On the Beat

Art for a song: Chapel Hill illustrator draws for Dylan

Chapel Hill artist David Walker, who illustrates children’s books, works from his home studio on June 23, 2016. Walker recently illustrated the children’s book, “If Not For You,” based on the Bob Dylan song.
Chapel Hill artist David Walker, who illustrates children’s books, works from his home studio on June 23, 2016. Walker recently illustrated the children’s book, “If Not For You,” based on the Bob Dylan song. jleonard@newsobserver.com

Technically, David Walker has collaborated with Bob Dylan.

It says so right where their names appear together on the cover of a new children’s book, “If Not for You” (Atheneum/Simon & Schuster, $17.99). Using whimsical pastel illustrations of dogs, birds, birds, bears, butterflies, squirrels, frogs, flowers and even narwhals, the 50-year-old St. Louis native visualizes the lyrics to the great rock bard’s song as a paean to the love between parent and child. It’s a perfect match.

But that doesn’t mean Walker and Dylan have ever actually met, or even communicated.

“People ask, ‘What was he like to work with?’ But that’s not the way it goes down,” Walker said with a laugh. “I should probably just make something up: ‘Yeah, Dylan and I were drunk together in a bar one night and decided we should do a children’s book!’ That would be a much better story.”

The reality is, alas, much less dramatic. Dylan’s management has licensed lyrics to a number of his songs for children’s books over the years, including 1970’s “If Not for You” – which first appeared on Dylan’s album “New Morning” and has also been covered by George Harrison, Glen Campbell, Rod Stewart and many others.

“I thought of David as illustrator for this because ‘If Not For You’ has a sweeter tone than a lot of Dylan songs,” said Emma LedBetter, the project’s editor at Simon & Schuster in New York. “I was familiar with his work from ‘Bears in the Bath’ and ‘Bears on Chairs.’ He has a way of making things very vibrant and sweet, which I thought would be a good fit for this song, and it was.”

I did ask for a signed book and the publisher said, ‘Ooh, that’s asking a lot. But we’ll try.’

Illustrator David Walker

This sort of semi-anonymous mixing and matching is typical for the children’s book business. Never getting to meet the writer whose words he’s illustrating is actually the norm for Walker, to the point that the next time he meets one of his writers will be the first.

“I’ve never met any of the writers, no,” he said. “Not one. After the fact, I’d love to. But it just doesn’t happen because they’re always somewhere else. There’s no contact during the creative cycle. At this point, I assume Dylan has seen the book, but there’s been no direct response that I know of. I did ask for a signed book and the publisher said, ‘Ooh, that’s asking a lot. But we’ll try.’ Really? I spent months on this, I’d hope so. But so far, nothing. If he wandered through this area to do a show, I’d try to get through his security to see him since our names are together here. It would be great to meet the guy.”

A Hallmark moment

Years ago, Walker was more journalistically inclined while studying illustrating at the University of Kansas. He figured he’d try to get a job at a magazine, until Hallmark came to campus to recruit. Walker did an interview and was hired as art director.

“I never actually drew Hallmark cards,” he said. “I was ‘line designer,’ developing lines of Christmas cards or whatever, working with illustrators and overseeing the general direction of things.”

Walker likens the seven years he spent at Hallmark to graduate school. And even though he was not directly drawing cards, the work did push his own drawing in more playful directions. After Walker and his wife had young children, his family relocated to the Triangle, and he made a living as a freelance visual artist, licensing his art for “everything from baby beds to teapots,” he said.

Eventually, it came to pass that a calendar with Walker’s artwork was hanging in the office of an editor who got in touch and hired him to illustrate a children’s book. That was 2003’s “Little Monkey Says Good Night,” written by Ann Whitford Paul, which did well enough to bring more projects his way.

“I’ve done close to 50 children’s books, many of which are no longer in print,” he said. “They come and go quickly now – as opposed to when I was a kid and everybody had the same four books. Now there are so many, they need to sell quickly or you move on. I’ve never written any of them, I’m just the illustrator. The writer sells a manuscript to a publisher, they find an illustrator and you get paired up.”

“If Not for You” does have one distinction for Walker: It’s the first book he has done that’s based on song lyrics, which introduced a higher degree of difficulty.

His style is often described as soft and friendly. Even cuddly.

John Sellers, children’s review editor for Publishers Weekly

“The biggest challenge was that the words couldn’t be changed,” Walker said. “An editor might be telling a writer, ‘You’ve got a bunch of images clustered around one section, so we need to adjust that for pacing.’ There’s some leeway, but not with lyrics. There was no flexibility, so it was up to me to try and make it work as best I could in a way that will keep a child’s interest.”

Cuddly style

While the overall publishing industry has had its troubles in recent years, the children’s book sector remains strong. The juvenile market has grown by 40 percent over the last decade, and 11 of last year’s top-20-selling titles in America were children’s books, according to figures from Publishers Weekly magazine.

Walker also does greeting cards, Christmas ornaments and other projects, which keeps him working more than eight hours a day. But children’s books have taken up most of his time for the past decade, and he remains very much in-demand.

“His style is often described as soft and friendly,” said John Sellers, children’s review editor for Publishers Weekly. “Even cuddly. It’s a very pre-school-friendly, approachable style.”

For all the material’s warm fuzzies, doing children’s books can be an isolating grind. Typically, Walker will get the manuscript, send preliminary sketches after about two months and finished art about three months after getting approval. He does all the art by hand, and each page takes about a day (not counting sketches).

“After all these years, I try to make it as easy as possible on everyone else,” Walker said. “So I do multiple sketches that other people never see. Once it’s approved, it’s rare for there to be changes with the painted piece. Although sometimes I’m asked to show different racial characteristics of animals. That’s always a challenge. How do you make a bear look more ethnically diverse? But it makes sense from a business standpoint. You want to make everyone feel included without losing the flavor of the book.”

Since the primary audience is pre-kindergarten, the words are generally very simple. But that doesn’t mean that children’s books are easy to do. There’s a reason Walker has yet to write as well as illustrate one himself, although he hopes to someday.

“I have a lot of ideas, just not well-crafted yet,” he said. “It’s harder than it looks. Everybody thinks it’s easy and they can do it, until they sit down and try. The challenge is to do something that appeals to the general population, adults as well as kids, while also capturing the interest of an editor who probably reads thousands of these things every year.”

Big in Japan

Among Walker’s favorites from his portfolio is 2007’s “Before You Were Mine,” Maribeth Boelts’ story about the relationship between a boy and his adopted dog, which he describes as “a bit of a tearjerker”; and 2014’s “If Animals Kissed Good Night,” another book written by Ann Whitford Paul. On average, Walker’s children’s books sell in the range of 10,000 copies in the U.S.

Japan, however, is his secret weapon. Walker has had best-sellers that move hundreds of thousands of copies there, even though Japan is a smaller market than America.

“I’ve had about 15 books published over there, and I’d say nine really caught on and sold big,” Walker said. “No idea why, but whatever it was they just clicked. Doing a book tour over there was about the best work experience I’ve ever had.”

As for his peak American popular experience?

“I knew I’d made it to some level when my sister-in-law in New York told me about being on a subway, looking down and seeing one of my greeting cards on the floor,” he said with a laugh. “Yes, I finally made it in New York! Even though it had been, you know, stomped on. That was a big moment.”

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi