I cannot believe it’s already the middle of October! This fall has flown by as work has kept me busy beyond belief. The leaves have started to fall off the trees, the weather has gotten colder and soon snow will be upon us. Before any more time slips by, I have to tell you about my new favorite Halloween picture book: “Samurai Scarecrow.”
I’ve known author-illustrator Rubin Pingk for a little while now. We met online with the kidlitchat community on Twitter, but it wasn’t until this summer that I met him in person at the conference in LA. Rubin had his picture book debut a few years ago with “Samurai Santa” (which I was delighted to see in a scene of one of my favorite TV shows, “Hawaii 5-0”) and his sequel “Samurai Scarecrow” was just recently released at the end of August. You can learn more about him here and you can also follow him on Instagram.
“Samurai Scarecrow” is a wonderful book (I hate to say sequel because it really does stand on its own). While “Samurai Santa” is delightfully fun, “Samurai Scarecrow” has characters I have truly come to love. Yukio (the same little ninja in the first book) goes through a different emotional journey in this story, and I might even say, a stronger emotional journey than the first one. Both stories are different from some of the other holiday picture books on the market and frankly, I think they stand out from the crowd for that very reason.
Me: Can you tell us a little bit about your artistic journey? When did you first start drawing and/or painting? When did you branch into using digital illustration?
Rubin: I’ve always drawn. There’s a clichéd saying I’ve heard that goes something like “Kids don’t start drawing. They stop.” I guess I never stopped, though I did have periods of stagnation. In 2010 I wasn’t drawing consistently, and I wasn’t as talented as I wanted to be, so I resolved to draw every day no matter what. 3,202 days later and I’m still drawing every day. I haven’t missed a day.
I moved to digital after my first book. This decision was mainly brush driven. I found some digital brushes by Frenden that allowed me to draw in my style in Manga Studio (now Clip Studio) and I was off to the pixel races.
Me: What draws you to writing and illustrating picture books?
Rubin: I see what you did there. 😊
I’m a man of few words. Picture books are a medium of few words. I think a lot of talking is useless noise, so I don’t talk much. Picture books fit my natural rhythm of storytelling. I aim for sparse and effective.
Me: I love the design of your Scarecrow in this story. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. What gave you the idea for it?
Rubin: The Scarecrow’s scarf is an homage to Hobbes from Calvin and Hobbes. I love that tiger-striped element because it allows the rest of the design to be very simple. I wanted a more practical design than supernatural. I don’t really do character design. I discover everything in the work. I just start drawing the story and around draft 3 the story and design elements start to click.
I feel bad for people who want things to be perfect before they start. They are like a deer in headlights. It’s arrested development (cue ukulele music). I just jump in. I found Yukio in the art. He is my main character in my first book (Samurai Santa: A Very Ninja Christmas) and he didn’t even exist in the first few story sketches. That is the secret, I think. The best stuff is hiding in the work and if you wait to start until things are perfect you’ll never find those things. My scarecrow is no different. He was hiding in the work.
Me: A scarecrow hiding? Interesting. You have talked about struggling with the writing of this story and your editor helping you to greatly revise and polish it. Where did you start with the writing process of this story? What did it look like in first draft form? I think I remember you saying that the sister wasn’t in it at first?
Rubin: The sister was always there, in this story, but I had a different story (The Ninja with the Mismatched Pants) that only featured Yukio. I wrote the first draft of this story (Samurai Scarecrow) entirely in haiku, which was very difficult. My editor at Simon & Schuster told me to scrap it. Then I scrapped draft one. And two. Three and four. I think draft five or six was the winner. A lot of the elements in the final story were always there but other things had to be chipped away.
My original Scarecrow song was totally different. I loved the haiku. I loved the original song. But I love the final book even more and that is what happens when you have a great editor. You sacrifice things you love for something you love even more. It is a weird and sometimes painful process but like Stephen King says “To write is human, to edit is divine.” I honestly love this book. Every time I see it I love it anew. I hope people find it and make it a part of their Halloween tradition because the story is as good as I could have made it. The story beats. The mirrored elements. The mechanics of it are just beautiful and I wouldn’t have found those things without a good book designer and editor.
Me: And that’s what feels so graceful in this story. The writing is incredible. What is one thing that surprised you in writing and/or illustrating this story?
Rubin: How effective it is. This story lands really well. Like a gold medal gymnast. I didn’t find the landing until around draft three but once I did I knew I had a good one. This story is chiseled lightning, if that makes sense. The flash of the idea was there in the beginning, but it needed sculpting. It is difficult to sculpt lightning. Unruly. But if you can manage to give the lightning form, what a thing it becomes! If you manage to give your idea a story, what a thing!
Me: Oh my goodness. I love that! Great image. Any additional advice for other aspiring picture book writers and/or illustrators?
Rubin: Do the work. Yeesh. I see a lot of people spinning their wheels. I get stuck in conversations about how to do the work (finding the time, using the right materials, having the right technology etc). It doesn’t matter how. Just do the work. Do the work. Do the work.
If there is a muse, some divine presence that gifts the minds of mankind with brilliance, I guarantee you she is rewarding people who are already in the middle of the work. If I was a muse… if I were a roaming spirit with gifts to give, I wouldn’t waste my time on people who didn’t do the work. That would be like throwing my ideas in the garbage. If I were a muse, I’d give my gems to the workers.
Me: Good point! Can we hope for any future ninja holiday books? What are your future book projects at the moment?
Rubin: I’d love to do Samurai Shamrock and have a ninja trilogy, but we will see how this book goes. I’m currently writing a middle grade about witches, and a graphic novel about ghosts (you can read drafts of chapter 1 and chapter 2 on insta). I’ve got nothing under contract right now. I’m going to keep making stories anyway, because I want to. If the contracts don’t manifest, I’ll publish my stories online for free. I just want to make stuff. Getting it published is my agent’s job. 😊
What a great way of looking at things. Dear readers, if you haven’t had a chance yet to read this book, you must. The relationship between Yukio and his sister Kashi is beautifully done. This isn’t your typical holiday read with a checklist of all your favorite things about the holiday. This is a story that coincidentally takes place on the holiday. It’s definitely worth the read.