Coffee with Kathi and Kelly, Singin’ the Blues…

h1 February 23rd, 2010 by jules

I’m having cyber-coffee this morning with Kathi Appelt and Kelly Murphy. However, since I’m feeling a bit under the weather (You know how getting the flu shot can momentarily give you flu-like symptoms? Yeah. That.), I’m going to keep this introduction short. It goes something like this: Kathi wrote a picture book, which Kelly illustrated, and it was published last December by HarperCollins. It’s called Brand-New Baby Blues. I actually haven’t read it yet. That’s right. Haven’t read it yet, though I’ve seen snippets here and snippets there. But I still wanted Kathi and Kelly to visit and talk a bit about the book, as I generally like what they do and am interested in getting my library copy soon. I know, I know: I usually give you my opinion of a book, but humor my temporarily achy self here. When I read the book later, if I think your happiness as a reader is in jeopardy, I’ll come back and warn you. Somehow, I doubt this.

The book, all about a young girl’s attempts to acclimate to life with her baby brother, which prompts her to sing the blues of the picture book’s title, is “funny and concise,” wrote Kirkus. Here’s what else they said:

…the rollicking rhyme bounces along, accepting the frustration natural to the situation, while gently allowing the girl’s love of and appreciation for her brother, as well as her anticipation of a future playmate, to gradually shine through. The process is complemented by the illustrations, which modulate in palette from angry blues and greens to sunny yellows, while serene compositions replace off-kilter ones. Older brothers and sisters will easily identify with this jaunty heroine and profit from her realizations — an excellent choice for a new older sibling.

So, without further ado, I welcome Kathi and Kelly. Since Kelly’s up, getting us some biscotti for our coffee, Kathi is up first:

Kathi: A few years ago, I was standing in line at the check out, my cart full of groceries, waiting for what seemed forever for the line to diminish. In front of me was a young mother with her brand new baby, all curled up in the baby carrier, nesting in the cart. Beside her was her own mother (the grandmother), and next to them was a toddler who came completely undone. Tired of waiting, furious at not being able to nest in the cart with her baby brother, and just out and out mad at the world, the toddler just started screaming.

We’re talking rip-roaring, full-throttled, fingernails-on-the-chalkboard screaming.

If I could have escaped, I would have, but alas, the line was stalled and all of the others were just as long, and besides, there was no escaping the screaming anyways. It filled up the entire store.

So, I just stood there praying for mercy and sending mental threats to the young cashier: “Get with it, honey, or we’re all going to go stark raving mad!” Clearly her threat-receiving radar was turned off, because the screaming didn’t seem to phase her.

And just when I thought I might crawl right out of my skin, the grandmother reached down, picked up the crying toddler, and—in the kindest voice imaginable—said, “It’s okay, honey, you’ve just got the new baby blues.”

Right then, I knew I’d been given a gift. Not only was it one of those gifts in the form of a lesson, it was a gift in the form of the sweet love that only a grandmother might be able to offer up. I took it home with me, sure that I had just witnessed something holy.

And it was that sense of being given a gift that inspired my story. But when I sat down to write it, I knew that it wasn’t supposed to be told from the grandmother’s point-of-view, or even from mine. Instead, I tried to channel that big sister and all of her disgruntlement. Being the mother of two boys, I had clearly witnessed the mixed emotions that my older son felt about his baby brother. And herein is where the blues reigns supreme. At the heart of a blues song is a mixture of remorse, heartache, and redemption. That’s what I was going for.

Kelly’s art captures that. I especially love the way she uses the background colors. They remind me of the steel guitar chords that accompany a good blues singer. At the beginning of the book, Kelly paints it all purple, the color of royalty, and as the book moves forward, we can see the background changing, first to a kind of muddy brown, then to that green, green, greener which amplifies the disdain and envy that my young singer is feeling, the guitar is wailing now, until finally she begins to “lighten up,” with the sunny yellows that infuse the last part of the book. And throughout, she has this kind of “cloud” that swirls about, serving as a thread to bring the colors together. I thought it was brilliant.

What I hope for the book is that the readers sing it. Blues. They do a body good.

* * * * * * *

Kelly: Brand New Baby Blues crossed my desk quite some time ago. It was the fifth picture book I had worked on — but was released almost six years after that! There’s learned skill behind making picture books … and its name is time management. Many things need to be synced in order to produce these books, and—hopefully, with no consequence—I will guiltily admit meeting that deadline is somewhat dependent upon myself, the illustrator. I assume every illustrator is different, but creating picture book artwork takes me roughly six months. Sometimes a bit longer. Because of other freelance work, chapter novels, teaching, and normal every day-to-day life, I’m discovering two picture books is quite the load. I’m constantly trying to challenge this magic number and let me tell you… it’s not easy! Thank goodness for HarperCollin’s and Kathi Appelt’s patience. I am hoping that 2010 is the year of many brand-new babies, whether children or new projects!

After reading the manuscript, a world of cute quickly came to form. Kathi’s story had a young child’s world being rearranged by a new “monster” in the house, so I figured the characters needed to be simplified but sweet. Being the youngest of seven children, I was never exposed to life with a younger sibling, so I needed inspiration somewhere other than my memory. I quickly turned to friends and brothers who were starting their families, taking note of their decorations, counter tops, toys, baby products, and—most importantly—emotions that the young families were going through. I start with character sketches that I can send to the editor for quick assurance that I am heading in the right direction. After that, tiny thumbnails then get enlarged to the full working size, which is polished off with rough text layout. Because of Kathi’s wonderful song-like verse, I took a stab at handwriting the text and played around with the refrain being on a curve. I was thrilled that simple decision was carried through with the designer.

(Click to enlarge.)

Below is the process of painting — from sketch to building up tonal layers in oils and adding punch with an acrylic color layer. Most of the spreads have between five to seven layers of oil and acrylic.

What’s up next? This will officially be my tenth year of illustrating, and I am really jazzed I’ve made it this far. I’d like to involve more drawing and looseness to my paintings, so I am forever trying to squeeze in an experimental piece from time to time. Over At The Castle, written by Boni Ashburn, will be hitting shelves this March. In addition to the fantastical dragon aspect, I hope people enjoy the subtle learning devices Boni has used to visually show medieval culture. I know I had a blast researching medieval kitchens! Also, keep your eyes open for Haunted Houses: Are You Scared Yet?, written by Robert San Souci and illustrated by me and my husband, Antoine Revoy. It’s a book to really show off our darker side.

* * * * * * *

Thanks to Kathi and Kelly. Until next time . . .

* * * * * * *

All illustrations and sketches used with permission of Kelly Murphy. All rights reserved.

10 comments to “Coffee with Kathi and Kelly, Singin’ the Blues…”

  1. Lovely interview! What a treat to read the inside scoop on Kathi and Kelly’s newest book. Thanks!

  2. Did somebody say “medieval kitchens”? Looks like I have two books to keep a special eye out for — Over at the Castle and Brand-New Baby Blues! Kathi’s story about the check-out line was great. What a special grandmother!

  3. Thanks, Dianne.

    Jama, did you see the first book Kelly and Boni did, Hush, Little Dragon? So very good.

  4. I put Brand-New Baby Blues on order. I already have Over at the Castle on order, too, but it hasn’t come in yet. Soon, though. Soon.

    I’m sorry about your Not Flu. I got the Not Flu when I finally broke down and got my shot a few weeks ago. It wasn’t as bad as the flu (or as I understand the flu to be–not sure I’ve ever even had it), but I found it slowing me down quite a bit nonetheless.

  5. Ooooooo, two of my favorites.

    The nonpareil Kathi who moves smoothly between novels and picture books and is an incredible teacher as well (you get a glimpse of that fierce ability to understand the interplay of text and art in her comments here.)

    And Kelly, with whom I am (be still my heart!) working on a picture book even as we speak. She combines impeccable drawing skills with whimsy and snarkiness and a delicious color palette.

    You go, ladies!


  6. Great interview, despite the flu-like symptoms. Hope you are feeling better.
    I love to read HOW the book idea came to be. And to see how the art progressed. I can’t wait to add it to my preschool storytelling performances.

  7. This looks so great! LOVE Kelly’s work, so each new book of hers is a nice treat for me!

    Thanks for sharing, even without having seen the book.

  8. I’ve loved Kelly’s work all the way back when she did “Boll Weevil’s Ball” Her work (especially her color palette) has just gotten better over the years. Those seven layers really pay off. And who can’t relate to Kathi’s story of the screaming baby in the grocery line? Great interview ladies!

  9. I just love Kathi’s take on kids – their initial”digruntlement” and then the possibility of “remorse, heartache and redemption.” She doesn’t dumb anything down for them; instead, she is a champion for their complications. Kathi, you are a treasure! Neat comments about the color palette, too. Can’t wait to see this one.

  10. YAY! I really looooove Kelly Murphy’s illustrations….. go, Kelly, go!

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