J.J. Ellen is the author and artist behind Petrie the Bird, a charming children’s picture book about appreciating the gifts God has given you.
I grew up in a country farm house surrounded by nature. We have birds of all kinds coming and going to our feeders and I’ve always liked to watch and illustrate them. They each have such unique personalities and they inspired me to develop a little bird named Petrie.
I really just want kids to know that they are special just the way they are. I think children, and even people in general, often get too focused on the talents and special qualities in others, and forget they have their own. I want Petrie to be a reminder to kids that while it is important to appreciate the special qualities in others it is imperative to always know that they themselves possess unique and special gifts and characteristics.
Currently, I am developing another children’s story about a rabbit who has very looong ears. I’m just working out the ideas in my head for now. So, there is nothing on paper yet but I do intend to write out a story and make some character sketches soon.
The idea about Petrie and his situation came from an old children’s book that I used to read when I was a kid. It was my favourite book from the school library and I loved the pictures and message it portrayed. So, it really spurred on the idea about a character who had trouble seeing the special qualities in himself. I chose a bird because I was inspired by my childhood surroundings and I like birds. I think they are funny and adorable!
I was in grade seven and I had just gotten off the school bus and I had this feeling that I wanted to be a writer and write a book. Prior to that day, writing was more of a little hobby that I hadn’t taken seriously but after pondering the idea on the bus that day I chose it as my future career. Illustrating, however, came a little later. Before, like writing, it was just a hobby that I had not taken seriously until I tried sharpening my skills to the point of creating professional works.
Altogether, I think writing and illustrating Petrie took me about four weeks. I worked on the story for Petrie for about one day. The remainder of the time was devoted to the illustrations, from sketching and drawing to the inking and painting.
Outside of school, when I have time to myself, I enjoy spending time with my family or watching a good Netflix TV show. Along with that I love taking long walks with my dogs or reading. Nice, simple and relaxing things.
Once I have hatched an idea about a character or story I usually mull it over in my head for a little while. It helps me to work out any kinks and to really picture the type of story that I am aiming for. Afterwards, I get out a pen and paper and start writing. I write out a first draft of the story, read it over, then change a few words or phrases. Sometimes I’ll do a second and third draft until the story flows nicely and I’m happy with it. Then generally, I get a family member (usually my mom) to read it over and see if they like it. After they share their opinions and critiques, I make a few more adjustments. Lastly, there is a final edit, followed by a quick read over and then the release of a happy sigh, along with a feeling of accomplishment.
My favourite part about my writing process is when I have the story written out and I have to try and make it better. This usually occurs after my first draft where I have to change a line or swap out a phrase. It reminds me of a puzzle. You’re trying to get all the words and sentences to connect in such a way that makes the story flow.
Designing characters takes quite a bit of time. I often do have an image or colour palate in mind before I start. Most of the time, I do have to draw out my characters and make several sketches and re-sketches of them before I’m really happy with how they look. I usually start off by researching reference images—pictures of animals and nature. Then I look at other artists’ work to give me some inspiration and to help me to focus on the style that I’m aiming for. Do I want a light and whimsical watercolour look? Or perhaps more textured and detailed? Afterwards, it’s to the drawing board, literally! I sketch out life-like images of animals and in doing so, I try to capture their posture and shape. Then I tone it down by simplifying them and altering their features. For instance, I draw them with bigger eyes, or a rounder body and use cartoonish expressions for their faces. Once I am satisfied with how the character looks, it all downhill from there. I just trace out the pencil lines with ink pens and start playing with the watercolour paints to see what tones and colours suit the character best. To summarize my design process it is basically, a lot of trial and error. Just finding out what works and what does not.
For new authors, my advice would be to just enjoy writing and have fun with what you write. I think too often we get so focused on comparing ourselves to what other authors and artists are doing that we lose our spark for what makes us happy. Once you lose that fun aspect or joy from writing it’s not really worth writing because it’s not you, and that’s what makes a really great piece of work: the “you” factor!
J.J. Ellen is currently studying History and English at the University of Waterloo and developing a career as an author. In her spare time, she likes to relax on her comfy couch and watch Netflix, spend time with family or work on her hobbies of writing and illustrating.
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