WHERE DOES A STORY COME FROM?
or How a Toad Named Vernon Ended Up Sailing a Teacup into the Great Unknown
Note: This post was originally written and compiled for the website Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast on May 3, 2012.
So where does a story come from anyway? I’ve been wondering that lately in the last few weeks before the publication of my new book, A Home for Bird. The story making process for Bird was long (very long) and strange with many roadblocks, dead ends, and false starts along the way. Typically when I finish a book I don’t like to return to it at all. I don’t even like to look at books I’ve written or illustrated unless I absolutely have to. But A Home for Bird was such a strange, unpredictable process for me that I feel compelled now to take a look back.
If I try to pinpoint a moment when A Home for Bird really began it was around the spring of 2006. We were living in Brooklyn at the time and one evening I sat down at the kitchen table and made a drawing in my sketchbook of a sad little toad sitting on a telephone wire. I don’t know where this image came from. It just happened and I didn’t think much about it. I wish I could show you that first drawing, but it was lost somewhere along the way—probably during one of our five moves in four years (moving from home to home becomes an important theme in A Home for Bird later on).
This little toad character stuck with me in the months that followed. I started to imagine where he lived—a cuckoo clock in the countryside:
I gave him possessions—a spool of thread (his favorite chair):
I put him into situations—sailing a teacup down the river on a moonlit night:
I made more and more of these images until a kind of story began to develop. It was only natural that a cuckoo bird would become a supporting character. I had them do things with each other, like fly a hot air balloon made from a teacup and scraps and cloth sewn together:
I made these drawings completely for myself. I had no intention of turning them into a publishable story.
DIGRESSION #1, WHY CUCKOO CLOCKS?: Cuckoo clocks have been a recurring theme for me for a long time. A cuckoo clock plays a big role in my first book, Creamed Tuna Fish and Peas on Toast:
One shows up in the background of Jonathan and the Big Blue Boat too:
But why? When I was a kid my house was filled with clocks—grandfather clocks, cuckoo clocks, pocket watches kept under glass domes (Amos McGee carries a pocket watch), clocks with neon lights that light up on the hour and play Hey, Jude. There was even a mantel clock that after 25 years of doing nothing but chiming the hours and half-hours suddenly started chiming a Jewish folk song. Weird! The clocks I’ve known have had personalities. Which is why, I think, that clocks keep popping up in my books. Okay, getting back to A Home for Bird…
Several months passed and Erin and I moved out of New York City and into a cabin upstate in the Catskill wilderness. In some ways our new home was like the cuckoo clock I’d drawn, surrounded by mountains in the country with a river flowing by. It sounds idyllic, but the year spent in that house was memorable for its terribleness. Everything that could have gone wrong with that home did. It was cursed. I’ll spare you all the unpleasant details, but this image from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining will give you a rough mental image of where we were living:
This image will represent me from that time period:
This one will represent Erin:
It was at this time that I started thinking about moving, and about bad homes as possible story themes. Like they say, write what you know!
In November 2007 Erin and I took a much needed vacation to Hawaii. Transoceanic flights are a great place to get some writing done. It was on that flight, mostly out of boredom, that I first jotted down a toad-related story idea. It was titled, A Toad and a Teacup. Looking back now, these ideas bear almost no resemblance to the story that became A Home for Bird.
When the plane landed we went back to our terrible home and I put away the story for what turned out to be about two whole years. I was finishing the art for Creamed Tuna Fish and Peas on Toast and later Jonathan and the Big Blue Boat. Erin was working on A Sick Day for Amos McGee. We moved in and out of two more homes during that time. At the start of 2010 it was time for me to begin a new story. The Toad and the Teacup was still hanging around in my brain cells so I decided to explore it some more to see if it had a future. A have a lot of ideas that come and go. I think the best ideas are willing to stay and wait their turn.
Erin and I had been talking for a while about if and how we could make a book together. By “together” I mean actually making the art together, unlike Amos where I did the writing and Erin handled the art by herself. It would require that we find some kind of hybrid way of working. We began to experiment with some techniques. This was an early character and color study:
Erin and I worked on this together for several weeks. In the meantime we tried to tighten up the story.
We did lots and lots of preliminary sketches. Unfortunately the story wasn’t really very good. In fact, it was a mess. The artwork was kind of unimpressive too. Eventually we decided it wasn’t yet possible for us to mix our art styles without making the sum lesser than the individual parts. So the story and artwork reverted back to me by default. Although the story was not quite right yet, I decided it was time to show our editor and art director at Roaring Brook Press, Neal and Jennifer. We tend to pitch ideas to them over lunch or coffee in a casual sort of way, so there’s not a lot of pressure to be perfect. The story we pitched went something like this: Vernon, a toad, lives in a cuckoo clock house by the river. One day a big storm damages the house. He and his upstairs neighbor, Bird, go on an adventure heading down the river in a teacup to look for a new home. Eventually they return home where they started, fix up the old house, and everyone lives happily ever after.
That is the simplified version. But in order to make the logic of the story work—why, for example, does Vernon live in a cuckoo clock by the river?—there had to be a number of subplots and digressions that in no way helped the overall flow of the story. Neal (our editor, in case you forgot), in his infinite wisdom pointed this out to us right away. Normally this would probably mean the end of a project but Neal and Jennifer, like Erin and I, seemed to have an immediate fondness for the story’s characters, even if the story itself was somewhat weak.
Oddly enough I felt liberated to hear that my story stunk. It freed me up to think of new scenarios in which Vernon could meet Bird.
DIGRESSION #2, WHY A TOAD NAMED VERNON?: At first I wasn’t sure why I chose the name Vernon. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that it wasn’t a random choice at all.
This is my great-grandpa Vernon:
Vernon worked at a Ford dealership in Detroit. We never met, but I’ve inherited a number of his things. He was an amateur electrician. This was his cabinet that he filled with interesting little electrical parts, and knickknacks:
There are lots of great things inside:
Vernon (the toad) is a collector of interesting things too. In fact, the first line of A Home for Bird is: Vernon was out foraging for interesting things when he found Bird.
One of the interesting things that Vernon (my great-grandpa, not the toad) collected during his lifetime was this cuckoo clock:
Vernon bought the clock at a pawnshop during the Depression, and today it hangs in my living room. So without realizing it my brain made a series of simple connections. Vernon—Collector of Interesting Things—Cuckoo Clock. Okay, back to my story again…
Having moved by now five times in four years, moving was very much on my mind. The image of a ramshackle moving truck came to me one day.
That became the turning point, in that it gave me a more plausible premise: What if a cuckoo bird went flying off the back of a moving truck?
And what if a curious and kind little toad happened upon that cuckoo bird?
Suddenly everything fell into place. There were side characters:
A lot of the original story ideas fit into place too. Like the teacup and the river:
And even the image of a toad sitting on a telephone wire:
Neal and I revised the story together several times, working to get the text just right. Of all the books I’ve done A Home for Bird was the most collaborative from an editorial standpoint. There were more drafts of the story than I care to count.
It might not look like it, but this page actually represented a major breakthrough in the story telling for me:
All that was left for me to do was to decide on an art style. My previous two books were done in collage, a very labor intensive, multilayered process. I love working that way, but the style just didn’t feel right for the characters or the setting in A Home for Bird. In the end I settled on a style and materials that I was almost completely unfamiliar with…
This is a year’s worth of crayon shavings that I’m thinking about melting down into a single Crayon of Infinite Awesomeness:
I kicked myself many times over the next year for having made the decision to use these materials. Working with crayon might sound fun but, well, you can’t erase when you mess up. I’ve never had to tear up and throw away so much artwork. It is an odd and uncomfortable feeling to be learning how to use materials while working on a project that’s going to be published (not to mention reviewed and critiqued).
When a picture went well for me I could finish in a single day as opposed to one or two weeks for an individual collaged picture. My process was simple. It went like this…
I did an under-drawing all in crayon:
Then I painted over with gouache:
And that’s it.
I should have finished the book quickly, but because of all my mix-ups and failed attempts it took me a whole year to finish the artwork. Eventually though I was ready to turn in the final art.
A Home for Bird will be released June 5th, 2012, more than six years since my first drawing of that sad little toad sitting on a telephone wire. So where do stories come from? Really, I have no idea. Maybe all the stories I’ll ever write already exist and it’s just up to me to discover the pieces and put them together. I’ve always been a collector so that notion appeals me. I collect my stories—sometimes it takes a long, long time.