Michael Garland has given children so many adorable picture books, so many amazing illustrations, so much joy—we just had to meet the man behind these books. Which are your favorites? Grandpa’s Tractor, Miss Smith Reads Again!, Daddy Played the Blues, Car Goes Far, Tugboat? Or is it one of his other equally delightful stories? When we saw Garland’s latest book, Birds Make Nests—which received a highly recommended rating from our reviewers—we knew it was past time to reach out to him and find out more about the man behind the stories.
You’re such an amazing artist, at what point did you decide to use your talents to illustrate children’s books and when/why did you decide to try your hand at writing them also?
I decided to begin writing my own stories about fifteen years into my career. I already had a long list of clients and a wide array of subject matter and styles in publishing, both magazine and book, in corporate and advertising. At that time, I had been doing very successful re-issue book covers for Harper Collins. They offered me an opportunity to illustrate another author’s text. I countered with an idea for my own book, My Cousin Katie. That book was inspired by a family trip to my sister-in-law’s country house, nestled in the farm country of upstate New York. Katie, our first child, inspired the protagonist of the story. Since we have three children, I was further inspired to write a book for our next child, Alice (Circus Girl, Dutton/Penguin) and then Dinner at Magritte’s (also Dutton/Penguin) for our son Kevin.
I came to realize how much I enjoyed illustrating my own text. My reputation outside the closed world of the illustration industry started to grow and it turned out to be the most fulfilling work of my career.
You have quite a repertoire of successful fiction books, is Birds Make Nests your first nonfiction work? Why birds?
Yes, Birds Make Nests is my first non-fiction book. I believe in creating books that are interesting and inspiring to me first, which will then help me make a better book that will in turn interest new readers to pick up the book. Fiction or non-fiction, it’s the interplay of picture and text that will draw potential readers to the book. I still remember going to the library with my mother and pulling books from the shelf and choosing a few good ones to take home. We live in a rural area of New York State, with lots of wildlife to see. Before I did the book, I painted a whole series of bird paintings. While I was painting, the concept of the book began to take shape.
I had developed a technique called digi-woodcut for an earlier book titled Fish Had a Wish. The book was very well received (Kirkus Top Twenty Picture Books of the Year, PW Star Review). Like an actual woodcut, the method is a reductive one, where the artist cuts or scratches away the light areas from a dark background. A black and white image is created and then colored digitally. On Fish Had a Wish all the images were created completely digitally.
On Birds Make Nests, I chose to carve from an actually piece of woodblock, a black and white image to begin the process of making the illustration. I then scanned the black and white image into my computer and colored it digitally. The difference between the illustrations in Fish Had a Wish and Birds Make Nests is so subtle that most people couldn’t discern the difference. I really made the actual woodcuts for my own artistic satisfaction. It is much more difficult to work this way because on the road to the final book publication there are those inevitable, unforeseen, editorial and art direction changes that an illustrator has to deal with. Days and weeks of work may have to be discarded in an effort to satisfy the multitude of voices the have input within the publishing house. This is all part of the life of an illustrator.
Switching tracks here, and because I know this is what our librarians especially want to know, do you do school vists, and if so, what do you enjoy most about them?
I do school visits all over the country. I love them. I write and illustrate all my books in my solitary studio, so school visits keep me in touch with the end user, the actual children who read them. They recharge my creative batteries. At times, publishing can be difficult and discouraging. Often editors and art directors are overwhelmed with work and the whole process can drag out. One day I may be feeling frustrated because an assistant, intern editor, or designer is too busy to return my email, and the next day a whole school full of children are waving from the windows to greet me as I arrive at their school, like the Beatles were coming to play a concert. The kids are fun and informative. My presentation consists of a PowerPoint show about my books and how I make them. I have my real book dummies that show the text and sketches combined in the earliest stage of the book. I do a drawing demo. I explain about working with the editor, art director, and publisher. I also explain that not everything I write gets published, but I feel fortunate that I’m nearing thirty-nine published books as author and illustrator. I’ve also illustrated close to forty books for other authors. I slightly alter each presentation to accommodate each grade level.
The most common questions that children will ask during a school visit is; “Where do I get my ideas from?” My answer is always the same. Ideas come to me all the time. I never sit down at my computer and try and think of something. Ideas come at the least expected times, usually when I’m doing or thinking about something else. I could be riding my lawn mover or paddling my canoe or washing the dinner dishes. An idea starts out like a seed with the potential to grow into something. I plant the seed in my imagination and wait until it develops. I get lots of ideas and most of them don’t go anywhere, but if an idea is good, it will keep returning and developing to the point that it has a beginning, middle, and end of a good story. It’s at this point that I sit down at my computer and begin writing. The rest is writing and rewriting, so the story flows smoothly and communicates the idea in a form that a child can comprehend. Kids will also ask; “Which comes first, the pictures or the story?” I always say; “The story always comes first. I imagine the pictures as I write the story. When the story is finished, it’s just a matter of sketching the images in my head.”
Another question children will ask; “Which is your favorite book?” The answer never changes; “My first three books will always have a special place in my heart because our three children inspired them, but my favorite book is the one I’m working on at the moment.” I look on every new book as an opportunity to make the best book ever. I try and write my very best story and illustrate my very best pictures and when it’s finished, it will be my very best book (until I start the next one).
Writing and illustrating picture books for children has been my most satisfying creative endeavor. I will continue to do it for the rest of my life. It’s not for me to determine how I will be remembered, but when I look back on my own life, I will know that I have spent my time well.
If you want Michael to visit your school, go to http://www.garlandpicturebooks.com and download the pdf school visit brochure.