Author Susan Taylor Brown and Illustrator Mary Sullivan on Oliver’s Must-Do List

Oliver’s Must-Do List by Susan Taylor Brown, illustrated by Mary Sullivan (Boyds Mills, 2005). From the flap copy: “All Oliver wants is for his mother to play with him. But when his mother checks her must-do list, she discovers there are too many things to do and no time for play. When her must-do list keeps filling up, Oliver comes back with his own rollicking solution.” Ages 4-up. See teacher’s guide; arrange a school-visit with Oliver; read Oliver’s blog.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

Susan’s answer

STB: This book came about because of one of those things you read about happening to other people, other writers who are famous or make their publishers lots or money or are just so insanely talented that everyone in New York fights for the chance to work with them. (Okay, now you know one of my secret fantasies.) An editor asked me to write it. Gasp. Me? I was flattered and immediately got a giant case of writer’s block.

STB: Here’s the way it unfolded. My first picture book (Can I Pray With My Eyes Open (1999)) was with Hyperion. Knowing it would be better for that book in particular and my career in general if I could manage to sell them another book, I was a writing machine for a while, going over ever picture book in my drawer for possible revisions to make it suitable and beating my head against the keyboard trying to come up with a great idea. After yet another rejection from the editor (I swear I could hear the frustration in her voice) she finally asked if might want to take a stab at a Mother’s Day story because they needed one on their list. Did I? Of course I did.

STB: I spent some time thinking about the things I used to do with my kids when they were little and the things they used to do to entertain themselves. Our house was popular because we had a great staircase for sliding down (carpeted) and the kids all loved to do that and crash into a heap of pillows at the bottom. I was a “cool” mom because I let them do it. The way I figured it they were going to do it anyway when I wasn’t looking so I let them use the couch cushions to protect themselves at the bottom of the stairs. We had a few rules about the game but what my kids remembered most was that THEIR mom let them and other moms didn’t. From there I expanded on other memories and wondered about this mom that did all these great fun things with her kid and wondered if what looked like a good thing might actually be not so good when the kid’s friends started to make fun of him. The original title was Michael Martin Murphy’s Marvelous Mother. Alas, the alliteration didn’t work for the editor who asked for the book and even after a couple of revisions for her it just kept missing the mark and she finally said not to send it back anymore. I was crushed, of course. My big chance to do something an editor had asked me to do and I failed.

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

Susan’s answer

STB: The request for a Mother’s Day book came in February 2001 and was submitted in July 2001. That editor passed on it in about a week (gotta love those rapid email rejections). So I tore it apart and decided to come at it from another direction, to celebrate the joy of a child having an entire day devoted to playing with a parent. I worked on it for over a year, cutting and tightening, cutting and tightening, and then some more cutting and tightening. When I write a picture book I tend to write very long and have do a lot of cutting which is fine with me because I love revision. I ditched the title and changed the name of the main character. I read tons of knock knock jokes so I could write some of my own. I quizzed my kids on their childhood memories of things we used to do together. Then of course there were the numerous go rounds with my critique group and a few other trusty readers. In September of 2002 my agent finally started the submission process, including sending it to Boyds Mills Press. By December 2002 it had racked up 14 rejections and I told my agent not to bother sending it out anymore because it obviously needed even more work. She agreed with me and said the only place she hadn’t heard from yet was Boyds Mills Press. I figured it was lost in a stash somewhere and went on to other projects. In March of 2003 my agent called to tell me it had sold to Boyds Mills.

STB: In October 2003 my editor wrote and told me they had picked an artist and had some sample sketches they were reviewing for the book. Then he asked me how I felt about animal characters in general and rhinos in particular. As always with a picture book I’m amazed at the way an artist interprets my words. When I wrote the book I was picturing me with my kids over 20 years ago but when I saw Mary’s sketch of the little rhino in bunny slippers I felt it was the perfect way to show the story.

STB: I saw the almost final lasers in December 2004 and the color proofs in January 2005, right on track for the October 2005 pub date.

Mary’s answer

MS: Oliver’s Must-Do List was handed to me in October of 2003 at an illustrators conference in Honesdale Pennsylvania. This was going to be my first picture book. My friend Neil Waldman told me to keep the manuscript by my bed for several weeks. “Read it all the time”, he said. “The characters will unfold right before your eyes.” He was right.

MS: Deciding to make Oliver an animal was a no brainer. I wanted every child on the planet to be able to relate to him and using an animal as the character accomplished this.

MS: I went ahead though and created 3 characters just in case Tim Gillner, my art director at Boyds Mills, had something else in mind. I drew Oliver as a boy, a wooden boy and a rhino. I have no explanation for why I chose a rhino for the character. Tim liked the Rhino.

MS: I wanted Oliver to have a pet. There was no doubt about that. My neighbors have two Boston Terriers, Scooby and Shaggy. They are really funny little dogs. I wanted to use a small dog. Oliver is a big boy and I thought that having a really small dog would be a nice contrast. Also, I thought that a rhino boy with a Boston Terrier, living in Africa would be funny. At first I wanted him to have a pet that would be indigenous to the area, but changed my mind.

MS: I tried to give the pet something to do in every scene. He kind of has his own little life.

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

Susan’s answer

STB: Once these words were finally written down and the book was sold, most of my work was done and the next phase of the work fell to the illustrator. I think Mary did a marvelous job of bringing Oliver to life on the page. After the book was sold there were actually only a few minor revisions to Oliver’s story. Then I turned myself to writing Oliver’s next adventure. But that’s a story for another time.

Mary’s answer

MS: To myself, in the privacy of my studio, I admitted that I really had no idea what I was doing. I had only done editorial work. I had to trust Tim though. He had seen something in my work and he chose me for the job. I spent a lot of time in the beginning on self doubt.

MS: The time between getting the manuscript and signing the contract was a couple of months. I used it feverishly reading picture books and exploring different techniques. They say that you shouldn’t start on anything until you sign the contract but I couldn’t help myself. Once that manuscript hit my lap and I had read it once, my brain was illustrating, planning and visualizing……….24/7.

MS: There are so many picture books out there that I loved. Their styles ranged from very simple to fantastic. I loved the odd, sort of strange art in some picture books but Oliver was a simple story. It needed simple art. I really wanted to do it all in a sepia tone, but Tim wanted color.

MS: I chose to work digitally. This worked really well. I was able to go back and make changes if needed. In the end I was able to ftp all the files.

MS: All of my illustrations are initially drawn on paper with pencil. This is my absolute favorite part. I love to draw. The pencil drawings are detailed and totally complete before I scan them.

MS: After scanning, I color them in photoshop. Several commands allow me to paint behind the pencil illustration. Doing this helps the illustration retain it’s hand done look and I don’t loose any of the pencil line. The finished illustration doesn’t have that slick digital look. I didn’t want that stlye for the Oliver book. Also, by doing it this way I get to spend most of my time on the drawing. I love my pencil and I love to draw.

MS: I signed the contract sometime in December 2003. My illustrations were due June 31st 2004. I submitted my sketches asap. Tim approved them all. The only change was “no underwear” and “no faces on any inanimate objects.”

MS: He was very happy with my work. The self doubt lessened a little bit.

MS: It was time to get started. I wrote each page number on a little piece of torn paper and put them all in a jar. I chose the pages to work on randomly from the jar. This worked very well for me.

MS: The next several months were spent drawing. There were no problems or setbacks. It all went pretty smoothly. I finished on time.

MS: I really didn’t get much input from Tim. He seemed happy with everything I did. I guess. I was a little confused by that.

MS: I had envisioned these heated back and forth exchanges between the artist and the art director. I wonder where I got that idea. Anyhow, it wasn’t that way.

MS: My style has changed a lot since Oliver. I am much looser and eager to cross boundries. When I look at the Oliver book, I see a new picture book artist who was a little timid.

MS: But all in all, I think I did a nice job.

Cynsational News & Links

Australian Authors and Illustrators for Young People from the Australian School Library Association.

The Adventures of the Real Winnie the Pooh at the New York Public Library. “The REAL Winnie-the-Pooh won’t be found on a video, in a movie, on a T-shirt or a lunchbox. Since 1987, the REAL Pooh and four of his best friends–Eeyore, Piglet, Kanga, and Tigger–have been living in the Central Children’s Room at the Donnell Library Center, part of The New York Public Library.”

Harry Potter and the Stony Broke Authors by John Erzad from The Guardian.