What do you like most about creating for children?
I love to see a child interact with my books and my illustrations. It is pure joy. Second, it’s an adventure for me. I really get my steps in as I take walks everywhere and let the ideas percolate. I hike with my dog in the woods, I browse the downtown areas and nearby farms. Once I have an idea, I may travel to take photos and do research. I talk to friends about it. I love that during this process I get to think deeply about my pivotal experiences as well as our experiences as human beings. I think such thoughts as: Why in the world would they think that? How does it feel to be left alone? Why would that character choose something obviously so bad for them? And, interestingly enough, these deeply felt emotions are the perfect foil for humor. I actually laugh out loud as I am writing or thinking about my stories and illustrations. I just can’t help myself.
Lastly, when I do school visits and talk to teachers, librarians and students, I get to hear their laughter, their comments and feelings about the stories. It’s a “twofer”: I’m writing both for myself and for all of them.
How did you start making picture books?
I began as a freelance graphic designer and cartoonist. Somewhere along the way, maybe 15 years into my career, someone offered me a coloring book job. I really enjoyed it and came to the realization that humorous art was perfect for children. At that point I began seeking out educational children’s book publishers. For years I illustrated only educational books and I wondered how I would ever be able to break into trade books. I sent my art samples to “Highlights for Children”. The art director at “Highlights” passed my samples to someone in their trade book division, Boyd’s Mills Press. They offered me my first trade picture book, SPAGHETTI EDDIE. It’s a great example of the serendipitous opportunities that show up when you put yourself out there.
You were primarily an illustrator before you made your authorial debut with the DUCK AT THE DOOR series — what made you want to try your hand at writing?
While I never thought of myself as a writer, when I look back; I can see I was always telling stories. I drew story pictures as a child, wrote sappy romance stories as a teenager, brainstormed headlines and ad campaigns for clients, and wrote comic strips. I read a lot, my family told funny stories, I was surrounded by stories. But it wasn’t until an illustrator friend of mine decided to try his hand at writing a picture book. When he was successfully published, I began wondering if I could do it too. I took a week-long class with author Jane Resh Thomas at the Split Rock Arts Program in Duluth, Minnesota, and Jane answered the question for me. She invited me to join her writing group and she and that group of incredible authors gave me my start. It is beyond wonderful to have a professional group of peers for support.
Do you find that the way you approach the illustrations changes when you’re also the author? Is there a lot of interplay between the draft stages of the text and the early stages of the illustration?
When I’m illustrating for someone else, I can help decide where the text will go and how it is illustrated, but I can’t alter the text. When I’m the author, everything is possible and changeable. I talk to myself more. I begin with words. I always write far too much and the pictures help me to simplify. Midway through my drafts I scribble out thumbnail pages. When I do this, new ideas show themselves. I go back and forth between altering pictures and then words. It’s very fluid. Like clay, the story starts large and malleable and gets more specific and solid as I get nearer to finishing.
Your stories often involve animal protagonists who find themselves caught in hilarious, outrageous situations. What inspires you most about writing that type of tale?
As I said earlier, I love to laugh and even better, to make others laugh. I’m also inspired by humorists who manage to include emotional resonance and meaning to the humor. I’m always trying for that. Also, I have had a number of very funny pets who have gotten themselves into tremendously hilarious and seemingly impossible situations. I often call on at least parts of those stories in my writing. It flows easily for me to create a story full of heart and humor, when I think of some of the animals I have adored.
Are there any books that you find particularly inspirational?
There are MANY. I’ll try to limit it to a few: The Tale of Desperaux by Kate DiCamillo; Herman and Rosie by Gus Gordon; Stone Soup by Jon J. Muth; It’s a Book by Lane Smith; Grandpa Green by Lane Smith; any picture book by Melissa Sweet; Roald Dahl’s stories and Quentin Blake’s art; Patrick McDonnell’s picture books and his comic strip Mutts; Take Joy by Jane Yolen; Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg; The Good Times are Killing Me by Linda Barry; the Tiffany Aching stories by Terry Pratchett; and anything written by Barbara Kingsolver.
Can you tell us anything about your upcoming projects?
I just finished illustrating a picture book titled Splatypus and written by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen. The story takes place in Australia and their landscapes are fascinating. I was inspired by the Krazy Kat comic strip and a bit of Dr. Suess because the rocks and plants there are deliciously surreal and a delight to paint. Also, the art director really had great ideas for the visuals, which made it a real pleasure.
Recently, I created a painting for the Cat in the Hat show, which will be at the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield beginning in October. And I’m pleased to be a part of the Annual Illustration Show at the Michelson Gallery in Northampton in November. And, of course, I always have three or four story drafts in progress. Crafting stories excites me and awakens my mind to all the possibilities.