How do you illustrate a non-fiction book for kids based on the former ninth planet? Some people still have some pretty strong feelings about Pluto’s demotion: protest signs, student protest speeches, public demonstrations. Cries of unfairness could be heard when news of poor Pluto’s removal from the planetary ranks occurred. It is the intention of this new children’s book to set the story straight or at least attempt to share “Pluto’s side of the story." I‘ve worked in the children’s book market as a freelance illustrator for several years in addition to my full-time job with the Museum’s Early Childhood program. My latest book assignment from Abrams Books for Young Readers, Pluto's Secret: an icy World's Tale of Discovery, connected my job as an artist and an educator.
In publishing, typically the illustrator and the author never meet or exchange ideas. In some cases the author might live across the state or in another country. The approved manuscript is sent to the artist from the publisher. It is then up to the artist to find the visual voice of the text. Fortunately, for this project the authors Margaret Weitkamp and David DeVorkin were my Museum colleagues. In my first sketch, for example, I used my daughter’s old high school algebra homework, which was my interpretation of a possible equation mathematician Percival Lowell might have calculated. David knew right away it was not correct and gave me a copy of an actual Lowell equation which is now in the book. I also needed to re-work my idea of a telescope, which originally looked like one from Dr. Seuss, to one that looked more like Lowell’s telescope.
When I work, I use water jars, brushes, water color pads, and tissue paper. I need good lighting and scads of paper towel, and music really helps the flow. Next I usually consider color and composition. In this case, "What color should I make Pluto? Hmmm... Purple? Blue? Meatball brown? Red is taken by Mars." There is also a lot of activity in space. Things crash into each other, explosions and collisions happen, surfaces have been impacted by objects bumping into them. Maybe Pluto might have a somewhat bumpy surface with a few craters. What does dirty methane gas look like? An icy world might have a few patches of surface ice. What might life in a Kuiper belt be like? No one really knows exactly, so imagination holds the paint brush.
First I sketched out my ideas then sent them to the editor for review and critique, and to Margaret and David for review. Later the publisher sent corrections back marked in red. The corrected sketches were re-drawn and then re-submitted to the publisher. Once all the corrected sketches were approved, I worked on re-drawing and painting each image by hand on watercolor paper. In the past, the procedure of mailing sketches back and forth between the publisher and artist often took weeks to complete. Today sketches can be scanned and sent out and corrections returned within a few days. Once the designer receives the corrected art, he/she can lay out the text copy with finished art work and get a pretty good idea of what the final product will look like. No more mailing tubes or runs to the copy shop in the middle of the night, or trips to the local post office trying to make a deadline. Nevertheless, I still waited with baited breath for comments from the art editor/publisher/authors as they reviewed the final art work. Did they like it? Did I get the right look? Did they notice that smudge? For me, this is one of the hardest parts of the process, the waiting. Finally, a thumbs up. Everything was approved. It’s a go. My hope is that young readers and adults alike will have as much fun as I did learning why Pluto is no longer considered a planet and how "he" really feels about it. And I hope you like the book as much as I liked creating the art! Join us this Friday, March 15, at the Museum in Washington, DC to learn more about Pluto with the authors of Pluto's Secret. Children can participate in educational activities, and purchase a signed copy of the book.