Jessie Oliveros and Dana Wulfekotte have a picture book coming out together that addresses a topic rarely (ever?) addressed in picture books. Namely, Alzheimer's disease.
So when a story comes along that provides space for the readers to sit in this moment with the characters and perhaps gain a small understanding of what it is like not only to know a person with Alzeimer's, but even to be a person with Alzheimer's... that something that takes a lot of care and tact and sincerity to convey.
Jessie and Dana join me today to share the cover of THE REMEMBER BALLOONS, their new picture book. Keep reading along as Dana introduces the story and the inspiration behind it. Then stick around as Dana shares the evolution of the cover. We can all take a close look at the cover together after that.
JESSIE: THE REMEMBER BALLOONS was born a few summers ago in a Kansas retirement home as I sat across from my grandpa with my kids. They didn't know the grandpa I knew—the grandpa filled with boundless energy who took me fishing and showed us old super 8 movies. They knew the man in front of them, quietly chewing on a toothpick and asking the same question he asked a couple minutes ago. They knew the grandpa who didn’t know their names.
Alzheimer's is a confusing disease for a child.
Later, when I tried to translate my experience into a picture book, the story felt stale and dry. I needed a metaphor, one that children could understand. That's when I thought of balloons—balloons filled with memories.
In my book, James boasts about Grandpa's balloons. There are so many of them filled with amazing stories! Grandpa's lived such a wonderful, rich life! But then…Grandpa's balloons start floating away. And James can't catch them even though he tries.
This is one of those picture book manuscripts that flowed from a deep well of experience and emotions. I had a beginning, a middle, and an end in an afternoon. (Although it's gone through a lot of revisions since then!) When I read it to my daughter, she said, "Oh, that's sad that the grandpa's balloons floated away."
Alzheimer's is sad, but in a story for children, I believe it must end with hope. In the end, James discovers he can share Grandpa's stories now.
It ended up being so much more than a story about Alzheimer's. It became a story about family, patience, and love. It became a story about listening to the aging voices around us and carrying on their legacy.
I was so fortunate to have Christian Trimmer (formerly) of Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers acquire THE REMEMBER BALLOONS. We got to edit it together before he moved houses (sad for me but not sad for Holt Children's). I was incredibly blessed to have Justin Chanda take over as editor. We have some amazing people on THE REMEMBER BALLOONS team: Justin, of course; his editorial assistant, Alyza Liu; the brilliant Lucy Ruth Cummins as art director; and of course—the up-and-coming, ever-so-talented Dana Wulfekotte. My story is elevated tenfold by her beautiful illustrations. And her cover…well, I hope my story does it justice.
Dana Wulfekotte just made her debut this week with RABBIT AND POSSUM.
Here's Dana to walk us through how the cover evolved.
DANA: To start off the cover process, my art director Lucy sent me a rough sketch of James, the dog, and Grandpa holding two balloons that would replace the o’s in the word “Balloons.” I took that idea and did four variations of it, along with two slightly different concepts. Lucy and Justin liked the 6th option the most, which was actually my favorite as well. I figured more balloons would be more eye-catching, especially since the characters are in black and white.
Then they suggested that we move James closer to his grandpa and put the title below them so that there would be even more balloons to fill the page. There’s also one balloon floating away to hint at what’s to come in the story.
Here’s the nearly-final art that I sent once we decided on those changes from the original sketch:
As a final touch, Lucy added a watercolor-like texture on all the balloons that I think goes beautifully with the rest of the art.
And just like that we have a COVER!
Having heard what Jessie and Dana had to say, there is so much to take in from this cover. My eyes immediately go to the balloons hanging throughout the upper half of the cover and I notice three things right away:
1. Everyone has memories they're holding onto (including the dog!).
2. Grandpa has let go of one of his memories and it's floating up off the cover.
3. At the moment this cover captures, the boy and his grandfather are each holding onto the same number of balloons. In fact two f their balloons are an identical silver color. Perhaps this is a memory that they share?
I've got to say that I love Dana's choice to use color on the balloons but keep the characters and the tight setting in gray tones. My eyes keep drawing back to the memories, which is perhaps the same thing that happens with these characters (and to all of us): we look to our memories for a sense of self, of who we are, and of who we have become.
If covers are anything to judge (and I personally think they are), this is going to be a special one.
THANKS, Jessie! THANKS, Dana! And THANKS, Simon & Schuster!
THE REMEMBER BALLOONS is scheduled to publish on August 28, 2018 from Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers.