Interview with Mark A. Toffle & Sommer Toffle
The Raindrop Who Lost His Cloud But Found His Purpose!
Today, Tyler R. Tichelaar of Reader Views is pleased to interview both the author and the illustrator of the new children’s book “The Raindrop Who Lost His Cloud But Found His Purpose.”
Author Mark A. Toffle is a mechanical engineer for Seagate Technology. In the past, he has worked for Smith Industries to manufacture access delivery systems for chemotherapy. He was born and raised in northern Minnesota and attended Concordia College and the University of Minnesota Institute of Technology. He has one college-aged son and lives in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.
Illustrator Sommer Toffle received her BFA in printmaking with a minor in art education from West Virginia University. She is a coordinator at Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art at Ligonier Valley. Sommer’s artwork has been shown in galleries and museums throughout Pennsylvania, and she has received the William D. Davis Award for Drawing. Sommer creates paintings, murals, and illustrations for corporations and private collections and is currently pursuing her love for children’s book illustration. She is Mark’s niece.
Tyler: Welcome, Mark and Sommer. I’m intrigued by the idea of a book about a raindrop. Tell me how you first came up with the idea for the story.
Mark: That’s the funny part. I really didn’t try. I was driving up north and the entire story, including the title, just popped into my head. It evolved a little bit as I recall, but virtually every idea and word was there, so I sat down and wrote it the instant I got to Bemidji. It was like it was whispered to me. Now some may say it was an angel or God or just the subconscious. I don’t know. Also, look at the title. There are two meanings in it. The subtitle, “But Found His Purpose” was added by the editor. Why a raindrop? I can see why it’s a good choice for a parable. They are common, and they have no gender color or affiliation. Like people, they are plentiful and can be loved or hated. They bring life and death.
I’m not a writer, I’m an engineer, yet when we sat down at Beaver’s Pond Press to break down the story into the places for illustrations, the plan was to make a standard sized thirty-two page children’s book. It fit perfectly. We didn’t have to add or cut out anything.
Tyler: Tell us a little about the main character, Stewart. What makes him an interesting character?
Mark: His name for one. I tried changing it to Susie and Sam, but it never felt right, and then I had to hunt around and change it all back again. It was just a couple of months before the book was printed that it came to me while I was lying in bed that the name Stewart is very close to the word Steward! I didn’t have a clue as to the actual meaning of the word stewardship, but when I got up and looked it up in the dictionary, it shook me up a bit. It’s like I had misheard his name.
Stewart is interesting in that he’s a thinker. He gets to have a bird’s eye view of the world, and he questions authority and the status quo. He is smart enough to figure out he has access to rapid transit via the wind currents. He is not shy, but he knows when to keep his mouth shut. He also finds the courage to make it on his own. In some ways, he reminds me of the main character in the book, “Call it Courage.”
Tyler: Mark, will you explain further how Stewart is similar to a Steward—why did you decide to keep the name based on that connection?
Mark: We often think of stewardship as our money in tithe to the church, but it goes further than that. I think that being a good steward of those around us is what makes life worthwhile and enriches us. It’s not just things or finances but also taking care of the spirit that lives within each of us. If we could do this, I think we would be truly living as God intended.
Tyler: Why is Stewart different from the other raindrops?
Mark: Stewart is a free thinker, a critical thinker, open-minded, sensitive, yet adventurous, and he is not judgmental but he doesn’t go with the flow. That’s very unique for a raindrop.
Tyler: So Stewart goes against the crowd? Can you give us an example, or tell us a little of the adventures he has as a result?
Mark: In Stewart’s world, one “crowd” believes in general that the end goal is just to go to the great ocean and another crowd’s belief is that the goal is just to have fun. In either case it’s “Every raindrop for itself.” Stewart has a belief that there is more to life than just being self-centered. So when he discovers someone else in need, someone totally alien, he learns two things. That together we can do marvelous things, and even more importantly, for each other we help fulfill each other’s lives.
Tyler: Without giving away the ending, does the book have a theme or moral to the ending?
Mark: On the back of the book there is a saying by Albert Einstein. “Only a life lived for others is worth living.” Again, I discovered that saying long after I wrote the story. It parallels the sayings of Jesus, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” and Buddha, “Consider others as yourself.” Another way of looking at it is that we all lose things—our homes, jobs, loved ones…but we have a choice as to how to handle the loss. We can be destructive or self-destructive, seek simple pleasures, or decide to make a difference.
Tyler: Which age group do you feel the book is most suited for?
Mark: The general opinion is that it is for ages five to eight but the message works for everyone.
Tyler: Mark, what kinds of reactions from children have you received so far for “The Raindrop Who Lost His Cloud”?
Mark: Here’s one comment I’ve received, “Tonight I had my chance to look at, and read M.A. Toffle’s The Raindrop Who Lost his Cloud. As it happened this was my grandson Kaisei’s fifth birthday—he lives currently in Japan. So, as we were skyping him, I decided to read and display the ‘Raindrop’ to him. He was utterly spellbound! Young children have a natural sense of awe; teaching them about the pursuit of transcending purpose imbues them with the awe they crave naturally. To have a beloved parent or grandparent then feed such a message to him guarantees it as a lasting foundation. Thanks for making that opportunity available to this grampa,” said child psychologist Sigurd M. Hoppe, Ph.D.
Tyler: Mark, will you tell us a little about your relationship with Sommer as your illustrator?
Mark: My niece, Sommer, illustrated the book. I have pictures of holding her when she was quite little. My brother was a doctor in the navy and was stationed in Naples, Italy for some years after his residency in San Diego so I think she knew Italian before she could speak English. She received her B.F.A. in printmaking with a minor in art education from West Virginia University. She is now the Coordinator at Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art at Ligonier Valley.
Sommer’s artwork has been shown in galleries and museums throughout Pennsylvania, and she has received the William D. Davis Award for drawing. Sommer creates paintings, murals and illustrations for corporations and private collections and is currently pursuing her love for children’s book illustration.
Tyler: Mark, are you an artist yourself, and did you consider doing your own illustrations? What made you decide to have someone else draw the illustrations?
Mark: I did a few sketches of Stewart, but my cartoons looked like they came out of a Little Lulu comic book from the ’50s. Both Sommer and my aunt Erma are the artists in the family. If one were to attempt to write children’s books for a living, it would definitely make sense to do one’s own drawings.
Tyler: How did you and Sommer come to work together?
Mark: Again, I think it was a matter of timing and just meant to be. I sent her the story, and after talking to the publisher, Beaver’s Pond Press, I flew her here to meet with Milt, Amy, and James. They were impressed with her samples and away we went.
Tyler: Sommer, did you agree to do the illustrations because Mark is your uncle, or was there more about “The Raindrop Who Lost His Cloud” that appealed to you?
Sommer: I enjoy illustrating and I thought it sounded like an interesting project. The fact that Mark created it made it more special. “The Raindrop Who Lost His Cloud” is a fun story with a universal message. I was eager to get started.
Tyler: Mark, how did you collaborate with Sommer?
Mark: In this case, I sent her the story and let her have free rein with it. She sent me back a few samples, and then when the final pictures were done, I went out there and reviewed the pictures. We adjusted two facial expressions and after a bit of brainstorming with Amy at Beaver’s Pond, we changed the last picture to what it currently is. That last picture has incredible power in its message.
Tyler: Sommer, what decisions did you have to make so the illustrations would be effective?
Sommer: My hope was for children to feel like they can relate to the characters and the best way to do that was using mostly human-like faces. I used my own facial features, simplified them, and added some masculine elements for Stewart. I thought his face should resemble a little boy between the ages of 8 and 12. I typically work from photographs and my face was the one I have the most access to. It was more out of the need for an accessible model for facial expressions that I used my own for Stewart. My primary concern when drawing the illustrations was to show the storyline developing in a visual way that was interesting without being overly complicated. I used colored pencils for the drawings because it is a medium that children are familiar with and use themselves while drawing. I sketched out the pages several times, playing with the layout, proportion, and colors until I was happy with each page.
Tyler: Sommer, can you give us some idea of the overall process of going from concept to finished illustration?
Sommer: Once I developed my concept of Stewart, I submitted the samples of him to the publishing company. Happily, they were excited about my interpretation of Stewart and gave me the go ahead to start creating. After the page break-ups were discussed, I established what the main visual context was for each page. I used a lot of pictures of family members and children I know for inspiration while drawing each character, and I began developing the landscape. I sketched all of the visual information that would be on each page with a pencil first until I was satisfied, and then used a light table to trace my final sketches onto the final paper where I added all of the color. I drew two pages, also known as a spread, one at a time. I was constantly referencing the other spreads I had finished just to make sure it was visually interesting, colorful, and cohesive. I then had the images scanned on to a disc at high resolution and mailed it off to the art director.
Tyler: Was “The Raindrop Who Lost Its Cloud” your first job illustrating a book?
Sommer: It was my first opportunity illustrating a book. I am hooked. I loved every second of the processes and want to do many more.
Tyler: Sommer, I know you’ve done other artwork, but what is the key difference between other mediums you’ve used compared to illustrating? Is it the collaboration involved?
Sommer: The basic difference between someone commissioning you to do a painting, a mural or illustrations, and someone walking into a gallery and buying one of your pieces off the wall is the collaboration of ideas. There is always collaboration involved with commissions. For instance, when painting a mural for a client, first we meet and discuss what the theme is and what ideas the client may have for the project. The next time we meet, I show them a variety of different examples of what I could create for them combining my interpretation of their ideas and what I think would be visually interesting in that space.
Tyler: Mark, do you have any recommendations for authors looking for an illustrator?
Mark: Contact my niece. You can email her and look at her portfolio on her website, http://sommertoffle.com.
Tyler: How about you, Sommer? How can you make sure, as an illustrator, you are a good fit for an author?
Sommer: The most important thing is that the author and or art director enjoy my work; if that is the case, I am more than happy to start creating samples. I can work in a variety of styles from very realistic to more simple and minimal.
Tyler: Do you have any advice for other people who might be considering writing their first children’s book?
Mark: I’ll let my friend Katrina Peterson give the advice. She’s a mother of ten from Spokane, Washington, who home-schools her children, and the three youngest are early readers.
“I read to my kids a lot and what I like about this story is that it has substance. There are so many cutesy books out there for children that lack depth. This book has depth. I appreciate the lesson about standing up for yourself and taking care of others.”
Tyler: Mark, do you plan to write any more children’s books?
Mark: There is another story that has come to me since the one about Stewart, but it’s pretty personal. I’m not sure that it’s one that I’ll publish but it has a strong message. It’s in the same notebook that I transcribed “The Raindrop Who Lost His Cloud” into on August 28, 2009.
Tyler: Thank you, Mark and Sommer, for joining me today. Before we go, will you let us know where people can go online to find more information about “The Raindrop Who Lost His Cloud” or to purchase a copy?
Tyler: Thank you, Mark and Sommer. It’s been a pleasure talking to you. Best of luck with “The Raindrop Who Lost His Cloud.”