I found Rebecca Dudley’s book Hank Finds An Egg while perusing the Children’s Book section of Publisher’s Weekly online. There was something cute, whimsical and ultimately very intriguing about Rebecca’s work that stayed with me. I wanted to know more!
Over on her blog Storywoods, author and artist Rebecca Dudley has been producing stories featuring Hank, Li’l Smokey and friends since 2010. She currently has one book in print (self-published) and another, Hank Finds An Egg, due out in May from Peter Pauper Press.
I have yet to read Hank Finds An Egg, but I was intrigued by the stories on her blog and kept coming back for more.
Of course the photos are gorgeous and repeated viewings of each magical image just reveal more detail…and questions! How does she make that? What is that made of? How did she get the lighting just right? How about those hummingbirds!
But it is the story too that kept me coming back. Hank Finds An Egg and the rest of the stories on her blog are not “read once, get message, move on” type of children’s stories.
Meaning is expressed using only highly detailed photographs of Hank and his friends set amongst a natural-landscape diorama – all handmade by Rebecca. Some stories on her blog have short snippets of text but most are ambiguous, revel in layers and are open to interpretation. Yet they remain funny and heartfelt at the same time.
I sought Rebecca Dudley out, I simply had to know more! She kindly agreed to an interview-via-email.
Her thoughtful responses to my fairly vague questions demonstrates the high degree of thought she puts into her work!
Here is the interview:
Rebecca Dudley Author Interview
CTS: What is your background?
RD: I did a lot of dance and theater in high school & college. I built and painted sets, hung lights, made props and costumes, acted, danced and directed. It was a blast.
I am a licensed architect. I love so many things about architecture: drawing, model-making, imagining: imagining how light changes a space, how sound changes a space, how different materials feel under your feet. But I also love making things quickly, imagining something and then building it and photographing it immediately.
CTS: How did you start making the Storywoods stories? What lead you to start putting the dioramas and characters together into a story?
RD: My husband and I lived in Seattle for six years and we loved the Maurice Sendak version of The Nutcracker performed by the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Our first Christmas back in Chicago John was really missing Seattle so I staged The Nutcracker for him with my stuffed animals.
But I have always loved building models, and my parents and grandparents loved miniatures and made amazing dioramas and doll houses with us when we were little. We always populated them with animals. Our favorites were little upright mice. ‘The Wind in the Willows’, ‘Stuart Little’, ‘The Mouse with the Musical Ear’ and Beatrix Potter probably had something to do with that. The mice were benevolent and easy to dress.
CTS: Was making stories a big part of your childhood? What inspired you as a child?
RD: My parents were indulgent and I was very dreamy, so I spent hours playing in the woods and streams around our house. I had a little garden with purple irises in it and I remember wishing I could sleep inside an iris blossom. I remember wanting to be very tiny and spent hours imagining what a blade of grass looked like to a mouse. It was unstructured, but I was making up stories all the time. I had a great collection of stuffed animals. I was very connected to them and it was easy to imagine the world through their eyes. I loved climbing trees and wanted to film my stuffed animals climbing trees.
In fourth grade my best friend, Kathy, and I made a little mimeographed newspaper and solicited content from our classmates. In addition to typing and editing Kathy and I contributed serial stories. Kathy’s was all figured out, like JK Rowling, every chapter was meticulously structured to lead to the next. It was a masterpiece. Mine was very loose and one day my beloved teacher said “Becky, I don’t see where you are going with this. It feels like you are making it up as you go along.”.
He was right, but I didn’t understand why that was a problem. Now I understand. I was writing indulgent garbage. But I am so grateful to my teacher for that observation and I am still mesmerized by that question: when are you “making it up as you go along” and what is the value of “making it up as you go along”? “Making it up as I go along” is still the way I work but I go back, edit, add, re-shoot to make it legible, so I am not the only one who “gets it”.
For me the whole newspaper thing was really just an opportunity to make the cover drawing. Every week it was a different piece of fruit with a face and stick arms and legs and a hat and cane, sort of a cross between something from R Crumb and early, scary Micky Mouse drawn through the eyes of a fourth grader.
CTS: Why did you decide to self-publish your first book?
RD: I self-published the first two books because I wanted to prove to myself and to publishers that there was no “gutter problem”. Very early on, seven years ago, I had a big publisher interested in my work but they were concerned about the “gutter problem”. The “gutter problem” is the expression used to describe the visual confusion of two full bleed images meeting at the gutter. There are a lot of simple ways to solve the gutter problem and I wanted to prove that.
CTS: How did you move from posting the stories on a Blog to actually putting a book together?
RD: Books were always the goal. I want my work in a format kids can hold in their hands. I know kids use iPads, and they’re great but there is no substitute for a book. The blog was a way to get the ideas out, to impose a crazy deadline on myself (one story per month) to keep the pressure on and to keep my head firmly in that world. But books are made up of paired pages which is a fantastic visual problem, much more interesting to me than a sequential stream of images.
CTS: How did you find the experience of self-publishing with Amazon’s Create Space?
RD: I would recommend Createspace to anyone. I am helping my dad publish his memoirs on Createspace. Volume 1 is available now! It’s so easy. I wish the paper and printing were better quality, it’s not good enough for fine art, but it’s pretty good.
CTS: Did you put the book together yourself or use a third party publishing service?
RD: I did it myself. If you can use InDesign and Photoshop and create a PDF you can make a good looking book on Createspace.
CTS: How did your book contract with Peter Pauper come about?
RD: Someone in the art department showed my blog to a senior editor and they loved it.
CTS: Could you take us through your creative process. How do you construct each story? Do you start with a script or storyboards and then set up the photos or is it more organic?
I think in pictures. Images appear to me. That sounds a mystical, but it isn’t. You cannot walk through a room in my house without bumping into a pile of books about Dutch Landscape Painting or Tree Anatomy or Toy Repair, so I am surrounded by this stuff I am really interested in, I think about it and work with it all the time and when I take a break from thinking and working on it, it comes back into my head in some new form. Sometimes it’s just a landscape I want to put Hank in, sometimes he’s already there walking, rolling down a hill, observing a new plant.
I am also very interested in weather and notice the way light feels and the memories it evokes. I work only with natural light which keeps things exciting. A cloud passes over the sun and the mood changes completely.
So every story starts with an image, a single image, and then I imagine what happened to create the situation in that image and what comes next. I work with very crude storyboards, stick figures, a few lines to indicate the landscape and props. I start building as soon as I have the first image. As soon as I have the major chunks in place, sky, hills, trees, underbrush, I start taking pictures. This is my favorite part because it’s like I am a film director shooting “on location” but the location is my studio. I find all sorts of possibilities I hadn’t intended and they are often the best images.
Say there is a storytelling spectrum that goes from Will Eisner on one end and Lynda Barry on the other. They are on opposite ends because Will Eisner liked to start with an idea and then figure out what images were needed to convey the idea, whereas Lynda Barry starts with an image and builds the story around it. I am way over on the Lynda Barry end of that spectrum. I usually don’t know what’s going to happen in the story for most of the time I am shooting images. If I do have a particular sequence of images in mind or a specific story arc it almost always disappears along the way because of the surprises I find when I start shooting.
I have done some teaching and want to point out that these “visions” that I called the starting point of my stories are more like the midpoint, because so much reading, studying and sketching has happened before the vision appears. I used to get a little ornery when students would tell me what they really needed was to do nothing so an idea could “come to them”. I don’t buy it. I think they needed to dig into something they could get obsessed with and get more sleep.
CTS : What type of materials do you use?
RD: I use the most ordinary materials available: paper, clay, wire, fabric. That’s it. I get nervous working with expensive materials, they feel too precious so they discourage experimentation. I avoid them.
CTS: Can you recommend any resources on building models?
RD: Wow. Great question. If there is a great resource for this I do not know of it. I have one book about how to build dioramas that was more-or-less an affirmation of the way I anchor the moveable parts of my scenery to the landscape. But all of the guides I have seen assume you are trying to make a permanent, fixed, inflexible model. That would never work for me because I have to change scenery to preserve continuity. For example, if I choose a camera angle that’s perfect in every way except a bunch of trees converge into one big distracting mass then I have to re-position all those trees to take that picture.
Woodland Scenics has nice instructions, and I love some of their materials but most of them are not the right scale for me, they are made specifically for train sets which are much smaller scale than my sets. Grass is like the Storywoods holy grail. I have tried to simulate it in so many ways and none are quite right. I live in a town with a fantastic independent hobby shop (Tom Thumb, Evanston Illinois). It’s been there since the 60s and some of their items have been on the shelf that long. I can tell because they are priced with a purple pricing gun. I have found almost everything that I need there, even the Silkspan material for Hank’s dirigible in ‘Hank’s Dream’ (May 2011). Glen is incredibly knowledgeable so I try to do my shopping when he’s there. I guess he is my favorite model-building resource.
CTS: Do you have future plans for the Storywoods?
RD: So many plans! Hank has so many projects lined up! I know he wants a pet. I am not sure he’s ready quite yet. He wants to take a boat or raft trip. And he loves planting things with Li’l Smokey’s assistance.
My amazing musician friend Mark Greenberg, he wrote the music you here at the video trailer for ‘Hank Finds an Egg’ on Youtube, has begun working on a Storywoods song. We are so excited about that! And I will be experimenting with skies this spring. They are so fun to play with, so pure. I am a member of the Cloud Appreciation Society, an actual organization! I could play with clouds for years…but the counterpoint of clouds and landscape is where things get really interesting…
Creating The Story
Here is what others have said about Hank Finds A Egg:
School Library Journal
“By letting the pictures alone tell the story, Rebecca Dudley gives her reading audience some very much needed credit. The joy of wordless books has always been the fact that no matter what the child’s reading level, with purely graphic storytelling they are able to finally read a book on their own without feeling dumb . . . Hank has an allure not simply because Dudley has a keen eye for panels and storytelling, but because the images she includes also happen to be beautiful from start to finish.”
“Dudley has created the artwork for her wordless debut by crafting a small forest creature, setting him in a handmade forest full of cut-out ferns and dead leaves, and then photographing him in various poses…Aside from Hank’s trouble climbing the tree, the story is free of threat or conflict and suitable for the very youngest readers. Delicious details like Hank’s twig ladder and carefully moss-wrapped egg show that Dudley is firmly in touch with her inner child. This is an artist to watch.”
My thanks to Rebecca for agreeing to answer my questions and for taking so much time to consider her answers
Hank Finds An Egg is a wordless picture book coming in May 2013 from Peter Pauper.