Saturday, June 6, 2015

Knitting Together "A Blanket Quite Rare" : The Story Behind the Story

It all started with this.

The original concept

You know all of those expressions which are meant to profess truth and boost your spirit,  like "God answers every prayer, just not in the way you may expect."; "Follow your heart"; and one of my favorites from Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase"? Well, if you took all of those sayings, and every one like it, and wrapped it up in a big giant tangle, that 's how my story, "A Blanket Quite Rare" started. 

I didn't start out expecting to make a book at all. About 5 years ago, my youngest son was knee-deep in discovering his passion. We had discovered an amazing children's theater company which changed his life starting at the young age of 9. I'm not sure if it was a coincidence or not that at the same time, I was also embracing my passion for art, while shedding an old skin of a career and way of seeing things that was not serving me, and my life was being opened up in that direction in ways it never had before. My son and I were both learning the value of having faith in one's own self and voice, and trusting your heart. It was truly an incredible time, that we will both remember forever. 

I would spend a lot of time at his rehearsals,  loving the little theater family with which he was involved, helping out where I could and loving all the kids, as I do. I had also begun teaching art and violin during that time, and it was a true renaissance of my heart. During the time my son was performing with the children's theater, a beautiful baby boy was born into our midst, and he was at the rehearsals, smiling and clapping and cooing.

Well, everyone knows I'm a sucker for babies, and they just get me in the mood to make stuff. During the time of the "Seussical the Musical" show, I hung out at rehearsals and knitted a baby blanket, conceivably with the purpose of presenting it to a special baby, maybe the theater baby if it got finished while we were there. I picked out a color that reminded me of Dr. Seuss, just to be in the right frame of mind, and started knitting. Exactly one week before the little theater baby's first birthday, the blanket was finished. Perfect timing! I could give it to him for a present!

And then something magical happened. I had a flash of inspiration to write a story to go along with the blanaket. One of my dearest memories of the days when my children were little, were those bedtime stories. Precious and unequaled memories. I believe wholeheartedly in the value of reading to a child, what literature can bring to a child's life, and to the relationship between parent and child. I knew that this little boy's mom felt the same way, and I wanted to give that to them. How precious, I thought, if he had not only had a special blankie, but a bedtime story to go with it too.  And that's how the book was born.

I only had a week. What to do?

The first book creation

My earliest sketches had to do with how a very young child might relate to a special blanket. Many of us who are parents know how that story goes. One of my children had a blanket that was loved so much that it is now the size of a golf ball, all knotted up and in a ziploc bag in my dresser for memories. They are their security. In my book I wanted the little boy's blanket to be that security, but also, something else. The colors and the look of the blanket were just so beautiful that it looked like it could be magical to me. So I searched for something more...

Many people have been asking me if the story or the drawings came first.  It's hard to explain exactly how it came together. The best way to explain is that I sketched the story the same way I sketch out art or architecture- I normally write words to the side of my drawings anyway, because I want to describe thoughts. In this case, it happened almost the opposite, but still they came together. Instead of the words describing the drawings, the drawings were describing the words. But I didn't try and put it into final rhyme form initially. I did think rhyme would be good, but I just scribbled down a story in picture and words as quickly as it came to mind at first.

My preliminary scribbles included a young boy, around age 3 or 4, and his blanket, which, as in real life, he had received for his birthday. I believe that's where the idea for having the book read in anapestic tetrameter came from (Dr. Seuss style :) ), because I was able to write "There once was a boy with a blanket quite rare that his mother had told him was made with great care." 

From there, I thought of the closeness and security he would receive from the blanket, and then for the final outcome, I chose a transformation story. I had a bit of trouble coming up with what the transformation would be. I thought of having the child using the blanket as a part of his own imagination, but then, somehow the idea of the storm and the sun changing the color of his skin came into play. After that, it all seemed to literally draw itself. Once I decided to create his world after the rain, it truly was miraculous how fast and freely it came together. 

After initial sketches the rest came together pretty quickly. I went to some watercolor paper with pencil, then pen, and after erasing the initial pencil marks, colored in with colored pencil. I used my "Inktense" brand pencils, which are very bright and rich, and I got amazing results. As I worked on each page I just pinned them up on my studio wall. It was glorious.

The finished work, which I had titled, "The Boy and His Magic Blanket", was comprised of eight full-page illustrations (prints) in plastic sleeves in a 3-ring binder, with the text just hand-written. Each illustrated page was on the right, and the text was on the left, with the exception of one full-spread in the middle. It was rough, but I was really happy with the way the story turned out and the illustrations. Although my life was very busy, I somehow managed to complete the story book in one week, and altogether I was really proud and happy to give both the blanket and my very first storybook to the birthday boy on his first birthday at the beginning of 2011.

Over the next few years, I made some copies of my original story book and shared it with other little kids as well- neighbors and friends. My little students loved looking at the pictures, as did their parents, and I had a lot of encouragement to have the story published. 

Although I thought it was a great idea, at the time, I didn't have the time or the resources to do so. I did a little research into book publishing and what was involved over the next couple of years, but it all seemed to require me to spend quite a bit of time preparing the book, making copies, mailing it out to publishers, and waiting for replies. Or, the self-publishing route would have taken money I didn't have at the time. So, the story sat, and I shared it when I could at a few small public readings and with friends. 

My dad had written a storybook for me when I was a child, and this book was in fact in many ways inspired by that. -

"Growing Up in the 30's" by Charles Geotis (unpublished)

I really liked the way he did his letters, and I made up a version of the story book that had colored pencil letters surrounded in ink. They looked like yarn to me when I did them, and so I embellished the text pages with drawings of strings of yarn. The first page had the needles and ball of yarn. In the end, that ball of yarn and needles would become little icons on the dedication page and blank page at the end of the book.

Getting published

In Sept. 2013, a friend and I were at a pet fair in downtown Orlando, where lots of people had booths of all kinds showing their goods and sharing their interests. I met D.G. Stern, who was an author and publisher, and had written a series of children's books based on his own dog, "Upton Charles". I had a nice chat with him and Upton, telling him about the story book I had written and illustrated, and we exchanged cards.

A few weeks later, he had contacted me asking that I send him the book to see, as he was very interested in it, as well as another that I had conceived of. At first, I didn't follow through, but after a few months, I watermarked the digital art and sent him the illustrations and text. That December we met, and he gave me the stipulations and changes that would need to happen to turn it into a published book.

First off the bat, Mr. Stern told me that the book had to be at least 47 pages (front and back) long, in order for it to be a thick enough spine to be shelved at Barnes & Noble, where he is affiliated. We went through the story as it was written, and he gave me some wonderful suggestions as to how I could actually make the book longer, using what I already had. For one thing, there were many pages of text that were pretty long, and it would be easy for me to break them up into two separate pages, and also, add more illustrations.

Also, he encouraged me to create more "spreads", and we brainstormed about how this could occur. Here's an example of one change that was made- the text would eventually end up digitally on top of the art.

By the time our conversation had ended, I had such a great vision of what could be, and I was really beyond excited to make it happen. Although there were a few intermediate thumbnail sketches to help me visualize a lengthened story, the revised story almost made itself. I went straight to my kitchen table which had been extended to accommodate my family for Christmas,  took everything off of it, and spread out all of my original drawings. Among those originals, I added in blank pieces of paper where I thought  extra illustrations and story could go, to make up the 47 pages. 

It was an incredible moment of fierce creative energy in a very short time, and before long I had what is pretty much the final story, with rough illustration sketches and an extended poem. I laid the pages out end-to-end and taped them so that they would make an accordion-style "book" and worked from there with Mr. Stern.

We went back and forth quite a bit at that time to establish the story line and agree on the text. Also during this time I had to create a design for the cover of the book. I decided to change the name from "The Boy and his Magic Blanket", because I didn't want a potential reader to misinterpret the book by the title. The blanket isn't really "Magic" in the sense of a lot of fantasy books, and I thought about alternative names. I came up with "A Blanket Quite Rare", based on the initial stanza of the book.

I wanted to create a cover that would literally "wrap" around the book, and have the blanket continue around. At first it was going to be the blanket only, but I decided to include the boy on the cover. I liked the idea of him coloring, imagining the world, and without spoiling the narrative of the book, I feel like this cover is a nice sort of "ending" to the story, if you will, with the boy back in his room, under his blanket in the evening, remembering his day.

Of course I wanted to include some toys he might have surrounding him. I had to include the trains, because my boys were crazy about those toys (as was I!) when they were little. And for the rest, I actually went to the toy store and looked around the boy section. My husband was there, and he had even more fun than I did, telling me exactly the right toys that the boy would be interested in. I had fun taking lots of reference pictures. :)

I was really happy with the final cover art. I had the art scanned and took some time creating the cover (right side) in photoshop with the title so that the publisher could promote the book in some "coming soon" ads. 

From there, once the concept was approved, I set about to create the illustrations in the book. I only had eight original illustrations to work with, and from those, I had to come up with about 30 more to create the entire book. Some of the illustrations were tricky, because I had to be consistent in the new drawings with everything from the old drawings, with everything from where pictures were on the wall inside the boy's room, to the actual technique used in coloring creating the art. It was an arduous process, but I enjoyed every single minute of it. 

I was lucky because at the time, my son was in high school at an arts school 45 minutes from home, and I just stayed near his school and worked on the art while I was down there. I found what worked the best was to add plastic sleeves to my art portfolio, and put the original art in the order where it would be in the book, and create a "book" of originals to carry with me. Where there were new pages, I stuck in a blank piece of watercolor paper. I worked on the blanks to various degrees where I could, getting them each through stages of pencil, ink, watercolor pencil, and finally washing in the watercolor with a wet brush. 

My studio was the library, McDonald's, Denny's, Panera, and anywhere that didn't mind me sitting for 4 hours at a time or so, for the cost of a muffin and a coffee. 

(you get the picture. ;)  )

Of course, I also loved working "en plein air", when I could swing it.

During the Orlando Fringe Festival in May of last year, 2014, I was close to being finished with all of the illustrations. It was really fun sitting at the Visual Fringe volunteer table working on the book, sharing the art and upcoming story with everyone.

There were many changes and creations to both the cover and interior that occurred, and the creative process was very rich, going from text to visual art and back and forth. I couldn't even begin to describe it all in a blog post. Maybe one day I'll write a book about the book!

So, the drawings were done soon after, and then, came the hard part...

I wasn't quite prepared for the whole digital operation, and I must admit that I was more than a bit anxious about it. The initial hurdle was to have all of the illustrations scanned, and I had to experiment with a machine that would create the best final image from the paintings. I ended up going with a local printer for the process. It was a small cost, but it was a very important part of the process in order to end up with quality that showed off the paintings well.

Next was the scary process of working in Photoshop. I was a little familiar with the program, but fearful of what other hurdles I might have to overcome in the process.  I had done just a little bit with inputting the title of the book on the scanned cover art. But, there were a lot of snags as I got into the process, and I'm ashamed to admit, I did get quite frustrated at this point. 

I was lucky that my daughter is incredibly proficient at all digital art, having graduated in computer animation. Photoshop was a piece of cake for her. In fact, she had the capability to input the work into InDesign, which was the final format the publisher required. However, she was planning her wedding and also working a new full-time job, and I hated to ask for too much time. So I muddled through. There were days, weeks, that I just ignored it because I couldn't figure it out. But one day, there was a weird "aha" moment, and everything just worked. I'm not going to say it was easy, but somehow I figured out at least how to adapt the 9 x 12 originals into 8 x 10 pages, align the new illustrations with the older, original ones which were slightly different sizes that were adjacent to them, input text, balance the color, etc. 

As we approached the printing process a few more snags came up, but they were easier to overcome. There were several, dozens, maybe hundreds of times during the whole process from beginning to end, where I was just going to quit, to let it lie. I would just run out of energy, or impetus, or ambition, or just get lost in the tangle of knots. And then I would take a deep breath and take another step, and somehow, make it through. There were snags between me and my publisher over which words to print, and we had to get over those hurdles.

As they say, the devil is in the details. But then, it all seemed to scramble out all at touches, digital changes to make things work with the printer, and then, it finally started to get real to me when Neptune Press sent over the final cover art, ready to send to the printer. 

When I received the books in April of 2015, I can't even explain how it felt to you. I really can't. It was completely surreal. I don't know what I expected, but for some weird reason I was not expecting to be a published author until the book was in my hands. And it was so incredibly beautifully printed - the quality was beyond what I could even imagine.


This year I was back at the Visual Fringe volunteer table with the real thing in hand and life was flipped upside down for me. Or really, right side up. I was over being shocked at being an author. Now, all of the love that I had put into this effort was shown back to me. As if I had poured all of my energy into a bowl and closed it, and it opened and shone on me like the sun. It happened when I saw the faces and the indescribable JOY of the kids coming to me, that discovered the ladybugs and frogs and birds. Pure paradise.

And when this little guy started to read my story aloud to me, I completely lost it. His parents were really gracious in letting me excuse myself and mop up the tears and collect myself. I told him he really should be a performer and asked him to start again, and I got a bit of him on video.

I felt like there would be nothing in this world that will ever top that moment.

So what's next for me? A lot of people have been asking if there will be more books, and yes, I do hope so! I have been planning a book which includes my "Watercolor Zoo" for a long time, perhaps an alphabet book...

And, a friend suggested that I create a "girl's version" of "A Blanket Quite Rare" with a girl and a tutu. I'm having fun creating a story about a little feisty girl named Winnie who only likes to wear tutus on her head.

I'd also like to create a book from memoirs of my own childhood, centered around the most special of neighbors as I grew up, Tony, who taught me how to read (at age 3!) and write, and a zillion other things, including all about gardens, and discovering the blessings of the earth. And his wife, Anna. I'm thinking of titling it what they always said to me, "Anna Banana, Tony Baloney and Lisa Pizza Pie". :)

Reflecting back on the beginning of the story, it's really hard to believe how far the journey has taken me. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that yarn would eventually turn me into a published author. But I must say, having come full circle, from trying to create a smile on that first special baby's face, to now being called to share the ladybugs and frogs and rainbows and imagination with lots more kids, I just feel so OVERWHELMINGLY blessed. 


I have one more skein of yarn from that original blanket, and I've been knitting it together for an example for when I do readings of the Blanket Book. And just like when I stitched together that original blanket almost five years ago, I'm just thanking God for His incredible blessings.

Because that big tangle of sayings is true. Creativity takes courage. Faith is tough. I don't like to take those first steps when I don't know where they will lead me. Following your heart can cause you the greatest joy, but also can cause you the greatest challenges and pain. 

It's funny, but now I realize how brilliant my dad was, and as he shared with me in that book that he made for me, I know that I need to just keep putting one foot in front of the other, with God at my side, and those tangles will unravel just like they're supposed to. It's just so awesome to be called to share that with the kids like he did. I guess the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree. :)

"Growing Up in the 30's" by Charles Geotis (unpublished)