My elder son recently finished five years of studying art and animation and is finally trying to earn a living at it. Fortunately, he lives with my younger son, who isn’t working in the arts, so one way or another the rent gets paid, the fridge gets restocked – don’t get me started on what they stock it with though – and the internet bills get paid.  In fact, the internet bills get paid before the fridge gets restocked, which probably explains the abundance of no-name wieners. Or they’re boys. It could just be that.


So this past October I decided to go to the SCWBI conference in NY to meet up with my wonderful critique partners – – and around the same time it occurred to me that maybe this was an opportunity to expose my son to another way to earn an income from his art, i.e. illustrating children’s books. I know you’re all thinking this was a dumb idea and all I can say in my defense is that I’ve helicoptered my kids their whole lives, so why would I stop just because they’re grown up? That’s not much of a defense, is it?


I actually wasn’t sure my son would agree. He’s an independent young man and he’s been making a steady, albeit meagre, living since he finished school and is usually bogged down in underpaid contracts. Did I really just slam his income twice in one sentence? Yes I did! Sorry. Next time I’m going to blog about the unfairness of wages in the arts. I would advise you to skip that blog. It’s just going to be a rant.


So with some trepidation, I began, “Rafa, would you like to go to New York and…”


“Yes,” he interrupted, before I could finish my carefully rehearsed question.


“I haven’t told you why yet,” I said.


“I don’t care. You’re paying, right?”


For those of you whose children have not yet reached the teen years, you can stop smirking. Your day will come. I did eventually manage to tell him about the conference and the special sessions for illustrators. I finished up with a suggestion that he get his portfolio in order and consider putting together a picture book dummy. We brainstormed some ideas for the picture book. He already had a character he wanted to use and we developed several story lines. He appeared to be fully engaged and raring to go.


Looks can be deceiving.


He was in the middle of a contract but assured me he’d focus on preparing conference materials as soon as he was done. I sent off the registration fees, booked and paid for the flights, cobbled together a draft of one of the stories we’d discussed, sent it off to him, and then went back to revising my second YA novel, content in the knowledge that I’d sorted out his life and we were good to go. He did eventually finish the contract he’d been working on. And then he accepted another.


There are two sides to every story. On the one hand, he has to make a living, which means he can’t turn down paid work. I’m biting my  tongue here to avoid making another comment about how poorly paid it is. But on the other and far more compelling hand – no editorializing here – I’d already sunk a bucket-load of money into his flights, conference fees, etc. Granted this was his Christmas and birthday present combined, but still.


October and November whizzed by and we didn’t discuss the conference again. I was living in Sri Lanka at the time so I had other things on my mind. See previous post:


Finally, it was December, I was back in Canada.  But Christmas was coming. I’m rarely in a country that celebrates Christmas, at Christmas. I’ve spent most of the last 25 years in Africa and Asia. I’ve been in Buddhist countries, Muslim countries. I even spent one Christmas among the head-hunters of Borneo. Admittedly, many of them have converted to Christianity and sing songs about baby Jesus but they don’t have Christmas trees, or exchange gifts. They don’t even have Santa, so it’s not really Christmas at all. But for once I was in a country with sparkly lights, caroling, mega-sales in the stores, including a 70%-off jewellery sale at The Bay, which my husband deliberately didn’t tell me about until it was too late! Anyway, suffice it to say, it was Christmas. I was distracted. Don’t judge.


So, Christmas Day, my whole family was together and I finally got round to asking Rafa how his portfolio and the illustrations for our picture book were coming. He asked why we hadn’t thought to buy eggnog because it suddenly seemed liked something was missing from our festivities. He was right. Something was missing.


Now I’m going to cut to the chase – finally. I moved in with Raf right after Christmas and let me tell you there’s a reason why at a certain age your children will leave home, get their own apartments, and – despite occasional moments of wistfulness – you’ll be glad they did. However, for better or worse, my eldest and I decided we needed to spend 24/7 together until we knock out this picture book, he finishes his portfolio, or one of us implodes. It’s anybody’s guess which will happen first.


The book is coming along and what started as a simple showpiece for his art has turned into a character and story we both care about. I’ve already drafted three books in the series. I do know that’s insane. The interesting thing about collaborating with an illustrator and perhaps this is true even if the illustrator isn’t right in the next room and inextricably bound to you by blood so you can’t fire him, is the extent to which the story changes as the pictures emerge. Despite our proximity, and my detailed, written suggestions, for each and every illustration – OCD, you say? – Rafa’s vision of the story often diverges from my own and usually makes the story stronger.


For example, he took my first eight pages of writing, complete with eight clear and concise illustrator’s directives, and combined them into three pages, with only three illustrations because, as he said, I was taking too long to get to the point. If you’ve read this far in my blog, I’m sure you’re thinking this problem is not unique to my picture book writing. But as a Young Adult writer, I’ve never had to contend with getting to the point quite so quickly. The spare 60,000 or so words allowed by my genre take on opus proportions when compared to the 1,000 word target of the standard picture book.


Occasionally Rafa’s artistic vision is less helpful. For example he had our character jumping off a diving board five pages before the story has him fearful of jumping off the same board. In a perfect world Raf would redo the illustration but it takes him four days to do a single illustration while it takes me considerably less time to rework the story and this is still first and foremost a showcase for his art, though it no longer feels that way.


We’ve both grown fond of Albie and strangely, while Raf and I may drive each other crazy, we’ve enjoyed collaborating on creating Albie’s world. But I’m never moving in with my sons again. I’ll never be a fan of no-name wieners.