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Literati interview

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.)

Maurice Sendak

May 8th, 2012

Today, the internet is filled with posts and post-mortems and obits and love-letters to Maurice Sendak, who died this morning. My friend Charles Hatfield wrote a particularly good one:

RIP Maurice Sendak (1928-2012), one of America’s great cartoonists, her preeminent picture book artist, and one of the most articulate and impassioned author/critics in the children’s book field.

Sendak was a genuine Renaissance man, an artist whose interests could not be neatly corralled into one tiny box (genre, style, medium). But for me the heart of his achievement will always be his picture book children, those squat, feisty urchins, full of vinegar and fire: feisty, anti-authoritarian, and, yes, wild. He paid tribute to their imaginations by unleashing his own fierce imagination, untrammeled, boundless, and free.

Sendak pursued his interests in defiance of pinched, hidebound ideas about what children’s book could be (and children’s authors could do). He is that rare artist whose pursuit of self-indulgence liberated and humanized an entire field, extending its horizons and enriching its emotional palette. And he was a genuine scholar of his field too: his understanding of the picture book form was so complete, and his reverence for its history and greatest practitioners so genuine, that he became the great practitioner-critic of children’s books. (Who else would accept his Caldecott Medal by giving a speech praising Randolph Caldecott?)

Farewell, Mr. Sendak, one of our bright, burning stars.

There’s not much I can add, since I’m not so good about putting these kinds of thoughts down on a blog or Facebook or whatever. What I can say is that Sendak always scared me. I had stacks of great books — Scarry, Seuss, I’ll Fix Anthony, Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel, etc — and I read these books all the time, even when I was “too old” for them. But Where the Wild Things Are was kind of like the monster under the bed. There was something harder about that story, something scarier and dark and true that I didn’t understand when I was a kid. Max was angry. At his mom. He left home (or at least imagined he did). The monsters were chaotic. Did he control them? It didn’t seem possible. The safety net was gone.
Of course in the end Max returns home, but the line had already been cut and the truth revealed. It’s like the fence in your backyard where the woods begin. The yard is safe, sure. But once you’ve seen things move in the woods, once you know there is something more out there, nothing seems right any more.

Later on, Sendak’s drawings themselves, apart from the stories, were what led me back to the Where the Wild Things Are. His crosshatching, his kids, his compositions. In college, he was a big piece of the influence-puzzle that I soaked in and obsessed over. Along with Moebius, Lobel, especially Gorey, and a hundred other cartoonists and artists, Sendak made me look. Somewhere around the early or mid-nineties I found The Juniper Tree and Zlateh the Goat, both of which startled me. I think the thought went something like “good lord, this dude can draw.” I fell in love with the folk tales and the magic and, again, the crosshatching.

Then, once I was actually able to step foot through that door and start making picture books myself, I went back and read his words. Both his stories and his essays about picture books, as well as the marvelous biography by Selma Lanes. It so happened that my kids were quite young at this time, and I discovered Little Bear. The kids didn’t choose Little Bear to read at night as often as I did. Mainly so I could look at the drawings.

I’d just moved to Philadelphia and spent a lot of time at the Rosenbach Library, where I could put on the white gloves, sit in a nice clean room, and get to handle and swoon over Sendak’s original art. (By the way, a couple of observations about this: the Juniper Tree drawings are drawn at 100% of the size that they’re printed in the book, and four-color offset doesn’t remotely do justice to the colors Sendak used to make Where the Wild Things Are. They’re unbelievably gorgeous, while the book is muted and dull.)

I got to meet Maurice Sendak twice. The first time was at The Boathouse Cafe in Central Park, New York City. I was a waiter at the restaurant there, and had a table with two very nice men chatting about the lake behind them as they ate. After I delivered the check, one of them gave me his credit card, American Express, where I saw that the man’s name was Maurice Sendak. I asked him, probably in a daze, if he was the children’s author Maurice Sendak. He agreed that he was, and asked if I was an artist. I admitted that although I was actually a graphic design major at Parsons, I was a fan, and illustrating books was one of the things I truly wanted to do. He wished me luck, and signed his AmEx receipt when I returned. I’m sure the statute of limitations has expired, so I can finally admit that I kept the original and I’ve had it framed over my drawing table in various studios in various cities for twenty-four years.

The second time I met him was in 1993 where I saw him lecture in San Francisco. At the end of his lecture I ran to the stage and handed someone a copy of my graphic novel, Frederick & Eloise, with a inscription to Maurice, which had weeks earlier been published by Fantagraphics. Gorey is the more obvious influence on Frederick, but it was Sendak that forced me to put down on paper what I had in my head. There is a scene in the book where the main character, Frederick, a kind of rotund middle-aged man is falling through the sky, naked, which came right from In the Night Kitchen, and me not worrying about what my parents or people might say at what was to me a pretty twisted and dark story came from Where the Wild Things Are. Even last week, at a school visit north of Philadelphia, the school librarian had mistakenly ordered several copies of my pre-kids-books books from Amazon (Frederick, and Dear Julia,). She was a bit wary of a naked Frederick, and I brought up Night Kitchen when she asked me about it. It felt good to do that.
So the woman to whom I gave the book, back at the lecture in San Francisco, politely thanked me and walked off stage. Optimistically I waited a minute or two, and was repaid by Mr. Sendak returning to the stage, my book in his hands, looking for me. He walked over and told me he hadn’t had time to read it (!) but he loved what he saw, and wished me luck. Again. Two good lucks from Maurice Sendak did me just fine.

Admittedly, the work I am doing now isn’t digging into those recesses that Sendak exists in for me. But like Where the Wild Things Are did among my stack of books when I was a kid, that honesty, that unruly child with fears and dreams and real emotions hasn’t gone anywhere, and those stories are still working their way to the surface. I knew as a kid that the book was sitting there in the shelf, and just as I do now, I opened it and read it just to remind myself of what’s over that fence or under that bed. I’d stare at the pages where Max’s room transmogrifies into the woods, and I’d shudder.

And I still do.