I’ve received personal letters and have read reviews of my book, AS AN OAK TREE GROWS, that describe it as a “white man’s history”. That I’ve glossed over the displacement of Native American people by white men, and that it shouldn’t be read to children (and as an author, those last words are probably the worst words to ever hear).

Most if not all of the criticism points to the line:

 “The boy grew up and moved away.”

referring to the young Native American boy and his family who all but vanished within 25 years. As best as I can figure, the preferred language would be something like:

 “the boy grew up and was removed.”

I see how the language I chose could be interpreted as minimizing a profoundly notable event in history. Most of us know this transformation wasn’t simple or harmless. In my role as author of AS AN OAK TREE GROWS, I chose to just present the facts: that within the course of 225 years, the landscape and culture of the locale  (somewhere in the Northeast United States) changed beyond recognition.

AS AN OAK TREE GROWS is about the lifetime of a 225 year old oak tree. The tree began its life when a young Native American boy planted an acorn in the earth. It’s also an account of how the surrounding landscape changed in those 225 years. I wrote AS AN OAK TREE GROWS as if narrated by a big rock in the foreground, just out of view from the reader. The rock and oak tree are witnesses to these changes. Like all rocks and trees, they have no opinions. In my book it is fact that the young boy moved away. What’s not in my book but also fact is that Native American people had lived in this place for tens of thousands of years and in all that time the landscape would have looked relatively unchanged.

For ages, the rock has watched all of this unfold. In short time it saw forests disappear, buildings go up, disrupted animal patterns, and dirty air. The rock saw a complete change in the human population as indigenous people of so many years became displaced by a different group of people. The rock also saw a lot of fighting between those people. (Though I wanted to, I chose to not show battle scenes in any of those 25 year snapshots. The only remaining references to any war are a cemetery and a war memorial). The rock sees people live and die. It has no opinion of that, it just sees without judgement.

I also chose to not show how life changed for the displaced Native American boy and his family. That’s a story worthy of many books but not the one I chose to write. I hope that my book will sit alongside those books. I hope there are discussions about the events that took place and how people were affected. I hope that teachers and parents use my book as an impartial starting point for this discussion.

Today we are witness to rapid and dramatic changes in the earth’s climate and ecosystem due to human behavior. In no way do I mean to diminish the achievement of Native American people who have for millennia cared for the earth in a way that would preserve it for future generations. On the contrary, I’m deeply appreciative. I hope Native American children will read AS AN OAK TREE GROWS and feel pride. Though the oak tree is the main character, the young Native American boy is the catalyst. He planted the seed.

So yes, AS AN OAK TREE GROWS can be considered a “white man’s history” since the 225 year window in which my story occurs was dominated by white men. The rock and I think this particular window of history was an extraordinary one. The impact of human behavior on the earth and the wide scale cultural shifts in this relatively short span of time are historic.

ps – personally, I’d rather look out my window and see scene A and not B.

OakTreeScene A


Scene B



 [IVAN:The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla by Katherine Applegate (The One and Only Ivan) tells of a western lowland gorilla who was captured as an infant from his home in the Congo and brought to the United States. He quickly outgrew the home he was staying in and was confined to a 14′ x 14′ enclosure where he spent his next 27 years as a shopping mall attraction. Because of the efforts of people who felt this was an inhumane way for an animal to be treated he was eventually moved to the Atlanta Zoo, where he lived his remaining life amongst other gorillas, trees and grass.]

I was thrilled and honored to be asked to work on this book. Of course I wanted to, but I knew if I did it would be heartache, and a tall challenge. Katherine wrote her original novel, The One and Only Ivan, in Ivan’s voice. My job for this true picture book story was to make us see with his eyes.

Time was short and my editor, Anne Hoppe, had concise artistic direction. “I envision a lot of white space.” That idea appealed to me, for aesthetic and practical reasons. For such a tight deadline to work I couldn’t be occupied with time consuming details. Easy.

Wrong. “A lot of white space” does not equal easy. Less is more, but sometimes less is just less. “A lot of white space” means carefully considered details, and the fewer the better. This would demand a different kind of time, the kind with which you can slowly shape each idea. The kind of time I didn’t have. But, time was a practical problem to solve, and I was confident I could figure that out. Without question, the much larger challenge for me lay ahead.

The struggle for me was how to portray Ivan as a real being. Most, if not all, of the characters I work with are fictional. I had a stylistic approach in mind but that involved some abstraction and skewing. Would that be the right note for Ivan or the story? In my work the line between cartoon and reality shifts from book to book. I let the story tell me where my drawings should be on that line.


My Ivan studies started far on the cartoon left but kept drifting to the real right. Working in a realistic style didn’t seem to fit with the minimal direction in my mind. I had doubts. I went back to Katherine’s story. It was a true one about a real gorilla, and from what I gathered, a much loved and respected being. I owed it to Ivan to get his portrait just right.

I had to get to know Ivan in a few short months. The other bit of direction Anne gave me was that she was more interested in seeing emotion rather than historical details (for example, she didn’t want to see what kind of crate was used to ship Ivan to America rather than how Ivan felt inside that crate.) Reading Katherine’s book, The One and Only Ivan, helped me think how Ivan might have thought. But how could I possibly know what Ivan, and other gorillas, really felt like?

The most essential background work I could do was to observe live gorillas, which I did at the Bronx Zoo. My friend, Lenore, and I spent a day at the Congo Gorilla Forest exhibit watching these magnificent animals. Though it doesn’t compare to observing gorillas in their natural habitat, watching how gorillas moved was essential to understanding their body language and how they interact. 


I don’t know how gorillas feel but watching them makes me feel like I do. I look into a gorilla’s expressive eyes and I think we understand each other. Maybe on some levels we do but I wonder if I give a lot of my own human meaning to their expressions. It must be hard not to but I couldn’t risk drawing my gorillas with human qualities.

My gorilla studies got larger and larger so that eventually my studio became filled with almost-life sized gorillas. I taped them to my doors and walls so that I could sit face to face with them.  ImageSadly this was the closest I was to get to the real Ivan. These were just drawings, and not all of them were of him. I couldn’t really “know” Ivan but I would use all the tools I had to make him real.

The moment of authenticity for me was when I watched a video of Ivan stepping out onto grass for the first time since being removed from his home in Africa. I saw in his gorilla eyes what it must have looked and felt like through his eyes.

I’ve heard people describe how they feel a connection to gorillas when they have made that eye-to-eye contact. This was the moment for me when I knew what Ivan must have been feeling. My story is different from Ivan’s but I know those emotions — fear, confusion, resignation, and a glimmer of hope that there were good times ahead. I found the authenticity I was afraid I would never feel.

Image  nice poster, happy artist

A big Thank You to longtime friend and fellow illustrator Laura Jacobsen for the nice interview! A November of Mini-Interviews-G. Brian Karas @ Laura Jacobsen

Plan B


I’m almost finished with the artwork for TAP TAP BOOM BOOM by Elizabeth Bluemle (Candlewick Press), a poem about a rainy day in the city. The text is lively with sounds of rain and thunder and I wanted the images to be full of sounds too in a way. Raindrops splatter on sidewalks, cars splash through puddles, basketballs bounce and there’s music in the subway station where everyone has found refuge from the storm.

I also had an idea of how I wanted the artwork to look. I wanted to mix in photographs throughout. I thought of using cyanotypes, maybe because the process involved sunlight and water, like a thunderstorm, but most likely because of that deep, deep indigo. I had used cyanotypes in my artwork before (Saving Sweetness, by Diane Stanley) and remember liking the simple process. A negative is sandwiched over a piece of paper that has been coated with two chemicals – Ferric Ammonium Citrate and Potassium Ferricyanide – between glass, exposed to sunlight and then rinsed in water.



I did an illustration to test it out. The publisher liked how it looked so I was ready to go.


Unfortunately the cyanotype process didn’t work for this book — size issues and lack of reliable sunshine, among other reasons. I needed a Plan B but was attached to the idea of those deep blue prints, and was already given a green light from the publisher.

What I ended up doing was to create faux-cyanotypes in Photoshop as duotones to mimic the look I was after. This also also allowed me to change the color more freely. There are different kinds of light in the story – strong sunlight, the light just before and during a thunderstorm, and the fluorescent lighting of the subway. I don’t know if those indigo images would have worked for all the pages so in the end Plan B was a better way to go.





A while ago (2 1/2 years to be exact) I posted this on my blog about a book I had just begun to work on, LEMONADE IN WINTER by Emily Jenkins.

why is it … ? 26jan10


That book is now published and will be released next month (Schwartz and Wade Books, Random House). Some jobs go from start to end without a hitch. This wasn’t one of them. But like many things that take an unexpected turn, the outcome was a good surprise. See more about LEMONADE IN WINTER on the talented author’s wonderful website http://www.emilyjenkins.com/lemonade.html.

What I want to talk about here is the circuitous route the artwork took. It’s important for me to ground a story in a place that’s real, even though most of the time that place becomes unrecognizable in my art (except to me). I don’t remember what eventually led me to Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, but that’s where this story happened for me.


I drove there, parked my car and wandered off to take photographs and find Italian bakeries. I took a lot of pictures and ate a lot of sfoiatelle. When it was time to go home I couldn’t find my car. I retraced my steps countless times. I really started to get nervous hours later when it began to get dark and my car was not where I was sure I had left it. I became suspicious of the men’s club who commandeered half a block for their BBQ and even asked if any of them had seen a car towed away. A kind Jamaican woman led me block by block through the neighborhood until I finally found my car, exactly where I thought I left it, only 3 avenues away.

When I began the artwork I jumped right into another unfamiliar neighborhood. I decided to create the art entirely in Photoshop. I had used that software only once before for a book but was confident I could take it on again and get even fancier with lots of photo collage and textures.


It didn’t go smoothly. Finally, months after the due date went by I delivered what I thought was final art. I thought it looked good though some pages might need some tweaking. As soon as I heard my art director’s voice on the phone I could tell I wasn’t even close. I silently panicked while trying to figure out how long it would take me to start from scratch.


Luckily, starting from scratch turned out to be unnecessary. I learned about a desktop printer that would enable me to print out the digital artwork on just about any kind of paper I wanted. I bought one, printed the pages and set about finishing the artwork with my trusty pencils. The end result, though not what I had in mind, had a quality I couldn’t have anticipated — a little grainy, muted and unfussy, there was something about the art that felt real, which when I think about it was what I was after all along.


I just got back from a mini trip that was a maxi success. Research for a book prompted me out of the house for a much needed mid summer break. The book I’m researching is Before Now, by Lesa Cline-Ransome. It’s a story about whales and whaling and takes place in two times, present day and the 19th century when whaling was a vital industry in America. It’s not difficult to find material about whales. Libraries, bookstores and the internet have all I would need to research this book but whenever given the chance to experience firsthand where a book takes place, I go when I can. So I packed my bag, patted the dogs goodbye and headed to Gloucester, Massachusetts, hoping to see whales. And I did, many! I’d never been up close to a whale and was awed by their size and grace.


Our boat wasn’t the only one packed with people watching the whales feed and flip around. I asked our guide if the sound and vibrations from the boats disrupted their feeding. His reply was a hopeful one — he explained that while studying whales in the Antarctic and Alaska, he observed that the whales wouldn’t come close to their ships, being so alien to them. It was in the busy North Atlantic waters that whales swim seemingly unbothered alongside fishing boats, ocean freighters and whale watchers.


Before Now also describes what whaling life was like in the 1800s. Many whalers, captains and crew, were African Americans. Whaling merchants welcomed escaped slaves and free blacks, drawn to the safe haven of New Bedford, eager for freedom and work. The New Bedford Whaling Museum and the New Bedford Whaling National Historic Park (I believe two separate entities) are rich with history and artifacts. I’ll most likely go back when I start working on the sketches. I’m already looking forward to it.



I floated alongside whales, saw remnants of the whaling industry and felt history walking on cobblestone streets. I took walks by the water and came close to forgetting about everything else. Quite a successful trip, however mini it may have been!