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


Sara said...

Okay, I'm gawking here. What a mesmerizing interview. That part about how he starts with the color scheme for the key spread and then works backwards? I felt like I was being invited into the super-secret artist's studio on that one. And the Zen and the brush painting and those sketches! I'll stop, because I'm raving now. But this was so satisfying in every way.

Excuse me while I go sell my life savings to bid on that snowflake.

Josephine Cameron said...

Terrific interview...I loved getting a sneak peak into the soundtracks! Thanks!

Charlotte said...

Sigh. I wonder if Sara's life savings are bigger than mine, because I want it too?

Thanks for the great interview!

Anonymous said...

Hoo boy and boy howdy, I was waiting for this feature, and you really deliver, David (and Jeremy). I think Grumpy Bird is one of the top-five best books this year, if not the best. Tankard probably thought I was cyber-stalking him for a while there, what with all my Grumpy Bird talk at 7-Imp.

What great insight into how he works and his process. I loved, like Sara, reading about how he starts with that one spread and his color scheme. Now I'm going to have to go look at the book again.

It was also particularly satisfying to read after reading about Sara Zahn's process over at Kate's Book Blog today in her snowflake feature. Sara does things a bit differently, too, in terms of process. Fascinating. Oh I wish I had talent and were an illustrator. But I can admire from afar. Thanks to both of you.

Now to go get caught up on some of David's reviews. Things will slow down soon, and I'll be able to read the excelsior file daily, like I used to.

Thanks! What a fabulous snowflake.

david elzey said...

Aw, man! Is everyone going to outbid me? Eh, it won't take much...

Anonymous said...

Is it a good thing or a bad thing that I want so many snowflakes. And now you have to go and make me want ANOTHER? For shame, sir, for shame.

Mary Lee said...

Excellent interview! Well-written, as ususal, and great questions. I especially like the question you haven't been asked question. How else would we have know his books have soundtracks?!