With delightfully rhyming text and brightly colored illustrations, this breezy picture book showcases the experiences of two human parents and their newest family member: a baby dragon. A lively read-aloud perfect for newly expanded families.
Please tell us about your book.
Our Dragon was written by our beloved Mem Fox. I first met Mem at a SCBWI conference five years ago but never had worked with her before. When my editor Allyn Johnston asked if I’d be interested in illustrating this manuscript, I jumped at the chance.
Mem loves babies of all sorts: human babies, animal babies–even dragon babies. Our Dragon covers topics like impatience, mischievousness, attention-seeking, naughtiness, fear, regret, forgiveness, happiness, and unconditional love. All these feelings emerge as we encounter burning toys, shattered vases, smoking shoes, splattered coffee, airborne fruit salad, and flooded carpets–all fun things to draw.
What did you find most enjoyable about illustrating this book?
A reader posed this question to Mem: What do editors want from an illustrator?
Mem’s Answer: They look at the feelings in the story and then try to find an illustrator who can best express those feelings in their artwork.
I had a terrific time illustrating the dragon’s range of feelings. It made my experience even more challenging and fun in that the baby dragon couldn’t use words to express his feelings–I had to show all his feelings through his one-toothed dragon face and his body-and-tail language. From the beginning, I looked upon this assignment as an illustrated compendium of feelings.
What is the most surprising thing that happened while illustrating this book?
Surprises always materialize while illustrating a book, just as they do when writing a book. In this case, the baby dragon’s parents–who were originally conceived as adult dragons–turned into adult humans as I went through the sketching process! Mem, as well as my editor, went right along with it, so all was well. And even the dragon’s human parents didn’t seem to be the slightest bit miffed that their baby turned out to be green with spots, stripes, and scales.
Writers do lots of research. Do illustrators need to do research, too? Especially when the main character is a creature that doesn’t really exist?
1. Yes. Doesn’t it seem absurd to feel the need to research a creature that doesn’t really exist? But the research I did gave me confidence about creating my own dragon. I learned that dragons have appeared in stories for thousands of years, in every country in the world. Some dragons are lizard-like; some snake-like; some have four legs, scales and wings; some have three heads! Some dragons are good, many are evil. My goal was to create a dragon unlike any I’d seen in pictures, while also making sure it would be instantly recognizable as a dragon. And on top of that, it had to be a darling dragon.
2. One thing I always find myself researching is hands. Hands are impossible! Even when my humans are simple characters bordering on cartoons (as the dragon’s mom and dad are), in almost every case I have to look for a photograph of hands in the exact position I’d like to draw them in, or use my own hands in the mirror as a reference, or take a photos of my husband’s hands and use those to draw from.
What did you find the hardest about illustrating this book?
1. My publisher, art director, and I often go through as many as 20-30 versions of thumbnail book layouts before we’re ready to begin full-size sketches. This think-and-sketch period can last for years, as it did with Our Dragon.
2. The most difficult part of doing the final art was illustrating the human parents. I love drawing kids and creatures, but drawing adults does not come naturally! In the two early chapter books I’ve written, I solved that problem by not allowing any parents into the stories. In Our Dragon, the adult humans just jumped into the book and wouldn’t leave.
3. The trickiest part of illustrating the book was keeping the characters consistent. For instance, the dragon appears 23 times throughout the book in different sizes, poses, and wearing different expressions. I used stripes, triangular scales, dots, horns, wings–and all those elements had to be consistent throughout. The number of scales, the number of stripes–and the proportions of all his body parts needed to be the same every time he appeared.
What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?
There’s plenty to talk about (and to draw upon for art projects and plays) within the pages of Our Dragon. For instance, children might be asked to describe how they feel–or draw what their face looks like–when:
- they’ve been careless and caused an accident.
- they’re sorry and not sure how to express it.
- someone forgives them.
- they forgive someone who hurt them.
- someone loves them no matter what.
Have you discovered any secrets that give your work a boost?
- Going for a walk or riding my bike always refreshes my mind in the short term.
- Over the longer term I’m inspired and pick up new ways to work by attending SCBWI conferences. And I’m not even a “conference person!”
- I’ve had luck in meeting and befriending more experienced and open-hearted children’s book people, the latest being Jeanne Whitehouse Peterson, who practically lives in my neighborhood.