Friday, June 16, 2017

Literary Lifelines

I went through a series of traumatic events when I was a child that unfortunately still affect me as an adult. When I was young I didn't know that my experiences were not at all normal. Thanks to many years of therapy, I've been able to deal with the trauma, but I've often wondered what was it that got me through as a kid. I felt I had no one to talk to, or identify with. I didn't know that adults could or would help me. I didn't have the common sense or maturity to put everything into context. So what was my saving grace? Books. Books were my lifeline.

As soon as I could walk my mother took me, my siblings, and our red Radio Flyer Wagon to the library. Every week we would fill out the entire wagon with books. It was already a habit for me to read.  So when things got unbearable for me, I turned to my books. If I ever needed to escape from the day-to-day I could always be carried off by a tornado to the Land of Oz, or fall through Alice's looking glass. I knew that if I needed strength, that Matilda Wormwood would take a stand with me and invent a delightfully wicked punishment for the baddies. It felt as though the characters from some of my favorite books were reaching out to me. I gained strength and comfort through them and their stories. I am so grateful for all the kidlit creators, whose books I grew up reading. They have helped me through some very dark moments in my childhood.

 I feel like it is important to share my wounds with you because I know my experience isn't singular. Unfortunately there are so many other children out there that are suffering; children that need relief, children that need to know they are not alone,  children that need your empathy, children that need your stories.

As kidlit creators, we will likely be a lifeline for some other child. Let us keep that in mind as we are creating the stories and crafting our illustrations. What we do is important. What we do does makes a difference.


Meridth McKean Gimbel is a freelance writer and illustrator who loves anything art related, story infused, and chocolate covered. When not working on her illustrations or writing stories, she is busy building a time machine so she can hang out with her pirate buddies and find buried treasure. 

Meridth is happily represented by Linda Pratt at Wernick & Pratt. You can follow her work at:
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Friday, June 9, 2017

Your greatest (free) untapped resource: a practical guide to using public libraries (and librarians)

If you write and draw picture books, you likely have a bookshelf or two full of your go-to resources. You may even have a pile of books that you haven’t read yet. What you may not know is that you have another source of books that belongs to you and to your entire community—your public library—and chances are, you’ve probably only scratched the surface of what’s available. You don’t need to be an academic or a researcher to access research books and special collections; illustrators, authors, and casual readers are welcome. And it’s all free. It can be an intimidating system to navigate, so I spoke with some librarians to get some practical information on their amazing collections and how kidlit creators can utilize it all.

The author of this article poking through a favorite from the Free Library of Philadelphia
Despite having worked in and with libraries for the past 10 years, my relationship is pretty casual; I go in, browse around, get what I need, and generally want to be left alone by the staff. I sort of treat a library like a store. My local library is the Mission branch of the San Francisco Public Library, and I swing through it on my way home to browse the new books shelf, grab any holds, and poke around the carefully-curated displays that line the tops of shelves in the children’s department. SFPL has a great collection, I can almost always find what I’m looking for within their system, and it’s particularly exciting to to see books by people who go to SCBWI conferences (not to mention folks who also write for this blog).
But by treating libraries as places to scuttle in and out of with your holds (by treating it like a store), you’re missing one of the best resources in the library: the people who work there. Librarians, particularly at the branch level, are invested in knowing their community really well, and purchasing books that reflect and enrich it (for example, the Mission Library has a large spanish-language collection).

 Beyond being embedded in their communities, librarians are trained in helping patrons to access information. One of the librarians at the Mission branch helped me to find heavily-illustrated middle grade books featuring non-white protagonists. I had done a cursory google search combined with some amazon recommendations, but talking with her was a distinctly different experience: she gave me some recommendations based on what she knew was popular, we looked through some books together and talked about comics, and I walked away that day with American Born Chinese.

Finding resources for kidlit inspiration shouldn’t end in the children’s department. I spoke with Alina Josan at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Parkway Central library Art Department about what they have available (so much amazing stuff), and who can access it (anyone). Like the curated book displays at the Mission library, Josan has curated a number of exhibits around items in the collection that she’s excited about and wants to share. For example, the show I saw when I visited over Memorial Day weekend was called The Art of Comics. It was amazing, with a number of books I had only heard of before and never seen.

photo from the Free Library blog piece on the Art of Comics
The label for each of these pieces includes the item’s call number. That means that once the exhibit comes down in two weeks, you can hold them in your hand, sketch from them, take photos, and more. You don’t need a library card to look at these materials. You don’t even need to be a Philadelphia resident, you can be visiting from Tucson, you just need to show an ID.

There are also special collections dedicated to children’s literature, ephemera and printed books, one of which is also at the Free Library of Philadelphia, and you, as a writer or illustrator, or a casual reader, can access any of these things. The Children’s Literature Research Collection (CLRC) is one of the largest research collections dedicated to children’s literature in a public library at 80,000-90,000 volumes, with both rare or out-of-print materials as well as artist materials.

from the dummy for RUFUS by Tomi Ungerer

from the dummy for CRICTOR by Tomi Ungerer

Christopher Brown is the Special Collections Curator at CLRC, and he mentioned that everyone is welcome to use the collection. When you meet with Brown, you are getting the individualized attention from a specialist; an expert who is enthusiastic to share the collection with you, a collection that includes dummies from Tomi Ungerer, William Steig, and Lloyd Alexander; art from Katherine Milhous, N.C. Wyeth, and Virginia Lee Burton (like every single scrap from LIFE STORY); the entire collection of children’s book week posters, and a growing collection of items from folks making picture books now, including Angela Dominguez, Isabel Roxas, Greg Pizzoli, Zach Ohora, Lauren Castillo, and more.

from MARIA HAD A LITTLE LLAMA, Angela Dominguez (2015)
Know that you have to set up an appointment (call or email), and they’ll do their best to accommodate and welcome you. You can't just show up like you can in the Art department, particularly now because their materials are held in offsite storage while the building is going through renovations. You don’t need a library card (again just an ID). Brown said that mostly people use the collection to find inspiration, or to see how something was made, and when they have questions about an individual piece (e.g., “was this made with gouache?”) they typically have a direct line of contact to the creator of the estate directly to get answers.

drawings from MR. POPPER'S PENGUINS by Robert Lawson

Another reason to call or email and ask for materials, rather than search the Free Library’s catalog online, is that only around 50% of the CLRC is digitally catalogued. The catalog was originally archived through a physical card catalog, and with so many materials and a small department, the staff is in a very long game of catch-up. So if you want to get a sense for what they have, you have to ask.

Asking for help can be intimidating at a place like the FLP, particularly if you’re coming from the stance of “I’m just a humble doodler, I’m not a researcher with the backing of an academic institution.” You’re wrong, anyone can access this stuff. Personally, I have a hard time approaching anyone at a desk (I can barely talk to people on the phone), and with the FLP you literally enter a marble atrium, ascend a marble staircase, and enter a huge room with some people sitting behind a large officious desk. All of these librarians I talked to reassured me that all writers and illustrators need to just ask. The librarian is there because they know their stuff, and they want to help you find resources. A good place to start is by telling them what you like and what you’re looking to see (I mentioned that I was really into Kuniyoshi and stories of yokai, and Josan pointed me to their early edition collection of Hokusai’s manga):

Many larger urban libraries contain some other not-often seen gems, like the circulating picture collections at the FLP and NYPL. Imagine google image search, before the era of the internet. There are dozens of file cabinets full of tear-sheets, brochures, and other ephemera, and it’s categorized by subject. You can actually check these out too if you have a card:

from the circulating picture collection, FLP

would never have found these otherwise

Your library card can also get you free passes to museums. A couple of weeks ago I used my card to get a pass to see the Roz Chast show at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (which was so good), and before that I used it to get into the Pacific Pinball Museum (highly recommended also). I also use my card to get e-books, audiobooks, and movies. 

 If you know there’s a book you really want to look at, but your library doesn’t have it in their collection, talk to your librarian about a service called interlibrary loan to request the book be sent to your library from another institution. For this you need a library card. Another option if your library doesn’t have a certain book is to make a request that the library purchases that book. 

 I do so much research online through google and social media because it’s convenient. These platforms are a useful vehicle for inspiration because other people whose tastes you share and like are now accessible; you can see what they’re working on, what materials they use, and what they’re inspired by. But I wonder if there’s a creative downside to using social media and the internet as your primary and singular source of visual inspiration, a sort of creative inbreeding that might be happening when you look at the same source materials that a lot of other people are also looking at. Searching for and finding materials in person, looking at items that aren’t archived on the internet, yields much richer results. It’s a different experience when you look through a stack of books for inspiration and talk to someone about what you’re finding exciting, versus doing some google image searches or taking screenshots of other people’s posts. 

OHO! A book that can be read left to right and upside down by the Whistler brothers (1946)

 Beyond the personal creative gain in using libraries, there is a larger political reason why you should use them: turnstile clicks count. The more these special collections and resources are used, the more libraries can advocate for their existence. In the latest FY 2018 budget proposal, President Trump has called for the elimination of the Institute for Museum and Library Services, the main source of federal support for libraries and museums in the United States. While most books aren’t purchased with federal funding, IMLS funds things like promoting access to resources, improving library services, encouraging resource sharing between libraries, and promoting librarianship amongst people of color in the communities they grew up in. This elimination reflects a stance that books, libraries, and the specialization that they offer are not important and not worth preserving. You can prove them wrong by getting a library card, using your library, and getting your friends to use it too. 

 I can’t encourage people enough to use libraries for inspiration, particularly special collections. I personally am so accustomed to paying for resources and materials in person -- going to a museum, seeing a show, that I often forget that many things are available to us for free. Buying books, period, is expensive, nevermind rare or out-of-print books, and when you purchase books or use something like google for inspiration, you’re not getting the help of someone who knows how to find materials, or has come across something amazing in their collection that they’re dying to share with someone.

K-Fai Steele writes and draws, and she lives in San Francisco. She has worked for the Free Library of Philadelphia, and now works with a bunch of libraries (and museums) through the National Writing Project. You can see more of her drawings on Instagram.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Repeating Patterns, the Quick and Easy Way

Making complex repeating patterns can actually be quite simple.

Start by drawing something on the center of your page. I decided on a pattern of overlapping elephants. (And please forgive my terrible pictures from my phone.) Make sure your drawing doesn't touch the edge.

Next, cut the drawing in half vertically and horizontally. Make sure to do this as precisely as possible.

Rearrange the pieces so that the outside corners are now in the center.

Line up the four corners and tape them together, again as precisely as possible, then fill up the center space with the remainder of your pattern. Again, make sure that your lines don't go out to the edges.
Next, I scanned the image and inked over it in Photoshop.

Then colored in Photoshop.

Next, select your entire image, and, in Photoshop, go to Edit>Define Pattern.

Now, create a new file, or select an area in an image that you want to fill with your pattern.
In Photoshop, go to Edit>Fill and from the popup window, choose Pattern. From the Custom Pattern dropdown, choose the pattern you had just defined from the list and click OK.

You may have to tweak your pattern a bit to make sure the lines and colors line up, so keep your original file with your pattern open so you can make changes to it, and then you can define your pattern again in Photoshop. You can easily delete custom patterns by right clicking on them and deleting them from the list in the Custom Patterns dropdown.

Here's the final pattern! Quick and easy!

Monday, May 22, 2017

Into The Mind Cave We Go

As illustrators we are often asked the same round of questions over and over again:

“Why are you so amazing?”

“ Would you care to get into my van?” 

And in an obvious progression, “ Can I wear your skin?” ­

(If you’re not very visual please picture a bunch of illustrators reading along, nodding their heads in our shared experience.)

And after we’ve all answered:

“ Because I was lucky and figured out a trolls riddle.”

“No thanks I sit all day drawing so I probably need to walk.” 

And, “I wouldn’t advise it since I’m very pale, from said sitting, and my pallor wont match your eyes.”

Inevitably we will all be asked, “ Where oh where do you get your ideas?” I know…I’m amazing at transitions.

So I thought I’d share with you all the little obsessions that lead the way to one of my finished pieces (fyi I will be abandoning the serial killer humour from here on out, so if that’s why you came you may leave, and if not…well its over now so calm down). 

Into the mind cave we go!

It all starts with the base layer obsession. Mine happens to be any and all things that remind me of home and the book Longing For Darkness: Kamantes Tales from Out of Africa fits the bill here. 

It's filled with wonky giraffes, the sentence:  " Once the machine for washing caught fire and a bag of coffee roasted" and there's even a deranged something chasing a dog. 

Its perfect.  

page from Longing For Darkness

Now it's time to add a level of experimentation to the mix. It is imperative that I use a piece to practice something I'm interested in, otherwise the work comes out stale or worse I am bored to death creating it. At one time it was to figure out how to draw children and another it was composition. These days what really gets my attention is layering. Not the kind with clean, perfect lines. Im obsessed with obvious, almost amateur layering. 

a little practice with layering done in my sketchbook.

 experimental painting 

And finally the random stumbled upon magic. I'll show you what I mean. I don't usually know what colours I'm going to use for a piece, but for a while now I've been obsessed and its all because of these...

Wait what? Do you mean to say that you're obsessed with dead leaves? uuuh YA. They used to be green. I was lazy. I left them in a cup and forgot to water them. One day I looked up and there you have it. A bunch of GORGEOUS, very dead, yellow leaves.  Leaves that I wanted to use somehow but ended up only doodling about.

sketchbook page

Pro tip, never underestimate the doodle. The doodle is where I get many of my ideas. See that yellow blob with the dots on it? It sort of looks like a cheetah's fur right?

Put it all together and what do you get?

Final piece: "Pink Moon" watercolour & Graphite

Monday, May 1, 2017

COLOR, the printing process, and Stack the Cats!

I think a lot about color.

As an illustrator: selecting color is an important consideration in the emotional and graphic effect your work is going to have. But it's also an important consideration from a technical perspective of where your work will appear -- whether you're sharing your artwork on screen on your website or blog, or in print in a book or portfolio.

When setting up your artwork for reproduction, generally CMYK is for printed material (CMYK = Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and blacK... no idea why they didn't just make it CMYB) and RGB is for art that will appear on screens.

On printed material, white appears only as the absence of color. Your page is white when there is no ink on it. C, M, Y, and K layer to produce the effect of many colors on top of a white surface. (additive color)

But on a screen, you need all the colors on to light it up to white. Your screen is black when there is no red, green, or blue illuminating it. (adding color to make it white = subtractive) You can run a damp cloth across your computer screen to see a demonstration of how much color actually goes into making white appear on screen!

While you can create a spectrum of colors with CMYK, it's not the same spectrum as RGB. Many images, especially those created digitally (i.e. with a digital camera or drawing native to the computer as with a Wacom tablet or iPad), render in RGB colors, so the colors or vibrancy of the image will change on the printout because the two color spaces have different ranges.


PRO TIP: there's a function in the color picker in Photoshop that can show you the closest CMYK tone to an RGB color. Using this will help you minimize and plan for the shifts that occur in printing.

Use the Color Picker in Photoshop to find the closest CMYK tone

Mastery of RGB might be great if you're creating an e-book or a digital teacher's guide to accompany your book, or optimizing your images to share on your website. So, just because your work may be created to print in CMYK, don't think you can't forget about adjusting your images for RGB as well! 

Your website and your books will have a polish to them if you can think about how color space and printing can help your artwork.

When digital artists are creating a printed portfolio of their work, it may be worth the investment to have your images printed as giclée prints -- a type of professionally produced, high quality inkjet print that uses LOTS of ink colors, not just CMYK, to more accurately reproduce what you see on screen:

For accuracy of printed color, you can also create artwork reliant on the Pantone Color Matching System (PMS). The Pantone books are expensive, usually a couple hundred dollars, but are essential for any kind of printed design that uses distinct color separations (i.e. silkscreening as is done with t-shirts, or letterpress) 

Pantone is not used for screen based artwork because screens are not a consistent medium, and screens are RGB by default. Usually for on screen color matching, people use the bin hex system at a coding level (it usually looks something like "#6de52a" -- you'll see a section for this in Color Picker in Photoshop as well) 

Many corporations have a signature Pantone color for their logo, which is why Tiffany Blue appears as the exact same color wherever you see it. 

The Pantone guide is a series of color swatches similar to paint store samples, and each is assigned a number and a corresponding formula that any printer can use to replicate that exact color without noticeable variation. 

This is what a Pantone color book looks like
Susie Ghahremani at her computer
Here's a photo my friend Suzanne Strong took of me assigning Pantone swatches to some art to be silkscreened.
One way Pantone colors might come up in your Kid Lit artwork:  On several of my picture books, my publisher asked me to assign a coordinating Pantone color for the text and printed it as a fifth color over the CMYK artwork

My artwork was painted on wood, so those files were created for CMYK printing. But by assigning a 5th color on top of the CMYK -- a Pantone color -- we could print the text in a complementary way to the artwork (it's printed here in a brown tone, harmonizing with the warmth of the artwork rather than a heavy black!) All of my digital files of my hand lettered text were purely black and white, but they appear brown in the books due to the printing process.

This is also a practical choice: the books can be altered for foreign translations without making changes to the CMYK artwork. Same CMYK art, new 5th Pantone layer for the text.

What Will Hatch? picture book in English and Korean

This brings me to an exciting moment in this already-too-long post:

Tomorrow I'll be celebrating the release of my author debut, Stack the Cats

And I created this book entirely using Pantone color separations!

My wonderful publisher Abrams Appleseed was very supportive of this frankly insane decision. 

I wanted the artwork to have a high energy, graphic appearance to it similar to silkscreened artwork but with the softness of painted lines, so I made a choice about the printing process to complete the effect, and created all the artwork specifically for this production process.

Stack the Cats by Susie Ghahremani comes out on May 2nd!

Aside from the normal challenges of developing my manuscript and book dummy (dummies, let's be honest. There were a LOT of versions!), creating the final artwork for Stack the Cats meant:

  1. Painting every spread in gouache on paper
  2. Scanning and importing the paintings to my computer
  3. Setting them up in Photoshop as 4 color files with corresponding Pantone channels (not CMYK or RGB!)
  4. Separating and coloring my artwork so each color is its own piece of artwork! It took four separate images layered to create a single final image -- see below!
  5. Creating overlap on every tiny line where colors meet so if the printing alignment was off, the artwork would still print faithfully (also known as trapping. This was an incredibly technical and particularly annoying aspect of the art making)
  6. Doing a million test prints with my publisher to ensure this ambitious experiment was going to come out the way we hoped
  7. Refining, refining, refining.
Color separated artwork for Stack the Cats by Susie Ghahremani
Color separated artwork for Stack the Cats by Susie Ghahremani

This digital file looks pretty different from the colors of my final art because I worked with Pantone colors, not those pesky RGB colors that appear on screen. So even through many stages of printed proofs, it was never really known exactly how the final artwork would look because the Pantone colors layer in ways our computers can't accurately depict.

But I'm so pleased with the vibrant, tactile result! It's exactly what I was going for. And that black cat with his tongue out? Since it's the result of layered Pantones, he's a richer tone than I'd ever be able to achieve with CMYK!

Stack the Cats by Susie Ghahremani

Making color separations out of my painted art was a serious technical challenge, but it's one our illustration predecessors were bound to! In a time before computers, materials such as meticulously trimmed rubylith film were used to assign bold colors under hand-drawn lines. Artists like Dr. Seuss were known for their signature, limited use of color, but it may have been a limitation of the printing process itself that he used to his advantage!

Take a look at your kid's book collection. How do you see artists using the printing process to make their books have greater emotional impact?

Susie Ghahremani is an award-winning illustrator and obviously also a major design nerd.
Her author-illustrator debut titled STACK THE CATS releases TOMORROW!

Come celebrate with her at an upcoming book event! Visit her site at or follow Susie at @boygirlparty on instagram or Facebook for the latest updates.

She'll be at the SCBWI summer conference! Will you?

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Connecting With Young Readers Via School Skypevisits: A Basic Intro For Children's Book Illustrators - by Debbie Ridpath Ohi

When my first children's book came out was published, I was torn. Part of me was excited about talking to young readers about it but the other part was terrified about talking to young readers about it. Why the latter? Because having no children of my own and little experience talking to crowds of young people, I didn't know where to begin. Other factors: I don't drive, which limited the number of schools I could reach locally. My work schedule is pretty busy these days, so using a local transit to visit a school on the other side of Toronto could mean spending 3 hours on subway and buses for a half hour visit.

And this is where virtual visits using Skype or Google Hangouts are so great in my situation. I can work in the morning, take a break during my lunch hour to do a Skypevisit with a school that is thousands of miles away, then go back to work.

As a nervous newbie, I found that speaking to kids from the comfort of my home office was easier than jumping into in-person appearances right away. I've since grown to love talking to kids in person and actually do prefer in-person appearances now. In fact, I leave on my Sea Monkey & Bob Book Tour tomorrow, woohoo!

Though I prefer in-person visits now, I find that time and geography still make Skypevisits my go-to when it comes to connecting with schools.

I am SO grateful to my children's book author friend, Lee Wardlaw, who generously offered me advice when I first started using Skype to connect with schools. Lee was actually my very first professional mentor as well! I strongly recommend you check out her Presentations page, where you'll find her tips for having a successful Skype visit. Her advice is geared toward educators, but children's book illustrators can learn a lot from this info as well.

Here is what I use for my own Skypevisits:

- A Logitech HD Pro webcam hooked up to my Mac. I am VERY happy with this webcam. Good quality video and sound, and I can tilt the camera.

- A Parrott headset microphone. Sorry for not including a link or model number, but I bought it many years ago, and I don't think it's available anymore. You can do Skypevisits with just your webcam microphone too, of course! I like the headset, though, because I figure it improves audio when I'm talking.

- A portable easel. I keep this folded up in the corner of my office and just take it out for Skypevisits. For the paper, I bought a couple of these easel pads in the beginning but since they're expensive, have just kept one for the backing and use other/cheaper paper for presentations instead -- I use painter's tape to tape up sheets in advance. My husband also found a giant roll of blank newsprint paper for me to use, and I've been ripping off sheets from that.

- Sharpie flipchart markers. I like these because the ink doesn't soak through to the next sheet of paper.

You also need to make sure you have a reliable Internet connection. I always try to do a brief test Skypecall with the educator or librarian ahead of time (also a fun way to connect with educators and librarians!).

Also double-check timezones when scheduling a visit! When a librarian and I were scheduling my talk with her students in Hong Kong (see above photo), we had to account for not only the time change but also the date difference!

What I include in my Skypevisits:

It depends on whether I'm giving a free 15-minute Skypevisit Q&A or a regular paid visit. Sometimes I do a reading (and if the school's connection is good enough, I sometimes have the students help me), talk about how I write and illustrate books, show sketches and materials and things in my office (another advantage of virtual visits), do a drawing demo or fun interactive drawing exercise, answer questions. I've also done art workshops, where students are prepped with their own clipboards, paper and drawing materials.

I lack the time and post space to include the details of how to do a Skypevisit, but there is a ton info online. Also see my post about what I learned after doing my first Skypevisit. If people are interested enough (please comment below if you are), I'm happy to do follow-up tips in future blog posts with more info including how to let schools know you're available for a virtual visit, etc.

If you're curious, you can find out more about how I do Skypevisits, what I talk about, what I charge etc.  on my virtual visits page. And if you have anything to share about your own experiences, please post below! Also feel free to comment below if you'd like me to post more about Skypevisits.

While nothing can replace in-person visits, I do believe that virtual visits can have an impact on young readers. Plus they're FUN. :-)

Some related resources:

Presentations by Lee Wardlaw (includes great Skype visit tips)

(Note: these are 15-20 minute free Skypevisit Q&A sessions. Most authors charge a regular fee for longer visits. Be aware that there are many authors and illustrators out there who make part of their living with paid school visits.)


Debbie Ridpath Ohi is the author and illustrator of Where Are My Books? She has four new books coming out in 2017: Sea Monkey & Bob (Simon & Schuster),  Mitzi Tulane in The Secret Ingredient (Random House) Ruby Rose, Big Bravos (HarperCollins), and her second solo picture book Sam & Eva (Simon & Schuster). You can find Debbie on Twitter: @inkyelbows and Instagram at @inkygirl.