Archive for the ‘thinking out loud’ Category



Friday, December 1st, 2017

I recently was asked to draw and design some bookplates and postcards for Literati, which is a book club for kids. They send out curated collections of children’s books, and each of these has a theme. The theme I was asked to illustrate was “Heroes,” and I’m a Veterinarian from the Tinyville Town series is part of the collection of books.

Along with the artwork, I got to talk about my work and answer some questions via a short interview. Here’s a link to the interview, but I’m gonna copy/paste the whole thing below, for posterity. In the past, I felt I didn’t have much to say about why I make the books I make and what’s important to me in going about it. Lately though, maybe as my own kids are getting older (17 and 18) and maybe as we’re living in this age of Trump and the daily embarrassment and, well, horror, frankly, that goes along with that, I’m finding I’ve got words. Stay tuned for more.

In discussions on your early comics, Frederick & Eloise and Dear Julia, you’ve listed artists such as Edward Gorey, Jacques Tardi, and Jim Jarmusch as influences. What intrigued you about their work when you were working on your comics, and has their influence crept into your books for children at all?

I grew up in a time and place of The Love Boat, Chips, and Gilligan’s Island reruns. I knew I had a dark, or “weird” streak but in the suburbs of Houston in the 80s, I didn’t have a name for it or a place to put it. I first ran across Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies my first year of college, and that dark humor was a revelation. It was later, living in Paris, where Tardi and Jarmusch appeared in my world, and they were more about a mood and a different way of storytelling that I hadn’t seen to that point.

Over the last fifteen years of making kids’ books, I’ve kind of kept those influences in my pocket, I think. I haven’t had the opportunity to pull that stuff out for the books I’ve worked on yet. There are plenty of strains of that kind of thing in middle-grade, like Lemony Snicket of course. And some picture book artists seem to be able to get away with it too, especially the Europeans like Wolf Erlbruch (see Duck, Death and the Tulip to see what I mean). Sendak and Lobel among others were able to bring darker themes into their work as well, but today’s market seems to limit it somewhat.

These darker, “weird” stories are what naturally exists in my head, so hope to bring that world into my kids’ books at some point.

It’s cute, but it bites.

Are you still creating, or do you have plans to create, more comics or graphic novels for an older audience?

While I’ve been saying “yes” to this question since 1996, with no real results to speak of, I started writing something a comic last Spring that has potential. It’s about a guy who is dying. Probably not for kids.

Was it a challenge to move from writing comics for adults to picture books for young people?

Stories “for kids” aren’t what naturally comes out of my pen. I find that because of this, I over-compensate when I write, and end up oversimplifying and maybe not giving the potential younger audience enough credit. Thank god for editors.

The two book series I’ve written, Everything Goes and Tinyville Town, do a lot of things I want to do. But finding the voice of those books was more work than it maybe should have been.

Many of your books for children (in particular Everything Goes On Land and, of course, the Tinyville Town series) are based on cities, with a focus on the way citizens work together and keep their community running. You’ve been recognized for your attention to diversity in these fictional cities. Can you tell us a bit about why representation was important to you when creating these characters?

Because it’s what exists in real life. I can’t even think of a reason why a city or community wouldn’t be represented this way.

Your newest release, (This Is Not A Normal) Animal Book with author Julie Segal-Walters, just came out in October. What was the process/collaboration like between you and Julie on this hilarious book?

Well, nothing like the book would imply, of course. She wrote the manuscript in 2014, and I didn’t see it until six months later. She saw sketches now and then as I worked on the art, but there was no collaboration per se. This is the way picture books almost always work, by the way. The writer and artist rarely have any communication during the process. The book pretends otherwise, which is most of the joke. You’re right, it is hilarious and I had a great time making it.

Which artists or illustrators have had the most influence on your style and approach to your work for children?

This is always so hard to answer. There are so many ways to approach the question. I see work all the time that inspires me and makes me want to draw like that, or tell stories like that. I can’t leave a bookstore without seeing at least one book that depresses me because it’s so good and I wish I’d done it. A thousand illustrators have influenced a thousand of my drawings, and while there are probably a few giants that I tried to emulate as I developed my work, the last time I can actually remember actually sitting down and changing the way I draw a picture was when I rediscovered the singular Mexican printmaker José Posada a few years back. Would you see that influence in my current drawings? Well, I do, but I would doubt anyone else would.

The real answer here is probably Maurice Sendak. Not in any particular method or technique he used to draw pictures, but in his commitment to honesty in his way of writing about children, for children. Where the Wild Things Are came out in 1963, and Max’s emotions and imaginings in that book may have scared a bunch of parents and librarians back then, but kids knew it was the truth. This is totally aspirational for me. If I even get close to that in my own storytelling in my lifetime, I think I’ll be satisfied.

What is your favorite interaction you’ve had with a child about your work?

I was on a Tinyville Town deadline two New Year’s Eves ago while staying at a cabin in the Poconos with family, which included my sister-in-law and her three little kids. I had my computer set up on the big dining table every day, finishing up the drawings for Tinyville Town Gets to Work, and the kids were kind of warned to leave Uncle Brian alone so he could work. One morning, my at-the-time seven-year-old niece, Kate, who has all of my books and even several of my drawings hanging on her bedroom wall, came by and looked over my shoulder to see what I was doing. In the way that only Kate can, she incredulously announced to the house, “Uncle Brian’s not working! He’s just drawing pictures!”

What tips do you have for the young person who wants to create books?

A big part of the job that editors and agents do, is look for and find new work by new talent with new things to say. No matter how hard it seems to get through that door, keep writing, keep drawing, and keep knocking. They’re looking for you, too.

What’s next for you, in Tinyville Town and beyond?

I’m a Mail Carrier will be out in March, which is the next Tinyville Town book. And I’ll be illustrating four picture books in 2018, including one which is a Tinyville Town book, and one of which is a book I wrote about an astronaut who just wants to take a walk.

If you could split a pizza with one person you admire, living or dead, who would it be? (Bonus: What kind of pizza?)

Jim Henson. (Bonus: Any kind of pizza he wants.)

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

I awoke this morning to news that Ronald Searle passed away yesterday. Back in college, around 1988-90, Ronald Searle traded blows with Edward Gorey for my affections. Searle represented the loose, luscious line work and bawdy observations that I was attracted to on one hand (but secretly so, since I was such a prude back then and Searle’s subject matter was often a little, how do you say, naughty), while Gorey represented a precise and obsessed drawing style, and the more macabre side of my sensitivities. Gorey eventually got the upper hand when I wrote and drew Frederick & Eloise, but even then, I had Searle’s book Ah Yes, I Remember it Well: Paris 1961 – 1975 with me while living on Place Pigalle in 1991 and referred to it often.
I haven’t thought about Searle in some time, and I have no idea what happened to that book. Other inspirations and influences have come and gone and you’d be hard-pressed to find that dripping quill-line ink and robust sensuousness in anything I’ve drawn in the last ten years. I think maybe I’ll go find a used copy of that book, or else his Paris Sketchbook, and live in the past for a few hours.

Friday, October 21st, 2011

Go here and read this.

I think it’s important, and I’m in pretty good company I think.

Here’s the text:

We are tired of hearing the picture book is in trouble, and tired of pretending it is not. And so:

WE BELIEVE

• Imitation, laziness, and timidity are poisoning a great art form.
• A picture book should be fresh, honest, piquant, and beautiful.
• Children’s books merit grown-up conversation.
• Grown-up conversation doesn’t mean asking kids to leave the room.
• We write for children, adults who read with children, and adults who simply enjoy children’s books–in that order.
• We should know our history.
• We must cease writing the same book again and again.
• We need a more robust criticism to keep us original.
• The line between author and illustrator is irrelevant.
• The line between moral and meaning is paramount.
• It is right that anything a child sees, feels, or thinks be our grist.
• Picture books are a form, not a genre.
• Good design fosters good reading.
• Picture books look best when their covers face outward.
• The tidy ending is often dishonest.
• Even books meant to put kids to sleep should give them strange dreams.

WE CONDEMN

• The term “kid-friendly.”
• Convention as crutch.
• Glossy paper as default.
• The amnesiacs who treasure unruly classics while praising the bland today.

WE PROCLAIM

• Every day we make new children—let us also make new children’s books.

Signed: Mac Barnett, Brian Biggs, Sophie Blackall, Lisa Brown, Kevin Cornell, Carson Ellis, Isol, Laurie Keller, Jon Klassen, Matthew Myers, Tao Nyeu, Sean Qualls, Aaron Renier, Adam Rex, Christian Robinson, Jon Scieszka, Dan Santat, Lemony Snicket, Erin E. Stead, Philip C. Stead, Scott Teplin, Maria Van Lieshout

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

Interesting piece in the New York Times today about the new Nissan van that is to replace the Ford Crown Victoria as the “official” New York taxicab over the next several years. The first time I visited New York in 1985, I was lucky enough to take a Checker Cab once or twice in the four weeks I was there. They were big and spacious and held a ton of luggage. By the time I moved there to go to college in 1987, I don’t recall ever seeing a Checker Cab. Rather, the Ford Crown Victoria — the same car the police department used for their cruisers — was pretty ubiquitous. While I was in school (design school mind you) I remember reading an article in a magazine about vehicles designed specifically as cabs. They were boxy and electric, and seemed much more appropriate as a vehicle that could get one around town while having more cargo room and taking up less space. When I loved lived in Paris I was surprised to find a large number of Mercedes taxis along with the Peugeots and Renaults. But it still seemed silly to have these sedans fitted with a meter and a sign on top pretending to be a variation on public transportation.
Over the last several years, as I visit NY often now, I’ve been seeing and riding in more and more Ford Escape hybrid SUV taxis. These made a lot more sense to me as taxis, what with the cargo space and the fuel-efficient engine. Now the Nissan NV200 has been chosen to take over, and by the end of the decade pretty much every cab in NY will be an electric minivan. Albeit one designed specifically for New York’s “peculiar” needs as Mayor Bloomberg put it.

While some seem to be lamenting the idea that a suburban minivan will be the new New York City taxi, I kind of feel that once the Checker Cab was replaced with the Crown Vic, whatever romance or ideal one had about the city cab was gone already. It was like riding around in Grandpa’s car. The Nissan, as goofy-looking as it is, makes more sense as a taxi. I espcially like the huge sun roof that will allow one to stare up at the skyscrapers as one goes from place to place. That’s my kind of taxi.

However, I will say right now that no matter how much sense these taxis make, and no matter how slick is the sunroof and how much gas will be saved, when I draw a taxi, my taxis will always be, more or less, a Checker. Everything Goes: On Land is full of taxis (comes out in September…) and as you can see it’s pretty clear that I derive the look and feel of these things in fact many of my cars taxi or not, from the look of the Checker.

Thursday, October 7th, 2010

Something came along Facebook today and I thought I’d post it here. Fifteen artists whose influence will always stick. There are a lot of artists in my “inspirations” folder and on my bookshelves. These are in the permanent collection. For whatever reason, something about what they do or how they do it resonates no matter how many years go by.

Some of these are obvious, others less so. And they are in no particular order at all.

Edward Gorey
Jacques Tardi
Chris Ware
Seymour Chwast
Arnold Lobel
Richard Scarry
Walt Disney
Saul Steinberg
B. Kliban
George Tooker
Ben Shahn
Jorge Colombo
Robert Crumb
Bill Watterson
Maurice Sendak

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

glasses

So I got my glasses on Monday. The more rounded pair is for stuff which is close to me, like my dog is right now staring me in the face. The more rectangular pair is for the stuff which is further away, like you are right now wherever you are. After two days of this, I’m not really excited. I mean, I know I look all smarter and stuff. And if you were choosing a math team, I’m suddenly a candidate. But the close-range glasses are kind of giving me a headache, and I find that when I’m drawing, for instance, I’m more comfortable not wearing them. Not more comfortable like on my head. But comfortable like my eyeballs are less weary. On the other hand, when I’m staring at the computer reading TMZ or funny cat videos, the rounder glasses are definitely pretty clear and make everything more better.
The distance pair on the other hand are the cat’s pajamas, and I can see stuff that I didn’t know I wasn’t seeing before.

This is weird.

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

So after months of squinting at the computer and noticing that everyone in the car is seeing the billboards and roadsigns ahead before me, I found out yesterday that I need glasses. As the doctor said, forty-two years of 20/20 isn’t bad. He’s right, I suppose. My eleven-year-old son got glasses a couple of months ago, and I’m sure that the way I draw, with my face about eight inches above the table, drawing tiny little 2-inch sketches has never helped anything.

The funny thing is that when it rains it pours. The optometrist said that, well, he said that I’m a pretty good candidate for bifocals but he’d rather “start me off” with just two pairs of glasses. One is for distances beyond ten feet and the other is for nearer vision, within ten feet. I’m not sure which, if either, will be my day-to-day glasses. I can think of plenty of situations where both would be nice.

It was really startling, when after fifteen minutes of reading the small type through those various lenses that optometrists use he turned the lenses to some setting that really blurred everything. He asked whether I could read the projected alphabet, and I could not. He then tells me that this is my natural vision, and the reason that I could read it when I started was that my eye-ball muscles (or whatever) are working overtime to focus on things. It’s why I’m often squinting and probably why I occasionally get headaches. Go figure!

So, then I had to pick out frames. Since picking out frames is somewhat like shopping, I called Sacha, who biked over to the office and helped. They should be ready in a week, and I shall post a photo. Until then, here’s an artist’s concept sketch.

Monday, August 2nd, 2010

Many many years ago when I was obsessed with and serious about accordions, I met a filmmaker by the name of Robert Emmons. He was at the time planning to make a documentary about the Acme Accordion School in Westmont, NJ, where I was at the time taking lessons. About the time he started shooting this film I dropped out of Acme due to life getting in the way. Fast forward now about nine years, and I get an email from Robert.
The documentary about the accordion school didn’t get completed, but he’s been hard at work on other projects, completing two other full-length documentary films. Lately he’s been working on an interesting collection of shorter films, completing two a week for the last half year. He writes, “I set a goal to make two short documentary films a week based on randomly drawn words, they premiere every Wednesday and Sunday. At the end of six months, I’ll have 52 films. Today is my 50th, so only two to go!”

He wrote to me because I appear in the 49th film, which is footage from the aborted Acme documentary filmed in, I believe, late 2001. You can see the post about it here, and the film itself right here below. I make a small appearance at 1:33.

Now that’s cool and all. But take an hour or two and watch as many of Robert’s films in this project as you can. It’s really a terrific project. My favorite of the group so far is KALEIDESCOPE, which happens to be film #48. Robert’s got great taste in music as soundtrack as well, and since he spends some time writing about where the music for these films comes from, I can tell it’s important. As I watch these, I’m creating a not-insignificant list of musicians and bands to search for and get a hold of.

Years ago I was following a musician called Podington Bear who had a similar project going on, posting two or three songs every week for a year. And back when I was writing and drawing comics, I used to assign myself a page of writing — something complete with a beginning middle and end, not just a sentence or paragraph — every day. These kinds of exercises force one to get out of the claustrophobic and self-defeating need to make it perfect, and loosen up a bit. The results of these exercises are often not great, and never perfect, which is precisely the idea. However, they are usually inspired and the nature of the deadline is that one is forced to make decisions and stick with them, rather than hem and haw for months, never actually going anywhere.

Thanks for getting in touch, Robert.

Friday, May 28th, 2010

I’ve been interested in maps since forever. When I was younger I had maps of The World, Europe, the US, and various archipelagos and islands pinned to my wall in Pasadena, Texas, reminding me every day that there was a big ol’ world out there beyond southeastern Texas. At some point I went through my grandmother’s collection of National Geographics and stole as many maps from that magazine as I could. Years later, when I was in high school, my grandmother mailed to me a box of the ones I apparently missed. Being a nerd, I was into Dungeons & Dragons, of course, and I only played “dungeon master” merely so I could create the myths and especially draw the detailed maps of fictional worlds that the players were forced to explore.
Later on, in my San Francisco apartment, I had USGS survey maps of various national parks (Yosemite Valley and the Grand Canyon most memorably), a bus map of Paris, and an old map of the New York City Subway.

The NYC Subway map holds a special place both in my heart and my own special version of hell. I spent a summer in NYC in 1985 when I was 17 years old, and I spent a good deal of time trying to decipher that map. If you’ve ever seen the NYC Subway map, imagine plunking a nice kid from Texas/Arkansas down in the middle of Manhattan and giving him that map, a few tokens, and a nice “have fun!”
I ended up spending two years of college in New York, so eventually it all came pretty naturally. I also spent a year of college (and then another year afterward) in Paris, where the system is much simpler and the Paris Métro map reflects that. Still, I was always very aware of the frequent visitor to the city, standing out in a crowd of New Yorkers, staring at that map — either on the wall of the station or on the platform of the train — looking like they were lost or soon would be.
Now, fast forward a couple of years to, say, 2010. I’m working on this series of big books about transportation for HarperCollins called Everything Goes. I’m writing about and drawing as many different types of vehicles as I can cram into three books. And while it looks like I’m not going to be able to get many references to maps in as I’d originally hoped, I have spent a good deal of time reading about and looking at transit maps. It was during this research that I found (just chanced upon actually) a book called Paris Underground: The Maps, Stations and Design of the Métro (Amazon link here) by Mark Ovenden. The book includes maps of the Métro since its inception in 1900, as well as photographs of the stations and the various printed ephemera, like tickets and brochures, that have been used by the RATP (Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens) over the years. It’s really a terrific book. The cover of that book lists Ovenden as the author of another book called Transit Maps of the World (Amazon link), which I of course promptly ordered. This book is just as good, with both historical and current maps of dozens of subway systems from all over. Paris and New York, of course, but also Hamburg, Mexico City, Montreal, Osaka, and even good ol’ Philadelphia.

These maps do the same thing for me as the maps I had on my wall when I was twelve. I love following the routes and seeing the names of the stops and imagining what one sees when one emerges from underground at that point. When I loved in Paris, it was a cheap thrill to take the Métro to some unknown station and explore the neighborhood it served, then find my way home again. This daydreaming, I suppose, is a virtual version of the same.

Me in the Métro, 2004

Me in the Paris Métro, 2004.

This all came about today because The New York Times published an article this morning about a new edition of the aforementioned subway map that will be introduced next week. Each time a city updated its transit maps, various controversies ensue as certain elements are simplified or removed, others are added or enlarged, and the process of trying to please everyone including locals as well as tourists ends up making everyone unhappy. In this case, Manhattan, being the busiest and most congested borough of the city, has been enlarged (engorged actually, it’s really fat) while Staten Island, with its sole tendril of a line running from St. George to Tottenville, has been stuffed into a small box and shrunk down in size. I’m sure the residents of Staten Island are insulted, even though, really, the move makes sense. The NYTimes story has a terrific (but too small!) interactive feature detailing ways in which the map has changed from the current edition to the new one. Go see that here.
Poking around the Googles this morning led me to a couple of other interesting places as well.

The Metro Transit Authority (MTA) which is the agency that oversees the subway and bus system of NY has a maps section of their site that’s pretty slick.

The Paris RATP’s site has the Métro map available for PDF download here and a smaller “wallet size” edition here. (watch it, the links open the PDF maps).

My new favorite time-waster: An interactive map of the Paris Métro.

If you know of any more interesting sites and resources, leave a comment!

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

My little movie “Playground” got featured on a terrific blog called PlayGroundology. It’s all about, yes, playgrounds. LIke it you will.

PlayGroundology screenshot