— From Early Bird
Good morning, dear kickers. Today, we are visited by debut author/illustrator (and librarian!) Toni Yuly, who proves, as you can read below, that it’s never too late to get your start in children’s literature.
I’m going to get right to Toni, since she talks here about her work and how she got into picture books. But first let me say that her debut picture book is called Early Bird. It was released by Feiwel and Friends in January. The illustrations for this story for very young readers were rendered in pen and ink and digital media; Yuly uses thick lines and bright colors, and the text is well-suited to beginning readers. In their starred review, Booklist writes, “it’s unusual for a book this straightforward to accomplish several things, but this succeeds,” describing this as a book that makes learning fun.
In this post today, Toni shares some images from Early Bird; her greeting card collection, Kokoro; and her current project and next book, called Night Owl.
Toni: I am 59 years old, and Early Bird is my first picture book. Being a bit older and a late bloomer in general, I cannot tell you how much I appreciate finally breaking in to this wonderful world and business of picture books.
How did I get here? A few things stand out in my mind. First of all, hard work. Which sounds cliché, but really, it is the baseline for finally getting “serious.” Slowly but steadily, I have been ramping up more and more time that I spend working on my art. Which is hard, because I still have a day job, am married, and have a grown son who is in college.
But the journey has been a long and windy one.
As a kid, I was cautiously wild and all over the place. I had a huge postcard collection and have always loved nature, fashion, music, writing, photography, junkyards, thrift stores …
I am grateful to my parents for ignoring me most of the time. I was free to explore and goof around a lot as a kid, but on the down side, they didn’t encourage or support my artistic bent and hoped I would be a cheerleader in high school and maybe a stewardess after I graduated. Instead, I went to Japan for a year as an exchange student. This experience changed my life and opened me up to Eastern sensibilities that have stayed a strong influence in my life to this day. After my year in Japan, I went to college; drifted around, not knowing what to do; and eventually ended up in the art department. My boyfriend suggested that, since I spent most of my time drawing, it seemed like a good idea. Thus began my life of art.
In college, I was lucky enough to have met and studied with Jacob Lawrence. He seemed different from the other teachers, mostly because he worked in a lot of different mediums. He had a little studio, instead of an office, and besides painting, he illustrated books, made sculptures, designed murals, and taught me the power of composition and color. Under his influence, I started making abstract wall sculptures and gained confidence as a total, creative artist.
After graduating, I took a job at the local library but always kept making art. I made sculptures and collages out of cardboard and found objects. At the time, big paintings and big art were popular, but I could never afford the space or materials for big, so I decided to focus on small works. Jacob Lawrence also taught me that you don’t have to have a fancy studio to make art. “You can work anywhere,” he said, and I did. I spent many years painting tiny watercolors of big landscapes in the corner of my bedroom and showed them around the Seattle area. I was making art for myself, and it was fun but frustrating, because I could never call it anything more than a hobby. It barely paid for itself, and I found the world of fine art pretty cold and overly serious for a goofball like me.
While raising my son, I fell in love with picture books all over again. I started to write stories but did not have the confidence to illustrate. I joined my local SCBWI and spent seven years trying to break in. I got really, really close, but in the end, gave up and turned back to painting. After my son left home, I became interested in doing something more practical (and fun) than painting in the corner of my bedroom. I wanted to start making things for other people in a practical but fun way. I have always loved small things, and greeting cards seemed perfect. It was something that I could control and make happen right away, unlike getting a picture book published. So, I started to design cards. I slowly started to sell my cards around town and was surprisingly successful.
Designing cards was a powerful activity. I was starting to develop a style, and for the first time I was starting to develop characters. Designing cards gave me the confidence to go back to picture books again. A character I created, named Kokoro, kept talking to me. She had stories to tell, and I spent a lot of my time writing her stories. I was tapping into a well inside myself and things were bubbling out. I am a creative plodder, which means that things do not come easy to me. I have to work on things over and over again. It is the process that brings results for me. This way of working is the opposite of the “prodigy artist,” who can nail things more quickly. I have learned that for me, it is okay to throw away most of my work to eventually reach the gems that are hiding down deep. I cannot whip out beautiful sketches or cute drawings on demand, but given some time, I can create an image that is really alive.
I thought that Kokoro would be my first picture book, and I worked on her story for years. But one day I found an interesting vintage coaster from Japan in the local thrift store that I love. The images were round, and one of them was a pitcher that looked like a bird. It inspired me to design a bird that was almost completely round. Early Bird was born! I love robins and like to watch them out my window, hopping around the garden and pulling up worms. Hmmm, the story was starting to form. The other great thing about working in libraries are children’s librarians! I have haunted the “J desk” for years and picked the brains of many a kids’ librarian. They are a gold mine of ideas and books. They beamed support for my first draft of Early Bird, and I knew I had something.
Without the support of people, I would never be here today, writing in this amazing blog. My mentor, Shannon Martin, was a key source of wisdom and practical advice when I started my card business. I met her through a friend. My mentor, Wendy Wahman, was key in helping to encourage me to never give up. I met her working at the library reference desk, when she walked up and asked a question. Connie Hsu (Little, Brown) was key in helping me find my agent. I met Connie through contacts at SCBWI. She introduced me to my agent, Lori Kilkelly (Rodeen Literary Management). Lori was key to selling my first book and helping me become a professional.
From the time I started designing cards to finding my agent was almost five years. (Remember that I had spent seven years trying to break into the business earlier.) From the time I met Wendy to meeting my agent was about one year. From the time that I met my agent to selling my first book, Early Bird was a couple of months. And from the time she submitted the manuscript to selling it was eight days. We sold two more books the same year, so that makes three books in one year!
Lastly, I want to mention that I work from a feeling — always. Technique can be taught, but feelings need to be nurtured. Georges Braque, the famous artist, said: “There is only one valuable thing in art: the thing you cannot explain.” Slow down and trust your self. Relax. It is okay to throw a lot away. Turn your mind off when you are working, and turn it back on later, when you are sipping some tea and standing back, looking at what your heart did. I believe in the power of doing a lot of work, and I am grateful to my gut for speaking loudly to me. Sitting and digging in the dirt helps a lot, too!
Early Bird, Night Owl, and Cat Nap are three companion books that I am lucky enough to be publishing with Feiwel & Friends (Macmillan). I love my editor, Liz Szabla, for her enthusiasm and amazing ability to help shape my work into something stronger than it was before.
I have promised my agent that I will have a website up soon!
EARLY BIRD. Copyright © 2014 by Toni Yuly. Published by Feiwel and Friends, New York. All images here reproduced by permission of Toni Yuly.
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.
1) My oldest turns ten this week. TEN!
2) I can’t wait to celebrate with her.
3) When we were told this week the amount of money we owe (gulp) for her upcoming surgery (just to have adenoids removed — nothing serious), my first thought was one of gratitude that my children are generally healthy. I feel for those people who have never-ending medical bills.
5) My girls and I finished the last of Christopher Healy’s Hero’s Guide books this week, The Hero’s Guide to Being an Outlaw. They were sad to see the series end. They are such fun books and wonderful read-alouds. (We read an ARC. This last book comes out in either April or May.)
6) Playing bunco for the first time.
7) Hurray for the Riff Raff. A kick last week. Still one this week. I love this cover:
What are YOUR kicks this week?