Charlesbridge Publishing contacted me in June, of 2013 to ask if I would illustrate a non-fiction picture book written by our very own, spectacular, Suzanne Slade. The book is titled, THE INVENTOR’S SECRET, WHAT THOMAS EDISON TOLD HENRY FORD.
In this 48 page non-fiction picture book, Suzanne shares the story of Thomas Edison’s successes and Henry Fords’ flops. These failures finally drove a frustrated Henry to travel from Michigan to a NY conference in 1896 to meet Thomas Edison and ask him his secret. When Suzanne learned that Thomas’s answer was a fist banging, “Keep at it!” she knew a picture book was born.
Suzanne began writing the story in 2010. I got the manuscript in 2013, final art was due in January, 2014, and the book was born this month, September 2015. There was obviously a lot to do.
I started researching right away and developed these character sketches. It was a challenge to to draw iconic “real” men in one’s own style, and make that style relatable to kids.
And Henry (there are even fewer pictures of young Henry Ford to use as reference because he wasn’t as well known at the time as was the young Thomas with all his patents!);
When I sent this to the art director she questioned Henry’s mustache. This led to—-
Henry and The Great Mustache Mystery!
(insert ‘dun dun duuuuhhhhnnn’ music here)
Henry didn’t have a mustache when he was married in 1888. He then has a mustache in a photo in 1892. What I was using for a reference at their big meeting at the New York conference in 1896 was a painting by Irving R. Bacon that Henry Ford commissioned. In this painting, Henry has no mustache, but I had discovered that Henry didn’t shave it until 1902. So, art director, editor, Suzanne and I discussed and wondered if since most of the story takes place in this time period, was it too jarring for kids to suddenly, at the end of the book, suddenly see him without it? Read on for the shockingly dramatic big ending reveal at the end of this post! Such suspense!
And now, back to our regularly scheduled blog post…
Revision = an absolutely inevitable part of the book making process and probably the most difficult.
Suzanne’s text parallels the two boys as curious young inventors and I knew I wanted to do this in my opening two spreads. I wanted to have identical poses, but needed to set up differences in the two boys right away— and then carry them through the rest of the book.
Sketch of Thomas in trouble. He’s blown up something in the basement and has been put into a ‘time out’ facing the wall. This was the first sketch I ever did for the book and I really loved it. Still do…Below is the first “Henry is in trouble” sketch. Thomas was home-schooled and Henry went to public school and I was excited to use this fact in my illustration. Here Henry has blown up an engine in the schoolyard (true) and we see this out the window.
Off went the first round off sketches to Charlesbridge. Back came the 8 pages of page by page edits including the seeming demise of my beloved first spreads.
Regarding the Thomas in trouble spread: “We’d love to see Thomas’s face. How do you feel about turning him around?”
Regarding the Henry in trouble spread: “We’d love to see more of Henry’s experiments… Can we see his sister’s toys apart and an exploded steam engine? Why not set the scene outside next to the exploding steam engine? We’d love to see Henry’s face.”
Oh woe as me. But another sketch that seemed doomed that I also liked was a double page title spread that the group felt, “began the story too soon”… and they were right. That title page sketch (above) shows a sneaky, naughty Thomas before he got in trouble. So, I chose to mimic this gesture for the two curious tinkerers. It also made me think about borders and that this could be another way to differentiate between the two characters (an upfront challenge with the project). And, what if I varied the palette? Steely cool grays and blues for the more chemical, electricity oriented inventor? And rusty browns and sepia tones for the building parts, car assembling guy? And perhaps gears for Henry’s borders, and lightbulbs for Thomas’s? When the men become friends their borders are mixed and their colors are bold?
The final art for Thomas’s introduction spread;And Henry’s;Here’s another amusing out-take from the book. Here is the sketch, and final art. I needed to show Henry waiting, and waiting to finally talk to his mentor at the conference. I thought it would be funny if Henry took notepaper and made an origami bird (he loved birds and I tried to use them in as many of his illustrations as I could). Then another, and another, until his table was filled with a flock of them. Alas, comments returned that origami was not popular in the U.S. until later ( I think around 1910 or so?) and that we have no documentation that Henry every made origami. Ah well, we’ll show it with food! (Suzanne, I think this was your good idea?) This is the difference between illustrating fiction and non-fiction.
I’m proud of the above spread and I will tell you why. It’s not that it is a stunningly memorable, nor Caldecott-worthy illustration, but I feel it represents something that I think an illustrator does (or should do) that often goes unnoticed. That is to look for opportunities. And sometimes finding those opportunities comes from desperation. I knew I had to draw cars for this spread. I don’t like to draw cars and I don’t think a kid really wants to look at a painting of one of my cars. This spread needs to show Henry’s failed attempts at his models and have notes about why they didn’t work. So, what if I put them in fancy, whimsical Victorian borders and made the notes look as if Henry had jotted them down in one of the zillion notebooks that he meticulously kept? And what if I could also show Thomas’s failed attempts? Different versions of the lightbulb that he went through illuminating Henry’s journey (Thomas didn’t invent the lightbulb, but he invented a longer lasting/burning filament and experimented with lots of various shaped globes.)? This visual, once again, appearing later in the book, shows our two inventors’ work, on the same page, Thomas’s failures illuminating Henry’s— now as friends having both “Kept at it!”
And now they ride off into the sunset… And look at Henry?
Sporting a ‘stache’ wink wink… even though he shouldn’t be!
Suzanne has written a book that is a compelling true story about two men who changed our world with their inventions. But she also introduces the importance of their unlikely and lifelong friendship and shares the message of perseverance and persistence.
There is a fantastic timeline in the back and a great deal of back matter facts that make this book a wonderful educational tool as well. Deb Gonzales has developed a free downloadable teacher/parent/or anyone who wants to use this book to add cool and creative STEM activities to their kids’ lives— resource packet that can be downloaded for free! You can get that here : Teacher Guide for The Inventor’s Secret
I’d like to send out a huge thank you! This post is adapted from a recent presentation and signing I did at Prairie Lights Bookstore. Prairie Lights is such an asset and wonderful supporter of our very prolific and talented writer/artist community here in Iowa City. And— especially, an enormous THANK YOU for all of you who came, gave me hugs, ate gear-shaped cookies, and made the launch of the INVENTOR’S such a big success! I feel very, very lucky.
If you would like me to sign and mail you a bookplate for this book, please get in touch with me through my website jbreinhardt.com with your address and inscription.
BOOOOOOKKKKK GIIIIIIIVVVVVEEEEAAAAAWWAAAAYYYYYY!!!!!! YAY!
I’m so happy to be part of this terrific book! Let’s get a couple free ones out there to you! Leave a comment and I’ll pick two lucky winners to send each a copy of THE INVENTOR’S SECRET, WHAT THOMAS EDISON TOLD HENRY FORD! I’ll ask Suzanne to post the winners on her blog contribution on October 6.
THE WINNER(s) OF SUZANNE SLADE’S SKYPE OR CRITIQUE GIVEAWAY ARE:
She decided to pick two! Traci Sorell and Susan Roberts
Please email her through her website and let her know which prize you would like to select? suzanneslade.com