Santa’s bed

Here’s a shot of Santa getting out of bed from The Year Without a Santa Claus.—the thumbnail sketch and the tight sketch.  Luckily I came to my senses and realized that Santa wouldn’t sleep in a four-poster—but a sleigh bed!

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


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.

Crabby Santa character design

Have a hubble bubble Christmas

I just received a book in the mail—a copy of The Year Without a Santa Claus by Phyllis McGinley, with illustrations by Kurt Werth.  The J.B. Lippincott Company published this title in 1956.

This was the poem that inspired the animated TV special from the 1970s.

But what to my wondering eyes should appear—is Santa Claus enjoying a few puffs from his hookah?

Whoa—what heady days the fifties were for kids’ book illustrators! Fat chance something like this would pass muster with an art director nowadays!

Come to think of it, a few years ago I did do a project that called for Santa to smoke a cigar.  I’ll dig around in the attic and unearth those sketches for a future post.

Trilemma on 34th Street

C.S. Lewis, the Narnia author and theologian, put forth the argument that logically, Christ must have been divine.  If He weren’t divine, then He was either lying or insane.  Those are our only choices.  If you don’t believe in Christ’s divinity, do you believe one of the other options is true?  Lewis called this the trilemma.

Whether or not you accept the premise, it is thought-provoking.  Is it thought-provoking enough to weave a story around?  I have a few children’s author friends who stop by here—how would they build a plot around Lewis’ argument?

First, you need an Everyman character—someone who could be influenced to believe or not believe.  Add two more characters:  one advocating for belief in His divinity, one against.  Then add Christ Himself to the mix.  Let’s set the story in the here-and-now.

Christ appears on the scene; some people believe in Him, some don’t.  Of those who don’t, some think He’s insane, and subject Him to psychoanalysis, and finally have Him committed.

Christ gets out of the insane asylum, but now He needs to prove He’s not lying—in a court of law.  His lawyer doesn’t actually succeed in proving His divinity—because there never can be such proof—but he does show that so many people do believe that there must be something to it.  That’s the best any of us can do.  That’s the nature of faith.

What a great plot!  Of course it’s the story of Miracle on 34th Street.  Santa Claus (Edmund Gwenn) stands in for Christ; the little girl (Natalie Wood) is Everyman; her mom (Maureen O’Hara who scorches the screen even in black and white) is a militant disbeliever; John Payne is a lawyer who literally advocates for belief in Santa.  Santa is psychoanalyzed, committed, and put on trial.  He’s either insane, lying—or he really is Santa Claus.

What does this have to do with a kids’ book illustration blog?  Well, this is what we kids’ book illustrators do.  Whenever I get a new manuscript to work on, it’s my job to scrutinize the story on more than one level.  Many of the stories I get won’t stand up to too much analysis; they’re meant simply to entertain.  But every story began with the germ of an idea.  If I can discern that original idea by thoroughly analyzing the story, I’ll do a better job of illustrating the book.

On the other end of the spiritual spectrum—believe it or not, I’m currently working on a children’s story that I’m pretty sure is the author’s retelling of Doctor Faustus.  Even if the author didn’t intentionally base her story on Marlowe’s masterpiece, the plot construction is so similar to Faustus that Faustus informs my visual interpretation of it.  No, no devils, no Hieronymus Bosch, but there’s a character in this story who was about to get cut—and I argued for her to stay, since she would be Helen of Troy in Doctor Faustus.  If I hadn’t read the play, I wouldn’t have realized her importance to this new story.