Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Virtual Book Tour: Day 13

Thanks for joining my Virtual Book Tour! Today we’re taking a closer look into how D is for Drinking Gourd: An African American Alphabet, was illustrated.

I interviewed artist E. B. Lewis about the illustration process. Here’s part of the interview:

Q: Why did you decide to illustrate this book?
A: I’ve always wanted to do an alphabet book. Many children’s book illustrators want to illustrate at least one alphabet book. To be honest, though, when I thought about most alphabet books, they seemed kind of hokey. But when I saw the manuscript for D is for Drinking Gourd, I felt that this was really different! The events that are highlighted and the layout of the book is great. The way Sleeping Bear Press lays out their alphabet books give the reader so much interesting information! I thought, “Why not jump on this? This is just down my alley!” It connected my two passions: literature and art. There’s a perfect marriage here.

Q: Describe the process you go through to illustrate a book.
A: My process is a little different than most. Initially, when I first came into children’s books, I sat down and went through the illustration process in my head. I created thumbnail sketches and created a storyboard. The illustration process is a visual interpretation of the written word. It’s a different language. It’s a translation as if I were translating your words into French. I need to explain the story you just told to me and I need to explain it to my people whose language is a visual one. How do I do this? How do I explain the story to my people who have no concept of the English language? That’s the process I go through in my head.

Now I take the manuscript and go directly to the publisher. I sit down with the editor, the art director, and the designer. The four of us sit down and we go through the process together. It’s a team process. The team should get involved in the beginning rather than the middle. I’m probably the only one who works like that. I draw right in the office. I’m probably the only illustrator who does that. Many artists are so possessive of our work. Many of us feel that to put us together with someone takes something away. I see it as the opposite. I see this as a team.

Q: How did you decide on the cover?
A: The cover basically was a combination of my idea and the editor and the art director. My initial idea can be seen on the title page of the book. It’s an illustration of a family escaping from slavery, looking up at the Drinking Gourd in the night sky. Here’s a pencil sketch of my original concept for the cover as well as the pencil sketches for the first page of the book “A is for Abolitionists.”

I flew to the office of Sleeping Bear Press and we sat down together as a group. We decided to use a different idea for the cover. The editor, art director, and I came up with the concept of a girl gazing up to the sky. It was a collaborative event.

Q: Describe a highlight of working on this book.
A: Often when I’m in the middle of the process of doing a book and thinking about the models and characters, I think about it all the time. I travel with it. It’s something that shapes my day. I went on a school visit to Columbia, South Carolina. I went there knowing we had changed the idea of the cover. It was no longer the initial one of a family escaping from slavery. We decided to make the cover more of a universal appeal. Even though the book focuses on African American history, it’s really American history. Everyone related to the concept of having a picture of a girl on the cover. I had this concept in my head of a little girl looking up at the sky.

When I went on the school visit to Columbia, a little girl was in the audience. She was in the class I was speaking to. I spotted her and thought she’d be perfect for the cover. I spoke to the teacher and thought of two places to use her image in the book—one on the cover and one in the interior. I always take photos of all my subjects, so I took pictures of this little girl. All the shots I took were of a frontal view.

I showed the photos to the editorial team. They looked at them and said they’d prefer a profile. Then I had to find a different little girl.

I was on a lunch break at the university where I teach when I saw a little girl and her mom coming down the escalator. I approached them and said, “I’m a children’s book illustrator and your daughter would be perfect on the cover of my new book!” The mom was very skeptical. She gave me her card. I noticed she was a lawyer. My best friend is a lawyer. I asked her if she knew my friend. She said yes, so I called my friend. He spoke with her on the phone. He said, “Definitely run far away from him!” They had a good laugh over that. Not long after that, I went over to her house and did a photoshoot. That’s how I got her picture to use as a model for my painting on the cover.

E. B. Lewis is the acclaimed illustrator of many award-winning picture books including the 2005 Caldecott Honor Book, “Coming On Home Soon.” His 2004 “Circle Unbroken” was named a Booklist Top 10 Black History Books for Youth. His book “Talkin’ About Bessie: The Story of Elizabeth Coleman” won a Coretta Scott King Illustration Award. Mr. Lewis teaches illustration at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. His work is included in major private collections, galleries, and museums. For more information about this outstanding artist, visit his website at

Yesterday’s Trivia Q and A:
Yesterday’s question was:
About how many Black cowboys rode the Chisholm Trail during the late 1800s?
a. 50
b. 500
c. 5000
The answer is: c. 5000. During the time of the long Texas cattle drives from the 1870s to the 1890s, one out of every five cowboys was an African American. There are still many African American cowboys today.

Today’s Trivia Question:
Which U.S. Marshal was famous for keeping law in the wild Wild West in the territory that eventually became the state of Oklahoma?
a. Bass Reeves
b. Nat Love
c. David Ruggles
Submit your answer by posting it as a comment to today’s blog. It won’t be published on the blog, but your name will be put in a hat to be drawn for 5 prizes to give away at the end of the tour. Check back in tomorrow for the answer!

Coming tomorrow:
On Day 14 of my Virtual Book Tour, I’ll be answering questions for students at Glenwood Avenue Elementary School in Wildwood, New Jersey. Be sure to stop in and join the fun!


Anonymous said...

Nancy - I loved the inside scoop from the illustrator! Also, a local garden and museum is sponsoring a kids alphabet book contest in connection with their K is for Kids exhibition. Check out for more info. The contest ends soon but there is still time! Carol

Nancy I. Sanders said...

Thanks Carol! And thanks for the info about the alphabet book contest! I'm getting ready to post a JUST FOR KIDS section tomorrow on the tour about how kids can make their own alphabet book and this link will be perfect to add! What a great contest!