“Where do ideas come from?” is an often-asked question that cannot be easily answered.
One child, who wrote to me, asked this question, then went on to tell me that ideas come from both your outside and your inside. I found that to be a fairly accurate and perceptive assessment.
No doubt, what is outside and what is inside are the basic elements in constructing a story, in creating a painting, or in composing a piece of music. The outside may be an intellectual process or a quick, superficial impression that pushes a submerged emotion to the surface.
This process can also work in reverse. A deep internal emotion may push its way to the top to be framed and put into words, colors or music. This can appear to have happened suddenly. I hear people say things like: “As I watched the sunset, I suddenly had an idea.” I wish it were that easy for me. Some outside event may seem to have caused an idea to burst into sudden bloom—but really the seed was planted much earlier and had been growing quietly inside my psyche for a long time. The eruption of a volcano is also sudden, but that which has preceded it has been slow, deliberate and unstoppable. The inside is a tear, a chuckle, a flutter of the heart, or perhaps a haunting memory of a long-ago emotion or insight that persists, reaching back into my own childhood.
But how does this apply to a simple picture book like From Head to Toe? Some inside concepts pervade all my books for children, including this one. Simplicity of expression is one such concept. I always strive for the simple solution. Why? As a schoolboy, I was often overwhelmed by the wordiness of a lesson or the complexity of a problem. Somehow I knew that I could understand better if the teacher would rephrase, shorten, or simplify the lesson or problem to be solved. Of course I wasn’t brave enough to raise my hand and ask my teacher to do this. I pretended that I understood. But as I grew older, I realized that I hadn’t been alone and that even today children battle with this problem. “Too much, too soon,” comes to my mind when I look at an overloaded picture book. Or when I watch children’s television programs, I cringe at the fireworks, whistles, quick cuts, hyper music, frenetic actions, words and sentences rattled off like machine gun fire, all within a very short time. (One rare and exceptional program is Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.)
As a schoolboy, especially in high school, I never liked sports or gymnastics very much. I was more of a dreamer and I preferred to draw pictures. Whenever possible I skipped gym classes. My report card invariably mentioned my less than satisfactory participation, “Eric must make more of an effort,” wrote my physical education teacher year after year on my report card. Looking back, I realize that I was bothered by the emphasis placed on winning, performing, succeeding, achieving and excelling. And I felt that in some way this anxiety-producing competitiveness was not good for children. Of course, we need exercise for healthy bodies, but why must it be competitive, a pleasure only for the few who are winners? Why can’t it be something done for fun, to be enjoyed by everyone? An important idea was beginning to take shape in my mind—an inside idea.
Now all that was needed was the outside idea —the breakthrough inspiration. Throughout my life I remained unenthusiastic about sports—with the exception of hiking and gardening. My sedentary life and work style, however, extracted a price. My back began giving me trouble, so several years ago my wife gave me a gift certificate for a session with a massage therapist whom I now visit regularly. I was shown a number of exercises which I perform every day for 30 minutes. One of the exercises is called “angry cat,” and another “old horse.” With names like these how could I not come up with an idea for a book? I thought of what my gym teacher had written in my report cards, and I remembered how my not being interested in gym made me feel like an outsider. Being an outsider as a child makes one feel strange and unhappy. These, in turn, become the bottled-up inside feelings. Then, as suddenly as a volcano, doing the “angry cat” and “old horse” became the outside event that suddenly released the energy of the inside feelings.
We will never fully understand how creativity works. But I hope that I have been able to give at least a glimpse into my way of thinking and how I put together the pieces that make up a simple picture book that has both an outside and an inside.
The following rough sketches for the dummy books shown give a small insight into how my editor, Ann Beneduce, and I worked together on From Head to Toe. Before the final collage illustrations were created, we had discussions and exchanged notes and sketches until story and pictures had been arranged in a pleasing and sensible way, and we both felt that we had done our best.
When I started this book, my wife mentioned a rhyme that she, as a kindergarten teacher, recited for her students:
Touch your nose, Touch your chin,
That’s the way this game begins.
Touch your eye, Touch your knee,
Now pretend you are going to sneeze,
Touch your hair, Touch your ear,
Touch your two red lips right here.
Touch your elbows where they bend,
That’s the way this touch game ends.
I liked this rhyme very much, and I made these drawings but, in the end, rejected this concept because I wanted to include more body parts.
At one stage while I was designing this book, I wanted to make my creatures half person/half animal performing the various exercises, but I abandoned this idea. These sketches looked rather interesting at the time. I constantly weigh one approach against another and gradually arrive at what feels right. Feeling right is not a scientific concept. The creative mind moves in strange ways!
Here is a “thumbnail sketch” on a plain sheet of ordinary paper. This helps me establish the flow of the storyline. This is a very important stage in designing a 32-page book. (Most picture books have 32 pages.) I may quickly sketch a dozen or two of these until the layout feels right.
I considered including an octopus for the arm exercises, but this became somewhat of a graphic problem. The octopus needs water; but I felt that showing an octopus in an aquarium or beach scene would interrupt the pace of the book. On the other hand, an octopus without water would be unnatural.
I decided on the monkey for the arm exercise instead, because monkey’s arms are also very expressive.
Early on, I thought of illustrating this book with animals only, but later decided to have children imitate the animals’ actions.
This is the final image that I used in the book.