march 2012
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Jeremy Tankard and Rachel Vail On The Piggy Bunny Duality

By Jules

"Liam smiled and whispered, 'YES.' Off he hopped, delivering eggs."
(Click to enlarge)

I'm happy to have Piggy Bunny, the star of this book (Feiwel and Friends, February 2012), visiting today--and his creators, author Rachel Vail and "authorstrator" Jeremy Tankard. (Jeremy was the first-EVER subject of my 7-Imp breakfast interviews years ago.)

So, I'm going to do something kind of unusual for me here. I'm not going to say much right now in this intro to this month’s post. Rachel and Jeremy do such a great job of talking about the genesis of and creation of this book that for me to go on about it-try to summarize it, that is-would be redundant. I'm grateful that they're so forthcoming with their thoughts below.

As you'll see, this is the story of Liam, a piglet who wants to be a bunny, and it all stemmed from a piece in Jeremy Tankard's portfolio. Rachel decided she wanted to eschew writing yet another just-be-yourself tale in children's lit and finds it the most subversive book she's ever written. "Though the believe-in-yourself theme has been told in many ways," writes Kirkus, "Liam holds his own with his quiet determination. Who can resist a piglet who introduces himself with 'Hello, my name is Liam and I'll be your Easter Bunny'?"

Indeed. So, let's get right to it. I thank Rachel and Jeremy for sharing.


Jeremy: Piggy Bunny is a special book for me. It's my first book with an author other than myself. And what a great "first-book-with-another-author"! I hadn't intended it this way, though. I had every intention of writing it myself. But, as fate would have it, it didn't work out that way.

Thank goodness!

I became a writer by accident. I entered the kid-lit "industry" as an extension of my illustration career, thinking that I might draw a couple of books and have some fun. However, a couple of editors suggested I try writing. I was skeptical. But to my continued amazement I LOVED writing. Almost as much as I liked drawing. So with three books under my belt (Grumpy Bird, Me Hungry!, and Boo Hoo Bird) and a great deal of confidence and enthusiasm, I launched myself into a HUGE new project (about which details will remain slim at the moment, as I'm still not finished and don't really know what sort of monster I'm creating). The end result? Three years of writing and re-writing. I learned a lot.

My portfolio has, for many years, featured a drawing of a pig wearing a bunny suit. The drawing is funny (in a quirky kind of way), and the pig-in-the-bunny-suit looks a bit embarrassed and self-conscious--a real character. I have always liked the drawing, and it hinted at a story.


Then Jean Feiwel (of Feiwel and Friends) came across this image, while visiting with my agents, and stopped in her tracks and said (I'm paraphrasing, I wasn't at this meeting), "I want this pig! Is there a story here?" There wasn't, but I took this as an opportunity to write the story. In fact, I wrote at least half a dozen picture books featuring a bunny and his piggy friend who wishes to be just like him. None of my books really gelled, though. They were cute(ish) but didn't quite hit the right mark. Finally, out of sheer frustration I suggested that


we talk with Jean about this book and see if she had a writer in mind. I liked the character a lot but, for some reason, didn't feel that I had to be the one who wrote the book about him. Besides, the collaborative nature of making children's books is one of my favorite things about them. I was ready to take the next step and explore a more collaborative approach. Jean suggested Rachel Vail. I said "okay" and put my faith and trust in them. And the rest is history.

So, Jean showed Rachel my drawing, and Rachel had the same reaction to it as Jean had (but Rachel can tell you about that). And so Rachel started writing me a book. The funny thing is that she "got it" in a way that I never could. My stories were very "ugly duckling"-inspired--the pig realizes he's a pig and accepts who he is. And so the bunny suit must be removed at the end. And that's why my stories didn't work. Rachel, on the other hand, saw what I couldn't see: the pig didn't have to accept others' ideas about his identity--others had to accept his identity of himself. Brilliant! So the bunny suit doesn't have to be removed. I was in awe. And the book presents a much stronger "message" (hate that word), if you wish to read between the lines. It's subversive in the most beautiful way. And I was suddenly in love with-and in awe of-Rachel's writing skills. So, this is what a real writer can do. I've still got a lot to learn. But what better way to learn than by working with such extraordinary talent. She took this drawing of mine and really made it hers. She found the character lurking beneath my heavy black lines, where I couldn't fully see him myself.

Earlier dummies
(Click each to enlarge)

In keeping with picture book tradition, I didn't get in touch with Rachel before the book was finished--for no good reason except that I wished to focus my attention on drawing and hopefully surprise her with something amazing when it was finished. I can't speak for Rachel but, despite the usual headaches of making picture book art, the book came together beautifully and was a magical experience. So, when Rachel was finally presented with a PDF of the book, all I could hope was that she would be as excited about it as I was. And I think she was (is). What a relief! I wanted my art to do justice to her words. Picture books are funny that way. They can be the most inspiring collaborations when they are complete--from author to editor to illustrator to art director and designer to marketing and publicity, each brings a piece of their own heart to the table and we sew them all together to create something bigger and better. (Sorry, I read Frankenstein recently so that's the best/silliest analogy I can think of--ha!).

Another early dummy for same spread above
(Click to enlarge)

As for the drawing process: that's perhaps the most difficult part to discuss, as I never know where to start and I have tried something different with every book I've done. With Piggy Bunny I completed three dummies before going to final art. In some ways, the book changed very little from the earliest dummy to the final one. I did my first one digitally, drawing the whole thing in Adobe Photoshop--something I've never done before and will likely never do again. While I like some of these drawings, they didn't help us see what the final book would look like. They helped with pacing and storytelling, though, so it wasn't wasted time. The biggest changes after this round came in the form of re-designing all the characters: smaller snouts, no clothes, and some other changes here and there.

For the second dummy, I chose to draw everything with a brush, my preferred medium. At least it would make it easier for us to read where things were (or weren't) working. We were also on a tighter deadline by this point, so using a brush would mean less work when final art began--namely, if we all liked it, I wouldn't have to re-draw again. I could just take the "rough" drawing and color it.


"All the other piglets wanted to be pigs when they grew up.
Liam wanted to be the Easter Bunny." Final illustrations for dummies above
(Click bottom image to see entire spread from which these two come)

I prefer working with brush and minimal pencil sketching beforehand. I love the spontaneity of brush drawing and all the mistakes that invariably occur that can't be fixed. The brush forces the artist to accept mistakes and to see the strengths in them. In fact my whole "style" is built on those mistakes.

10The hardest part about creating the final art in Piggy Bunny, for me anyway, was foregoing so much of my preferred Photoshop collage and digital painting. I like my coloring to be organic and loose (like my drawings). But, since this whole book began life as a single illustration, my art director and editor decided that the best approach would be to stick with the simple palette and design of the original piece. I was skeptical. However, I gave it a try, and the end result is quite a lot stronger than I'd thought it would be. In fact, I can't imagine ever having considered doing anything different. I love it when that happens!

So, when the drawings were approved, I laid-in some flat colors and built a bunch of geometric "wallpapers" to use in the backgrounds. But, because of the minimal backgrounds and the strong text, I really had to get our characters to ACT on the page. This book, more than anything else I've ever illustrated, was much like actors on a stage putting on a play--if they were doing their job properly, then I could let their actions fill in for the sparse or nonexistent backgrounds. It was a real challenge. And a very rewarding one. I'm tremendously proud of this book.

Rachel: I fell in love at first sight.

My editor/publisher, Jean Feiwel of Feiwel & Friends, asked if she could send me a picture she'd had in her office for a while to see if I had any thoughts for a possible picture book. I explained that I was pretty booked up, so to speak, with currently-due novels and also that I have always originated any picture books that I've written and probably wouldn't be any good at writing something from a picture, even if I did have time.

But Jean Feiwel is famously not a person who takes no for an answer. She said, "Well, I'll email it, and you'll see."

Earlier dummies
(Click each to enlarge)

As she suspected, I guess, the earnest piglet in the bunny costume captured my heart instantly. Jean explained, "I have been looking at this little guy for months. I see him as a little piglet who wants to be the Easter Bunny. His name is Liam."

My younger son's name is Liam.

"Is it?" Jean asked. I still don't know if she remembered that and knew it would get me, or if it was coincidence.

Another early dummy for same spread above
(Click to enlarge)

I promised her I would think about whether I had a story for this sweet picture and then silently promised myself I wouldn't let Liam, the-piglet-who-wanted-to-be-a-bunny, distract me. I kept only the first promise.

I asked my son Liam if he would want his name used for a pig in a picture book. He said YES. So Liam he stayed and, alas, in my mind he also stayed. I kept flipping to that picture on my computer, the one Jean sent which is now, almost exactly, the cover of the book, and it still gets me: those simple lines convey such a complex mix of emotions: hope, sincerity, worry, determination. So much captured there.

"Liam tried to practice hopping. He tried to enjoy salad. And he tried to deliver eggs."
Final illustrations for dummies above
(Click bottom image to see entire spread from which these two come)

But what was the story? Jean had set up the thrust: This piglet wants to be the Easter Bunny. Pretty obvious what the plot would be from that clear motivation: the piggy would have to try acting like/pretending to be a bunny-maybe he'd wear his bunny costume and have some antics-and it would all be fun until, of course, he'd eventually have to take off the bunny costume and appreciate himself as he is.


Well, I told myself, it would be fun up until then.

I couldn't get myself to stop thinking about it--or to write it.

"'The Easter Bunny?' asked Liam's big brother. 'Seriously?' 'Yes,' said Liam.
'You are a piglet,' said Liam's big sister. 'Deal with it.' 'I AM dealing with it,' said Liam."
A final spread from book (without text)
(Click top image to see entire spread from which these two come)

I did what I always do when I can't not-write or write the current scene. I wrote about why I couldn't write it in my notes file:

Why can't I just write this thing? Well, for one thing, I am so sick of books that tell kids they should embrace who they are. Why? Isn't that what a good kid-book SHOULD tell a kid? What kind of awful curmudgeon am I? Why do they even let me write books for kids if I don't want to tell kids YOU ARE GREAT AS YOU ARE?

But what does that really tell a kid? Does a kid sometimes hear that as a limit instead of an affirmation? YOU ARE GREAT AS YOU ARE. (Because let's face it, kid, no matter how much you try, you're nothing more than that?) Even if it's true (which of course it's not, not necessarily), is that really what kids should be told? How deflating! YOU ARE WHO YOU ARE AND THAT'S ALL? Should the message we send to kids really be COMPLACENCY?

When my father's childhood piano teacher told him he would NEVER play at Carnegie Hall and my father-in-law's chorus teacher told him to mouth the words because he couldn't sing, both boys took the message to heart, accepted it as TRUTH. As men, they still deny that it stung. But isn't it important to believe you could play at Carnegie Hall some day, while you plunk out your scales, if that's your dream? Or sing out loud and proud at the Met or in the third row of the damned school chorus concert? I have never heard my father-in-law sing a lullaby to his grandchild - or "Happy Birthday." How is that GOOD? Should a kid at least have the right to be a prima ballerina or artist/veterinarian/superhero/ninja/center fielder for the Yankees in the space of his or her imagination without some cloddish adult stomping on the fantasy? And what about all those kids who know that deep inside they are somebody beyond who their appearance announces to the world they are?

And also--is it even TRUE that YOU ARE WHO YOU ARE? How about YOU ARE WHO YOU IMAGINE YOU ARE? Isn't that the magic of face paint, a mask, a magic wand, a costume, a hat? Or that maybe-it'll-be-transformational new haircut or diet? Kids are bad guys and cookie monsters and clowns, sometimes in the space of a minute. Maybe we grown-ups, who think we are being so supportive with all our "just the way you are" are forgetting to listen to the kid's need to be who he isn't, right then, or doesn't seem, in our limited imaginations, to be--but IS, on a deeper level? What if Liam the piglet SUCCEEDS?

What if, at the climax of the book, he doesn't take off the bunny costume and accept his limited lot in the mud, but instead gets to PUT ON his costume and live his dream? What if he does get to be the Easter Bunny?

18I suddenly remembered The Carrot Seed (by Ruth Krauss), illustrated by Crockett Johnson) and the perfect thrill I got, reading it again and again as a kid and then as a parent. It wasn't a modern, ironic victory the little boy achieves--winning by letting go of an outgrown ambition. It was pure unalloyed YES. The kid thought he could grow a carrot and, despite the very reasonable nay-saying all around him, he worked at growing his carrot and believed he could do it--AND HE DID.

I could not wait to write the book then. I wrote it in a delighted, mad rush. I discovered parents who were wonderfully supportive of who Liam was (but didn't get that he was more than that) and siblings who grounded him in reality. I found grandparents who heard what he needed--and were not craft-handy but rather internet-savvy (and I wanted a grandma pig who would say baloney). I knew I had the grandmother's voice down when she said, "They just have the imagination of a kumquat, the lot of them," because it's so affirming and such a wacky put-down of those little minds who seek to limit Liam--and also because the sounds in there are so perfectly piggy. And I knew I'd heard the voice that went with that first face I'd fallen for when Liam said, "This is the kind of problem that is called heartbreaking." But mostly I knew I had gotten to Liam's true story when he succeeded and said, "yes!"

Some of Jeremy's "test art" for the book
(Click top image to see entire spread from which these two come)

When I saw Jeremy's delightful artwork, after the writing was done, I was completely thrilled. How he captures so much heart in those thick lines astounds me. The whole team at Feiwel & Friends did such a brilliant job bringing the book to life--with the mix of matte and glossy art, the activity guide, the loving shepherding it is getting from idea to kids' hands... all the "Friends" at Feiwel & Friends are so committed and so creative. I remain honored that Jean and Jeremy trusted me with Liam's story.

This may be the most subversive book I have ever written. The earnest ones are always tricky that way, I guess.

Posted at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast on March 25, 2012.

PIGGY BUNNY. Copyright (c) 2012 by Rachel Vail. Illustrations copyright (c) 2012 by Jeremy Tankard. Published by Feiwel and Friends, New York. All images (with the exception of The Carrot Seed cover) used with permission of Jeremy Tankard.

This and many more of Jules's adventures in books, kids' lit and illustration can be found at her acclaimed blog, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Visit often. You will be rewarded manifold for doing so.



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