Have you ever wondered how a story that begins as just black words on a white page is transformed into a fully illustrated picture book? 
I could lay out the logistics myself, but I thought you’d rather hear it from someone a little closer to the action. We asked the lovely and talented author (Mara Rockliff) & illustrator (Eliza Wheeler) of The Grudge Keeper to walk us through the process of creating a picture book from an original story with original art!
Let’s meet them, shall we?
Mara & Eliza on the Collaborative Process
“Brimming with movement, a bounce here and there, billowing dresses and courtly shirts, Wheeler’s lyrical drawings perfectly complement Rockliff’s tale of forgiveness. This is a warm-hearted book to savor and read over and over again.” 
―Maureen Palacios, The Indie Next List
Have you two ever met in person?
E.W.   That’s a great story! Mara gave a shout-out to me in the middle of her Golden Kiteacceptance award speech at the 2013 SCBWI Summer Conference. We waved to each other, but it wasn’t exactly the right time for chit-chat. After the awards I went over to give her a hug and said a quick hello, but Henry Winkler was waiting behind me to talk to her. So that wasn’t exactly the right time for chit-chat either. I’m looking forward to a future chance to meet more fully.
Had you heard of each other before this project?
M.R.   Nope. But I definitely heard about Eliza afterward, when Miss Maple’s Seeds debuted on the New York Times bestseller list.

E.W.   Getting The Grudge Keeper manuscript was my first introduction to Mara’s work.
Who came up with the idea for the book?
E.W.   That’s all Mara!

M.R.   I did. There may be rare exceptions, but usually when a picture book has a separate author and illustrator, the author writes the story long before the illustrator gets involved. I think this is something that confuses kids (and maybe grownups, too) when they hear that the author “writes the words.” It’s probably more accurate to say the author makes up the story.
How did your manuscript end up at Peachtree?
M.R.   I actually wrote this story seven years ago! It was turned down by LOTS of publishers. Some of them said it was impossible to illustrate. J (I think they couldn’t picture how the grudges would look, which puzzled me…I originally pictured them as scraps of paper, although I love Eliza’s little scrolls.)

Anyway, The Grudge Keeperfloated around for quite a while until it washed up on a welcoming shore. My editors at Peachtree, K.L. and J.A., really “got” the story and helped whip it into shape.
Did you pick Eliza to illustrate your story? Or is that someone else’s job?
M.R.   No, Peachtree gets all the credit for finding Eliza—although, as it happens, we’re both with the same agency (Andrea Brown Literary Agency, which specializes in superb agents named Jennifer). So once we heard Eliza was considering the project, MY Jennifer was able to tell HER Jennifer how much we hoped she would say yes!
Okay, so Eliza, how did you get involved with the project?
E.W.   My agent, Jen Rofe, emailed the manuscript to me, and she knew it was right up my alley. It was fun to find out Mara was another Andrea Brown Literary agent’s client – it’s like we’re cousins of a sort.
Mara, did you get veto power if you didn’t like the artistic direction the project was taking? Or did you just let your baby go?
M.R.   Well, that’s a little hard to answer, because this is my first book with Peachtree and I loved the artistic direction the project was taking. I did get to see sketches and felt welcome to share my reactions, but I wouldn’t call it “veto power.” I see my job as mainly to spot places where the art and text conflict, and then decide whether to change the text or suggest a possible change in the art.

For instance, in the wedding scene, I’d written that Big Otto spilled the punch, but Eliza drew Lily Belle between Otto and the punch bowl. That didn’t hurt the story, so I just changed the text. But in the same scene, I did ask if she could show Elvira sneaking cake to Minnie Fletcher’s goat. I thought it was important to the story, because readers need that visual to understand the joke when Minnie tells Elvira, “You can’t get my goat!”

Eliza, did you get to see the full manuscript before you agreed to accept the project? Or did you just have to take our word for it when we promised you a beautiful story to work on?
E.W.   I saw the full manuscript first.  Considering how much time and dedication it takes to create picture-book art, I can’t imagine a case in which I would be able to say ‘yes’ to a project without reading it!
Did you ever call each other while you were working on TGK?
M.R.   I’ve never called an illustrator. Publishers prefer to mediate between the writer and the illustrator. So any time I have suggestions about illustrations, I email my editor, who talks to the designer, who talks to the illustrator. But I did indulge in occasional tweets about how great Eliza’s sketches looked.

E.W.   We didn’t talk through the process, apart from a few fun tweets back and forth. It makes sense to work directly with the art director or editor during each stage of the process, but it’s definitely fun to get some validation from the author once they have something to respond to. It would be a bummer to create a whole picture-book only to find out the author hates the art!

Once the manuscript is polished and all of the art is in, then what happens?
E.W.   I mail the final artwork to the publisher, which requires a bit of nail-biting (Will it get there safely? Will they be happy with the final art?). At that point it feels like it disappears behind the magician’s curtain and reappears a year later as a real-life, in your hands book. A pretty amazing trick!
How do you feel about the finished product? Is it anything like either of you imagined it would be?
M.R.   Well, by the time the book came out I had a pretty good idea of how it would look, since I’d seen all the proof stages up to F&Gs (folded and gathered sheets, which are the unbound pages of the finished book). And, of course, it looked wonderful.

But there was one last surprise. I won’t spoil it for anyone, but if you have the book, be sure to peek under the flaps!

E.W.   From the time that I first read the manuscript and imagine how the artwork will look in my head, there are ways in which it deviates from that vision through the process along the way. By the time I finish the artwork I’m so cross-eyed that I can’t see it objectively anymore. That’s why I appreciate that buffer of time (typically a year) from the time I finish to the time the book comes out, so I can see (and appreciate) it with new eyes.
Mara Rockliff on the Writing of The Grudge Keeper
“Rockliff has created a clever fable characterized by ornate language, extraordinary characters and billowy atmosphere.” 
Where did your inspiration for the story come from?
M.R.   It just popped into my head. I heard the phrase “keeping a grudge,” and I thought, wouldn’t it be funny if being a grudge keeper was a job, like being a beekeeper or a zookeeper? So I went off to my computer and I typed:

No one in the town of Bonnyripple ever kept a grudge.
            No one, that is, except old Cornelius, the Grudge Keeper.

I just went back and looked and, amazingly, those two opening lines stayed the same from my first draft to the finished book.

The language is so beautiful & clever. I love that it challenges young readers to expand their vocabulary and to think critically about literary fiction. Was this intentional?
M.R.   No, not at all. I just had fun playing around with words, and hoped it would be fun for readers, too. Kids love new words when they are “sparkle words” (a phrase I first heard from author Marcia Thornton Jones). Squabbles and quibbles and tiffs and huffs are definitely sparkle words, and so are funny idioms like “getting someone’s goat” or “having a bone to pick”—especially if you can toss that bone to the pet peeves!

What was the editing process like? How many drafts did TGK go through before you and your editor were satisfied?
M.R.   Wow, I have no idea. I’ve got five drafts of the manuscript before it was laid out in pages, but after that we kept on tinkering right up until it went off to the printer. Working with K.L. was a cinch. She’s the perfect combination: easygoing personality, sharp editorial eye. I agreed with nearly all of her suggested changes, and she agreed with nearly all of mine, so we had a swell time egging each other on.
You wrote the book without the artwork, right? Did you imagine illustrations for TGK as you were writing?
M.R.   I always imagine illustrations as I’m writing, and it’s always a surprise the first time I see sketches. The characters might look really different than I expect, or the artist might have chosen to illustrate certain scenes or actions and leave others out. Sometimes the page turns are completely unexpected—what I envisioned as the first five or six pages of the book might turn out to be all on the opening spread. 

Eventually, of course, I get used to it and can’t imagine the book any other way. With The Grudge Keeper, the big surprise was that there was no adjustment period. I couldn’t have imagined all the clever things Eliza did, but the story felt exactly as I’d pictured it. For me, it was love at first sight.
In novels, the author has the final word on world building and character development. What is it like to let someone else take on creating the visual identity of your world and characters?
M.R.   It’s like mixing eggs and flour and sugar and milk and sticking it in the oven and then coming back and finding a spectacularly decorated three-tier cake. Magical!
What was your initial reaction when you saw Eliza’s art?
M.R.   !©!©!©!©!©!©!
Eliza Wheeler on the Illustrating of The Grudge Keeper
“Wheeler’s (Miss Maple’s Seeds) sure hand and lyrical pen-and-ink spreads are the source of this story’s charm. Long skirts billow, the fairy-tale cottage of Cornelius the Grudge Keeper leans sweetly to one side, and the white scraps of paper on which villagers have written their grudges billow and drift like sea foam.”

What was your initial reaction to Mara’s story?
E.W.   I remember very clearly my first thought was, “Brilliant. I wish I had thought of this!” If that thought ever pops into my head it makes for a clear and resounding ‘yes’ that it’s the right fit for me. I’m a big sucker for classic fairytales, folktales, and fables, so it was really exciting to be handed a manuscript that felt like one of those classics, but it’s completely new.
It’s amazing that you were able to translate the mood of her words into images. Was the manuscript your sole source of inspiration?
E.W.   Thank you! Well, of course the manuscript is the main source of inspiration, but I did turn to some of my favorite artists for visual inspiration. For this project in particular I looked at the art of many Golden Age artists – ArthurRackham, Edmund Dulac, etc. And Lisbeth Zwerger is also a constant source of inspiration for me. I make color-copies of their work to hang around the drawing table.

Eliza’s table while working on The Grudge Keeper!
Since you’re also an author, what was it like developing the vision for someone else’s world and characters?
E.W.   It’s so much fun to get a story that someone else has brought to completion! Writing is such hard brain-work, and I’m really slow at it, so it can be refreshing to pick up a story that’s ready for illustrations. I’m not coming into it attached to certain visuals the way I might be with my own story. Plus, Mara’s writing is brilliant. Did I say that already?
Do you get free reign in your visual character development? For example, do you get to decide ethnicities, weights, ages, etc. if an author doesn’t specify in her text?
E.W.   I did some character sketches before diving into the book illustrations, and I don’t think the Peachtree team had one complaint! I was able to just run with it. This book has a large cast, and I tried to combine a classic and fresh approach to them. For example, the name ‘Lily Belle’ first conjures an image of a blonde girl with ringlets. To change it up, I sketched an African-American girl with ringlets, and loved that unexpected twist. I saw the two characters Elvira Bogg and Minnie Fletcher as sort of soul mates, they’re visually opposite in some ways, but the same in others. It was fun to come up with a variety of silhouettes to match the different personalities.
For an author, the primary contact is her editor. Is the same true for an illustrator? Or do you work more with the art department?
E.W.   My main contact was Peachtree’s art director, L.J. We worked back and forth together, and then she would collect feedback from others along the way. Since there were a lot of visual challenges to consider (especially how we wanted to depict the grudges), there were more art notes right off the bat than might typically come with a manuscript. Working with L.J. was so great because she was always completely open and made me feel comfortable to offer different visual ideas and approaches from what might have been noted. The whole process was very smooth.
Tell us about the mediums you used.
E.W.   I work on Arches cold-pressed paper, and begin with pen-work (using dip pens and India ink). The color is all watercolors, with occasional highlights in acrylics.
Did you choose the font and how the text is laid out on the page?
E.W.   Apart from hand-lettering the title, Peachtree worked on all the book design, font-choice, and layout. I was so pleased with how they brought it all together!

There you have it! 
A ZILLION “thank yous” to Mara and Eliza for taking the time to share their experience with us. You’re both wonderful!


Make sure you pick up your own copy of The Grudge Keeper at your local bookstore and visit Eliza & Mara‘s websites to see their other fabulous work. 




Want more on the ins and outs of publishing? Ask a question in the comments & we’ll try to answer it in a future post! In the meantime, check these out:

#DearPublisher Part Two: Straight from the Editors Mouth

#DearPublisher Part Three: Art Direction

It Takes a Village to Acquire a Book…


So You Want to Submit a Manuscript…


Thanks for stopping by!
N