The Dandelion’s Tale:
A Visit with Illustrator Rob Dunlavey

h1 March 4th, 2014 by jules

” … and the fun I’ve had talking with the squirrels
as they look for food in the morning.”

Illustrator Rob Dunlavey (who is not a new visitor to 7-Imp) is here this morning to talk about his artwork for Kevin Sheehan’s debut picture book, The Dandelion’s Tale, to be released by Schwartz & Wade next week. In fact, this is Rob’s picture book debut as well.

I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, should any of you want to read this for yourselves and let the story unfold without spoilers (though I do have excerpts from the text under final spreads below). This is a moving story of friendship and loss and memory. I really like it, and there are several things about both the story and the illustrations that make me think of picture books of yore — almost as if this book popped up from the 1950s and planted itself in the 21st century. In their starred review, Kirkus calls it “radiant,” describing Kevin’s writing as luminous and Rob’s artwork as lyrical and reassuring. They also note that this is a story about “the power of storytelling to keep a loved one’s memory alive.” Yes, that. It really is a powerful story about very deeply-felt things.

Here’s Rob to talk a bit about creating the illustrations for this one …

Rob: About two years after showing my portfolio to Rachael Cole at Schwartz & Wade, they contacted me about this story written by first-timer Kevin Sheehan. I made a trip to New York to meet and greet and discuss. At first I didn’t like the manuscript; I thought it was very sentimental. But, as I worked on character studies and thumbnails in concert with the editors, I saw how much they loved and believed in Kevin’s story. So it grew on me, and as I began developing the final artwork, their attention to the emotional drama playing out was so infectious that I was doing everything I could to get that right. Reactions to the book have been positive, so I think it proves the point that sympathetic characters and clear emotional situations really matter in picture books. I’m sure there are other formulas and other books that treat this with different degrees of subtlety. I feel fortunate to have worked with a sensitive and astute team of editors and designers.

Below are early character studies of the Sparrow:

Early sketch of opening spread
(Click to enlarge)

In this early sketch, Sparrow (in multiple) counts the Dandelion’s remaining ten seeds:

(Click to enlarge)

This early drawing of Sparrow meeting the Dandelion’s children survived and was used with few changes in the final art (below).

(Click to enlarge)

“Sparrow settled into the grass and cleared his throat with a slight chirp. ‘I’m going to tell you about a great friend of mine.’ And because Sparrow had written and read the dandelion’s story, he discovered that he knew it by heart. When he was finished,
he felt sure the dandelion would never be forgotten.”

(Click to enlarge)

In the second draft, my original opening spread was changed to two spreads:

(Click to enlarge)

Sparrow first learns the poor Dandelion’s dilemma. You can see a bush in the foreground with some rabbits foraging or eavesdropping. This was left out of the final art so that everything focused on the diminutive flower.

(Click to enlarge)

I used a variety of media to make these paintings: watercolor, inks, colored pencils, and good old-fashioned crayons. Early on, the dogwood tree had flowers but it was decided that, being summer, the tree would no longer be flowering. I used digital trickery to revise the image.

The final spread: “‘Hello down there,’ Sparrow chirped. ‘Why the tears?
The sun is out, the air is warm and everything is in bloom.'”

(Click to enlarge)

There’s a climactic rainstorm in the story. This was fun to draw and paint. This is a pencil sketch from the third draft.

(Click to enlarge)

This is the final art. Sparrow is in his nest, and we can just see the dogwood tree in the distance on the right:

“That night, there was a terrible storm. Thunder rumbled. Lightning lit up the sky.
‘Oh my!’ Sparrow cried. ‘I do hope the dandelion is all right.'”

(Click to enlarge)

I fiddled with different poses for the frightened tiny sparrow:

(Click to enlarge)

At the height of the storm, the sparrow attempts to fly to the see if the Dandelion is okay, but the wind prevents him. Here [and below] are a few different sketches and the final.

(Click to enlarge)

(Click to enlarge)

“He tried to fly to the meadow, but the wind blew him back into his nest. Defeated, Sparrow decided that he would visit the dandelion first thing in the morning.”
(Click to enlarge)

The following morning, Sparrow’s hopes for his friend are dashed. We mourn with him.

“‘Poor, poor Dandelion. I will miss you,’ he said.”

This is an early sketch of the other birds that mourn with Sparrow. Designs like this disrupted the march of full-page and double-spread illustrations. This is a pencil sketch with digital color.

About halfway through, the process goes back and forth. Some spreads are fully painted, while others get re-sketched and evaluated to see how the book flows. The colorful yellow and pink spreads in the middle of the book were a strategy to differentiate passages where the Dandelion speaks about memories in the past, not the current action.

(Click to enlarge)

This is an early sketch of the main flashback scene:

(Click to enlarge)

This is the finished spread and a detail view of flowers, ants, bees, butterflies, a hummingbird, and a picnicking family:

“Sparrow wrote and wrote for hours, scratching the dandelion’s words into the soft, dry dirt. The dandelion told him all the things she had seen and loved. She spoke of milkweed and hummingbirds; of dancing butterflies and picnicking families;
of busy ants and busier bees.”

(Click to enlarge)

(Click to enlarge)

* * * * * * *

THE DANDELION’S TALE. Copyright © 2014 by Kevin Sheehan. Illustrations © 2014 by Rob Dunlavey. Published by Schwartz & Wade Books, New York. All images here reproduced by permission of Rob Dunlavey.

13 comments to “The Dandelion’s Tale:
A Visit with Illustrator Rob Dunlavey”

  1. I’m knee-deep in bird drawings in the studio today so this is a perfect post for me.
    Thanks for sharing Rob and Jules.
    P.S. Dandelions are one of my favorite flowers!

  2. I had the pleasure of seeing an f&g for this book at Pippin’s holiday party last year. I loved it soooooo much, I almost stole it. lol

    Really sweet and lovely art. Thanks for reminding me of it. I look forward to buying a copy.

  3. I always find it fascinating the discussions in this field around degrees of sentimentality in picture books. (Same for so-called message-driven books, but that’s a topic for another day.) Some books strike just the right balance of sentiment and honesty and do so without emotionally manipulating the reader. I think this one does. It also doesn’t tell the story right over the heads of children, which a lot of sticky-sweet sentimental books for children do.

  4. Gorgeous! (as always)

  5. Jules! Wait ’til you see Rob’s art for our picture book Counting Crows. It’s very, very jazzy!

  6. Looking forward to it, Kathi!

  7. Where to even begin on how much I like this? BEAUTIFUL

  8. Thanks for all you do Jules. And thank you for letting me share a bit of the process. AND your thoughtful observation about message-driven books. I can buy those at the dollar table at Target! No thank you!

  9. Can’t wait to buy the book, Rob! In fact, three of them – one for Sadie and Finn and one for Violet!

  10. Thanks for posting this. Beautiful and sensitive work Rob! I look forward to getting a copy of the book.

  11. I love the process shown here! All of the art is so full of energy and feeling. Bravo to Rob! I especially enjoy the shot of his work space.

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