Packard Takes Flight: “Getting It Just Right in 32 Pages”

Susan Levine, author of Packard Takes Flight, and Erin McCauley Burchwell, her illustrator, visited the Upper Arlington Public Library’s Main Library yesterday to share stories about creating the book, to explain more about peregrine falcons, and to test the audience’s knowledge of Columbus landmarks.

A few years ago, Mrs. Levine visited the library in search of a picture book about Columbus landmarks to help her daughter, Ellie, prepare for a field trip to the Ohio Statehouse. She discovered that no such book existed. Maybe the market needed one.

“I’m not an author, but I can do this,” she thought to herself. All she needed was a reason to visit sites and write about them.

Then, she heard about how peregrine falcons were being introduced into downtown Columbus as part of the Peregrine Falcon Restoration Project. The use of pesticides like DDT had caused peregrine falcon numbers to plummet in the 1960s, so Columbus joined the ranks of other Ohio cities helping falcons to nest and restore their population. Skyscrapers simulate the southern-exposure cliffs that peregrines prefer, so special nest boxes were placed on the 41st floor of the Rhodes Tower. The first successful nest occurred in 1994. Since then, the Rhodes Tower nesting territory has been home to several falcon couples and their chicks. The falcons are banded so that they can be tracked and monitored. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Wildlife monitors the Rhodes Tower falcon nest by live streaming video and audio.

This discovery gave Mrs. Levine her reason to write her book.

Packard Takes Flight is about a peregrine falcon chick that falls from his Rhodes Tower nest. As he finds his way back home, he visits many Columbus sites, including the Center of Science and Industry, the Santa Maria, the Columbus Museum of Art, the Topiary Garden, Trinity Episcopal Church, the Ohio Theatre, the Statehouse, Franklin Park Conservatory and North Market. Mrs. Levine wanted to make the book factual, but interesting, so she created fact boxes about every landmark on the sides of the pages.

Showing a nest box that her husband built to the specifications of the Rhodes Tower nest boxes, Mrs. Levine shared fun falcon facts. Did you know that when they dive down to get a pigeon, they can reach speeds of over 200 miles per hour?

Mrs. Burchwell took the floor next to tell us how she created the book’s illustrations.

She explained how there are always 32 pages in picture books, and how sheets are printed and folded into eight-page signatures that are sewn together to create a book.

“It’s difficult to get it just right in 32 pages,” she said, so she typed out the text, cut paragraphs into strips, and shifted them around on an air hockey table in her basement to get just the right placement for her pictures.

Then, she read and looked at books at the library and at Barnes & Noble to see how prominent the main character was in each illustration and where the pictures are placed to get the book to stand out. At the time, there wasn’t a lot of blue used on book covers, so she chose that as the dominant shade for the book. She also decided to stretch her illustrations all the way to the end of the page.

Next, she researched falcons. This helped her discover that their feathers look different as they age.

The DK Publishing “Eyewitness” books were her favorite resources because they showed the bird’s skeletal system. Thinking of bones as lines makes figures much easier to draw, she advised the artists in the audience.

She took pictures of all of the landmarks in the book, including one looking down at the Statehouse, to help her capture Packard’s perspective. Thumbnail sketches and dummy drawings came next, which helped her see where Packard appeared on each page, what landmark features to emphasize, and whether she needed to lighten up the colors she used to accommodate for printing. When it was time to make the actual drawings, she had to remember to leave room for the words. A tiny “dummy book” was her last chance to look at her creation before she sent it off to the team’s publisher, The History Press.

Along the way, she shared entertaining stories, like how she acquired Harry, her hairless cat. She made a deal with her husband that if she was ever published, she could get a sphynx. She brought home Harry the day she signed the contract with The History Press.

To conclude their presentation, Mrs. Levine invited young members of the audience to pull out of a bag a mystery object relating to a Columbus landmark that Packard visited. As children guessed the answers, we learned more fun facts about those destinations. Did you know that the Columbus Zoo feeds seven million insects to its animals for snacks each year? Have you watched a game of rat basketball at COSI, where Japanese Black-Hooded rats play for Cheerios to illustrate behavioral conditioning? And did you know that there’s a bamboo plant at the Franklin Park Conservatory that dates from 1895 and grows a foot a day?

We even received a neat Packard souvenir! Mrs. Levine invited us to color a drawing of Packard, take it with us around Columbus, take photos of us with the drawing, and send our photos to her through her website. The activity is inspired by the Flat Stanley Project, an initiative designed to facilitate letter-writing among schoolchildren as they document where an illustration of Flat Stanley (Stanley Lambchop, the main character of the 1964 children’s book, Flat Stanley) has gone with them.

So today I took a lunchtime walk to three of my favorite Downtown sites: Trinity Episcopal Church, the Statehouse and the Topiary Park. At the Statehouse, Packard and I flew into the Senate Chamber. While I checked out the Historic Classroom bronze relief sculpture downstairs, a fellow who works at the Statehouse Asked Me what I was doing. He knew all about Packard and Flat Stanleys!

Before I left the library yesterday, I took a close-up look at one of Mrs. Burchwell’s Packard illustrations. If you’d like to see more of them, they’ll be on display in the basement of the Decorative Arts Center of Ohio in Lancaster, as part of its “Once Upon A Page: Award Winners from the Mazza Museum, University of Findlay” exhibit, on display from October 22 through December 31, 2011. The pair will also be on hand for a book-signing there one day during the exhibit.

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2 Responses to Packard Takes Flight: “Getting It Just Right in 32 Pages”

  1. Cindy Spikowski says:

    Thank you for sharing this book with me when I was visiting. I really enjoyed it.

  2. Erin says:

    Thanks for a great article and especially for supporting local artists and authors!

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