Monday, June 25, 2012

Ladybug and Gentleman Beetle

Ladybug & Gentleman Beetle

My First Early Reader Book


When I was first introduced to Abigail Samoun in 2010 at the Bay Area SCBWI Illustrator’s conference by John Clapp, my former teacher from San Jose State, she mentioned this as one of her favorite pieces in my portfolio: 

It was one of mine as well, so when she agreed to represent me this last year, I decided to write a story to go with it called “Ladybug and Gentleman Beetle,” with the intention of submitting it for magazine publication. Abigail liked the story so much that she suggested that it could be expanded to become an earlier reader chapter book. I agreed, and wrote three more stories, one for each season. My inspiration was classic books like Frog and Toad are Friends, Little Bear, and the original Beatrix Potter books, as well as the sequential action in more contemporary books like Olivia.

 Character Designs

The character designs posed a number of challenges. I wanted the designs to have the charm and appeal of the characters in the story I’d written, but I didn’t want them to lose their essential beetleness. Though the tone is whimsical-- they have picnics and drink tea-- in some sense I wanted them to also be real insects. When I wrote the story, Abigail and I discussed real insect subjects like hibernation, and whether bugs have tongues (apparently not, according to Abigail’s entomologist husband), and I wanted these considerations to be reflected in my designs. Here were some of my first attempts: 

Though definitely bug-like, none of these designs had quite the charm and character I was looking for. Eventually I came up with these: 

Now they finally looked like the Ladybug and Gentleman Beetle that I had gotten to know when I’d written the stories. I kept Gentleman Beetle’s hat and cane from my original painting, but since the segment of carapace just above Ladybug’s head gives the suggestion of a hat or bonnet, I decided that this was all she needed. Similarly, Gentleman Beetle’s body color and shape gives the suggestion of a tuxedo, and in keeping these elements of clothing spare, there’s no doubt that they are true beetles. 


In this first illustration, Ladybug has gone to Gentleman Beetle’s house—the hollow of a tree-- to tell him she has seen a monster. The monster turns out only to be a Jack O’Lantern, and the story ends with an image much like the initial pumpkin illustration that inspired it. Nighttime in the book is a magical place, but this is the dawn, and I wanted the mood to reflect Ladybug’s anxiety. 

In these two vignettes, we’re introduced to the warmer atmosphere of Gentleman Beetle’s home. Ladybug is reassured by Gentleman Beetle and the comfort of the familiar ritual of tea. In these images I wanted to show the range of expression and animation of the characters. As these images reflect, the characters are lively and expressive, and there will be plenty of movement throughout. 

Style and Intention 

There’s a hint of nostalgia in the story, and inspired in part by watching a lot of Downton Abbey, another favorite of both mine and Abigail, I decided to give the interiors an Edwardian decor. The daytime scenes will have a slight patina to reinforce this feeling of the past, while night scenes will be richer in color to make them feel warm and whimsical rather than moody.

Instead of framing the characters from unusual angles, I decided to portray them throughout the story at the same relative scale. This consistency allows the young reader to recognize the characters right away as symbols, and through repetition and the addition of sequential action (as portrayed in the sequence above) the characters will appear to come to life, drawing the reader into their unique world. 

Sentiment vs. Sentimentality 

Ideally, children experience the unconditional love of their parents, but the first relationships they make themselves are among their most significant. As an author for children, I feel that it’s important to show, rather than teach, what healthy friendships are. Ladybug and Gentleman Beetle are generous and caring. They listen and share. In the old fashioned fairy tale, we care about the fate of Hansel and Gretel because they are abandoned by their parents, not because of who they are, or who they are to each other. Jeopardy alone can only gain our sympathy, but real sentiment must come from our empathy for, and understanding of the characters. 

Writing for Early Readers 

This was my first attempt at an early reader book, so it was a new challenge for me to distill my vocabulary and phrasing to the very basics. This required some sacrifices. At one point I had to eliminate a favorite passage in which I described how the lightning bugs looked like paper lanterns behind tall blades of grass. It was a nice image, but I decided that it would be better served by illustration. Abigail helped to guide me through this process, pointing out where illustration would serve the story better than prose, or when I’d fallen into some lazy cliché. With fewer words to work with, it was harder to come up with more imaginative choices, but meeting this challenge always turned out to be for the betterment of the book.

An early reader book may end up being the first book that a child reads by themselves. Kids can sense when they’re talked down to, or when they’re spoon fed a moral or lesson. And this is the trick—to respect the reader by speaking to them clearly and honestly.With any number of books to choose from, they’ve given you a great gift by choosing yours, and if you’ve done your job right, you have a gift to give right back to them. As an author, there’s little more satisfying that that. 

Thanks for reading,

Friday, June 8, 2012

Our First Birthday and a Blog Re-Launch!

To celebrate Red Fox's first birthday, Karen and I decided to re-vamp our much neglected little blog with two new sources of material. The first is an Illustration Friday-type concept where we give our illustrators a topic to illustrate every few weeks and post the resulting pieces. The second draws from our talented clients and their experiences working in the children's book world--from the process of writing a complete YA novel, to the mechanics of picture book illustration, to reporting on conferences and book events. We're excited about the possibilities of this group blog and hopeful that all of you out there find something inspiring in our little experiment.

So for our first foxy illustration topic we picked, appropriately enough, "birthdays." Here's what the gang sent in:

Jed Alexander

Rosalinde Bonnet, "Arctic Birthday"

 Diane Browning

Stacey Dressen McQueen

Mary Ann Fraser

Adam Gustavson

Elizabeth Haidle 

Marty Kelley 

Tatjana Mai Wyss


Teri Sloat 

Sarah Watts, "Happy Bearday"

And, lastly, another little scene from Rosalinde Bonnet: 

Some of these illustrations will be available as cards in our Zazzle store. To view more samples from these and other Red Fox illustrators, visit