Fish in a Tree, a Review.

fish cover

Note: the design of this cover cannot be ignored; it is fantastic and iconic. Congrats to the designers at Penguin. The spot gloss varnish on the matte background is a great touch.


Lynda Mullaly Hunt has crafted a beautiful story about being “that kid”, the one for whom the expectations are low, and who retreats into her own world to keep the real one at a distance. Ally sees in pictures. Words are nearly impossible to decipher; so she doesn’t try. With the help of a great teacher, who begins to crack her code, Ally starts opening up to the idea that maybe there’s more to herself than she realized. It’s a powerful realization, and one that so many kids will relate to.

Through the course of the story, Ally finds and connects with other kids who accept her and see beyond the attempts at distancing herself from them. Ally’s allies, Albert and Keisha, feel very real to me. Their bond of friendship helps Ally realize that she has much to offer, and it bolsters the trio against the sideways glances and smack talk of some of the other kids, like Shay.

The author has effectively put into words that claustrophobic feeling of what it’s like to HAVE to stay one step ahead of being figured out and labeled as dumb. That crushing feeling- that need to stay under the radar, or even be deemed problematic, instead of the world finding out the truth, feels so real here.

Mr. Daniels is the teacher who sees beyond the front Ally has put up. He knows something is up with this girl, and refuses to let her go under the radar. We discover that Ally is actually dyslexic, and that it is a workable condition. The more Ally understands this, the more empowered she is. And her friends help her through it all.

Everyone should be so lucky as to have a Mr. Daniels in their lives. A good teacher can literally be a turning point in a struggling student’s life. I know I had a few teachers like that- the ones who saw the person before the grade. They are the real unsung heroes in the ever-changing and difficult school landscape, and this story shines a light on them.

“Now I realize that everyone has their own blocks to drag around. And they all feel heavy.”

So true. This story is a good reminder for folks of all ages, really, to look beyond the surface and see the potential in every person.


Fish in a Tree Launch

My good friend Lynda Mullaly Hunt recently held a book launch for her new middle grade novel, FISH IN A TREE. It’s exciting to see this baby swim out into the world now. I was lucky to have been able to read it before it was a book, and one of the lead characters might be named Albert Dubois, who has a mom named Audrey Dubois (my daughter). Suffice it to say, we are honored and stoked to have this nod in the book, and it was a blast to be involved in Lynda’s full-out themed launch!

Here are a some scenes from the launch, which included making your own fish and putting it in a tree, Albert’s science Jeopardy game, fishing for words, and making sketches for the Sketchbook of Impossible Things. It was a huge, well-attended success, with a lot of writer friends, family, and local kids and librarians adding to the electricity.

Be free, little fish! You belong to the world now, and they will be better for it.

Read my review of the book here.

fish collage



ICON 7- The Illustration Conference, Day 2

All that stuff from my previous post was merely from one day. One giant, LONG day! This post is about the Saturday happenings.

First up in the morning was the “Our Favorite Art Directors” panel. Steven Charny (Rolling Stone), Paul Buckley (Penguin), and Thomas Schmid (Buck TV) were there to show what they do in their respective companies, and the kinds of things they look for in art.

There was a “debate” about whether or not you should get an MFA or not. I nearly skipped this one, due to the fact that I will never get an MFA… but these two guys- Marshall Arisman (Chair, MFA Illustration for the School of Visual Arts) and David Porter (Illustration Professor at RISD) made it an interesting an broader discussion.

They both sort of agree that an MFA isn’t as necessary as life experiences and developing your own conceptual thinking.

Tim O’Brien, a photo-realist with a self-described “aggressive” style, changed the course of his own career when he discovered he kept being hired to do work he wasn’t enthused about. I thought it was a good point- that you have the power to change the course of your career if you want to.

Yes, Tim did the Hunger Games book art, amongst many other unbelievably excellent pieces. Check out his website.

Here is Tommy Lee Edwards, creator of beautiful concept art that is used in all kinds of ways… comics, video games, movies, etc. He likes to help create a feel for the world of each movie or game, something that other people can refer to. I think he’s been successful at that- I definitely connect his art with some of the movies and related media I’ve seen.

Robbi Behr and Matthew Swanson started up Idiots’ Books on their own, after ditching the comfort of the real world and moving into a barn. Their story and their collaborations are charming, funny, and mostly weird. They are great role models for doing whatever the heck you want and making it work.

Sketchbooks… what do they mean to you? Here are 3 rampant sketchbookers- Jillian Tamaki, John Cuneo, and Marcellus Hall. Jillian said that her sketchbook is a personal place and a respite from clients. Marcellus likes to use his for “reportage”… bearing witness to everyday life.

Christy Karacas is the guy behind Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim show, ‘Superjail!‘ I have never seen such violent and creepy animation, frankly… and I am pretty sure Christy and team are proud of that! Content-wise, this is not something I would ever watch on my own (sorry, I’m a remorseless bunny-drawer for a reason), but I am glad to have seen their process, which is very hands on, traditional(ish) animation, produced here in the US of A. There is integrity in the way it is made, for sure.

Yuko Shimuzu create covers for DC Comics/Vertigo, which are more artistically sophisticated and adult oriented than typical comics. One of the things she did during the earlier, searching part of her career is make a literal “Dream List” of people and companies she wanted to work with… and has managed to cross off most. She said it’s not important, really, to get everything off the list, but to try for them.

It was fun to hear from some of the masters in the fantasy and sci-fi realm. Irene Gallo (Creative Director for Tor Books), Greg Manchess, and our old RISD classmate Jon Foster were on hand to discuss how fans help drive the excitement in the genre. It really is it’s own world, where fans truly support individual artists. Sci-fi and fantasy conventions are key places for them to connect with their fans, and in turn, to keep them motivated to create great art. And man, they make GREAT art. Check it out.

Another fun and unexpected talk was given by radio producer and storyteller Starlee Kine and illustrator Arthur Jones, who collaborate to make personal, funny and insightful animated and illustrated projects that really capture their spirits.

And then, it was time for closing remarks. Icon president John Hendrix thanked the mountain of volunteers, and then introduced the winner of the first ICON Medal for Collaborative Vision.

Brian Rea and Paul Sahre, the medal winners, took us through the logistics of creating hundreds of designed and illustrated pages from Malcolm Gladwell Collected.

The evening ended with a crazy “Moth Ball” party, and a last loud chance to see everyone. I was happy to run into one of my favorite teachers from RISD, Erminio Pinque, the guy behind the local puppety/costumed/musical phenomenon known as Big Nazo.

All in all, I was very glad this thing came to Providence!

Blueberry Fields Retreat

I had the fine good fortune of joining a small group of über-talented writers on the first Blueberry Fields retreat in Yarmouth, Maine. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect of it, but I was more than willing to find out.

First impressions are everything:

The setting was beautiful, ethereal, and perfectly conducive to getting your writer’s groove on. The sessions were casual.

The results, unforced.

Between poolside art experimentation and word games, we had a first pages reading…

off-the-wharf lobster dinner…

and time to settle in for readings from our works in progress.

The comfort level, along with the high level of writing quality made for a seriously inspiring evening!

Not pictured: TONS of laughter and beautiful food, long and meaningful critiques, frogs, turkeys, yelping foxes and other things that shall remain unpictured!

We had the opportunity to pick organic blueberries from the hundreds of bushes on the property.

It was amazing to be able to focus on writing for a while, then hit the fields for berries.

Couldn’t have ‘picked’ a better weekend, or better folks to hang with!

Many thanks to Meg, Julie, and Cameron for all of your hard work putting this weekend together. “Magical” isn’t too strong a word to use for it!

The Blue Bunny Bookstore!

We found out that Lisa Yee was going to follow up her American Girl signing with a signing of her latest book at The Blue Bunny. I have been wanting to check out this store for quite a while, so it was the perfect excuse to head up to cute, old town center in Dedham Mass.

The Blue Bunny is the brainchild of author/illustrator Peter H. Reynolds. I have a lot of respect for his philosophies and work, so I expected that the store would be a great blend of toys, books, art, and fun. And it was!

Here we are with our friends the Sheas, who came up from CT for the signing.

Seriously, for me as a toy designer and a children’s book creator, it doesn’t get much better than this! The children and adults who were there that day seemed to agree- it’s a grand place to explore.

According to Lisa, ours was the very first copy of her new book, Warp Speed, to be signed. WooHoo! The book is about a Star Trek geek (there might be a couple… a few…OK, FIVE Star Trek fans in our house), so it was a must-have addition to our nearly complete Lisa Yee library. She’s such a great writer- and just the kind of role model that you want your kids looking up to.

I got to hold Peepy! She’s clearly a girl. And we both were rockin’ the stripes.

Lisa’s back in sunny California now, but we are glad to have seen her here on the East coast. We will certainly be back to The Blue Bunny- and if you live in these parts, check it out. You won’t be disappointed!

Well, Hello Dollies!

Guess who came to the local-ish American Girl store the other day?
None other than Lisa Yee! She wrote the latest Girl of the Year Books about Kanani, a Hawaiian girl. She also wrote Millicent Min, Girl Genius, and the subsequent stories relating to it. Oh, and also, she’s awesome. Add to that a few kids who are both American Girl and Lisa Yee fans, and you have the ideal day trip!

Lisa is from California, so it was great to get to see her on our coast! Here she is with the Dubois girls. Amazingly, she is still smiling after having met with approximately five thousand (mostly) little girls, with another thousand still to follow.

Poking around in the American Girl store, we couldn’t help but notice that our pal Mary Beth’s new book was on the shelves there, too! Check out the Paper Shaper Forest Friends, a make-it-yourself book of adorable animals in MB’s signature style.

Yes, Millie thought you should see what the back of the book looks like, too!

I bought some stylin’ shoes while we were there, too.
Doll shoes. Unbearably cute saddle shoes!

They do not fit me. But so help me, I will find the ideal miniature feet for them to fit on.
It’s a shame we don’t have any cats anymore!

The Lunch Lady Guy!

I had the chance to go see Jarrett Krosoczka today, who was at Friendly Neighborhood Comics in Bellingham, Mass. signing books. Jarrett’s been making books for ten years now, and I remember going to his first big signing waaay back then! It was fun to see him dress patrons up as Lunch Lady characters and do quick gesture drawings of them. He has always been a great, dynamic presenter.

You can see some of Jarrett’s original art behind us, as won by the comic store owner in the Joe and Shirl Scholarship auction. It should be noted that this is a FABULOUS comic shop with a lot of attention paid to carrying a diverse selection of books: the usual faves, but also well-chosen children’s books, European comics, classic volumes, and the best selection of graphic novels I’ve seen in a while. Plus, they have author/illustrators come to visit! Well worth the trip.

Library of the Early Mind

I finally got to see Library of the Early Mind, which was shown at The Rhode Island School of Design auditorium this week. It was made by Edward J. Delaney and produced by my friend Steven Withrow, and it did not disappoint! Whether you are endlessly interested in children’s books and their makers like I am, or someone who hasn’t given a thought to how and why they are made, you will find this an interesting show.

Robert Brinkerhoff, the Head of Illustration at RISD, opened the screening.

The movie itself was a montage of creators talking about the many facets of creating children’s books- from audience, motivation, and the current state of affairs in the publishing industry. It had a sort of meandering, dreamy feel as it featured different authors and illustrators talking about what led them to pursue books, what books mean in the greater sense, and where publishing is heading. I enjoyed the tone of the film and getting to personally hear from such a great array of creators.

Some of the author/illustrators in the film were on hand for a panel discussion afterwards.

Robert Brinkerhoff, Edward Delaney, Chris Van Allsburg, Steven Withrow, Natalie Babbitt, Mary Jane Begin.

We are lucky here in RI to have these local creators available and willing to be involved in an event like this!

Natalie Babbitt speaks about her experiences of having a book turned into a movie. (No, she wasn’t thrilled with the results!)

Chris Van Allsburg fields a question about one of his lesser-known books, The Wretched Stone.

Follow the link above and see if the film is coming to a screen near you- it’s well worth checking out!

Book Signing at Barrington Books

It was a beautiful day in the neighborhood! Here are a few scenes from my recent book signing at Barrington Books on May 15th.

The amazing Mary Jane Begin was signing at the same time as me:

Her Willow Buds books are adorable!

Also signing later that day were Karen Dugan and Richard Evan Schwartz.

Karen has created some gorgeous books! Richard is a math guy who found a cool way to integrate math concepts into a colorful monster book.

Bonus! Lesley and Marin were there, too!

Many thanks to the staff of Barrington Books and to Anika Denise for arranging this fun day!