This beautiful book, which celebrates the imaginative, playful spirit of an artist letting mistakes guide her work, is more than just an embracing of the artistic process, both messy and lovely. It’s also quite the odyssey, one that takes readers on unexpected paths, opening minds and perspectives. I don’t want to say much more than that, because I wouldn’t want to ruin the reading experience for you. You really want to see this one — and not just for the journey of the mind it takes you on. The art is also exquisite and the palette, warm and inviting.
Another reason not to go on and on is that Corinna is here, visiting today to tell us all about the book — and share lots of art. I thank her for visiting! Let’s get to it so that we can hear more.
Corinna: As a kid, my mom often read to me from Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories. It was a thick, red, cloth-covered book, filled with strange stories and detailed ink drawings by Maud and Miska Petersham. The stories were grouped together by theme — Three Stories About Three Ways the Wind Went Winding and Four Stories About The Deep Doom of Dark Doorways. They were absurd and beautiful. They were strange and silly and sad. And we loved them all. We read our favorites—like, How They Bring Back the Village of Cream Puffs When the Wind Blows It Away—over and over, laughing every time for the silliness of the sound of the words.
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But it wasn’t until after college that I realized making picture books was what I wanted to do. The manager of the bookstore where I’d worked in high school handed me a book one day. “You are going to love this,” she said. It was The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip by George Saunders and Lane Smith. And she was right. I had goose bumps up and down my spine as I read it for the first time. I read it again, and then again, thinking, “you can do this?”
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That was seventeen years ago. Over the next ten years, I did a lot of writing, drawing, waitressing, and teaching. And then I became a mother — and something shifted. I’d always loved the weird and strange books, but now I also loved the tender ones, the ones with heart.
Then one night, about two and a half years ago, I woke up at 3 a.m. (after a bad stomach flu) and drew/wrote the first half of The Book of Mistakes. I mocked up a dummy and sent it, heart pounding, to Steven Malk, an agent at Writers House, hoping he would see potential in the story. He did. He loved the beginning, he said, but the ending needed work. Finding a more interesting and satisfying ending took me another year. That year was difficult and absolutely necessary. During that time, I learned a great deal about my process as an illustrator-writer. I learned how to trust the work, how to listen, how to find my way through and out of the dark.
I made fourteen dummies that year. And the book doubled in size.
But eventually, with Steve’s help, The Book of Mistakes found a wonderful home — at Dial with Namrata Tripathi and Lily Malcom.
Most of the work that really inspires me is either absurd or, for lack of a better word, profound. And when a book is both, I have a physical response. I get chills. My heart beats faster. If I had to choose four books that have had the strongest influence on me, it would probably be these:
The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, Rootabaga Stories
Next, I’d add Where The Sidewalk Ends; Snow by Uri Shulevitz; Migrant by Maxine Trottier and Isabelle Arsenault; Owl at Home by Arnold Lobel; The Other Way to Listen by Byrd Baylor and Peter Parnall; Wave by Suzy Lee; and the poetry of Carl Phillips, Yehuda Amichai, E. E. Cummings, Issa, and Mary Oliver. And, very quickly, my pile would turn into a tower of books:
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I’ve always loved working with ink and watercolor. I enjoy how fluid they are — and also how hard they are to control. I love the way watercolor blooms and shifts and can have a life of its own on the paper.
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More recently, I’ve been using pencils, dark ones — 4B, 6B, 8B. I love how you can almost erase them, but not quite. The smudges that are left behind, the visible memory of those first thoughts and impulses on paper — I love that.
I also love printmaking. The texture, the built-in surprises that come with applying ink to one surface, and then transferring it to another — there is so much possibility there. Since finishing The Book of Mistakes, I’ve been experimenting with printmaking again. It’s so fun!
I have so many favorites — Lisbeth Zwerger, Isabelle Arsenault, Marc Simont, Suzy Lee, Komako Sakai, Carson Ellis, Jon Klassen, Beatrice Alemagna, Edward Gorey, Shel Silverstein, David Roberts, Quentin Blake, Maira Kalman, Arthur Geisert, Marla Frazee, Maurice Sendak, Istvan Banyai, Jen Corace, Jon Agee, Jordan Crane, Lane Smith, Sophie Blackall, Tomi Ungerer, Christian Robinson, Erin Stead, Patrick McDonnell, Ben Shahn, Ellen Raskin (yes, she was an illustrator!), Ezra Jack Keats, Olivier Tallec, Julie Morstad, John Hendrix, Renata Liwska, Nikki McClure, David Small, Zachariah Ohora, Sergio Ruzzier, Adrian Tomine, Yuko Shimizu…. It’s a very long list, and it just keeps going!
It all started with a series of mistakes.
I used to draw with pen, because I liked how, with pen, a line could take on a life of its own. But that life often led to shapes and marks I didn’t intend and couldn’t erase. Because I loved to draw and loved to draw with ink, I learned to deal with those accidents. If I messed up something in a face, I’d add glasses. If I didn’t like the way I’d drawn a hand, I might add gloves. And somewhere along the way I learned to enjoy how each mistake forced me to find a new way of looking at the world. And I began to wonder if celebrating mistakes was something that could be taught.
While working as both a teaching assistant and artist in residence in elementary schools, I also noticed a pattern. In every class there would be one or two kids who, within minutes of starting to draw, were raising their hands asking for another piece of paper. They didn’t like what they were seeing. They wanted to start over. They wanted to make it perfect. I began to wonder if I could teach them to see the possibility in that mistake — to see how they could keep going and transform their drawing or painting into something that they still might love.
This all circled home for me when my daughter was four years old. At that age, she loved everything she drew. She didn’t see mistakes — only pattern and line and color and texture. And she loved to draw. Then one day, while drawing, she burst into tears and threw her paper on the ground. She had made a mistake. She couldn’t fix it. And it broke my heart. Not yet, I remember thinking. Not her. Not already. Not now.
like they’d always wanted to be lifted up and carried.”
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In La Conner, Washington, where I lived when I was making The Book of Mistakes, there is this tree:
In The Book of Mistakes, there is also a tree, halfway through the book:
In the first ten dummies, the story ended with a variation of this tree. It took me almost a year to realize the tree belonged to the middle, not the end, of the story. During that year, I drew the tree many, many times!
Re-drawing an image over and over isn’t usually much fun. It’s hard to keep the life and energy in a drawing when you’ve re-worked it too much. But this tree was different.
As one of the final changes, I added a tribute to three of my favorite picture books with beautiful trees (All The World, Extra Yarn, and A Tree is Nice).
Can you find them in the finished tree?
Right now I’m working on a second picture book with Dial. It’s about the heart, and how it can open, close, and open again.
I’ll also be illustrating a middle-grade novel for Candlewick (Weird Little Robots by Carolyn Crimi), due out spring 2019.
As a mostly self-taught illustrator, who has lived in a series of small towns with little in the way of art community, 7-Imp has been an incredible gift. The opportunity to see so much art, and especially art process, has been something I’ve looked forward to every week, for years. I’ve discovered some of my very favorite illustrators though 7-Imp. And my agent, too. Throughout my journey as an illustrator, it has been a resource and a source of inspiration. So I can’t end without saying THANK YOU, Jules, on behalf of aspiring illustrators everywhere — for the amazing work that you do. It has more of an impact than you know.
All images used by permission of Corinna Luyken.
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.
Well, that “one last thing” that Corinna typed pretty much covers my seven kicks for the week. Thank you, Corinna.
Actually, one more kick: I got to spend time with a friend on Thursday. She is ill. Every minute counts for a lot.
What are YOUR kicks this week?