John: For sure. Although it has and will probably continue to evolve to some degree over time.
I really love so many of the illustrators who worked from the golden age up through the 40’s and 50’s. I love Arthur Rackham’s pen and ink, Saul Tepper’s brush strokes, Norman Rockwell’s characters. In an ideal world I would find a way to bring all these things together. Alas, I am not there yet.
While I have done oil and heavy mixed media work in the past, for picture books I decided to start with pen & ink and watercolor. I thought I might be able to bring part of what I love about the past and share it with a contemporary picture book audience. And, of all the traditional techniques out there, pen & ink and watercolor seemed more prevalent in picture books than something like traditional oils. It was a good fit.
Once the drawing is complete, I turn to watercolor. I begin by wetting the entire surface. Then I choose a base color and apply loosely. I’ll keep track of any areas I want to keep white. But for the most part, I just let it go. I want it to create textures—blooms, imperfections, happy accidents. This is the base on which I’ll finish the piece. Once this layer is dry, I methodically hop from area to area, filling in as I go. It’s really not too far removed from coloring in a coloring book.
e: WOW! Thanks for such a detailed walk-through, John! What was your path to publication?
John: In 2004 the theatrical version of The Polar Express [by Chris Van Allsburg] came out. To that point I had not been aware of the picture book (I can hear the collective gasp). I actually don’t recall having too many picture books when I was younger. Unfortunately, The Polar Express was just one of many wonderful books that I didn’t know about. But when I discovered the movie was based on a book, I went and tracked it down. I was instantly smitten.
I toyed around with the idea of writing children’s books for several years. I read lots of blogs and visited as many kid lit sites as I could find. In 2010, I finally decided to go all in. My wife and I were on a date when I told her that I wanted to do picture books. She was hugely supportive. Over the next two years I worked to hone my writing skills and build a new portfolio. I did this while also maintaining a full time job and chasing two littles around the house. It was a lot. But in the summer of 2012 all the hard work paid off. I signed with my wonderful agent, Catherine Drayton.
I hadn’t been querying all that long when I did sign. Catherine was super optimistic about my stuff. I really felt like I was on my way. After working with her to get my manuscript ready, she began submitting to publishers. Then…Crickets. Editors were very kind, but we couldn’t get anyone to bite. We were almost exactly a year in when I finally got THE CALL. But it wasn’t for my own book. Sally Doherty at Holt had reached out to Catherine to ask if I’d be interested in illustrating Winnie. At that point I likely would have taken any work. But really, one should never turn down anything having to do with Winnie-the-Pooh. That book ultimately went on to do very well—and continues to do well. It was that book that opened the door for my own work.
e: Indeed! Is there a unique or funny story behind the creation of Imagine That?
John: Maybe not the story as a whole. But there is one very small part that makes me smile when I think about why it’s there. I love Frog and Toad. And in the book, Frog and Toad are Friends, Toad is trying to think of a story to tell Frog. One of Toad’s attempts to conjure some bit of creativity leads him to stand on his head. I paid homage to this in Imagine That when Hoot and Olive try the same thing to jump start Hoot’s imagination.
John: I think magic in an illustrated book is nuanced. It shows up in different forms. But in the end, I want all my illustrations to emote. I think when you can feel with the character, when you can experience with the character, when you’ve been transported from one world into another, that’s magic.
John: I’ve been very fortunate thus far. Holt and Macmillan have been extremely good to me. They have done so much to promote and advertise my books. I am incredibly grateful. Even so, I still try to do as much of my own marketing as I possibly can. Even if it never moves the needle, it lets my publisher know that I’m serious about what I do and that I’m willing to do whatever I can to make their investment a good one. For me, marketing has taken many forms. I’ve done FB ads. I do book giveaways. I love creating book swag (stickers, buttons, etc). I create my own book trailers and other online content. And while it’s not very direct, I always try to say yes to schools and stores when I’m invited to visit.
John: I think a couple struggles come to mind. One big thing is my ADD. I really struggle to get traction sometimes. Couple that with my natural tendency to procrastinate and there’s a storm brewin’. I fight this every single day. In addition, I find it hard to block out time for book-centric creativity. There is ALWAYS something (other than writing and illustrating) that needs to be done. This, too, is made worse by my tendency to procrastinate—Hey, why do that web update when I can mindlessly devote hours of my life to watching antiques being refurbished on YouTube? I am always in a battle to find balance between family, downtime, creativity, and busy work. I’m not sure how often I get it right. But I think it’s a win just being in the fight.
John: This book was really hard to hammer out. I think I was kicking against the goad for a little while. I had this vision for aspects of the book that were not in keeping with the tone of Hoot & Olive. They were great ideas. I was just trying to force them into the wrong book. It took a little while, but my wonderful editor, Christian, gently guided me to where we needed to be. I think one of the big things I would have liked to clarify was how the heart plays into the idea of imagination. In the book there’s a line: “…she had forgotten the most important part.” The most important part meaning the heart. What I really wanted to convey was not so much that our heart is required for imagination. Rather, it’s from our heart that the very best stuff comes. It’s where our passions mix with ideas, imagination, and dreams. It’s where we keep and grow the things we love. And when we’ve loved them long enough—when we’ve given them our time, our energy, our focus—when that seed of imagination has grown, it eventually has nothing left to do but burst and become something real that others can love too. I think that’s what I had wanted to say.
John: I can answer both of these I think.
As for what’s next, I’m currently working on another book with Christian at Holt. It’s about a little girl who uses her gift as a way to love. It’s under construction at the moment, so details are hard to nail down. But I’m excited about it. It’s something different for me.
I think my dream project would probably be any book a publisher was willing to pay a million dollars for. Gotta have goals, right? But seriously, I would love the opportunity to illustrate a PB version of a classic like A Christmas Carol or The Wizard of Oz. I’m a bit of an old soul. I think I would enjoy a job like that very much.