The Way Home (part 3)


Continued from The Way Home (part 2)

About 6 months after our visit to New York, I received a telephone call from Phyllis Larkin at MacMillan. I remember being confused because her tone and inflection didn’t match the words she was saying. She was telling me in a slow, flat voice the most exciting news- that she would like to publish The Way Home!

National Geographic article on elephants

Of course, I could hardly believe it and when she asked how long I needed to sew the illustrations, I guessed “one year” on the spot, because I thought any longer might make her change her mind. Now that we had made it over the hurdle and sold our idea to a publisher, I needed to figure out how to bring all of the different elements of the story together in a series of pictures. Referring to National Geographic, I did sketches of elephants and noticed that African and Asian elephants have different shaped ears. When consulted, Judy thought that hers were Asian elephants.

sketches for “The Way Home”

In my imagination, I saw the drama of the story unfolding against the back drop of a landscape changing from day to night, like puppet show scenery, slowly scrolling from left to right.

editing the manuscript

Ian and his friend Sam in my studio, 1988

Judy edited the manuscript and I worked on the book whenever I could. The advance payment wasn’t enough to pay for daycare, so I figured out other ways to set aside time to work. I would spend a few hours stitching every evening, after the boys were read to and put to bed. During the day I was part of a coop arrangement, where I’d watch 2 other boys one morning a week and mine were taken care of 2 mornings. This picture shows Ian and his friend Sam in my studio wearing monster masks.

early sketch of Savi following banana trail

early drawing of Savi following banana trail

Somehow, I pieced together enough time to make progress and the pages started to take shape. In the beginning, I figured out what fabrics to use for the background, elephants and borders. I found a shirt of my husband’s to use for the elephant’s bodies. The gray Indian cotton was the perfect shade and texture.

Indian cotton shirt and dyed silk

I cut a piece of silk from my grandmother’s old nightgown to use for the water and then dyed it turquoise with a spray bottle. The silk was crumpled up when I sprayed the dye, so some areas were left white, making a foamy, wavy pattern.

The Way Home, page 4

I ripped out the seams of an old faded pair of my son Peter’s overalls. There was exactly enough fabric to use for each section of sky. I dyed the light blue pieces sunset pink and then graduated shades of dark blue. For the night sky on the last pages, I used a midnight blue colored wool.

The Way Home, pages 26/27

 The beach was made of a bumpy piece of raw silk, which I dyed green in the grassy areas. I redid the same scene that I’d made as a sample, matching the fabric with the other illustrations.

The Way Home, page 6

There were logistics to figure out, like how can an elephant carry a towel and toy boat, while leaving her trunk free to pick up bananas? I ended up tucking Savi’s boat into her folded towel, which she carried on her back. I also gave the mother a basket to carry bananas. Cecilia Yung, the art director and I corresponded about the book layout.

sketch for The Way Home pages 26/27

She sent detailed letters, going over every page. She pointed out things that I didn’t think about like allowing enough space for the dedication and copyright information. Her comments focused on making the elephants’ world consistent throughout the book. She reminded me to pay attention to the position of props like the boat and towel and keep the sun’s direction constant. She wrote, “Make sure shadows lengthen steadily in the same direction and of course colors should shift to reflect the sunset and night sky.

The Way Home, pages 22/23

The Way Home, page 14 sketch

There were so many details to consider for such a simple story! I thought about all the smart, observant children out there, who would see my mistakes and write the publisher with their corrections. Then I remembered that the book was aimed at pre-schoolers who can’t write yet. I then asked myself, “Don’t the littlest ones deserve the best quality books?” At the end of a letter, Cecilia wrote, ” We realize this is a tremendous amount of work for your first book, so do call if you have questions. We’ve very excited about The Way Home and will be glad to help.”

To be continued in The Way Home (part 4). 

sketch, The Way Home, page 28

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8 thoughts on “The Way Home (part 3)

  1. I can’t stand being left like this, fascinated, holding my breath, enraptured waiting for the next event….. only to be cut off until
    the next installment.

    I also can’t believe you took this on with all the family interruptions as it takes serious concentration to keep the details of continuity… continuous. And you can’t easily erase “mistakes” in the finishes. Yikes!

    Waiting for more…….

  2. Fascinating to hear all the detail Salley, and to see the preliminary sketches. Thank you so much! Like Carolyn C., I am hanging on your words here, and look forward to the next instalment.

    How wonderful that you kept all these bits of your first book – know that some are so appreciative of that (I am a dreadful pack-rat – everything could come in handy one day).

  3. Salley, this is one of my favorite posts I’ve ever seen! Thanks so much for sharing your story. Even though I’ve been working around the field in one way or another for some time, I’ve always dreamed of illustrating a book but have never pursued it. I’m enjoying every detail of your experience, and I appreciate the time required for you to put it together to share. Thank you, thank you!

  4. Great Cliffhanger, Salley! Thank you for sharing your adventure! Kudos to you for managing to do all this and juggle the kids too! How did you manage to keep up with it all? Were there times that you thought about quitting?

    • Hi Sheila, I never thought about quitting, but did take summers off for several years when the kids were little. I admit to being an obcessed artist whose sense of well being is directly connected to making things. My children actually helped me lead a more balanced life and kept me from being too driven and working all the time. This past winter, when I broke my wrist and couldn’t work, I was desperate to find a creative outlet. Luckily, I had already started this blog and could put my energy into writing stories. I now have enough rotation in my wrist to hold some felt and started doing some blanket stitching this week!

  5. This is so much fun hearing the details about the book. It also reminded me of a time when there was no Internet and it took imagination to find or make just the right fabric and colors.

    In a way, I miss those simpler times. At that time, I had a similar situation with my daughters. My friends and I shared baby sitting time, too, so we could create, go back to school, or just get some time alone to think. Your story brings back memories of that time.

    The elephants are so cute! I think I need to get a copy for myself. Beautiful work and book. Looking forward to the next part.

  6. Salley, I come often but don’t always have the time to comment. (Shame on me) because I love this post. Watching this all come into completion is marvelous. We lived in Africa for 3 years and my daughter loved elephants (she also has several of your sprites which I have purchased and made for her). But all of that was a lifetime ago. Your creativity – your ingenuity the story – well that’s why I keep coming back! Now – I need to muster up the patience for the next installment! Thanks Salley – for sharing!

  7. This has been a fascinating story and I look forward to the rest! It’s always interesting to hear how someone’s success came about. Thank you for taking the time to write about this book!!

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