7-Imp’s 7 Kicks #332: Featuring Tom Lichtenheld

h1 May 26th, 2013 by jules

I’m so pleased that author/illustrator Tom Lichtenheld is visiting today. I’ve wanted him to visit the blog for a while, and we just haven’t pulled it off. (Till now!) I enjoy his work. Did you all see Exclamation Mark (Scholastic, March 2013), his most recent collaboration with Amy Krouse Rosenthal? It’s exceedingly clever, that one. Yet I never got around to blogging about it, despite my best intentions.

Tom’s newest book, Sing (to be released this week from Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt) is so joyous and so just-the-right-book-for-him that I’m extra pleased he’s visiting today to tell us all about it. My regular readers know I’m a ginormous music-lover, and for that reason—and lots of others having to do with Tom’s abundant talents as an illustrator—I think this book is special. It’s unabashedly cheerful without being the slightest bit cloying about it.

As Tom explains below, this is a picture book adaptation of Joe Raposo’s song, made famous on Sesame Street. “The most interesting part,” Tom told me, “was that the song, though sweet and well-known, doesn’t have or need any semblance of a story. To turn it into a picture book I had to not only come up with a story, but one that was completely visual, so the lyrics could remain pure. Being handed this challenge was an honor, so the book holds a special place for me. I also like that it has a quieter mood than my usual zany stuff; I like books at opposite ends of the spectrum — mindlessly ridiculous or thoughtfully sweet.”

Let’s get right to it so that Tom can tell us more about it, and I thank him for sharing today.

* * *

Tom: [Phone in my studio rings]

ME: Hello.

CO: Hi, Tom. It’s Christy Ottaviano. I’ve got a great new project I’d love you to work on. It’s already world-famous, so all you have to do is not screw it up.

ME: Great! I’ll do my best. Send me the manuscript.

CO: Actually, it’s not so much a manuscript as, um … well, I’ll send you a YouTube link.

ME: A YouTube link? Okay…

And here’s the link Christy sent:

Christy Ottaviano, editor of the eponymously-named imprint at Henry Holt, had purchased the picture book rights to “Sing,” the famous Sesame Street song by Joe Raposo. I was flattered that she’d turned to me for this special project, so I listened to the song and wrote down the words with great anticipation.

Sing, Sing a song
Sing out loud, Sing out strong
Sing of good things, not bad
Sing of happy, not sad
Sing! Sing a song
Make it simple, to last your whole life long
Don’t worry that it’s not good enough for anyone else to hear
Just sing, Sing a song.
La-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la-la-la la…(etc.)

The song is inspiring, but even a third-grader could point out the challenge of turning it into a picture book: There’s no character, no setting, and no problem. In other words, no story. Which was a problem — my problem.

So I thought “Well, who would have a problem if they couldn’t sing?” A bird, of course. You know “birds gotta sing…” and all that. So, I did this sketch.

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The idea is that a little birdy can’t sing, so Mama birdy inspires her by playing an Ella Fitzgerald record. (Kids, that’s a record player.) I liked the idea of a bird not being able to sing, but I needed to establish the problem, then solve it in an interesting way. And I had to do it all visually, because Christy and I wanted the lyrics to be the only words in the book. We thought of it as a musical, where the action and music tell the story in unison without being redundant.

I’m a big fan of the “accidental helper” concept in stories, so I came up with someone to help the birdy solve her problem.

(Click to enlarge)

Now it’s about a man who sings underneath a tree — with the notes from his music floating up …

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… lifting the nest …

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… and inspiring the bird to sing.

Confident that I had the most important part worked out, I played with character designs.

Maybe it should be a child—or two—making the music.

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… or a banjo-playing bunny.

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But I decided the musician should be a person, because I like the human-to-animal connection. So, I worked on the look and age of the character.

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Then I worked on the birdies. I wanted them to be cute and expressive in the nest, but elegant in flight.

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This is cheating, but I made the birds different colors so the reader could tell them apart, which is important to the story. No reviewer has called me out for the ornithological inaccuracy, but I suspect it won’t miss the scrutiny of some observant fourth-grader during one of my school presentations.

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Every book leads to vexing questions, such as: What’s a bird look like when it’s frustrated?

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And should there be a dancing squirrel in the background?

While exploring techniques, I considered using Photoshop more than usual, but I found the process less joyful than traditional media. Although I like the look of these experiments, I missed the feel of a paintbrush in my hand and the prospect of happy accidents, which are rare in the controllable world of digital art.

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A few cover design sketches. At first I wanted to isolate the color to the birds, but once I tried the yellow, it was the clear winner.

I have a mediocre sense of color, so I’m always looking for proven color schemes. In this case, the inspiration was garden design, where yellow and violet are frequently combined to good effect. I have my wife to thank for teaching me this bit of horticultural color theory.

My favorite spread in the book. I like the way the tree reflects the bird’s mood. Also, this is the rare case where I’ve restrained myself and used white space, which I usually fill up with goofy sidebar drawings.

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After all the illustrations were done, I realized that an important part of the lyrics wasn’t included, the “la-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la-la-la…” part. It sounds like gibberish here, but if you sing the song to yourself, it’s obviously an important part of the melody. But the story was complete, and there was no room in the book for any more lyrics, so I put them on the endpapers, which actually works perfectly.

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This is my first book to have a fancy-pants embossed case!

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It was a big deal when the finished art went out the door, so my wife gave me this paper mache bird to celebrate. Thanks to her for all her support, and thanks to Christy Ottaviano for bringing this very special project to me.

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Final cover

SING. Music and lyrics by Joe Raposo. Illustrations copyright © 2013 by Tom Lichtenheld. Published by Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt, New York. All images reproduced with permission of Tom Lichtenheld.

* * * * * * *

Note for any new readers: 7-Imp’s 7 Kicks is a weekly meeting ground for taking some time to reflect on Seven(ish) Exceptionally Fabulous, Beautiful, Interesting, Hilarious, or Otherwise Positive Noteworthy Things from the past week, whether book-related or not, that happened to you. New kickers are always welcome.

* * * Jules’ Kicks * * *

My kicks are all wrapped up in this post. I’m grateful that Tom sent such good images and a really fun and informative (for us picture book fans) text to describe the making of this book, which I like so much. Publishers Weekly describes this picture book as “an effective visual metaphor for the way that music can be a form of support.” I think that’s one reason I love it so.

And I’ve actually only seen a PDF of the book. I look forward to holding a final copy in my hand. I’ll have to track down a copy. I am also particularly fond of what Tom calls fancy-pants embossed covers.

I’m pretty busy right now wrapping up prep for the grad course on picture books that I’ll be teaching not this week but next week. (GULP.) I’m looking forward to it, but I must get back to prepping for it.

What are YOUR kicks this week?

23 comments to “7-Imp’s 7 Kicks #332: Featuring Tom Lichtenheld”

  1. Fantastically detailed interview with Tom, Jules! Love his birds and kids and guitars!

    Today’s poem started out as an extended metaphor about the wind, but the direct interaction won out:

    First Saddle Sonnet

    This tall man, hard from handling heavy tack,
    Hitches his skittish filly to a post,
    Lifts curry comb to groom her bristled back
    In gentle circle gestures, like a ghost
    Easing an armored steed before a battle.
    Once he has her breathing more at peace,
    He places on a weathered western saddle
    Then tugs a rough cinch tight within the crease
    Between her shoulders and her ribs. He taps
    Her neck and smooths out tangles in her mane,
    Guiding bridle, bit, and leather straps
    Over her face. She snaps. He grips a rein,
    But slackly, and she softens. Slow to force,
    He knows what harm’s in harnessing a horse.

    © 2013 Steven Withrow, all rights reserved

  2. What a lovely Spring morning treat to see these images. Thanks for sharing.
    I’ll be singing this all day now.
    Jules – Good luck with the course.
    Steven – great imagery, as usual
    My kicks this week
    1. My baby turned 10! Oh my glob.
    2. I got quite a bit done in the studio despite more hours at the day job.
    3. I made my version of a cover for “The Incredible Journey”, one of my favorite books http://moiraswiatkowski.com/?attachment_id=770
    4. I heard Cibo Matto is going to make a new album.
    5. Watching my son pitch is a beautiful thing.
    6. Had a lovely time at MeCAF. We got to see so many talented artists including my friend Renee http://kurillastration.com/middle-grade/
    7.My daughter shared one of her comic pages with Raina Telgemeir. Raina was very encouraging and genuine. Made my daughter’s day and to me made it worth the trip.

  3. Steven, first of all: Tom gets all the credit for the “interview.” I’ve been so swamped the past couple of weeks, and he sent everything all perfect like this for posting (after I said, “please send lots of art and say what you want to say”). Secondly: What Moira said. Beautiful imagery.

    Moira: Happy birthday to your daughter! And your last kick? That’s super cool. Cheers for Raina for doing that. Does your daughter draw comics a lot?

  4. Yay SINGING! Thanks, Joe and Tom!

    Happy Sunday, everyone! Hope you are enjoying the weekend.

    Jules: Good luck with your prep. You are going to be a wonderful teacher.

    Steven: One of my closest friends loves working with horses.

    Moira: Happy birthday to the munchkin! Yay for your daughter’s interaction with Raina. I realy love her artwork. Should be interesting to hear new Cibo Matto music.

    My kicks:
    1) Clarification
    2) Calm
    3) Visitors
    4) Food
    5) Sleep
    6) Health
    7) Relief

  5. I love, love, love Tom Licthenheld’s work, his book Bridget’s Beret was a reader’s choice nomination this year. Sing is gorgeous.
    Jules, good luck with your class, wish I was closer so I could take it.
    Steven, it reminded me of the wind.
    Moira, sounds like a great kid filled week.
    My kicks:
    1. Third grade book club comment w/ my manuscript: “the principal needs a meaner name because he’s so nice and it will make that stronger.”
    2. Hot yoga.
    3. Garden preparation
    4. Meeting up with college friends today.
    5. Birds nesting in the bird house.
    6. Poppies.
    7. Movies from the public library.
    Have a great week.

  6. LW, sleep is such a great kick.

  7. Hi, guys! I’m in Singapore for the fourth Asian Festival of Children’s Content. I get to meet Renee Ting of Shen’s Books, Steph Su of Stepn Su Reads, and Marjorie Coughlan and Corinne Robson of PaperTigers!!!!!!!

  8. The “baby” is the boy. The girl is way older, at 11 and a half.
    My daughter is a prolific comic creator but she doesn’t show them to anyone but me. I wanted her to have someone besides Mom say they were really good and worth sharing.
    It was great to have the opportunity to get that from one of the top (and my daughter’s favorite) graphic novelists.

  9. Jone: That’s hilarious re: mean name for the character!

    Have fun, Tarie! Hi to the other bloggers & speakers!

    Moira: I’m so glad that she had that chance.

  10. Oh wow, what a great song to turn into a book! Thanks Jules and thanks Tom for sharing the whole process.

    Jules – good luck and have fun with your class!

    Moira – baseball, a birthday and meeting a graphic artist – sounds like you and your kids had a great week.

    LW – Sleep and Relief – great kicks.

    Jone – I loved that comment on the principal’s name too. Garden prep – that’s where I am, but more like stuck trying to decide what else I want to plant….

    Tarie – hope you have a wonderful time!

    My kicks this week:
    1) a dinner out with friends & their kids – very fun.
    2) Ozomatli concert Friday night – 2 hours of nonstop dancing – also very fun!
    3) reading Ender’s Game – I’ll finish sometime today, really enjoying it.
    4) Yard work yesterday.
    5) Bought a jasmine plant for the house, now I’m looking forward to seeing if it makes me both more alert and if I get better sleep.
    6) Three day weekend
    7) Kittens! There are a couple of pics at my place. Feral kitty had 5 this year. I am planning a catnapping in 2 weeks when they are about 6 weeks old to get them veterinary care and socialized for adoption. In the meantime – they are super cute! And momma cat is used to me, so I can get somewhat close so they can get used to me too.

    Have a wonderful holiday weekend everyone!

  11. Thank you so much Tom and Jules for featuring this title today. I’ve been wanting to see more of the artwork. I can’t wait to hold my own copy.

    Jules: I’ve said it before but it’s worth saying again; wish I could be a student in your class.
    Steven: Your poem makes me less afraid of horses. Sitting in a saddle makes me feel so small.
    Moira: Raina is so wonderful and kind. No wonder your daughter was happy.
    Little Willow: There is nothing better than a sense of relief.
    Jone: I can identify with your garden preparation. Been doing much of it myself although frost keeps hanging around.
    Tarie: Have a wonderful time in Singapore!

    My kicks:
    1. Actually having tulips bloom this year; the deer stayed away.
    2. Two days of beautiful rain
    3. After two weeks with no car (mine totaled after I was rear-ended), I have a new car.
    4. Multiple visits to nursery
    5. Picked up huge book order from local indie store
    6. Author/illustrator responses to my reviews
    7. Walks with Xena

  12. Little Willow: Thanks for the encouragement! And I hope the visitors were good, happy ones. And I’m with Jone on sleep being a kick.

    Jone: What is hot yoga? I really gotta look this up. I keep hearing about it. … Glad you had a good week.

    Tarie, SWEET! Have fun. I know you will.

    Moira: Indeed. That is pretty cool that she got that feedback.

    Rachel: Ooh, good luck with the kittens. My girls would be super psyched to see them. They are cat-crazy. Also, two hours of nonstop dancing sounds especially great.

    Margie: Congrats on the tulips! And your car was totalled?? Oh my goodness, I’m glad you’re okay. … Huge book orders are particularly exciting, aren’t they? … Enjoy your new car this week!

  13. OK, where to start? Oh yes, the art, the book: delightful, charming, made me smile, beautiful color, so sweet, can’t wait to own it and sing it with my Littles. delightful, charming, made me smile, beautiful color, so sweet, can’t wait to own it and sing it with my Littles.
    And I’d keep repeating except I’d annoy Jules and use up too much space!

    Thanks, Jules.

    Good luck with your class – know it will be awesome and fun.

    Wow Everyone – just great kicks. Lots of great stuff going on in the world.

    Steven, love the poem as always. Reading such language makes it easier to breathe.

    My Kicks:
    1. just got home from seeing the new Star Trek movie with my mom. Really enjoyed it. I’m a life-long Trekkie.

    2. went out to dinner with my hubbie on Friday night, with just one day’s notice thanks to wonderful, much loved baby-sitter.

    3. 1&2 are making me feel a bit more sane – I’ve been feeling a bit tilted on my axis lately from being sick and too busy and a 3-month old and a 7 year old.

    4. beautiful picnic yesterday with some friends

    5. just got a lovely new children’s prayer book – very sweet – in the mail to review. Have decided to do a series on my review blog on prayer books for children from different faiths.

    6. read ‘Creepy Carrots’ to my 2nd grade library class last week, and they laughed and laughed – thrilling.

    Happy Art Everyone!

  14. YAY CREEPY CARROTS, Allison.

    Glad you got a break and a night out. It’s good to rejuvenate, always. I hope that feeling continues all week long!

  15. […] I gotta tell you ’bout Seven Impossible Things, which is featuring my newest book, “Sing.” It’s based on the classic Sesame […]

  16. Kicks o’ the week:
    1. Finally drawing a bear properly (for a new book)
    2. Learning how to use Photoshop masks
    3. Having a posting on 7Imp Things!

  17. I haven’t seen Exclamation Mark or Sing. I must look for both.

    Best of luck with your class prep, Jules.

    My kick for the week is a three day weekend. I am enjoying a little extra break from work. I’ve been reading, watching Arrested Development, doing small chores, and visiting. I enjoy weekends like that.

  18. Thanks again for sharing, Tom!

    Adrienne, I really think you’ll like both books. Enjoy your long weekend, parades and all! (p.s. I watched five eps of Arrested Development last night. I gotta pace myself.)

  19. So fun and lighthearted! It’s on my list of books to buy!

  20. hey Jules, a quick hey after lurking for many months while dealing with other projects;) These books look fantastic! Can’t wait to find them. I always love books that are illustrated versions of songs.

  21. […] * Great post about the creation of the book on the “Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast” blog: http://blaine.org/sevenimpossiblethings/?p=2574 […]

  22. Catching up on some reading – this book sounds gorgeous. I always read a music-themed story to my ‘littlies’ choir group at the end of our weekly session and this looks an absolute must! And I always love seeing the whole amazing process behind a book too.

    And I’ve just seen Tarie’s lovely comment – I loved meeting her in person in Singapore too 🙂

  23. Hi,

    That was a nice collection, I liked reading all of it. Well done – keep going (writing) – we appreciate it……..and thank you !

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