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Today IF MY LOVE WERE A FIRE TRUCK illustrator Jeff Mack takes us on a whirlwind ride through his creation process.

Jeff, when you first read a manuscript, how do you begin generating the style and vision of what the art will look like?

I start by making some really rough scribbles on the paper. I don’t think too hard about it. I just sketch whatever first comes to my mind. The sketches suggest the general shapes of the things in the picture because, at that point, I have only a vague idea of what the picture might look like. Some of the scribbly marks may serendipitously give me ideas for details that I didn’t think of at first. So I stay open to those possibilities as I redraw the picture over and over. Then I start adding a range of values in black and white.

For FIRE TRUCK, I used a combination of watercolor, cut paper, and digital to get the style I wanted. So my next step was to create the characters in watercolor and cut paper. Then using my computer, I added the background colors. On some of the pages, such as the lion image, the cut paper really stands out. On other pages, like the dragon image, I used the computer to blur the edges a bit.

FIRE TRUCK went through many versions in the sketch stage. For instance, I considered animating each of the vehicles that the characters rode on. I also created a version that included lots of different fathers with both sons and daughters. But, in the end, I decided that one father and one son was the best way to lead the reader through the story.

For IF MY LOVE WERE A FIRE TRUCK, you insert surprising moments of humor, such as the scene where the small dragon’s fire enables the young boy to toast his marshmallow. How do you arrive at funny additions like this?

One of the things that drew me to the story was how Luke Reynolds’ text leaves plenty of room for visual interpretation. In the best picture books, where the text and images support each other, leaving this kind of space for the illustrations this is the mark of a highly skilled and clever author. Overall, FIRE TRUCK has a perfect little story arc. At the same time, each of Luke’s rhymes suggests a story of its own. So when I was thinking about each image, I wondered what else could be going on in the scene. What details could I add to make the scene spin off into its own story? What will give the readers something extra fun to talk about? On the dragon page, it’s the marshmallows. On the elephant page, the monkey has swiped the dad’s watch and hat. On the whale page, they’ve hooked a giant blue whale from their tiny fishing boat.

How do you decide what projects to work on, and how long does it take for you to craft the art for an entire book?

I take on few stories by other authors because most of the time I’m working on projects I have written myself. So I have to really love a story to illustrate it. When I’m considering a manuscript, I ask myself “What job does this story do?” or “What important thing will this book add to a young reader’s life?” I ask the same questions of my own stories.

Here’s what I wrote to my editor at Doubleday, Frances Gilbert, about the FIRE TRUCK manuscript:

“Have I mentioned how much I love this book? When I took on the project, it was Luke’s clever, lyrical, emotionally rich poetry that sold me on it. I love that this is about fathers and sons expressing their feelings for each other. Too many guys grow up in our culture with pressure to be tough and to hide their emotions. Luke’s story encourages them to communicate their feelings starting at an early age. He’s given kids and parents something they can really share and connect over. And the wild range of vehicles and animals make it so much fun! I imagine some parents will get a little teary over the ending too.”

It takes me about a month to make the dummy. That’s the process of drawing and redrawing and re-redrawing the sketches. The finished color pictures usually take me between two to three months depending on the style and the amount of detail.

What do you hope readers remember from your artwork in FIRE TRUCK?

When I was young, there were often odd little details that stuck with me about certain illustrations. For example, I loved the way H. A. Rey drew donuts in one of the Curious George books. Do I know why I became fixated on his donuts? I do nut. But I do know that I tried to draw donuts the same way. It got me practicing and working on my own drawing skills. So I guess I hope readers notice and remember some of the little details in the illustrations and that those might inspire them to make their own drawings. By the way, my three favorite images in FIRE TRUCK are the rocket page, the parade page, and the dragon page. But I’m sure readers will have their own favorites different from mine.

What’s your favorite snack while you work?

Coffee, Mint Chocolate Brownie Cliff Bars, more coffee, Skinny Pop popcorn, and then a lot more coffee.

Thanks for the fascinating inside look at your illustration process, Jeff! 

Blog readers, leave one comment below for a chance to win an original sketch by Jeff Mack.

I’m overdue selecting winners for many giveaways, so I will announce them all next MONDAY, just in time to give as holiday gifts!

Jeff Mack studied art at SUNY Oswego, Syracuse University, and Scuola Lorenzo De Medici in Florence, Italy.

In 2000, he moved to NYC to try to sell his stories to publishing companies. He didn’t have much luck at first. After a few more years of practice and persistence, he became a published author in 2008. 

Since then, he’s written and illustrated a long list of picture books, chapter books, and early readers. And his book GOOD NEWS BAD NEWS, which has only four words in it, has been published in twelve different languages!

Learn more about Jeff at JeffMack.com.

As a children's book author and mother of two, I'm pushing a stroller along the path to publication. I collect shiny doodads on the journey and share them here. You've found a kidlit treasure box.

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