The Rabbit Who Lived Up An Elephant’s Trunk

This is a sequel to a blog post I wrote in 2008 on Illustrating Children’s Picture Books.

Back then I described how I had attended a four-week adult education class of that description at the WEA Centre, at which I chose to illustrate a poem that I’d previously written for a child of approximately five years.

Here is the poem again, punctuated in the way that seems best when the entire poem is displayed on one page. (I use simpler punctuation for book versions.)

A rabbit who lived up an elephant’s trunk
Was feeling extremely displeased
With the effort it took just to clean out the gunk
Whenever the elephant sneezed.
So she looked all around for the optimal place
For which she had started to hope,
And was offered just one — which was not in good taste,
Being deep down a crocodile’s throat.
“Well, I couldn’t live there”, thought the rabbit, “because
There are too many teeth at the door!
I might as well stay in the trunk where I was
And put up with cleaning the floor.”
But later the elephant stopped by the moat
And the crocodile bit off a chunk.
So the rabbit is now in the crocodile’s throat
As well as the elephant’s trunk.

I never completed my illustrations (check the above link to see how far I got), but my mother has always wanted the book to be finished, and late in 2015 she said she was willing to pay for it to be done through the graphic design studio I work for.

Now, because we’re graphic design, not art, the project was somewhat outside our usual domain — but we do have a couple of employees who can draw. One (Travis) is not long out of school, has started formal art classes at TAFE, and aspires to become a cartoonist. It turned out he was keen to do the drawings for my book, especially as it was to be his first time ever drawing for a client. However, he didn’t feel confident about colouring, so that (and inking) fell to another employee and art hobbyist (Rosie).

Incidentally, I also enquired online as to whether any other artists were interested (through a friend who is involved with the free painting software Krita). But nothing came of that, so Travis and Rosie got the job.

You are now reading the official announcement that the book is finished, and that if you’d like a copy, you can get in touch. Copies are limited, so I can’t give them out to every random person who stumbles upon this page, but I’d be happy to send them to any online friends who are interested.

Meanwhile, here is a web quality PDF for everyone to enjoy, and below is a video of the printed product. The back page shows a selection of my own illustrations, as also seen in my earlier blog post. The pages are 150 gsm white satin, and the cover is 300 gsm.

(I regret that my voice sounds bored in places, but that’s simply because holding a camera and reciting a story at the same time takes concentration, and I don’t have enough brain cells left to be expressive.)

OK, that’s the announcement over. I’d now like to share a few thoughts about lessons learned in the making of this book, especially about working with amateur artists. Then I’ll end with an invitation for any art or other derivative works of your own.

I’m glad I was able to offer experience to a young artist learning his craft, but the road was a bumpy one at times, and made me appreciate what a good professional artist could do. With a bit of luck, you could give a story to an experienced artist and more or less leave them to it, trusting them to make sensible decisions about what to draw and to draw it well. Travis is nowhere near that level, and I had to critique his drafts in a lot more detail than I was comfortable with. To his credit, he was happy to draw as many drafts as it took. If persistence and openness to criticism are among the marks of a successful artist in the making, then those are certainly among his strengths.

The skills that someone needs to be a good storybook artist include not only drawing, but also an ability to read someone else’s story and gauge what would and would not be appropriate for an illustration. This ability might not be evident simply from an artist’s portfolio, and I think it comes in two parts: knowing what to put in, and knowing what to leave out. For example, the book doesn’t mention anything about a castle until page 7, where we learn that the crocodile lives in the moat. Yet Travis drew a castle on page 4, and in early drafts it was a lot more prominent. Was this a good decision? In my comments I ruled that the castle should not feature prominently before the moat was mentioned in the text, but that showing a small part of it on page 4 was OK. In this decision I reasoned that someone reading the book for the first time might suppose that the castle is playing on the theme of places to live, so there is some thematic justification for it.

One very obvious lesson we learned is that we should have finalised the character drawings before starting on the scenes. Any real artist would have done it that way, but it’s one of those things that, as a design studio, we didn’t think about until it was too late. On a related topic, if you look closely you’ll notice several inconsistencies in the character drawings, but one thing worth mentioning is the length of the elephant’s tusks. On page 2 (where the elephant sneezes) they are a modest length, but on page 1 and the cover (which was based on a tracing from page 1) they are nearly as long as the trunk. In fact this isn’t an oversight, but an attempt to make it absolutely clear that it is a trunk and not, shall we say, some other part of the elephant (I felt that was important). An experienced artist would have found a better solution, but knowing our limits, the inconsistent tusk length was a sacrifice we chose to make for the greater good.

The only page for which I rejected Travis’s original concept entirely was the last, for which he drew the rabbit alive inside the crocodile, sitting on the detached elephant’s trunk and holding a fishing line. The poem leaves it up to the child’s imagination whether the rabbit survives or not, so I felt the pictures should do the same.

I could go on discussing Travis’s drawings and the stages they went through, because I know he’s OK with that, but a few examples suffice to make some general points. I am less inclined to publically critique Rosie’s efforts, because she’s a hobbyist rather than an aspiring professional, so I don’t feel it’s appropriate to put her work in the spotlight so much. That said, there is a story to be told about every page, as each picture is a collaboration, containing elements contributed by Travis, Rosie and myself. So please feel free to ask about any details that catch your eye. The illustrations are clearly better than I could have done, as you can see by comparing them to my own pictures on the back cover.

To finish this blog post, here is my invitation for artists. (I’m thinking particularly of those who try to draw something new every day, at all levels of proficiency.) If the muse takes you and you’re inclined to share, I’d love to see how you would have illustrated the poem, either the whole poem at once or a selected page from the book. For example, perhaps you have an idea for getting the rabbit and the elephant into the frame, or perhaps you think you can do a better job on drawing a scene from inside the crocodile’s mouth on page 5. Let me know whether you’d like me to nitpick your efforts.

And if you’re not an artist but would like to join in the fun, other derivative works are equally welcome, from an essay of literary analysis emphasising the political theme of housing shortages, to a recipe for a rabbit sausage roll with gooey green lining inside the pastry.

(Here’s the PDF again.)

You are welcome to add your thoughts.

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