Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Three Excellent Graphic Novels

I've been reading a lot of graphic novels recently, getting a mini-crash course in this genre.  Here are three that stood out, both for their compelling stories and their outstanding art:

For Kids/All Ages:

Return of the Dapper Men, written by Jim McCann and illustrated by Janet Lee (Archaia Comics 2010). In this steampunk fantasy, robots live above ground, children live below ground, and time has stopped, robbing the purpose and meaning of life from the land of Anorev (Verona, spelled backward: yes, there is a subtle Romeo and Juliet subplot between the two protagonists, the boy Ayden and the girl robot Zoe).  One day, 314 Dapper Men fall from the sky, all identical with their green bowler hats, pinstriped suits, and old fashioned black umbrellas.  They set in motion a series of events and decisions by Ayden and Zoe that lead to the restoration of time, change, and progress.  The ending is wise, beautiful, and poignant.

art note:  At the end, the author describes Ms. Lee's unique process of creating each page.  She draws and colors the panels, paints background colors and textures on pieces of lumber; cuts out parts of the panels where she wants the background to show; and then uses Mod Podge (the popular 1970s decoupage medium that is basically white glue) to glue the layers to the board.  The results are rich, organic, and beautifully layered images.  You can visit Ms. Lee's website to see some of her art.

Meanwhile, by Jason Shiga (Abrams, 2010), is the ultimate, mind-boggling choose-your-own-adventure book, with every page and almost every panel providing multiple choices for the reader.  A boy who visits an ice cream shop and is soon embroiled in a mad scientist's three inventions, a time machine, a thought-reader, and a world-ending "killitron" machine.  Using a finger to follow little tubes that branch from one panel to another, and to different pages, the reader can explore 3,856 story possibilities, with most ending in doom and destruction.  Meanwhile was entertaining for my kids for the first few readings (each of which involved reading multiple story lines), but we were ultimately frustrated by repeatedly coming to our doom or looping back to where we started.  Definitely worth a look, if only to admire the sheer complexity and ingenuity of the story.

art note:  The author notes that the book started out as series of seven flowcharts.  In order to transfer the flowcharts into book form, the author, who graduated with a degree in pure mathematics, developed his own algorithm to solve the layout problem.

For Teens/Adults:

A Drifting Life, by Yoshihiro Tatsumi (Drawn & Quarterly, 2009).  Not often do I read an 800+ page book in a few days, but this fascinating autobiography of one of Japan's leading manga author/artists riveted me.  Tatsumi tells the story of his early adolescence and career as a comic artist in post-war Japan, chronicling the rise and evolution of manga from short, gag-filled comics, to the longer, more psychologically interesting stories he helped develop.  A Drifting Life is a sprawling work that covers a lot - key political and cultural moments in post-war Japan until the 1960s; the artist's early struggles and successes; his rivalries and experiences with collaborators - and all of it is told in a clearly drawn and accessible style.

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Monday, March 28, 2011

Illustration Friday: Toy

© 2011 Sylvia Liu
This is an illustration from a work in progress, a children's book about four rubber ducks awash at sea who encounter all sorts of marine debris. The story is inspired by a real event in 1992, when 29,000 plastic toys fell off a container ship in the Pacific Ocean. Pretty soon, people started finding the plastic ducks and other toys all over the world. They even made their way to the Atlantic Ocean via the Arctic Circle. Even years later, people would find the toys, allowing scientists to study the oceans' currents.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Relatively Painless Experience: Checking an Ebook out from the Library

As an iPad owner, I've been enjoying my ebooks for the past half year.  Today, I decided to test the waters of checking ebooks out from my public library, the Virginia Beach Public Library.  From start to finish, the process took about 20 minutes, broken down as follows:

1) Download the OverDrive Media Console app (less than a minute)

2) Browse through available online books at the public library website (10 minutes).  I find three that are promising: Ivy and Bean, by Annie Barrows; Moon over Manifest, by Clare Vanderpool; and Kraken, by China Mieville.

3) Attempt to check out all three books (less than a minute).  Only Ivy and Bean is immediately available.  I am placed on hold for the other two, even though each entry states there is one library copy and zero patrons waiting.  I'm placed number one on the waiting list.  Huh?  Is the atom compiler out of order and the internet fairies can't produce the digital copies?

3) Attempt to download the book, only to be told I need to sign in with an Adobe ID.  Thinking I need to register for an account, I fill out the form and am told that I already have an Adobe ID.  After trying to guess my password a few times, I give up and ask for an email to allow me to reset the password.  The email arrives a few minutes later, I reset the password, and sign in.  (7-8 minutes).

4) Actually download the book (15 seconds).  Voila!  I have Ivy and Bean on my iPad for the next 21 days.

So all in all, pretty painless.  Based on the "Browse" function of their website, the Virginia Beach Public Library has 5373 nonfiction ebooks titles, and 1114 nonfiction titles available.  In the areas I'm interested in, they have 352 juvenile titles, 213 young adult titles, and 485 science fiction and fantasy titles.  Here's a screenshot of their home page (click to enlarge):

The two drawbacks I see so far are the potentially limited number of titles and the delayed gratification of having to wait for books on hold, especially when there doesn't seem to be any real reason for the holds. I just checked online, and both of the books are available in hard copies, one at my local branch 1.5 miles from my house, and another one that I could request and have at my local branch in 3-4 days.  I requested it just to see which version I get first.

What's been your experience with ebook checkouts?

(For an update on my experience with the ebooks I checked out, see this post).

Sunday, March 20, 2011

review: Jumpy Jack and Googily

When my kids read a lot of picture books, we checked out piles of them at a time from the library. Every once in awhile we were so taken by a book that we'd add it to our home collection. Jumpy Jack And Googly (Henry Holt & Co. 2008), written by Meg Rosoff and illustrated by Sophie Blackall, is one of those keepers.

Jumpy Jack is a worried little snail scared of monsters who needs constant reassurance from his friend Googily, who just happens to be a monster. The cute conceit is that Jumpy Jack keeps asking whether there are monsters in different situations ("What if there's a monster behind the door?" "What if there is a monster with two fingers on each hand, who stares at me through the letterbox and sticks out it's awful tongue?") and Googily dutifully checks out the situation, going behind the door ("No monsters here") and sticking his tongue through the letterbox ("Or here.").

The text is gentle and funny. The water color illustrations are whimsical and cleanly executed with a subdued palette. Both work together to provide a perfect picture book experience: kids will love the recurring picture punchlines and adults will enjoy the sophisticated tone and clever story. Everyone will laugh out loud at the end.

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Friday, March 18, 2011

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Is my alien Brazilian?

© 2011 Sylvia Liu
Brazilian flag

I've been working on some more alien paintings recently and just realized that Zippy's flag is somewhat similar to the Brazilian flag.  My question:  should I rethink the flag (maybe change the colors), or should I just create a backstory (Zippy's people and Brazilians are long lost relatives)?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Montana, I'm in Love With You

Lone Peak at Big Sky, MT
Bison at Yellowstone National Park
What are your sources of inspiration?  For me, it's magnificent natural places, whether near or far.  We just came back from a week long ski trip to Big Sky, Montana, and everything about that part of the country was amazing -- the wide open spaces, the millions of stars at night, the feeling that the land is vast and the people are few.  The oceans are my first love, but now the mountains are a close second.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

french workbook spreads - more

proposed table of contents page:
© 2011 Sylvia Liu

© 2011 Sylvia Liu

© 2011 Sylvia Liu

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Three Essential Books for the Visual Storyteller

If you're an aspiring children's book artist or writer seeking to improve your skills, you can take classes, study the masters and experts, read voraciously, join a critique group, and continuously practice your craft. With some patience, curiosity and a good internet connection, you can expose yourself to a world of ideas, inspiration, and tips and advice from fellow travelers. Every once in awhile an actual book may make it onto your reference shelf. In my own journey to become a better visual storyteller, these three books have stood out for their ability to teach and inspire:

Picture This:  How Pictures Work, by Molly Bang (Chronicle Books, 2000).  In this deceptively simple book, Molly Bang uses basic geometric shapes to show how pictures work:  how simple principles of design can shape emotions and tell a story. Using cutout shapes to explain abstract statements such as "smooth, flat, horizontal shapes give us a sense of stability and calm" or "diagonal shapes are dynamic because they imply motion or tension," Ms. Bang walks the reader through the psychology of a picture. She shows how Little Red Riding Hood can be illustrated using these principles and simple shapes. She analyzes the emotional impacts of design elements such as composition, shapes, colors, contrast, and space. While much of this is intuitive, having it articulated in simple graphic form is invaluable to any visual artist.

Writing With Pictures:  How to Write and Illustrate Children's Books, by Uri Shulevitz (Watson-Guptill, 1997). This is essentially a master class in the theory and art of writing children's picture books told in four parts. Part I (Telling the Story) explains the building blocks of picture sequence, completing an action, story content ("every story is about change"), and key picture book characteristics. Part II (Planning the Book) covers the storyboard and book dummy; size, scale and shape; and the structure of a printed book. Part III (Creating the Pictures) is the "how to" part of the illustrating for children, discussing the purpose of illustration (readability, content and form); drawing figures and objects; use of visual references; picture space and composition; technique; and style. Part IV (Preparing for Reproduction) is the only outdated part of the book (originally released in 1985), as it teaches how to prepare art for pre-digital color-separation technology. This is the part of the book that made me grateful for working in this era.  Not only did picture book artists have to master all of the storytelling and basic art skills, but they also had to learn how to preseparate their art. Throughout the book, Mr. Shulevitz uses his own and other illustrators' and artists' work to explain the lessons.

Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels, by Scott McCloud (Harper, 2006). This is the third in a series of massive comic books about the art and theory of comic books, following Understanding Comics (1993) and Reinventing Comics (2001). In this book, Mr. McCloud sets out to provide the bedrock principles for making great comics:  clarity and communication (including five choices a comic artist must make - moment, frame, image, word, and flow); connecting to readers through character design, facial expressions, and body language; the power of combining words with pictures; world building; tools, techniques, and technology; and understanding different genres. He ingeniously accomplishes all this through the comic medium  itself, inventively illustrating his points and referring to other comic artists, past and present. One particularly intriguing part of the book was the discussion on how manga differs from Western comics (with its use of iconic characters, frequent use of wordless panels, strong sense of place, subjective motion, and genre maturity), and how it has influenced current artists. The selected bibliography also provides a great starting point for excellent technical books on drawing comics and more information on manga.

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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

last batch of French workbook spreads

© 2011 Sylvia Liu

© 2011 Sylvia Liu
the final spreads for the French/Spanish workbooks... posted as I finish them...
© 2011 Sylvia Liu

© 2011 Sylvia Liu