The Way Home (part 1)

This is the story of the making of my first picture book for children, The Way Home. I will tell you how the writer, Judy Richardson, and I persisted over a period of 8 years, from our first glimmer of an idea in 1983, to having Judy’s story and my illustrations paired together in a book published by MacMillan on 1991.  This is not meant to be a guide for those who want to have their own work published. Our unique project and the time and circumstances in which we were working shaped the trajectory of events I will be sharing. There is a lot to show and tell about this story and I hope that you will follow through until the end of  part 5.

The Way Home, published in 1991

I majored in illustration in art school, but I never thought I’d make illustrations in a way that could be reproduced effectively. At the Rhode Island School of Design during the 1970’s, there wasn’t an obvious major for someone like me, who was interested in many different materials and methods.  I didn’t want to limit myself to a particular discipline and was attracted to the illustration department, with its focus on communication, rather than certain processes and mediums. Just as other schools are divided by subject, our student body was separated by technique and I regret not mingling with people in other majors. Other possible matches, like the sculpture or textile dept. were too specialized for me.

Salley at RISD

The sculpture dept. seemed to me like an all boys club, with its swarm of black clad, chain-smoking, wiry young men who produced large, austere metal sculptures, the kind that are now rusting in public places. Even the more female dominated textile dept., with its concentration on fabric design and weaving, was too specific for me. All I knew was that total abstraction left me hungry for more and I wanted my artwork to be a kind of narrative that viewers could connect to. In the illustration dept., I could use any materials I wanted, as long as my artwork solved the assignment. I used this time in school to teach myself different ways of working and showed an overwhelming interest in fabric and sewing. For my senior thesis, I made a series of 3-dimentional illustrations of the story “Hansel and Gretel”.

“Hansel & Gretel” RISD senior thesis 1978

illustration from Houghton Mifflin educational reader, 1979

Following graduation in 1978, I spent a few years making soft sculpture. My first freelance illustration job was constructing insect characters and their neighborhood for a story in an educational reader. I found that making all of the parts was easy compared to setting up the scenes for the photo shoot. It was almost like making a movie in miniature, complete with an “Ivory Snow” winter scene. The project was challenging and I came away thinking that I would have more control of the outcome if I figured out a way to present my sculpture in a different format.

illustration from Houghton Mifflin educational reader, 1979

I started making what I called “fabric relief” sculptures, which were figures and props sewn to a cloth background. I was guessing that if my work was hung on the wall, it would be more readily accepted as “art”. I also thought that baas relief work would be easier to photograph than sculpture in the round for use as illustrations. “Mother and Child”  was an early fabric relief sculpture that I made with fabric-covered and stuffed cardboard shapes on a pieced and embroidered fabric background.

“Mother and Child”, fabric relief 1983

Molly Bang, an illustrator who lives in Woods Hole, showed me Judith Benet Richardson’s 2-page manuscript for a picture book titled The Way Home. Molly had recently illustrated Judy’s novel for young readers, David’s Landing, which takes place in a village very much like Woods Hole, named Maushope’s Landing. Molly’s cover illustration shows a drawing of the Woods Hole School (built in 1870), where I attended elementary school in the 1960’s.

“David’s Landing” by Judith Benet Richardson, 1983

Molly Bang’s ‘Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher” 1981

Her 1981 wordless picture book, The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher, had won recognition as a Caldecott Honor Book and she was nice enough to show an interest in Judy’s writing and my artwork. I liked The Way Home immediately and could envision the baby elephant and her mother at the beach. Today, 27 years later, I marvel at how very fortunate I was to have this story presented to me. As an illustrator who is not a children’s writer, I have learned to appreciate how difficult it is to craft a good story that children will want read to them over and over. Like poetry, everything about it has to work, the characters, the place and the rhythm, without any unnecessary words. Judy’s story had believable and charming characters, a strong sense of place, tension and a problem resolved in the end.

sketch of sample illustration

We decided to work together and I made a sample illustration of Savi, the baby elephant, alone on the beach, with the banana trees casting long shadows. I knew that an editor would want to see just a sample of my work, not the complete set of illustrations. Picking a book size and designing the page layout comes later, after a contract is signed.

This part of the story reads:

“The sun went down a little farther. Savi came out of the water and lay on her towel. She began to feel cold and hungry.”

Sample illustration made in 1983

Judy and I sent out the story and photographs of my sample illustration to a handful of editors, none of whom were interested. Looking at it now, I can see that showing this part of the story was not a good choice for a sample. The artwork and the moment it illustrates were too static and not the obvious scene to pair up with the story. It was the most lonesome point, just after a tense moment when Savi’s mother leaves her because she refuses to get out of the water.  I can see why I was drawn to this emotional part, but, visually it was too motionless. To sell our idea, we needed to show a more active scene, one that more accurately represented the story as a whole.

detail from “Self Portrait: A Personal History of Fashion”

That summer our book project was side tracked by the birth of my first son, Peter. You can see more pictures of my Self Portrait in an earlier post here. Soon after, I moved away with my family to Central Massachusetts. My sample illustration for The Way Home sat in a box, while I adjusted to motherhood and living in a new town.

This story will be continued in The Way Home (part 2).

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6 thoughts on “The Way Home (part 1)

  1. Enjoying the read, Salley. It is interesting how few artistic endeavors are simply created, but rather evolve. I’ll be interesting to watch The Way Home’s evolution. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  2. It is so fascinating to hear about your evolution in the art world. Your work is so unique and that is what makes it so fascinating to me! I am marveling over all the clever additions to your pictures in the new book. It raises needlework to an elevated art form.

  3. É tão mágico sentir as ilustrações de Salley,é voltar à infância saboreando os sonhos através de cores e tecidos.Um olhar diferente para tornar as coisas feitas a mão lindas e com um significado muito maior . Obrigado, Salley…

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