Once upon a time when we used to attend live events, I attended the summer SCBWI conference in LA. I gathered postcards from the Portfolio Showcase and discovered Doug Cenko’s work. Today, I get to share one of his newest and latest picture books with you.
Doug Cenko lives in Chicago, Illinois with his wife and daughter. He grew up in Indiana and one of his first jobs was at a comic book shop . . . where he spent most of the money he made. Since then, he has worked at design agencies, an animation studio, and a live special-effects company. His most recent claim to fame was reading his book My Papa is a Princess to thousands of fans at Dodger Stadium. You can learn more about him at his website.
VIKING IN LOVE is a story about a Viking named Stig who loves adorable kittens and is afraid of the sea. One day he meets the love of his life, another Viking named Ingrid, who is sailing by in a boat and then sails away. He is faced with the problem of what to do. There are lots of clever asides in both the text and the illustrations that display Doug’s sense of humor. I found myself giggling all throughout the story. It’s also a sweet and innocent romance. That combination is unusual in a picture book, but it works wonderfully here.
Me: Can you share about your artistic journey? When did you start creating art? How did that bring you to where you are now as an illustrator?
Doug: I’ve been drawing ever since I could hold a crayon, which I imagine is how most illustrators start. I saw Adam Rex speak at a conference once and I think that he answered that question best. He said something along the lines of, “Everybody starts drawing at the same age. I just made the decision not to stop drawing.”
When I was around 12, I discovered comic books. At the time, I felt that some comic book art was better than anything you could find in a museum. I wanted more than anything to be a comic book artist. I tried for a few years to break into the business, but I never got that call from Marvel or DC.
Over the years, I dabbled in few things illustration-wise. I drew some comic book art for an RPG book and illustrated a couple of self-published children’s books written by other authors. Each of those books only sold a handful of copies, the majority of which were purchased by my mom.
I was re-introduced to children’s books several years later when my daughter was born. As she grew up, we read a ton of picture books by creators like Mo Willems, Dan Santat, Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen that really got me interested in working on my own books.
In 2015, I saw a post on the SCBWI forum from a small publisher, Blue Manatee Press, looking for an illustrator. I responded to that post and got the job illustrating SLEEPY SOLAR SYSTEM. I’ve illustrated six more books for them over the years.
In 2017, I decided to try my hand at writing. I wrote a simple book that was based on the time spent playing with my daughter. Blue Manatee liked the dummy and MY PAPA IS A PRINCESS was published in 2018 along with the follow-up MY MAMA IS A MECHANIC in 2019.
Of course, now that I had a couple of published books as an author, I might’ve gotten a little ahead of myself and decided to write a rhyming book. Rhyming books are so difficult to do properly, but they are so much fun to read. Since the book was about a monster truck race, I wanted it to have a fast pace when read out loud and rhyming would work perfectly. Blue Manatee published that book as LITTLE MONSTER TRUCKS GO! in 2020 and it even got on the Indie Next List.
At that same time, I found my fantastic agent, Laurel Symonds. I definitely recommend getting an agent. Laurel helped me take VIKING IN LOVE to the next level and sell it to Viking Children’s Books, which I couldn’t have done without her. And that’s where we are today!
Me: Wow! What an interesting journey! You’ve created quite a few wonderful board books, as well as other picture books. What is it that draws you to creating picture books as an author-illustrator?
Doug: I always thought that I would just illustrate other authors’ stories. I never took any classes on writing and didn’t think that I would be able to come up with a good idea, let alone write an entire book. I was inspired by so many great picture books out there to give it a shot. And as much as I hate to say it, the bad picture books were motivating as well. Because if this book can be published, why can’t mine?
Great picture books can get across so much story and emotion in just 32-40 pages. I still can’t get through BOATS FOR PAPA, one of my favorite books, without getting teary-eyed. There aren’t many other forms of entertainment that can get that reaction from me so quickly. Reading stories like that was when I knew picture books were what I wanted to make.
Me: That’s one of my favorite picture books too! I love your story of a Viking who is afraid of the sea but loves kittens. What gave you the idea for this story?
Doug: Thank you! I was drawing with my daughter, which is one of our favorite things to do, and I just happened to draw a little Viking character. My daughter is always drawing hearts and she suggested that I do the same. I drew him holding a little valentine and that drawing became Stig. I wanted to know more about this character and who he wanted to give the valentine to. The fear of the sea came about as the perfect obstacle that could stop him from delivering his note.
As I was doing some research on Vikings, I discovered that they gave kittens as wedding gifts. That was such a cool bit of history that I had to include. Kittens and Vikings made the perfect combination. But I guess that kittens make a great combination with just about anything.
Me: Ha! I didn’t know that about the kittens. That’s funny! What did your illustration process for this book look like? Are you a traditional or a digital artist? Or do you use a blend of both?
Doug: Lately, I’ve been almost all digital. I do still enjoy drawing on paper, but digital makes more sense to me when working on a book. With some practice, the software nowadays can create some great art without looking too digital. And for me, the speed that I can work and make revisions makes a lot more sense.
For VIKING IN LOVE, I sketched out the dummy in Procreate on my iPad. I mostly use the iPad like a sketchbook. I love how portable it is and it allows me to work from anywhere.
Once it’s all sketched out, I use Photoshop on my laptop along with a Cintiq monitor. The Cintiq allows me to work larger than the iPad and that saves time because I don’t have to move around the page as much when drawing the small details.
Q: Which was harder: writing or illustrating VIKING IN LOVE?
Doug: Oh, the writing is always much harder for me. Sometimes I’ll have an idea that comes together pretty quickly and, luckily, VIKING IN LOVE was one of those ideas. Most of the time, I really struggle to figure out how the pieces fit together. I might have a strong initial idea but turning it into a story is tough.
The illustration comes more naturally to me, but it’s definitely more time-consuming.
Me: I love the variety of freebies on your website that seem tailor made to your books. You have models of race cars, coloring pages of planets, paper dolls of mom and dad, and a maze for VIKING IN LOVE. Are these all things you created on your own? Or were there suggestions from publishers?
Doug: I’ve always liked when books have freebies, so I knew that I wanted each book to have something like that. When I spend months working on a book, I want to give it the best chance it can have to succeed. If you’re able to, spending a little more time to make something extra seems worth the effort to me. I’ve also created animated book trailers for most of my books as well. The MY PAPA IS A PRINCESS book trailer stands out to me because my daughter, who was 5 at the time, is doing the voiceover. It’s pretty adorable.
Me: Aww! How cute is that? Any advice for other new picture book writers and/or illustrators?
Doug: Do your homework. Attend conferences if you’re able. Listen to podcasts. Read blogs like this one. It’s not an easy industry to break into, so try to have the right tools to give you the best chance.
That’s great advice Doug. Thank you for stopping by my blog.
Dear readers, if you haven’t yet had a chance to read this book, I highly recommend tracking it down. It’s a funny, sweet, and appealing story with wonderful illustrations that are full of tiny details to pour over (my favorite kind!). Don’t miss it!