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Art and Words, Words and Art

“Jun­gle Tales,” by J.J. Shan­non, 1895

Thir­ty years ago, I bought a poster of “Jun­gle Tales” by J.J. Shan­non (1895) at the Met in New York City. I took it to my favorite framer, but when it was ready, I was hor­ri­fied to see they’d cut off Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art, The Children’s Book­shop at the bot­tom, fram­ing just the image.  No one thought the words were impor­tant.  The framer ordered a new poster and framed it intact. “Jun­gle Tales” has been hang­ing over our den sofa ever since. I love the paint­ing, but I also love the place names. In my mind, the two can’t be sep­a­rat­ed — art and words, words and art.

Like most kids, I wrote sto­ries and drew pic­tures. I enjoyed words with illus­tra­tions — mag­a­zines with pho­tographs and car­toons, com­ic books, mid­dle grade fic­tion with inside line draw­ings. The expe­ri­ence was nev­er hur­ried — I pored over the images and made con­nec­tions between the art and the words. This was a world I nev­er want­ed to leave.

San­cho, the Hom­ing Steer, by Can­dice Sylvia Farris

I planned to be both a writer and an artist, but after high school I real­ized I’d need for­mal art train­ing. Col­lege of any kind was out of the ques­tion. I could teach myself to write and that was the path I chose.

Still, art remained a large part of my life. I watch children’s book illus­tra­tors work, envy­ing those who can draw and paint and see results at the end of the day. In a writ­ing ses­sion, I may pro­duce one decent sen­tence, if that. To improve my craft — a dai­ly strug­gle even after all these years — I start jour­nals, but fal­ter in the prac­tice. New projects seem wrenched from me. Words, words, where are the words?

Two years ago, I was asked to write a pic­ture book based on a char­ac­ter cre­at­ed by an illus­tra­tor. I agreed to try, though I was uncer­tain and ner­vous. I hadn’t writ­ten a pic­ture book in more than ten years. And I’d nev­er writ­ten a pic­ture book based on a char­ac­ter. The edi­tor sent me the illustrator’s sam­ple sketch­es. I stud­ied them, just as I’d once pored over the art in comics or mys­tery books. I pho­to­copied the sam­ples and car­ried them around with me.

pre­lim­i­nary sketch­es for Aman­da Pan­da Quits Kindergarten

Instead of hav­ing to visu­al­ize a char­ac­ter in my head, the way I usu­al­ly wrote pic­ture books (or any­thing), I could see the pan­da girl and her range of emo­tions, and appre­ci­ate Chris­tine Grove’s sense of humor. I knew the kind of sto­ry this char­ac­ter need­ed. And I wrote it, Aman­da Pan­da Quits Kinder­garten (2017). When I was asked to write a sequel, the illus­tra­tions from the first book inspired me. Aman­da Pan­da and the Big­ger, Bet­ter Birth­day will be out next summer.

Amanda Panda Quits KindergartenA few weeks ago, Chris­tine Grove sent me a new char­ac­ter. “What do you think?” she wrote. I print­ed out the char­ac­ter and car­ried it around with me. A month lat­er, I had a new sto­ry. Art came to my res­cue. It gave me the words I hadn’t been able to pull out of my head. 

I don’t know if this new sto­ry will become a pub­lished pic­ture book, but I’ve learned my les­son. Don’t stray from art again. I’ll col­lect mag­a­zine pho­tos, doo­dle, pho­to­copy books (Pin­ter­est doesn’t cut it for me), and paste the images into those fal­low jour­nals. Visu­als will help me find the words. Art and words, words and art.

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