Avi WordCraft blog

Working with Brian Floca

City of Light, City of DarkI was living in Los Angeles, so naturally, I wrote a fantasy set in New York City. It had much to do with subways, the Statue of Liberty, and shadowy creatures called Kerbs. Since I had just bought my first computer it was a long and complex story.

I offered it to a publisher who took it. But as I considered the book, the thought came to me: It’s about NYC, so it must (in today’s language) have diversity. I told my editor I needed to rewrite the book. She said: “I’ll have to talk to my marketing people to see if we can still do the book.”

Long story short, I took the book back and offered it elsewhere, receiving one of the most memorable rejection lines I’ve ever received: “It has no salt.”

I moved back east, to Providence, Rhode Island.  When there, still brooding over my book, I read an essay by Will Eisner, the great comic book artist. As a lover of comic books, I had read his work, in particular The Spirit.

In his essay, Eisner argued that comic books (what we would today call graphic novels) were a legitimate narrative form.

“Ah,” I thought, “that’s what my book should be: a comic book.”

I talked to my editor Richard Jackson.  He wasn’t sure what I had in mind.  I sent him Maus, the comic book masterpiece by Art Spiegelman.

“I get it,” said Richard. “But where can we find an artist?”

Living in Providence I had become acquainted with David Macaulay, who taught illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design. “Can you suggest an artist?” I asked him.

Brian Floca
Brian Floca

“One of my students does a comic strip for Brown University’s student newspaper. Get in touch with him.  His name is Brian Floca.” (Being a student at Brown University meant you could take courses at RISD.)

Brian and I met, I looked at his work, he looked at mine, we talked over the project, and it was a fit. I introduced him to Mr. Jackson and off we started on our first collaboration.

Brian and I met every two weeks and, slowly, the book came into being.

That book, City of Light, City of Dark, was published in 1993 and is still in print, perhaps the first graphic novel created for young readers.

A couple of years later I wrote Poppy, and Dick Jackson was again the editor. I suggested the book have illustrations. “Who?” asked Dick.

“Brian,” I urged.

And so it was.  That book was published in 1995.

Over the years Brian has illustrated other books of mine, The Mayor of Central Park, The Secret School, and Old Wolf.  But it is the Poppy series, all seven books, by which we have been most connected.

When it was suggested that I write another Poppy book, one which filled a gap in the over-arching story, I said I was willing to do so as long as Brian was willing to do the art. As far as I am concerned, the Poppy books are a fusion of my text and his art.  They function as one creation. When I think of my characters, I see his images.

Ragweed & PoppyNow he has illustrated the newest (and I assume the last) Poppy book, Ragweed and Poppy.

We have worked together then, for almost thirty years. The working relationship has always been productive, easy, and memorable. We have become good friends. His name has graced the dedication pages of my books, and I’ve been honored by having the same from him.

When I’ve written the books—unlike the usual arrangement in publishing—he has seen the text before my editors do. I ask for, and get, useful critiques. I have seen early art, and respond in kind. The books are collaborative. An example: In one of the current book’s illustrations depicting a man reading a newspaper, we discussed the name of the newspaper, and the headline.  If you look carefully (very carefully) at the cup on the man’s desk, you’ll see it has the logo of Brown University.

Brian’s pencil work for the Poppy books is quite wonderful: meticulously detailed, full of life and energy, and when called for, rich in wry humor. Moreover, if you line up the Poppy books in the order they were published (not the story sequence) you’ll see how he has evolved over the years. Other books of Brian’s have won a Caldecott and a host of other important awards.

He’s smart, fun to be with, has a big-hearted laugh, is full of life, and sees life with an artist’s eye and mind. Curiously, he was raised in the west (Texas) and I in New York City.  Nowadays he lives in the Big Apple, and I live in a Colorado log cabin.

The Poppy books have kept us working together. And now, for your pleasure, Ragweed and Poppy.

3 thoughts on “Working with Brian Floca”

  1. I’m a huge fan of animal fantasy (thank you, Brian Jacques!) and your books are among the best in the genre. When you’re a mouse, five miles is as big is five hundred to a human.

  2. Thanks for this “inside story” to the illustrations we all love in Poppy AND to your long-time collaboration with Brian.

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