The Noisy Night review in the New York Times Book Review is out today, online, and will be on your porch in print tomorrow morning. The review was written by the amazing Sophie Blackall, last year’s Caldecott winner, and I’m thrilled. This is the first review in the NYT for a book I was part of, and I’m pretty happy that book readers everywhere will be eyeballing my drawings this weekend. Mac Barnett wrote just a few words in this manuscript, but boy are they the right words, and Noisy Night was a joy to illustrate.
Last week, at Books of Wonder in NYC, someone asked me whether I like working with other authors best, or whether I prefer to “have total control.” It’s hard to answer this, since it’s not really the right question. The biggest part about working on a book that I didn’t write is that I’d never have come up with a book like Noisy Night in my lifetime. So working on other authors’ books is a chance to get out of my own brain-hole and into someone else’s for a bit. But the truth is, I had more control over the look and function of this book, that Mac wrote, than I do over some books that I write and illustrate. This is partly because the books I write are typically part of a series, and there are certain aspects to a series revolving around branding and a set “world” that I have to confine myself within. The other part of this is that Mac writes a script, and then he’s done. We never really “collaborated” and he never told me what to do either directly or indirectly through the editor. I had 179 words (143 if you take out the small bit of stage direction Mac provided), and I had a few months to turn these words into a 32-page picture book. All that stuff in the middle was mine to make (with a lot of good advice and guidance from Anne Diebel, the art director on Noisy Night).
When Anne and I first started thinking of the form this book would take, we kept running into a few specific issues that made it an interesting challenge. Foremost, the book takes place in a 10-story apartment building. This means that the story goes up as it unfolds. First floor to second floor and so on. Now, a book opens left to right. We turn the pages horizontally. So, how do we make a book go up, as it inherently is a horizontal medium?
Of course, the first idea was to turn the book around 90 degrees. But 90 degrees clockwise, or counter-clockwise? Clockwise was out, since then we’d be reading the book down as we turned the pages. Counter-clockwise would at least have us turn the pages “upward” as we go along. I have to say here that I’m not a big fan of gimmicks like this. I read a lot of books to my kids when they were young, and I watched them read a lot of books as well. And when we had to turn books vertically, I always felt like it was a crutch. Plus, I feel like it makes the book unwieldy for such little people. Nevertheless, I gave it some thought, and if I were writing this book for that format, that might have worked. But I didn’t write it, and the way that Mac did, it didn’t lead to a natural page-turn that would have worked with a vertical format. For example, starting with the first bit of text:
What’s going la-la-la above my head?
A man is singing opera above my head.
What is going ma-ma-ma above my head?
We begin with a boy in bed hearing a noise above him. He asks “What’s going la-la-la above my head?”
The answer is “an opera singer,” but we don’t know this until we turn the page. When we make that turn, we see the opera singer (“LA LA LA!”) and we get the answer from the boy, on the floor below the singer: “A man is singing opera above my head.”
The next line, “What is going ma-ma-ma above my head?” is asked by the opera singer. Since he was busy going LA LA LA previously, we need a new page for this. Vertically, we would have to turn the page again, leading to a new (vertical) spread. Which would be pretty cool (if I liked such things…), but would double the length of the book as well. The way it’s written, we don’t need a new page-turn here. All we need is a new page. A shift of perspective from the boy’s response (“A man is singing opera…”) to the man now hearing something (“What is going ma-ma-ma…). A gutter is enough to separate one from the other, and in fact, to me, ties them together and adds some funny kinetic movement to the page (imagine it animated — or better yet, don’t imagine it). The gutter would also be a big problem with the vertical format, as each of the characters would fall into it somewhere. And with the voice balloons being the main text location, a lot of important stuff would fall into that gutter. A baby’s head. A crow’s face.
In the end, it just created a lot of unnecessary problems which outweighed benefits. Not to mention, did I mention this, I just don’t like having to make a kid turn a picture book vertically, anyway.
The solution we went with, shifting that perspective each page, clicked into place the moment I laid it out in a series of thumbnails. It created the rhythm I was looking for, and by using color, I could differentiate each story of the building from one another. They each got a color palette, which we could then use on the cover in the building windows as well.
I think my favorite part of making books, other than the fame and fortune and reviews in the New York Times, is this process of solving these weird problems, and constructing the form of the book before we even get to the illustrations. Finding the rhythms and patterns and motifs that make the story work. I know my rhythms, and when I write, I write to my strengths. But an author like Mac isn’t thinking about how the drawings will work, and probably not how the book will work. He’s focusing on the words alone, and the story they make. And the words that make Noisy Night are words that would never have been put together in my own imagination, and Noisy Night is a book I’d never have made on my own. What a treat.