I once heard from a well-published illustrator that if he’s going to work on a project, he has to fall so deeply in love with the manuscript that it becomes part of him–almost as if he had helped write it. As a young illustrator, the notion seemed impossible. I was reasonably certain I’d never encounter a text that felt so close to me, much less be invited to illustrate it.
And so it was with great skepticism that I opened an email from Tracey Adams, my agent, containing a story titled “One Day The End” by Rebecca Kai Dotlich. Along with the manuscript was a note from Rebecca Davis, Senior Editor at Boyds Mills Press, asking if I would be interested in creating the art.
I was flattered, certainly. But I felt like a kid on the first day of school being told by the teacher who I should play with.
“I’ll bet you two will get along just great!”
“But she’s a GIRL!!! She might have cooties!!!”
“You might have more in common than you think.”
Then, much like my kindergarten self, I took a step toward the improbable and opened the attachment.
Rebecca’s story was narrated by a happy-go-lucky child who was honest but forgetful, adventurous but clumsy, mischievous but charming.
The more I read the more I realized that I had already met this narrator, and already loved her dearly. In every line, I was hearing to the voice of my own six-year-old little girl. And what’s even more incredible is that it was also the voice of the author’s granddaughter. And I’m certain this narrator is some little girl in your life, too.
The beauty of the manuscript (and why I fell in love with it) is how the attitude and experiences of the storyteller are universal. There is a little girl like this in every neighborhood in every city across the world. And here she was, telling me her story, asking if I could help bring her to life. How could I say no?
I started sketching this nameless narrator. I gave her my daughter’s messy pigtails, happy eyes, and hopelessly mismatched socks. I animated her with the the endless energy of a squirrel, the awkward equilibrium of a puppy, and the cheeky curiosity of a kitten.
For every scene I had to illustrate the story of what happened in between “One Day” and “The End.” (I.e. “One day I lost my dog. I found him. The end.”) I had some art notes, but a lot was left up to me. So I asked myself how this “Everygirl” character would be likely to get herself into the situations described by the text, and how she would get herself past the challenges she would likely encounter. I did my best to give as much heart and humor to the images as were implied by such a great concept. In the end, I think we made something magical.
And here’s the lesson for us all. A different publishing house might have rejected or heavily edited this manuscript. Another illustrator might have made the main character a boy (or perhaps a rabbit). But the point is that this story resonated with the right publisher AND the right editor AND the right illustrator in all the right ways to create the potential for that magic. An unnamed, invisible character nestled her way into the hearts of all the right people at just the right time.
So what made all of us fall in love with Rebecca’s manuscript? And how can you and I learn to write with the same magic? We all know that the harder you try to force someone to fall in love, the less likely it will actually happen.
So then the perfectly improbable, but curiously possible secret is to tell stories that people are already in love with–and have only yet to read. Look for the magic in your childhood, your children’s adventures, and those of the kids down the street. Tell those stories honestly and authentically and in a voice that’s uniquely you. Keep at it, and your published works will fill shelves across the globe.