Author Carolyn Crimi and Illustrator John Manders on Henry & the Buccaneer Bunnies

Henry & the Buccaneer Bunnies by Carolyn Crimi, illustrated by John Manders (Candlewick, 2005). It’s a pirate’s life aboard the Salty Carrot with its crew of buccaneer bunnies, but Henry–son of the Barnacle Black Ear–would rather read than count his booty, swab the deck, or shout “Shiver Me Timbers!” And then . . . suffering sea dogs! Here comes a huge storm! What can booksmart Henry do to help the crew? A lively, hilarious adventure that’ll speak to readers both avid and reluctant, brought to life in storytelling illustrations bursting with humorous detail. Ages 4-up. Highest recommendation.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

Carolyn’s answer

I have always wanted to write a story about bunnies. I’ve written about mice, dogs, rats, and beavers already, so I felt it was time to tackle Bunnydom. And really, what kind of picture book writer would I be if I never wrote a bunny book? It’s practically a law.

I also happen to adore bunnies. I take long walks every day, and I usually spot one or two hopping around, twitching their cute little noses. Ooo, I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful to write a sweet, cozy book about them? A gentle, bedtime book for parents and toddlers to snuggle up to? Perhaps I’d even toss in a chick or a fluffy lambie. Helen Oxenbury would illustrate it, and it would shoot up to the bestsellers list in no time.

It would be the next Goodnight Moon!

But then, well… Something happened when I sat down to write. Suddenly my sweet, innocent bunnies were wearing eye patches and saying things like “Great blimey bilges!” You see, I had also always wanted to write a pirate book. When I thought about combining the two, it just sort of clicked. It was so very Moi.

I suppose I never will write a sweet book. I admire writers who can do it well without being saccharine. Martin Waddell comes to mind. He writes poignant, lyrical, succinct books and is one of the most underrated picture book writers I know of.

But I am not Martin Waddell. Sweetness does not come naturally to me. I must do what comes naturally, even if that means I write about bloodthirsty bunnies.

John’s answer

My inspiration came from two sources: Carolyn’s manuscript, and a life-long devotion to sea-going, swashbuckling adventure novels and movies.

Carolyn is one of those writers whose words can make you laugh out loud. As soon as I read her manuscript, I was itching to draw. I knew exactly how I wanted Henry to look—I wanted every member of the Salty Carrot crew to have a personality, a character. And there were so many opportunities for sight gags! I tried to add visual jokes that kept in tune with the story’s sense of humor—the rats abandon ship with pool noodles and snorkels, the ship is riddled with cannonball holes, the jolly roger has long ears and buck teeth.

My other favorite writers are Rafael Sabatini, Robert Louis Stevenson, Daniel Defoe, C.S. Forester, Patrick O’Brian and the great George MacDonald Fraser. My illustrations for Henry are heavily influenced by those great old pirate movies whose casts often include Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone or Maureen O’Hara hamming it up to a soundtrack by Eric Wolfgang Korngold.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

Carolyn’s answer

Ummm, here’s the thing. I really have no idea when I started this. I always write first drafts of my picture books in longhand, and I don’t date those drafts. I believe I wrote it “sometime in 2001.” The first *typed* draft in my computer is dated February 2002. I know I wrote an awful draft before that in which Henry was an extremely curious bunny who asked a lot of questions and wound up defeating a bad bunny pirate by driving him slowly insane.

Like I said, it was an awful first draft.

After I had completed roughly two billion revisions, I sent the manuscript to some of my editors. One editor asked for changes and then turned it down. The next editor asked for changes and then turned it down. Blah, blah, blah, same ole same ole. I knew it was good, though, and I knew it would get published. I certainly don’t feel that way about all my manuscripts, but I really felt this one was a slam dunk (a home run? a hole in one? a field goal?) or some sort of very good thing.

It was because I believed in this book that I decided to send it to one of my favorite houses, Candlewick. Oh, how I love their picture books! It had always been a dream of mine to have a Candlewick book. Unfortunately, it had never been a dream of Candlewick to have a Carolyn Crimi book. But I kept trying. The brilliant author Tobin Anderson said he had spoken to one of their editors about me and encouraged me to send a manuscript their way. What an incredibly generous gesture on his part. (Thanks Tobin!) So I put his name in the very first line of my cover letter, said a few prayers, ate a few carrots, and tossed it in the mail.

It was accepted in…May? Yeah, sure, let’s say May of 2003. I still have the voice mail message from my editor. In fact, I’ve saved all the happy voice mail messages from my editors. I like listening to them over and over again. It’s an annoying habit of mine that keeps me sane.

The not-so-happy ones are deleted immediately.

John’s answer

I signed the contract for Henry back in July 2003 and began working on the thumbnail storyboard in the summer of 2004. The thumbnails, along with character sketches and setting design usually take 3-4 days. I draw with 2B pencils on layout bond paper. The editorial and art departments at Candlewick then take a look and make revisions to the storyboard. Caroline Lawrence at Candlewick put my thumbnail sketches into layout form which made it very easy to draw the final sketches—the layouts show exactly where the text will fall. The sketches take a week or three. I submitted them to Candlewick, where they were put into layouts in their turn. At this point there were a few small revisions (this project went very smoothly—most of the changes were made to the thumbnails).

While I waited for final approval, I did color studies of all the characters and most of the spreads. This helps me to organize my palette and solve any color problems before I begin actual painting. Once the layouts with the final sketches were approved, I began painting in August, transferring the drawings onto Arches 300 lb hot press watercolor paper. I work with Winsor & Newton Designers gouache and Prismacolor pencils for highlights and accents. I paint in an assembly line fashion, first blocking in all the light and shadow with burnt sienna (this is a classical way of painting and gives the illustrations an added richness). Then I add color. First I paint all the background: the sea, then the ship, then the island scenery—before I paint the characters themselves, which I do one at a time: all Henry, all Black Ear, & c., & c. A book has to look as if I painted it all at once, instead of over a period of 3 months. This method makes it possible to maintain consistency throughout.

After the interior is painted, Caroline & I discuss the cover design. Once again I submit thumbnails, then sketches (including title type design), and paint once everything’s approved. The last piece of art was sent to Candlewick in early December 2004.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

Carolyn’s answer

Once it was accepted, the challenges were pretty much behind me. I had revised it extensively before I sent it to Candlewick, so I only had one more revision to do after it was accepted. Then the quest for the right illustrator began. I knew John Manders was The One as soon as I saw his work. He’s just so…piratey. I mean come on, the man owns a parrot. His illustrations brought the whole story to life and made the book an exciting, swashbuckling adventure. And they literally made me laugh out loud. Check out the one of Calico Jack Rabbit admiring his tattoo of a cabbage. The cabbage is inscribed with the name “Beatrix.” John was born to illustrate this book.

John and my editor, Deb Wayshak, made the book’s journey a fun one. I had a blast working on it with them. The e-mails that flew back and forth were often sprinkled with Piratese. What terrific shipmates they were. Writing a sequel is definitely on my To Do List.

Along with a sweet little book about bloodthirsty lambies, of course…

John’s answer

I often head to the library when I begin a new book, to gather visual research. Since I’m something of a pirate buff, I already had most of the reference books right here in my studio, so I was ready to draw without so much of the preliminary stage of ‘internalizing,’ when I sketch directly from the reference in order to get a feel for my subject.

Being an illustrator is like being a movie director on steroids: I get to cast all the characters, design the costumes and sets, and stage all the action. I even choose the camera angles. For Henry, I designed many of the characters with actors from seagoing movies in mind—for Black Ear, I cast Robert Newton, who starred in a movie about Blackbeard and unforgettably played Long John Silver in the Disney version of Treasure Island. From the same movie, child actor Bobby Driscoll supplied the look & costume for Henry (with spectacles added!). Jean LeHare is the bunny incarnation of Basil Rathbone in Captain Blood, Calico Jack Rabbit recalls Kirk Douglas in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.

I also peopled the crew with individual characters based on real or literary seafarers. There is a suspiciously feminine crew member (the one with abundant blonde curls) named Ann Bunney—based on Ann Bonney, a girl who dressed as a man to serve aboard a pirate ship. Squee-Squeek is a tall, silent Maori bunny who always carries a harpoon in case he sees a white whale. These characters don’t have any lines, but their personalities make the crowd scenes interesting to look at.

The Salty Carrot herself is practically a character in the story. She is a three-masted square-rigger, a caricature of Captain Kidd’s ship, the Adventure Galley—which I embellished with peeling paint, cannonball holes, debris-littered decks and some tastefully-carved bunny mermaids. To help me draw and paint her believably, I bought a model ship at a hobby shop downtown, and spent a day or two gluing the thing together so I could see how a ship looks from different angles and how the shadows fall on her.

“The three-masted square rigger…not so swift and maneuverable as other vessels commandeered by pirates. But she was valued for her intimidating size—350 tons and 110 feet along her main deck…and for her seaworthiness on long voyages.” (from The Pirates, Time-Life Books)

The smaller sloop was more effective for raiding and smuggling, but I felt the big square-rigger would be visually funnier—especially when crewed by bunnies.

Cynsational Note

Deborah Wayshak also is the editor of my upcoming YA gothic fantasy novel, Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007).

Cynsational News & Links

Smart Writers Journal: September 2005 offers a listing of writers’ retreats and conferences, a back-to-school book round-up, and a special report on censorship by Roxyanne Young. Recommended books include: The Order of the Poison Oak by Brent Hartinger (HarperCollins, 2005); Last Dance on Holladay Street by Elisa Carbone (Knopf, 2005); The Truth About Sparrows by Marian Hale (Henry Holt, 2004); Houdini: World’s Greatest Mystery Man and Escape King by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Eric Velasquez (Walker, 2005); and Kindergarten Rocks! by WF alumnae Katie Davis (Harcourt, 2005).

Congratulations to my husband, author Greg Leitich Smith! His latest novel, Tofu and T. rex (Little Brown, 2005), has been nominated for the 2005-2006 Golden Spur Award for Texas Authors – Intermediate Children’s Literature division via the Texas State Reading Association. Surf over to Greg’s blog to cheer the good news!