Evanston architect Rebecca Dudley has found a second career. Early this year she published her first book, “Hank Finds an Egg.” For the “pictures” in this picture book, Ms. Dudley took photographs of scenes she constructed herself that feature Hank, a little stuffed teddy bear she also made.
For the last 10 years Ms. Dudley has been developing her unique approach to writing children’s picture books. Her second career as an author suits her well, she says. “I‘m like many architects, in that I like to work alone.” She says she has always liked the model-making part of architecture best, though she also likes to draw and is an accomplished photographer.
A Book Without Words
Ms. Dudley’s book is a picture book in the most literal sense. The story – teddy bear Hank finds a bird’s egg and devises a way to return it to its mother’s nest – unfolds without any words. The author builds tension and then quietly resolves it in an appealing way that makes the book a choice for children of all ages.
While Ms. Dudley does use words in some of her stories, she says she tries to use as few as possible. She says that in “reading” books without words, children – and adults – look more closely at the pictures and may use their imaginations more and even the decision to turn a page is made more consciously. With a wordless children’s picture book, each “reader” finds his or her own words. And with each reading the words are different.
Handmade ‘Hanks’ and Handmade Sets
Ms. Dudley says her favorite part of being an architect was making models. She still loves to draw, she says, and often does quick sketches of a set before she “builds in.” Ms. Dudley made several “Hanks” and picked the one that appears in the book because he looked “so compassionate.” Hank is only 4” tall, but the sets are designed and photos taken so that it is difficult to tell the actual scale. Since all of the trees, foliage, and surfaces are artificial, nothing gives away the scale.
Originally from Durham, N.H., Ms. Dudley spent a lot of time outside while growing up. One of her goals as an author, she says, is to have children connect with nature. She often makes the trees and vegetation she constructs look more abstract than the foliage they are based on. She says that she uses “Martha Stewart”-type flocking for the poppy-like sprouts, but keeps secret her technique for creating the birds’ wings and the fire.
Early on in her process, Ms. Dudley says, she gets an idea of “a place,” and often develops a story by making the pictures first.
Working in a small space at home, she creates the sets for each scene on a flat surface about as large as a door. She works with typical household tools and materials such as exacto knives, wire, fabrics and clay. She says when she needs to buy fabric she buys it locally at Evanston favorites Tom Thumb on Davis Street and Vogue Fabrics on Main Street.
For different effects, Ms. Dudley explains, she moves her camera and reflectors around, using a wide-angle lens and working with daylighting and focus. Because she only uses daylight, she can only work at certain times of the day. Focus, or lack thereof, is critical, she says, for the illusion of depth in many of the pictures. She recently exhibited the photographs in a show at the Lubeznik Gallery in Indiana, in which all the photographers made the scenery and objects they photographed.
Compared to her work as an architect, she says, this process is faster. She can build a scene and shoot it in an hour. And, of course, there is no client – only future readers. If there is a parallel, she says, it is that she tries to imagine what Hank might be thinking – in the same way an architect tries to understand what a client needs.
‘Hank’ Catches On
Asked for which age groups “Hank” is intended, Ms. Dudley said that the publisher decided on ages 5-8. But she has found, she says, that children from 2 to 10 are drawn to the book.
Laura Montenegro, a local children’s book author-illustrator and faculty member teaching children’s book illustration classes at the Art Institute of Chicago, says the book “Hank” is “richly inventive and beautifully constructed.” The book has been positively reviewed in the School Library Journal, The Prairie Wind Newsletter, the New York Times, The New York Observer, Booklist and Publishers Weekly.
Ms. Dudley considers cartoonist and former Evanston resident Lynda Barry, author of “What It Is,” one of her inspirations. Like Ms. Barry, Ms. Dudley says she believes that “keeping moving” is necessary for the creation of new material. So is constant doodling, she says. Ms. Dudley says her next book is likely to be based on one of the ideas in her blog that those who are interested may access: storywoods.blogspot.com.
Hank himself may remind many children of their own teddy bears, and children will enjoy seeing Hank, a clever and endearing teddy bear on a rewarding adventure.
The moral of “Hank” might be that great ingenuity and diligence can be required to restore a lost egg to its anxious mother. Ms. Dudley’s own ingenuity and diligence have helped her create a unique, heartwarming and silent tale. Spending time with Hank and his woodsy world is a balm in today’s noisy world.