I'm excited to share with you our very first guest blogger, Eric Fan. Eric is one half (or now 1/3) of the very talented Fan Brothers team. If you love kids books, then the Fan Brothers should be on your radar. Even better, they're Canadians, from Toronto. Eric and his brother Terry are the authors and illustrators of two of my favourite books, The Night Gardener and Ocean Meets Sky. They also illustrated The Darkest Dark, The Antlered Ship and The Scarecrow. This is an amazing collection of published books in just over four years. On September 1st, we were introduced to another spectacular Fan Brothers book and low and behold we discover there is another brother named Devin! Their new book, The Barnabus Project is a real treat and we knew we had to feature it in our September Picture and Early Readers Book boxes. I was so pleased when Eric agreed to write a post for my blog and to share with us how Barnabus came to be. Thank you Eric! ~ Pat Oldroyd
THE STORY BEHIND THE BARNABUS PROJECT
by Eric Fan
Where do stories come from?
Sometimes - impatient to be heard - they rush straight into your brain like a locomotive from some distant land where ideas must live. Other times they need to be coaxed slowly into existence, like a turtle from its shell. Stories can whisper or shout, swoop or sail, float or sink (tragically). They hide, they wait. More often than not, they hibernate.
The Barnabus Project had a very long hibernation.
I forgot to mention another place stories come from, and that’s pictures. We’ve all heard the cliche before, that a picture is worth a thousand words. It turns out that a thousand words or less is basically the perfect word count for a picture book, and indeed The Barnabus Project started its life as a picture. A little drawing done by Devin nearly thirty years ago.
The drawing itself went missing over the years, through various moves and the chaotic tumble of life, but the story persisted. From the moment the drawing was created, a story bloomed around it: the story of a little creature named Barnabus who was half-mouse and half-elephant. He had been genetically engineered to be a “Perfect Pet” but had failed to live up to that standard of perfection. Now he plotted his escape from the secret lab where he was kept out of sight as a “failed project”.
When Terry and I were two books into our picture book career, after The Night Gardener and Ocean Meets Sky had published, we remembered Barnabus once again. Perhaps, we thought, it was time to rouse him from his long hibernation. Terry mentioned the idea to one of our publishers over dinner, and she loved it. All that was left was to bring Devin on-board and get to work drafting the text, and creating the visual world of Barnabus.
First, I had a mission though: where had the original drawing gone? It seemed a shame to lose it, especially now that we had a publishing deal. I had the vaguest notion that I had saved it and filed it away somewhere, but where? It was a small drawing, so maybe I had used it as a bookmark. I spent half a day searching through every one of my books and old sketch pads, leafing through them to no avail. I looked through boxes of memorabilia, old envelopes stuffed with tax receipts and long-forgotten birthday cards. As a last resort I searched through my storage locker. I had been meaning to clean it out anyway and this provided me with a good excuse. I pulled out every box and plastic storage bin and settled in for a day of leafing through more books and endless papers. I threw out entire garbage bags stuffed with junk: old story drafts, broken knickknacks, fossilized tubes of paint, but still no Barnabus. Finally, tired and near defeat, I moved a few more boxes at the back of the storage locker, revealing my dusty old espresso machine (in need of a new water pump) and a large stock pot, half-filled with cards and more ancient art supplies. And what do you know: there at the bottom of the pot, peering up at me after so many years, was Barnabus:
Now came the real business of making him into a book. It’s one thing to have a drawing and another to breathe life into that drawing. Drafts were written, sketches exchanged. We’re often asked how it’s possible for three artists and three writers to work on a single project together, but we’ve had a little practice. During Barnabus’ thirty-year hibernation we had collaborated on many other projects together in the interim: stories and screenplays, t-shirt designs and illustrations. Collaboration was second nature at this point.
The first stage with nearly any picture book is to work on the concept sketches. Here are a few examples from our sketchbooks:
With the dummy approved we moved on to final art. We still work traditionally, in pencil and graphite, with some work done digitally: in particular, all of the images were coloured in Photoshop. Working digitally also allows us to combine our various independent drawings and composite them together into a seamless whole. Here are some examples of the pencil drawings prior to colouring:
If there’s any lesson in all this it’s to never give up on an idea. Sometimes they just need to hibernate in a stock pot for thirty years until they’re ready to meet the world. We hope you enjoy meeting Barnabus and hearing his story. He’s waited a long time for his curtain call, and we couldn’t be happier to see him venture out into the world (just don’t mention stock pots to him; he’s still a little sensitive).
* check out my interview with the Fan Brothers from July 2018 when we featured their book, Ocean Meets Sky in our Picture Book Box.
* you can reach the Fan Brothers through their website.