One Picture-Book Roundtable Discussion
Before Breakfast with Author Boni Ashburn at the Lead
(featuring Kelly Murphy, Maggie Lehrman, Chad W. Beckerman, and Julia Denos)

h1 August 31st, 2010 by jules

I love this post, yet I can’t take credit for the idea.

You all remember 2008’s Hush, Little Dragon (Abrams), written by Boni Ashburn and illustrated by Kelly Murphy, yes? I loved this delightfully subversive, subtly ghoulish little wonder, what the San Francisco Chronicle called “Sweeney Todd for the sandbox set” (it brought “a welcome tartness to mother love,” wrote the Washington Post), in which a mama dragon and her wee dragon settle down for the night (set to the tune of Hush, Little Baby), pondering which of the villagers in their medieval home they will snack upon in the way of a bed-time treat.

Well, Boni has written a sequel, released by Abrams this March, in which we visit the same dragons and village, and this time it’s set to the tune of Over in the Meadow, making this one a counting book, as well. Over at the Castle brings Boni and Kelly together again. And when I asked Boni about visiting 7-Imp to talk about the new title, she had a pretty kickin’ idea, and that would be to ask three other folks the same four questions she answered, in order to bring us unique perspectives on the process of picture-book-making: the illustrator, Kelly Murphy (who rendered this title in acrylic, oil, and gel medium); the editor, Maggie Lehrman; and the art director/book designer, Chad W. Beckerman. I love the idea so much I want to build a wayback machine and actually go to the prom, taking the idea as my date. (Shut up! No, I didn’t go. My contrarian friends and I filmed a horror-movie spoof that night instead, but I digress.) I even think it’d be fun to consider doing similar posts in the future. Kudos to Boni for the idea!

The new title is playful, suspenseful, and full of amusing details for observant eyes. Let’s get right to it, and I thank all four folks for stopping by — and for sharing some spreads from the book (some with text; some without)…

7-Imp: What was your first impression or reaction to the Hush manuscript?

Boni: I had so much fun writing Hush! My husband, however, thought I’d gone off the deep end, and so did my critique group. But I really felt I had something that worked, so I pursued it. There is a long history of dark humor in children’s literature, and I kind of wanted to be a part of that — smart, funny books that respect kids are so awesome. I’m just really grateful Maggie felt the same way and pulled my manuscript from the slush pile!

Kelly: Honestly? Ohmigod, I get to illustrate a whole book with dragons? AWESOME. Instantly, I knew that the playful manuscript had a lot of room for character, humor, and environment. And I was super excited to research the different types of dragons within a broad range of cultures.

Maggie: I first read Hush in 2005, soon after I started at Abrams. I knew as soon as I read it that it was something special — it was just so surprising! When you’re reading manuscripts for a long period of time, you see the same things over and over. I remember when I first read Hush, I had to go back and start again immediately, because I couldn’t believe an author had been so audacious in her concept. I was very lucky that the rest of the Abrams team thought it was funny, too—it’s a pleasure to work with people who have well-developed senses of humor—and then a few short years later, it became a book.

Chad: At first glance, we were worried: How are we going to pull off people getting attacked and eaten by dragons and not freak people out? Other than that, it seemed to be a fresh take on the lullaby. Kelly Murphy, I believe, really saved the day. She was able to create dragons that were more ‘human’ than the actual people; this was helped by contrasting the dragons against how she illustrated the people, with very limited details. This helps us identify with the dragons more than we did with the poor souls that were being attacked.

7-Imp: Describe a part of the Castle process that was challenging or surprising, taking into consideration that it is a sequel.

Boni: I had just sold Hush and wanted to do a re-working of the song Over In The Meadow. I found a lot of animal-habitat versions of the song but very few with human characters. I thought a castle setting would be perfect, but it was a bit of a challenge working the dragons and the dark humor from Hush into it, too. Castle actually had a different ending originally, a darker destiny for all those castle-dwellers, but we decided to change it — it was a little too straight-up scary. Fortunately, Kelly was able to weave some wonderful humor into the illustrations via a sub-plot with the prisoner in the dungeon. It ended up being my favorite part of the book!

“Over at the castle, in the dungeon, still alive,
Scheme the old wily prisoner and his pet rats five.
‘Plan!’ says the prisoner. ‘We plan!’ say the five.
So they plan their great escape, in the dungeon, still alive.”

Kelly: With the characters and painting style already in place, the real challenge was with the composition and scene changes. Because of the numbered structure to the story, I had to make sure that for the younger audience it was easy for them to follow along, but still engaging enough for the older children to learn about medieval life. With Hush, I did not do as much research into the architectural construction of these walled sites. With such a varied cast, and much of it taking place indoors, I knew I should get some solid reference before I started sketching.

“Over at the castle, in a tower up to heaven,
Toil the old woman weaver and her little weavers seven.
‘Spin!’ says the woman. ‘We spin!’ say the seven.
So they spin all day in the tower up to heaven.”

Maggie: Castle is a bit of an unusual sequel, because the main characters (the dragons) from the first book are more like secondary characters in this one. In addition, the book has several new elements—lots of new characters and a counting book format—that meant we had to approach it a little differently. We wanted to make sure that the dragons were still a big presence, even though the town takes on more of an important role. Also, in Hush Kelly had conceived the dragons as these adorable, big-eyed cuddlies and the townspeople as much more interchangeable (wisely, in order to lessen the effect of the “eating people” plot), and so focusing more on the people might have been more of a challenge for her…. I loved getting to see more of the town. You really get a sense of the busy life they lead — with the dragons peeking over their shoulders at every turn.

Chad: Unlike Hush, this book now was centered around the people of the castle. So, basically, it was the opposite problem of Hush. Now we needed to make the people more human.

“Over at the castle, in the hall grand and great,
Dance the guests at the party, a festive group of eight.
‘Eat and drink!’ says the lord. ‘Be merry!’ cry the eight.
So they dance, eat, and drink in the hall grand and great.”

(Click to enlarge spread.)

7-Imp: How did the finished books vary or evolve from your initial vision of the books?

Boni: When I wrote Hush, I envisioned silly, cartoonish illustrations — mostly to counterbalance the dark humor. For my school visits, I commissioned a friend of mine, Ruth McNally Barshaw (who writes and illustrates the Ellie McDoodle series) to paint a picture of the dragon I saw in my head — so that kids can see how different they are from what I imagined. It’s a visual demonstration of the magic of picture books — many people collaborate to produce one vision, and it often evolves into something unexpected, but better. Kelly is a total genius, and my dragons are so much cooler than I thought they’d be!

“Over at the castle, under clear, dark skies,
All the weary people rest and heave great sighs.
They gaze out their windows with drowsy eyes
As the castle yawns under clear, dark skies.
Then . . .”

Kelly: I initially had done a few cut-out characters for the dragons. I loved the way their jointed bodies moved and how it might be fun to set up each page with the freedom of moving them around a small stage until I got the perfect moment. But I always did know that I wanted the castle and it inhabitants to take on this sort of doll-like presence. I think it was a palatable way of having them being tormented by these dragons, like the Doozers with the fraggles in Fraggle Rock.

Maggie: Boni may have already shared this story with you, but I think one of the most interesting things is how the ending evolved. The text didn’t change, but we discovered somewhere along the process that we had completely different interpretations as to what was actually happening in the story. I had always imagined something like the fireworks you see in the book — but Boni had envisioned somewhat of more destructive ending, with the dragons attacking rather than entertaining. I think that the tone of the sequel is a bit more community-based and sweeter than Hush, and though the twist ending would have made sense for the dragons of the first book, I think a moment of coming-together worked as well — and Kelly really captured that community feeling. I’m glad we could see eye-to-eye on it!

Chad: Interesting question. I am not really sure I had a vision for these books. If anything, I let the process speak toward their evolution.

7-Imp: What’s next for you?

Boni: My next book with Abrams is called I Had A Favorite Dress. This book was pure joy to write. It just flowed from my pen to the page in a way not all books do. It’s being illustrated by the very talented Julia Denos and comes out in the fall of 2011. My other 2011 book is being published by Sterling and is called Builder Goose: It’s Construction Rhyme Time. I’ve seen the sketches, and it’s going to be adorable! And I’ve just sold a couple of new books — one to Beach Lane, who does such fabulous picture books, and another one to Abrams. (So, I get to keep working with Maggie too — yay!) Both of those will hopefully be out in 2012.

{Ed. Note: Pictured above and right is, Julia tells me, “one of the many little concepts I did for the main character’s ‘favorite dress,'” though it’s not her actual favorite, for the forthcoming I Had a Favorite Dress. Julia will be visiting 7-Imp soon for a breakfast chat.}

Kelly: Well, Haunted Houses: Are You Scared Yet?, written by Robert San Souci and illustrated by my husband Antoine Revoy and me, was released in July. It’s got a boatload of spooky pen-and-ink drawings that were a blast to create.

I have also finished up the paintings for my next picture book, Creeping Monsters, Sleeping Monsters, written by Jane Yolen, published by Candlewick Press. I think it is to be released some time next year.

(Click each to enlarge.)

I am also continuously at work on the chapter series, Nathaniel Fludd: Beastologist, written by R. L. LaFevers and published by Houghton Mifflin.

This summer has been enjoyable also, because I’ve gotten a chance to tinker a bit with my own work as well, playing around with stop-motion animation.

Maggie: Boni’s next book with us, I Had a Favorite Dress, will be illustrated by Julia Denos and comes out next fall. We’ve just finished with the sketch process for that, and it’s going to be adorable — no dragons, but you can’t have everything! Other than that, I’m hard at work on the Abrams and Amulet Spring and Fall 2011 lists, which are filled with tons of exciting stuff!

Chad: Next up is Boni’s My Favorite Dress, illustrated by Julia Denos, who just finished up illustrating Dotty for us. Julia just keeps getting better with each books she does. (Here and here are some visits Julia made to Chad’s blog.)

* * * * * * *

HUSH, LITTLE DRAGON. Copyright 2008 by Boni Ashburn. Illustration © 2008 by Kelly Murphy. Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, New York, NY. Spread used with permission of illustrator.

OVER AT THE CASTLE. Copyright 2010 by Boni Ashburn. Illustration © 2010 by Kelly Murphy. Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, New York, NY. Spreads used with permission of illustrator and publisher.

Ashburn photo courtesy of author.

Early concept from I Had a Favorite Dress © 2010 and used with permission of Julia Denos.

Other images and sketches from Kelly Murphy are © 2010 and used with her permission. Images from Haunted Houses: Are You Scared Yet? are © 2010 by Antoine Revoy and Kelly Murphy.

22 comments to “One Picture-Book Roundtable Discussion
Before Breakfast with Author Boni Ashburn at the Lead
(featuring Kelly Murphy, Maggie Lehrman, Chad W. Beckerman, and Julia Denos)

  1. Wow.

    This post is just – Wow.

  2. I’m going to be singing Over in the Meadow for the rest of the day. Happily. I love that the dragon’s eyes are in seen through the windows of the castle; they’re always there… lurking. Cheerfully.

    And I Had a Favorite Dress and Nathan Fludd?? Both are EXQUISITE. This is so beautiful, and reminds me happily of why I love visiting this blog: I learn so much and realize there are so many awesome books out there for me to love and give to the nephews! Woot!

  3. LOVE the idea of a round table discussion. Faboo to the max!

  4. This was so cool! It is great to get behind-the-scenes info and to hear that everyone enjoyed working together so much. The books are all gorgeous. Great post!!!

  5. Thanks for organizing this, Boni and Jules! I’d just like to point out that none of us knew what the other ones were saying, so it’s really fun to see how we ended up on the same page and repeating each other’s lines. Go team!

  6. FABULOUS interview with one of my favorite PB writer & illustrator teams. Very interesting to get all the different perspectives on the book.

  7. Loved this, Jules. It’s like the Citizen Kane approach to blog-posting: wander about the planet, asking a select subset of fascinating people what “Rosebud…” means. (And, you know, I’ve always thought that if a kid’s book needs a fun, spirited reviewer, 7-Imp is the place to go. Now I think I have to fine-tune that a little: if you REALLY want to see a 7-Imp review sing, give Jules a dark kids’ book. :))

    My favorite line was “Now we needed to make the people more human.” Ha!

    (And that upcoming haunted-houses book? Where do I get in line???)

  8. What a great idea to hear from these 4 different viewpoints! I hope you get to do more posts like this, Jules.
    Hush and Over at the Castle look wonderful. I can’t wait to see them in person!

  9. Oh, I love this holistic look at things. Thank you!!

  10. Thanks, you all….Boni gets all the credit for the idea. I think it needs to be repeated with other picture books, though. Think other editors and art directors would be up for it? (Of course, not every picture book is a sequel, but it can still work.)

  11. Sosososo fabulous, all the way around. I LOVE this post!

  12. I love getting all the different perspectives here.

    Castle came in to the library on a day I wasn’t working, and by the time I noticed, it was already processed and home with a patron. I put a hold on it.

  13. Love your blog! Just added it to my ‘favourite sites’ on my blog, 32 pages.


  14. I am SOOOOOO excited about CREEPY MONSTERS, SLEEPY MONSTERS. Kelly’s pictures are astonishing. I want one of the Monster backpacks and hope somebody makes them.

    She is an as-yet undiscovered HUGE star. I hope 7 Imps posts about her work goes some way to rectifying that.


  15. I am so buying these books now! I’ve loved dragons since I was little, and I definitely need these books for my future children! What a great post, really fun hearing from all the people who worked on the books.

    Also, I never went to Prom either! I believe I went and saw a really awesome production of “Hamlet” that night, instead. 🙂

  16. Ooh. I totally loved getting the skinny from all directions.

    Bravo, ladies and gentleman.

  17. It takes a village…. Thanks for sharing these perspectives!

  18. Kelly Murphy is sooo underrated as an illustrator in my opinion. She deserves way more recognition for her efforts and Chad is a solid art director with an excellent sense of design and especially typography, which I think in this business is EVERYTHING. I hung out with Bonnie for the first time at the last SCBWI conference and she’s so sweet and adorable! Thank you, Julie for the great interview!

    Bonnie, if you’re reading this. “Remember the GOLDEN BANANA!!”

  19. Such great books, and I loved reading this roundtable post!

  20. […] some other interviews. I especially recommend Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast and Jumping the Candlestick.   « KID REVIEW: Sonia snuggles up with “Little […]

  21. Can’t believe it took me this long to read this post. Great stuff here! Loved the different perspectives and how they all came together to create magical books.

  22. […] had so much fun hosting this first-ever picture book roundtable discussion in August that I decided to do it again. Not only […]

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