Having raised three kids with my wife (all grown now), we did a lot of reading to, and with, our children when they were young. Because I read these books over and over, sometimes just for fun, I would change a word — only to instantly be corrected by my kids even though they weren’t old enough to read yet. Such is the connection with children and the stories they love.
But what kind of person creates all those wonderful books that become such an important and formative part of a child’s early life? Today we hope to get some insight into what goes into the process of developing books for kids.
Robert Scully illustrated and released his first book Jack and the Lost Tooth in 2009. He is working on his latest creations, titled Stumble Trip Fall and The Practice Pet.
Dave Hile: Hi Robert. First of all, tell us a little bit about yourself. Let’s start with your day job. You’re the VP Design Director at FAI Design Group in New York. Share a bit about what you do there.
Robert Scully: I want to start off by saying it is great to be talking to you, Dave.
Well, I have been at FAI for more than nine years. I manage a team of three designers. I create, design, and develop national and private label brands for many retailers. We work very closely with our clients to create useful, award-winning designs. I am very proud of the work we do there.
DH: Working with large corporate clients during the day seems pretty far removed from illustrating children’s books in your home studio at night. How did you end up illustrating kids’ books, and was creating artwork always a part of your life?
RS: As a child, I enjoyed drawing like all children do, but at the age of six, I realized that I wanted to draw when I grew up. Incorporating storytelling into my art-making wasn’t something I realized I enjoyed until I was in college at Parsons New School of Design, where I was studying illustration/animation. Seeing the work of Lane Smith of The Stinky Cheese Man inspired me to create illustrations for children’s books. After college, I started my career in the animation field working on stop-motion commercials for Chex Mix and also in-betweening on a Marvel comic project — which was a dream come true (inbetweens are the drawings between the key frames which help to create the illusion of motion).
During the late ’90s, when the Internet was booming, I was involved in Flash animation/web design until the collapse of the industry in the early 2000s. At that point, I decided I needed a change and redirected my creativity toward package design, which always fascinated me. I discovered I enjoy the challenge of creating designs to sell products. I have been fortunate to work with some great clients and brands, including Pepsi, Buy Buy Baby, Macy’s, and Bed Bath & Beyond, to name a few. Throughout the changes in my career, I have never given up my true passion, which is drawing, illustrating, and creating stories to share with people.
DH: I’ve mentioned how important books were to my kids. What role did books play in your childhood? And what were some of your favorites?
RS: Books were a huge part of my childhood. I can remember my father reading to me every night and how that had a huge effect on me. The nightly routine of reading a book with my dad was precious time we spent together. The stories we read became part of those memories. Some of my favorites growing up were: Dr. Seuss, Curious George, Harry the Dirty Dog, Encyclopedia Brown, and all fairytales and fables. When I read them now to my son and daughter, they give me a warm feeling of comfort.
DH: Your wife Anne writes the stories that you illustrate. How did the two of you decide to work together?
RS: Funny story — she kind of got sucked into it. I was searching for a story to kick off my career as a children’s book illustrator and was stuck. I was bugging Anne for some ideas. One day, I came home from work and she had written a story about the tooth she had lost as a child. That turned into Jack and the Lost Tooth. Since then, we have been collaborating together creating more titles. We currently have three in the works. Illustrating the stories does take longer than writing them. Anne is always open to ideas I might have for new stories. I love coming up with book concepts, and I give her the freedom to create stories around these concepts. Recently, we were very happy to have found a publisher who wants to take all of our titles and make them into interactive e-books. We look forward to getting our stories to more people.
DH: Interactive e-books … cool! So what comes first when you’re working on a book together: words or pictures?
RS: Most of the time it will start with something that inspires me, something I observe, or something from my past experiences which will create the spring board for the story. Once the story has been written, I work on creating the character’s model sheet, and I might design a cover for the book to get the creative juices going. A great example of this is The Practice Pet. It all started when I was playing with my son, and he had a stuffed animal dog that moved and barked. Then, it hit me — what if it was a real dog and we didn’t realize it? And that was the moment I thought, “There’s a story here,” so Anne took the idea and ran with it. The dog changed to a snake and The Practice Pet was born.
DH: Tell us about the physical process of developing imagery. Do you begin with sketches and then scan them into your computer to be rendered digitally or do you work another way?
RS: I always start with storyboarding out the whole story. I work out how each spread will work with the text and how many pages the story will be; once I am happy with the pace of the story, I will then tighten up each page. These stages are all done on paper with pencil. I love to work on tracing paper with blue and red pencil (left over from my days as an animator; an “inbetweener” to be exact). This helps me separate the characters from the background. Then I scan the drawings into Adobe Illustrator, where I make the art vector where I expand upon my original drawing. From there, I can do several things, like add paper backgrounds and watercolor effects to achieve texture as seen in Stumble Trip Fall, or just keep it clean and simple by adding some shadows and lighting as seen in Jack and the Lost Tooth.
DH: Besides illustrating, how do you incorporate your graphic design experience into your books?
RS: That is a great question. I try to take a lot of the structure and architecture that goes into my package designs and apply them to my illustrations and the layouts of a spread from one of my books. I feel it is important to have a basic foundation of design in order to have great illustrations. Without design, illustrations lack structure; they go hand in hand.
I enjoy playing with shapes, fonts, and color to come up with graphic solutions that will satisfy both my passions of illustration and design. I feel that my experience as a designer has improved my ability to lay out spreads, which enhances my illustrations. I love drawing and illustrating, but when design theory is applied, it helps to create a sense of balance and improves the illustration’s aesthetic appeal.
DH: Talk specifically about Stumble Trip Fall, which will be released soon. What’s the story about, and what is the backstory behind the book?
RS: It’s about a bear and his search for where he belongs. Along the way, he encounters a fox, a mole, a goat, and a duck who help keep him moving so he can finally discover where he is most at home.
Stumble Trip Fall is a very personal story for me. It is the first one that I wrote and illustrated on my own, without Anne. This story mirrors my own journey with creating children’s books — not settling on other peoples’ success, and finding my own way and never giving up.
DH: Robert, thanks for sharing your passion and process for developing your books. Finally, what is the best thing about creating books for children?
RS: For me, creating a story that can affect a person, change the way they see life, or provide other insight is the reason why I like creating stories. Creating stories lets me make connections with others beyond my reach and across generations. Plus, illustrating is just plain fun and brings me back to being that six-year-old boy who loves to draw.
DH: Thanks again Robert.
RS: Thanks Dave, this was a Lot of fun.
Finds out more about Robert Scully and his books at www.robertscully.com.
Tags: book illustration
, Book illustrator
, Jack and the Lost Tooth
, Robert Scully
, Stumble Trip Fall
, the Practice Pet