Originally Posted: September 2013
by Melanie Hope Greenberg
Caldecott Honor-winner Peter McCarty, like many picture book artists, fell into the publishing business as a freelance illustrator who was in the right place at the right time. He has gone on to become one of the most honored in the children’s book field. In a wide-ranging talk, McCarty described his constant quest to stay true to the kind of drawing he loves while also finding a style that is commercially appealing.
McCarty always loved to draw, and as a kid would entertain himself by drawing dinosaurs and growling as he sketched. Later he attended art school and developed a very detailed and polished style. He attempts to draw with the same joy and excitement today that he felt then.
McCarty’s first publishing job was to create a cover and interiors for a middle-grade book called Frozen Man. He was then assigned to illustrate his first 32-page picture book, Night Driving by John Coy. He grew to love the structure and flow of picture books. A 1949 Plymouth he once admired outside his doctor’s office became the main character in Night Driving.
Good with pencils and paper but not initially at writing, McCarty poked fun at his first attempts when his editor asked him to create his own book. Little Bunny on the Move was the result, based on a white bunny he saw on a hill one day; the story was minimal, the illustrations soft and immensely detailed. Soon McCarty created more books. Baby Steps was very personal, using his newborn daughter as the main character. It was not a big seller; he was not yet thinking about publishing trends, he said, but was doing what interested him. But he gradually became a better writer over several books and went on to win the Charlotte Zolotow Award for excellence in picture book text.
For the Caldecott Honor-winning Hondo and Fabian, McCarty was on deadline; he could not wait for the perfect idea to arise. So he used his real dog and cat as characters and invented a story for them. His creative process is to draw first, then write. Again, he cautioned illustrators, “If you don’t love it, the audience won’t love it.” Finding joy in his work is essential.
For his next book, T Is for Terrible, McCarty was able to develop his “most favorite animal in the world,” the Tyrannosaurus rex, as “the anti-Barney. This should have been a perfect book,” he said, and yet perhaps it was too perfect, he suggests, because it never really came alive. “Do not get locked up in what you think,” he said. “If you let the muse draw the characters, they come alive.”
McCarty’s personal favorite book, Henry in Love, uses a new, faster art style with brown inks, walnut stains, and less detail, so he’s able to complete the work faster. “The character Chloe came out of nowhere,” he said, but we in the audience could see the evolution of Chloe in his sketchpad doodles. In Jeremy Draws the Monster, the main character also came from his sketch pads, and McCarty enjoyed using negative space and a sparer style, drawing only what was absolutely needed. In Moon Plane, the airplane becomes one of the main characters, and flows from spread to spread, flying off to the moon and back, like “a gallery show.” Even windows are used as characters. McCarty also paints a chicken somewhere in each book.
“Characters grow organically, and you must love your characters,” he said. “Live your characters; get into them.” McCarty confessed he wants to be Hondo.
“Trick yourself that the assignment is for fun and not for a purpose,” McCarty said. “Really enjoy what you are doing.”
Melanie Hope Greenberg has illustrated 16 trade-published children’s picture books; six of them she also wrote. Greenberg was artist-in-residence on an NEA grant for the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. Her book Mermaids on Parade was picked as a “Top 5 NYC Landmark book” and has been promoted in Time Out NY: Kids. See her website at www.melaniehopegreenberg.com/