Thursday, January 28, 2016

Interview Session: Michael Hall

A graphic designer for 30 years before turning to creating picture books, Michael Hall’s style is minimalistic and has an algorithm in his art, similar to Charley Harper and Ed Emberley. 

At Lemuria today, I sat down to talk with Michael Hall about his new book with HarperCollins from Greenwillow, Frankencrayon. When a mysterious scribble has ruined a picture book, and causing it to be canceled, what are the crayons to do? Should they just go home? Frankencrayon saves the day when he realizes that "Even a messy scribble can be a lovely thing." A book about discovering the beauty in the imperfect, Frankencrayon will have kids noticing layers within the illustrations.

Here, Michael Hall talks about his writing and illustrating process, walking around with his wife, how science and math are big factors in his work, and what he thinks kids understand when reading his books. 

Want a signed copy of Frankencrayon? Order here!

CM: Where are you from?

MH: I grew up in Ann Arbor Michigan, and have lived for the past 30 years in Minnesota, where I am currently.

CM: Tell me a little bit about your latest book to be published by HarperCollins, Frankencrayon.

MH: Frankencrayon began as a story about crayons trying to clean up this scribble. As they try to clean it up, the scribble gets worse and worse. While working on the Frankencrayon, the book became more and more complicated. Eventually it turned into a “canceled” book because of the giant scribble, and it has a lot of things that are not normally in picture books. The time sequence is all over the map, going back and forwards in time, it breaks the 4th wall, and it has talking memos. It was a challenging book to create. 
It is a follow up to Red: A Crayon’s Story. I’m thinking of doing a third crayon book one day.

CM: How many picture books have you written?

MH: So far I’ve published six as of a couple of days ago. I just finished my seventh picture book a couple of months ago and it will come out in late summer or early fall. 

CM: What is your new book about?

MH: It is a book about the celebration of autumn. It is called Wonderfall instead of wonderful, and uses plays on words, like “Frightfall,” instead of frightful, and “Thankfall” instead of thankful. 

CM: Can you describe your illustration style? What art are you most drawn to?

MH: I am drawn to abstract art, art that is not trying to be a tree or a dog. I am drawn to simpler things. My biggest influence are graphic designers, since I was a graphic designer for 30 years. The idea of taking something down to its simplest level is really important to me. 

CM: How do you create your illustrations? 

MH: I’m interested in the visuals, so I like to do the pictures first. In my first two books, the pictures were done before I knew what the story was going to be.
For my process, I begin with creating textures that I paint, ink, or roll on paper, sometimes using charcoal. Then I make shapes by cutting paper. I take those two elements, scan them into the computer, and put them together. It gives me more control. That way, if I cut something, but don’t like the shape, all I need to do is cut another shape and replace just the shape, not the entire texture. More and more I’m doing more in the computer, and instead of cutting paper, I’m creating my illustrations in the computer. I still love making the textures out of ink though.

CM: When you were a child, what were some of your favorite picture books?

MH: I remember The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson. I think I sort of related to Ferdinand the bull. I also really loved Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. I love books like that, books you can go to again and again and find something different. 

CM: Your books have that quality—each time reading your book reveals something different. The reader may realize that one illustration may have been cut up to become another illustration. For example, in Frankencrayon, the scribble becomes the butterfly. Frankencrayon says “Even a messy scribble can be a lovely thing.”

Do you think children notice those hidden elements? Do they see the butterfly? Does your simplistic and abstract style work for kids? 

MH: My thought is that they may get it, or they may see it on their 5th reading. What I was surprised at is that all the kids that I’ve read it to so far have been very cognizant of what has been happening right off the bat. I think grownups don’t always notice what children do. I think children are accepting harder concepts in Frankencrayon really well. 

For example, my crayons don’t have faces on them. I want the child to be able to use his or her imagination, to pick up a crayon and pretend it is whatever they want it to be.

Once you put a face on things, you humanize it. Human expressions communicate so quickly, that when you look at the face, you get the emotion right away and move on to the next page. I want the kids to work on it a little bit, to create the story for themselves. 

"Hello. Who are you?" Interior spread from Frankencrayon by Michael Hall.

CM: Let’s talk about science. You started out as a biochemist in a lab. What have you carried on as a picture book author and illustrator from working as a scientist?

MH: There is a way of scientific thinking that I continue and influences what I do. There is a sense of trying to make realities that have internal logic and having the discipline to having the pieces fit together properly. Even if the story is absurd, the pieces need to fit together within its own reality. 

I use math all the time in my stories in my art and arranging things. In It’s an Orange Aardvark!, there was a huge topological problem, so it was fun to figure that out.
I think scientifically about non-scientific things. 

Here’s an example. I walk around with my wife a lot. And we walk in the city. She likes it when I walk between her and the traffic. When we go around the corner, I have to switch sides. In one of our walks I tried to figure out a formula so I could always know whether I’m going to switch sides or not. If you add the numbers—three crossings and turns, and its an even number, then I don’t have to change sides. It’s easier to look at which side I’m on, but it’s fun to have an equation for it.

CM: What are some contemporary influences of yours?

MH: I’m influenced by many graphic designers, including Paul Rand and Ivan Chermayeff, and I really love Christian Robinson’s work, Chris Haughton’s Shh! We Have a Plan, and Marion Bataille of ABC3D

CM: You’ve created stories featuring animals, crayons, and your next book is about seasons. What subjects are you drawn to? 

MH: I tend to anthropomorphize characters. It’s always been a part of me that I would do that.
The seasons book, Wonderfall, came about because my editor Virginia Duncan asked how I would feel about making a book about the fall. That book is a little different because it didn’t come together the way things normally come to me, which is randomly. 

I thought when I started out writing picture books that I would have specific things to write about. I was surprised to find that my stories were not about what I thought I was going to write about. I think that is the fun part of writing—if you find something that is visually or verbally interesting, or sounds interesting, and you follow that, you wind up writing about something that is important to you through a magical process.

I don’t set out to make books about anything. I have made a lot of books about accepting chaos, finding beauty in unexpected places, accepting that we all have a lot of emotions, good and bad, and accepting change. 

CM: What’s up next? 

MH: There is an alphabet book that I’ve been working on for years and years that I thought would be my first book but has wound up taking forever. It had 160 pages at one point. That might be my next book.

Michael Hall and Clara Martin at Lemuria in Jackson, MS

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Arctic White

In the wake of last weekend's blizzard, I'd like to share a story that reflects all the snow everywhere. Arctic White by Danna Smith and illustrated by Lee White is the perfect picture book when days grow dark very early and color seems far away.

A young girl living north of the Arctic circle, followed around by a little husky dog, notices that everything is a shade of white:

Sometimes, when you wish on a star for more color,
you only get gray.
And gray is still a shade of white.

Here, winter days are dark as night.
As time passes, you wonder:
Where did all the color go?
Did the wind blow it away?

The girl is bundled up against the cold, yet she finds joy in sticking out her tongue to catch the snowflakes. Her grandfather is the one who helps her discover where the color hides even in in the dark days of winter.

Did you know that people who live closer to the Arctic circle, those who maybe have an hour or two of sunlight a day in the winter, show higher levels of happiness?

This book illustrates that positive mindset during the winter months, of hygge (pronounced hooga), which is a word not simply meaning cosiness, but of enjoying togetherness.

An interior illustration from Arctic White that demonstrates "hygge." 

Together, the young girl, her grandfather, and a group of friends journey across the snow to discover the bright colors in their world. Danna Smith's words are poetic and lyrical, and Lee White's magical illustrations appear to have fallen on the page in snow flurries. I hope that Artic White will help you and your family spend time together this winter.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Anna and the Swallow Man

Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit is one of the more quiet WW II books I have read, but it is also one of the most beautiful. Anna Lania is seven years old at the beginning of this story. She lives in Krakow, Poland with her father. He is a professor of linguistics at the university, and so he and Anna speak several different languages.

Anna thought that each of the languages her father spoke had been tailored, like a bespoke suit of clothes, to the individual person with whom he conversed. French was not French; it was Monsieur Bouchard. Yiddish was not Yiddish; it was Reb Shmulik. Every word and phrase of Armenian that Anna had ever heard reminded her of the face of the little old tatik who always greeted her and her father with small cups of strong, bitter coffee.

Every word of Armenian smelled like coffee.

One day in November of 1939, Anna’s father does not return home from work. Unbeknownst to Anna, he has been taken by the Germans. She has been spending the day at Herr Doktor Fuchsmann’s shop. After several days, the formerly friendly shop-owner doesn’t want to take care of her anymore. So it is outside of his shop that she meets the Swallow Man. Rather, she sees him first:

The man was tall and exceedingly thin. His suit, brown wool and in three pieces, must’ve been made specifically for him…He carried an old physician’s bag, the brown leather worn a bit lighter than the color of his dark suit. It had brass fittings, and on the side of the bag was the monogram SWG in a faded red that must’ve originally been the color of his dark necktie. A tall black umbrella rode between the two handles of the bag, stacked on its top, despite the clearness of the sky.

Anna and the Swallow Man share an affinity for speaking languages—for changing into different people as they change their native tongue. They form a small team, and together, crossing the Polish countryside during the throes of World War II. Who can be trusted? As the reader meets each character he or she is filled with either a sense of delight and love, or pure terror and dread. Who is the Swallow Man? He tells Anna: “to be found is to be gone forever.” One can only stay hidden for so long.

Gavriel Savit proves he is a master of words. Words, and language, play a large role in Anna’s story. This book asks the big questions from a child’s eye-view: what is war and what is death? It also asks the most inner question of the self: how do we know who we are? Does our language determine that?

Anna and the Swallow Man is a beautiful story that soars with gravity and magical-realism. As the snow falls, it will be easy to imagine Anna walking in the shadow of the Swallow Man in the snowy Polish countryside, 1939. This book is a young adult novel that teens and adults alike will enjoy.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Gene Luen Yang Appointed National Ambassador for Children’s Literature

Earlier this week, Gene Luen Yang was appointed the National Ambassador for Children’s Literature. Having heard Yang speak at the Children’s Book Festival in Hattiesburg in April of 2015, this news comes as a delight. His presentation was engaging, made everyone laugh, and I’ve never seen so many librarians queue up to buy a graphic novel. They were sold out minutes after his speech. With his friendly demeanor and an innate ability to teach, whether it is about the history of superheroes in comics—Superman was also an alien immigrant—or teaching history (the Boxer Rebellion) or coding, Yang’s range and appeal is wide and varied. There is one constant, though. Gene uses illustrations, comic-strips, in fact, to tell his stories.

He is the first graphic novelist to be chosen for the position of National Ambassador (which has been around since 2008), and it is perfect timing. The graphic novel is having a moment. Raina Telgemeier’s ever popular SmileSisters, and Drama books are always in high demand. My only regret with Victoria Jamieson’s Rollergirl is that I didn’t get to read it when I was eleven. The list goes on and on.

For those of you who don’t know what a graphic novel is, it is a term for a novel told through comic-strip drawings. Reading Without Walls, a platform Yang developed with his publisher that he will promote as the new National Ambassador, is about “being open to new kinds of stories.”

American Born Chinese (First Second, 2006) was the first graphic novel to both win the Michael L. Printz Award for young adult literature and the first graphic novel to be a finalist for the National Book Award. Yang drew on his own experience of being a first-generation Chinese boy growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area. A coding teacher for 17 years, Yang only stopped when the demands of traveling to promote his books, but even though he’s not in the classroom, he continues to teach computer programming in his new book, Secret Coders. In just reading the first installment in this series, I now know the basics of coding, and this book will be an awesome introduction to computer programming for kids.

A graphic novel is a complex story, often more so because of its format. Children are innately open to new kinds of stories. In reading graphic novels, they make connections to their own lives, and they are constantly processing context clues both in the text and drawings.

As children’s literature continues to evolve, it is exciting that Gene Luen Yang will be leading the way for the next two years.

Congratulations, Gene!