As far back as I can remember, I have loved every single thing about children's books. Reading them as a child led my creative mind to run rampant imagining incredible worlds and endless possibilities. Reading many, many books to my own children, watching their faces light up with fascination, brought me such joy. And browsing through books at the local library or book store has always been sure to bring my stresses to a halt, as I slow down and my breathing becomes deep and nurturing rather than shallow and labored with the usual rushing around I do.
I became a good reader very early on, because I spent a lot of time in the hospital with deafness. My mother would sit and look through picture books with me and say the words as she pointed to the pictures. I lip read to this day! I can remember the year I discovered Harriet the Spy and read it exactly 111 times. I kept count! My husband and I have kept few books from the years spent reading to our children, but of those we deigned good enough to survive several purges and moves, we all agree that our favorite is "The Dwindling Party" by Edward Gorey. My children were delighted that Neville's family was killed off, leaving him alone and quite happy about it...and when I think of my kids as individuals, they share the same characteristic: people who love to be alone, not really needing anyone else! Hmmmm....maybe I should be worried.....will I make it through this night?!
As an artist, when I look at children's books, there is a running critique constantly going through my head: "I can do better than THIS!" "HOW did this horrible thing ever get published!" "OOOOOO, this is amazing, what incredible talent the illustrator has!" "I love this book!" I have saved several drawings I did back in the late 80's of Eeebie Jeebie, a silly alien, and when they have resurfaced occasionally my husband always says, "You really should turn them into a book!"
But, I am a fiber artist NOT really interested in drawing. I am all about the 3 dimensional. I use my hands. I make things.
Then three years ago, my eldest daughter was pregnant with our first grandchild. I wanted to create something for this precious child we were so anxiously awaiting, so I made a quilt. The characters were done using free motion stitching, my preferred method of creating. I made them up as I went along, and used black and white as the primary color scheme as it is my eldest daughter's favorite combo, and since we didn't know if it was going to be a boy or girl.
After the quilt was done I started secretly working on a simple children's book that had been gelling in my head, intending it for when my grandchild got to the age of having books read to him while at the same time knowing that if I felt it good enough I was going to want the project to be published. I wanted to do an alphabet that had tongue twisters. My kids always giggled whenever I would read tongue twisters to them! I was a little intimidated taking it all on myself, so I enlisted a talented friend who was a painter to do the back drops. However, her work ethic and mine quickly clashed; I get things DONE and she was full of excuses, didn’t finish in a timely manner, and whined perpetually. Although the few back drops she managed to do were well done, it quickly became evident that she was the wrong choice for the project. I was complaining about this to my photographer after the whole thing fell apart and in his usual, curt manner he retorted, "Leisa! Do it yourself! You can do a better job!" So, the book began in earnest.
I regress here to say that I often come off as a super Diva, soooooo sure of herself, almost downright cocky at times. My hard shell hides a super jellyfish with a really, really, really sensitive heart. I didn't tell a single soul about this project; the only people who knew were my husband and youngest daughter who, by default because they live with me, saw me working on it. I labored on it whenever I had a few spare moments. I was afraid I wouldn't finish it, I was afraid it wouldn't be as good as the fabulous things that are out there, I was filled with trepidation and self-doubt and so I kept it to myself. For three years. My mother STILL doesn't know about it.
Like the song from Mary Poppins, "Let's start at the very beginnnnnnning...." so, I started out with the letter A -of course- and Angelina Aardvark was born. I use a sewing machine like other artists use drawing pencils: I sketch with thread using a process called Free Motion Stitching. I have been using this since 1971 when I first learned to sew. My mother taught me to darn fabrics by dropping the feed dogs (the teeth that are under the sewing fabric that move it along) and using a special foot- on older machines called a darning foot, on newer an embroidery foot- and being the individual I was, I used it to draw rather than darn!!!!!
Angelina was going to be from Africa, so Africa became a real place in diorama format.
The months ticked by. The characters began to live and breathe and develop individuality. I began calling them by name. They were telling me what personalities they had, where they wanted to be, what they wanted to be doing. They took over. And, just as we often do NOT live in our native home land (I was born and raised in Canada but have lived in many, many different places and travelled extensively) I wanted my characters to have the option of traveling, or moving, somewhere else. So, they are not necessarily in their native habitat.
I began to get so excited about the project- I was seeing light at the end of the tunnel-somewhere around February of this year, that I upped the time spent on this project and submerged myself in it, sometimes working 18 hours a day. Each of the diorama backgrounds are hand dyed and hand painted and the sets, objects, characters, etc. are hand printed, hand and machine stitched, constructed, made of materials and objects sourced at flea markets, garage and estate sales, or made by me from very common materials. I wanted anyone reading the book to say, "WOW! That lemonade stand is made with those pieces of scrap wood from the back of cheap canvasses! Those banana bunches are made from CANDY glued together? Cool! We can do that!"
In June, the momentous happened. I finished. I finished!!!!!!!! Booked the photographer. Got everything ready to take to his studio, which took almost 2 full days alone. Three grueling days of set up and incredible photography then occurred at Michael West's studio. We had two stations going at once...Michael photographing one I had set up while I set up another. Sand and sparkles everywhere! Cheap eating and no Starbucks since getting the bill...every penny spent well worth it, as the creative juices of Michael and I as a team flowed in tandem and the project got better and better as our mutual ideas, his incredible photographic skills, his amazing equipment (Michael...I'd like Valerie to have musical notes coming out of her mouth....can we do that? Why yes, Leisa...I have a Go Bo just for that!) and Photoshop expertise (You want smoke coming out of Zane's tailpipe? I can do that!) built an end product that soared above my expectations.
And today, I sent off dummy manuscript number one to the first of my publishing house choices. SCREEECH. Halt here....sounds so easy, right?! HAH!
1) Research- 2013 Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market book bought, read cover-to-cover, all advice followed; lists made, check!
2) Research- Numerous hours spent on the internet looking for advice, guidelines, how-to's, contacts, references and more
3) Sought advice from friends, friends of friends, most of whom ignored me; a couple actually had advice and gave me a bit of their time (thank you, thank you!)
4) Learned how to write a cover letter specific to publishing
5) Sent numerous emails to various editors (no response) the SCBWI (no response) the southern rep for the SCBWI (no response) agents (no response) query about paying to go to the SCBWI conference (response...I guess when they want money, they will respond)
6) Debated publishing vs self-publishing options- (decided as a result of the nice, oft-published author's advice) to approach publishers first, then self-publish if all else fails- there are awards to be had via publishing that are not available if you self-publish, which can lead to book tours, better sales, events where you can sell your books, signing, readings....which is apparently about the only way to make a little income
7) Learned how to make a dummy manuscript (but still am unsure if have done it right!)
8) Figured out how much it is costing to send one manuscript out...$32.45. Each. OK...one down, HOW many to go?!
9) Perpetually squelching down the self-doubt, which comes from 38 years of rejection in my art career...
10) THE WAITING GAME. First publisher warns it will take up to 6 months to hear back from them...and you won't hear anything unless they are actually interested....
So, here is a wee, sneak preview for you of a couple of the pages of my book and a few tidbits. Remember- no graphic design work has been done...publishers want the bare bones so they can do their thing, so you are merely seeing the pictures without words! I hope you like it!