One Picture-Book Roundtable Discussion
Before Breakfast #5: Featuring Team Roar!

h1 November 18th, 2015 by jules


Good morning, Imps. I’ve got another picture book roundtable discussion today, this one with the team behind Roar!, which was released by Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster in October.

Roar!, written by Tammi Sauer, tells the story of a young boy playing imaginatively in his home-made dragon costume. He’s pretty pumped about his big, scary dragon get-up. But then two dragons appear and tell him he’s not actually scary, big, toothy, and fierce. The boy deflates at the news, but then the dragons try to cheer him up — only to realize there are a lot of feats they can’t pull off themselves. All’s well that ends well when the boy comes to realize he’s made some new friends.

Back here in 2013, the book’s illustrator, Liz Starin, visited 7-Imp. (Liz is also one of the blogger’s at the wonderful Pen & Oink.) This is her picture book debut, and I knew I’d want to have her back to the site to talk about it. But she’s not alone, as I said: Tammi’s also here, as well as the book’s designer, Laurent Linn, and its editor, Sylvie Frank. They’re here to talk about the book’s creation.

Let’s get to it. I thank them for visiting. (Note: There’s also a sneak-peek below of new art from James E. Ransome and Vanessa Brantley-Newton.)

* * * * * * *

7-Imp: What was your first impression or reaction to the Roar! manuscript? (Tammi, you can simply address the writing of it, getting the initial idea for it, etc.)

Tammi (pictured left): With Roar!, I set out to tell a story entirely in dialogue that was filled with heart, humor, energy — and dragons.

This story went through a lot of drafts and a lot of different versions.

First, it was about a princess searching for a pet, and a dragon is trying to get her to notice him.

Then it was about a little dragon trying to get noticed by two bigger dragons.

Then it was about a little dragon trying to prove to his mom he’s big.

Then it was about a little dragon trying to prove to his siblings he’s big.

Then it was back to a little dragon trying to get noticed by two bigger dragons.

Those versions were nice, but something always seemed missing.

*** NOTE: When your inner voice is telling you something is missing from your manuscript, 99.9% of the time something is missing from your manuscript. ***

Soooo … at the suggestion of Sylvie and Paula Wiseman, I wrote another version.

This time around, the story was about a little boy trying to convince two dragons that he’s a dragon, too.

This version felt like The One. It had the emotional hook that the other versions were missing.

On the outside, Roar! is about dragons. But at its core? At its heart? It’s about wanting to find a connection with others.



One of Liz’s early sketches


Liz (pictured right): “All dialogue? Cool!” I thought it would be an interesting challenge to illustrate something with so few cues, and by golly, it was.

Also, Tammi’s text is so expressive and emotional. Since I traffic in over-the-top facial expressions and body language, I could tell that Roar! would be a great project for me.

Laurent (pictured below): One joy about reading a picture book manuscript before there are any sketches at all is imagining the possibilities for the illustrator. There are so many ways a story can be visually told that it’s almost infinite.

With Tammi’s wonderful dialogue and story, I was first impressed with the emotional ups and downs. The main characters’ evolving sadness and joy is so strong, and there could be many ways to show that: the characters’ body language and expressions, of course, but also their design and the style of the art itself. Line and color and texture connect deeply with our emotions.

As we see in the final book, Liz was indeed the perfect person to convey and interpret the emotions, as well as the sweetness of the characters and story. She not only achieved that with her art style and techniques, but the balance of subtle nuances of expression with over-the-top vivid emotional displays bring a real depth to the characters. Her marvelous addition of the cat throughout the pages, which is a reflection of the main child, not only brings a humor to scenes of the strongest emotions, but also makes us know the child is not alone in this world of big dragons. What seems simple at first read is actually layered and brings new meanings to the book upon repeated readings, I think.



Early sketch


Sylvie (pictured left): Tammi is the queen of punchy, energetic texts, and Roar! is a perfect example of that. It’s funny, filled with roars! and whooshes! and other sounds, and told all in dialogue, which makes it really interesting to read, both narratively and visually (and a challenge for Laurent to design!). I was instantly taken with the writing.

After a second read, I was just as taken with the heart of the story. Sure, it’s a friendship story, and there are lots of those out there. But it’s a lot more than that: it’s about accepting that people (or in this case, a boy and two dragons) are different, but focusing on how they’re the same. It’s a hugely important and universal theme.

7-Imp: Describe a part of the Roar! process that was challenging or surprising (or both).

Tammi: With every book I write, I want my readers to feel something. I want them to empathize with and relate to my character. I want them to think, “Yup, I’ve been in a situation like that before” or “I can totally imagine what that was like.” The challenge with Roar! is that, when it came to the text, I had to let the dialogue do all of the work. During the boy’s sad moment, for instance, I couldn’t just write, “The boy is sad” or “The boy’s tail drooped.” I needed to convey his feelings in a different way. Finally, I figured out a good approach. For each emotion the boy experienced, I used a well-placed word like Grr, Hmph, and WAAAAAAAHHH!

Later, the manuscript went to Liz. Her use of facial expressions and body language (and a cat sidekick!) made a good thing great.



Early sketches
(Click second image to enlarge)


Liz: The dragons are OBVIOUSLY REAL, but Sylvie and Laurent shocked me by disagreeing. We probably haven’t settled that one yet.

Okay, but seriously, sorting out the pagination was harder than I thought it would be. The text on its own has a clear rhythm and a lot of well-defined beats. And yet the pacing didn’t quite sync up with what I initially thought were obvious page turns.

I also kept getting hung up on scenery and props and the logic of where-does-this-book-take-place and who-is-holding-what-when? The thing is, this book has a strong emotional core, strong enough to carry the story without much set-dressing. So I didn’t need to worry so much about those things, actually.

To geek out about production a little bit, there’s a lot of green in this book (on the kid), and greens are harder to reproduce. I knew this and tried to mitigate it by mixing from a cyan-ish blue and a straight yellow, to keep the greens within the CMYK gamut, but apparently the production folks still had to do a fair bit of color correction.



One of Liz’s color tests


Laurent: Since this is a very character-driven book, the design of our main child character and the two dragons was hugely important. It’s like a film or play where the main character is in every scene and has to carry the entire thing — you want to cast the perfect actor. Of course, in children’s books, we have a huge advantage in that area: we get to create the main characters from scratch. While that may seem ideal, it’s also extremely daunting. Even though it was a tricky process to “find” our final characters, Liz is so talented and hard-working that the process was an exciting one.

When you have every possibility to choose from, experimenting with what a character should look like is a bit overwhelming. The characters and art style must be true to the emotional core of the story, suit the voices the author has established in the text, be appropriate for the age range of the readers, be unique and not derivative of other books out there on a similar topic or with similar characters, yet also be true to the style and vision of the illustrator. It’s a lot! Since our main character is a human child, that at least helped narrow down the options in many ways (we know most human kids have two arm, two legs, hair on their head, aren’t purple with polka dots, etc.) But with the dragons … anything goes! I know the process was at times very intense for Liz, but WOW, not only did we get there, but she created characters that are truly her own and are perfect for the story. We’ve all fallen in love with them!



(Click to enlarge)


Sylvie: This book was a blast to work on. Liz and Tammi are fantastic collaborators. Early on, Laurent and I were looking through Liz’s sketches and we realized that something wasn’t working. In the beginning of the story, the boy is trying to show that he is big, scary, and can breathe fire, like the dragons. In the original manuscript, the dragons countered with the following characteristics of the boy: “You are small.” “And cute.” “And your breath smells like peppermint!” But when Laurent and I were looking through Liz’s first round of sketches, we realized that these two parts of the story weren’t balanced — the comparison wasn’t working. The dragons needed to recognize important things that the boy could do that they couldn’t. So I sent an email to Tammi, asking if she agreed. And since Tammi is a dream-come-true author, she got back to me within .454 seconds with the following revised text: “You can play hide-and-seek!” “And turn cartwheels!” “And eat ice cream!” Of course, this text change required more space to illustrate and totally revised sketches, so Liz adjusted the pagination and drew new sketches like a champ. The result is a book that successfully celebrates how the boy and dragons are different and how they’re the same: they like to make silly faces, act like Frankenstein, and do the funky monkey dance. Spoiler alert: they are friends!


A final spread: “Look at me, look at me! I’m a big dragon. ROAR! …”
(Click to enlarge spread)


7-Imp: How did the finished book vary or evolve from your initial vision of the book?

Tammi: I originally envisioned the book as being set in the dragons’ habitat. Liz provided a wonderful surprise by setting the book in the boy’s habitat instead.

Also, while I was writing the book, I had Standard Issue Dragons in my head. Liz’s dragons were nothing like that. Her dragons are unlike any dragons I have ever seen. They are fresh, fun, and original.

I can’t thank Liz, Sylvie, and Laurent enough for turning my little manuscript into this great piece of theatre.


A final spread: “Look at me, look at me! I’m a scary dragon. ROAR! …”
(Click to enlarge spread)


Liz: I really wanted to go beyond the bounds of the text, because it leaves so much leeway. So originally I envisioned a whole visual subplot where the dragons construct a rocket and then use their fiery breath to propel it off the ground. Yeah, that was sort of awkward. I settled for inventing a cat character. Actually, the cat was in my very first sketches, and he made it into the book.

The characters themselves also evolved. Initially, I thought of the dragons as snootier. I thought maybe this was a playground scenario, where a little kid keeps trying to play with the big kids and they just snub him. But it turns out that dragons are pretty nice people.

They were also originally clothed. Bizarrely clothed, in the manner of house-elves. But, as Sylvie and Laurent pointed out, these dragons are not human, not even aspiringly human (except for a little bit near the end of the story). So in the name of making the dragons more animal, we got rid of the clothing. But oh, I was sad to say goodbye to that tutu and that boot-hat!



The boy’s outfit pretty much survived from the beginning, but he got a lot younger. Which makes sense, because I suspect it would be a rare ten-year-old boy who would be willing to wear striped tights and no pants. (Although, ten-year-old boys: you have my blessing.)


A final spread: “Why are you crying? I am not a dragon. …”
(Click to enlarge spread)


Laurent: As an art director, I not only work with the illustrator and editor on the illustrations, but I also design the book itself. So, at first I wasn’t sure how I would handle designing all the text in the book. We have three characters that are in constant dialogue, sometimes overlapping and speaking in unison and that are going to be positioned all over each page. Also, the entire text is only in dialogue without any narration. For a child who is learning to read, it’s exceedingly important that, visually, it is clear who is saying what. It’s not enough that the words may hint at who the speaker is — it has to be in the design.

At first I thought it could work to simply have each character’s dialogue text near them on the page, so the proximity of the text and character would do it. But as Liz created the compositions of the art, it became clear my initial plan wouldn’t work. She needed to be able to go crazy and create both calm and zany scenes without limiting herself to strict text areas. At the end, I didn’t want to use speech balloons because, in this book, I felt they would be obtrusive and detract from Liz’s amazing illustrations. Also, with so much going on, it would make the scenes too busy.


A final spread: “No, you’re not. There are lots of things you can do. …”
(Click to enlarge spread)


So, in the end, I used a few design techniques to solve the puzzle: each character’s dialogue is in a different color that matches part of their design, the boy’s text is a different font from the dragons’, the boy’s text is almost always on a tilt while the dragon’s is always level, and I used a simple dotted line to connect the text with the speaker. Phew!

Sylvie: Roar! is Liz Starin’s debut. It’s hugely fun and exciting to work with new talent like Liz. I loved her work in her portfolio, but I never could have dreamed how beautiful this artwork would turn out. The colors are bright and vivid, and the texture she plays with (watercolor, crayon, colored pencil, and ink) makes the dragons particularly beautiful and texturally interesting. And her characters are so expressive and funny. To me, this is the perfect picture book package: a universal theme done in a totally fresh way; snappy, funny writing; beautiful illustrations that reward careful observation. Can you tell I’m proud of it?

(As a side note: Laurent and I are both cat lovers. The more cats in books we work on together the better. Roar! features a hilarious cat named Stanley who mimics everything his owner does. Keep an eye out for him!)


A final spread and its sketch
(Click final art to enlarge)


7-Imp: What’s next for you?

Tammi: In 2016, I have four upcoming titles.

Mary Had a Little Glam, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton (Sterling), is my first rhymer. It was an incredible challenge. I recently saw Vanessa’s sketches [below], and I am in love with sweet and sassy Mary.



I Love Cake! Starring Rabbit, Porcupine, and Moose, illustrated by Angela Rozelaar (HarperCollins), is about some of life’s finer things — good friends and cake. It also involves some spectacular sweaters.

Ginny Louise and the School Field Day, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger (Disney*Hyperion), is a sequel to Ginny Louise and the School Showdown. In book two, the irrepressibly cheerful Ginny Louise takes on the Truman Elementary Troublemakers in a whole new way.

Your Alien Returns, illustrated by Goro Fujita (Sterling), is a companion to Your Alien. This time around, the boy goes on a play date that is out of this world.


A sneak-peek at Liz’s Splashdance


Liz: My author-illustrator debut, Splashdance [pictured above]! It’s about a bear who’s preparing for the upcoming water ballet championship, until she meets some resistance at the pool. Out from FSG next summer, just in time for the Olympics! I’m also working on some STEM-y nonfiction ideas.

Laurent: Giving Roar! to all my little friends and their adults to enjoy!

Sylvie: Gosh, lots of exciting things in the works! I’m pumped about another gorgeous, sweet picture book called Strictly No Elephants by Lisa Mantchev, illustrated by Taeeun Yoo, that comes out later this Fall. [Ed. Note: Here’s my 7-Imp post on the book.] I’m also looking forward to a nonfiction picture book called Miss Mary Reporting: The True Story of Sportswriter Mary Garber by Sue Macy, illustrated by C.F. Payne, that comes out next Spring. Oh, and I can’t forget to mention My Story, My Dance: Robert Battle’s Journey to Alvin Ailey by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James E. Ransome. It’s a picture book biography about the artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and it’s exquisite (also out this Fall). I’ll stop now.


” … In piece after piece, dancers in all shades of brown
moved powerfully, gracefully across the stage. …”
— A spread from Lesa Cline-Ransome’s
My Story, My Dance:
Robert Battle’s Journey to Alvin Ailey, illustrated by James E. Ransome
(Click to enlarge spread)


* * * * * * *

ROAR!. Copyright 2015 by Tammi Sauer. Illustrations © 2015 by Liz Starin. Published by Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster, New York. All illustrations/sketches used by permission of Liz Starin.

Illustration from SPLASHDANCE used by permission of Liz Starin.

Illustration from MY STORY, MY DANCE used by permission of Sylvie Frank.

Photos of Ms. Sauer, Ms. Starin, Mr. Linn, and Ms. Frank used by their permission.

One comment to “One Picture-Book Roundtable Discussion
Before Breakfast #5: Featuring Team Roar!

  1. The enthusiasm from all the players are palpable from this round table exchange! Books are like little movie/stage productions, with many behind the scenes of the initial seed planting. Thank you all for sharing, and to Jules for setting the stage.

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