Ninja! and an interview with Arree Chung

Ninja! by Arree Chungby Arree Chung

published June 2014 by Henry Holt and Company, an imprint of Macmillan.

Friends, I’m so excited to have Arree Chung in this corner of the internet today. I met Arree last summer at SCBWI in Los Angeles, and am humbled every time I think about how we share an agent and a friendship. He’s an expert storyteller with a bright, animated style and a fresh perspective. Ninja! is his debut picture book, and it will be far from his last.

First, you should watch this short film. And here’s my confession. Arree sent this to me a number of weeks ago with the caveat that it was unreleased and not to share. Except: it was too awesome not to. So I showed it to my students, because single-digit-aged kids are pretty good at secrets and don’t have Twitter accounts anyway.

They loved it. And I mean L O V E D  I T. Each class, without fail, asked to watch it many, many times in a row. So we did.

Meet Maxwell, and then meet Arree.

breakerWhat has been the most surprising thing about this whole debut picture book thing?

The most surprising thing about the publishing process is how long it takes to actually bring a book to market (1.5 – 2 years).  My background is in games, where companies can publish with the click of a button and make updates via the internet.  The process gives me appreciation for the care that goes into the publishing process.  It also helps to have a great team of people to work with.  Everyone from your agent, publisher, editor and art director in making the book and then there’s publicity, marketing and sales folks that help in getting the book out.1stCoverAn early cover design.Ninja_Revision_Notesrevision notes.

I’m fortunate to have a supportive publisher in Macmillan.  They have a great team of experts.  Each one helps you with a specific aspect of the publishing process.  I’ve learned so much.  I’m so grateful I’ve been in good hands.  I’ve worked hard to hold up my end of the deal and make something special.  With Ninja it was easy, because I loved it so much.

Who are your creative and/or literary heroes?

Oh, so many!

Authors:
Roald Dahl
E.B. White
Jack Gantos
Judy Blume
Jeff Kinney

Illustrators:
Russell Patterson
Chris Ware
Yuko Shimitzo

Author/Illustrators:
Shel Silverstien
Wolf Erlbruch
William Steig
Mo Willems
Peter Brown
Leo Lionni
Maurice Sendak
Ian Falconer
Jon Klassen
David Shannon
Bill Peet
Calef Brown

Comics:
Jim Lee
Scott McFarlane
Jeffrey Brown
Bill Watterson
Jim Davis
Charles Schulz

Animation/Film:
Brad Bird
John Lassetter
Guillermo Del Toro
Chris Sanders
Danny Boyle
Tim Burton
Nick Park (Wallace & Gromit)
Steven Spielberg
Hayao Miyazaki

Can you talk about the similarities and differences in animation and the picture book form?

I love both mediums for different reasons.  Both mediums can transport the reader into new worlds.  I love it when a book or movie captures my imagination and I am completely immersed in a world that has been built.  The world is invented but it feels familiar and the story resonates with honesty.  I hate it when a story is force feeding me a message and it feels like an infomercial or when a story rambles without a focus.  Storytelling is magical when it has both the imagination and heart and speaks to you directly and honestly.  A great story is so exhilarating.  There’s nothing in the world that feels like it.  I love both animation and picture books because they have the ability to create magic.

How they are different?  Well, I think the main difference is that film tends to be a passive experience.  The viewer is in a dream like state that watches the story unfold.  It’s like being suspended in a time capsule and you watch everything that happens.  You take the story in a more subliminal kind of way.NinjaCreepAwaySpread14_15Books on the other hand I think are active experiences.  You as the reader actively interact with the words and pictures.  It’s like your brain is the film projector and is working to play the story.  Because of this, I think books are much more intimate experiences.  You go at your own pace.  You stop, question and wonder.  Sometimes you’re so engaged, you speed all the way through and sometimes you like to read slowly just because.  Readers engage books with their imaginations and a lot of the story is told in-between the words, the page turns and the illustrations whereas films are full experiences that use all the arts of composition, acting, music and visuals to put you in a state of suspension.

Both are magical and I love doing both so much.

Can you give us any behind-the-scenes information on how you created the short film? Did you get to know Maxwell differently in that format?

Yeah!  It was so thrilling to bring Maxwell to life.  I had a pretty good idea of who he is as a character after creating the book but actually seeing him move and casting Taylor Wong as Maxwell brought another whole dimension.

As for production, here’s a quick behind the scenes look of what it took to make the short film.  I plan on doing a much more in-depth look in a separate blog post.

We used 4 software tools: Photoshop, Flash, After Effects and Final Cut Pro.  The process was a highly collaborative effort between folks at MacMillan, myself and David Shovlin, the animator.  It was a ton of work to do but a ton of fun as well.ShortFilm_Process

In all, it took about 5 weeks of work.  David and I worked really hard on it and I’m really proud of what we created in a relatively short period of time.2013-09-09 23:23Where did Ninja! come from?

It’s been my dream to make my own picture books for a long time.  The first conception of Ninja came when I was in art school.  I jotted down “A boy goes creeping around the house dressed as a Ninja and causes trouble.”  That was probably in 2007 or so.

Maxwell_1st_CharacterSketchesNinja_Thumbnails        MaxwellScanNoPencilNinja_earlySketches-1Early Ninja! thumbnails and character sketches.

In 2012, I decided to do the Illustrator Intensive at the SCBWI Summer Conference.  We were given an assignment to submit a story along with a manuscript, thumbnails, character sketches, and a finished illustration.  Up to that point, I had been writing stories for years but was stuck on many of them.  For the workshop we had to write down answers to the following questions:

WHO
WHAT is the dilemma?
WHERE does it take place?
HOW is the problem solved?

This really helped me a lot.  Previous to this, many of my stories didn’t have focus and wandered a lot.  Ninja was a big break through for me as a storyteller and I had lots of people who helped guide me through it.   I’m so thankful for Rubin, my agent, and Kate, my editor.  The more I worked on it, the more the world and character took shape and gained depth.  It was so much fun to make.

Do you remember any art you made as a kid? What was it?!

Yeah, I made a lot of ninja stars and origami.  I was also obsessed with Legos.  I loved to build cruiser space ships and large fortresses armed to the teeth.  Whenever my uncle bought us Legos, we would make the thing we were supposed to make and then tear it apart and then make what we wanted to make.  Making your own thing was much more fun.

I was a huge comic book reader and collector as well.  I bought all of the X-men, Spiderman, Spider-ham, Batman and Spawn comics.  I still buy comics.

I also really love the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  I used to record all of the episodes.  In fact, I used to press pause on the VCR and trace drawings of the Ninja Turtles by overlaying paper onto the TV.  At school, everyone thought I was the best drawer, but I never told anyone my technique til now!  Eventually I copied so many drawings I could draw it out of memory.  I tried to do the same technique with Transformers but that wasn’t nearly as successful because I didn’t understand perspective as at 12 year old.

And now what’s next for you?Ninja_GhostStoryI’ve got a lot of things I’m working on.  I have lots of Ninja stories to tell with Maxwell. (I’m so excited about all of them!)  One of them involves an old Chinese folktale involving ghosts!

I’m also illustrating two Potty Training books for kids that are hilarious.HowToPeeillustrations from How to Pee

I have lots of picture book stories I’m developing and I’m also writing a middle grade novel titled Ming Lee, All American.  Ming Lee chronicles my experiences growing up as an ABC (American Born Chinese).  It’s deeply personal and is funny in that Louis CK, embarrassing but honest kind of way.  I would describe it as Judy Blume meets Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  Of course, it is its own thing that I am figuring out.  I have a sense of what I want it to be but you never know what it will be until you get there.

Ming_Lee_CoverMingLeeHairCut

breakerA huge thanks to Arree for this peek into the mind of a master craftsman. Be sure to get your hands on Ninja! this week!

ch

Alphablock

Alphablockby Christopher Franceschelli, art by Peskimo

published 2013, by Abrams Appleseed

AlphablockAlphablockThis book. Swoon city. Hefty chunk of graphic design. Just as fascinating and fantastic for adults as well as the stubby fingers of the littles. “You’re never too old for picture books” is my constant battle cry at school. Let’s amend that a bit to “you’re never too old for board books.”

Because wow.AlphablockAlphablockCan you see what’s happening here? Each letter of the alphabet is given two thick spreads for the hint and the reveal. It’s a visual puzzle, linked by a die-cut of the hero letter. For real.AlphablockAlphablockFiguring it out is a satisfying read, and physically flipping the letterform for the answer is brilliant.AlphablockAlphablockNot only does the design feel fresh, but the alphabet choices are newfangled, too. I love S is for SCISSORS and the cut-out arts and crafts that accompany it. P is for PENCILS gets the lined paper treatment, scattered with sharpened pencil shavings. And thank goodness F is for FISH gives us a glimpse into an aquarium with its kooky accoutrements, and not the obvious deep blue sea scene.Alphablock

Image courtesy of Abrams Appleseed

Image courtesy of Abrams Appleseed

Image courtesy of Abrams Appleseed

Image courtesy of Abrams Appleseed

(And any book that uses U is for UNDERWEAR is obviously a hands down favorite, too.)

Add this to your gift-list. Perfect for babes and art buffs alike. (And pretty much anyone who loves the alphabet.)

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Review copy provided by Abrams Appleseed.

Henri’s Walk To Paris

So Saul Bass {1920-1996} illustrated this. You know him, even if you think you don’t.

Recognize any of these?

Saul Bass undoubtedly has a powerful legacy of corporate logo design, but he is also considered the father of the title sequence. I can’t say that I was well aware of him before I was a motion graphics designer, but as an animator, I am very influenced by his strong use of line and his bold color palettes.

{You can see a roundup of his title sequences at Art of the Title.}

And that’s fancy and whatnot, but then he created this sparkling kids’ book.

Henri is just a little French garçon who dreams of Paris, but lives in Reboul. He packs up some cheese, a carrot, and a piece of bread and walks himself there. But {SPOILER ALERT!} he doesn’t make it. A little bird disrupts his navigation, and he ends up right back in Reboul. But Henri? Thinks he made it, and thinks Paris is quite like home. And we love him for that.

In graphic design, unity is the quality that ties individual elements into a beautiful whole. Me talking about Saul Bass is like a dirty sock puppet oozing with glue and googly eyes having an opinion on Jim Henson. He’s a master craftsman, and so let me just show you some moments I love.

Check out these consecutive spreads. The typographic element that reflects the title IS Henri. And from one page to another, there he goes, walking off to Paris. This graphic drives your eye forward and invites you to dive into this book. And of course it tiptoes left to right. It’s how we read, and it simply signifies forward motion. Smart is an understatement.

He doesn’t clutter this illustration with a window sill, curtains, or many details of the room inside. It doesn’t matter. The story is outside. This is a brilliant use of negative space.

Henri’s tiny house, contrasted with the vast world beyond. And color…green and red are direct opposites on the color wheel, so the tiny pop of red is a perfect choice to offset the mass of green.

Soothing pattern repeats in those thousands of trees and the zoo full of animals.

A reminder of the cover, a peek into Henri’s walk. And below, a shift in perspective and point of view.

So Henri leaves home and returns again. Likewise, Saul Bass’ pictures ramp up to the climax of the story, and repeat again as Henri heads home. That same window repeats, that same wide shot of the tiny white house sits still again, only with different text for a different time in the story. It’s a detail that’s hard to show in pictures, but on an overall visual read of the story…it’s magnificent.

Henri’s Walk To Paris in reprint is a gift I didn’t even know I was was on my wish list. It’s joining this monster on my coffee table-slash-corner of my desk.

Stuck

It’s IMPOSSIBLE to not love Oliver Jeffers. Remember his mustache?!

Well, listen to him read Stuck, and prepare to be enchanted:

I can’t follow an act like that, but let me tell you a few things I love about this book.

1: The endpapers. What a great grid of all of those THINGS that Floyd flings up into the tree.

2: The type.

The handwritten text is an excellent choice for the pictures. The scribbled words have a tactile, lifelike quality that matches the vibrancy of the art so perfectly.

3: The easter egg.

I’m not one to linger on copyright pages since my librarian days are behind me, but check out this little gem straight from the mouth of Oliver Jeffers:

{The art for Stuck was created by compositing various scribbles and blotches of paint, made on small pieces of paper,  all together inside of my computer. This is because I needed to move studios in the middle of making the art, and using this approach seemed like a good idea.}

4: This line.

5: This fakeout mess-up.

6: This spread, that texture, those clouds.

7: That it’s FOR SOMEONE NICE.

Someone like you! I have two copies of Stuck, which is certainly due to having no self-control around picture books and many looming stacks. I’d love to send it to you, and I promise not to throw it in a tree first.

I’ll assume the mailman got down out of that tree in order to deliver it to you.

Just comment on this post by Tuesday, June 12 at midnight PST. I’ll draw a winner with the help of my trusty buddy, random.org, and you can add this to your own looming stack of picture books. It will be a great addition, promise.

Operation Alphabet

Operation Alphabet is the brainchild of art director Al MacCuish. It’s illustrated by Luciano Lozano and designed by Jim Bletsas. Their favorite words are diplodocus, shelter, and ‘toodle-oo, buckeroo‘ respectively, so, you know, they rule for having favorite words. Mine is eyeball. True story.

I can’t give away too much because the book warned me multiple times that its content is TOP SECRET. I’m certainly one to obey letters, so I will comply with that order. But what you can know is that Charlie Foxtrot is doing pretty terrible in school, and the Ministry of Letters concocts a plan of attack to help. And a Duchess rides a motorbike, so there’s that.

And while it’s certainly a departure from a typical picture book as it runs 64 pages and LOTS of words, it’s a fun novelty with stellar pictures.

…and dizzying endpapers!

I love how this title page feels like the first page of a super-secret-need-to-know-basis-very-important file.

Underneath this fun mylar (!) jacket is a poster of all the letters. I love this trend; it’s seen in another favorite alphabet book, Paul Thurlby’s Alphabet.

The color palette is restrained, yet rich and strikingly retro.

Because the letters have such life and function as characters in the book, perhaps typography is not the best choice for which design consideration to highlight. But! The seamless mixture of letter and form into a character study is surely part of the craft of composing type. And because truly, I think the typography graphic above matches the other colors in this post.

And it’s my blog, so I can do silly things like that and blame it on being crazed by the art.

{You can explore the Ministry of Letters yourself at this fun site.}

The illustrations have some really, really fun details. I love the balloon wielding cat above, presumably scribbled on the wall by Charlie Foxtrot.

What about this grumpy raincloud? Poor thing.

{ I’m slightly obsessed with Mrs. Foxtrot’s pink plaid coat. Do they make that for real life people?}

And that’s the Duchess. She wears orange goggles and green galoshes. Kate Middleton’s not the only stylish royal around!

Operation Alphabet is a winner. A kooky, unusual, breaks-all-the-rules, beautiful book.

The Loud Book

words by Deborah Underwood, pictures by Renata Liwska

A fun companion to The Quiet Book, The Loud Book celebrates all things NOISY.

Such a straightforward book calls for fairly straightforward type layout.

Belly Flop Loud

Thunderstorm Loud

Candy Wrapper Loud

Spilling Your Marbles In The Library Loud

And so on.

Enter: the title page.

And the copyright page.

Words spring out like sound waves; their layout amplifies the information.

Even the jacket flap gets in on this typography party:

Onomatopeia in bold and distinguished from the rest of the party.

So as a reader, you’ve seen and experienced the cover, the jacket flap, the title and copyright pages, all with nods to INCREASED VOLUME.

And now you’re ready to read.

I will even SHHH for you. Carry on.

An ABC Of What Art Can Be

{written by Meher McArthur; pictures by Esther Pearl Watson; designed by Catherine Lorenz}

This little gem came straight from the home of Van Gogh’s Irises: The Getty. If you are an art teacher {ahem, essbee…} or an art lover {ahem, YOU!}, you should probably get your hands on this book.

It’s a jaunt through the alphabet with a celebration of art at every single page. Each spread has a unique style, so each page turn is incredibly satisfying. Kudos to the art explaining the art!

The size of this book is striking. It’s long and skinny (and hard to get a photo of!) which is refreshing and eye catching. And shape…can you see (sort of!) the heart in the negative space of the hands? What a perfect image to correspond to the text: “making all sorts of things with the hands and the heart.” {PS: What does it say about me that I thought of the Justin Bieber heart/hand/sign thing when I saw this for the first time? Maybe don’t answer that. Never say never.}

And the texture varies from page to page, but it is used masterfully. I love the paper cutouts on this illustration. Doesn’t it look like the slightest wave of a hand would rip those green trees right off the page? Beautiful.

Naturally, a book about art gets the art absolutely right, but I was especially excited by the typography. Typography isn’t one of the elements of design, but it is an integral part of cohesive, stunning, and successful design.

An ABC of What Art Can Be uses a hand drawn typeface.

I love this as a design choice because it supports the handmade and organic processes of art that are highlighted in the book. While any number of typefaces could have been lovely, one with an imperfect quality really enhances the pictures.

And a fun bonus at the end…arts and crafts and tips for creating your own masterpieces at home. Cool.

While definitely an untraditional choice for me story wise, this book has EVERYTHING I love…pretty pictures, fun words, vibrant colors, and a whole heck of inspiration.

 

The Serif Fairy

Rene Siegfried’s The Serif Fairy is not your traditional picture book, but I found it utterly charming. The poor little Serif Fairy has lost one of her wings and without it, she can do no magic. So she sets off through the Garamond Forest to the Zenetar Gate, from Futura City to the depths of Lake Shelley on a quest for her missing wing.

ELEMENT OF DESIGN: TYPOGRAPHY

See, the Serif Fairy is made up of characters in the Shelley Andante typeface. That’s just a fancy word for font. And a serif? That’s a fancy word for this:

Those little lines at the edges of the letters are called serifs. Font designers use serifs to make letters flow from one to another. Serif fonts are used in books or other blocks of text. See: the text on the pages of The Serif Fairy. Also seen in many a wedding invitation, graduation announcement, or Marauder’s Map.

And compare those letterforms to the word above set in pink, ‘SERIFS.’  Wild-and-crazily enough, that word is actually set in a typeface called a sans-serif, because it doesn’t have those little lines. Sans-serif fonts are generally chosen for headlines or other need-to-be-especially-readable places. See: the  header at the top of this page. And my personal favorite style. Generally.

Similar to the illustrations in Bembo’s Zoo, each picture in The Serif Fairy is made up of characters from four typefaces. There are no serifs in Futura City, because Futura is a sans-serif font. Not surprisingly, that section was my favorite. Maybe because Futura is my favorite font. But also, the helicopter and the crane are AMAZING, right??

The Serif Fairy is such a wonder…uniquely crafted illustrations, combined with restrained pastel blocks of color representing land, water, and roads, and a sweet story.

Although this would be a tough read aloud, and the typography use might soar over the heads of little ones, it is a delightful must for lovers of type and design. And anyone that can say they have a favorite font.

Paul Thurlby’s Alphabet

Still in a food coma? Feast your eyes on this instead.

Paul Thurlby is a British illustrator with a bold, retro, and textural graphic style. And I can’t get enough. Check out his Flickr page for more goodies.

This is an ABC book with panache and wonder. Unfold the dust jacket for a poster of all 26 letters. Your eyeballs might go a little crazy, but it’s worth it. Too much style to fit into a bound book.

ELEMENT OF DESIGN: UNITY

Unity refers to the overall cohesive look of a design. Individual elements can succeed alone and also contribute to the overall visual style. In Paul Thurlby’s Alphabet, the grid element, the texture, the illustrated typography, and the saturated color palette all remain consistent throughout, which yields pleasing unity. And ultimately, a book that is un-put-down-able. Seriously, try putting it down. Any book that begins ‘A for Awesome’ can stay on my bookshelf forever.

QUICKSAND! I mean, really. Brilliant.

Bembo’s Zoo

I’m way late to the party for Bembo’s Zoo, but thankfully they still have some noisemakers and punch and room for more before the fire marshall shuts ‘er down. Not only is the book itself an experience, but check it out here as well. The animations add the dynamic of visual interest, and might be your only place to enjoy Bembo’s Zoo, as it is currently out of print. I tracked down a gently used version, but saw new copies online for $235! When you hit the lottery, be sure to add this book to your library.

Designed by Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich, a master of typography and brilliant graphic design, Bembo’s Zoo whacks the alphabet piñata, and the result is some serious eye candy. (Groan. I know. I couldn’t resist.) {Side note: He’s also the cover designer for Little Bee, which is making the book club rounds these days. I have no idea what the book is about, but wow-is that cover pretty!}

But truly, this concept kicks the typical ABC book up a notch. deVicq de Cumptich arms himself with the classic font Bembo Roman and only using the letters in an animal’s name, recreates the animal with Bembo letterforms. And be sure to check out his self portrait on the dust jacket. The marriage of type and picture just explodes in happy bliss in this book. Adults with a keen eye may enjoy the level of sophistication a tad more than a child, but as Marla Frazee taught me, kids are experts at reading pictures, and they will surely enjoy deconstructing this puzzle.

{Seriously, I just can’t stop with the elephants. Obsessed.)

ELEMENT OF DESIGN: TYPOGRAHY

So it goes like this:

The sand crab shimmies along with his pinchers made up of Cs and Rs.

And like this:

The king of the jungle lurks in darkness, framed by his mane made of Ls.

Why did he choose Bembo and not Comic Sans? Adobe’s font store describes Bembo as “a fine text face because of its well-proportioned letterforms, functional serifs, and lack of peculiarities.” Because Bembo is so well built, his illustrations have added whimsy from the serifs, but never feel too cluttered or chaotic in their layout. He chose the best tool to tell the story, the best solution for the problem. THIS is what separates an exceptional design from a mediocre one. Similary, his limited color palette of a deep greens, oranges, black, and pale yellow represents a restraint that oozes with beautiful, and intentional, design choice.

It’s this MASSIVE design lesson wrapped in a concise picture book that makes my heart skip a beat. And celebrating a book that marries letters and pictures in such a unique way seems like a fitting way to kick off my own Picture Book Month celebration! It’s why I’m here, and what I love, and I’m glad you are joining me for the party.