lish­er. After a few weeks (or a few months, depend­ing on the pub­lish­er!) I will receive com­ments back from the art direc­tor.  If the revi­sions are small I can usu­al­ly make these changes in Pho­to­shop, but some­times they are big­ger and I will have to go back to the draw­ing board — literally!

Mike Wohnoutka sketch for See the Ghost
sketch © Mike Wohnout­ka for See the Ghost:
Three Sto­ries about Things You Can­not See
, pub­lished by Can­dlewick Press

Mike: Before cre­at­ing the final art­work, I will do lots of col­or stud­ies. This whole process helps insure few­er revi­sions dur­ing the paint­ing stage.

Mike Wohnoutka color study for See the Ghost
col­or sketch © Mike Wohnout­ka for See the Ghost:
Three Sto­ries about Things You Can­not See
pub­lished by Can­dlewick Press, 2023

David, because you have an estab­lished author/illustrator rela­tion­ship, do you con­fer more with your illus­tra­tor or your edi­tor? Is it help­ful to you to talk the book over with Mike as you’re working?

David: I con­fer more with Mike at the begin­ning of the process. He has an excel­lent sense of what makes a good sto­ry and I always lis­ten to his com­ments care­ful­ly. Once I begin work­ing with my edi­tor, I most­ly focus on her com­ments. Try­ing to sat­is­fy too many peo­ple can become frus­trat­ing. But when I checked my notes for this book, I saw that I was still run­ning a few changes past Mike even late in the game. Some­times hav­ing an extra voice telling me if I’m on the right track is the reas­sur­ance that I need!

Mike, because you have an estab­lished author/illustrator rela­tion­ship, do you con­fer more with your author or your art direc­tor? Is it help­ful to you to talk the book over with David as you’re working?

Mike: I feel David and I have become more and more col­lab­o­ra­tive with each book. David will show me the sto­ry and ask for my feed­back before send­ing his dum­my to the publisher.

With See the Ghost, I have to admit, I thought David’s idea might have been a lit­tle too cre­ative. I thought there was no way in the world Can­dlewick would ever pub­lish a book like this. For exam­ple, the cov­er idea of David’s orig­i­nal dum­my had noth­ing on it except a patch of grass. So, before we sub­mit­ted the sto­ry to the pub­lish­er, I sug­gest­ed adding Max and Baby Cakes to the cov­er and adding the pic­nic scene to the “Wind” story.

David and I always say our num­ber one goal is to cre­ate the best book pos­si­ble, and often­times this means let­ting go of our egos and lis­ten­ing to each oth­er’s suggestions. 

David, does writ­ing a series get eas­i­er or harder?

David: Both.

It’s eas­i­er because the for­mat, and at least some of the char­ac­ters, have already been established.

But it’s hard­er because it becomes more dif­fi­cult to come up with a fresh theme. I don’t want sub­se­quent books to feel like a rehash of the first one. And because the first two books were so well-received, there’s the chal­lenge of try­ing to meet the publisher’s (and our) expectations.

Mike, does illus­trat­ing a series get eas­i­er or harder?

Mike: As the illus­tra­tor, it’s def­i­nite­ly eas­i­er.  After illus­trat­ing the first book in a series you have so many things fig­ured out when you start on the sub­se­quent books. Like, how the char­ac­ters are going to look and the palette — what col­ors you’re going to use.

There are still chal­lenges, but these two BIG things are already established.

Thank you both for your can­did answers about work­ing as a pic­ture book team. I know you’re both work­ing on your next book, so we’re for­tu­nate to spend this time with you.

Two More Books in This Series
See the Cat
See the Cat
See the Dog
See the Dog
More Books on Which David and Mike Have Collaborated
This is NOT a Cat!
This is NOT a Cat!
How to Apologize
How to Apologize
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Heidi Hammond
9 months ago

The chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture world is a bet­ter place due to your col­lab­o­ra­tion! Thank you, David and Mike. And, thank you, Vic­ki, for this inter­est­ing interview.

Heidi Grosch
9 months ago

What a great idea for a sto­ry! Look­ing for things you can­not see is also a step in being aware of the world around you (I can use that in my teach­ing!). I am look­ing for­ward to get­ting my hands on this new cre­ation and shar­ing it fur­ther. Thanks for all you do together!