JB: Should we draw straws? Flip a coin? Or dance battle to see who goes first?
JY: I would totally dance battle, but since you’re in CA, and I’m in TN, you can go first. You’re first alphabetically.
JB: Are you more like Haggis or Tank? Why?
JY: I was going to ask you the same thing! My Haggis and Tank proportions vary from day to day. I tend to worry a lot and want things to be just so, especially in terms of my physical space—like Haggis. But if you get me at the right time I can be Tank-ish, too. I love trying new things and seeing new places, and I can be overly optimistic, impulsive, and goofy. Like Tank, I love dreaming up crazy adventures!
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JB: We are just two peas in a pod. I’m also a little bit Haggis and a little bit Tank. (That sounds like an altered version of a Donny and Marie song.) I like to feel like I’m in control of what’s happening in my life like Haggis. But I also love to live life to the fullest like Tank. I’m always up for an adventure. Life is short and I want to collect as many experiences and memories as I can.
JB: How did you come up with the idea for Haggis and Tank? What made you choose a Scottish Terrier and a Great Dane?
JY: Haggis and Tank started as a picture book—Not a Knot—about a girl learning to tie her shoelaces. After wrestling with the all-dialogue text, I realized it wasn’t working. My brilliant critique partners and agent suggested turning it into a chapter book. The main characters evolved into a doggie duo, the setting changed to a pirate ship in order to keep the knot/not wordplay (the only thing I kept from the original text), and I wove in other homophone-based misunderstandings throughout the story. I’ve always been fascinated with Scotland, hence the Scottie named Haggis. (Elizabeth piping in here: YAY!) And one of my roommates after grad school used to have a Great Dane who was a real character. She probably influenced my choice for Tank. Also, I wanted the characters’ physiques to be as different as their personalities.
JB: The first thing I do when I get a MS is read through it. Then I ask myself: Are the characters interesting? Will it be fun to work on? Is it different than what I’ve done before? If I can answer yes to all of those then I’ll start working on designs for the characters. I’ll explore different shapes and features until I find something that I can draw from almost any angle with a wide range of expressions. I want to make sure the characters are able to move around on the page and act without limitations.
For books that I write and illustrate, I always start with the character sketch first. If I find the character interesting and feel that he/she/it has a story to tell, I’ll write out an outline with the basic plot points. I’ll send this to my agent to see what she thinks. Once I have a story that my agent and I are happy with then I’ll move on to drawing. From there it’s pretty much the same as above.
JY: Yes! I'd been a fan of your work for a long time, and we’d met at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference in L.A. After seeing some of the sketches you were posting on Facebook, I mentioned to our amazing agent that I thought you'd do a great Haggis and Tank. She asked you if you'd be interested in creating a sample we could submit with the text. And the next thing I knew, Haggis and Tank were staring at me from my computer screen, making me laugh with their hilarious expressions! They were perfect. And our wonderful editor, Katie Carella, thought so, too.
(I just wanted to add this initial sketch that James did of Haggis and Tank. When he sent it to me (Jessica) through our agent and I opened it, it was the first time I "met" Haggis and Tank!)
JB: I take inspiration wherever I can find it. Charles Schulz and the pre-1970s Peanuts strips are a big influence. I just like how simple they are in terms of the layout and the characters. There’s no unnecessary clutter. Each panel only contains what’s needed to get the idea across. Which is something that I make a point of doing in my own work. I’m also a big fan of Tim Burton. I like his dark sense of humor and the looseness of his line drawings. They just have so much life in them. Walt Disney is another influence. He had a vision and thought outside the box. He made it possible for so many great artists to create such phenomenal works of film and art. I wouldn’t be the artist I am today if it weren’t for the inspiration I’ve gained from studying their work.
JY: My tastes and interests are pretty eclectic, but as far as inspirations for this series, I’ve always loved wordplay and fun pairs of characters. Early influences include books that experiment with language in funny ways, like Edward Lear’s The Quangle Wangle’s Hat and Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, as well as great characters like James Marshall’s George and Martha, Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad, and Munro Leaf’s Ferdinand. As far as contemporary authors and illustrators I admire, there are too many to name!
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JB: My books are pretty much all done digitally with the exception of the initial sketches which are done in my sketchbook. I do love the idea of watercolor and would love to one day do a book using it. I just love the looseness of it. I always want to retain as much life in my work as possible. I want the characters to live and breathe on the page, and I think watercolor could push it even further. I just need to work with it a bit more before I can attempt to use it for an entire book.
JB: What do you like to do when you’re not writing children’s books?
JY: My other favorite things to do are hanging out with my family, cooking, playing music with my kids, and drawing when I get the chance. I also love dancing, swimming, and riding my bike, but I need to work on doing those activities more often.
JY: I know exercise is an important part of your life. How do you balance work and family and keeping healthy?
JB: Three years ago I looked in the mirror and didn’t like what I saw. So I made it a priority to get in shape and to take better care of myself. I don’t so much watch what I eat as much as I make sure to get plenty of exercise. I run, bike, or swim pretty much six days a week. The key for me is to not make excuses why I can’t exercise. I make time for it. I make it a priority. I make it a habit just like brushing my teeth. It makes me feel good and most days this spills over into my work and the time I spend with my family. It has changed my life.
JY: Okay, speed round: You're Tank. Where would you convince Haggis to go on an adventure, and what would you eat?
JB: If I were Tank I think I’d convince Haggis to bike across the United States. We’d eat all of the great foods from all the places we’d pass through. Haggis could ride in the sidecar and I’d do all the pedaling. It would be an epic adventure!
JY: Do you like black licorice?
JB: No. Black licorice is my kryptonite. (Well, that and drawing horses.)
JY: As you know, my kids are huge fans of yours. They especially love your Bird & Squirrel series. What are you working on now?
JB: Currently I’m roughing out the fourth Bird and Squirrel book. I’m also writing the follow up to my next picture book, Pigs and a Blanket (April 5) for Disney/Hyperion.
JB: What about you?
JY: I have a couple of picture book manuscripts I’m working on. And an unfinished novel I’ll go back to one day. And some other top-secret surprises!
JY: Thanks so much for doing this with me! I learned a lot!
JB: I had a blast. I can’t wait to see what Haggis and Tank have in store for us in the future. Onward and upward!
About Haggis and Tank Unleashed:
Tank is a clumsy, outgoing Great Dane. Haggis is a dapper and grumpy Scottie dog. In the first book in the series, Haggis and Tank set sail as pirates. At first, Haggis doesn’t see what Tank does–that an adventure awaits them with just a little imagination! But soon, Haggis joins in the fun and the two friends talk like pirates, swab the deck, and search for buried treasure. This series is full of wordplay and homophones that make Haggis and Tank’s adventures even more fun!
Kids dipping a toe into the waters of early chapter books will find themselves challenged by the text while simultaneously enticed by the alluring art. These salty sea dogs put the bite back in buccaneering. — Kirkus Reviews (Whole review here.) Odd-couple antics, loads of goofy humor, and an appealing comics/early reader format make for an all-around entertaining read. — Publishers Weekly (Whole review here.) “a must-have for the difficult-to-fill niche for readers transitioning from picture books and beginning readers to early chapter books.” –School Library Journal
Illustrations from Haggis and Tank Unleashed written by Jessica Young and illustrated by James Burks. Illustrations © 2016 by James Burks. Used with permission from Branches/Scholastic Inc.