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
Delightful! I love to learn about the process shared by the illustrator and writer, how very much time goes into it!! I look forward to telling my indie book dealer to order a copy of this for me to give my grandchildren. My oldest, Emily is a tinkerer and loves to experiment.
Thanks, Margaret! Also, if you would like me to sign a bookplate and mail it to you, just get in touch with me through my website. Thanks for visiting and entering the giveaway!
What a fun ride! I feel like I rode along with Thomas, Henry, Jill, and Suzanne! That’s what every reader will feel too!
Hi Linda, what a great thing to say, I hope the readers feel that way, too!
Loved this post! I love picture book biographies and this sounds and looks like a great one. Thanks for telling us about the process of creating it.
My pleasure, Janet! Thank you so much!
Wow! I love this post. Thank you for sharing your process. I will be sharing it with the Missouri SCBWI illustrators. Great information and I love your colors!
Katie, thank you for commenting and sharing!
Loved the behind-the-scenes look at the process of illustrating a nonfiction book! Looks like a great and interesting read.
Thank you, Sandy! Good luck in the contest!
For my kids that believe that they will never amount to much, this books will be a must add.
Oh yes, Pernille! Everyone should believe in their dreams like these two did. Thank you for visiting and entering!
I am an author, not an illustrator, but WOWZA, did I love this post. It’s important for us all to see the PROCESS involved, and that others have many revisions too. I especially loved how you mirrored the two inventors’ stories in the illustrations. Lovely work!
Thank you so much, Tanya, I’m so glad you enjoyed the post! A picture book certainly is a collaboration!
Great post, Jennifer. Love hearing/seeing the process. I can’t wait to get hold of this book. I love the details, like the shadows of the creeping Thomas and cat, the ducks tip-toeing behind Henry; the development of the two characters. So whimsical plus a little Edward Gorey. I think you’re wrong, I think kids are going to love seeing your drawings of early automobiles. Thank you, Jennifer and Suzanne.
Love these posts on how it all came together…thanks for sharing!
Thank you so much, Katie! Good luck!
Patricia, any mention of Edward Gorey always makes my day! Thank you so much for your kind comment and good luck in the drawing!
This was a great treat to see some of your process, and see some of the sketches that didn’t make the book. Editing and revision is still editing and revision even when it is pictures instead of words. Well done!
Thanks , Anne! I’m so glad that message came through in my post. I am constantly amazed at how similar both the process of writing and illustrating are for a picture book. Thank you!
I love your illustrations. I follow you as the Muscatine Art Center also . I love posting your art on our Facebook page.
Lynn, thank you so much! Your support of my work ( and other local-ish) artists is very, very appreciated! Thank you!!!!!
I just read this book and absolutely LOVED how the illustrations make the wonderful books come even more alive. You have done a fabulous job, Jennifer!
Traci, thank you!!!!!! Your praise is very appreciated— good luck in the give away!
Wow! What a wealth of fun, Jennifer! I love insight to people’s processes. And the book looks terrific!
Thanks, Kevan! I love hearing about other people’s journies as well. Speaking of which, congratulations on such a successful Alzheimer’s walk. I hope a cure is found soon!
This was magical and lovely. Like choreographing music, story and dancers – it appears POOF! as an enchanting ballet. But – oh the WORK behind it all to bring the elements together just precisely right! Thank you Jennifer and Suzanne.
What a lovely thing to say, Cathy! Thank you so much!
I loved seeing your illustration journey of many, many months all together in one place. It was fun to remember all the little details we agonized over and to hear about decisions you had to make that I wasn’t even aware of! So thankful Charlesbridge selected you for the project, and that you said YES! I know it was a challenging book with all the historical content, but you nailed it!
Suzanne, thank so much for letting me be part of your beautiful story!
What a treat to get this behind-the-scenes glimpse of your gorgeous book. Congratulations to you and Suzanne–it looks fantastic!! And I LOVE your sketch of young Thomas in trouble–the back view with slumped shoulders is perfect!! Btw, you made me laugh with your “I don’t like to draw cars . . .” comment.
A toast to you both. Bravo!!
Thank you so much, Linda! Glad I gave you a chuckle 🙂
This book looks fantastic, I can’t wait to read it. Thank you for sharing your creative process – wow, what a lot of work – but such fun at the same time! Congratulations on an amazing job :-))
Thank you, Andrea, for taking the time to visit and comment!
Great illustrations. Loved the concept. Thanks for sharing.
Jennifer, this is FASCINATING. Thanks for showing us the gazillion decisions illustrators have to make in creating a pic book. Wow.
What a wonderful article. I’ve been a fan of your art for a while now..so delightful!! Congrats!!
I am not an illustrator, not even close! But I just finished reading Writing with Pictures by Uri Shulevitz and between that book and this post I have a new and profound appreciation for what you talented illustrators do. I am in awe of the skill it takes to not only add illustrations to words written by someone else, but to add so many details that bring out even more story and interest. Amazing.
Hi Marilyn! Uri Shulevitz’s book is wonderful at pointing out “why” we make a lot of the decisions that we do. A great help! Thank you for your kind words and for taking the time to comment!
I love this story of persistence and perseverance! Kids of all ages will enjoy this book. Thank you for sharing.
Love your illustrations and learning about the process behind them, Jennifer! Can’t wait to read this one!
Love seeing the process behind your delightful illustrations!
Having grown up in NJ, I can never get enough of Mr. Edison! Thanks for sharing the heads up for this new book and the story of your illos ‘about face.’
Jennifer, I’m fascinated by and a little jealous of your artistry! What a talent! Way cool colors and depictions of those guys as youngsters, too!
This was fascinating to read, Jennifer. Thanks for sharing a few of your secrets!
Wonderful post. I’m not an illustrator, but I certainly enjoyed learning about your process. Thanks for this and the chance to win what looks like a fascinating book. The illustrations you have shared are charming.
Loved the detailed inside peek and can’t wait to see the whole thing. Thanks for sharing!
Hi Jennifer, Interesting to hear you couldn’t include origami on the table in the illustrations of Henry waiting. So frustrating to have a great idea like that, then only to find out it won’t work. This has happened to me in writing fiction, when writing about another culture or place. So much fact checking to do but hopefully it will all pay off. 🙂 Thanks for showing us your process!
Hi Debbie! Yes, as illustrators and writers we often have to leave beloved details out for the better of the book. But it’s never easy! Thanks so much for commenting!
Thanks so much for sharing this. Your art work is absolutely delightful. It was really fun to see the process. And Thomas and Henry are such worthy subjects. Just wonderful!
I love the illustrations! Thanks for sharing the process with us.
I just read my copy of the book last night. All the information at the back is so interesting, and then to read about your process as an illustrator adds another layer. Thank you for sharing and enlightening readers about your process. Your illustrations are wonderful! Each year for Read Across America, our school board members and district administrators sign up to read at schools. Our teacher’s union typically purchases a particular book that then gets left at each school. I suggested they consider The Inventors Secret this year. I especially like the connection between “Keep at It” and all the discussions we are having about the growth mindset and grit… and of course STEM.
Rachel, how wonderful! Thank you so much for your lovely comment and for helping to get our book into young hands. Very much appreciated!!!!!
What a fun book! Love the illustrations!
This is my kind of book!!! Loved how much of your process you shared in making it just right. I’m going to look for it the next time I go book-shopping. Thank you.
Sounds like a great story. And the illos are fab! Thanks for sharing the process!
I cannot wait to get my hands on this book! I love hearing about your process of illustration, Jennifer. Love the illustrations, especially the openers.
Thank you everyone, for all your kind words about the INVENTOR’S SECRET! I’m afraid I lost control of thanking each of you individually, but I’m very grateful for your support. Anyone posting before October 5 will be entered to win a book, then check back on the 6th and Suzanne will announce the winners. Thank you!
If there is anything kids can relate to, it’s getting in trouble. Love those spreads. As for my own writing life, I shall take Thomas’s advice to heart: Keep at it!!
Thank you, LeeAnn— I do think it’s a great ‘message’ for young and old, alike! (The Keep at it part, not the ‘getting in trouble’!)
Buying! What a lovely tale of friendship between two great men that is unknown to many. Thank you for the behind-the-scenes peek at your research and labor of love. A beautiful book! Well done.
Thank you, Kristin! I feel lucky to be a part of it.
I love the premise of the book and the illustrations! Wonderful non-fiction picture book!
Thanks Cathy! Suzanne did a brilliant job of telling a lovely story and sharing information at the same time. Good luck in the drawing!
Jennifer, I loved reading about your process. I had NO IDEA that an illustrator so much EXTRA WORK! I’m ordering a copy, but if I should win the giveaway, please write a note to Little Free Library Walnut inside the cover. Cheers! Nicole
I love Little Free Library Walnut! Thank you so much, Nicole 🙂
Beautiful book and love the exchange of thoughts between you and the editor(s). Thank you for sharing.
Hi Virginia, thank you so much for your comment!
Oh, wow! I’ve been hearing about this book for a while. It’s so cool to finally see the illustrations. They are amazing. I love the way you draw smoke. I love the way your draw dirt. I love the way you draw light. So, sooo good! My kids (and I) are going to love the total package that this book brings–the story, the history, the artistic interpretation. Thanks for your hard work on it.
Oh, thank YOU so much, Heather for your kind words. And for noticing my smoke, dirt and light! 🙂
I finally got the chance to dig into this wonderful post. Thanks so much for sharing!
What a fun post looking at your sketches and then some finals. Thanks for sharing the background of the book and thanks for the giveaway!
Thanks so much, Tammi and Jennifer!
Hello ladies…a critique buddy passed along this link…and I’m so very happy because now I’ve discovered your Picture Book Builders blog. Awesome! And I just subscribed. Looking forward to reading your posts! This one was especially lovely…as a writer, it’s really helpful to see the illustrator’s process. Thank you, Jennifer. 🙂
Hi Vivian— I’m so happy you found us– Welcome! I’m glad that you enjoyed my post. Building a picture book is definitely a group effort!
Love to see how ideas unfold. It’s so much fun!