Years ago, I created a book cover with an image of Frederick Douglas standing proudly next to a bay, a ship in the distance. I spent probably 20 hours illustrating the water alone. I carefully sketched out each and every wave, adding just the right amount of white to highlight each and every wave cap. I lightly layered in just the correct amount of cerulean blue. Water met sky, sky enclosed clouds and they all met as one on the distant horizon. I proudly showed my illustration to the art director. He was quiet. He didn’t respond immediately. He twisted his lips around to the side of his face, pondering how he might break the news to me.
“I love the image of Frederick Douglas," he said. "You have a talent for bringing people alive through your rich use of color.
"Your composition is right on target, your work has a nice sense of balance," he praised. "The problem is, these finely detailed waves,” he broke the news. My face burned.
“I drew every detail of those waves. Don't touch the waves,” I quietly defended myself.
"In order to create the effect of distance, the waves should fade out, there should be less detail as your eyes head farther out to the horizon line, he instructed me” He was right! Objects viewed close up are in perfect focus, but objects that are farther away lose detail.
I like critique. It’s how I grow as an artist. But, in my opinion, good critique offers criticism that highlights the positive qualities of a work, while also pointing out the negative qualities.
Here’s are some comments, critique maybe, I received recently from a more experienced writer:
Experienced author: I read your [blog] review. I'm glad I'm out of physical slapping distance. ...In addition to the typos, I also perused the overall quality of the writing; it would not hold up to the standards of a scholarly work.
Devas T.: Actually, a brotha does not mind getting slapped. This knee-deep-freak-of-the-week kinda likes a woman who'll rough him up a bit, sans a whip. I respect your critique. However, for one, this is the blogosphere. In this venu, I'm not writing to win any literary awards, and since this blog ain't making me any money, I won't be hiring any copy editors anytime soon. I do my best to express myself here without taking any extra time to closely edit for grammar and spelling, although I do run it through spell check. Apparently spell check ain't flawless either.
When I am ready to submit my writing to a children's publisher, believe me, I will get a copy editor to look over my work, and spell check will be better enforced. But blogger don't pay my mortgage. Is that enough "ain'ts" and wrongly used "don'ts" for those highfalutin' scholarly-types?
Experienced author: More primary research on your part -- reading many more articles about "Little Black Sambo" -- would have given your piece a more credible foundation.
Devas T.: I'm sure you are right. Copious research never hurt the quality of any writers piece. But again, this is a blog. I'm not trying to make the excuse that because this is a web log, it's ok to be sloppy. That "Little Black Sambo" review was simply my opinion of that particular book. I wasn't trying to create a research project, nor was I concerned about establishing any level of credibility. I've been illustrating for kids for over 20 years. I've illustrated at least 15 books for children if you include educational books. I've presented to thousands of children, teachers, educators and the likes. My experience establishes my credibility wherever I apply it. My opinions may differ from yours.
Experienced author:The ease of placing a draft on the Internet shouldn't relieve us of doing our homework first.
Devas T.: I did my homework. I read the book. My review was based upon that one version of the book. It wasn't mean to highlight past versions, or other retellings. My observations were based upon Bing's version only, although I did mention the version illustrated by Pinkney.
Experienced author:One of the anchors of a reviewer is that one doesn't separate the artwork from the text nor the message when appraising the subject. To praise Bing's art but separate the art from the book is like praising the film "Birth of a Nation" for its technical quality (as whites love to do) from its story -- but it is exactly the technical quality that frames the racist story and brings it to life. In other words, your review reads like you are protecting the artist yet condemning the author. But both go together to make the book.
Devas T.: I don't know how a bona fide reviewer would approach the subject, but I do have to respectfully disagree. I'm one of those Amazon dorks who spend way too much time reading children's book reviews. Publishers Weekly, The Horn Book, Kirkus, School Library Journal, and others have all been known to praise the text in a book while panning the art. I know from experience. Although SLJ and Booklist gave star reviews to my last book, Sure As Sunrise, and had much praise for my art, Publisher's Weekly and The Bulletin trashed my art while proffering generous accolades regarding the text. I can post a whole list of professional book reviews who have done the same.
It is important that the art and text work together, however, in most cases, art is authored by one person, and text is authored by another. It is rare that the author and artist communicate or actually collaborate at all when creating a children's book. So for that reason alone, there's opportunity for art and words not to mesh. That's where editors come in. It's their job to determine when choosing an artist, to choose an artist whose work fits the text, and to oversee the entire process. Still, reviews are subjective. People who write reviews have good days, bad days and sleep-deprived days. Reviewers are people, not machines that are programmed to seek out, good or bad, right or wrong based upon some esoteric computer program. So, yes, it is entirely possible for a person, reviewer or otherwise, to like the words and hate the art, or vice versa.
Experienced author:It's not the name of the character [Black Sambo] that's the problem. It's the wording and the context of the character, so I do wonder why the review stated that the story is appealing to any child. So not only was I concerned about the praise of the art I was also concerned about the tone of the review itself.
Devas T.: Again, subjective. I do believe the story/text is appealing to any child. Sit down with any three year old, read the story aloud without visuals. The story is packed with action, a child hero who outwits the tigers and turns them into butter, which he eats on his pancakes. Context or not, the story in itself is appealing. This story has been around for generations. Good stories like good music or good graphic design are timeless, they don't disappear after a few years. People simply remake, retell, or reuse them. Good storytelling is what kept this book in print for over 100 years. Now, I don't like the names Black Sambo, Black Mumbo and Black Jumbo, even with contemporary art. In my opinion, those old racist images, combined with the derogatory names is what caused so much controversy with some of those past editions.
Experienced author:I was tickled by your declaration that you write when you write and what you write, etc. and was confused by regulations, etc....in the writing world, publishers who are looking for manuscripts have something called "writers submission guidelines" which do exactly the same thing as the announcement from the African American Children's Literature Journal. What the journal was looking for is very clear. Publishers have a certain number of words for manuscripts, want the manuscripts formatted in certain ways, have various themes and subject matters that they're looking for. some want fantasy; some do not want talking animals. Some want science fiction; some don't.
That's what it's all about, my brother. Go to any of the publishers who have published books in which your art appears and you will most likely find writers guidelines.
Devas T.: Duh, my writing friend, I know all about submission guidelines. Although a brotha can be a bit, lets say, dorky at times, "submission guidelines" are not on my list of new writing vocabulary words. What I meant is that, I feel perfectly comfortable when I'm writing here. I can write what I want. I feel comfortable when I'm writing a children's manuscript. Initially, I can write what I want. But it's not until I get to the part about writing or adjusting my work to fit the "submissions guidelines" that I get nervous.
Overheard today: An exchange between my son and a nice lady at the doctor's office this morning:
Lady: Hey, that's a cool toy you have there. What is it?
The son: It's a boat.
The son: No, not fabulous. I said, it's a boat!