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Jan 30 2017

Samurai Rising at ALA Midwinter ’17

Published by under appearances,samurai

Last weekend in Atlanta some wonderful things happened to me.

YALSA Nonfiction Award finalist Samurai Rising!

Samurai Rising won a fancy silver seal as a finalist for the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award, and Pam Turner and I each got a lovely plaque. It’s really her award, but I was super happy to be part of it. Unlike most of the awards announced at the American Library Association Midwinter Conference, the YALSA finalists are announced ahead of time, and the only mystery is who will get the gold seal. The answer (unsurprisingly, at least to Alison and me), was March Book 3, the wonderful graphic novel by Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, published by Top Shelf Comics.

March proceeded to win 3 more ALA awards, bringing the total medals on its cover to an unprecedented six! — National Book Award, Printz, Corretta Scott King, Walter Dean Myers, YALSA Nonfiction, Sibert Nonfiction. I think (as, it seems, did the award committees) that this is the book of our time. We’re in a moment reminiscent of the events of the civil rights movement, and may need the lessons of March and the leadership of men like John Lewis to move civil rights forward.

The real high point of the weekend was the award ceremony for the YALSA and Morris Awards. Since the finalists for these two awards are announced ahead of time, they have their acceptance ceremony right after the award announcements (as opposed to the Newbery and Caldecott, which have their ceremony at ALA Annual in the summer). The Morris is the award for the best debut YA novel. Each finalist for the two awards was invited to speak briefly.

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I guess it should come as no surprise that good writers can write really good speeches; that debut novelists can express heartfelt and earnest passion for their work and gratitude for being recognized; and that nonfiction authors can paint a vivid picture of how history relates to the present. But wow, did they ever! I wish the whole video was online, because I’d like everyone I know to be able to watch it. It was such an amazing expression of the passion authors and librarians have for the power of books. Sadly, at the moment, all I can find are handheld recordings of John Lewis’ and Sonia Patel’s speeches on YouTube.

I also did some sketches of the speakers at both award ceremonies:

ALAYMA17 Morris awards1

Morris awards2 YALSA awards

Afterward we had a group photo in which I sat next to Congressman Lewis, and lastly the photographer had us make a human chain — which seemed rather silly at first, but when I realized (a) that I was locking arms with John Lewis, a man who has done the same thing so many times for real in the service of civil rights, and (b) the symbolism of all these nonfiction authors “holding the line” for facts and advancing truth in this time of “alternative facts,” I was very moved. Indeed I think it was one of my life’s peak moments.

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So, yeah. Incredibly grateful to the YALSA Nonfiction committee, to ALA, to Pam, to Charlesbridge, and to the other authors for an amazing weekend.

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Feb 21 2016

Samurai Rising – process post

When I was contacted by Charlesbridge about possibly illustrating a nonfiction book about the legendary samurai Yoshitsune Minamoto, I jumped at the chance. The timing was great, as I was in transition between Macbeth and Poe, I’d been wanting to work with the Charlesbridge crew, and the subject matter is an intense interest of mine. I had done some karate and aikido as a kid, studied Japanese culture and language during high school and college, and spent a summer in Japan in 1990. On that trip I met lots of great people, tried kendo, got to visit a famous Japanese swordmaker, watched hours and hours of anime and sumo wrestling on TV, and learned what real jet-lag feels like. Later I took up aikido in a more serious way, and I’ve been practicing that art for over 15 years now. I also did an illustration project in college about Yoshitsune, so I knew the basics of his story — though at the time I was focused more on the legends about his early life than the real details of his military exploits. Anyway, I was quite excited to illustrate this book, especially once I had read the manuscript, which I found vivid, compelling, and action-packed. The author, Pamela Turner, has written lots of excellent nonfiction, lived in Japan, and practices kendo, and she brings all of that background plus a clever modern sensibility to the story.

The scope of the assignment was a cover plus an illustration for each of the 15 chapters, plus a title page spread and 4 maps, all to be painted in a loose brush-and-ink style.

I started filling up a sketchbook with rough pencil sketches for each chapter. I tried to keep these loose and focus on interesting silhouettes and compositions. I wasn’t sure yet whether these would be half-page or full-page illustrations, or exactly what the page size would be. I did 4-8 sketches for each chapter, and maybe 15 or 20 for the cover.

samurai sketches 2 samurai sketches 3Samurai sketches 1b

I discussed the sketches with my editor Alyssa Pusey and art director Susan Sherman. Once we narrowed down which ones we all liked the most, I did larger sketches digitally. We decided to go full-page, so many of the compositions had to be adjusted to fit the page size, and then tested opposite a chapter opening. Author Pam then checked the illustrations for historical accuracy. She researched this book so thoroughly, we all wanted to make sure I didn’t mess anything up.

Ch0 intro sketches v2 Layout 1 Layout 1

In order to do a loose brush painting, I actually needed to work out a fairly precise drawing, often with more information in it than the finished illustration would have. Then I put the drawing on a light table and painted over it, laying down the solid blacks first, then the grey tones. I used some carefully distressed, bristly brushes I’ve cultivated over the years (a good inking brush, as it ages, tends to lose its ability to keep a sharp point, but sometimes gains other magical qualities!).

Ch01 finish v1 Ch02 finish v1

Layout 1


We decided to do a wraparound cover, and Susan mocked up the type with our favorite sketch. I worked out the composition for the wraparound, then drew in more precise details. I tend to find horses a bit challenging to get right, so in addition to a lot of photo reference I also used a plastic horse that I bought on eBay and hung over my drawing table.

Layout 1Toy horse

Layout 1Samurai Cover finish grey

I did use digital techniques in a few places. Most notably, I replaced the ink wash sky in the original art with a color gradient and white clouds made by reversing black ink strokes I did separately. Then I added a layer of digital red and gold as accent colors.

sky brushstrokes 1

Samurai Rising Cover finish

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I also got to help pick out the colors of the endpapers, the red ink of the cover type, the stamp and the paper for the casewrap, and even the striped pattern for the headband and footband.

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Here’s one of the maps. It’s a brush painting with a grey wash digitally inserted behind it for the ocean. Labels added by the publisher.

Samurai map of japan

Charlesbridge has been wonderful to work with, and the book has been getting a great critical response. It’s on sale now, and I hope you’ll check it out. Thanks for reading!

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Jan 19 2016

Samurai Rising is here! (Almost.) Plus, school visits!

Published by under appearances,travel

I just returned from a 2-week trip, part of which was attending ALA’s Midwinter conference, where, for the first time, I got my hands on a finished copy of Samurai Rising by Pamela Turner, illustrated by me. It doesn’t officially hit store shelves until Feb 2, but I wanted to give you a preview of how beautifully the finished book came out. I’m SO pleased with it. Note the wonderful design work by Art Director Susan Sherman, the embossed and red-stamped hardcover under the dust jacket, and the copious author notes that take up almost 1/3 of the page count (they’re really readable and interesting too — quality as well as quantity!). The two symbols are the mon or family crests of the warring Taira and Minamoto clans.

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Here’s me signing it for the fans who dropped by the Charlesbridge booth. (I used a brush pen, and alternated between drawing a sword, helmet, tiny mounted archer, or bow and arrow.) In the background is my editor Alyssa.

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You can pre-order Samurai from most retailers now. I’ll start taking pre-orders for signed books about a week before the on-sale date.

Also on this trip I did a bunch of great school visits (two of which were beautifully documented as per the following links). The first three were in my home town: Montpelier High School, Main Street Middle School, and my own high school, U-32. Then I did three in the Boston area: Manchester Essex Middle High School, Worcester Academy, and Duxbury Middle High School. You can see more photos on my Twitter stream. Duxbury has a gorgeous beach, by the way, and I’ll leave you with that view.  😉

Duxbury beach

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Feb 09 2016

NY, Samurai, Dinosaurs

Published by under appearances,sketchbook

Just got back from a short but sweet trip to NYC, where I did Samurai Rising events at Bank Street Books and Book Court. Saw a lot of great friends and fans at those events, caught up with a few of my super-creative NY artist pals, and made a little time to stop by the American Museum of Natural History and see the new Titanosaur. I actually didn’t do a drawing of the Titanosaur because I was crunched for time, but I did a quick sketch of the lobby that came out reasonably well.


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Jul 06 2015

ALA 2015 recap

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At ALA with Ashley Bryan

Although I’ve been to the American Library Association‘s (smaller) Midwinter show, I’d never been to the main ALA Annual show until last week. It was a really wonderful experience. Alison and I flew out a week early to explore and visit friends in the area. Here are a few highlights of our travels and of the show (below the cut):

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