A Dinosaur in NYC

bolivar 1_artwork by sean rubinInteresting fact about Sean Rubin. In high school, he showed his artwork to Brian Jacques and landed himself a Redwall illustration gig. Another interesting fact? Sean is a self-taught artist who majored in Art and Archeology at Princeton University. One final fact. Sean is obviously, wildly and without-a-doubt talented, and I am delighted to announce his debut children’s book/graphic novel, Bolivar (Archaia, 2017).

Bolivar, the last of the dinosaurs, wants a peaceful, low-profile life. And where better to NOT get noticed than crowded, chaotic, bustling New York City?

bolivar 2_artwork by sean rubinThere is one person, however, who does notice Bolivar – a little girl named Sybil who is doggedly determined to obtain photographic evidence of her prehistoric neighbor.

bolivar 3_artwork by sean rubinIs Bolivar is a picture book with chapters? A graphic novel with picture book narration? Whatever it is, it totally works, manifesting itself as the perfect book for young readers transitioning into reading on their own while also exploring the joys of the comic book format.

Bolivar was released this month, and I chatted with Sean about his fantastic debut.


Bolivar was 5 years in the making. How would you describe those five years…in five words?

Drawing, moving, marriage, two kids!

Tell us about the inspiration for the story.

When I was a kid, I came to own a grey plastic dinosaur that my cousin, the photographer Edward Addeo, named Bolivar. Uncle Eddie has a wonderful sense of humor, so he used to send Bolivar on all sorts of wild adventures over the years—like the time the dinosaur somehow became mayor of New York City.

bolivar 4_artwork by sean rubinI thought that was a funny idea, so I started writing a book about it. However, I soon realized that if there was a dinosaur in New York City, no one would actually notice it… at least not for a while.

The image of a dinosaur roaming around Manhattan, while everybody else goes about their business, was too good to pass up. Soon, certain questions about Bolivar began to arise. What did he like to eat? Where did he spend his time? What kind of music did he listen to? And, if someone did finally notice him, what would happen? In many ways, the book is an attempt to answer those questions.

bolivar 5_artwork by sean rubinIn her review of your book, Betsy Bird at A Fuse #8 Production blog mentioned how she could genuinely feel New York City in your illustrations, right down to the requisite color orange of the plastic subway seat. Can you tell us about your relationship with New York and how you approached drawing it for the book?

Well, those orange seats appear on the 1 train, also known as the Seventh Avenue and Broadway Local. I have spent many, many hours on that subway line!

bolivar 6_artwork by sean rubinI was born in Brooklyn, and I spent most of my childhood there and on Long Island, which is right next door. After I finished college, I wound up back in the city, this time on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I love New York. Being a New Yorker is an important part of my self-identity, and there’s no telling how many hours I’ve spent exploring the city, usually on foot.

bolivar 7_artwork by sean rubinAlthough I started writing and drawing the book when I lived in New York, much of Bolivar was completed after I moved to Virginia in 2015. As a result, when I sat down to draw, I used a lot of photography and old observational drawings for references. Soon, I realized that I wasn’t drawing Manhattan as it is today. The city is always changing, people come and go, stores open and close, and buildings are built and torn down—so who’s to say which version of New York is the most authentic or accurate?

bolivar 8_artwork by sean rubinMy references began mixing with my memories, especially my memories of New York when I was a kid. In the end, I think most of the book is actually drawn from these memories. As most of the book is also from a kid’s point of view, I think this actually helped me empathize with Sybil’s perspective.

bolivar 9_artwork by sean rubinBetsy also mentioned that this is “a strange kind of graphic novel/picture book/bedtime novel hybrid,” which might cause some people to have trouble classifying it. How did this hybridization come together?

Bolivar began its creative life as an idea for a 1200-word picture book. As I began pitching the book to potential publishers, I learned that, at least at that time, 800 words was the preferred length for a picture book. I tried, but I couldn’t shave those 400 words and keep the feel of the story. I then decided to do something totally different—I made the book much longer. The original 1200 words of the picture book became the narrative text, and the added material became dialog and comics panels.

bolivar 10_artwork by sean rubinPersonally and creatively, the book really took off when I began listening to what the characters had to say. It’s incredible for me to remember that, in the first draft of this book, Sybil was in one scene and said maybe three lines, and her mother didn’t speak at all. I think Bolivar is still mostly a picture book, it’s just a picture book with five chapters, and the characters have succeeded in talking over the author on nearly every page.

When writing the story, was it difficult to bounce between a classic picture book narrative and graphic novel speech bubbles?

Sometimes. It could be a challenge to really combine the two approaches in a meaningful way, as opposed to having large sections that were just comics panels and speech bubbles, and then other sections that were just one or two-page illustrations with narrative text. I’m especially happy with the parts of the book where the two approaches seem to blend most naturally, the second chapter being one example.

bolivar 11_artwork by sean rubinThe biggest blessing, and curse, of bouncing between narrative text and panels with dialog balloons involves pacing. In many ways, the panels force you to pick up the pace of your reading. At the same time, they slow down how quickly you’re turning pages. I think the reader will spend more time on a two-page spread that contains a number of panels, and less time on a two-page spread with one, large, open illustration. Ironically, the panel spreads feel faster and the open spreads feel slower. I had to take that into account when establishing the flow of the story.

Your drawings are so intricate, and the detail is fantastic, from the signs on the buildings to objects sitting inside random windows. Can you tell us one of your favorite Easter eggs in the book?

Thanks, Dana—I include those details because they’re fun to draw! Many Easter eggs are included for the benefit of my extended family, who have always been Bolivar’s biggest fans. Of these, my favorite is probably the portrait of Bolivar’s parents, which you can see on the wall in his apartment. It’s based on a photograph of my great-great grandparents, who emigrated from Sicily.

bolivar 12_artwork by sean rubinOf course we both have a connection to Princeton University, so I should probably mention that there are number of Princeton references, too. My favorite of these is definitely the Tigers football helmet in the classroom toward the end of the book.

What are you up to next, Sean?

I’ll actually be illustrating a book written by another author, which should be a refreshing change of pace. Especially because the illustrations for this one are due in a few short months. I can’t say too much yet, but this time, we’re headed to the moon!

I also don’t think this is the last we’ve seen of Bolivar and Sybil, but what they’ll do next, only time will tell.

bolivar 13_artwork by sean rubin

 


Images courtesy of Sean Rubin

Your First Book

giant dance party coverIf you read (and breathe) children’s books, chances are you’ve considered writing one yourself. But writing can be tough, and publishing can be diabolically elusive. In the hopes of shedding a little light on the process, I decided to interview an author about her experiences in both writing and publishing her first picture book.

Some of you will immediately recognize the name Betsy Bird. In addition to being a Youth Collections Specialist at the New York Public Library, she has served on various literary projects and panels (including the Newbery Award committee), written for Horn Book, Kirkus, the New York Times, and has a popular School Library Journal blog, A Fuse #8 Production. This fall, in collaboration with Julie Danielson and Peter Sieruta, she released an adult non-fiction book titled Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature (Candlewick, 2014).

Betsy’s also published a picture book, Giant Dance Party, which is illustrated by Brandon Dorman (Greenwillow Books, 2013). The book is about a little girl named Lexy who decides (after a few bad experiences with stage fright) to quit the stage and become a dance instructor instead. Her only pupils, however, are five furry (but highly enthusiastic) blue giants. We had a fabulous time reading this book at our story time (you can see the project here). But what was it like to write and publish it?

magic tree bookstore

Betsy (center) stops by Magic Tree Bookstore on her book tour

So, one morning, did you wake up and decide you were going to write a children’s book?

Not exactly. It was more a gentle thought in the back of my brain that sat there percolating for a while. Honestly, the only reason Giant Dance Party even happened was that illustrator Brandon Dorman wrote me an email one day that essentially said, “Let’s do a book together! I’ll illustrate it, you write it, and I only have one idea: Giant leaping.” I mean, how do you turn that kind of thing down? I fully credit him with getting me off of my tuchis and writing.

How did you proceed from “Giant leaping?”

Well, I pretty much just came up with three different ideas, all of which involved giants launching themselves in the air in some way. After I hammered them out and Brandon approved them we approached his editor. We presented three ideas and the publisher purchased two. Easy peasy!

After the idea was purchased, did you write the story?

No, before! It was complete and they bought it that way. Then came the copious edits.  We actually went through two different editors with two very different styles in the course of the book. Lots of changes were made but honestly I think it was for the best in the end. The book’s much stronger now than it was when we first turned it in.

Giant-Dance-Party-InsideHow long did it take to write the story? Did you involved anyone else, or was it just you, the keyboard, and your favorite caffeinated beverage?

Honestly this was actually a kind of rare occurrence. You see, I worked with Brandon on the stories before we submitted them and he gave me feedback. Under normal circumstances authors and illustrators are given wide berth of one another and are not allowed to communicate all that much when collaborating. But since we already had a friendship and it was Brandon’s idea in the first place (plus the fact that he’s a New York Times Bestseller rockstar) we decided to bounce ideas off of one another while we developed the book. It was a LOT of fun. And I think it just took a couple months to hammer everything out in the end.

Did you give Brandon any feedback on the illustrations?

I did but not until much later in the process. The illustrations went through a LOT of changes. In the end there wasn’t much to really suggest. The man’s a pro. But I did suggest a darker color to some hand painted letters in one scene and more diversity in the characters in another scene. Aside from that, no changes necessary!

You mentioned copious edits. Can you tell us more about what it was like to work with editors?

Sure! My first editor was pretty easy going. I came into his office and we did a lot of line edits, sitting down and going over every single sentence. Then he left the company and I found myself with another editor entirely! She had a different vision for the book, having inherited it rather than purchasing it herself. Honestly, we’re very lucky she liked it enough to proceed with it. It was because of her vision that the giants changed from gross, disgusting, big warty guys into furry blue piles of adorableness. She was also very rigorous with the text and the ending and a lot of changes were made to the storyline. In the end, I think it ended up a much stronger book and I was happy to take most (though admittedly not all) of her suggestions.

giants bowHow long did it take from idea percolating to the final, finished book?

You mean for it to reach bookstore and library shelves? I believe we started the process in 2009 and it came out in 2013. That’s partly because of the switch in editors and partly because books take FOREVER to be published. Ask any author and they will tell you that this is true. It may even explain the rise in self-publishing, honestly.

What was it like to hold your finished book in your hands? Or watch children read it?

The finished book was lovely and surreal all at once. Not quite as surreal as watching perfect strangers pick it up and read it on their own, but surreal just the same. I really got a kick out of hearing folks discuss it without knowing I was nearby. Eventually, I’m going to have to experience that universal moment so many authors have had to face where you see your book in a secondhand store or Goodwill, but until then I’m loving it.

What was one thing that surprised you about writing a children’s picture book?

I was definitely surprised by how long the whole publication process takes. I expected a year or two, but more than that? Crazytalk! So that was new to me. There’s also the fact that in many ways the author is in the dark when it comes to knowing how a book is doing.  That might be a good thing, though. Knowing too much leads to insanity.

Do you have any advice for people who might be developing a story of their own?

The best thing you can do is read as many books as you can that are similar to your own.  Know what’s out there. The last thing you want to be is derivative and the nice thing about consuming vast quantities of children’s literature is that after a while you can parse the good from the bad. So visit your local children’s library and check out, check out, check out!

If you’d like to learn more about Betsy, her books, and her literary adventures, visit her website, Betsy Bird Books. And if you know juuuust where to look in her website’s “Media” section, you can see footage of her dancing in fuzzy blue legwarmers. I really do need a pair.


Book images used with permission of the author, and author photo used with permission of Magic Tree Bookstore.