By Neil Shapiro
Like so many of the illustrators who have written about their publishing experience in these pages, I knew from an early age that I was destined for a life spent creating visual imagery. I began by copying cartoon characters (my favorite was Dennis the Menace). I went on to draw my way through school at every level. My identity has always been defined by my artistic ability.
My influences? That’s easy—everything from cave painters to MAD Magazine. I’m inspired in equal measure by John Singer Sargent, Andrew Wyeth, Burton Silverman, Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Davis, Mort Drucker, Jack Unruh—and that doesn’t begin to cover all the wonderful new painters and illustrators I’ve been keeping an eye on over the last few years.
Instead of spending the bulk of my career as an illustrator, I spent that time as an advertising art director, working in Chicago at many agencies, primarily on national accounts. All that time I was an illustrator in my head, so when my career in advertising started to go south (which pretty much coincided with my getting older), I turned more and more to illustration as not just a passion, but as a true vocation.
One of the best decisions I made while still in advertising was to go back to school for a higher degree in illustration. My time in the Independent Studies Program at Syracuse University helped me focus my energy, hone my skills, and dive headfirst into the field. As part of my immersion, I began looking for local illustration groups to join, and that’s when I subsequently found SCBWI.
At one of our meetings, chapter president Christine Thornton told about her experience illustrating a delightful book for Red Rock Press called Heading to the Wedding, written by Sara Shacter. Christine described a process filled with frustrating hurdles—but all I took from her presentation was that SHE ILLUSTRATED A PUBLISHED BOOK. Via e-mail, I proceeded to bombard the creative director at Red Rock Press with samples of my work. By this time I had illustrated a pretty crazy story called Mom, What if I Swallowed an Ice Cube? for self-published author Michelle Lautenan. The images from that book made up the bulk of the samples I showed.
In due time (after repeated e-mails), Ilene Barth from Red Rock Press got back to me. Would I be interested in illustrating a book for them?
WOULD I? Well, yes—actually, I would.
The book in question was not, technically speaking, a children’s book. It was a gift book for graduates—a collection of quotes from commencement speeches given by celebrities, called Wisdom and Wack for the Graduate. Each quote would be paired with a corresponding humorous illustration. I was given about a month to think up the content of each image and complete thirty-two color illustrations, plus the cover.
Some time after the book was finished, I talked with Ilene and Richard Barth from Red Rock Press about a notion that had been kicking around in my head ever since art school. That’s when I had written and illustrated a Hanukkah story about a menorah that changed the life of a little village. For years, the story stayed in a drawer, hidden away through the ups and downs of my career. Over the years I’d rewritten the story, but I had never gotten around to redrawing it. It had become One of Those Projects That I’d Get Around to Someday.
After building up my courage, I sent off the manuscript, called The Magic Menorah, to Red Rock Press. I wish I could say that getting older has imbued me with a cast-iron ego, but exposing my work to others still fills me with dread (especially writing—I’m more confident about my artwork). However, if there ever was going to be a time to do this, that time seemed to have arrived.
Long story short—Red Rock Press liked the notion of my story, but not the way I told it. Would I be willing to work with a writer?
It was a blow not to have my own story accepted as is. However, since this story had stayed inside my head all those years, the idea of working with a writer also seemed like a burst of oxygen through my psyche. Realizing that I was now on the cusp of Actually Getting It Done, I put my considerable ego on the shelf and said, “That’s a great idea!”
As fate would have it, earlier in the year I had met a retired screenwriter named Hal Dresner, who had written for M*A*S*H, among other TV shows and movies. We hit it off right away, and when I suggested his name, the publishers were excited at the prospect of working with him. Hal and his wife, Joy Fate, had already collaborated on other projects, and they decided to work together on the story, soon to be called The Amazing Menorah of Mazeltown.
I set about figuring out what the village of Mazeltown should look like. My own ancestors, like many Jews, had traveled to America from a village in Eastern Europe. The Internet has many images of such villages, so researching the physical attributes of Mazeltown would be a breeze—or so I thought.
After poring over tons of photographs of wretchedly poor, dismally filthy collections of tumbledown shacks, I realized that the reality of these little outposts would have to be tempered with a gentler eye. After all, Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights, and this is the story of how light came to Mazeltown, bit by bit, day by day. I hope these pictures from the book make you want to know more—because that’s all you’re going to get from me!
You can check out a whole lot of my artwork at http://www.shapart.com. That’s where the illustrator that was inside me all those years has finally found a home. And he’s itching to illustrate more books.
After more than thirty years in advertising art direction, creating award winning campaigns for clients like McDonald’s, Gatorade, and Cap’n Crunch, Neil Shapiro returned to his roots: drawing and painting. Since then, his illustration clients have included the Chicago Tribune, The Nation, Kansas City Magazine, Chelsea Books, and Andrews McMeel Publishing. Neil has had several shows of his paintings—at Gallery 203 in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood and through Art In My Backyard. Neil’s work has been featured in the New York Society of Illustrators Annual Exhibition, and in 2007 he won a commission from the Prospect Heights Public Library District to design and create portraits of authors for its 50th anniversary celebration. He has illustrated several books for Cedar Hill Publishing, among them Mom, What if I Swallowed an Ice Cube? and Mom, What if I Don’t Want to Go to School Today? Neil lives in Chicago with his wife, Maureen, and their dog, Ruka. You can find his work at http://www.shapart.com.