E-MERGENCY by Tom Lichtenheld

by Stephanie Greene on February 2, 2012

TOM REVEALS: The Story Behind the Story…

E-mergency began when this video, created by Ezra Fields-Meyer, was sent to me by my friend and collaborator, Amy Krouse Rosenthal.

In the video, one of the letters falls off the roof and has to go to the hospital. I immediately wondered what the repercussions of such a mishap would be. Of course, the letter would be taken out of commission while it recovered, then one of the other letters would have to serve as a substitute, with results both confounding and hilarious.

I contacted Ezra’s father and he liked the idea, so I wrote a manuscript and got the ball rolling.

By the way, Ezra happens to be autistic. His autism isn’t necessarily relevant to our story, but it’s been an eye-opening experience for me. HERE’S AN ARTICLE about him, written by his father.

The book is rich with visuals and wordplay, meaning it required a lot of work. Here are some initial sketches, including rejects.

I originally put the letters in a tall house, turning the book sideways.

But making one of the first pages sideways felt too abrupt in the sequence, so I went back to a horizontal spread.

When my editor, Victoria Rock, saw this sketch she challenged me to use every letter of the alphabet as some sort of pun. It’s this sort of challenge that terrifies me, but I knew she was absolutely right. If you compare this to the finished book, you’ll see how it evolved. It was a house-of-cards challenge because moving just one letter would break up something else that was going on. Truthfully, my wife Jan was instrumental in coming up with final set of gags that made it all work.

Here’s a sequence of the title page, showing how it evolved from the first sketch to the finished product.

My initial sketches are always small and crude. I make a grid of tiny blank pages so I can sketch out lots of options quickly. The first sketch here is only three inches wide, but it has the right kind of energy and I liked the swirl of color on the left. Truth is, my initial sketches often have a spontaneity and energy that, if I’m not careful, can be lost in subsequent renderings.

Most pages require a few experimental compositions before I hit on one that works. These examples are from a page where the doctors can’t figure out why E is not recovering. My first two attempts (top row), were too complicated and didn’t leave enough room for text. As usual, the simplest solution is the best one.

Much of this book was written and sketched during a period when I was very busy with appearances, so I did a lot of the work in hotel rooms and cafes. Most of the manuscript was written at this Denny’s in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

And a lot of the sketches were done at this Panera in Santa Monica, California.

I’ve found that working out of the studio is actually very productive because there are fewer distractions. Plus, there’s usually someone to bring you coffee!

As a book takes shape, I create a lot of ideas that goes nowhere, either for lack of space or surplus of boringness. Here are a couple of sketches that didn’t make it into E-mergency, where the letters go abroad to oversee some changes in signage.

Well, it looks like E has recuperated, just in time for


For more about Tom, visit his website HERE.

Carol Baldwin February 3, 2012 at 4:45 pm

This book looks adorable. Nice little trailer too!

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