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Walt Disney Animation Studios Artist Showcase program encourages the creation of new children’s books

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Walt Disney Animation Studios Artist Showcase program encourages the creation of new children’s books

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The creative legacies of Mary Blair & Bill Peet extend far beyond the time that these two spent at the Mouse House. And that is largely because – in addition to all the classic animated films & shorts that these Disney Legends contributed to – Mary & Bill also worked on children’s books.

In Blair’s case … After Mary left Walt Disney Animation Studios in 1953 following the completion of production of “Peter Pan,” Simon & Shuster put her to work illustrating their Little Golden Books. And the illustrations that Blair created for this series were so warm & winning that many of the titles she worked on remain in print even today.

Copyright Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved

As for Mr. Peet … Following a 27 year-run at the Studios as Walt’s top story man, Bill then went on to write & illustrate 36 books for children. In 1990, he was a Caldecott Honoree for “Bill Peet: An Autobiography” (Houghton Mifflin. January 1989), which remains a favorite with Disney fans for its warts-and-all look back at what it was actually like to work with Walt.

Ironically enough, it was working on these children’s books that then allowed Blair & Peet to mature as artists & storytellers. And it was just this sort of personal & professional growth that John Lasseter – the Chief Creative Officer of Pixar Animation Studios, Walt Disney Animation Studios & Disneytoon Studios – wanted to encourage & inspire in modern day Mouse Factory employees.

“This is why he kicked off the Artists Showcase program back in 2009,” explained Jessica Julius, a senior creative executive at Walt Disney Animation Studios during a recent phone call. “John was excited to offer Disney’s artists and storytellers a chance to participate in that tradition, as well as to showcase their talents on their own, original work. Which is why he suggested that we partner with Disney Publishing to put this new children’s book initiative in motion.”

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

 The way that Walt Disney Animation Studios Artist Showcase works is once every year, full-time regular employees of the Disney Animation Studios (which includes WDAS as well as Disneytoon Studios) are invited to submit a proposal for a new children’s book. Which are then collected by Julius and evaluated by a couple of Disney Publishing reps as well as several artistic peers.

“Any given year, we’ll typically get ten to 26 submissions. We then narrow that group down to a set of semi-finalists, who – after we give them some feedback – can then make revisions to their proposals,” Jessica continued. “Out of this revised set of proposals, a group of finalists are selected. These finalists’ book proposals are shown to John Lasseter, who selects the next book to be published under the Walt Disney Animation Studios Artist Showcase label.”

The most recent book chosen for this in-Mouse-House program was Benson Shum, an animator who has previously worked on “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Frozen,” “Big Hero 6,” “Zootopia” & “Moana” and is currently animating “Ralph Wrecks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2”

Benson Shum, the latest author in the Walt Disney Animation Studios Artist Showcase
series. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

“I first learned about the Artist Showcase program when I saw it mentioned on the Animation Studio’s internal website. I clicked on the link and saw that they were encouraging artists who work here to create their own stories & characters. And since writing & illustrating children’s books has always been something that I’ve been interested in doing but I never knew how to get into the world of publishing, I decided to give Disney’s Artist Showcase program a go,” Shum stated

But then the big question was: What should Benson built his children’s book proposal around? Which idea should he use as the springboard for his story? Shum ultimately found inspiration in an issue that his sister was having with Benson’s then-3 year-old niece.

“One day while I was waiting for a bus, I was talking with my sister on the phone. And she was talking about all the problems she was having with getting my niece to transition from taking baths to taking showers,” Shum said. “My niece really hated to stand under the shower and have that water spraying down on her face, getting in her eyes & ears. My niece said that it felt like she was standing out in the pouring rain.” 

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

It was this comment by his sister about how his niece’s imagination had turned a simple annoyance into a far bigger problem that then caught Benson’s attention.

“The way kids sometimes exaggerate their fears, that seemed like an idea that was really worth exploring. So I began to build my story around a little girl hippo who was very much like my 3 year-old niece. Someone who has a very active imagination and sometimes lets that imagination run away with her,” Shum explained.

The end result was “Holly’s Day at the Pool.” A children’s book that isn’t built around the troubles that one little girl has with transitioning from the tub to the shower. But – rather – how, in order to enjoy a day spent swimming with her Dad & little sister, Holly first has to learn to let go of a number of her irrational fears when it comes to the pool.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

“As soon as Benson’s proposal came in, the representative from Disney Publishing immediately zeroed in on. They said ‘You know, there’s not a book like this on the market right now. If we were to publish this little-girl-gets-over-her-fear-of-swimming story, there’s a lot of parents & kids out there who could actually benefit from a book like this,’ “ Julius said. “So just from that angle, we were really intrigued with Benson’s proposal. Never mind that it was accompanied by all of this amazing & appealing art of Holly, her Dad and her sister.”

“So – in the end – it was this combination of a story that really seemed to serve a need and the appealing art that sealed the deal,” Jessica continued. “We’re not publishing ten of these Walt Disney Animation Studios Artist Showcase books every year. We’re only publishing one. And because we want to make sure that the public knows this program is special and that we take a lot of pride in the individual artists whose work is showcased with this program … Well, that’s why a lot of care & thought goes into choosing which books get published.”

And as for Mr. Shum … Given that “Holly’s Day at the Pool” officially hit store shelves earlier this week, Benson has been enjoying his time in the Walt Disney Animation Studio Artist Showcase’s spotlight. Which included doing a reading this past Saturday at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books as well as doing a book signing at the CTN Gallery this past Tuesday night.

Jessica Julius, senior creative executive at Walt Disney Animation Studios.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

“I feel like that I’ve learned so much about the world of publishing over the course of this project,” Shum enthused. “I mean, whether you’re writing a children’s book or you’re working on an animated film, it’s still all about characters & story. I’d love to take what I learned from working with Jessica on ‘Holly’s Day at the Pool’ and then use that on some other children’s books in the future.”

And speaking of future books, Ms. Julius is already hard at work with Paul Briggs, the WDAS veteran whose book was selected in the most recent round of the Disney Artist Showcase program. Look for his children’s book, “Catch My Breath,” to be published later this year.

Speaking of Mr. Briggs … Given that he was the Head of Story on “Frozen,” and “Big Hero 6”, is it really all that big a surprise to learn– were you to click on over to Paul’s Tumblr feed – that the very first image you see is a drawing that was done by Bill Peet? Who was Walt’s story man as well as a celebrated children’s book author.

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Wednesday, April 26, 2017

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