Illustrating For a Celebrity
I first learned about Ree Drummond—The Pioneer Woman—when I was asked to illustrate her children’s book series about her lovable dog, Charlie. If you don't know her, she’s famous for her cookbooks, her TV show, her cookware, her clothing line, her magazine, and her years of blogging about family and ranch life in Oklahoma. She was one of the first "bloggers" before it became a thing. And she has a gazillion fans who follow her website: https://www.thepioneerwoman.com
In 2011, she published a blog post about creating the Charlie series and working with me, which I now have permission to reprint here. I thought you might be interested in the author’s side of book creation. Granted, her being a celebrity meant a (very) different way for me to work. First, I had to “audition” for the job. (There’s a first time for everything.) And once I started, I had to make many revisions to satisfy a multitude of editors, art directors, the whole marketing department, and, of course, the author. But it was worth it. The first book, Charlie the Ranch Dog, opened on the NY Times bestseller list at #1 for picture books, thanks to her fans. (And I hope my artwork!) Four additional picture books, and 5 easy readers completed the series.
FYI: Unfortunately, I never got to meet Ree (or Charlie) or travel to her ranch for reference material. Fortunately, she had an archive of 30,000+ photos on her website that I could use.
FYI#2: The stories in the Charlie books were based on real events on the Drummond ranch. That meant I had to show the real people involved. Oddly, I was not allowed to show Ree or her family's faces in the art; I could only draw profiles, backs of heads, or shadowed faces. Charlie and the other animals were the only ones who could face the reader. (Long story.)
FYI#3: Did you know that when a book reaches #1 in The NY Times, the president of HarperCollins sends an award from Tiffany’s?
I assume Ree got one too.
And finally... Here is the post from 2011 by Ree Drummond. Enjoy!
Twenty Steps to Writing a Children’s Book
My Charlie book comes out tomorrow, and rather than just show you the book and say “Uh…duh…here’s my children’s book,” I thought I’d let you in on the behind-the-scenes process that took me from Point A (making the decision to write a children’s book) to Point B (sending the children’s book to print.)
If you plan on getting or reading the Charlie book, it might be fun to see the back story.
If you don’t plan on getting or reading the Charlie book, it still might be fun to see the back story.
If you’ve ever thought about writing an illustrated children’s book, it might be helpful for you to see the back story.
I sure hope I can remember the back story.
Oh! I just remembered.
Here it is.
1. I entered into a contract with the publisher.
This is the children’s division within the same publishing house where my cookbook was published, and I actually decided to do the children’s book before my cookbook was even released. The children’s editor and I had a series of conversations that culminated in my deciding to write a children’s book about Charlie, my malodorous, belligerent, highly lethargic and sweet Basset Hound. And I knew I wanted to include Suzie, my eleven-year-old Jack Russel Terrier who hangs out with my father-in-law most of the time these days, and who is the perfect yin to Charlie’s yang. I can hardly stand to watch Suzie and Charlie together.
It’s hysterical and tragic at the same time.
Oh, and did I mention Charlie’s malodorous? Wow…
2. We chose an illustrator.
After narrowing it down to two incredible illustrators, both illustrators sent interpretations of Charlie and Suzie. Of course, I loved them both; they both put a very different spin on The Short One.
Diane’s deGroat’s illustration was beautiful and really captured Charlie’s sweetness. The other illustration (by an incredible children’s book author) was more hilarious and comical. I propped them both on our mantel and lived with them for several days.
One thing I identified as I looked at both illustrations was that I wanted to make sure Charlie didn’t come across as too…uh…”precious” in the book. Charlie is precious in his own special way, of course, but I didn’t want him to look like a sweet, happy, bouncy, darling dog when in fact, he actually looks quite pathetic most of the time. The “pitiful” quality was definitely present in the second, more comical illustration.
In the end, though, I thought Diane’s take on Charlie seemed more right for the book I envisioned: sweet and whimsical and fanciful and silly. So I just suggested that she add a slightly pathetic quality to her beautiful take on Charlie…and I knew that would be the perfect combination.
3. While I began work on the manuscript, Diane began working on character sketches of Charlie and Suzie.
Since she didn’t have the story to start sketching yet, Diane worked on perfecting Charlie and Suzie, based on several representative photos I’d sent her.
Here were some initial sketches.
And these came a little later. Hey! I know that dog!
I thought she did a great job of capturing Suzie’s playfulness and alertness.
Another thing the artist worked on was getting the proportions correct; in her initial color sketch above, Suzie and Charlie were the same height (in fact, Suzie’s much smaller than Charlie.) In this sketch, though, Suzie seemed a little too tiny.
Suzie is a little dog, but not quite this little.
So Diane tweaked until it was right on.
4. I finished the first draft of the manuscript.
Since I never want to assume that anyone reading a book of mine has any background knowledge of the people (or canines) they’re reading about, I really wanted the book to both introduce Charlie’s personality to those readers who might not know anything about him and his lethargic weirdness, but still be fun and familiar to those who already did. So I wrote a story that introduced Charlie, the ranch on which he lives, his daily schedule…and then I threw in a storyline toward the end that allows Charlie to save the day.
5. I “wrote” the art.
As I wrote the story, I imagined scenes that would support it, then described those scenes in detail so the artist could begin sketching the book. Here’s a little excerpt from that early, early first draft.
Days on a ranch begin very, very early, before the sun even has a chance to open its eyes. Charlie is almost always the first one up. (Charlie’s completely sacked out in his soft bed: snoring, eyes rolled back, tongue hanging out, zzzzz’s floating everywhere, as Suzie and the family [ground level: a bunch of cowboy boots] are moving about in the background and scurrying out the door to go to work.)
The first thing Charlie has to do is wake Suzie. Suzie’s always been a very deep sleeper. (Charlie drags himself out of bed and goes to Suzie’s bed, which is already empty. Charlie stands there looking at a Suzie-shaped impression on her bed, thinking “Where’d she go?”)
(Out the window, we see that Suzie’s already outside, bouncing around and having fun as the orange sun rises in the east.)
6. The editor provided feedback on the first draft.
While the editor liked the overall feel of the story, her general impression was that it was too…well, too sweet and precious. Ironically, this had been the exact quality I wanted the artist to avoid. This was a big learning curve for me: because I was writing a children’s book, I think I was trying to behave myself and make everything sweet…and in the end, the story was missing the humorous edge that follows Charlie wherever he goes.
Another thing the editor and I both decided was that the third person didn’t feel right; the story needed to be told from Charlie’s perspective.
7. I went back to the drawing board and re-worked the story.
I switched it to first person (first dog?) and injected more of the sarcastic humor that’s more befitting Charlie. In addition, I removed a scene (fire related) that both my editor and I decided might be a little intense for small kids, and replaced it with a more realistic “save the day” scenario at the end.
I received a note from the editor shortly after turning in the second draft. It said something along the lines of “Yes! Exactly!”
That’s when I knew I was on the right track.
8. The editor (by the way, her name is Kate. And she’s lovely.) sent the story to the artist.
After that point, most of the work was in Diane’s hands for a little while. I did continue to refine the story here and there, but mostly I just waited with breathless anticipation for the first sketches from Diane.
9. The artist sent rough sketches of the story:
The idea with these initial sketches was just to make sure her execution of my art descriptions were on the right track. In addition, she added her own spin on things, injecting ideas here and there in areas where I didn’t provide specific direction.
It was so surreal to see some of the scenes from my imagination appear on paper like this. At this point, I started getting really excited about the book. I consulted with Charlie to get his expert feedback, and he agreed that things were moving along well.
No. Not really.
10. I gave feedback on the sketches—what I liked, what I felt could be tweaked.
Of course, I loved everything, and my suggestions were generally minor: turn a two-page spread into one large illustration that stretches over both pages, change Charlie’s stance, etc.
Here’s a funny adjustment I made at one point: Toward the end of the book, I appear. Diane’s first sketch of me showed me with (very small) jeans, a tucked in shirt, and a belt. And a missing twenty pounds or so. So I actually asked her to make me a little…uh…more like a forty-two-year-old, and to untuck my shirt because I never wear shirts tucked in because I have love handles. Sure enough, the next version of me was…uh…more like a forty-two-year-old.
Then I went to bed that night and had nightmares. What had I done?
11. Based on all the feedback, the artist sent tighter sketches.
…As well as one full color spread. This was the first time we’d seen any color associated with the book (aside from the very first sketch Diane had sent of Charlie) and as soon as I saw it, I melted. I thought it was simply beautiful.
12. After reading through the story/sketches, I realized I needed a few more pages to tell a more complete story.
As I read the book over and over at this stage, I kept feeling the same “holes” in the same spots every time. I knew what I needed to do to fill them in.
Problem is: with a full-color book like this, adding pages is tricky because it increases the cost of the book. I obviously didn’t want my request for more pages to increase the ultimate price of the book, so I explained very clearly to the editor why I felt the story would benefit from the added pages. Then I said please. Then I crossed my fingers and hoped we’d be able to pull it off without passing along any price increase.
To my great delight, the answer was yes (actually, it was something like “Yes, but then we can’t add a single drop of ink after that”) and I set out to fill in the missing pages and provide Diane with the new art notes.
13. The editor/production team used the most current sketches to lay out the entire book, inserting blank spots where my new, extra pages would be.
14. Diane started getting really detailed about the illustrations.
For instance, in this early spread, in the bottom left-hand scene, Charlie is “helping” Marlboro Man fix some fence. Part of my initial description involved Suzie holding Marlboro Man’s fence pliers in her mouth, and Diane wanted to know exactly what fence pliers looked like.
I’m a total expert at things like this, of course (not) so I found a good image of the same fence pliers I use every day when I work my fingers to the bone fixing fence…and sent them to Diane.
In the tighter sketch of this scene, she included these same pliers in Suzie’s sweet mouth.
And finally, here’s the finished illustration in the book.
As part of this refinement process, Diane and the editor would periodically send clusters of questions, such as:
· Does Charlie howl open-mouthed or with pursed lips?
· What species of cow is Daisy? Does her species come in various colors (i.e. brown, black, gray)?
· It seems a lot of the action happens in the backyard. Please confirm the garden and picnic bench are in the backyard.
· Which part of the house is Mama in when she’s standing in the window? We were thinking she’s in the kitchen looking out the back but is that how it is?
It was also important to Diane that we remain in the same time of year–not just time of year, but part of the summer. We decided on an early/mid-May time-frame because the vegetation is all beautiful and green. Consequently, an earlier scene I’d written that involved hauling hay was cut since we wouldn’t be hauling hay until July. I really appreciated Diane’s attention to detail; more than once, she thought of things that never would have occurred to me.
15. After some back-and-forth adjusting and tweaking and refining, Diane began working on the full color versions of the spreads. Meanwhile, she also sent a rough sketch of the cover.
At this point, we still hadn’t decided on the title of the book! The top contenders were Charlie the Ranch Dog, Charlie the Country Dog, and (shown here in the sketch)…Charlie in Charge. In this version, Charlie’s a little smaller and Suzie’s more perched on the edge of the rocker.
But I preferred this one, where Charlie’s a little more prominent and Suzie’s a little more relaxed.
16. The artist sent a tighter sketch of the cover.
I’d suggested adding more freckles to Charlie, and for the final version, adding more junk to the porch (muddy boots, a rope) to make it more true-to-life.
17. Next came the full-color version of the cover…
It’s eerie how real this looks–mud and all–and how much this truly resembles our front porch. Diane deGroat is a beautiful illustrator.
(Fun fact: I snapped a photo of our front door with my cell phone and emailed it to my editor, and from that, Diane…painted our door!)
18. Next, the text was added to the jacket.
(As you can see, the “Ranch Dog” title fell into place.)
…And then came some small illustrations of Charlie for the inside flap of the jacket (far right):
Here’s how they were used:
19. Once the full-color art was done, I worked on placing the text for the story in strategic places in and around the art.
There are many places throughout the book where the placement of the text is important in terms of emphasizing what’s going on in the illustration. For example, in a scene of Charlie chowing down, he says something along the lines of:
I can’t be expected to do all this work on an empty stomach.
Yum. Breakfast is my life.
In the first round of color illustrations, the whole text above appeared together as one paragraph:
I can’t be expected to do all this work on an empty stomach. Yum. Breakfast is my life.
When I wrote this small section, the “Yum. Breakfast is my life.” was meant to be an afterthought, a slightly dry, standalone declaration made by The Stinky One in the middle of his feast. So I moved it way down to the bottom of the page so it received the pause—and the emphasis—it needed.
By the way, here’s the art on that page:
Here’s Diane’s illustration of Charlie eating. I love it.
And here’s the photo I’d sent her long before, which she used as a reference. (That’s mud on his head. Not a parasite.)
20. The book went to print!
After seeing printouts of the final art with the final text placed in the final positions, we all said a little prayer and sent it to the printer.
Then I sent a quick last minute request: “Could you please indulge my love of color and ask the printer to just boost the color saturation by 5% or so? Pretty please?” I wanted to make sure the color really burst forth from the page.
Then the book came in. And I love it.
In summary: I loved the experience of writing a children’s book.
I’m not sure if it was the fact that I love the subject matter (Charlie) so much, or the fun of imagining a scene in my head and seeing such a talented artist translate my thoughts to paper, or telling a story in Charlie’s voice…or the whole collaborative process this book involved.
But the entire experience was pretty much a treat.
If you feel like you have a children’s book brewing in your gut, I hope this behind-the-scenes look at things has helped. And I encourage you to go for it!
If you don’t have a children’s book brewing in your gut—if, instead, you have Apple Jacks or Cocoa Puffs in there—I still hope you’ve enjoyed this little peek at the process.