Friday, November 30

How Does the Show Go On?

An Introduction to the Theater
by Thomas Schumacher
with Jeff Kurtti
Disney Editions 2007

This one is killing me.

This handsome book provides a fantastic window into the production of a modern Broadway musical with a solid background in theatre production aimed at the middle grade and early teen set. The book starts at the front of the house explaining how the theatre staff keep things running, then goes on stage, back stage, through rehearsals, all the way through opening night explaining how it all comes together. Throughout there's lots of interactive materials to study; a facsimile copy of Playbill; a reproduction of an actual ticket (detailing how to read your seat assignment); there's an envelope containing a section of a script and later on another bit of script with the lighting cues delineated; there's even a quarter-sized facsimile folder containing a director's production sketches with a photos that follow showing how they were executed.

But it's Disney, and being Disney means that no musical theatre on Broadway existed before The Lion King. The author, being the producer of most of Disney's Broadway shows (it says so twice on the cover!), is more than happy to share this knowledge but every photo is Disney. The enclosed Playbill and ticket are from The Lion King, as are the facsimiles of Julie Taymor's production sketches. Sections of script are from Tarzan and much of the behind the scenes includes images from Mary Poppins. While it was nice of them to explain the differences between theatre types -- a thrust stage from a black box from an amphitheatre -- it seems a bit presumptuous to call the book "an introduction to the theater" and conveniently ignore the world outside the sphere of all things Disney.

Granted, a kid who is into musical theatre might have come to it through Disney originally but what if they didn't? Does it matter that Disney basically turned a bit of self-promotion into an introduction to an art form?

This is what tears me. You see, I've got two girls in the house who have this thing for musical theatre. Their school puts on a musical every year (two actually, a 7th and 8th grade production in the fall, a 2nd through 6th grade production in the spring) and they have elected to participate every year. They are also part of an after-school musical theatre group and perform in those shows in the fall and spring. And then there are the movie musicals we watch at home which, fortunately, they continue to enjoy. Their favorite movie musical is Singin' In the Rain. They recently watched My Fair Lady and Little Shop of Horrors. We took them to see Wicked in October. They sing show tunes in the shower. They know there's a world of musicals that isn't Disney and they also know High School Musical (which to me is like a cross between an 80's sitcom and an Afterschool Special with pop songs grafted onto it).

I really think they might like this book but I don't like the narrow focus. I'm not so rabidly anti-Disney that I would refuse it on those grounds alone -- it would look hypocritical considering we own a number of classic Disney cartoon collections -- but the total pro-Disney aspect of the book leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Open question for the people at Disney Editions, and their publishing family: Are you so threatened by the entire history of Broadway that you felt the need to exclude all mention of it from your book? Are you so insecure about your right to be on The Great White Way that you had to buy the New Amsterdam Theatre in order to assure yourself a home? Or is it, as with Time Square, you simply want to replace what's out there with good old fashioned family values?

Did you have to produce such an attractively biased book?

As an introduction to theatre I guess I would have hoped for more of an historical perspective. I would feel a lot more comfortable introducing this book to kids if I knew they had something just as good -- and less Disney -- to move on to afterward.

Tuesday, November 27

A Crooked Kind of Perfect

Linda Urban
Harcourt 2007

Zoe wants a piano. In her mind she considers herself a piano prodigy waiting to be discovered. She's just a baby grand away from Carnegie Hall. But when her easily-distracted dad is charged with procuring the instrument he returns home with a cheesy Perfectone D-60 organ, complete with electronic rhythm sections and lessons that feature television theme songs in its practice book. When her teacher discovers that Zoe has some talent she convinces her to enter the annual Perform-O-Rama competition. And much middle grade hilarity ensues.

No, actually, it doesn't. What happens is much anxiety ensues, as Zoe is forced to attend the competition with her agoraphobic father who leaves poor Zoe in the care of her music teacher who, in turn, passes her off to another family she knows while he cowers in a hotel room. In that respect the book takes an unsettling turn because it really does feel the girl is at sea in the end. I'd like to say I thought this was a case of good writing but I can't imagine the author intended for the reader to feel anxiousness over her well being instead of the suspense of the competition.

It's funny, because until I sat down to write this I hadn't thought about how unnerving the end of the book was. In fact, I'd read recently that some consider this to be the best middle grade book released this year, and I might have given it that if I hadn't started thinking about it. Finishing the book my only qualm had been that there is an inconsistency between Zoe being told there was no classical music available for her organ, and no music beyond the 1980s, when in fact both appear throughout the competition with little mention. I thought it too minor to point out.

But what of the subplot at the beginning, where her best friend from the school year previous has dumped her ceremoniously for not being, well, Bratz enough? In the end it seems the only reason for her inclusion is for the sudden appearance of a certain baby grand at the end of the story and a good graphic for the cover. And what of that other strange subplot, the one with the boy who might be her boyfriend who hangs out with her dad all the time in the kitchen baking? Wait a minute, doesn't Zoe's mother use a mirror to read scores over the judges shoulders so she can calculate scores in the competition?

Now that I think about it, I haven't encountered this much head-scratching since... The Higher Power of Lucky! This book is exactly what a librarian might consider to be the perfect middle grade reader after all! There aren't enough "serious issues" to really make this award-worthy, but if the Newbery committee proves me wrong you read it here first.

So here's the thing. I read this because my youngest was hungry for something light and fluffy, something to read quickly between larger books, something to cleanse her palate. After I read it and felt I could recommend it to her she devoured it pretty much in a single sitting. It was perfect for the moment and easily forgotten when the moment was over, which was exactly what she wanted. I think that's good enough.

Tuesday, November 20

The NYT "Best Illustrated Books" List, In a Word (or Three)


Perhaps it's even obvious to point out the the New York Times would pick the most obvious titles for its list, but what makes a book an obvious choice for its list might not actually be so obvious. I would say a good portion of the list includes books that for a number of reasons could be seen as obligatory, books either they couldn't ignore or in some other way felt obligated to include.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret
, for example. Could they really afford to keep this book off the list if they wanted to? Nominated for the National Book Award (I thought it should have taken the award, but I'm telling myself it came in a close second) this book is one of those that demands attention and deserves it, so throwing it on the list makes sense. It's also either Caldecott or Newbery bound if it doesn't cancel itself out like an actor nominated for two different movies at the Academy awards. Wouldn't want to get caught not mentioning a book that could win something from the ALA, would they?

Also in the "can't ignore" category is Shaun Tan's The Arrival, that crazy picture book that thinks its a graphic novel. The story of the immigrant experience in a parallel Earth is one of those books many people might not "get" at first blush and will set it aside. A superb piece of storytelling my guess is that many who faithfully buy whatever the NYT tells them will get this and set it out on their coffee tables and wait until the movie is made to finally "read" it. "Oh, it's like Jumanmji"? a woman said to me when I tried to show it to her. Uh, no. Another piece of award bait if ever there was one and the NYT says its great so you should get it.

I'm going to put Not A Box in this category as well because once seen it becomes obvious that this is a wonderful book. The illustrations are simple and simply perfect. I think the book gets most of its points for executing a concept everyone instantly recognizes -- a box is whatever children imagine it to be -- and I know everyone whose seen it instantly wonders why it took so long for someone to execute it. From a standpoint of text this is an easy book to mess up, a horse made by committee if an editor had married the writer with the wrong artist. Without the text is this really one of the best illustrated books? It's hard to say once you've seen it. But I like it so I won't begrudge its place on the list.


Here's another word for the NYT list, and here we have many things that make the list because they are, for lack of a better way of putting it, New York-centric. If you are a good New Yorker you will own these books, and if you kowtow to all things New York then these are clearly "best illustrated" and don't you dare question it.

Every Friday felt, to me, a little empty. It celebrates that uniquely Big City idea of a father and son hanging out at a diner on Friday mornings before dad hops off to work and junior bops off to school. It also flogs a certain nostalgia for a time past (that might not have ever really existed) in New York's past when big city living was a romantic middle class notion. Does it hurt that author Yaccarino occasionally does illustrations for the New York Times? Absolutely not.

Guy Billout is another illustrator who's no stranger to New Yorkers, or readers of The New Yorker at the very least. This credential alone was probably enough to get him a book deal for a collection of very nice illustrations about a frog who decides to seek bluer waters called The Frog Who Wanted to See the Sea. Just rolls off the tongue doesn't it? The illustrations are, indeed, fine but they're the kind of sterile illustrations only a childless New Yorker would think a child could love. The story is as dead in the water as a red tide, rendering those cold, hard illustrations meaningless. But then, this is a list of best illustrated books, not best illustrated good books.

Another bit of New Yorker obligatory is Old Penn Station by William Low. Here we have the life and death of a beloved New York landmark, so beloved it no longer exists. Low uses his trademark nostalgic "warmth" to give the old rail station a second life, and in turn tells of a building whose lasting achievement may be that it forced New Yorkers to create a landmark preservation society. Nice message for the kids. Okay, there are books about landmarks, buildings and whatnot that no longer exist -- Brian Floca's excellent Lightship, a book that easily could have made this list but didn't -- but do they have to feel this stodgy? With it's steely blues, red-gold highlights and umber shadows this book resembles little more than an afternoon in an Old Gentleman's Cigar Club.

We also have a new sort of obligation that's taken over the list the last couple of years and that's the obligatory pop-up book. This year is no exception, though I take exception to a book that asks the "reader" to marvel at it's spectacle and count to 600. Yes, it's David A. Carter's 600 Black Dots and that's as much as it's about. If you're feeling obliged to include a pop-up book on the list -- and I suspect the NYT does so they can keep a chair warm for crap like Mommy? when the need for such obligations arise -- could it be a book with something actually going for it? Just last night a co-worker pointed out the new pop-up edition of Moby Dick retold and engineered by Sam Ita that clearly makes the precious emptiness of 600 Black Dots seem... uh, empty. Part of me wonders if pop-ups haven't developed to the point where they're no longer really for children, which would disqualify it from this category, but another part of me has serious questions about what constitutes illustration in this case. Comparing a book like 600 Black Dots to more traditional books is like comparing kinetic sculpture to painting. Best engineered, perhaps, but illustrated?

Peter Sis, much as I like his work and really like his latest book which has landed on the list, is another illustrator who has done editorial illustration for the NYT which I feel may bend things in his favor. The Wall is his story in picture book format, a retelling of growing up behind the Iron Curtain in the Czech Republic. With a couple of exceptions (the opening and closing image of young and old Peter Sis) the book is a fantastically accessible story of both one person and many as they struggled to come of age during an age (the 1960's) when the whole world was opening up to various forms of artistic expression. In mostly black and white line drawings with red accents Sis and his illustrations reflect an infectious optimism of spirit, quite a thing to do with little drawings in a book ostensibly for children.


If I get a lot of shit for this, so be it, but I feel like the only reason Christopher Myers' Jaberwocky made the list is because Jerry Pinkney didn't have a noteworthy title this year. Am I saying what you think I'm saying? Yes. It's the 21st century and the publishing industry is still predominantly white and that's reflected in what gets published. It's a thorny issue that I'm not really looking to open up here except to say that Jaberwocky isn't that great of a book but it's what the NYT judges must have felt was the best they could put forth and not have the entire list look so damn white.

Personally, I don't happen to think the book is that good: it takes Lewis Carroll's verse and re-imagines the beast as a monster basketball player to be vanquished from the playground. I think what bothers me most are the textual assumptions Myers makes based on his research from Carroll's notes, suggesting that Carroll may have been incorporating Aztec words into his nonsense vocabulary and thus, tangentially, was using the poem to suggest more of a game than a combat. Carroll and Lear were both lovers of language, pure and nonsensical, and were not above appropriating words from other cultures that would sound like nonsense to the Victorian ear. I believe this passage from Carroll's own book makes the point
'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.'
The Jabberwock is not a basketball player. Sorry, that's Carroll's story and I'm sticking with it.

Okay, so does the race of the illustrator, or writer, or any artist matter? Should it? Absolutely not. But when a newspaper like the NYT prints out a list of the best illustrated books it might be just a tad wary of not being inclusive or of being accused of being the paper of record for only a certain segment of the population.

* * * * *

The only title I haven't addressed is First the Egg because I haven't had a chance to see it yet. It could end up being either and obvious or an obligatory, or it might just deserve to be on the list, I don't know.

So, if I were to make any substitutions to this list what would they be?

Instead of The Frog Who Wanted to Sea the Sea I propose that Close to the Wind by Peter Malone be considered. Here's a book that cruised under the radar earlier this year, a fictitious recreation of a young sailor's diary that explains the Beaufort Scale for grading wind conditions at sea, with some of the best illustrations of open water and sailing vessels I've seen in a spell. The perspectives alone easily beat out most of the books on this list, even the books I think deserve to be here.

While I do love Not a Box I'd much rather see Kevin Sherry's I'm the Biggest Thing in the Ocean get a nod. It takes childlike boasting to its logical conclusions in the sea as a squid discovers that perhaps it isn't what it thinks it is. The simple line drawings are equally cute and, honestly, it's funnier and has a better twist at the end.

I've already suggested a replacement for the pop-up book and Old Penn Station, but what about Every Friday? May I suggest Leaves by David Ezra Stein? Instead of father and son in the big city we get a yearling bear as she comes to terms with her first fall season. Stein's breezy watercolor illustrations have more warmth in them than any of Yaccarino's shades of yellow.

I think there's a danger involved anytime one puts together a list of anything "best." Perhaps the solution is as simple as changing the name of the list into something a little less elite. The Times reviews and recommends books all the time, so there has to be some way to separate out the creme de la creme. Perhaps they could use some bracketology with their monthly reviews and come down to a final 16 titles that readers could vote on. I'd like to see what sort of results came out of that compared to what The New York Times came up with.

Although, sadly, if people can't tell the difference between Jumanji and The Arrival than I guess it doesn't make much of a difference.

Monday, November 19

Stone Age Boy

by Satoshi Kitamura
Candlewick 2007

I can't really say what it is about Kitamura's illustration style that makes me like it so much, but I do. Whether it's The Comic Adventures of Boots or Me and My Cat it's a world unto itself between cartoon and watercolor illustration, a controlled playfulness that's as expressive as it is equally fun.

Stone Age Boy is another world altogether, literally. A boy goes exploring and falls down a hole landing in a cave during one of man's more primitive eras on the planet. From the looks of both the people and their way of life the boy has found himself in a Scandinavian fishing village befriended by a girl who goes by the name Om. After regarding each other's appearance as odd they take the boy into their society and show him their ways. They dry fish, they hunt, Om and boy play as kids and help out as needed, and at night around the fire when the others sing and dance the boy plays his air guitar. One day he and Om enter a cave and discover it full of paintings, stories of previous hunts, and a bear. Along the way he loses Om and re-emerges into his own time. In the book's coda we see the boy as an adult archaeologist digging back into the past, searching for his link back to another time, searching for traces of Om and her village.

A natural progression for younger readers who might have moved beyond the novelty of the dinosaur and want to know more about how one goes about digging up and studying the past, the information is both accessible and not in the least bit "teach-y". Where most of the illustrations are full-page or full-spread there are a few spreads with smaller illustrations full of details about life in the village that feel cramped and just a bit too small. If these informational pages had been larger and maybe expanded over a few pages I think it would made a huge difference between a good book and a great one for me.

I like this more serious side of Kitamura, I don't think I'd mind seeing more.

Tuesday, November 13

Dodsworth in New York

by Tim Egan
Houghton Mifflin 2007

I don't remember the last time I reviewed a beginning reader, if at all. I know I passed on Mo Williams' recent Pig and Elephant series because (prepare to throw rocks and tomatoes) I just wasn't bowled over by them. They weren't bad, they just didn't go anywhere for me.

But the other day I noticed this title and, I don't know, something about it caught me. Perhaps there's something vaguely New Yorker-ish about the design, or the fact that it's a beginning reader that features New York in the title. It had a handsome, sophisticated look about it. Say what you will about judging books by their covers, if they weren't meant to be judged that way they wouldn't spend so much time and energy designing them.

Dodsworth appears to be a mole-like creature. It doesn't say, it doesn't really matter. He's off on an adventure to see the world. First stop, though, is his friend Hodges the Elephant's cafe for the best pancakes ever. Unfortunately Dodsworth is met by "that crazy duck" which seems to be Hodges' pet. (A moment to consider all the animals who have other animals as pets and ask "What's up with that?") Duck appears to be somewhat of a loon, a bit of a trickster character. He's chased off and after a hearty breakfast Dodsworth is off, next stop New York.

Do I have point out that, unseen until he gets there, that crazy duck has stowed himself away in Dodsworth's luggage?

Dodsworth is hounded by the duck all over New York. He tries to send the duck back to Hodges but the duck appears everywhere Dodsworth goes. "There's that crazy duck again!" kids might well be saying every time they see a duck in the pictures. But is it the same duck, or does Dodsworth simply have duck on the brain? At last Dodsworth catches the duck but in securing him for a voyage home they inadvertently find themselves on a steamer to Paris. Dodsworth calls Hodges to let him know that it might be a while before his duck is returned, to which his elephant friend apologizes for the duck ruining his adventure. Au contraire! "He was the adventure!" Dodsworth admits.

Yes, all of that from a beginning reader in simple language, begging to become a series on par with Frog and Toad and Little Bear et al. Perhaps not quite for a Level 1 or 2 reader, but certainly not far behind.

Wednesday, November 7

Blogging for a Cure: "Winter Birds" by Julie Paschkis

I always seem to run into Julie Paschkis' work when I'm not looking for it. Which is to say there is something in her illustrations that draws me to them. It's a strange magnetism, a quiet attraction not unlike the way a whisper can pull you closer and cause you to pay more attention over the din that surrounds it.

The most recent example was with Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal by Paul Fleishman, the multicultural retelling of the Cinderella fairy tale. Paschkis finds the common visual language necessary to give the story it's shifting fluidity, a cross between heavy-leaded storytelling of stained glass with the mysterious luminosity of illuminated manuscripts. With detailed borders and shifting complimentary tones she unifies the disparate elements in the margins while illustrating the story in a main panel on each spread.

Similarly, with Yellow Elephant by
Julie Larios she includes a storytelling element within each of the poem's illustrations, monochromatic studies that blend elements of story scrolls within the palate and style of modern batik. Even when you can see the brush strokes in her media the dark outlines push the colors forward, giving everything a warm glow from within.

A visit to her website reveals all sorts of other treasures. In addition to her Liberty Notes cards, which revel in a playful naive folk art style, there are bold paintings, energetic posters, and the pleasant surprise of her black and white illustration work that treads the waters between Arts and Crafts era woodcuts and cut paper silhouette art.

A little over a year ago at the Horn Book awards when it was Julie Paschkis' turn to take the podium instead of a long speech she gave her thanks to all and shared a detail of one of her paintings with the audience. It made me smile to think, sitting there watching everyone else sort through their reactions, that if a picture's worth a thousand words then why shouldn't an artist make a speech with their art?

* * * * *

The fancy "Winter Birds" of Julie Paschkis' double-sided snowflake remind me, for some reason, of the Russian tale of the Firebird. It could be the strong use of yellow and red, it could be the filigree and ornamentation. It could also be a trick of the mind, the idea of these birds representing the spirit of hope rising that embodies the efforts of artists from all over united in a cause that colors my vision. So be it.

As you probably know Robert's Snow For Cancer's Cure is a fundraising event for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute where children's book illustrators provide hand decorated wooden snowflakes to be auctioned off online. The auctions are broken down into three groups (heats?) the first of which begins on November 19th. Julie Paschkis' "Winter Birds" is included in the third group of snowflakes that auctions off between December 3 through December 7.

Blogging For A Cure was the brainchild of Jules and Eisha over at the website Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. The hope was to create awareness for the event among the blogging community, bringing bloggers and artists together to help get the word out about the auction and the work of the good people at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Each day bloggers are taking turns featuring a different artist who has contributed to the auction, each post highlighting the artist and their snowflake. If you haven't had a chance yet, check out Blogging for a Cure page for daily updates on posts which is organized both by artist and by day.

Also be sure to check out the auctions pages at the Robert's Snow site for artists who are constantly being added to the auction, even as we blog! The auctions are coming soon, time to scope out your favorites and begin deciding where and how you're going to display your fine works of art.

Here are the rest of today's artist features:

Carol Heyer at The Shady Glade
Joe Kulka at ChatRabbit
Steven James Petruccio at Blog From the Windowsill
Carol Schwartz at Jama Rattigan's Alphabet Soup

Monday, November 5

The Daring Book for Girls

Andrea J. Buchanan &
Miriam Peskowitz
illustrated by Alexis Seabrush
Collins / HarperCollins 2007

The girls had to wait a while but it's finally here. With a clear debt paid up front to the creators of The Dangerous Book for Boys, here we have a collection of things to know and do for girls to help them be as equally rounded in their informal educations as the boys.

I've already seen some backlash against this book in places where, sadly, brains tend not to be engaged. The crux is this: boys got a book that was "dangerous" while girls only get "daring," implying in this that while boys are risk-takers girls are merely flirting with the edges of what is considered taboo. The reality is that a boy is more likely to pick up a book with the word dangerous on its cover and read it and feel subversive for the act of actually reading poetry and learning how to make a secret ink out of urine. And girls? They like to play Truth or Dare and don't somehow feel less subversive than if the game were entitled Truth or Danger. In fact what girls consider daring would, to a boy, be considered dangerous. For adults to get caught up in the wording of the title, well, just shows how little they understand what appeals to children.

Another concern was that there should be an omnibus book for KIDS as opposed to ones specific for each gender. Wrong! You may as well call something like that The Big Bright, Shiny Book of Ever So Much FUN! for Lucky Little Girls and Boys! and watch that book collect dust on every shelf it touches. Boys and girls like their distinctions, they revel in them, and when they want some dirt on what the other is like they want to be able to find it in one convenient location. Just because it says "for boys" or "for girls" doesn't mean the other can't appreciate it. In fact, both The Daring... and The Dangerous... book features a section on the opposite sex which would appeal to the curiosity of both. Manuals for scoping out the enemy, always good reading.

A paltry sampling from the table of contents:
  • Rules for Basketball
  • Lemon powered clock
  • Palm reading
  • Every girl's toolbox
  • 14 games of tag
  • 5 karate moves
  • Daring Spanish girls
  • Joan of Arc
  • Four square
  • Pirates (female)
  • How to tie a Sari
  • Building a campfire
  • Playing hearts and gin
  • Clubhouses and forts
  • Putting up your hair with a pencil
  • How to be a spy
  • How to paddle a canoe
  • Cleopatra
  • Math tricks
  • Boys
  • Public speaking
  • Hiking
  • Telling ghost stories
  • The Periodic Table of elements
  • and so on
Definitely some girly things there, but plenty of things a boy could get into, just as girls could get into some of the boys things. Girly or boyish, these books are handsome editions that don't deserve the crappy knock-offs and gag books that have sprouted up around them.

These two books combined would make an excellent edition to any family library. Perfect for casual grazing, rainy days, bored afternoons and, with the proper adult attitudes, a more complete education. Those who fret over the words in the title or some of the contents would do best to get out of the way of their children and have them prove that you raised them right by letting them explore what's on offer.

Friday, November 2

Blogging for a Cure... With Interview! Jeremy Tankard's "Lucky Bird"

Lucky Bird, indeed, and some lucky bird out there is going to own their very own copy of Bird on a snowflake! Yes, today I have the great fortune of presenting Jeremy Tankard's snowflake for Robert's Snow, made even more special by the fact that Jeremy generously donated his time to answer some questions and provide artwork from his sketchbook!

To see any of the illustrations in a larger (or at least slightly larger) format just click on the image.

Before the interview, a little background. Earlier this spring Jeremy's first picture book was released -- Grumpy Bird -- and seeing it from across the room I knew I had to have it. It's a deceptively simple book that deals with moods and friendship that is also visually more complex than it initially appears. Bird wakes up on the wrong side of the nest, goes for a walk, and all his animal friends wonder what he's up to. Following him, he realizes that his friends will copy what he does, a simple game of follow the leader as it were, and in the end he's no longer grumpy. All back to Bird's nest for some grubs!

I'm including some sketches Jeremy sent along from Grumpy Bird that illustrate some of what his illustration process is like. The ink drawings are from his sketchbook and the color spread is what the final elements from those sketches look like when they're compiled. There's a podcast interview that he did earlier this year where he breaks down the actual digital composition process that he goes through for anyone who's interested. For more illustration goodies, a biography, and Jeremy's blog, do check out his website as well. I promise, you won't disappointed.

Through the magic of the Internet Jeremy and I had a the following little chat about his first book, his next books, and his snowflake.

ec: First, and I'm sure you've answered this question quite a bit, but for those who don't know how did you come to create Bird, your main character from your book Grumpy Bird?

Jeremy: My daughter, who was then three, asked me to do some drawings for her in my sketchbook. She requested "grumpy things". Specifically she asked me to draw a grumpy bear. I drew a grumpy bear. She asked for a grumpy snake. I drew a grumpy snake (you don't want to meet a grumpy snake up close). She asked for a grumpy clock. I drew a grumpy clock. Then she asked for a grumpy bird. I drew a grumpy bird going for a walk. He was wearing red sneakers and looked pretty funny. We both started to laugh and an idea was born! What happens when a grumpy bird goes for a walk? To answer this question I had to write the book. We authors ask the big questions. Ha!

ec: If people can't relate directly to Grumpy Bird they at least know one, which is why I think it strikes a chord with people. Are you a Grumpy Bird in the morning, or is this based on someone you know?

Jeremy: I'm very seldom a Grumpy Bird. I know a few of them though. I'm more of a Sleepy Bird in the morning. I think it's based on pretty much everyone. We can all relate to just being grumpy sometimes. When I was writing the book I spent a lot of time trying to figure out why he was so grumpy and write it into the story. In the end I decided that I didn't need a reason -- sometimes you're just grumpy for no good reason.

ec: When I first saw Grumpy Bird I was caught by just how bright and vibrant the colors were. Actually, I usually refer to the book as one of the loudest picture books around. I mean that in a good way! It's a very unique color palate and I'm curious to know if you go into a project with color in mind, if you have a process for building up the illustrations, is there any set method at all?

Jeremy: I'm glad you consider my book LOUD. Perhaps a comment on the loud music I listen to while I'm working. I used to work in very muted colours way back in the day; blacks and whites and nice dull earthy shades. At some point I looked at all my dark and brooding work and thought, "This is all dark and brooding and gothic and that's great, but I want some COLOUR in it." I figured the best way to learn to use colour, which terrified me no end, was to jump in with both feet and learn the hard way. I started by using my acrylics straight from the tube without any mixing -- just nice, bright colours applied with abandon. I guess I grew to like them quite a lot and now I can't imagine using anything else. I'd also taken some colour theory classes in art college so I felt I knew the rules. Now I know how to break them too!

There's usually one spread in a book that is super important. I determine what colours are required for that spread then work backwards (and forwards) from that point to determine the blend of colours that lead up to this event. Colour tells a whole other part of the story that most readers are probably not even aware of (if I've done my job right).

ec: I couldn't immediately place your illustration style at first, but I caught an interview you did where you spoke to your interest in Chinese and Japanese brush painting and it suddenly made sense. So I guess my question is, are these illustrations of Bird and his friends easy to do or are you like the Zen student doing them over and over again until you get them just right?

Jeremy: There's definitely some Zen thing going on. I draw my characters dozens of time until they're absolutely perfect. Each drawing is very quick and spontaneous but I have to get one that is a perfect balance between spontaneity and capturing the required moment. So I guess the art is deceptively simple. There's a ridiculous amount of practice behind each piece.

I love Chinese and Japanese brush painting. I think I learned to use the brush on my own though -- by studying American comic book illustrators like Bernie Wrightson and Wally Wood and Jack Kirby. The influence of the Zen brush painting came less in the use of the tools than in the desire to capture the moment with as little effort as possible. So I think there's a strange juxtaposition between the energy and youthfulness of American comics and the simplicity and elegance of Zen brush painting. I dunno, it's hard to analyze ones own drawings.

ec: I understand you have a new book out in the spring from Candlewick called Me Hungry. I also understand it is not a sequel to Grumpy Bird. Can you talk about it at all, or is it a big secret?

Jeremy: I won't reveal too much. It's very, very different than Grumpy Bird. The story is simpler and, perhaps, more multi-layered than Grumpy Bird. Apples and oranges though, they're so different and I love both of them. It's about a hungry caveboy and will be available in April 2008.

The art in Me Hungry is as different as the story-telling. All those layers and layers of texture and collage found in Grumpy Bird have been stripped out to leave only the bare essentials. I'm looking forward to hearing what people think when it debuts.

ec: But Bird does make a comeback in Spring of 2009, is that correct?

Jeremy: Spring 2009. That's right. When I wrote Grumpy Bird I thought of it as a one-off. Writing a sequel was very difficult but I've got an amazing editor at Scholastic and an amazing agent. Between the two of them they helped me figure out how to recapture some of the spontaneity of Grumpy Bird and write a sequel. I love all the animals in Grumpy Bird and really wanted to write another adventure with them. And to explore another emotion. The sequel is called Boo Hoo Bird and features much tragedy.

ec: Your snowflake for Robert's Snow is entitled "Lucky Bird" and, as people can see above, it bears a striking resemblance to Grumpy Bird. Same Bird, or just members of the same family?

Jeremy: Same Bird. He's really fun to draw!

ec: The two sides of your snowflake work like a two-panel cartoon. There's Bird (accidentally?) sitting under the mistletoe and the next thing he knows he's getting kissed by Worm! It's very cute, very sweet. Am I putting too much of my analytical brain into this when I say it's like an easing of tensions between otherwise hostile parties? Feel free to laugh at me.

Jeremy: Ha ha! Hmmm,... I started drawing Worm a while back on cards for friends. Worms are really fun to draw -- just a tube with eyes on one end. I think Worm is just cheeky. He's sneaking a kiss on an unsuspecting Bird and hoping that he doesn't get eaten in the process. It's like playing ring-and-run when you're a kid. You ring the doorbell then run like heck and hope the owner of the house doesn't see you. I think Worm is like that. Like I said, we children's authors are dealing with the big issues. Really though, it seemed like a cute Christmas-y picture.

ec: What's the one question no one ever asks you, that you wish they would, and how would you answer it?

Thankfully no one has ever asked me a math question. At least not in an interview. No one's ever asked me about music. Does my book have a soundtrack? The answer is YES. Grumpy Bird was drawn to a steady stream of music by the Magnetic Fields, Eels, Ladytron and indie rock with a little dose of Celtic fiddle tunes thrown in for good measure. Me Hungry was drawn with more industrial flavoured music -- especially Buckethead and Pop Will Eat Itself (I'm really dating myself with that aren't I?).

ec: Anything else on the horizon people should be aware of?

Jeremy: I'm still trying to figure that one out. I've got lots of ideas and my sketchbook is populated with some fun characters. I just need to find the stories that go with them.

ec: Thanks again, Jeremy!

Jeremy: Thanks again for doing this, David. It's a great cause and a very unique say to spread the word about it.

* * * * *

Indeed, down to the business of what this is all about. Robert's Snow For Cancer's Cure is a fundraising event for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute where children's book illustrators provide hand decorated wooden snowflakes to be auctioned off online. The auctions are broken down into three groups (heats?) the first of which begins on November 19th. Jeremy's "Lucky Bird" is included in the third group of snowflakes that auctions off between December 3 through December 7.

Blogging For A Cure was the brainchild of Jules and Eisha over at the website Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. The hope was to create awareness for the event among the blogging community, bringing bloggers and artists together to help get the word out about the auction and the work of the good people at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Each day bloggers are taking turns featuring a different artist who has contributed to the auction, each post highlighting the artist and their snowflake. If you haven't had a chance yet, check out Blogging for a Cure page for daily updates on posts which is organized both by artist and by day.

Also be sure to check out the auctions pages at the Robert's Snow site for artists who are constantly being added to the auction, even as we blog! There's so much goodness out there it sometimes feel like it's impossible to catch it all, but since when is so much goodness a bad thing?

Here are the other bloggers featuring artists today. Check em out!

Tracy McGuinness-Kelly is at Sam Riddleburger's blog

Sarah Kahn is profiled at Kate's Book Blog

Sylvia Long is featured at Whimsy Books

and Holli Conger is over at Please Come Flying