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