Today we’re lucky to have a behind-the-scenes peek at the work of award-winning author/ illustrator, Lauren A. Mills. Many people know Lauren as a picture book author and illustrator, but Little, Brown just released her first illustrated middle grade novel, Minna’s Patchwork Coat.
Interestingly enough, the idea came from one of her picture books, The Rag Coat. For those unfamiliar with this heart-tugging story, Minna can’t go to school because she has no coat. The town mothers pitch in to quilt her a coat made of rags. When classmates bully and tease her, Minna stands up to them and shows them how they are all connected through her quilted coat.
Lauren has agreed to share her process of writing and illustrating the book, which was inspired by the song “Coat of Many Colors,” sung by Emmylou Harris and written by Dolly Parton.
To begin the illustrations, Lauren made preliminary drawings in her sketchbook. “I sketched very small at first (thumbnails sketches which are about 1” by 2”), so I could think and draw ideas quickly. The best designs turn out this way. I then enlarged them on a printer and sent those into Little, Brown for their comments and approval. The two editors, Deirdre Jones and Andrea Spooner, along with the art directors gave me much feedback.”
Not all sketches an illustrator turns in are accepted for the final book. Lauren shared this sketch of Minna with an angry man, which the editors rejected because “they thought the scene looked too scary for children.”
Once the layouts were approved, Lauren gathered reference materials. She says, “I took over 100 photos and did many thumbnails sketches, but only 50 final drawings ended up in the book. The photographs were taken in Massachusetts, where I live, and in Virginia, where I teach in the summer, and at the West Virginia Coal Mine Exhibition. The school I used as a model for the Rabbit Ridge School is the Nash Hill School, built in 1786 in Williamsburg, Massachusetts.” She even hiked the Blue Ridge Mountains to get pictures of the setting.
“My process is to sketch out the thumbnails, then gather the reference to look at, and then I draw from my original thumbnail sketches and the photos, a combination of both.” Here’s Lauren hard at work at her drawing board wearing a scarf she felted. To get herself in the right mood to sketch, Lauren “listened to lots of bluegrass music and wore clothing similar to what would have been worn during this time period.”
“At times I didn’t have the reference for a certain scene and went only from my sketch. Other reference, besides photographs, included actual items, such as the antique crazy quilt that hangs in our home, dolls, and the vintage-looking clothes.”
“The dolls were my daughter’s dolls. She was in college, and it was difficult to wrangle Belini Bear away from her, but he behaved very well during the model session.”
Lauren even drew layouts and elevations of the cabin interior and exterior.
She was lucky enough to find children who looked like the characters she’d envisioned for the book. “Alexandra, the model for Minna, and her actual father posed for Minna and her father. He happened to be a musician and provided a genuine handmade Appalachian banjo for me. Lester, a key character and musician in the story, is also from a musical background.”
Other models included adult friends, school children and even live animals – goats, lambs, chickens, sheep. It’s not surprising that goats made their way into the book: Lauren used to raise goats. Once she even helped to deliver one!
Here’s a quick overview of Lauren taking a sketch from preliminary layout to finished artwork. The illustrations were done in graphite pencil on Arches paper.
Although the interior illustrations are in black and white, Lauren painted watercolors of a rabbit and a mockingbird for the book’s jacket flap and back cover. Both of these animals have a special significance in the story, with Rabbit becoming Minna’s “totem.”
To create the cover, Lauren began with an underdrawing. She printed it out, glued it to a board, and covered it with matte medium. Then she painted on top of it with oils, allowing some of the pencil to show through on the trees.
To see more of Lauren’s beautiful artwork, you can visit her website. Teachers and librarians can click on these links to find out about Lauren’s presentations and educational resources, including a core curriculum guide for Minna’s Patchwork Coat.
Thank you, Lauren, for sharing your wonderful process with us!
About Author/Illustrator Lauren A. Mills
Lauren A. Mills is the award-winning author and illustrator of The Rag Coat and The Goblin Baby, and she has retold and illustrated Thumbelina, Tatterhood and the Hobgoblins, and The Book of Little Folk. She is also the author of Fairy Wings, Fia and the Imp, and The Dog Prince, all of which she co-illustrated with her husband, Dennis Nolan. Her work has been exhibited in galleries and museums across the country, including the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Her stories have been performed by storytellers and actors across the country and on the radio, and The Rag Coat was performed as a ballet by the University of Utah. Mills is a visiting associate professor of drawing in the Children’s Book Writing and Illustrating MFA program at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. She invites you to visit her website.
About the Blog Author
Laurie J. Edwards is also an author and illustrator, who was lucky enough to have Lauren Mills as her drawing professor in the Hollins University MFA program in Children’s Writing and Illustrating. Edwards is the author of more than 2200 articles in magazines and educational databases as well as twenty books in print or forthcoming. Read more about Laurie J. Edwards and her books and art at her blog and website, or connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.