Cloudette began as two little scraps of paper. The scraps of paper came out of two bags I use in my bookmaking workshops with kids. One bag is labeled “characters” and is filled with scraps of paper with words like “a walrus,” “an artist,” or “a banana.” The other bag is labeled “Settings.” It contains scraps of paper with settings, like “under water,” “in outer space,” and “up a tree.”
Each student pulls one scrap of paper out of each bag and, presto! They’ve got an interesting combination of a character and a setting. They might end up with a walrus on the moon, a banana in the Olympics, or a squirrel in a snowstorm. Then they think up a problem for their character (this isn’t too hard, since the characters are always in ridiculous situations) and create a book on the spot. It’s a lot of fun, and every student ends up with a completely unique book.
In one of my workshops, a little girl ended up with a cloud for her character and a roof for her setting. She couldn’t figure out how to make them work together, so I helped by suggesting that the cloud could be coasting through the sky one day and bump into a sticky tar roof where it gets stuck. I can’t remember if she took my suggestion, but I liked the cloud on the roof, so I went home and made it into a story.
In my original story, the cloud (who I named Cloudette) was busy playing with her friends (a kite and a bird) and wasn’t watching where she was going. She bumped into a sticky roof, and there she was, stuck to a house with no arms or legs to free herself.
I sketched out the idea and sent it to my editor, Christy Ottaviano. She graciously told me she adored the little cloud character, but my story was a bit thin. She suggested I start over with the character and give her a bigger problem to work through. I knew she was right, so I completely reworked the story.
The only thing I miss about the original story is this bit of silliness, where a foursome of crows come to help Cloudette get unstuck from the roof using, of course, a crowbar.
I threw out everything except the little cloud character, and it didn’t take long to realize that her big problem should be her small size.
I sketched out the story from scratch, and Christy immediately liked it. We reworked the scenes a few times before it was ready to make into a real book. As is always the case at this stage, I had to leave a few things behind because there were more ideas than pages. Here are a couple of rejects from Cloudette.
I wanted a soft look for the final illustrations, so I used pastels and watercolor. Since it’s a book about clouds, I decided to gather rainwater for my watercolors, so the illustrations are made, in part, of clouds. My niece and nephew helped me gather the rainwater. Here’s a little video about the process:
As with all my books, Cloudette has some elements drawn from my own life. For instance, the buildings in this picture are from Minneapolis, where I used to live.
And the farm at the bottom of this picture is my father-in-law’s farm in Dekalb, Illinois.
I dedicated Cloudette to all the kids in all the schools I’ve visited because the inspiration for the book began in a school, and kids continue to inspire me. Sometimes after I’ve done a big presentation in a school, one of the kids will ask me, “What’s your favorite part about being an author and an illustrator?” My answer is: “This. You guys are the best part of all.”