Archive for September, 2008

Black President by Rick Schmidt

Monday, September 29th, 2008

Black PresidentWell, hello again! The countdown to the Oct. 1 publication of Black President is just about here, with only a couple days before it’s out in the world, so please allow me to give Picnic Publishing a huge THANK YOU for believing in my book and getting it to this point!  Wow!   It’s a pleasure and an honor to be back in the blogging-seat, especially now that I’ve read all the other Picnic author’s blogs and realize what lovely company I’m keeping.  So congratulations to all of you for getting your books recognized and heading for print!   Just awaiting the box of my author’s copies to show up so I can gaze upon the final product (I’d better check my mailbox again…)

And now, on to the US meltdowns…
In Black President I’ve tried to connect the dots of how the elite class of big landowners and richest one-percent of America was formed out of the old-boy network, leading right up to, and socially connected with, the US PRESIDENCY.  And suddenly we have these huge ‘corrections’ going on again in the financial markets.  Loans were available to almost anyone who wanted to take on a mortgage a few years ago, and it’s hit the wall with millions of forclosures (question: who makes all the money, whether the market goes up…or down?). Capitalism can’t seem to help breeding this mindset.  At the same time, most of us can’t save enough in this inflationary environment to save or invest in anything! 

Regarding this current meltdowns of US financial markets, the greed-factor seems to be massively at fault.   On this subject, I’d like to run a short piece I wrote as part of my memoir (‘Twelve Dead Frogs and Other Stories’) that may be of interest.  In the late 1960’s my life intersected with an old Italian grocer named Joe, who altered my concept of ‘money.’  Please enjoy this short flashback.

*          *          *

During the summer of 1969, dazed and confused after the breakup of my first marriage, I aimlessly walked the Bay Area streets, hoping to let the poison seep out. Since I didn’t have any destination, no goal of any kind, I was suddenly living in the present more than I ever had before.  When I wandered into any place of business I took my time, looked around at the people and things, even consciously smelled the air instead of just rushing in then out with a purchase, like I do now. 

One day I ducked into a corner grocery on Claremont Boulevard, a block off Telegraph Avenue near 51st Street in Oakland.  As was my new custom, I gazed around me and slowly took it all in.   The small space was poorly lit, the aisles so narrow I almost had to walk sideways.  Wide wooden shelves were stocked with a mix of Italian and American foodstuffs, with dried salamis, cheeses and peppers, brooms and other sundries hanging overhead.  At the end of an aisle there was a free-standing rack of greeting cards from the 1930s, their quaint phrases adding to the ambiance. “Come out of your doghouse and play,”  one said, showing a lovelorn man looking out from the entrance of a doghouse, red hearts floating above his head.  Before the end of that first visit I learned the store was run by an old Italian guy named Joe, who seemed to spend most of his time sitting behind the counter on a short stool.

Over the next few weeks I found myself returning to dawdle awhile, exploring the place like I might a museum.   When I saw a small group of secretaries and businessmen form a line at lunchtime to buy Joe’s homemade sandwiches, I joined in.  His ‘poor boy’ included three kinds of meat, three kinds of cheese on a French roll, and cost only 25-cents.  A quarter!   Even in the late 1960s that had to be considered ridiculously cheap.  An empty French roll cost that much anywhere else.  Didn’t Joe realize a roll with meat and cheese should run at least a dollar?  Was he stupid?  Senile?   What ever he was, I hoped he’d never change.

At some point Joe decided to reduce his quota of sandwich clients to just fifteen, informing me I was still on the list.  He mentioned he’d had the store for twenty-five years.  Pretty long, I thought.  Then he told me his first grocery had been at the insurance storefront right next door, and that he’d been there for thirty-nine years.  Far out!  Joe’s two stores had occupied that same Oakland corner for 64 years, about triple my lifetime at that point.

Joe barely had two words for most of the customers, even for the old Italians who arrived daily to pick up bags of food and sign an old ledger.  No money ever changed hands.  These elderly women (I only saw women) all seemed to wear the same kind of long black coats, and none was ever kept waiting.  He would interrupt his sandwich-making or dealings with customers the second one was spotted at the doorway.  Once, when the ledger was open, I caught a glimpse of what looked like hundreds of tiny scrawled signatures, a sum beside each one.

In late August, when I got hired to set tile on a patio at my College (CCA) I went several weeks without Joe’s lunches.  But one day I got the urge to show off my discovery.   I impulsively invited two student co-workers to join me for ‘the cheapest sandwich in town.’  We drove the quick mile to the grocery, got in line, and I gave Joe our order – three poor boys.  As he went to work cutting rolls, adding meat, cheese, spreading mustard, I began to bask in my upcoming glory.  25-cent sandwiches!  Was I cool, or what? 

After Joe wrapped and bagged the food he suddenly called out in a loud, angry voice, “Rick!  Come over here!”  What was wrong?  I was embarrassed to be so abruptly addressed, could feel a blush rising to my cheeks as the lunchtime crowd and my buddies looked on.  When I reached the counter Joe really let me have it.

“Don’t ever bring anyone in here again!”  he exclaimed, making more eye contact than I was used to.  Before I could think straight, recover from my humiliation, the agitated old man lowered the boom.  “Don’t you know it costs me more than twenty-five cents to make these sandwiches?!” 

Oh my God!  He’d known all along!  No one had ever gotten away with anything!  I started to say something, but nothing came out.  Finally the word ‘Why?’ escaped my lips.   Joe’s expression suddenly changed from anger to a mix of something between pity and disgust.  Still speaking gruffly, but with a kind of resigned energy, the old Italian declared, “Somebody’s gotta do something for this country.”

*         *          *

So here was an old Italian immigrant thinking he could help America by selling his hand-made sandwiches at a loss while giving free bags of food away to the local community!  Not quite the typical capitalistic modes operandi!  I’d like to think that Joe’s shockwave had something to do with the creation of my how-to book, FEATURE FILMMAKING AT USED-CAR PRICES, written 17 years after the 25-cent sandwiches.   Since people regard the cost of a feature film to be millions of dollars, not thousands from the sale of a used-car, my book helped some artists rethink the possibilities.  So maybe I unconsiously carried Joe’s example forward.

What still captures my imagination is wondering how Joe decided on that course of action.  What experiences did he have growing up that drove him to do it? (I’m currently doing some research in the Italian community, to see if anyone remembers him and can supply some facts about his life)  At any rate, he is a hero of mine and I feel  responsibility for helping his story live on (thanks blog!).

The Dinosaur & Dragon Juice Café by James Anthony Crabb

Friday, September 26th, 2008

Illustrating: Evolution, Research & Mistakes along the way

Creating my first book “The Dinosaur And Dragon Juice Café” I ran into many challenges.
Firstly designing of the characters, their sizes, shapes, colours, expressions, etc.
I sent my first drawings off for the authors blessing, these were promptly turned down for being too Disney like (big feet, gloved hands) and lacked colour.

My second attempt was better, colours ok, but too old fashioned.
I was asked to modernise everything, for example by adding a modern car for Grandad, who should look younger, trendier clothes for the special children, trainers for the main characters, fiercer looking dinosaur and dragon, not too much trouble!


The story having been aimed at 6 to 7year olds had to include special children of similar age, this meant (with the help of my wife) hiking round stores and supermarkets, looking at children’s clothes and shoes, researching catalogues for the mentioned trendier look, studying little faces, and looking at mango’s, their shapes and colours.

I tried many types of media for the drawings, ink pens, acrylics, watercolours and fluorescents, I finally settled for watercolour pencils, a good choice I think. I found these were perfect for shading, blending, very clean to work with, and brushing in afterwards with water, I could achieve excellent results very quickly.

Unfortunately mistakes were made along the way proving to be a costly venture, sometimes a nightmare, mainly because they seem to appear at the end of a drawing, often resulting in redrawing (with the help of a light box), and patching which then has to be blended on the computer.
I hit on the idea of using Tippex, easy to cover! Great, but to my sheer horror showed up glowing white in the final scanning.
This led to last minute panic of retouching using Photoshop on the computer, obviously not having enough time to redraw.

Conclusion, I must be more careful in preparation and correctly confident before finishing off.
I have learnt many lessons in putting the illustrations together for this book, firstly use of a computer (for scanning, printing and text), research has been time consuming, use of the internet would have been a great asset, so hopefully I will be connected soon.

I really should mention the excellent advice and help I have received from my good friend Caroline Bailey (illustrator of the Sleepy Ladybird) who has spent many hours vetting and correcting my work, I am very grateful, without her I would not have succeeded in this task.

Next on the Picnic Blog is a change of scene with Rick Schmidt author of Black President - Stay Tuned!

Thank you,

James A. Crabb

The Dinosaur & Dragon Juice Café by James Anthony Crabb

Thursday, September 25th, 2008


Before doing children’s books illustrations, I never realised the complexity of illustrating a book.

Apart from drawing, reading text over and over again, matching drawings to text, being sure, because changing text or drawings can lead to ongoing problems later on throughout the book, researching, using models etc, stabilising characters features, working with colours and making many notes for future reference, is there no end ?

Planning most importantly, putting together a mock up book, scanning, copying, doing test prints and final printing, and hopefully lead on production.
Was it worth it? YES.

My first book is in the process of printing and will soon be on sale which is a very exciting feeling.
I would like to say a big thank you to Picnic Publishing for giving me the opportunity to become an illustrator.

Thank you, (this is not a goodbye though as I will be publishing my last and best blogpost tomorrow!)

James A. Crabb

The Dinosaur & Dragon Juice Café by James Anthony Crabb

Wednesday, September 24th, 2008


Many times during Sunday roast, my young grandson has remarked we eat lots of bouncy broccoli don’t we granddad, and big bag of potatoes isn’t very full now, we’ve just eaten them, has mucky mango all gone? all this between drinking his dinosaur milk.
He did spend a lot of time with me while I was illustrating the story of “THE DINOSAUR AND DRAGON JUICE CAFÉ” and seemingly little mind certainly absorbed the story line and characters.

I am very lucky to have such a lovely knowledgeable little fellow who loves his food.
He eats so well, loves his greens, always discusses healthy foods and is absolutely no problem at the table, he has obviously been raised well.
He is eagerly waiting for me to draw a battle story, as his main interest is soldiers (especially Russian troops with fur hats and a red star).

I am looking forward to start working on my second book “TIGER TRAP” hopefully getting a better start, having ironed out some of the challenges I encountered with my first effort!

James A. Crabb

The Dinosaur & Dragon Juice Café by James Anthony Crabb

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2008


“The Dinosaur & Dragon Juice Café” An odd title for a book, but explains itself as the story unfolds.
A pleasant exciting little story, which seems to delight and baffle our young ones with its sad, or is it sad, ending?
How can it be sad when bouncy broccoli, mucky mango and big bag of potatoes are delighted at the outcome!

My young grandson and his friends have read a preview of the book, and like all seven year olds were quick to pass judgement.
Overall they gave a good thumbs up approval, and are eagerly waiting the arrival of the finished book to emerge.
Whilst previewing the story, their comments were really comical and delightful. For example…they knew potatoes have eyes, but they don’t open and close do they silly. And (between fits of giggles) broccoli can’t run either, what’s a mango? and Grandad where is The Dinosaur and Dragon Juice Café? Such innocence.

Have you ever had comical or interesting comments from your young readers?
I would like to hear from you if you have.
The aim of the story is not only to give youngsters pleasure, but also to try and  introduce them to eating healthy food in a nice way.
My opinion is, the story does both in an excellent way. If you have a child or grand-child who is not too keen on vegetable, or milk, buy the book and you’ll be surprised how things can change!

James A. Crabb

The Dinosaur & Dragon Juice Café by James Anthony Crabb

Monday, September 22nd, 2008


One of the nicest moments of being a grandparent is reading a story to a seven year old at bedtime.
It is even nicer when it is a children’s story book that you, yourself, have helped to produce.

My initiation into the fairy tale world of children’s reading books, started with my dear friends persuading me, with tales of wealth and grandeur, to use my artistic skills to illustrate a nice little story called ” The Dinosaur and  Dragon Juice Café”.
When I first read this story, my reaction was where on earth do I start?
Having retired from fifty years of engineering to have a well earned rest, I now find I am busier than ever, starting a new career, and wondering where all the time has gone!

However, months later of drawing, and redrawing, painting, scanning, printing, modifications, criticisms and frustration I am delighted with the overall result. It is a nice rewarding feeling that hopefully someone, either parents, grandparents and more importantly children somewhere, are enjoying my efforts in creative drawing.

I have sat many times with my young grandson listening to him reading his school books, sometimes skipping through the pages very quickly, because he says he has already read it in class (or he would rather use his Playstation or Wii), other times having a small discussion about the book, regarding the characters, whether exciting or boring.
Looking at the condition of the books,(some looking like they have narrowly escaped the shredder), I often wonder if their  days  are numbered, but how can you replace imagination? That’s what books are all about and that’s where hopefully my new career carries on.
There are so many beautiful books available these days, it would be a terrible shame to lose them!

What do you think?

Thank you all,
James A Crabb.

The Sleepy Ladybird illustrated by Caroline Bailey

Friday, September 12th, 2008

The Sleepy Ladybird CoverIllustrating children’s books and taking criticism

I have always been keen to get advice and feedback about my illustrations from other than friends and family . . . who obviously marvel at my creative work. In search of more objective feedback, it is always interesting to quiz professionals in the children’s books industry.

Once, I talked to an agent and showed her the cover of The Sleepy Ladybird. She said that the children looked slightly oriental. This was an interesting comment but I won’t expand on it now. She also said that they looked too ‘cutesy’ for her taste. I love cute and endearing characters, but some people in the industry think it is a no-no and think cute is only for greeting cards.

Curious to hear what the top illustrators had to say, I went to a couple of seminars.  One of them was with Chris Riddell, a superbly talented illustrator who started his career in children’s book illustration when his friend Kathryn Cave asked him to illustrate Something Else, a book about accepting differences and one of my favourites. His ‘doodle books’ as he calls them, were covered with ready to print drawings, no pencil marks or sign of rubber use.  Amazingly, Chris’ pen stroke is always perfect first time round – or is this clever marketing?.  Unfortunately I did not manage to squeeze through the crowd and talk to him on this occasion, so I was determined to make contact at the next seminar.

Charlotte and FreddieThis was even more crowded with eager wannabe-illustrators and wannabe-writers and it was all about Tony Ross, the author/illustrator of The little Princess series as well as Horrid Henry,  for young readers.  Tony claims he produces one book a week, which is truly impressive. Clever marketing again?  After his talk, which included a few sarcastic jokes about fellow colleagues in the industry, whom I won’t name here, and wanting his advice, I managed to approach him to show him my half-done-illustrations of The Sleepy Ladybird. Understandably, I was a bit nervous. When this happens, my French accent can sometime become stronger.  He had a look at the drawings of Charlotte and Freddie and remarked, ‘They look French’. 

 Me: ‘All right, is there anything else you can see?’

 Tony Ross: ‘They look like they have some kind of brain disease and their heads are about to fall off.’

 Pause - 

 Me: ‘Oh really, Thanks.’ 

Caroline BaileyWell, I did ask for ‘la critique’, didn’t I? Although it’s impossible to know if Tony Ross was being sarcastic or giving true comments – probably a mix of both – I took on board there must be some spec of truth in what he was saying.  After all, I am just an insect compared to him. So, I seriously considered reducing all the heads.  But then I changed my mind, deciding the heads were just right.  I did touch up a few drawings but didn’t do anything about the French aspect . . .

. . . apart from removing the baguettes and berets.

As long as I keep my mouth shut, I thought, nobody will notice!

Next on the illustrator Blog is James Anthony Crabb who will be telling you all about the Dinosaur and Dragon Juice Café which is being printed right now, watch out for this one!

Lots of love and until the next time – Christmas I think.

Caro x

The Sleepy Ladybird illustrated by Caroline Bailey

Thursday, September 11th, 2008

One of the lovely aspects of children’s books for 3 to 5 years old is that they give an opportunity for a shared moment with a parent, elder or guardian. Often with close contact, there is a chance to interact, understand together, comment and exchange ideas, express surprise, laugh, remember etc . . .

In the 70’s I used to flick through books while listening to the recorded story playing on a vinyl.  I remember the exciting magic sound of the bell ringing each time a page had to be turned. This pleasant but somewhat lonesome experience was not dissimilar to today’s digital books or books with narrated stories on a cd-rom.

Despite loving doing traditional illustration on paper, I am not a stranger to multimedia work as I have designed several web and multimedia projects. One of them involved creating a website with a virtual house with various rooms with topical educational games and activities. The target audience is adults with learning disabilities, but the website is also widely used by children and schools. 

sensory roomOne of the favourite ‘rooms’ is the Sensory room, which can be fully customised to create a mood with a choice of settings, animations and music. Characters have been drawn digitally with a computer tablet and digital pen to create what we call ‘vector graphics’ using Flash software; the characters were then slightly animated.

music bandThe most animated characters are located in the music room. You can get musicians from a band to play their instruments or stay still while the rest of the band is playing. When animating the guitarist, I initially just animated the hands and arms playing the guitar.  Note that each animated element has to be drawn separately, on a separate level or layer and animated individually (for instance a hand or an eye would each be an element – think of Mr Potato Head if each plastic piece was animated and then assembled).  Coming back to the guitarist, I realised I needed to give a slight rhythmic movement to the guitar to make it look more natural. The body also had to move slightly or the character would look too stiff.  In the end, very few elements remained still – and this was nevertheless a very basic animation that had to remain minimal for quick web download!

You can have a play with the various music bands here:

And the sensory room



The Sleepy Ladybird illustrated by Caroline Bailey

Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

 Children’s Illustrated Books: Character Design

One of my favourite parts of the creative process is designing characters.  For example, the first thing I had to do for Oliver the Ladybird was . . .  find an image of a real ladybird!  It might seem obvious but, off hand, I wasn’t sure how many legs or dots it had, or whether a dot could be across two wings. 

Despite good feedback, I decided my first drafts were a bit too cartoon-like. So, I went back to the drawing board and created a character that was more insect-like with long thin legs, slim arms with long pointy fingers and a much darker complexion. Pure black would have made it almost impossible to show the tiny facial expressions, so I used a blue dark grey.  The antennas were great to convey the mood of the ladybird so I extended them: droopy antennas if he was sad or sleepy; straight up if attentive or angry.  I added a red bow tie to match his red wings. The round belly went well with his sleepy mood and boisterous persona. Voila! Oliver the Ladybird was born.

The next stage was ‘getting to know him’.  To facilitate this, I drew him from different angles, with different expressions. 

This avoids making mistakes later on, such as, for instance, having too many arms or legs, shorter antennas etc . . .  Once you get busy sketching, painting & outlining, it is easy to miss something, especially clothing details.


The Sleepy Ladybird illustrated by Caroline Bailey

Tuesday, September 9th, 2008

 After illustrating The Sleepy Ladybird, I was very keen to observe a young child reading the book.  Picnic Publishing generously sent me a big pile of free samples. I admired the sleek colourful covers and although I had seen bits of the book through the various production stages, there is nothing like handling the end product: it just looked perfect and like a real book!

Shortly after, I visited my childhood friend in France and she read the story to her three-year-old, Zoé.  Incredibly, she translated it into French in real time.  Zoé listened very attentively, looked at the drawings, pointed at the characters and made a lot of comments.  As soon as the story unfolded, she pointed out with triumph that Oliver the Ladybird had lied! I was shocked. I had been painting these illustrations for months and hadn’t even noticed: Did the ladybird lie? That’s what happens when your nose is too close to the drawing board!  Once the story was over, Zoe immediately asked her mum to tell it again ‘Very quickly’.  Of course, this could have been a trick not to go to bed but Hey! This was still a good sign. I was over the moon.

My friend Henri Renard, the author of The Sleepy Ladybird, told me about a 3-year-old boy named Kieron who particularly loved the drawing of Oliver the Ladybird asleep on Bobby the Labrador’s nose at the end.   Kieron also made his grandmother Sally – who is not unconnected with Picnic’s distributors (!) – read and re-read it.  Sally said what was fascinating was that for the first time ever, her grandson was listening to the story and checking out the pictures. He then insisted it be read again – and re-checked the pictures. Sally is wild about the book because she says children have no vocabulary but do have sophisticated minds, which children’s books do not exploit. 

Meanwhile, her grandson said: ‘Oliver is bad boy.  Bobby is good boy. Bobby and Oliver are friends.  Oliver becomes good boy like me.’ (In a nutshell!)


Note re Market Research:  ‘The Management’ would like me to explain that Picnic only exploits the children and grandchildren of its nicest friends and colleagues . . .