Carol Gordon Ekster: I had the good fortune of highlighting Hazel Mitchell’s illustrative talents in another interview here at Writers’ Rumpus a few years ago. Now we get to share in her debut as an author/illustrator with her picture book, Toby, which recently came out with Candlewick Press this fall.
Hazel, congratulations on being an author as well as an illustrator! How was your process different for Toby, being both the illustrator and writer? How did the revision work for this manuscript? Did you work on the text first?
Hazel Mitchell: Thanks so much, Carol! It’s wonderful to return to Writers’ Rumpus. Thanks so much for hosting Toby and me on our blog tour.
Writing ‘Toby’ was an organic process. As soon as Toby came to live with us I would sketch him, he had such an expressive face I just couldn’t help myself. Eventually I began to think he’d make a great character in a story. I began to draw ‘scenes’ of things Toby did (hiding under a table, being scared of the cat, cuddling his stuffed bunny). As I drew these scenes I included a boy character and then began to try to link them together in a story. I never really wrote a manuscript as such. I did write down the scenes on index cards and shuffled them around and added bits in. It was only when I really began to work on a dummy that I added some words. I had wondered in the beginning if it might be a wordless book, but I needed linking lines and dialogue to make sense to the reader. It’s also good for the parent to have something to read aloud!
There was a lot of revision. Probably because I had so many ‘scenes’, there was a lot of cutting to do. It also meant I had a lot of content. Really I was storyboarding the whole thing until after several drafts, with the help of my editor at Candlewick (Liz Bicknell) and Ann Stott (art director), I had a 40 page book!
To answer the question; yes, it was different from illustrating a manuscript by someone else. The words and story are already there for you from the get go with someone else’s manuscript. I enjoyed the process of creating my own story very much … even with so much revision!
CGE: I like how you use panels and an interesting straightforward method of showing the dad and boy speaking, rather that using dialog tags. What made you do that, and why is your main character nameless?
HM: Thanks. Again I think this came about because of the way the book grew out of the sketch-scenes. It was never a narrative. A lot of the panels are wordless with the reader having to work out what is happening without me telling them. I have a bare minimum of dialogue to move the story forward accompanied by first person narrative from the ‘nameless’ boy. I like the immediacy this gives the reader. I hope they’re right there experiencing the emotions and struggles of Toby and the boy and his Dad as if they were in the same room. There’s a bit of a graphic novel feel to it which I really enjoyed doing. Why is the boy nameless? I think because it’s all about Toby. Dad calls the boy ‘Bud’ a couple of times, which is my husband’s nickname for his son. I also feel that any child reading the book can project themselves onto the boy, he’s kind of ‘every child’.
CGE: I love how your end pages add to the before and after of the story in a wordless way. How did you decide on that aspect of the book?
HM: The reason was simple – I had so many scenes I wanted to include that my editor said I could make it a 40 page self-ending book, therefore the end pages get to be part of the story. The interiors are quite sparse for the main part. And I love detail, so I did that in the end papers. I think the depth in each gives the viewer an immersion in and out of the book that, in hindsight, is very satisfying. I never wanted any text on these pages. It’s all there for the reader to comprehend visually.
CGE: How does the book character compare and contrast to the dog you personally rescued from a shelter and who provided the inspiration for this book?
HM: The dog in the book IS Toby. I took a lot of things he did in real life, his attitude and emotions, and gave him a fictionalized setting. I fictionalized Toby’s story to give it a better story arc that a child could relate to. Writing about me and my husband would have been boring! I love the ‘emotional triangle’ that develops between the three main characters. The difference in the book compared with real life … in real life it takes a lot, lot longer to help a fearful dog learn to trust and gain the ability to be a ‘normal’ dog. The real Toby’s still on his journey and not quite as advanced as his fictional self, but he’s getting there. For a 40 page picture book it made sense to shorten the physical time and is less confusing for a child reading alone.
CGE: I like how you show the universal emotion of fear in Toby. I think many children will relate to this. Did you actually find out why Toby was fearful?
HM: Thank you. I think so too. I hope that a child will recognize and relate to emotions that Toby’s feeling and that’s one of the things I talk about in my teacher’s guide (downloadable free on Toby’s webpage). You can also find a link on the webpage that tells you ‘all about Toby’ and his background. He was rescued from a puppy mill situation in Aroostook County with eight of his poodle family. They’d been kept in a basement most of their lives with little (if any) socialization or time outside. Toby is still happier out in the evening than in bright sunshine and contact with new people is still hard for him.
CGE: Did you sell this with the help of an agent or did you submit on your own?
HM: My agent (Ginger Knowlton of Curtis Brown Ltd.) actually signed me when I submitted Toby to her! Hurrah for the poodle! Candlewick Press was my first choice for submission and I adore working with Liz Bicknell and Ann Stott!
CGE: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us about Toby coming into the world of picture books?
HM: I did have a scare (which a lot of people know about, because they were following the Toby saga on social media). Toby was lost for eight days after getting under a fence. Many people helped search for him and online people logged in every day to see if he had been found. Then after eight days he returned to the place he escaped from, much to my relief, not only because I was frantic that he was lost, but also because the book was being considered by Candlewick Press at that time. If we hadn’t got him back I just know that I couldn’t have finished the book.
CGE: Do you have more books that you’re both writing and illustrating? Can you tell us a little about them? And when you prepare them for submission, are you just sending in the manuscript, a completed dummy, or something else?
HM: I do! I have a sequel to Toby which I would love to happen. I have a couple of picture books that I am dummying at the moment and hope to get to submission this year. I always send a complete dummy for a picture book. I am also writing a couple of middle grade novels. But they’re far from ready to go to my agent and a whole new area and adventure for me! But fun!
Hazel is giving away a copy of TOBY, along with some swag, to one lucky reader! Click here to enter Rafflecopter giveaway
Connect with Hazel here:
tweet me: https://twitter.com/hazelgmitchell, @meettoby
Copyright © 2016 by Hazel Mitchell.
Illustrations reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, Massachusetts