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Santa’s house

The Year Without a Santa Claus opens with a long shot of Santa Claus’ house—the establishing shot, as they say in the movie biz.  It’s early morning, dark, with light coming from one bedroom window—the only warm spot in the picture.

For Santa’s house I looked to the architecture of northern Europe and Russia, cultures close to the North Pole.  I didn’t want to do a candy-cane swirly sugar plum North Pole—I wanted create a believable place where Santa lives and works.  Here are some examples of buildings in Norway and Russia.  There seems to be plenty of lumber there, and the builders made the most of it.  (I scanned these photos from library books but neglected to copy down the sources.)

No thumbnail sketch for this image.  Anahid (the AD) asked me to create an establishing shot instead of beginning the story in Santa’s bedroom.  I went straight to tight sketch, as you see here.  Once approved, I painted the final.  I used color to help tell the story—the images start with cold grays and blues, then warm up as the story progresses.

Cover ideas for Santa

A bunch of sketches for The Year Without A Santa Claus jacket art.  In the first few I was trying to summarize the story: Santa is too tired and cranky to deliver presents this year.  They don’t work well because they don’t look fun.  Jim McMullan, the Broadway poster illustrator told me a story about his early career:  after submitting depressing poster ideas that summarized the plot of a depressing play, the stage director told him “Just get the audience into the theater. We’ll give them the bad news once they’re inside.”  Good advice when drawing cover ideas, too.

The coat rack and Santa on a La-Z-Boy idea became spot illustrations inside the book.

The final idea with a happy Santa surrounded by presents was the winner.  Art director Anahid Hamparian put it all together with type that recalls the 1950’s, when the story was written.  I wasn’t consciously inspired by the famous shot from North By Northwest, but after I finished drawing I realized I had mimicked it.

Can’t wait for Christmas

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As if it were Christmas morning, a fantastic present for me arrived in the mail.

I don’t know how much I should be giving away here—the book isn’t to be released until October—but I’m so excited I can’t wait to share this.  Last winter I worked on a very fun title for Marshall Cavendish: The Year Without a Santa Claus. I showed you my character designs for Santa here.

You may already know The Year Without a Santa Claus as a Rankin/Bass animated Christmas special. The original story was written by Phyllis McGinley in the 1950s.  In my opinion the original is way better than the special it inspired (I’m not sorry that the Heat and Cold Misers are not in her story).  Phyllis McGinley writes this poem with a master writer’s attention to meter and makes some fun, unexpected rhymes.  It’s a little on the long side for a 32-pager, so we expanded the book to 40 pages.  She provides plenty of imagery for an illustrator to revel in.

The story was first published in 1956.  I got my hands on a used copy.  The drawings that accompany the text are really more decoration than illustration.  They have a loose, watercolory look.  My favorite image from that edition is the one on the cover of Santa relaxing in an easy chair, smoking a hookah!

Anyway, back to this fantastic present.  It turns out that Boris Karloff narrated The Year Without A Santa Claus in the 1960s around the same time he narrated How The Grinch Stole Christmas! Marshall Cavendish has decided to re-release the recording along with the book.  Editor Marilyn Brigham very kindly sent me an advance copy of the cd.  It is glorious!  Boris Karloff never sounded better.  Listening to it makes me wonder what an animated special in the hands of Chuck Jones might have been like.  But, if that had happened, I wouldn’t have had the marvelous opportunity of illustrating this lovely story.

It looks like you can get the cd now (here), even before the book is available.  Definitely get both.  Absolutely.

Color for Santa Claus

The Soldiers’ Night Before Christmas


A few posts ago I zeroed in on a book cover from the fifties showing Santa Claus smoking tobacco from a hookah.  Pretty unusual, right?  Nothing like what you’d see Santa doing in a kids’ book nowadays.  Well, not so long ago I illustrated A Soldiers’ Night Before Christmas by Trish Holland and Christine Ford (both military moms), in which an army base in the MidEast is paid a visit on Christmas eve.  Instead of Santa Claus, it’s grizzled old Sargent McClaus who swoops in on his flying jeep, accompanied by eight humvees and a red-nosed Blackhawk helicopter.

Clenched between the sargent’s teeth is a cigar!

The story calls for a cigar, so Sargent McClaus’ head can be wreathed in smoke just like Saint Nicholas.  He brings the troops duffel bags full of goodies: letters from home, photos, phone cards, and crayon drawings.  The story is set to (what else?) Clement C. Moore’s poem.  As for how the army base is decorated for the season, I got lots of inside info from Trish and Christine.

Spare a thought (and a prayer) for our gallant troops who will be far from home on Christmas.  God bless them.

You’re a mean one, Mr Grendel

Let’s face it: there’s nothing new.  We create only by standing on the shoulders of giants.  What came before is a blueprint for our every effort.  The legacy of Western culture is a valuable gift because without it, there’s hardly anything for us creatives to draw from.  The classics of literature, for instance, can become a set of toys for a talented genius to play with.

Take the epic poem Beowulf—in which ‘there lived a monster in a cave. He was a hideous beast with green fur and yellow teeth. The townspeople feared him and would never approach his cave, he in turn would never venture out to the town for he knew he was not wanted and didn’t like the people much anyhow. There was one particular day of the year that he couldn’t stand, and on this day he vowed to ruin the towsnfolk’s fun, for if he could not have any, why should they.’

It must have occurred to Dr Seuss to bend this ancient story to his own use; to retell it as a picture book.  I was thinking about the similarities between Grendel, the monster from Beowulf, and the Grinch—even down to their names.  What really struck me was the bit about how neither one could stand the sounds of civilization.

“It harrowed him / to hear the din of the loud banquet / every day in the hall, the harp being struck / and the clear song of a skilled poet / telling with mastery of a man’s beginnings, / how the Almighty had made the earth . . .” (Beowulf 34).

And:

If there’s one thing I hate…oh the noise, noise, noise, noise! …They’ll blow their flu-flubas.  They’ll bang their tartinkas.  They’ll blow their who-hubas.  They’ll bang their gardinkas!”

A quick search on Google revealed a couple of essays written about Grendel/Grinch. Here‘s one by Courtney Shay. She brings up other similarities I hadn’t thought of:  both monsters are miserable—without joy, and wreak their havoc on society in the darkness of night.

To compare Grendel to the Grinch is to appreciate how a master of the picturebook can distill an assortment of ideas down to one clear and simple storyline.

As we descend into the chaos of the season, spare a thought for the anonymous Anglo-Saxon scribbler whose poetry lives on in How The Grinch Stole Christmas!