Friday, July 5, 2013

Making My First Picture Book - The Watermelon Seed

Hi, it's me, Greg Pizzoli.

I've been working really hard on several picture books I'm juggling at the moment, but somehow today I have a rare few hours free.

So of course, I'm at the studio, and instead of drawing . . . I'm blogging.

My first picture book, The Watermelon Seed, came out in May and I feel compelled to document some of the process of making it. My thinking is that it might be interesting to those who like the book, and it may even be useful for some people who are working on their own books. It's always in the back of my mind to do more blogging that is process related, but frankly I'm usually too busy doing the work to find the time to stop and write about it. But today I've got a few hours free and I'm going to dig myself a hole and see if I can't climb back out by lunch. Let me know in the comments if this kind of post is interesting or helpful, and I'll do more like it.

Let me take you back . . . two years ago . . .

When I was writing THE WATERMELON SEED, I had a full-time job working at an office and I was also teaching 2-3 nights a week. This was summer of 2011. Time to work was hard to find, but I would usually write in the morning and then type it up when no one was looking at the day job. WATERMELON went through a lot of drafts before it even got to the point that I could show it to my agent. The final book is 140 words. The first draft was 2,500.

The first, second, and third drafts all had a seed spitting contest as part of the story. The second draft had an emergency room surgery sequence. Yes, really.

Obviously, the story changed a lot in these early drafts, which is why I think it's important for me to just write out every idea I have. Even if I know it's garbage and I'm certain I'll never use it as I'm writing it, it's good to get it on paper (or typed). This way it loses the "magic of potential". When an idea is banging around in my head, it always seems like it has potential. Usually when I write it out, if it's not going to live up to that potential, I can tell pretty quickly. Or at least it's easier to see what's wrong, and fix it.

The first six versions (that I could find) of THE WATERMELON SEED
When I'm writing a book, I typically sketch out characters at the same time. Actually, the books that I've written so far have all grown from characters that kept showing up in my sketchbooks. This was the case with Kroc and his watermelons. I knew I wanted to do a story about a character panicking after swallowing a seed, and Kroc kept popping up, and eventually he was inseparable from the seed idea.

Once I got the text down to it's near final version, I set out to pace the book to get the most out of the page turns and spreads. It's crazy looking at this stuff that I drew almost two years ago, because a lot of the early sketches wound up in the final book. Here's an example:

A thumbnail from the first attempt at sketching THE WATERMELON SEED and the final version

Once I think I have the book paced out well in a word document, I drop it into a pdf template I made for picture books. At the time I was making this book, I was using one that is 32 pages, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense since a self-ended 32 page picture book actually has 40 pages. It's confusing because 2 of those pages are pasted down to boards, so you can only see 38 of them, and 4 other pages are what most people call "end-papers".

I didn't really know this at the time, so my pdf had 32 pages. It all worked out in the end. I laid out just the text in that document to make sure it felt right.

Pacing the text for THE WATERMELON SEED

Then I printed out maybe ten copies of this doc and started sketching out the drawings, just quick thumbnails, so I could get an aerial view of the whole book on one sheet of paper. This way, if a bunch of the spreads are looking similar, I can zoom in or out, and play with scale to build a rhythm with the images that works with the text. This is a fun, exciting, and frustrating time.

Then I scanned the best one of those in and added some color. Obviously I use color very deliberately in my work, and since I was determined to limit THE WATERMELON SEED to only 3 colors, I had to be very intentional about how I used each one, so it didn't start to all the look the same. It's during this stage that the book started to feel like something real.

So then I scanned in these little thumbnails again, (I think I redrew a few of them), and I sent them off to my literary agent, Steven Malk. Here's some screen shots of the pdf I sent him:

The two images above are largely unchanged from these sketches in the final book

The above lines / pictures are significantly different in the final book

After sending it to my agent, and some buddies of mine that also make picture books, I took out some lines that felt unnecessary and redrew some pictures.

At this point everything is super rough. For submission to my agent, I basically get things just far enough along that he can tell what's happening without me taking the time to make the art anywhere close to final. Obviously he knows my work really well, so it's not necessary to refine the pictures at this stage. It usually looks ridiculous. For example:

You see what I mean.

When I sent this new version to my literary agent, he sent it over to an editor with whom we had been talking, and she immediately wrote back saying she loved it. I think we had an offer a week later. It was for two books, with THE WATERMELON SEED being the first.

I don't want to understate the magnitude of this moment for me. I had been working very hard to get my work to the place it needed to be to get the interest of publishers, and this first offer was, cliches and all, a dream come true. The dream. The big one.

A little background might be in order: My new editor, Rotem Moscovich, had spotted my work at an SCBWI conference in January earlier in the year. I won a portfolio honor award and she emailed me a few days later and we immediately had a rapport, so we started working on stuff. We were actually working on another book together which she was trying to acquire while I wrote WATERMELON. Once she saw THE WATERMELON SEED, she was able to give me a two book contract. It seems in retrospect like it happened overnight. But I didn't get the offer until Nov 3 (I remember it was my Mom's birthday) and we had first started talking in January. I had been with my agent for almost two years at this point. I'm just saying this because when you type - "We had an offer a week later" - it makes it sound like it happened very quickly. It certainly didn't feel that way at the time.

So that's it! The book is sold! We went out for mamosas, and I took the rest of the day off, slapping my hand away from my keyboard, resisting the urge to proclaim my new success on the internet. That would have to wait six months or so . . .

In the meantime, I had work to do. We wanted to bring the book out for Summer of 2013, and that meant that the book had to be turned in - totally and completely finalized - by June 1st of 2012. I know this seems like a crazy amount of lead time between turning in the work and it being available in stores, but considering built in time for authors/illustrators/editors to be late, production tests, proofing, shipping (and shipping delays), generating buzz within the book-selling community, submitting for reviews, advertising, and a whole lot of other stuff I bet I'm not even aware of - sometimes I'm amazed it happens as quickly as it does.

Rotem got to work on notes, and I got started on samples of final art. I was determined to do the lettering myself and make everything feel very hand-made, so I had to demonstrate to Rotem (editor) and Joann (art director) that I could do it as well I as I claimed.

Here's some images:

Type Samples
Ink Drawings before they are scanned in for color separations

Early sketches of Kroc

I took the first round of notes from Rotem and Joann and went back in to do a more refined (but still very rough) pass of the book. There were images they didn't understand from the first sketches and I changed them up as needed.

For example, they didn't like the way this trashcan was reading

So we simplified it with a big straightedge logo . . . I mean,  "X"

We got really into the process and when I said I wanted to print the book in spot colors, Rotem and Joann were very supportive. We did end up printing the book spot but we also tried CMYK to see what it would look like. We also tried coated vs uncoated paper, and cream color vs white stocks. Cream paper and spot colors make things a little bit tougher for quick reprints, so we wanted to make sure if we went that way, it would be worth it. It totally was. Check out the different proofs below:

Spot colors are so much brighter! The CMYK looks very muddy and dull
Another process thing I wanted to mention is the endpapers. People seem to go crazy for the textured pink endpapers with black seeds. All of the textured backgrounds were silkscreened. All of the seeds were made using a rubber stamp. I drew one seed, and had a company called Simon Stamps make me a little wooden handle stamp from it. Then I just stamped it several times getting different variations of seeds, and used them throughout the book. Here's an example:

Seed stamps.

The last part of the book I drew was the cover. Here is my first shot at potential cover ideas. I sent them all of these (and more), but ultimately we went with the cover we all liked right from the beginning:

Some of these still really crack me up. #16 wins for making me laugh.

And here's the finished jacket (with flaps)

Right at the end I had an idea I wanted to try with fruit labels. I dedicated to the book to my wife, Kay, but I wanted an opportunity to thank some of the many other people who worked with me on the book, or at least got beers with me and helped me figure out career stuff while I worked on it. I had the idea to make custom fruit labels to thank those people and luckily Rotem loved the idea, too, so they made it onto the back flap. The book wouldn't have happened without help from these people (in no order)
Rotem Moscovich (Editor) & Joann Hill (Art Director)
Steven Malk, my literary agent, who worked in his family's children's book store, The White Rabbit, as a kid

Children's Book Author/Illustrator and a good friend, Bob Shea

My Philly beer buddies : Brian Biggs, Josh Camerote, Tim Gough, and Zach OHora.
(I accidentally inserted an apostrophe into Zach's last name, and we haven't spoken since)
Children's Author and good buddy Mac Barnett who fixed the book for me when it needed work

My Mom and sister, who both live in Arizona

My Dad, who lives in York, PA (I used to live there too)

Actually I think the last thing I drew for the book was the price. Here's that:

Thanks for the dollar, Canadians!

At this point the book is pretty much done, but "Launch" was approaching for Disney*Hyperion. I've never been to a launch, but my understanding is that it's when the editorial teams show off the books that will be coming out in the next year to the sales teams, to get them excited about the titles that they will be selling to bookstores in the near future.

We decided to do something special to get people excited about the book and I wanted to screenprint whatever we did, since so much of the book has screenprinted elements. Rotem had the great idea to make seed packets with the cover on one side, and info about the book's release on the back. We even put a single watermelon seed in each packet. Here's some pics:

Many many seed packets on the drying rack

Close ups of front and back (Note actual seed sitting on front)

Once I turned everything in, there wasn't much to do before printing proofs came in.

One day in September, I got an email from Rotem with the subject line "!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" and it contained this picture (and many exclamation points):

And then about a month later, these came in:

These are called "F&Gs" which is short for Folded and Gathered.
It's the whole book (minus the case cover) folded up for promotional and review purposes

Around this same time I made stickers for fun

Then it was a lot of waiting for THE WATERMELON SEED to finally come out. I was very lucky because I had several other projects going on to keep me busy. In between working on other books, I did some promotional work for WATERMELON . . .

I worked with animator Jimmy Simpson and musician Christopher Sean Powell to make a book trailer for THE WATERMELON SEED. It was a blast to work with those two guys, and we're going to do it again soon. Here's the trailer:

Also, I teamed up with my buddies at The Print Center and they agreed to host a book release party for me. We offered people the opportunity to pre-order the book through TPC and for an even $20, they could get a signed copy of the book and a limited edition silkscreen. Here's a shot of the print:

Screen printed in three colors, limited edition of 100

And here's part of the poster I made promoting the event:

And then the reviews started rolling in:

Publisher's Weekly called in "an expert debut" in their starred review

Being featured in the New York Times was surreal

And the book release party was a blast! I signed over 100 books, and my grandmother came:

And Rotem made this amazing cake:


So now it's summer, and the book is out! It just went into it's second printing, and seems to be selling very well.

Since I finished THE WATERMELON SEED, I've finished two other picture books, one of which I wrote and is also being published by Disney*Hyperion. It's called NUMBER ONE SAM, and it will be in stores next summer. I hope to do a similar post about SAM this time next year.

That's all I can think of - hope it was interesting - if anyone has questions, please feel free to leave a comment and I'll do my best to clarify.

Thanks, and please check out THE WATERMELON SEED!