A picture book is a true blending of words and pictures, yet, ironically, most authors and illustrators never communicate. Generally, authors interact with the editor, who in turn works with the illustrator. In contrast, illustrator Ard Hoyt and I have collaborated closely on each of our four picture books–with three more on the way.
I live in Minnesota and Ard lives in Arkansas, but that doesn’t keep us from communicating. When we speak at library and reading conferences, Ard often says that my books “illustrate themselves,” but I know it’s his endearing and whimsical characters who make each spread brim with energy.
In The Day Dirk Yeller Came to Town, an outlaw scours the town for something to stop his “itchin’ and twitchin’” and his “jumpin’ and rattlin’.” Townsfolk are frightened, except young Sam–who can be fidgety and in a little trouble, too–who knows the perfect solution … the new library in town. Ard’s illustration of Sam and the outlaw, sitting cross-legged and reading together, should make any book lover’s heart melt, because finally, “sure as shootin’, Dirk Yeller is sittin’ still.” Kirkus reviews concluded, “Hoyt’s marvelous caricatures are worth thousands of words, making this hilarious tall tale not only a plug for books and reading but an outsized winner.”
The story started oddly enough. On a visit to see New York editors, these words woke me in my hotel bed from a deep sleep: “The day Dirk Yeller came to town, the wind curled its lip, the cattle quit lowin’ and tumbleweeds stopped tumblin’ along.”
To avoid waking my husband, I tiptoed to the bathroom and wrote the words down on toilet paper. After getting down a draft, I e-mailed the manuscript to Ard on the inkling that he might be the perfect illustrator for this story. This is not how it usually works. Usually, editors tap illustrators whose artistic style seems a good match for the manuscript on their desk. He replied,“You have to let me illustrate this book!” I forwarded his enthusiastic e-mail to one of our editors, who upon reading Ard’s response, signed the book up immediately.
Our first picture book together, One-Dog Canoe, followed a more typical route to publication. After 32 drafts—yes, 32—my agent submitted One-Dog Canoe it to an editor, who in turn, offered me a contract. My editor then sought out an illustrator. The whole process took seven years–yes, seven–from start to finish. During that time, the first illustrator bailed out of the project after three years. My editor started searching for another illustrator and found Ard Hoyt, fresh out of art college. He brought the cumulative story to life about a girl and her dog in a canoe: “A trip for two, just me and you.” To her dismay, a beaver, loon, wolf, bear, moose, and ultimately a frog, join in.
Where I live in northern Minnesota, otters are a part of the landscape. For five years I had the title, Utterly Otterly Day, but not the story. Eventually I wrote about an adventurous Little Otter who thinks “he’s a big otter now. He knows not to stray.” Of course, the further he gets from his family, the more dangers he encounters. At the most frightening moment, when Little Otter encounters a cougar, Ard truly works his magic. The cougar is reflected in Little Otter’s wide, wide eyes. It’s the perfect balance of drama and tender sensibility toward younger readers.
In our book, Utterly Otterly Day, I wanted the story’s language to be as playful as otters. The text is packed with onomatopoeia, alliteration, and rhythmic use of adverbs. At day’s end, Little Otter returns home safely and dreams of his “whippidy, slippidy, swishily, swashily, dizzily, wizzily, warily, scarily, utterly otterly day.” To my satisfaction, countless teachers have told me they now regularly use Utterly Otterly Day to teach language arts. Readers can expect the same word play in its sequel, set at nighttime and in winter, in Utterly Otterly Night.
I revise endlessly, finding just the right rhythm, just the right words. And Ard does, too, sketching many versions before settling on the perfect image. When my husband and I visited Ard and his family in Arkansas, Ard hesitantly showed me his studio: a walk-in closet. “But the door locks,” he said with a smile, alluding to keeping out his five active daughters. There on the drafting table was his sketch of Dirk Yeller. Warts sprouted from his face; lizards and toads were crawling off his head.
“Maybe a little too scary,” I said.
Ard went back to work. Ard’s depictions of the outlaw are now both hair-raising and heart-warming. He found exactly the right balance to make out outlaw’s story work.
When Ard asked me what kind of horse I envisioned for Dirk Yeller, I sent him photos of majestic Friesians with flowing manes and feathered legs. But Ard envisioned something “less regal for our outlaw.” Less regal? Hmmm. My husband’s horse, Midnight, is a cross between a Belgian draft horse and a Morgan. I snapped a few photos, e-mailed them to Ard, and Midnight became the inspiration for our outlaw’s horse.
A good illustrator always brings more to the story than what’s in the author’s text. And Ard always does this in spades! He brilliantly extends out outlaw’s story with end- papers. The opening reveals a “Wanted” poster: “Dirk Yeller, Extremely Dangerous” and at the end of the story the reader will find newspaper clippings: “Local Librarian Weds Former OUTLAW” and “Overdue Books & Fines are Not Tolerated! —Dirk Y.”
Ard Hoyt and I work with our editors, and we also share ideas and images throughout the process. I recognize that our author-illustrator experience is atypical. In collaborating so closely as author and illustrator, I like to think that Ard and I are addling a little more magic—a little more heart—in our books for readers of every age.