Guest Post: Writing and Illustrating a Children’s Picture Book

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By David Hoobler

David Hoobler is both the author and illustrator of the Zonk the Dreaming Tortoise series. In the post below he shares his creative process when it comes to writing, illustrating, and publishing his own books.

My process… What the heck is my process. First I hit myself on the head with a hammer until an idea falls out of my ear. Then I pick up a pencil and start to write or draw. It’s a mess.

I am the author and illustrator of three children’s picture books, the Zonk the Dreaming Tortoise series. It has taken many years to get the three books created and self-published, partly because they are based on my personal experiences of living and exploring the Sonoran Desert in Arizona and Mexico, specifically Baja, and partly because I had to learn publishing along the way.

The story comes first. It is the skeleton the artwork hangs on. This often surprises people when they see my art. My style is very distinctive, the paintings stand alone in a way that people often assume the art had to come first.

Yet I do a lot of back and forth work between the story and the art. One of the first rules I learned when I started creating picture books was: Make the story visual stimulating! It is a picture book, it needs to lend itself to illustration. But coupled with that are the images in my head of the beautiful Sonoran Desert that I incorporate into my books. Inevitably, these get woven together into the final book.

For the story, I write an epic, everything and anything that flits through my brain as the story grows. I try not to edit until I have 70% to 80% of what I think the story is. I usually know how the book is going to end, so the final twists are left hanging and incomplete, until I am nearing the end. Then I start to trim it down. It takes a major weed whacking to “kill my darlings.” When I have all but the last page or two (most picture books being 32 pages), I start the artwork.

I do start some of the drawings on a track parallel to the writing. There is generally some low hanging fruit, pictures the book cannot do without or pieces I think are just a beautiful idea, and I often start these images before the story is finished. Some artwork created that never makes it into the book, but that is okay if you are your own illustrator. Once I have that 70-80% of the story, I switch completely to the artwork.

It is difficult for me to draw realistic images and I don’t enjoy it either so I don’t worry about that. (I have great admiration for people with great drawing skills.) I try to convey the emotion of an image, a page, or passage. People tell me my pictures make them smile and feel happy. That is more my goal.

I do very rough first drawings, newsprint and pencil and then start an arduous refining process. After a few days of working and reworking an idea with piles of rejects around me, I often find myself scrambling around searching the reject piles, those “refinements”, for that first or second sketch. Whatever emotional essence I first sensed in a drawing is almost always in that first awful sketch. I go back to try to bring that essence into the final refined version.

It generally takes me a couple of weeks to get a finished drawing. I draw slowly. That is another reason my books take so long to complete. Once one drawing is finished I move on to the next, usually in chronological order but not necessarily. Each new drawing is like jumping off a cliff. That never changes. For me it is always gut wrenching.

When I finish drawing I print it place it on a large story board hanging on the wall of my studio. This helps me visualize the course of my work and the rhythm of the visual. I am able to see if the spreads and page breaks are working. It also encourages me to soldier on if I hit a rough patch.

This gets me within sight of the finish line. But the fun is over; now it’s edit, rewrite, edit, rewrite, etc., etc., etc. Usually I have too much art and too much story for a 32 page book and a few more darlings are sent away. It’s messy, but it works for me.

headshot David HooblerI lived a while outside of Tucson, Arizona, in the Sonoran Desert, which is where the stories and pictures come from. Although the main character is a little tortoise named Zonk, the Sonoran Desert itself, with its monsoon storms, fantastic variety of animal and plant life and gorgeous landscapes, is a primary inspiration for the books.

I create the Zonk stories to be humorous and fun for children, but the books also reflect my feelings about nature and the environment, providing children with a window into those concerns. I think we are in a time when respect and concern for the environment has to be one of the most critical values we can teach to children. And along the way, children learn many facts about desert and ocean life.

Mr. Hoobler holds a B.A. in Art Studio from Sonoma State College. He discovered his love of painting and creating children’s books after a varied career in the film and theater arts. David grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, lived in Arizona for 5 years, where he became inspired to create the series, and presently resides in Hayward, California.

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