I got a call from the wonderful school librarian in the town next to mine. My mother-in-law used to volunteer there in Deerfield Elementary (how cool is it to have a librarian mother-in-law?), and Bette Schmidt’s kind, soft-spoken husband is our dogs’ vet: that’s how small-town/small-world we are. Bette told me that Michael Dooling, who illustrated two of my picture books, was coming with his wife Jane to do a presentation and I would I care to show, up, too?
It was a thrill to see them. According to Michael’s website, http://www.michaeldooling.com/ , History through Picture Books, he has visited 600 schools, illustrated 50 books, and sold a million books. I’ve got some work ahead of me. Meanwhile, we had a great lunch at Channing Bete, a local business which sponsors an annual author or illustrator’s visit. They kindly arranged trees to blossom and Mike got only the politest gawking appearing in his 18th century garb.
Then I got to watch Mike in action. The fifth and sixth graders who came in fidgety from a spring morning spent doing state-mandated tests quickly quieted down, and seemed enthralled when Mike began mixing blue and yellow to make green. Some volunteers helped him finish a portrait.
Michael showed slides, including many from MARY ANNING AND THE SEA DRAGON (he said he was nervous with the author, listening, but he was awesome.) Michael talked about the months he spends researching before beginning to sketch, and how, once he begins to paint, he steps back every few minutes to see if something’s wrong, then corrects it. Mistakes are part of the process. The students asked great questions about shading, perspective and, never mind that they haven’t begun middle school, good choices for studying art at the college level. One asked, “Of all the people you’ve drawn, which would you most like to have been?” The school principal beamed. Afterward one boy came over to me and said, “I know today is supposed to be about illustrating, but I’m not so good at drawing. How do YOU get your ideas?” I gave a quick answer about following what makes you curious, then he told me about how he’d wondered about how turtles breathe, told me what he’d learned, and did he maybe have the beginning of a story? Absolutely.
When I wrote the ms. for ANNE HUTCHINSON’S WAY it was my dream, and luckily my editor’s, too, to have a second book illustrated by Michael. He and I have worked separately, but we’re huge fans of each others’ work and of Farrrar, Straus and Giroux, which has kept Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon in print for nine years. I’m mulling over what I hope will become another collaboration.