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How I published my first children's book (and all the backstage mess that came with it)

Do you think you know what's behind a children's book?

When you think about a book, you might fantasize about a writer being caught by inspiration or blessed by a dream, or an artist who paints wonderful images, without even knowing how.

The truth is way more down to earth, but also comforting and human: a book is a process, sometimes it takes a looooong time, sometimes it's tiring and it makes you wonder if you can make it. But above all a book is good solid teamwork.

I met Angela Catrani, editor and coordinator of the project "A lezione di qui e ora", now a friend and my art director of choice, at a writing and illustrating course in Cervia in 2018.

Courses are a great opportunity to meet people at different stages of personal and artistic growth, and they can give you some perspective about where you are in your journey of becoming a writer or an illustrator.

It wasn't my first illustration course, I've been trying to approach children's illustration since 2000-2001 (and before that, I used to be an oil painter), but I didn't think I was ready to go for it until Angela told me so. "I might have a book for you", she said, browsing my portfolio.

Since then, my portfolio has changed a lot of course, and if I now look at it as it was, I can spot some immaturity and uncertainties there (and I'm sure it will be the same in a couple of years with my present portfolio).

But all you need is to meet someone who can trust you enough for your first project and who's also available to guide you through some technicalities you might not be acquainted with.

Illustrazione bambini children books illustration
Storyboard - first stage. As I always say, my early sketches are awful, but also full of life.

"A lezione di qui e ora" ("A lesson in here and now") is about a kid who's alone at home with his mom. His dad works at seas and is far away. Mum has a very important meeting, but Filippo is not feeling well and they don't know what to do. A kind and funny neighbour then appears at their door, claiming she can take care of the boy. She invites him for a lesson in "here and now". What's that bizarre subject? And who's the teacher?

At first I was struck by the "far away dad" detail, so much t it became a sort of fil rouge: the thought of sea water that wraps the child like a scarf and stays with him at all times.

When you draw a character, there's so much you are telling about him/her besides the text. Filippo in my imagination was a shy introvert kid, who loved taking pictures of life happening beyond his window and who missed his dad a lot.
Nothing of all this was in the story!

Children illustration illustrazione mindfulness
Arturo - the "here and now" teacher - was a black cat without an eye - This sketch hasn't survived the final version

Clotilde, the neighbour, on the other hand was better described in the text by the author Sara Marconi: she loved hats, she was funny and weird.

children books illustration kidlitart art

illustrazione illustratrice
Fabio and Clotilde
I was very fond of this picture, but as illustrators we must learn to accept impermanence (even the text, which for me was sacred, is constantly evolving!). An illustration is not forever, especially when you start a project.

The dad/water theme was soon left behind, and after several brainstorming sessions, a radical change in colour palette (less melancholic, more modern and vivid), Filippo and Arturo the cat (who's now a big ginger feline) landed on the Moon, the magical place where - according to Ariosto - all lost things end up.

Children's book, children's illustration
Learning how to breathe

Children's book, children's book illustration
Filippo's mind plays tricks on him

Children's book, children's book illustration, cover design
First sketch for the cover. Now I know it should at least be flipped towards the right, haha.

And then -BUM- the idea born from the unstoppable brilliant mind of Beniamino Sidoti, second editor and awesome teacher/thinker/writer.

If we - humans- need to learn how to stay in our body, how to be present to our life and not wander with our thoughts, couldn't Filippo and his mom and Clotilde be cats who need to learn again how to be cats from scratch, from another (less human-like) cat?

Children's book illustration, sketch
Character study

After this turning point, everything was easier and 9 long months after my very first sketch the book was ready to be printed.

What about this illustration?

Those are Filippo and Arturo, this picture never found its way to the final version of the book.

But it evolved again and became part of another project! No effort goes wasted here, haha, and I still love this dreamy sunrise scene.

An exercise for you: if you had to imagine and draw/describe Filippo, how would he be? What would he wear? Would he have a favourite toy?


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