Eric Zelz (left) and his wife Abigail talk about their collaboration on a children's book in this 2016 file photo. Credit: Micky Bedell

You may or may not know Eric Zelz as a person. But you likely recognize his distinctive artistic style, whether you realize it or not.The local illustrator worked for The Bangor Daily News for years, creating charts, diagrams and illustrations. He’s also a familiar face around town, attending events and volunteering.

These days, he’s using his illustration skills for children’s books. His first was “Pass the Pandowdy, Please,” a book written by his wife Abigail Zelz that explored the favorite foods of historical figures.

Credit: Courtesy of Eric Zelz

Zelz’s second picture book, “Read This Book If You Don’t Want a Story,” was recently released by Maine’s Tilbury House Publishers and is a fun, funny, whimsical tale written by Richard B. Phillips. We caught up with Eric to ask him a few questions about his work and life in the community.

Q: “Read This Book If You Don’t Want a Story,” is a hilarious, unruly tale where the illustrations tell the story as much as the words. How much of that comes from direction from the author and how much is from you being able to do your own thing?

A: When the manuscript of “Read This Book If You Don’t Want a Story,” initially came to me from Tilbury House Publishers I wasn’t quite sure how to handle it. I certainly wanted to illustrate another book, following “Pass The Pandowdy, Please” but this new project was so different. A book with no story. Would it be a lot of work or none at all? I soon found the tug of war between the book and the characters within quite interesting and fun, however.

The publisher and my editor, Jonathan Eaton, gave me free reign to develop “Mr. Book” and the world in which the characters would move, that is, the pages within the book. Jon’s instructions were to have fun and let my imagination run wild. Not a bad deal!

Q: When working on illustrations, where do you start? Do you have a process or custom for the early concepts?

A: Tilbury first wanted to see what “Mr. Book,” the narrator of the story, might look like. How would I envision a character determined to share nothing with readers, but whose pages have other ideas? I presented Mr. Book as a stubborn, old west, cowboy-type figure: ornery and not at all interested in compromise. The author, Richard Phillips, had written a story that made it clear that the pages belonged to Mr. Book and nothing would clutter them. (Rick’s young daughter, in fact, had challenged her dad to write a story with no story!) I used bright primary colors (yellow has always been a favorite color) and Mr. Book’s ever-changing moustache was a dynamic way to emphasize his emotional state on each page.

Next, along with sketches of Mr. Book, I presented a sketch of all the characters that would otherwise be in the story. In the sketch, Mr. Book had packed them all up, ready to be returned to sender. No story, no need for characters. This set the stage for the story’s conflict. I was on a bus to Boston watching lots of traffic when I got this “return to sender” idea. Hence, there are a lot of shipping boxes in the illustrations!

Finally, I had to establish how the text would be presented. As it’s a story with only narration and dialogue, with no places described, the story’s “geography” was mine to create, along with how the dialogue between book and pages would be displayed. I felt traditional page text would be appropriate for Mr. Book’s voice, and voice balloons would be good for all the pages that spoke in opposition to Mr. Book’s no-story edict.

Each page had something to say, and each page had an opposing response by Mr. Book. This moved the story along.

The publisher and his team liked what I presented, so I then created sketches for each page and developed a storyboard or layout of the project. A storyboard is a page-by- page package of sketches, showing, in rough form, what the book will look like and where the text will go. It had to depict key elements of the story, including the reader’s interaction of hugging the book or gently shaking the book (to coax a story out), along with presenting the book’s final resolution — that everyone has a story to tell, although you may need a little encouragement from friends to tell it.

“A book full of stories

is what I’ve become.

Imagine a story and

let’s have some fun!

Imagine a poem.

Imagine a play.

But don’t ever imagine

you have nothing to say.

Hopefully, it’s a message for all of us!

Q: You worked with an out-of-state (I believe) author for this one, which must have been a little different from your first book. What was that like — and how was it different?

A: Working with my wife, Abby, who wrote “Pass The Pandowdy, Please,” was a real treat as we could continually bounce ideas off one another. Working with Richard was a lot of fun as well, although most of the initial exchanges went through our editor at Tilbury. I would send Jon sketches and copies of finished pieces, and he would share them with Richard, who lives in Maryland. Richard and I soon became Facebook friends, and he would often see roughs I would share online as well. We finally met at the book launch in September at Bangor’s The Briar Patch. He’s a great guy, with a delightful family. (I congratulated his daughter for the idea, and Rick for pulling it off so nicely!)

Q: For aspiring illustrators, how have you developed your own unique drawing style and perspective?

A: I would encourage anyone who would like to illustrate a book to draw all the time and keep his or her eyes open for any inspiration. Keep a sketchbook (paper or digital). I love seeing what other artists are doing. Learn from them. Experiment. Sometimes I use watercolors, sometimes gouache. I might layer with wax pencils or colored pencils. Do random Google searches of illustrators. Some of my favorites are in France and Italy. If you have a question regarding their work, message them. I’ve found them quite approachable.

Q: Any words of wisdom for those who would love to write and/or illustrate a picture book?

A: Yes. Develop a portfolio of artwork or writing, create a website (the drag-and-drop site creators make it easy) and start researching what publishing houses are looking for new talent. Get your work out there, and don’t hesitate to do some free projects for nonprofits. It will help them out and give you more exposure. It’s a building process. Your style should be your own, and you develop that style by doing. But don’t be afraid to try new things. It’s OK to go in completely different directions. Your core style still peeks through! Finally, remember to have fun. It will show in your work.

Q: Along with illustrating, you also have a full time job. As a John Bapst grad whose daughter is also an alumna, what was it like to return to Bapst as the Director of Communications and Alumni Relations a few years ago?

A: Being back at John Bapst is a real treat, and I couldn’t think of a better place for inspiration. The students are amazing, and the entire environment is so creative and dynamic. I believe I learn something new from our students, both those from Maine and those from overseas, every day.

I’m so proud that my daughter chose Bapst, and my mother and uncle before her.

John Bapst is a special place, and my job is a lot of fun, designing and communicating and connecting with engaged, interesting people. Sounds kind of like my other job as an illustrator, doesn’t it?!

Q: What’s next for your illustration prowess? Do you have another book coming?

A: Yes, I’m thrilled to say I do. It’s another one with Tilbury House. It’s a real charmer, and I’m already learning from it. It will be published in September 2020. Look for little peeks of it as time goes on.

“Read This Book If You Don’t Wait A Story,” is available where books are sold.

This story was originally published in Bangor Metro’s December 2019 issue. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.

Sarah Walker Caron

Sarah Walker Caron is the senior editor, features, for the Bangor Daily News and the editor of Bangor Metro magazine. She’s the author of “Classic Diners of Maine,” and five cookbooks including “Easy...