It’s possible to take issue with the text of Pirate’s Alphabet, a recent children’s book published by Moo Press. Patti Wigington’s rhyming text takes us through the alphabet with words related to a pirate’s daily grind, from A for “ahoy” to Z for “Zzzz.” The rhythm of the book, so essential for parents who read aloud to their children, isn’t perfect, and many of the text blocks are simply awkward to read. Additionally, some parents (like, say, me) may be troubled by the capitalization of all the featured words, regardless of where they appear in a sentence.
Given all of that, you may well think that I’m warning you off Pirate’s Alphabet. Quite the contrary. The book is worth adding to your collection—whether you have little ones or not—because of the wonderful illustrations. Those illustrations were created by Kit Umscheid, a graphic designer and illustrator who works at Kirkwood Community College and makes her home in Clarence.
Using colored pencil on watercolor paper stained with tea, Umscheid drew warmly hued, richly detailed, consistently witty illustrations that are a delight to explore. They easily bear—in fact, reward—repeated viewings.
Umscheid ended up working on the project as a result of pitching her own children’s book. “The first publisher said no, the second publisher said no, the third publisher said, ‘No, but we have a project we’d like you to work on,’ ” Umscheid said in a phone interview.
Umscheid quickly made the project her own and threw herself into it. “I was coming home from work and hunkering down over a drawing table and grabbing the colored pencils,” she said. “You could think of it as a full-time and a part-time job, but I really had two full-time jobs that I was doing and sometimes more.”
Unsatisfied with plain white paper, Umscheid cast about for an option that she liked better. She eventually found her solution online. Soon she was using a sponge to apply Lipton tea to stretched watercolor paper. “It was just like adding a watercolor wash,” she explained.
The result is a unique look that Umscheid valued for both its color and for the variations the process left in the paper.
“I liked the idea that the pages weren’t all uniform. When I put the color on top of it, it really popped,” she said.
Because she didn’t want every page to look the same, Umscheid took on the typesetting of the book. “By doing that, it was easier for me to figure out where I could put the art,” she said.
Unwilling to tackle the illustrations simply based on what conceptions about pirates might be in her own head, Umscheid took the time to do some careful research, a process she says is a hallmark of her approach to illustration. “I took two months and did research on pirates because I wanted to make sure I did it right. . . . You find out what you don’t know when you do a little research.”
Umscheid is still committed to getting her own book published, and based on her brief description, I sincerely hope she does, because the idea is enchanting.
“The title is The Sandman of Tuckerville, and it’s about a guy who is the town sandman,” she said. Umscheid pictures her sandman—one Simon Mc Nodd—not as a ghostly figure, but more akin to the milkmen of yore. His job is to visit each house and put everyone to sleep.
“I made him, not some impish guy, but a member of the community,” Umscheid said.
One night, McNodd finds himself with a problem. “He makes just enough sand, no more, no less,” Umscheid explained. “One night he has a hole in the bag and by the time he gets home he can’t put his own kids to sleep.”
Those rowdy kids start to wake everyone up and mayhem ensues. “Soon he has an angry mob on his hands,” Umscheid said with a laugh.
Since doing Pirate’s Alphabet, Umscheid has been considering changing her approach to the illustrations for The Sandman of Tuckerville. She loves to work with charcoal and may create black and white illustrations for her book—a decision that would buck the dominant trend. Umscheid has a sound reason for considering the move, however.
“The black and white would be harkening back to an earlier time when the milkman delivered your milk,” she said. “The black and white may actually help tell the story better.”