Last week my nonfiction picture book, Mountain Chef: How One Man Lost His Groceries, Changed His Plans, and Helped Cook up the National Park Service, was published. Some of the process of creating the book was just what I expected: I spent time in archives, poring over crumbling newspapers and gazing at hundred-year old photographs, I visited places where Tie Sing, the subject of my book, lived and worked, I paged through old government records, trying to piece together as complete a picture of the man as I could. I wasn’t surprised that part of the process of creating the book was polishing and revising and rewriting the text many, many times.
But the one part of the process that was new to me was working with an artist. Art is important in any picture book, but it plays a particular and unique role in nonfiction picture books.
I was lucky that Charlesbridge Publishing paired me with the accomplished and award-winning artist, Rich Lo. In nonfiction, the text needs to tell exactly what happened. There’s not room for invention. The same goes for illustration–the aim is for verisimilitude.
To jump-start his illustration process, I shared with Rich the snapshots I had taken while I was visiting Virginia City, Nevada, Tie Sing’s hometown, and the historic photos I had used as references during my research.
Rich read my text and then “read” the visual images I had sent him. Using the demands of the text and the things he learned from both the contemporary and historic photos, he created entirely new, but historically-based sketches. He took details from photos and then pieced them together to create entirely new images that work in this picture book.
He shared those sketches with our editor and with me, and we sent him back revision notes. We aimed to be sticklers for accuracy. For example, in one of the early sketches he included tents. But I knew from an article in a 1915 newspaper that on this particular camping trip they hadn’t used tents–they’d slept under the stars. So he took the tents out of the picture.
From the beginning, I loved the way Rich composed the opening page, which shows us the back of the boy Tie Sing, but I was concerned that he had thrown in a tree that didn’t look like a Virginia City tree. I pulled out my snapshots so I could suggest a different kind of tree that might grow in that part of the country, and I discovered that not only had he chosen a tree that really grows in Virginia City, he had drawn one of the particular trees that I had taken a snapshot of!
In addition to piecing together visual elements from photos, Rich had to use his imagination to conjure up the world of 1915 backcountry camping. All of the historic photos were, of course, in black and white, but Rich’s paintings are in gorgeous color. At first I was taken aback by all the color, since I had just spent months immersed in black and white photos. But as I hiked two weeks ago in Yosemite, admiring the vivid wildflowers, I was reminded again that Rich’s illustrations are in that way actually more true to that historic camping trip than are the black and white vintage photos!
Sometimes, Rich had very little textual evidence and zero visual evidence for what he had to illustrate. For example, at one of the dinners, I knew from what campers had written that Tie Sing created centerpieces out of evergreen branches and pine cones, but there are no photos of those centerpieces. I really wanted that tiny detail to show up in the pictures, though, because I think it says so much about Tie Sing and his meticulous care for the entire dining experience–that he made sure his tables were just as elegant as his food was delicious. Rich used his imagination to create a wonderful illustration that reflects what the 1915 campers recorded.
I found it interesting that, even though Rich and I had a good bit of back-and-forth about his sketches and paintings, we never directly spoke until after the book came back from the printer. All of our correspondence went through our editor.
It’s really fun for me to watch people pick up my book and page through it. As I watch them linger over the beautiful illustrations, I feel so happy that I got to be part of this amazing collaboration with a talented artist. The book is all the richer for the unique work that each of us put into it.
And that collaboration is probably one reason I love nonfiction picture books so very, very much.
You can see more of Rich Lo’s work here.
Mountain Chef: How One Man Lost His Groceries, Changed His Plans, and Helped Cook up the National Park Service by Annette Bay Pimentel, illustrated by Rich Lo. Charlesbridge: 2016.