Robin Rosenthal Rooster Wakes up

A new piece for my portfolio, based on feedback from SCBWI-LA. ©Robin Rosenthal

For the past few months I’ve been working on new pieces for my portfolio based on the amazing feedback I received at the 2014 SCBWI LA Summer Conference. (I was one of six illustrators who received the SCBWI Mentorship Award, and I got to meet individually with six mentors who each gave me guidance on my work. It. Was. Awesome. Read more about my experience here.)

More than one mentor told me to forget about words for now. I should think in pictures and create wordless stories. Don’t think about a whole book. Think of an episode or a paragraph. This concept of letting the images lead the storytelling, and of choosing smaller stories to tell with those images, has been very liberating for me.

I do not currently have a particular story dummy in the works so I need to come up with some smaller narratives to illustrate. To get myself going, I’ve compiled a list of ideas—collected and expanded upon from past class assignments, fellow illustrators, and published picture books—and I’ve shared them below.


Illustrate a few scenes from a historical or current event that interests you.
Some books for inspiration: Shackleton’s Journey by William Grill, Pop! The Invention of Bubble Gum and City Hawk: The Story of Pale Male by Meghan McCarthy, How the Meteorite Got to the Museum by Jessie Hartland.

Make a mini-biography of a friend or famous person.
A while back, I wrote about Mark Todd and Esther Pearl Watson who created these really cool ‘zines of their family and friends. Some more inspiration: The “I am…” series, including I am Rosa Parks, and I am Amelia Earhart written by Brad Meltzer and illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos, Malala, a Brave Girl… by Jeanette Winter.

Think about your own childhood and illustrate an important memory or feeling. In The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children, Nancy Lamb includes a great page of prompts to get you thinking about your past.

Eavesdrop on your kids and write down what they say. Illustrate those quotes.

Find a picture in a magazine—like National Geographic or a travel magazine—that inspires you and create a story around it. What happens next? (idea via Jeslyn Kate Cantrell.)

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(click to enlarge) page spread illustrated by Emanuele Luzzati from Italo Calvino’s: Il visconte dimezzato.

I recently went back to Italy, almost ten years after I had left it. That’s a long story I won’t bore you with now, but one of the things I missed most was browsing in European book stores. Books feel more beautiful over there, the thick paper (often textured), well-illustrated covers of every kind of book (no photos from movies that came after the books), and many different sizes and shapes of paperback novels. Every book is begging for you to touch it and flip through it, which is probably why they often come sealed in plastic wrap, with just one copy unwrapped in front for me to play with.


(click to enlarge)

I was on the hunt for children’s books by Italian authors illustrated by Italians. Something I noticed in the children’s book section was that there were few picture books but many shelves of chapter books (of all reading levels) with lush illustrations. I have theories on why this is: with all its idiosyncrasies, English takes much longer to form than Italian; that fact plus a mix of cultural and publishing practices provide for some pretty great chapter book options. I love how many illustrations are included in these books, how the texts melds with them, that they are in color and often harbor glorious full page spreads.

At a delicious dinner at our friends’ home, I was lucky enough to spend some time with Sofia, a very bright 9 year old who patiently showed me all her books from when she was young to what she is currently reading. She answered all my questions and introduced me to several books I didn’t know, including ones by the author Roberto Piumini. C’era una volta, ascolta is a lovely collection of stories by Mr. Piumini, illustrated by Nicoletta Costa. I love the texture she creates with her patterns and the humor Ms. Costa conveys.

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Recently I got a chance to talk with Dan Santat about his latest picture book, The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend. There are so many things I love about this book and Dan generously gave me some serious inside scoop. Scroll on for a detailed behind-the-scenes look into the making of this beautiful and thoughtful story.

Robin: I saw the book trailer for Beekle before I saw the book and loved it. Beekle is totally ready for the movies!

Dan: Thank you! My agent, Jodi Reamer at Writers House, shopped Beekle around and DreamWorks actually optioned the book before I got the book contract. A lot of film companies inquire at Writers House to see what kind of properties they have. They requested to see me because they had seen a picture book I had done a few years back. We finally had a chance to meet and I pitched the idea for this book. They liked it and then two weeks later they made an offer.

Robin:That’s so cool!  What is your role going to be in the movie?  

Dan: I’m solely a creative consultant. I know quite a few guys that work there and I know the beautiful work that they do. I’ve gotten advice from other friends who have said the best thing to do is just take the option and then stand back and let them do what they do.

Robin: Tell me more about creating the book.

Dan: This was one of the most intimidating projects I’ve ever done. There’s a metamorphosis from uncertainty to knowing exactly who you are which was very personal to me. The main character, Beekle, is a blank slate. His purpose isn’t entirely clear. As he goes on this journey, he’s worried: am I doing the right thing? In the first version of the book, I focused on how life experiences define who you are. My editor thought that was more of an adult theme and that we should talk about friendship, about making your first friend. I loved that idea.

On my son’s first day of preschool he had all of this anxiety. What are the other kids going to be like?  Are they going to like me? Am I going to find anybody that wants to be my friend? I remember telling him: be yourself. You don’t need everybody to like you, you just need to start with one friend. I hope a kid reading this book gets the idea that friendship is out there. You don’t have to really look for it because chances are someone is also looking for you.

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(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

I cannot believe I wrote this post a year ago. When I put it on Facebook, I hadn’t thought much about it. But lo and behold Mark from my high school French class (and just about every other class I had growing up) kindly contacted me to tell me he still had the books. Not only did he still have the books, but if I wanted them, those books could be mine! And so thanks to Mark, those books are now mine! They make me so happy.

Most importantly, I finally know that Mel Dietmeier is the illustrator. I still cannot get over his loose illustrations and the levity they bring to the often dull phrases of basic language learning.

I couldn’t find much about him other than that he had written and illustrated two other children’s books: Someone is Missing  and Potato. Thank you, my vintage book collection (in blog form).

I took a few more photos of some other favorite pages to share with you. Amusez-vous bien!

Too much champagne to hear the phone ring!

Too much champagne to hear the phone ring (drin…drin…)!

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A still from a pilot episode of The Muppet Show.

Hey, literary New Yorkers! Sex! Violence! Also, The PEN World Voices Festival has been going on this week—and this weekend, they’ve got not one but two children’s lit events! Children’s books are literature, YESSSSSSSS! And psst, the organizer tells me: “You can also pass on the discount codes: PEN14 or PEN2014. I think it’s 20%.”

Sex and Violence in Children’s Books: Where The Wild Things (Really) Are, with Sarwat Chadda, Robie Harris, Susan Kuklin, Sharyn November, and Niki Walker – Sunday, May 4, 12:30 pm, Frederick P. Rose Auditorium, Cooper Union, 41 Cooper Square

So, sex and violence. I want to digress a bit, to let you all know that I took the reckless step of Googling “sex and violence in children’s books” to find an image for this post. The results were disappointingly un-scandalizing, but look what was in the first row of results! And since I am an honest blogger who doesn’t just steal other people’s images, I am going to editorialize about this image for a second, because fair use. Okay, no, really because MUPPETS.

According to the Muppet Wiki (yes!), this episode parodies the growth of sex and violence on television, which I’m guessing was new enough in the 1970s to warrant a bit of social commentary, and features the Seven Deadly Sins embodied as Muppets. But what I really like about this image is the wild-eyed look on the Muppet’s face as he readies the explosion.* If I had to sum up my own sense of humor with a facial expression, this would be it.

Anyway, this should be an amazing panel discussion. I mean, look at the lineup.

How to Write a (Super) Hero, with Sarwat Chadda and Christopher Farley – Saturday, May 3, 3:00 pm, SubCulture, 45 Bleecker Street

First of all, I’m pleased to learn there is still a subculture (or at least a SubCulture) on Bleecker Street, amidst all the designer clothes and fancy cupcakes and dog salons and stuff.

This one is for [older] kids, and it’s about world-building, mythology, and heroic quest stories. Awesome.

AND! Here’s a BONUS PUPPET EVENT! It’s called A Procession of Confessions, and it is surveillance-themed, featuring the Processional Arts Workshop, the same big-puppet builders who put on the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. These people know how to do spectacle. This event is not specifically for kids, but I’d say it’s not not for kids, either, so bring ‘em. Sunday, May 4, 5:00, in front of Cooper Union.

*My favorite piece of Jim Henson wisdom: if you don’t know how to end a piece, either make something explode or have one of the characters eat the other.


Some time ago, I wrote and dummied this story about a bear named Ursula (natch) who does water ballet. She’s training for the big water ballet championship with her friend Ricardo…


…until one morning, when they discover a new pool policy: NO BEARS ALLOWED!

page13Anyway. Last summer, Ursula (under the working title of SPLASHDANCE) went out on submission and ended up reaching the acquisitions meetings at a couple of houses. So there was this big week when I was waiting for news. One evening, I got an email from my agent with the subject line “YouTube video.” The email read, in its entirety, “You will enjoy this” and included a link.

Of course, I took the email completely at face value. (Note to anyone who ever wants to throw me a surprise party: it will be very easy.) A YouTube link? Not exactly what I was expecting, but not out of character for my agent, either. And what do you do when your agent suggests you do something? You do it immediately. Duh.

So I watched the video. And then I called my parents and made them watch it too.

All I can say is that everyone should have an editor as awesome as Susan Dobinick. (Plus her team of talented colleagues, LIVE from the FLATIRON BUILDING!) By the way, are you wondering about the “NOT A BEAR” t-shirts? Well, my friends, the book is due out in 2016. (!!!)

Painting from Rapunzel by Paul O. Zelinsky (click to enlarge)

Painting from the 1998 Caldecott Medal book Rapunzel by Paul O. Zelinsky (click to enlarge) “I’ve benefited a lot from practicing figure drawing. Spring Studio in SoHo is not so far from here. It’s figure drawing all day everyday and you just show up, but on certain days and times Minerva Durham, who runs it, teaches anatomy. That has helped me tremendously, whether I’m drawing a person realistically or making up a cartoon character.”


I was first introduced to Paul O. Zelinsky’s work when I heard him speak at the 2010 SCBWI Illustrator’s Intensive. I was inspired by the way his style changes depending on and in service to the story, so I was very excited when he recently agreed to speak with Liz and me at his Brooklyn studio. 

Paul received the 1998 Caldecott Medal for Rapunzel, and Caldecott Honors for three more books: Hansel and Gretel (1985), Rumpelstiltskin (1987), and Swamp Angel (1995). (You can see more of his work on his website.)

Paul at his desk pretending to use his computer.

Paul at his desk pretending to use his computer.


Hometown: Wilmette, Illinois

Now lives in: Brooklyn, NY

Tools of the trade: You name it. I have lots and lots of brands of many kinds of paint and other media. I get Staedtler (black) pencils for no good reason; generic nylon watercolor brushes because the fine sable ones have not lasted well for me; Arches 120 lb cold press paper is a fallback but I use others, too. Epson 10000XL scanner, Photoshop CS5.5, Epson SP2200 printer. Faber Castell Pitt artist pens, S and XS, for doodling, but I keep losing them. Faber Castell Pitt Compressed Charcoal extra-soft, for chalk talks.

Workspace: Studio apartment across from a churchyard in Brooklyn Heights

Book Trailers:  Z is for Moose, The voice of the glove is Maurice Sendak. I hadn’t planned what was going to be in the trailer exactly and I didn’t know who he would be.  I just said, “Would you record something?” [ED NOTE: You’ll have to watch it to see what Sendak chose to say.] I also created a few animations for The Shivers in the Fridge here and here.

Fun Fact: My recent hobby has been to fix on certain numbers that are interesting or significant to me, and to track the number of my Twitter followers until it reaches those numbers, feeling like I’m urging things on, as in a horse race. When my following was in the 1,000s there were lots of interesting dates to aim for; after the low 2,000’s that stopped being a possibility except for an occasional significant Star Date from a Star Wars episode. Oh, yes: my Twitter name is @paulozelinsky.

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