Shall I tell you a secret? I’m madly in love with those old wooden ships you see in historical movies. Or even fantasy movies like the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. It’s one of my life goals to set foot on one of those beauties I’ve heard are still hanging around. You’re not terribly surprised, are you? I didn’t think you would be, but you’ll be wonderfully surprised by today’s picture book.
Daniel Miyares is a critically acclaimed picture book author and illustrator. Some of his books include: Float, Night Out, That is My Dream, and Bring Me A Rock!. Daniel has been called “…a master of visual storytelling.”– Jody Hewston, Kinderlit, and “…enchanting, versatile” – The New York Times. He believes that our stories have the power to connect us all. Daniel’s story currently takes place in Lenexa, KS with his wife, their two wonderful children, and a dog named Violet that gives them all a run for their money. You can learn more about him at his website.
HOPE AT SEA is released today! Yay! This is a picture book that spoke to my soul. It feels SO very appropriate for the times we are going through and I’m sure young readers will feel the same. Here is a young girl who has a deep longing to go to sea like her father. So she stows away on the boat her father helped to build and everything is as wonderful as she hoped. Until a storm hits. Then the story takes some twists and turns to an ending that had me gasping in surprise and misting up. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the message I got was even when our dreams don’t turn out the way we thing they should, beauty and light can still come out it. That’s me though. I’m not sure what message you’ll get out of it, but I was oddly reminded of Sophie Blackall’s HELLO LIGHTHOUSE in some of the tone. I’m not sure that will make sense unless you read the book, and you really must read it. It’s so well done!
Me: Can you tell us a little bit about your artistic journey? When did you start drawing and/or painting? How did that lead to where you are now as an illustrator?
Daniel: Sure, I’m happy to. I hear that I started drawing pictures as soon as I could hold a pencil. I remember my parents giving me an old tackle box of my Dad’s when I was four or five. Inside it was a single bottle of black ink and a steel tip dip pen. It was some leftover art supplies from a class my Dad took in college I think. They knew I’d like that sort of thing. I would sit for hours scratching away with that pen and making the biggest messes on the floor of our basement. That was important to me – to be allowed to make a mess.
Later on in third grade, my art teacher gave me my very first sketchbook as a gift. It opened up a whole new world. The fact that she felt compelled to encourage me in such a personal way when she didn’t have to was so special. I’ve carried that kindness with me wherever I’ve gone. Plus I filled up a lot of sketch books over the years because of it. Teachers have played such a critical role in my growth and development as a young artist. I’m pretty sure there is no way I would have been ready to study art in college if it wasn’t for my amazing high school art teacher Ms. Esrum and all the care she poured into me.
I ended up getting a BFA in illustration from Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, FL. Then after I moved out to Kansas City, MO to work for Hallmark Cards, Inc. as an artist. Just like that I was a “professional.” The truth is working at a place like Hallmark was like going to graduate school for artists. The creative community there was really robust and generous. Right after I began working there I also somehow landed an ongoing freelance gig with the local newspaper The Kansas City Star. I illustrated a series of serial books, published one chapter a week in the Sunday paper.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but all the work for the newspaper and Hallmark was a wonderful training for the work I would eventually get to do in picture books. I didn’t see a career in books coming, but I’m glad it found me.
Me: Wow! That’s a journey. The art work in the book is absolutely stunning. Is this traditional watercolor and pen and ink? Or is there some digital work here too? What did your illustration process look like for this book?
Daniel: Thank you, that’s very kind of you to say. The artwork for HOPE AT SEA was created traditionally with pen and ink and watercolor on Strathmore paper. I scan all my artwork before sharing with the publisher so I do use digital tools to clean up anything that needs it.
When I was finishing sketches and experimenting with my illustration approach for this book Anne Schwartz and Art Director Nicole de las Heras suggested I take a look at scrimshaw art. The delicate engravings inspired my pen and ink line work. It allowed me to really explore my way around the time period and all the details I wanted to put into this story. Layering all those pen marks was kind of like weaving a giant tapestry. I have to admit that by the time the last piece of art was done I was icing my wrists.
Me: Oh no! I bet you did. The line work is phenomenal, but I bet it took forever. On another note, I love old clipper ships! I’ve read that it used to be considered bad luck for women to be on a ship. What made you pick a girl for the main character? What inspired this story?
Daniel: The idea for this story began as a way to encourage my daughter when the storms of life come. It went through a lot of different iterations, but in the end having the main character be a young girl finding courage in the midst of a storm seemed to best speak to my initial intent. I hope the book can be an encouragement for all young readers, but especially the girls.
Me: I’ve noticed a theme in the picture books you’ve either illustrated or written revolving around bodies of water (puddles, oceans, surfing, and possibly dream lakes). What draws you to the water as a story element, either in your own work or in others?
Daniel: I’m not entirely sure what draws me to themes of water. Water has always been a very healing and contemplative thing for me. As a metaphor, water can represent so many things and that’s great for conjuring up stories. In HOPE AT SEA the ocean is almost a character itself. Some times it represents hope and possibilities and other times it’s an inevitable threat. The ocean has also played a very critical role in part of my own family’s history. My father and his family escaped Cuba by boat when he was nine years old. I guess I could say I have an affinity for the water.
Me: Wow! That’s definitely a connection. John Rocco talked this last summer at the SCBWI conference about all the illustration research that he had to do for his book HOW WE GOT TO THE MOON. How much research about clipper ships did you have to do just for the visual portion of this story? What interesting resources did you find?
Daniel: As this story developed, it became very clear that I would need to understand and represent a lot of details about this particular time period. An enormous amount of research was required to make that happen. I poured over books and first hand accounts of sea life in those times as well as many websites dedicated to the craft of sailing. Clipper ships were quite the innovation in their time because of the speed that their particular construction produced so I had to essentially learn how to build one…at least with drawings. I purchased a book of old clipper ship construction plans. I studied step by step how they were put together so I could represent them accurately in the story. I also learned to tie a whole bunch of sailing knots. I realized it was really difficult to illustrate a knot if I hadn’t constructed it first.
Q: What is one thing that surprised you in writing and/or illustrating this story?
Daniel: As it turned out I was doing a good portion of the finished artwork for this book during 2020 after things had locked down because of Covid. I was surprised at how cathartic it was for me to be working my way through a story about a family transitioning to a new way of life after a huge storm. I’m truly thankful to have had that.
Me: I think your book has a sense of peace in it because of that. Any advice for other aspiring picture book writers and/or illustrators?
Daniel: We all have different skill sets and are at different places in our lives, but I think it’s a great idea to know pretty clearly why you want to make picture books. However you answer that question will tell you a lot about the steps you need to take to get there.
For me I wasn’t really sure I wanted to go down that path until I was sitting in the NICU one night after my daughter had been born six weeks early. I didn’t know what to do so I read picture books to her through the Isolette. I felt like we were connecting in a small way and maybe I could use my art to help others connect in a similar way?
Once you have your heart set on why you want to head in the direction of picture books you can begin to work on the craft of storytelling. Whether you’re a writer, illustrator, or both your craft is what is going to open doors for you. The good news is there are as many ways to make a picture book as there are people in the world. You just have to figure out how you do it.
For my aspiring writers out there – WRITE! WRITE! WRITE! And for the aspiring illustrators – DRAW! DRAW! DRAW! This might seem elementary, but it’s good to be reminded. If you don’t do it everyday it’s going to be really difficult to understand who you are creatively.
I wish you all fair winds and following seas on your journeys.
Aww! Thank you Daniel. The same to you!
Dear readers, today is the book birthday for HOPE AT SEA. I hope you can track it down and read it soon. In fact, dare I predict it might be in the running for a Caldecott? Maybe? This is a book with hope, soul, craft, and light for our dark times. It features a love of the ocean, a bit of history, and a story with heart. I can guarantee this one you won’t want to miss.