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Preview: The Crusty Nibs

We’ve all seen book previews based on publisher, but how about a preview based on location?

The Crusty Nibs are a collective of author/illustrators based in the Chicago area including (but not limited to) Stacy Curtis, Larry Day, Chris Sheban, Eric Rohmann, Tom Lichtenheld, Jeff Newman, and Matthew Cordell

Here are some of the Nibs, in a picture taken by Ed Spicer:

Back Row (l-r): Stacy Curtis, Tom Lichtenheld, Matthew Cordell, Larry Day, Andrew Day; Front Row: Eric Rohmann

Having heard about the group a while back, I reached out to see if they would be willing to show (and tell in their own words) their upcoming books and works-in-progress. The Nibs were game.

But first things first. How did this group get together?

Matthew Cordell explains the origins of the Crusty Nibs:

Jeff Newman and I had been meeting up for a couple of years at this funny bar and brat joint in Kenosha, WI (halfway between where he lived and I lived) called The Brat Stop. When we first started hanging out, I was working a “regular” job in Chicago, doing illustration on the side. Once I quit said regular job and started doing illustration full time from the solitude of my home, I started to get a little cabin fever-y and wanted to meet some more illustrators in my position with my interests.

I thought it could be fun to start a little gang of sorts of like-minds to lean on for advice, complain with, get inspired by, and shed a tear alongside. I proposed the idea to Jeff that we try and expand what we were already doing and seek out some more kidbook illustrators in the surrounding areas. So one by one, I started hunting down folks I knew were in my area. I was already aware of Eric Rohmann, Tom Lichtenheld, and Larry Day as being in Chicagoland, all of us having been to the Anderson’s Children’s Book Breakfast. (All of us though, I presumed, never have spoken with one another.) So I thought I’d email them one by one and see if they were going to be fun to hang out with and not be weird and also put up with me being weird.

I first got in touch with Tom. Tom invited me to his lush home studio and we spent a fine springtime afternoon discussing our books and the world of books. I then found out that he and Eric Rohmann were pals, so I got in touch with Eric shortly after that. I was going to try and meet Eric one on one too, but he offered up the idea of just getting a bunch of us together. It turned out that Tom and Eric knew each other, and so did Larry Day (who was next on my list to stalk). So one rainy autumn evening, Jeff, Eric, Larry, Aaron Renier (added for good measure) and myself met at a dive bar in Kenosha. (Tom couldn’t make it.) We were about to sit and talk illustration when they started doing sound check, hitting us with spotlights, and blasting us with bubbles and fake smoke (not kidding). We moved our inaugural meeting to a horrible restaurant down the road and sat for a couple of hours getting to know each other and talking sarcastically and sincerely about the things we love.

In the months to come, we met up again and again, adding a few more interested parties. Stacy Curtis got picked up, as did Andrew Day (Larry’s son) and a bit later, Chris Sheban. At times, spouses and partners have graced our this group of miscreants with their presence. Authors Julie Halpern (my wife), Miriam Busch (Larry’s wife), and Candy Fleming (Eric’s partner). We’ve welcomed a few others from time to time and will continue to do so, I guess. Until someone’s feelings get hurt or the fake smoke makes us blind.

The origin of the name: At one of our earliest meetings, Stacy was describing his strange and intricate pen and ink process of mixing inks and drawing with a fully crusted over nib. And Eric said, “hey maybe that should be the name of our little band of misfits, the Crusty Nibs!” And it stuck.

Alright, Nibs roll call! What’s the latest?

Jeff Newman

The first image is from my forthcoming book with Simon and Schuster, Can One Balloon Make an Elephant Fly? 

It’s a very simple story about the power of encouragement, and it takes place at the zoo (hence the aggressive-looking hippopotamus). The author is Dan Richards, and it should be out in early 2016.

Here’s a sketch dummy spread from my follow-up to Can One Balloon Make an Elephant Fly? with Simon and Schuster, The Greedy Worm.

This one I wrote myself. Not sure when it’s coming out, yet (hopefully 2016 or 17…just saying those numbers terrifies me). I describe it as A Christmas Carol meets The Grapes of Wrath, but with an all insect cast of characters. That sounds weird, but it is fitting.

Lastly, here’s an image from what I hope will be my next book:

It’s called Louis, Don’t!, and it’s about me and my son, Louis, and my attempts to (from his perspective) thwart his independence or (from my perspective) keep him safe. This picture is Louis in a rocket ship on the verge of blasting off into space.

Tom Lichtenheld

One Big Pair of Underwear, by Laura Gehl, published by Beach Lane, released Sept. 9th.

This is a counting book with a very clever concept that works a bit like musical chairs. It begins with one big pair of underwear and two bears who hate to share. So, one bear gets the underwear and the other bear yells “That’s not fair!” The book progresses this way through all the numbers, always showing one more animal than enticing object: “Two small sacks of salty snacks/Three young yaks with black backpacks.” “Three fast scooters painted teal/Four ball-bouncing silver seals.” When it gets to ten, there are ten slides and twenty pigs who want a ride, so they solve the problem by going piggyback down the slides, thus demonstrating sharing as well as counting. The other animals learn from this demonstration of sharing and they all end up having a big parade in celebration of sharing (and underwear).

I Wish You More, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, published by Chronicle, releases spring 2015

This idea began when I observed a little girl who had mis-buttoned her sweater, leaving her outfit cutely catty-wampus. I did a quick sketch of her with the caption “More buttons than holes” then went home and sketched a bunch of other mis-proportioned situations involving kids. (See “more quackers than crackers” sketch).

After a few weeks of this I had a couple dozen sketches, but they didn’t add up to an overall concept, so I asked Amy Krouse Rosenthal if she’d like to work on it with me and she agreed. (We often work this way – one of us will have an idea that has potential but isn’t working itself out, so we enlist the other to help out.) Somewhere along the way, Amy and/or our editor, Victoria Rock, came up with the idea of making the book a series of wishes from a parent to a child. This gave it an overarching theme and emotional direction, so we rewrote everything to fit under this umbrella. Unfortunately, it meant losing some concepts, like the “Quackers,” but that’s part of the process. The snow image is one of the first I did, and it came from just randomly experimenting with watercolor techniques. This particular image looked like a snowy sky, so I just added the character and some snowflakes. The book took about a year to write and illustrate but I think all the effort was worthwhile, and I’m grateful to my creative partners who helped me figure it out.

Matthew Cordell

Here are cover and interior images for my next two books out which are Special Delivery (by Philip C. Stead, Roaring Brook, pub. April 2015)…

…and Wish (Disney-Hyperion, pub. February 2015).

Also, a smattering of “what’s on my desk.”

In this pic are sketches and studies (in various states of approval) for Leaps and Bounce (by Susan Hood a companion picture book to Rooting for You, Disney-Hyperion), The Knowing Book (a picture book by Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Boyds Mills Press) and Lost. Found. (a picture book by Marsha Diane Arnold, Roaring Brook).

Stacy Curtis

This is the part where I uncomfortably talk about myself … I’ve illustrated roughly 30 children’s books, picture books and chapter books. As of last year, I’ve taken a break from nurturing a laborious illustration workload and taken on the role of feeding, burping and diapering our brand-new daughter as her stay-at-home dad. I have been using the time off to work on some author/illustrator projects that aren’t ready to be revealed to the world just yet.

The first three images are from a chapter book I illustrated called To Be A Cat, written by Matt Haig.

A description of the book: “Barney Willow wishes he could be a cat, and gets his wish, he should be thrilled. Except he’s not. He discovers not all cats are cuddly, and some of them are downright evil. He discovers his life is in grave danger … and he doesn’t have nine lives to spare.”

These three images are sketches from my sketchbook.

Eric Rohmann

The book below is called Bulldozer’s Big Day and it was written by Candy (Candace Fleming).  The book will publish next spring with Simon and Schuster. Here’s the cover:

The images began with small (2 inch) pen and watercolor roughs:

Once I have that somewhere near my liking I begin to cut the plates.  Each of these images had three plates.  Two for the variety of colors and one “key” image which was printed in black.

The color plates are printed first using the key image as a guide.  here you see the large gray area which will print the sky and some detail on the bulldozer.

The second plate is for the ground and the city skyline in the background:

Once they are printed they look thusly:

Next I worked on the bulldozer detail and printed the key image in black.

And just for good measure another image in progress:

Chris Sheban

I’m a recent recruit to this mangy group.  I’m not even sure what a Crusty Nib is – I’m waiting for Matt’s explanation. Speaking of Cordell, I think he’s trying to make us look bad by releasing a new picture book every three weeks.

First is a spread from Job Wanted,  by Teresa Bateman (Holiday House, Fall 2015).

It’s a story about a dog looking for work on a farm.

Next is re-release of I Met a Dinosaur, by Jan Wahl (Creative Editions / Chronicle Books, Fall 2014) Originally published Fall 1997.

In the “What’s On My Desk” section – some preliminary sketches for Job Wanted.

And secondly, something so tentative it may never turn into anything, so I’m afraid to say too much about it. Drawing on cardboard – has to do with a box (not my story).

There was a McDonald’s hamburger On My Desk, too, but I ate it before I took these pictures.

Larry Day

Lion, Lion, written by my wife, Miriam Busch, Balzer & Bray, September 30, 2014.

A little boy is looking for Lion. Lion is looking for lunch. And so the story begins. As Kirkus puts it…Sly, dark humor for little ones—at its best.

(Travis here. The book trailer for Lion, Lion debuts today at Watch. Connect. Read. Click here to watch it)

This work in progress is a pencil of the title page for Nice Work, Franklin! by Suzzane Tripp Jurmain, Dial, a picture book about FDR and his accomplishments, including his struggles with polio and the depression.

This will be our third book together. (George Did It! and Worst Of Friends!)

“What’s On My Desk” are spreads from Nice Work, Franklin! and other projects.

Travis here to say thank you to Stacy Curtis, Larry Day, Chris Sheban, Eric Rohmann, Tom Lichtenheld, Jeff Newman, and Matthew Cordell for sharing their work.

About Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.


  1. Wow! This is one of the most exciting posts ever (and that’s saying something, cause your posts are consistently outstanding!)! What a group! Thanks for putting this together, Travis. People will be coming back to this one for a long time…

  2. So much great work here! I love this post. I can never get enough of other people’s process pics and stories.

  3. LOVE seeing all this fabulous talent in one place. Big smiles at the sight of it! Thanks, Travis!

  4. I will henceforth speak of the Brat Stop with more respect. Who knew it was a literary hangout?
    Thanks for the wonderful post. Lots of good things to look forward to.

  5. How I’d love to be a fly on the wheel when this group gets together! RIGHT?! So fun to get a sneak peek as to what these guys are up to. I’m especially interested in checking out Larry Day’s “Lion Lion”–so different from his past works, and we used to work together years ago in advertising–such a great guy! Thanks for this!

  6. I had the honor of being that fly one time! It was a marvelous, amazing afternoon. The illustrators had works in all stages of being: brain storming to just before publication. I don’t know what will happen to these books. I don’t know how they will be received. I DO know that each one of them is a much better book for this experience! It was an honor to be included in the gathering. I learned quite a lot from spending the day with these incredibly talented and (even better) nice and fun folk!

  7. Loved this post. Celebratory and full of fun. Just. Plain. Awesome.

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