Last year, I completed illustrations for my first picture book. The Runaway Piggy, written by James Luna (Piñata Books / debuts Nov. 30, 2010) is a Latino take on the Gingerbread Man story, featuring a Mexican sweet bread cochinito (piggy cookie).
I had been sending postcard samples of my art to Piñata Books (an imprint of Arte Público Press) every six months or so for several years. I had never heard a peep from them until I received an email from the production manager asking if I would be interested in providing Piñata with a “character concept” for a new bilingual picture book called, The Runaway Piggy. I was thrilled! There were other artists trying out for the same job (four illustrators total, I later found out). Piñata would choose one illustrator based on the character concept they submitted, and that person would win the contract to illustrate the book. I jumped at the chance to break into children’s picture book illustration -- a long-held dream of mine.
In order to execute the black and white character concept “audition” drawing, Piñata provided me with the manuscript and requested that I select a scene from the story to illustrate. I purposely chose a scene of medium complexity -- one that showed a lot of action, yet would not require a huge crowd or an aerial perspective. I worked almost one month on the research and creation of the drawing I would ultimately submit.
One of the biggest challenges for me with that first drawing was that the story was set in an inner-city neighborhood. I had avoided rendering buildings or cityscapes my entire artistic career. I had always been most comfortable drawing and painting “organic” earthy figures and shapes. Well, I needed to say goodbye to comfort and face my fears head on. I knew if I were going to draw buildings, I would have to find a way to make the buildings work for me, to somehow translate them into my own style. One morning, on a walk through my neighborhood in Venice, Calif., I took a turn down Abbott Kinney Blvd. I noticed the unique mixture of quaint and artsy-hip architecture, which created an atmosphere of a city street with a small-town feeling. I took out my notebook and pen and made sketches of my favorite doorways, windows and awnings. When I got home, I began doing the rough sketches for my concept drawing. At first, the buildings looked too stiff, as I had feared. That is when I stopped to look at other picture books for inspiration. This usually helps me free up and loosen up. It worked -- the solution was simple! I would curve the lines of the buildings and streets and make them just as alive and organic as any of the figures. The sketch was finally coming together.
Now, all I needed to do was to create the mischievous piggy cookie that would run through the streets, eluding the townspeople at every turn.
When I first got the manuscript, I was familiar with some Mexican sweet bread, but I had never heard of cochinitos (piggy cookies). Being from a Cuban background, I grew up eating pasteles de guayaba, frituritas de papa, and flan.
A trip to the neighborhood Mexican bakery was in order. (Hey, it was in the name of research!) I bought my first piggy cookie, took it home to study, make sketches based on its simple piggy shape, and, of course, to enjoy it with my morning coffee! Next, I collected photo references from the web of more Mexican sweet bread cochinitos (no two bakers bake alike), of actual pigs running, and, finally, illustration samples from traditional Gingerbread Man books. Combining all these visuals helped me come up with an animated version of the piggy cookie.
Then, to figure out how the cookie would look in action -- from different angles and positions -- I made a clay model of my piggy and used it to further develop the character in my drawing.
OK, so all this may sound like a lot of work, but, in the end, it paid off. Two weeks after submitting my drawing, I received an e-mail telling me that my character concept drawing was chosen, and I had won the Piñata contract to illustrate The Runaway Piggy! I was so excited, I ran around my kitchen like a piggy with its head bitten off! I was on my way to becoming a full-fledged picture book illustrator.
The character concept I had spent a month perfecting set the stage for the rest of my work on the book. I had visually established a town, some of its local residents (Lorenzo, the mechanic, and Mama Nita, the beauty shop owner) and the animated piggy cookie that would race through every scene. After signing the contract with Arte Público/Piñata, the many months that followed of sketches, final drawings and paintings were as exhilarating as they were exhausting! I breathed a huge sigh of relief on the day of that final brush stroke, but nonetheless, it was a bittersweet goodbye to The Runaway Piggy.
Luckily, there is a recipe in the back of the book, so I can bake my own cochinitos at home. And, if one of my homemade piggy cookies should happen to escape, it just might be found running down Abbott Kinney Boulevard.
JAMES LUNA is an elementary school teacher in Riverside, California. This is his first published book.
LAURA LACAMARA is a Cuban-American artist and author. Floating on Mama’s Song / Flotando en la canción de mamá, her picture book illustrated by Yuyi Morales, was published by HarperCollins in 2010. The Runaway Piggy is the first picture book she has illustrated. Laura lives in Venice, California, with her family.