The Obstinate Pen
(and Frank W. Dormer) Take Over 7-Imp

h1 May 8th, 2012 by jules

Anyone else seen Frank W. Dormer’s newest picture book, The Obstinate Pen (Henry Holt, April 2010)? It’s funny stuff, and I’ve been meaning to post about it for a while now. Fortunately, Frank is visiting today, and also, as you can see here, the Pen got hold of an illustration Frank did of me and … well … whaddya know, it’s my first moustache. (That pen. You gotta keep your eye on it.)

But let me back up first and summarize this one for you — before Frank tells us a bit, via images, how this book came to be.

Horace’s Uncle Flood — band name! I call it … Uh, sorry. Where was I? Right. … A young boy, named Horace, watches as his Uncle Flood revels in his new pen, which he has just unwrapped with glee and laid on his desk. Clearly, Uncle Flood gets really excited about his writing utensils.

Problem is, though, that every time Uncle Flood tries to write with the pen, which the Horn Book review describes as “insulting, subversive, and anarchic,” it won’t record his actual thoughts — but instead disses him. “You have a BIG nose” is the pen’s first notation.

Uncle Flood will have none of that and chucks the pen out the window. Officer Wonkle tries to write a ticket to Miss Glenda Weeble with the pen, which has landed near his feet, and the pen tells him to kiss her already. Mrs. Norkham Pigeon-Smythe eventually gets a hold of it and has a blast, as the pen calls her “Mrs. Floofy Pants” while she tries to write her memoir. After she puts it under a glass in a room of her house no one ever visits, the pen escapes and eventually makes its way back to Horace, for whom the pen draws exactly the pictures he has in mind. “At last,” wrote Nell Casey in an early April New York Times write-up about new picture books that harness creativity (calling Dormer’s book “the most original” of the bunch), “when the opinionated pen meets its match — a child who, unlike the adults before him, both knows and is not afraid of his true creative impulses — it surrenders with grace.”

As I said, Frank’s here today to tell us how the story came to be, and I thank him. Without further ado, I turn it over to him (as I wrestle the blog back from the Pen) for…

“How the Pen Came to Be” by Frank W. Dormer, Esq.

* * * * * * *

Frank: This is how I usually start. I keep an assortment of small sketchbooks handy — for when an idea happens that I want to pursue.

This is the phrase that started the wheels turning. I had no idea where the story was going; I just wanted to learn more about the Pen.

I like the phrase in this page, “it made her feel like writing a letter.” That’s how I felt when I get a new art supply to try out. In that I share my excitement with Uncle Flood.

At this point, the story was leading to a pen that draws with abandonment. Perhaps in a sequel…

The phrase “flexible nib.” I used that in the final book. At this point, I’m working on intuition — looking for phrases that I like that help with the story.

How the story is starting to work, but still word-heavy. I find that substituting images for descriptive sentences helps me edit.

Starting to sketch main characters…

As I have used up the pages in the last sketchbook, I am now onto this one — and with a more visual language…

Of course, I had to find the best kind of pen to draw.

At this stage, I was still thinking of the story of a drawing pen, and it was let loose in a museum.

Portrait of Dr. Gachet by Van Gogh. With rubber chicken by the Pen.

The Scream by Edvard Munch. With Pen-added dino.

[Here’s] the first cover idea:

This is mostly for composition. I do this with all of the pages, to help with flow.

Choosing colors for [Uncle] Flood…

An example of the difference between a more recent layout and the final book page. Small tweaks are still being done. Socksqatch asked me to ask you if you noticed him looking at the page, too. An early version of Horace in the upper left…

Just a visual to show all of the pages I have doodled on, written on, sketched on, crumpled up and retrieved from the garbage, etc., in the quest for ONE picture book:

Some final spreads from the book:


“Uncle Flood unwrapped his new pen and laid it on the desk.
It promptly stood at attention. Uncle Flood shivered with delight.”

(Click to enlarge)


“‘I MUST HAVE SILENCE WHEN I WRITE!’ Flood yelled at his nephew. Horace left.
Uncle Flood removed the cap from his pen and began to write:
The following story is all true.
But the pen did not write that sentence. What the pen wrote was this:

You have a BIG nose.”
(Click to enlarge)


“Mrs. Pigeon-Smythe burst out laughing. ‘Oh dear, what a precocious pen! I must tell everyone about it.’ She began writing again, and the pen wrote:
Your hands have warts. She laughed even louder.”

* * * * * * *

THE OBSTINATE PEN. Copyright © 2012 by Frank W. Dormer. Published by Henry Holt and Company, New York. Images reproduced here with permission of Mr. Dormer.

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8 comments to “The Obstinate Pen
(and Frank W. Dormer) Take Over 7-Imp”

  1. What a joyful book! I must see it and quickly.


  2. When I was a kid, I think this would have produced endless “Yes!” sorts of feelings, because I was pretty sure it wasn’t MY fault that I marked up the Sears catalog, my mother’s Bible (well, I *was* two, when I did that. And I was UNDERLINING, thank you.) and the Sunday paper with cartoon bubbles…


  3. Nice to see another illustrator trying to figure out a story and find its flow. A bit of a relief to know that all of these crazy notes I’m taking at the moment might actually lead somewhere. I forget each time! Thanks for the scans of the sketchbook, Frank and thanks Jules for posting them here.


  4. I love EVERYTHING about this post. I mean, obviously I *need* this book due to its pure awesomeness, but let’s talk about The Scream…with a dinosaur. Love.


  5. I love everything about this book.
    I also love to seeing the notebooks. Thank you for sharing, Frank.


  6. Thanks everyone. Perhaps the Pen might run rampant in the art museum someday!!!

    Frank Dormer


  7. Jules, I LOVE that picture of you. Also, I somehow missed this book. I have to see it; sometimes my own pen is obstinate.


  8. Finally saw this book today at the Eric Carle library. It is HILARIOUS – a great, great book.


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