Jill McElmurry’s Tale of Two Books Before Breakfast

h1 May 15th, 2012 by jules

I’m sitting down at the breakfast table this morning with author/illustrator Jill McElmurry. Rather, I’m handing the 7-Imp mic over to her. And I’m happy to be doing so; I’ve enjoyed many of her picture books and her expressive, detailed gouache artwork over the years.

And, as you can see at her site, she has illustrated nearly twenty books in her career. This month, she sees the release of two new picture book titles — on the same day, actually, which she discusses below. She both wrote and illustrated Mario Makes a Move (Schwartz & Wade), which I haven’t read yet. The other, Pirate Princess (HarperCollins), was written by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen and is an anti-princess (well, anti-traditional princess) tale of a young member of the royal family who “couldn’t face [a] life wed to some prince” and wants to be a pirate instead. When she finally makes it to a pirate’s boat, the men try to have her clean and cook, but neither works out too well. Turns out Princess Bea, the protagonist who puts the very “pluck” in plucky, has another talent — but I won’t ruin the read for you with spoilers.

Kirkus calls Pirate Princess a “winning combination of smart and silly,” and about Mario Makes a Move (which is evidently about a squirrel amazing to his doting parents, but not so much his less impressed friend) Publishers Weekly writes that McElmurry’s “text and watercolor artwork capture the exuberance of the creative spirit.” The squirrel appears to have amazing moves. (It looks very funny, and I’ll have to find a copy of this one soon.) “I’m doing a reading of Mario at the end of the month with a friend (former actress),” Jill told me, “who reads the part of Mario. It’s fun to read as a pair, and this book cries out for more than one. We’re doing moves and the whole bit. I can (in my feverish imagination) picture doing it with real dancers in a larger space, someday.”

I’m going to turn it right over to Jill, and I thank her for visiting and sharing words, early sketches, and finished illustrations today.

On Pirate Princess

Jill: Two books I’ve worked on came out on the same day this year — May 8th.

That’s never happened before. A few days ago, I finished illustrating my 17th book (Tree Lady by Joseph Hopkins, Beach Lane Books, 2013), and while I’ve had more than one book come out in the same year, I’ve never had more than one come out in the same season, let alone on the same day. Maybe it’s one of those “every knack being by practice capable of improvement”* type of things, or maybe it’s coincidental.

Every book is different. I mean, I can’t predict what kind of experience I’m going to have when I start working on a new book. A manuscript can at first seem like it will be a cinch and end up being a crawl on hands and knees up K2. Or it can appear at first to be a drooling Yeti and end up being a kitten. The sketching process can be all kittens, and the final art a herd of wooly mammoths. Or the other way around. It keeps things exciting.

When I signed up with HarperCollins to illustrate Pirate Princess by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, I fell in love with the rhyming text, Princess Bea, and Captain Jack. I loved that Princess Bea threw up all over the pirates on page 24. Wow!

The sketch phase was fun and fast. I experimented a lot with style and found some great reference material**. There’s no shortage of reference material when it comes to pirates. Pirates are, in case you hadn’t noticed, pretty popular. I didn’t want to look at pirate picture books by other illustrators any more than Mel Gibson wanted to watch Derek Jacobi play Hamlet***. There are some incredible pirate picture books out there.

Princess Bea evolved quickly.

(Click to enlarge)

Her sidekick, Bowser, was based on my friend Sandra’s much-loved Boston Terrier.

(Click to enlarge)

Captain Jack showed up after some fussing over his hair and costume.

(Click to enlarge)

In the beginning, I did this small character sketch of the pirates and became a little too attached to the look and feel of it.

For my own reference, I named the pirate crew (from left to right) Green Beard; Patch; Patch the Cat; Captain Jack, of course; Viking Girl; and Surfer. Later, I made Viking Girl a little less Viking, turned Surfer into Swabbie, and added a mystery man with a beauty mark. The sketches were approved after very few revisions, and I launched into the finished art with pirate-girl bravado only to find that I could NOT, to my satisfaction, translate the feel of the small rough pirate sketch into full-sized art. I began a period of do-overs that lasted for many months. The recycling bin filled up and up with small pieces of painted watercolor paper.

Two things kept me hanging in there: my agent/therapist, Marcia Wernick, and Princess Bea herself. When I looked at Bea with her pirate sash, crazy red hair, and defiant gaze, I bucked up. Eventually, in a last ditch effort to achieve that illusive fat rough line of the small sketch, I began doing the art 20% smaller than the trim size of the book. I would have done it even smaller, but I didn’t think the facial expressions would have read very well.

Also, the art director worried that the colors would become muddy if the art was too small. Working at 80%, I was able to complete the art for Pirate Princess without voluntarily walking the plank. Someday I’d like to try illustrating a book at 50% or even 30%.

Here are some sketches for you to look at.

The stages in the life of a picture book spread
(early version, sketch, and final spread):
“Instead she wished for other things / Not fancy or frou-frou.
No, Princess Bea felt
pirating / Was just the thing she’d do.
But how on earth could Princess Bea / Track down a pirate crew?
And though she dreamed of salt and sea, / Her dreams could not come true.”

(Click each spread to enlarge a bit)

Early version, sketch, and final spread:
“Until one day, Bea strolled the dock, / And as she neared the slip,
The sight she saw was quite a shock— / A real-live pirate ship!
‘At last, I’ll bid my throne adieu!’ / Bea laughed and climbed on board.
She called out, ‘Yo-ho-ho, yoo-hoo! /
Ahoy, there, pirate horde!'”

(Click each spread to enlarge a bit)

The cover: Early version, sketch, and final


On Mario Makes a Move

I tell people that Mario Makes a Move is autobiographical. Like Mario, I had parents and grandparents who were encouraging to a fault. They praised every scribble and cheered every dance move, even the one where I claimed to be the fastest dancer alive. (It involved running in place, squinching my face, and imagining I was a blur of speed.)

Like Mario, once I hit kindergarten, I learned that there were other drawers and dancers (and writers and readers and math problem-solvers) out there more amazing than myself. Like Mario, I had a best friend I was sometimes jealous of. And like Mario, from time to time I’ll lose my groove and have to figure out how to get it back.

Unlike Mario, I was not then nor am I now a squirrel.

My grandparents were named Mario and Isabelle. Mario was a painter, and Isabelle was a dancer. They worked in the movie business in Hollywood during the 1920s and ’30s. Isabelle especially loved performing. She made all her own costumes and did a lot of amazing moves. Here she is.

I’d been working a long time on the story that would become Mario Makes A Move. It always involved two friends — one who was clever and one who was not terribly clever, but enthusiastic. First they were dogs, then they were cats, and then, while eating pizza with my husband one night, we decided they could be squirrels. Squirrels made sense, because of the amazing-moves thing. Sometimes squirrels go crazy doing flips and spins and turns. I don’t know what gets into them (probably mating season).

One day I was drifting around Barnes & Noble and found myself in the kids’ book department (as usual). I was in an Eeyore-ish mood, which is the exact wrong mood to be in if you happen to be a writer/illustrator of the under-confident sort, drifting around the kids’ book department. The more books I looked at, the worse I felt. It was a familiar experience. It occurred to me, as I stood there woefully clutching a Mo Willems Elephant & Piggie book, that I was having a Mario moment. I went home and in an hour wrote most of the dialogue for Mario Makes A Move. I did some quick sketches and sent everything to my editor at Schwartz & Wade, expecting rejection, of course.

But she loved it. As a matter of fact, she loved it almost exactly as I’d written it, which was so weird that I re-wrote it a few times just to make sure. When I made changes she’d say, “Ummm, I liked the first way better.” So, there you have it — totally unpredictable.

Here are some more sketches for you to look at.

Early version, sketch, and final spread: “‘See?'”
(Click final spread to enlarge)

Early version, sketch, and final spread: “‘Oh, dear,’ said Mario.”
(Click final spread to enlarge)

Early version, sketch, and final spread: “So Isabelle taught Mario her move . . .
and Mario taught Isabelle the Amazing Amazer . . .”

(Click final spread to enlarge)

The cover: Early version, sketch, and final

* * * * * * *

MARIO MAKES A MOVE. Copyright © 2012 by Jill McElmurry. Published by Schwartz & Wade, New York. All images reproduced here with permission of Ms. McElmurry.

PIRATE PRINCESS. Copyright © 2012 by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen. Illustrations copyright © 2012 by Jill McElmurry. Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, New York. All images reproduced here with permission of Ms. McElmurry.

11 comments to “Jill McElmurry’s Tale of Two Books Before Breakfast”

  1. Thank you so much for sharing the information and artwork about your two new titles, Jill. Pirate Princess looks to be pure delight but I can already feel a special connection to Mario Makes A Move. The “Oh, dear” page gave me my first laugh of the morning. Have a great day Jules and Jill.

  2. I love the pirate crew. Surfer-turns-Swabbie – hah! But even more, I love the anxious and unsure squirrel. He reminds me a bit of Scaredy – working hard to be awesome, not always sure awesomeness has been achieved. Very human, for a squirrel.

  3. Wonderful interview- Jill’s dry humor comes out in both books and in the interview. Loved it!

  4. Wonderful and fun! I love hearing about the process and seeing how Jill’s sketches turn into finished art. They both look like great books!

  5. My pound puppy wants that dog’s crown!

  6. I am so happy I stumbled upon this blog! It is the best ever! Especially since I am halfway through writing my own children’s novel… this is such great insight : )

  7. What a fun post! And so nice to get a glimpse into the illustration/creation process. I loved seeing how the covers changed from the initial sketches to the final. I’ve been curious about Mario Makes a Move for a while. Would you and Jill mind if I included this post in the May Read & Romp Roundup on my blog? It’s a feature that brings together posts that have some connection between picture books and movement. Thanks!

  8. Stunning, elegant and definitely funny- a combination which most definitely pleases me! I love your account of how the story just came out almost in one piece. Revision being such a huge part of the creative process, it is always magical when a story just writes itself. Great work. I look forward to seeing a lot more!

  9. Please do, Kerry! I would love to get Mario out into the dance and movement sphere. Thanks!

  10. I really love your whimsical illustrations and the story lines. My favorite is Mad About Plaid. I’ve bought it for all my grandchildren. The kids are growing up now but can read them by themselves. They love your books, too.
    I’m happy to know of more of your writings(and illustrating) and am anxious to read Mario Makes a Move.
    My son, Jesse, has recently given me an update on your works. I’m in awe of your style of paintings, as well.
    Where are your paintings available for purchase?? I live in Scottsdale, AZ. Thank you for your wonderful contribution to children’s literature.
    Sandy Harris

  11. Hi, Sandy! Thanks so much for the kind words. I’m especially delighted that you like Mad about Plaid. I don’t have any book illustrations for sale at this point, but I do have my landscape paintings for sale at the Mission Gallery in Taos. If you go to my website (click on my name), in the Bio section is a link to the landscapes website. They are very different from my book illustrations but close to my heart.

Leave a Comment

Should you have trouble posting, please contact sevenimp_blaine@blaine.org. Thanks.