One of my favorite things to do in the whole world is read parts of Third Grade Mermaid aloud to the schools I visit. Sometimes it's to modest-sized groups of 30-40 students, but it's often as big as 400 or more. Either way, I love to show these children the kind of excitement and passion that can go into reading a book aloud. It's more of a high-energy performance than just "reading," and it's worth it. After my presentations, I've seen countless kids (of all ages) literally reading out loud with the same vigor and joy I just showed them. And in many ways, that's the point of it all.
For the second year now, Scholastic has decked out a couple of RV's and hit the road to promote summer reading. The kickoff was held at The Vero Beach Book Center in Vero Beach, Florida. This is a truly magnificent store. I love this place. It's 2 stories of storytelling bliss. And some of the best parts are the walls. Yes, the WALLS! When they have visiting authors or illustrators come, they get them to draw on a blank spot, and there are fewer and fewer of those left. So, being a visiting illustrator, I had the incredible honor of adding Cora Mermaid to their illustrious walls.
Join me in this Episode of Cora's Fascinating Fish Facts, as I spend the day doing research drawings for Third Grade Mermaid Book 2 at the Sea Life Aquarium in Orlando, Florida.
In this episode of Cora's Fascinating Fish Facts, I show how I go about drawing Cora the Mermaid. Using lightly drawn, simple shapes to start, I gradually bring the character to life.
This tutorial demonstrates the gradual process of constructing a drawing from scratch that many professional artists use. As simple as it sounds, the way I get over the fear of a stark white page is simply to start. The trick though, is drawing so lightly that I'm not committed to any one line. Using just the most basic of SHAPES, I'm able to make sure the proportions are correct before I add any details.
SO EXCITING!!! Third Grade Mermaid is now being used as an Accelerated Reader Book nationwide! In the school district my son attends, Accelerated Reader may be the single most important reading program they have. It not only greatly increases the amount a student reads, but accurately tests how well they are understanding what they've read in a fun, simple way. This also helps parents and teachers to select appropriate books for students and children to read next.
Click either image below to find Third Grade Mermaid on the ARBookFind.com site.
There are few places on Earth as well known for their mermaids than Weeki Wachee Springs on the Gulf Coast of Florida. I was fortunate enough to go there the other day see their World Famous Underwater Theatre Show. The show changes every once in awhile. Right now their main show is Hans Christian Anderson's The Little Mermaid.
Besides seeing the shows and taking the remarkably peaceful Riverboat Cruise, I was able to hand a couple of the mermaids their own copies of Third Grade Mermaid. Just being able to thank them for inspiring generations of future mermaids personally was worth the trip.
Visit www.weekiwachee.com for more information on the world famous Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.
Without question, some of the most magical times of the school year is when the Scholastic Book Fairs are held. Usually twice a year (one in Fall, one in Spring), these week long events showcase handpicked books that can be purchased at discounted rates by children right at their school. As I may have noted earlier, Third Grade Mermaid is appearing in Scholastic Book Fairs all over the country this Spring, and I have been going to as many schools as possible to help enhance the experience.
Elementary school classes make a point of noting who wrote and/or illustrated the books they are reading. And this is great. But the kids almost NEVER meet these people. In my entire grade school years, I met only one actual author, and that was because she came to the city library, not to our school. My point is, this gives kids the impression that books are written by somebody else, and not by real people like themselves.
These Book Fair visits are a great opportunity to help break this cycle. I make a point to emphasize that books are not written by magic or by some super "talented" people somewhere else. Obviously I can't teach children how to write a book in a 25 minute speech. But I don't have to. The teachers do that. I think having actual authors come to schools to speak to children about the writing process is the perfect way to reinforce the concepts they are already being taught.
So it's now mid-February. I have taken on many, many new tasks over the last month and a half, and they all primarily have to do with "marketing" Third Grade Mermaid. I have taken to the Facebook Fan Page a lot more than to this blog for updating things simply because Facebook is just unparalleled for connecting with other people.
That said, if you want to follow me much more closely, I recommend "Following" the Third Grade Mermaid Fan Page at www.Facebook.com/ThirdGradeMermaidBooks/. That's basically the hub of all things Third Grade Mermaid. But for now, let's get up to speed on what I've been doing, because there may be something to learn from it.
For one, Third Grade Mermaid is finally out in stores. It was released on January 31, 2017. We went to the Barnes&Noble near the Florida Mall to see it on the shelves, and were pleasantly surprised by the manager wanting me to sign the books while there. This also put several copies in a better position. Needless to say, I have gone to all of the B&N's around town signing the books to help get them better visibility.
Another HUGE happening was the Book Release Event held at the West Osceola Library in Celebration, Florida. I was hoping to have at least 50 people there, but it was successful way beyond what I could have thought. The line was nearly 200 people long at times, and despite moving as quickly as I could, many people waited over an hour to see me. That was such an overwhelming feeling, it's hard to describe. If I had to use just one word though, it would be "thankful." Thankful that I could bring so much joy to so many kids. Thankful that the event turned out so well for Lisa, the incredible children's librarian who set the whole thing up. And thankful that people actually like my work.
Ok, so the other super important thing I have been doing is a series of School Visits. At the moment I am not charging (or making) any money for the visits, but they are helping to promote Third Grade Mermaid in a critical way. So far I have had 4 schools in a row sell out of 100 copies in a single day. And I think this took everyone a little by surprise. Even the Scholastic warehouse in Lake Mary, Florida sold completely out of Third Grade Mermaid and had to get more just to fulfill the order at another school.
At the moment I handle all of the communication myself, and with the massive influx of requests of late, it has become a pretty tall order just to organize my days. In fact, I have never in my life used any kind of "Daily Planner" or anything like that, but I now have so many appearance requests over the next few months that I simply had to get one. It's worth it though. Besides spreading the word about Third Grade Mermaid, just meeting so many kids who utterly adore that book is nothing less than life-affirming.
So here it is! An actual Hardcover copy of the final book! I've actually had it for a few weeks now, but have been so swamped with work that I haven't been keeping up with the blog (as you may see by the entry dates).
I really could not be any happier with how the book turned out. Of course, the story itself represents several years of thought and effort and sacrifice and all that. But I'm actually just referring to the quality of the printing itself. The color turned out better than I hoped. And the glitter font used for the word "Mermaid," which is only crudely represented by this photograph, is simply stunning to see in real life. So appealing. I owe an incredible debt to my Editor and Designer at Scholastic Press for overseeing both the design and overall look of the cover. I simply could not have done it without them.
At this stage of the game it's good to get out to conventions and the like to help spread the word about your work. This isn't a natural thing for me either. I'm really in my element when I'm basically alone writing or drawing, but going to great events like the annual Orlando Family Expo, or speaking at Libraries, or schools is too important to neglect.
One thing that most people (including myself) are usually very interested in, is seeing an artist actually draw their characters right then and there. Even if the end result is a foregone conclusion, just seeing how they go about it is always fascinating. And so, I did a fair amount of that (on a poster-sized scale) over this last weekend.
My favorite kinds of stories have the ability to either transport me to a new place or get me to see an existing place in a new way. One way to do that is to weave new and seemingly obscure information into the story structure itself. This might sound obvious, but the first step to doing that is finding out that information yourself. And many times this involves research.
For my Third Grade Mermaid books, I not only watched a ton of documentary footage on the ocean and read numerous books, but also went to several great Aquariums. The Florida Aquarium is in Tampa Florida, and I would recommend anyone who is even remotely interested in the ocean (or the Earth for that matter) to visit this place. It's simply amazing.
One character that made it into the first mermaid book was the Giant Grouper. This picture is not of the biggest grouper they had, but even seeing this one was impressive. I had no idea groupers got this big. And their faces were just adorable!
Another creature that really made an impact on me was a Sea Cucumber that you could touch. Regretfully, I didn't get a picture of him when I was there, but I couldn't stop thinking of how strange and interesting that thing was, and it ended up as one the best characters in my book.
Doing a great amount of research about the time, place, and subject matter you are writing about can bring about invaluable ideas that you would have never just imagined on your own. Plus, if you love the subject matter you are writing about (which you should!), then doing the research is enjoyable in itself. The point is, do your research. You don't know what you don't know.
This may be self-explanatory, but the importance of libraries to an author is simply beyond calculation. In my opinion, it is essential to give back to them whenever possible.
Last week I gave a series of talks on Writing and Illustrating books in several libraries in Osceola County, Florida. Besides bringing inspiration to the next generation, one huge benefit to this is being able to read my work to a great test audience.
It wasn't until I was in 7th grade that I met a professional children's book author. The downtown library where I grew up (in Warren, Ohio) actually had acclaimed author Cynthia Rylant come as part of a calendar contest, which I happened to win, and the brief experience made a major impact on my life.
Founded in 1876, The American Library Association is one of the most important organizations in the country. Amongst many other things, they have worked to organize and provide the opportunity for everyone to have books read. And like many large organizations, they have an Annual Conference.
Fortunately for me, this year's ALA Annual, as it's referred to, was held in Orlando (where I live), so it was just a short drive to the convention center to attend.
This is me signing copies of The Monkey Goes Bananas and The Monkey and The Bee at the Abrams booth. The Monkey Goes Bananas recently won the Kentucky Blue Grass Award as well as the PA Readers Choice Award the best K-3 book of the year! Both of these awards are run by fantastic state-wide school library systems.
Besides meeting the people who buy your books though, one of the greatest things about events like the ALA Annual is meeting other professionals in the industry. I attended the "Scholastic Family Dinner" one night, and met some of the nicest people ever, including a number of my artistic heroes. The above pic on the left is me with the incomparable David Shannon. And to the right is my super amazing Editor at Scholastic Press, Nancy Mercado, and my Literary Agent, Dan Lazar.
Ok. This is a broader topic than most people may realize. So I'll just start with the main book I am currently on. That would be the second book of the Third Grade Mermaid series.
This is Cora. A rough doodle of her that I did while getting in the mindset of the book. That's one way I get going. I simply draw some poses or scenarios typical of the character. I may even draw out a gag or a cool shot.
These are some of the first images I did for Book 1. This spread as a whole didn't make it into the final book, but it got me going in the right direction.
Of course, I am also writing a full-fledged novel here. So while I'm thinking about the kinds of images I might want, the primary thing I am doing is making an outline of the key beats of the STORY. (SEE my page on "Story Tips" for a full explanation of all that). What I'll add here, because it is SUPER SUPER SUPER important.....is that I start off very SIMPLE. Meaning with one sentence, with what the story is basically about.
For example, the first book of Third Grade Mermaid is about a young mermaid who dreams of being one of the beautiful "Singing Sirens" on her school's swim team, but first she has to pass something not quite as glamorous: her Spelling Test.
From there I just start beating it out, answering the key questions: What does she want? Why can't she get it? What does she do to succeed? How does this fail...multiple times? What kind of mermaid-like issues will she run into? And of course, how does it end?
The tricky part is taking the time-tested formulas of story, and creating something entirely yours. For that I don't really have advice outside of being yourself. Don't copy someone else's style. Don't try to "sound" like anyone else. And don't be afraid of doing it "wrong." As far as I can tell, Editors and Agents are not looking for another John Grisham or Stephen King....because they already have the real thing! So again, maybe build your story with the kinds of blueprints that have proven to stand, but paint the walls a color no one has ever seen.
I've been keeping a written journal for nearly 25 years now, and have been wanting to start a blog as something of a visual companion for quite some time. Making it something that would be both public and INTERESTING to the public has kept me from acting on it for years though.
More than anything though, I wanted to start documenting things on a blog when I was starting up on a bigger project as well--as opposed to starting midstream and backtracking. And I am finally at that point, being that I am officially starting to write the second Third Grade Mermaid book in earnest.
This is a "galley" copy of the first Third Grade Mermaid book, published by Scholastic Press. Its release date is January 31, 2017. Like most books, the artwork and writing is completed nearly a year in advance.
So, this blog will certainly follow my process of writing and illustrating a children's novel, but I anticipate it being much more. I hope to give some insight into just how I was able to get into the career I have in the first place, and maybe be able to inspire or motivate others to do the same.