Thursday, November 3, 2011

Dick Gackenbach

You my not recognize the name but I hope you do. I have always been a fan of author and illustrator Dick Gackenbach. When I was a teen in CT I remember going to an amazing bookstore in the town of Washington Depot. They had a small section of locally authored books and that's when I first found out about Mr Gackenbach. I was instantly taken by his humorous drawings and simple, thoughtful stories.

He had worked as an Art Director at J.C. Penny and took to illustrating after he retired. As a struggling illustrator myself at the time I had hopes that I could do the same thing.

Years later when I worked at Houghton Mifflin I was put in charge of hiring artists to do a series of posters for a reading series. I used it as an opportunity to track Dick down and see if I could get him to work for me. Those were the days before the internet but he still lived in Washington Depot and I found him easily. He not only did the poster work but I got to use him on a few other projects.

I've mentioned before how one big perk of doing what I do is to get to work with artists whose work I loved. Dick was no exception. He was easy to work with and he always let me know about his new trade books long before they came out.

I lost touch after a few years but stayed a fan of his new books, Only recently I found out that he past away in 2001. But I still have a collection of his books and smile every time I read them. His work for J.C. Penny may never be remembered but his books live on.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Going Digital

As an art director and art buyer I have seen a huge change in the industry in the last decade. There is no bigger change then the need (requirement!) for all art to be in digital form.

I don't mean the art has to be created digitally but that it has to arrive on our desks in some digital manner. I am speaking mostly about textbook work and don't know if trade houses are the same. Publishers just don't want to take the risk or incur the costs of shipping art from and artist and back again.

I am happy to say that most artists I have worked with have adjusted nicely. Oh I do understand the outrage as some say they have to go to an outside source to have their scans done and so incur a cost that the publishers won't reimburse. But so many artists have bought desktop scanners and learned to use them as any other art tool. We may have to adjust colors when we get the art but its still better than having to send it in the mail.

I have seen many artists actually adapt their style to being created all digitally as well. At one point you could tell what was "computer generated art" but not anymore. With programs like Painter and Photoshop, I have received art that I swear is a watercolor painting only to learn that it was all done on the computer. With the advent of FTP sites, services like or just e-mail, we have been able to work with artists all over the world. And worrying about getting art mailed in time and safely has disappeared.

But I have one friend who is an artist and she has done lots of work for me in the past. When I tell her I can offer her work but it must be digital she grumbles. But slowly, even she sees the advantages. Not only does it give her more opportunities for work but she can now control colors more easily, adjust them quickly on the computer and never worry about spilling ink on a nearly finished painting!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Art Directing Your Own Book

So I am in a rare situation. Usually you are a writer or an art director, not both.

I am lucky. I had not co started Red Chair Press so I could write again but the opportunity was there. We needed one more book for our Living Healthy series and it was assigned to me.  I thought of many different scenarios without much luck. Then I remembered a story I had kicking around for the last decade that never made it into a book. With some simple changes I could turn it into the fun, simply written tale with a twist on keeping in shape. Its called The Runner King.

After my publishing partner edited me into shape it was time to get it illustrated. And this has become a great joy for me. Not only do I get to write, but I then get to hire my favorite artists to illustrate the stories.

For this book that meant trying to hire my old friend, Jui Ishida, to illustrate this story. I just saw her art in my head as I wrote it and wanted her to do the pictures very badly!

I was very happy when Jui said yes. Her art is beautiful to look at and adds a dimension not seen in the written text. The final art far exceeds my vision.

So its not often you get a chance to bring a long dormant story to life. And to have it wonderfully illustrated is all the sweeter!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Celebrity Authors

We have all seen them. Celebrities who write children's books is a fad that has lasted a while. Don't we all have enough competition from other deserving authors without celebrities jumping into our turf. Of course it all comes back to the notion that writing a children's books is very simple and anyone can do it (even a celebrity)!

So you can tell I'm not a fan but there are some exceptions. Jamie Lee Curtis (with illustrator Laura Cornell) have collaborated on a number of great books. This is a case of a great author who also happens to be an actress. Good going Jamie. And I think Henry Winkler (aka The Fonz) is an amazing writer and has a great series of kids novels. The late Fred Gwynne (Herman Munster) wrote some simple, fun books AND did the illustrations!

I am happy to say that most celebrity books are here and gone quickly. When Katie Couric publishes a children's book and feels the need to write it in rhyme you know things have gotten bad.

So I have nothing against Madonna, Jay Leno, Olivia Newton John or any of the others who dabble in our field. If it gets kids (or their parents) into a book store, all the better.

But maybe I'll reciprocate-so look for me in the next Tom Cruise film. After all-how hard can it be?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Letting Go

I try to always stay "on topic" in this blog but sometimes a diversion can't be helped.

A few weeks ago I brought my first born son to college for his freshman year. I still sit here and wonder where the time went. I have a photo on my desk of my then three month old boy looking over my shoulders as I hold him in my arms. He stares out at the viewer. So young and unsure of his world.  In the photo I also have the ever present towel under his head on my shoulder. My friend Ed who worked with us dubbed him the "yakinator." So you know why I always had the towel when I held him.

Forget the image of a beautiful newborn. My oldest came out looking like a shriveled up old man. Of course that quickly changed to the boy and now man I know but he will forever be my "little man" because of how he started.

Being in the children's book field was a "cool" job to have according to my two sons. I got to read my books in their Kindergarten classes and draw for them.

Both boys are avid athletes. Both started in soccer, which is my own favorite sport, and evolved into tennis players. Although I didn't love the early trips on Saturday mornings to far away towns, I always loved standing on the field and watching them play.

I remember when I was walking with my eldest on a soccer field before a game and someone was running up from behind us. They yelled, "Hey Dinardo" and I instinctively assumed they meant me. But of course it was for my son. I was the spectator now.

I got to drive my son down to Dickinson College in PA. I was hoping for some good quality time together to discuss life and give him my deep heartfelt advice. But he sat in the car most of the way with headphones on and his face buried in his computer screen. He was dealing with his own thoughts on leaving his friends and home.

As I drove away I knew he would be fine. His mother and I gave him a great foundation. I know he'll make mistakes. We all do. But I never thought the time would go so fast and I would see my "little man" moving off on his own.

But I'll be here whenever he needs me and although he is taller than me, I think my shoulder will still hold him.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Maurice Sendak (or how I met God)

From talking to friends in the field we all seem to have a Maurice Sendak story. Some quick meeting or class that changed us. Well I certainly have my own. Now if I have to tell you who Maurice Sendak is then you are probably on this blog my mistake ;)

When I was young, it was Where the Wild Things Are that was THE book I read that made me want to become a children's book illustrator. I think it was the combination of the simple text, the great art and the fact that it as about monsters that kept me coming back to reread it over and over. I became a Sendak fan and went out and got every book he did. My family always knew the perfect Christmas gift was a new Sendak book.

When I was 17 I learned that Maurice lived in CT, only about 20 minutes from my house! He was giving a rare talk at the local library and I just HAD to go. I remember getting there about an hour early so I could sit up front. I had no idea what he looked like and I kept looking at the doorway for some tell tell sign that the great man and artist had arrived. I remember one very distinquished man came in. He was over six feet tall with a tweet jacket and looked like he came out of central casting for "famous author". So I was surprised when he just sat in the audience and did not go to the front of the room.

Finally, when we were all seated I saw them usher in a rather short, stocky man with a beard to the front. He seemed a bit nervous. He didn't have a prepared speech but just talked off the cuff and took our questions. He may not have matched my vision of him but he was every bit as entertaining and gifted as I hoped.

After the talk they were whisking him to a waiting car to take him away to a private luncheon (I am sure the tall dapper fellow in tweed was going). I had asked him many questions during the talk and when he was going to leave he turned to me and asked "You want to be an illustrator, don't you?" I stumbled out a weak "yes". Before he got into the car he wrote his number down and gave it to me. "Call me and we can talk some more."

And I did call him sometime later and told him about my portfolio work and what I was doing. He said "Look, I don't drive and I want to go see this movie ET everyone keeps talking about. Why don't you come over to the house show me your work and we can go see this movie".

Now let me say two things. One-shame on you for what you are thinking! And Two-it didn't matter that I had already seen the movie-I hopped in the car and headed over.

The house was amazing. I saw an original Beatrix Potter on the wall and he even asked my opinion on the endpapers for one of his new books. I was barely able to take it all in and still seem like a rational person. I showed him my portfolio which, at the time, was just awful but he gave me very good criticism and encouragement. Then we had to get going to the movie.

We drove to the Fine Arts Theatre in Brookfield, CT. The movie had been out for a while but I remember there was still a line outside waiting to get in. I remember I kept wanting to tell someone that I was standing there with Maurice Sendak but no one took notice of us.

We saw the movie and talked about it as I drove him home. We both laughed that it seemed improbable for aliens who barely can walk to make a spaceship with such long ramps to climb.

I dropped him off and thanked him again for taking the time and his parting words were something to the affect that being an illustrator is the best possible career and I should give everything up to pursue it!

That was a lot to take in and of course I didn't give everything up. But I wonder if I had, if I had tried harder if I would have gone farther with my art talents.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Getting my first book published

I started out wanting to be an illustrator. That's all I wanted to do. I was one of those kids that could draw at an early age (and was encouraged to do so). So being an illustrator of children's books was something that I aspired to at a very young age.

When I was in art college I took trips to NYC to show my work to art directors and publishers. Time was always short so I would plan as many meetings as I could. In the early 80's this was not always easy to get an appointment if you were an unknown but I always seemed to be able to see 4-5 people on my visits.

On one trip I met with an editor at Harper & Row who suggested I try writing. Writing!? I was an illustrator, didn't she hear me? I'm not an author! Authors are a rarefied breed and I never thought I could be one of the "chosen" people.

But her reasoning was sound. If she had a story about a cute duck, she could turn to dozens (or more) artists who could turn that into an amazing book. But if I write the story about the cute duck AND could draw then my chances of getting published would be better!

Up to that time the only thing I tried to "write" were some retellings of fairy tales to go along with my drawings-just an afterthought really. But I came back from that trip with a new purpose-to try and write and illustrate my own book.

I worked on many ideas but I remembered when I was young and having to share a room with my older brother. That evolved into my first book, Timothy and the Night Noises. Timothy Frog (that was me) was afraid of the dark, but his older brother Martin (my brother) just made fun of him. It was a realistic slice of life and I crafted the simple story and sketches into a 32 page dummy book and sent it around.

And then I waited, and waited, and waited some more. It was hard enough to try and get meetings in NYC to show my work around but it was ten times harder to have to wait for a response to a story.

But of course the response did come back and the book was rejected. I packed it back up and sent it out to someone else and waited the 3-5 months it took to hear back.

So I sent that baby out over several years while I worked on new stories. I got so used to the rejections that when I sent the story out I usually knew who I would send it to next after it was rejected.

I think after seven or so rejections I remember coming home from work on a Friday night around 6:00pm. There was a message on my message machine from a woman named Carol Barkin at what was then called Prentice Hall Children's Books. She left a short message saying she read the story and would like to talk to me about it. Remember its Friday night and the office was already closed so I knew I couldn't get a hold of her till Monday morning! What a tense filled weekend!

I was thoroughly convinced by Monday morning that the reason for her call was because she hated the book so much she personally wanted to tell me never to send them anything again. These were the days before cell phones and I had a full time job as a paste up artist at a pharmaceutical company, so I had to find time to sneak away to a pay phone. I think it was about 10:00 am before I finally had a chance to call!

And, of course, Carol did not want to tell me she hated the book. She told me she loved it and wanted to publish it. I never felt so happy! I even got to publish two sequels with that little frog.

Well, I was finally published and that editor at Harper&Row started me on a new path-loving to write books. I can't remember her name off hand but it changed my life.

And I still write and love it. But I don't illustrate anymore and I don't miss it! But that's another story.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Book or the Device?

Working in the book field all my adult life I am a book junkie. I love the feel of a "real" book in my hands. So how do I feel about all the digital readers out there? I am actually not sure!

My girlfriend is a tech junkie and wanted a Kindle right when they came out. Although I argued that my field relies on the printed book I could understand the appeal and bought her one for Christmas.

So at night before we go to sleep, I curl up with my printed book and she turns on her reader. The Kindle was easy to operate and within a few clicks she had her book downloaded and was reading. The down side I saw right off hand was that it didn't feel like a book, if that means anything. You couldn't bend back the paperback to fit more snuggle into your lap, or dogear the corner. But we were both happy in our choices.

When she finally finished her book she wanted the sequel and after a few clicks she had it. "Humm", I thought. "that was easy".

A few months later we were both on a plane trip. We settled in and took out our readers of choice and got down to business. Of course she had to turn off her "electronic devices" before the plane would take off but I could go right on reading my book (one for our side).

But I will say my feelings started to change with another little invention-the IPad. Say what you want about the glare on the screen as compared to a Kindle but as a Mac nut I am for all things Apple. So when my girlfriend got an IPad for work I had to play with it. And getting books on the IPad is just as easy as the Kindle and I like the "natural" feel of turning pages. But it still felt odd to get cozy in bed and curl up with a flat, rigid computer. I work with them all day long so at night I wanted something simpler.

With talk going around about the filming of The Hobbit I decided to reread the book I last read twenty something years ago. I saw I could easily download it onto my IPad but I just couldn't do it. My girlfriend had a small, yellowed paperback edition that had not moved off its shelf for decades. Somehow reading about woodland elves and furry hobbits just seemed better that way!

So where am I now on all this? I do have my own IPad (come on its just cool) and I sometimes read with it when its more convenient to download the book at night. But I still turn to the printed book most times. It just feels right.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

In Praise of Sequels

So do you love a children's book so much that you wish you could read another with the same characters? Welcome to sequels.

I'm one of those people that love a good sequel. I get so caught up in the book that I purposely slow down when I am near the end so it will last longer (not as easy for those Kindle users unless you keep track of the "percentage done").

I have read some amazing sequels and some that left me scratching my head. Here are my favorites first:

The Cricket in Times Square: Everyone knows this book about Chester cricket and his adventures with Harry Cat and Tucker Mouse. An amazing book by George Seldon. He actually did several sequels. The first was called Tuckers Countryside which has Harry and Tucker visiting Chester in his home this time. I think its an amazing adventure and almost as uique as the original-a tough job for any sequel. Its everything you want in a sequel-you get to revisit the characters, read another new adventure and it does not take anything away from the original story. I think George did like 8 sequels all together in the series but not all were my favorites.

The Poppy series by Avi: Well you know I'm a sucker for a good animal novel and Avi does not disappoint. My personal favorite is Poppy and Ereth about the unlikely friendship between Poppy the mouse and an unfriendly porcupine. A wonderful book and series.

My least favorite sequel is actually by my favorite author! Its Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. If you read the original (and it doesn't count if you only know the movie version which I loved as well-the original with Gene Wilder that is). The book itself is pure Dahl with unusual gadgets and awful things happening to bad children. Its wicked good fun.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was an instant success. At the time in 1964, sequels were not the norm but Dahl had pressure from his publisher to bring back the characters. The original ends with them crashing through the factory and the reader imagining the wonderful life for Charlie and his family that is ahead. The sequel picks up right where the first book leaves off and turns into a political mishmass about governments and the political times.

It actually goes against one of the cardinal rules of a sequel: don't take anything away from the original. So now when you reread the first book and you get to the end you no longer close the book and imagine the wonderful life that awaits Charlie. Instead you know this silly political satire awaits instead.

But that is my own personal bias in only one of Dahl's books. If you never read him you must. The BFG and The Witches are two of the best books ever written. And his biographical books-Boy and Going Solo are as fascinating as anything he imagined!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

James Marshall

I am also a big fan of James Marshall. I find people either love or hate his work. Some people think his books about the Stupids and his Miss Nelson books can be, well stupid but I love all his work. I think of him as the Roald Dahl of picture books-devilishly clever and a bit naughty. I am especially a fan of his George and Martha hippo books and his two children's novels.

Did you know he wrote two novels (short but still novels)? My favorite was called Talking Care of Carruthers. You should go and find this book if you can!

I got to work with James when I was at Houghton Mifflin and told him not only about me being a huge fan but how I especially loved his novels and wished he would write more. I was very surprised and happy when he sent a note back a package with pages and pages from his sketch books! I'll show some here. Just shows you how kind these artists all are!

He left us way too early.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Arnold Lobel

I am a big Arnold Lobel fan! I started out wanting to be an illustrator and his work was my main inspiration. Once when I went to NY to show my portfolio I stopped in at Harper & Row (that's right-it was a long time ago if I am not calling it HarperCollins). The editor was very helpful and not only did she convince me to try and write my own books (I had never considered writing!) but she showed me Arnold's dummy book for his newest story at the time, Uncle Elephant. It was like seeing the holy grail. I felt so lucky!

A few years later I wrote to him care of Harper & Row and was very surprised when I got a note back. I told him I was not only a huge fan but had the chance to see his newest book ahead of time. I'll show his letter to you below. It reads:

Dear Jeff,
Thanks so much for your letter and for your kind words about my work. It is good to know, during my frequent periods of creative poop-out that my work is a source of encouragement to others. Good luck with your career.

The letter has been framed and always sits above my desk.

Monday, August 29, 2011

My favorite series of children's books

I never really discovered children's books till I was in my 20's. I certainly had lots of favorites as a kid but never really got too interested in them until I went to college. I discovered this great series of books about two toad brothers called "Warton and Morton" by Russell E Erickson. If you know the series you probably know the first book titled "Toad for Tuesday" which is still in print.

The whole series was amazing and I loved reading about what trouble these two got into. I think there were 6 or 7 published. I had a heck of a hard time finding them all for my collection but they are worth looking for. If you were a fan of "Frog and Toad" by Arnold Lobel you can think of these as similar books for the slightly older crowd.

I had a chance to talk to Russell about the books and he loved doing them but was annoyed at how quickly several of them had gone out of print. I am a huge fan on anthropomorphic animal novels and I think his are some of the best. For a great read for yourself or a child over a week's worth of bed time reading, you can't go wrong with this series!

New Books

Here is one of the new titles from Red Chair Press that I am very proud of: Attack of the Bully Bug! I really enjoyed writing this story. And it gave me the chance to work with one of my favorite artists again-Jim Paillot. He is the one who really brought the story to life! Way to go Jim.

I tried to use characters we had not done before and bugs seem like a natural choice and would leave the artist lots of room for invention. You can tell I love this one!

Red Chair Press

Those who are new to this site or to me should know that I am the Creative Director for Red Chair Press. I great publishing company I co started with Keith Garton. We have lower level readers for Character Development and Living Healthy. But all done with humor and some top notch illustration! And I am also an author of children's books. Check us out at