There are all of these little moments in my sketches that never make it into a final book, raw ideas that are loose and messy that capture the feelings or information I want to work into in a scene. Some are diagrams, some are page spreads, some belong in a future, unwritten project. But these simple ancestors are part of the evolution process, and the cutting room floor of HOW TO BE AN ELEPHANT is littered with a few of my favorite beginnings.
I struggled for months to find the right opening sequence for HOW TO BE AN ELEPHANT. I needed to set up high stakes for the newborn baby elephant, but I didn’t know what level of drama would feel right for the story. Should I include some lurking predators in the shadows, or start with the baby elephant’s birth (can I even do that in a picture book??). I tried every approach I could think of, from lions and hyenas to the herd gathered around a laboring mom-to-be:
If you’ve seen the final book, you might recognize some of these pieces—the posture of the charging elephant here, the composition of the elephants there. I pirated the parts I liked and adapted them to serve other beats of the story, deciding in the end that the birth of a baby was plenty of drama for the beginning.
About halfway through the book, there’s a page spread called GUT INSTINCTS that explores how African elephants are “dietary generalists,” herbivores that can graze and browse on a wide variety of plants thanks to their specialized gut and their wide, diamond-shaped molars. Since elephants spend 12–18 hours a day eating, this spread needed to show a baby learning what to eat, so my first ideas featured teeth and menus, and a 200-pound baby sitting on a scale with a pile of food. I also needed to figure out how to draw a baby elephant tasting a pile of adult dung in an appropriate way:
In the end, it worked best to split up the information into two pages—the text and a diagram on the left and a full-page scene of the mother and baby eating on the right. This way, I could show the information about the tusks and molars without drawing the entire digestive system, but still include showing a baby’s means for learning what she’ll need to know about food as an adult.
So I have a confession to make: this spread is not one of my favorite beginnings. But it is one of my favorite ELEPHANT successes, because I literally finished every other painting of final art before finally solving the puzzle of pages 36 and 37. It may not look like a particularly complicated spread, but I needed it to serve as a bridge between the story of the family and the story of how African elephants impact an ecosystem. Was it supposed to be a diagram of the natural cycle of destruction and renewal? Or stay focused on this one particular herd? There were so many false starts and dead ends, but here’s a peek at my convoluted path:
After many months of trying and failing, I finally took a cue from the layout of the “Tag! You’re It!” spread I created for NEIGHBORHOOD SHARKS; a single family stripping bark from a tree, composed in a way that also suggested the growth of new forests. It worked as a diagram but looked like a painting, so it effectively connected the story of the herd to the story of their greater role as gardeners in an ecosystem. At last! I solved the puzzle!!
What a silly job this is, I often think. Look at all of these pieces that never get seen or used! But that’s nonsense, of course—they’re what make the finished book possible!—and they remind me that raw ideas can evolve into new and more sophisticated finished things.