The Littlest Voyageur

Happy Book Birthday to The Littlest Voyageur, written by Margi Preus and published by Margaret Fergusons Books, Holiday House.

The Littlest Voyageur is a middle grade novel about a squirrel that joins a group of voyageurs on an expedition from Montreal to Grand Portage, Minnesota. Here’s a little bit about my process for illustrating this book.

Since the illustrations needed to be historically accurate to depict events from llate 18th Century Canadian history, the first step was research. I’m a Texas native, so I had quite a bit to learn. I read lots of articles and stories and collected pictures of period clothing, birchbark canoes, landscapes, voyageurs, squirrels, and more.

Some of the references I gathered for this book.

When books and the internet didn’t have the references I needed, I had to get creative and reach out to an expert.  Stephen Veit with the Grand Portage National Monument was a great resource and took pictures of a model of Grand Portage I couldn’t find anywhere else.  He also informed me the dock during the time period of the book would have been shorter than what is shown in the model. 

Photo of model for Grand Portage from Grand Portage National Monument
My drawing of Grand Portage. I changed the angle and shortened the dock.

Stephen also photographed items for the trading post scene, such as birchbark boxes, door hardware, and animal skins.

Some photo references used for the trading post.

My biggest challenge for this book was drawing eight different voyageurs and making each one look unique and recognizable in the book. My editor also wanted eight small portraits for the beginning of the book to help readers identify the characters in the story. I took pictures of different men I thought would fit a character to use as a reference. Each 1-inch portrait in the book was actually an 8 x 10 drawing. In fact all my drawings are much larger than what you see in the book.

One of the models for my portraits. Actual size drawings compared the the final illustration in the book.
Some of the drawings used in The Littlest Voyageur.

For a book like this, it helps to have lots of references and experts to check your drawings for accuracy. I felt it was my responsibility to give readers an experience that was not only entertaining, but true to history as well. 

Margi Preus is an amazing writer. This story is filled not only with historical detail, but plenty of heart, humor, and adventure. I am so grateful to Holiday House for giving me this opportunity to help bring The Littlest Voyageur to life.

I hope you enjoy reading this book as much as I enjoyed illustrating it!

The Path to Getting Published

Getting Started

When I decided midlife to become a children’s book writer/illustrator, there were a few major roadblocks. First of all, I had no idea how to write or illustrate a picture book. Second, I needed to drastically improve my drawing and painting skills. And most of all, I was a late bloomer to this industry and was behind the eight ball not only with skills, but also with time.

The only way to reach any goal is to begin. And it is probably better I did not then know how difficult it would be, or I might have given up at the start line. If you are in the middle of the struggles or you (and possibly others!) question your sanity when you devote this much time and energy to an endeavor that is not showing any results, hopefully this post will give you the encouragement to keep going.

How do I begin?
When first starting, I had no idea how to write a picture book. I joined The Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) which was a huge resource in providing conferences, webinars, and a local critique group. As a member, I had access to The Book, a comprehensive collection of just about everything you need to know about the kid-lit industry.

It helps to have mentors. I have weekly skype classes with illustrator,  E. B. Lewis, along with classes at SVS Learn and The Illustration Department

Do I have what it takes?
What does it take? It takes stamina, long hours working on your craft, and the ability to accept criticism and rejection. (I’m still struggling with the latter). 
It is important to have a stubborn ignorance about publishing. So don’t listen too much to the naysayers and the doom and gloomers. Stay ignorant. If it’s something you are passionate about then be aware it will be a difficult road, but don’t let it stop your pursuit. Keep improving your skills. Take classes, sign up for critiques, and don’t take any of it personally.

Can I deal with the lows?
This business can feel like a roller coaster ride. One day it’s the road to brilliance and the next day it’s the pits of despair. I often fight the doldrums in the middle of a project. When this happens it helps to lean on your critique group and/or find an online group of fellow writers/illustrators such as Kidlit 411 where you can discuss daily struggles and successes. And most of all, don’t quit, but keep forging through. Eventually this universe will reward your time and effort.

Feel free to connect with me with comments or questions! You can see my artwork at www.cherylpilgrim.com and on Instagram @cherylpilgrim. 

Book Cover Process

I created the book cover for The Littlest Voyageur by Margi Preus. (Margaret Ferguson Books, Holiday House, March, 2020) This historical fiction middle grade chapter book is about a squirrel who travels with a group of men (voyageurs) traveling by canoe from Montreal, Canada to the trading post at Grand Portage.

When I first started planning the composition for the cover, I drew lots of thumbnails. These are tiny line and shape drawings. They are a great way to plan quick designs without spending a lot of time in the initial stage. And since book covers are often shown as thumbnails on handheld devices and on shopping sites, the image and title should read as a small image as well as a full book cover.

Next, I drew larger rough sketches. One of the struggles with this cover was how to highlight the main character, the squirrel, who also happens to be the smallest character. In addition, it was important to include the canoe and the men paddling. After drawing many versions and trying various angles, these were the five sketches I sent to Holiday House.

So which one did they pick? None of them! Well actually, it was a combination of two of them. They wanted #5 with the squirrel facing the viewer like in #3. Which makes so much sense, I’m not sure why I didn’t think of it! But that is why there are editors, art directors, and designers to give suggestions that can make it be the best cover it can possibly be.

After they approved the final sketch, I started painting. I liked the idea of having the red squirrel contrast against the light blue sky. So even though he is small, he would read as the most important character on the cover.

I hope you like it. Click on the title if you want to preorder a copy of the book, The Littlest Voyageur on Amazon or you can request that your local library acquire it for their collection and read it for free!