Beyond the Pond + an interview with Joseph Kuefler


by Joseph Kuefler (Balzer + Bray, 2015)

Settle in for snippets of story so goosebumpy you’ll think the pages just paper-sliced your soul in two. It is an honor to introduce you to Joseph Kuefler and his gorgeous debut, Beyond the Pond. I love every single word he’s spilled out to us here.


Can you talk about where this book came from? 


My dearest childhood friend lived across the street from a picturesque pond — one of those charming bodies of water with just the right mix of long grass, cattails and critters. Early mornings almost always found its surface blanketed in a magical fog. In winter months, we would skate on its surface. That pond filled me with such wonder as a boy.

So many years later, the wonder of ponds came back to me when I found myself telling my son, Jonah, stories each morning as I drove him to school. Our route took us past a smaller but no-less-magical pond, sandwiched between a row of houses, almost as if it was forced there, like it didn’t belong. We both imagined what fantastical creatures lived beneath its surface. And so, an idea for a picture book was born.

In hindsight, I absolutely see the connection between these moments of inspiration in my life.

And what was your process like for creating it? How did you turn an idea for a story into a completed picture book?

One advantage of being an author/illustrator is that my words and images can reveal themselves together. I begin with a loose story skeleton and single completed illustration that captures the atmosphere of the book. Small thumbnails get created as I’m improving and iterating on the story. Sometimes a posture or scene in my thumbnails will inspire a change to the text, sometimes it’s the other way around. Once the story is tight, I return to my thumbnails and create much tighter pencils, focusing more on composition and type placement.

Joseph-Kuefler-Cover-Sketch Joseph-Kuefler-Panel-Sketch Joseph-Kuefler-Thumbnails When it comes to final art, I work digitally, more out of necessity than choice. At the moment, picture books aren’t my day job, so I need to work from anywhere and everywhere. I was traveling a lot for work in the early stages of illustrating POND. Much of the book was illustrated from airplane seats and hotel rooms, cramped rides on bus benches and stolen moments in the office.

As someone formally trained at art school, I long for the day I can rely solely on traditional materials. In some ways I still feel like I need to apologize for using a computer, which is silly, I suppose, because digital doesn’t save me time and is no less difficult. The only thing it affords me is more mobility and greater access to my creative process.

Joseph-Kuefler-Beyond-the-Pond-Pg-12 Joseph-Kuefler-Beyond-the-Pond-Pg-14

I read on your website all about Hum, and I’m so interested in that. Not so much as a musician myself, but because I think picture books function the same way a song does, as a complete and full narrative that can transcend that small space. What do you think?

I love this question because I absolutely agree. Prior to moving into my career as a creative director, I spent years working as a serious musician playing in an indie rock band. Songwriting and record producing is core to who I am and informs so much of all of my creative processes, both personal and professional.

Writing a great song begins with two questions: What do I want them to know? And how do I want them to feel? Nostalgia? Fear? Melancholy? Vulnerability? Defining the emotional arch predetermines so much about your palette—key, tuning, scale, effects, chord progressions, even mixing decisions. Once that’s defined, you need to reduce all of it, your whole vision, into between three and five minutes of music. It’s such a challenge.

This is true of great books. The books we love tell us a story, but they also tell us feeling. They teach us, adults and children alike, what it feels like to experience something, and they do it in 32 pages, give or take. A songwriter has chords. A picture book maker has paints and pencils. A songwriter has a small collection of seconds or minutes. A picture book maker has pages. Both artists curate their palettes to breathe the right mix of mood into whatever it is they are making.

More than any other mediums I’ve explored, children’s books and songs are the most related.

Like you suggest, great songs and picture books transcend their small spaces. They live on in your mind and heart and come to mean or represent so much more long after the final chord has rung and last page has turned.

Reviews have called this debut reminiscient of Maurice Sendak, Jon Klassen, and Wes Anderson, all huge story heroes. Who are your own story heroes?



I know this is a picture book blog, but my greatest passion is cinema. I love movies and have my whole life. My dad encouraged me to explore the classics, with a particular emphasis on the defining films of the 60s and 70s. Many of my story heroes are filmmakers. I am a huge fan of Jean-Pierre Melville because he found a way to steal the best parts of Hitchcock and blend it with that kind cool only the French possess.

As a child, I loved Spielberg and the wonderful films Amblin would produce because they seemed to understand children in a way few other films did. I do love Wes Anderson for his vision and wit but also for the expert way he handles melancholy. When I begin a new picture book, I typically dive into the films that I feel share a similar atmosphere or message. It’s intentionally obvious I’ve included a few homages to Anderson’s films and style in POND—I wanted to thank him for inspiring me, and I wanted to give moms and dads something of their own to discover within the book.

Animation is also a huge source of inspiration for me. Words can’t describe how much Miyazaki inspires me. His films are somehow massive in scope and incredibly intimate and personal.

gallery-myneighbortotoro-2 gallery-spiritedaway-1

I can’t say that I have any specific story heroes in the picture book space. I love the Steads and Klassen and Jeffers and all of the other usual suspects, but I don’t look to picture books to inform my own work as much as I do film or literature, even photography. I’m not trying to suggest that other picture books don’t influence my work—they most certainly do. They’re just not my primary source and I typically look to them much later in the process to help me work through a very specific problem.

I would, however, be remiss if I didn’t mention JK Rowling. Sometimes I close my eyes and hope that when I open them I will have somehow grown a scar on my forehead and transformed into Harry Potter. Rowling succeeded in revealing a hidden magic in our own world, something tucked away just around the bend, something you hadn’t realized was there all along. I love that so much about those books. Turning a pond into a portal seemed to transform the everyday and reveal a hidden magic in a similar way.

Can you tell us a little about the trailer for Beyond the Pond and how you created it? It’s such a perfect piece, and I always think trailers that feel like short films are some of the best!

Thank you for the compliments. I am a creative director who has spent many years in the branding and marketing industries working for clients we all know and love. Making films and telling their stories is a skill I’ve developed over time. When I began considering my own trailer, I knew it needed to feel a little more like a movie trailer than a “book” trailer. It was the only way I felt I could capture the spirit and scope of the book in such a short period of time.

Some are surprised to learn that the voice actor is me. The trailer simply HAD to be narrated by an old, English gentleman because, well, old, English gentlemen are the most magical of men. I didn’t have any on hand, so I put on my Dumbledore hat and effected one.

I love animating. It’s something I don’t get to do as often now, but I was thrilled to be able to dig back into After Effects for this little piece and am pretty happy with how it turned out, all things considered.

What do you remember about picture books from your childhood?

I remember my school library and, Ms. Geese, the world’s crabbiest librarian (if you’re reading this, Ms. Geese, I’m sorry, but you really were frightening). She demanded that we extract library books from the shelves with such expert precision you’d think they were Fabergé eggs. But since we were all so afraid of her, we would hide away in corners with our books. In some ways, her terror forced us to have a more intimate relationship with our books, and for that I am grateful.

I remember the pictures and wishing I could draw like those artists. Like all boys, I was so in love with WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. I would try to replicate the wild things over and over and wondered how in the world anyone could ever draw like that. All these years later, I am still left wondering.

What is your favorite piece of art hanging in your home or studio?


I have two favorite walls in my home. One is a quiet corner of my house filled with family photos and texture studies I made over this last year. The family photos feature some of our favorite memories and experiences. It’s something we will continue to grow and add on to over the years.


The second is a Banksy print hanging in my dining room. It’s big and bold and probably doesn’t belong in a space where people are meant to enjoy meals, but I like that about it.

What’s next for you?

A nap. Honestly. Between my day job, working to support POND’s release, welcoming our third child, Augustine, into the world four months ago, and breathing life into a new picture book, this year has been full, so incredibly, exhaustingly full. But it’s been a good kind of full.

Alessandra Balzer and Balzer + Bray were kind enough to buy two more books from me immediately after we finished POND. By the time this feature runs on your blog, I will have just completed final art for my next book. Then, it will be onto the third. I’m also developing a middle grade book and young reader series.

Beyond that, what’s next is experiencing what it feels like to release my very own picture book into the world. This whole thing continues to be so surreal. One of my lifelong dreams is in a state of becoming, and I couldn’t be happier.


That story about Ms. Geese is one of the greatest library stories I’ve ever heard! Joseph, thanks for the music and the glimpse at the pond and beyond it all.


A big thank you to Joseph Kuefler for the images in this post.

The Slant Book

The Slant Book by Peter Newell

by Peter Newell (Tuttle Publishing, 2001; originally published in 1910)

This book hopped back on my radar during my 2014 visit to the NYPL’s exhibit, The ABCs of it: Why Children’s Books Matter. (Check out the second to last picture in that post for cold, hard proof.)

It’s strange and silly and a playful use of the book’s form. Perfect, then, for a picture book.

It takes the shape of a rhomboid–not a rectangle, not a square. Because of that forty-five degree angle, the book itself drives the story.

The Slant Book by Peter Newell The Slant Book by Peter Newell

Where Bobby lives, there is a hill–

A hill so steep and high,

‘Twould fit the bill for Jack and Jill

Their famous act to try

Thanks to that almost-literal twist, Bobby flies away from his poor, unsuspecting Nurse, and their nice walk through the neighborhood turns disastrous in a flash.

The Slant Book by Peter Newell The Slant Book by Peter Newell

Page by page, to spot-on verse, Bobby leaves mayhem in his downhill wake. (And, of course, the story ends before his Nurse has to push him back uphill.)

Clever, unconventional, and a bit bizarre.

For form-lovers and geometry teachers and rhymers. For anyone who adores little weird picture books.

The Slant Book by Peter Newell The Slant Book by Peter Newell

Want to see it in action? The Slant Book is in the public domain, so you can hear it here and see it here.

And in case you are looking for other beautiful rhomboids, these are pretty special. Artist and blogger Joanne Mattera curated the best of the shape for a lovely post.

A few favorites from Joanne’s collection:

Gudrun Mertes Frady.Cool Blue

Gudrun Mertes Frady
Cool Blue, 2009, oil and metallic pigments on wood, 18 x 18 inches


Doug Holst
Untitled, 2009, acrylic on wood, 12 x 12 inches

Altoon SUltan

Altoon Sultan
#13, 2011, hand-dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 11.75 x 13.5 inches


Rabbityness by Jo Empson

by Jo Empson (Child’s Play, 2012)

Here’s a book that’s deceptively simple in text, in color, in motion.

An average rabbit, doing average rabbity things. White space, dark spot illustrations. Calm and steady.

Rabbityness by Jo Empson Rabbityness by Jo Empson

But then. The page turn is the miraculous pacing tool for the picture book, and this one is a masterpiece. Swiftly, from the expected to the unexpected, from straightforward rabbityness to the unusual.

And the beautiful. And the wild and the wonderful.

Rabbityness by Jo Empson Rabbityness by Jo Empson Rabbityness by Jo Empson

Jo Empson’s art is a storyteller to follow. It unfolds visually, deftly, magically.


Rabbityness by Jo Empson

Because one day, Rabbit is gone. So is the color and the movement and the life.

“All that Rabbit had left was a hole.”

But, much like the art, Rabbit was a storyteller to follow.

Rabbityness by Jo Empson Rabbityness by Jo Empson

And the color returns.

It’s a story about making a mark that leaves a legacy. It’s about telling a story and remembering one. It’s for anyone who is daring enough to leave drips of unrabbityness, and anyone brave enough to chase them.


Architecture According to Pigeons

Architecture According to Pigeons by Speck Lee Tailfeather

by Stella Gurney and Natsko Seki (Phaidon, 2013)

Do kids’ books have room for one more smart pigeon? You’ll be glad you let this one in, because Speck Lee Tailfeather is another flier with a healthy confidence and a chatty nature.

Architecture According to Pigeons by Speck Lee Tailfeather Architecture According to Pigeons by Speck Lee Tailfeather

Speck’s mission is world travel, focusing on buildings from a bird’s point of view. He sees things differently.

His words are a travel journal of sorts to his pigeon friends. To his love, Elsie. And to us.

Architecture According to Pigeons by Speck Lee Tailfeather Architecture According to Pigeons by Speck Lee Tailfeather

There’s a lot to look at, from speech bubbles to side bars to fascinating tidbits. The layout and voice are both unusual in the very best way. And if you just shake off what you expect from picture books and settle in, your flight from city to sky and back will be worth it.

Your tour guide, after all, is an expert in the unusual.

Architecture According to Pigeons by Speck Lee Tailfeather Architecture According to Pigeons by Speck Lee Tailfeather Architecture According to Pigeons by Speck Lee Tailfeather

This one is for treasure hunters, trivia fanatics, architecture buffs, or anyone hungry for some off-the-wall-pigeon-fare. You never know.

Pair it with A Lion in Paris. Speck travels farther than France, but matching up the Parisian buildings (not to mention the books’ head-to-head size battle and their animal points of view) would be a fun thing for storytime.



Firebird by Misty Copeland and Christopher Myers by Misty Copeland and Christopher Myers (Penguin Young Readers Group, 2014)

Firebird by Misty Copeland and Christopher Myers

When you open a book to sweeping, fiery endpapers, it’s almost as if you can hear the symphony begin. The author, Misty Copeland, is a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theater. The illustrator, Christopher Myers, is a Caldecott Honoree for Harlem and the son of the legendary Walter Dean Myers.

We are in stellar storytelling hands.


(image here // Copeland dancing the Firebird)


(image here // Copeland dancing the Firebird)

Firebird by Misty Copeland and Christopher Myers

Christopher Myers’s art captures the lines and shapes of a dancer’s movement. Intricate, suspended, and dizzying.

Firebird by Misty Copeland and Christopher Myers

Misty Copeland’s words are fire and poetry to a timid youngster’s soul.

Firebird by Misty Copeland and Christopher Myers Firebird by Misty Copeland and Christopher Myers

I adore the anticipation in this spread, the dancer waiting for the curtain to rise, and I imagine a lump in her throat and a belly full of as many swoops as the folds in the curtain.

Firebird by Misty Copeland and Christopher Myers Firebird by Misty Copeland and Christopher Myers

Each page turn reveals a composition that is even more striking than the last. This is a pairing of musicality, movement, and a jaw-dropping array of colors and feelings. The way her words and his pictures create an animated harmony is exactly how music and movement do the same in the ballerina’s world.

A perfect pas de deux.

Firebird by Misty Copeland and Christopher Myers

For more on Misty Copeland, take a look at this. She is a lovely storyteller, both in her books and with her body.



Firebird by Misty Copeland and Christopher Myers


Review copy provided by the publisher.

Ninja! and an interview with Arree Chung

Ninja! by Arree Chungby Arree Chung

published June 2014 by Henry Holt and Company, an imprint of Macmillan.

Friends, I’m so excited to have Arree Chung in this corner of the internet today. I met Arree last summer at SCBWI in Los Angeles, and am humbled every time I think about how we share an agent and a friendship. He’s an expert storyteller with a bright, animated style and a fresh perspective. Ninja! is his debut picture book, and it will be far from his last.

First, you should watch this short film. And here’s my confession. Arree sent this to me a number of weeks ago with the caveat that it was unreleased and not to share. Except: it was too awesome not to. So I showed it to my students, because single-digit-aged kids are pretty good at secrets and don’t have Twitter accounts anyway.

They loved it. And I mean L O V E D  I T. Each class, without fail, asked to watch it many, many times in a row. So we did.

Meet Maxwell, and then meet Arree.

breaker What has been the most surprising thing about this whole debut picture book thing?

The most surprising thing about the publishing process is how long it takes to actually bring a book to market (1.5 – 2 years).  My background is in games, where companies can publish with the click of a button and make updates via the internet.  The process gives me appreciation for the care that goes into the publishing process.  It also helps to have a great team of people to work with.  Everyone from your agent, publisher, editor and art director in making the book and then there’s publicity, marketing and sales folks that help in getting the book out. 1stCoverAn early cover design. An early cover design. Ninja_Revision_Notesrevision notes.

I’m fortunate to have a supportive publisher in Macmillan.  They have a great team of experts.  Each one helps you with a specific aspect of the publishing process.  I’ve learned so much.  I’m so grateful I’ve been in good hands.  I’ve worked hard to hold up my end of the deal and make something special.  With Ninja it was easy, because I loved it so much.

Who are your creative and/or literary heroes?

Oh, so many!

Roald Dahl
E.B. White
Jack Gantos
Judy Blume
Jeff Kinney

Russell Patterson
Chris Ware
Yuko Shimitzo

Shel Silverstien
Wolf Erlbruch
William Steig
Mo Willems
Peter Brown
Leo Lionni
Maurice Sendak
Ian Falconer
Jon Klassen
David Shannon
Bill Peet
Calef Brown

Jim Lee
Scott McFarlane
Jeffrey Brown
Bill Watterson
Jim Davis
Charles Schulz

Brad Bird
John Lassetter
Guillermo Del Toro
Chris Sanders
Danny Boyle
Tim Burton
Nick Park (Wallace & Gromit)
Steven Spielberg
Hayao Miyazaki

Can you talk about the similarities and differences in animation and the picture book form?

I love both mediums for different reasons.  Both mediums can transport the reader into new worlds.  I love it when a book or movie captures my imagination and I am completely immersed in a world that has been built.  The world is invented but it feels familiar and the story resonates with honesty.  I hate it when a story is force feeding me a message and it feels like an infomercial or when a story rambles without a focus.  Storytelling is magical when it has both the imagination and heart and speaks to you directly and honestly.  A great story is so exhilarating.  There’s nothing in the world that feels like it.  I love both animation and picture books because they have the ability to create magic.

How they are different?  Well, I think the main difference is that film tends to be a passive experience.  The viewer is in a dream like state that watches the story unfold.  It’s like being suspended in a time capsule and you watch everything that happens.  You take the story in a more subliminal kind of way. NinjaCreepAway Spread14_15Books on the other hand I think are active experiences.  You as the reader actively interact with the words and pictures.  It’s like your brain is the film projector and is working to play the story.  Because of this, I think books are much more intimate experiences.  You go at your own pace.  You stop, question and wonder.  Sometimes you’re so engaged, you speed all the way through and sometimes you like to read slowly just because.  Readers engage books with their imaginations and a lot of the story is told in-between the words, the page turns and the illustrations whereas films are full experiences that use all the arts of composition, acting, music and visuals to put you in a state of suspension.

Both are magical and I love doing both so much.

Can you give us any behind-the-scenes information on how you created the short film? Did you get to know Maxwell differently in that format?

Yeah!  It was so thrilling to bring Maxwell to life.  I had a pretty good idea of who he is as a character after creating the book but actually seeing him move and casting Taylor Wong as Maxwell brought another whole dimension.

As for production, here’s a quick behind the scenes look of what it took to make the short film.  I plan on doing a much more in-depth look in a separate blog post.

We used 4 software tools: Photoshop, Flash, After Effects and Final Cut Pro.  The process was a highly collaborative effort between folks at MacMillan, myself and David Shovlin, the animator.  It was a ton of work to do but a ton of fun as well.ShortFilm_Process

In all, it took about 5 weeks of work.  David and I worked really hard on it and I’m really proud of what we created in a relatively short period of time.2013-09-09 23:23Where did Ninja! come from?

It’s been my dream to make my own picture books for a long time.  The first conception of Ninja came when I was in art school.  I jotted down “A boy goes creeping around the house dressed as a Ninja and causes trouble.”  That was probably in 2007 or so.

Maxwell_1st_CharacterSketchesNinja_Thumbnails        MaxwellScanNoPencil Ninja_Thumbnails        MaxwellScanNoPencil Ninja_earlySketches-1Early Ninja! thumbnails and character sketches.

In 2012, I decided to do the Illustrator Intensive at the SCBWI Summer Conference.  We were given an assignment to submit a story along with a manuscript, thumbnails, character sketches, and a finished illustration.  Up to that point, I had been writing stories for years but was stuck on many of them.  For the workshop we had to write down answers to the following questions:

WHAT is the dilemma?
WHERE does it take place?
HOW is the problem solved?

This really helped me a lot.  Previous to this, many of my stories didn’t have focus and wandered a lot.  Ninja was a big break through for me as a storyteller and I had lots of people who helped guide me through it.   I’m so thankful for Rubin, my agent, and Kate, my editor.  The more I worked on it, the more the world and character took shape and gained depth.  It was so much fun to make.

Do you remember any art you made as a kid? What was it?!

Yeah, I made a lot of ninja stars and origami.  I was also obsessed with Legos.  I loved to build cruiser space ships and large fortresses armed to the teeth.  Whenever my uncle bought us Legos, we would make the thing we were supposed to make and then tear it apart and then make what we wanted to make.  Making your own thing was much more fun.

I was a huge comic book reader and collector as well.  I bought all of the X-men, Spiderman, Spider-ham, Batman and Spawn comics.  I still buy comics.

I also really love the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  I used to record all of the episodes.  In fact, I used to press pause on the VCR and trace drawings of the Ninja Turtles by overlaying paper onto the TV.  At school, everyone thought I was the best drawer, but I never told anyone my technique til now!  Eventually I copied so many drawings I could draw it out of memory.  I tried to do the same technique with Transformers but that wasn’t nearly as successful because I didn’t understand perspective as at 12 year old.

And now what’s next for you?Ninja_GhostStoryI’ve got a lot of things I’m working on.  I have lots of Ninja stories to tell with Maxwell. (I’m so excited about all of them!)  One of them involves an old Chinese folktale involving ghosts!

I’m also illustrating two Potty Training books for kids that are hilarious.HowToPeeillustrations from How to Pee

I have lots of picture book stories I’m developing and I’m also writing a middle grade novel titled Ming Lee, All American.  Ming Lee chronicles my experiences growing up as an ABC (American Born Chinese).  It’s deeply personal and is funny in that Louis CK, embarrassing but honest kind of way.  I would describe it as Judy Blume meets Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  Of course, it is its own thing that I am figuring out.  I have a sense of what I want it to be but you never know what it will be until you get there.

Ming_Lee_Cover MingLeeHairCut

breaker A huge thanks to Arree for this peek into the mind of a master craftsman. Be sure to get your hands on Ninja! this week!


Number One Sam and an interview with Greg Pizzoli

Number One Sam by Greg Pizzoliby Greg Pizzoli

published 2014 by Disney-Hyperion

I’m honored and thrilled to have Greg Pizzoli back to the blog this week. About a year ago we talked about Kroc and The Watermelon Seed, and in the many weeks since, that thing (and Greg!) won the Geisel Award! My kindergarteners call him ‘the BURRRRPPP man’ which I’m pretty sure is the highest praise any mere mortal can achieve.

But today! Today is the birthday of Greg’s latest and greatest, Number One Sam. This is my favorite tweet about it:Screen Shot 2014-05-11 at 3.47.57 PM(And side note, you should follow Matt Roeser at Candlewick cause he has impeccable taste and eyeballs.)

And this (!) is the trailer:

breaker Greg chatted with me about process and art and picture books, and I’ve read these answers about a billion times and am still learning. Enjoy!

Your spot color. Wow! Can you talk about why such a stripped-down design with a limited color palette is such a powerful visual device?

Great question!

To be honest, I’m not sure. But, I think it comes down
to working from an intention, and just having a plan, or restrictions
set in place from the beginning. You can’t just grab another color
from somewhere – when it comes time to make final art, we’ve done
rounds of pantone tests and paper tests, and the limitations and
possibilities are in place, so nothing is casual. Maybe it makes you
consider things in a way that is unique to working in that way?

I know for me, if I’m doing a book that is printed in a limited color
palette, it can feel restrictive in one sense, but there is a real
freedom within the limitations, if you know what I mean. There’s not
endless guessing the way there might be with a CMYK book. Obviously we
do lots of tests and make sure we get the base colors right for the
book, but once that is done, I can start carving out the drawings and
not worry too much about the colors, because we’ve done so much work
on the front end. It’s a challenge I enjoy.

Here’s a photo of a spot color test proof. Number One Sam by Greg Pizzoli

Why do you think your stories are best suited to the form of the picture
book. What can you do in this form that you might not be able to in another?

This is a tough one, Carter. Boy, I come to your blog looking to have
a good time, maybe show a video or something, and you slam me with
this “why picture books” stuff. Sheesh. “Gotcha blogging” right here.
But that’s fine, I’ll play along.

I’m kidding, of course. But, it is a tough one. I guess it’s not all
that complicated for me. I’ve always loved picture books and I think
it’s because there are so many possible ways to solve the problem of
telling a story with text and images. It’s a cliche I think, but you
really can do anything in a picture book. But here again, I like the
restrictions. As much as I might complain to my editor that I “just
need one more spread” to tell the story, it’s actually nice to have a
structure where you have to fit a complete world, with a character, a
problem, and (maybe?) a solution to that problem in only 40 (or so)

There’s something about how deliberate every decision has to be
that is super appealing to me. I’ve been working on writing a longer
thing recently, a series, and it’s not as though I’m not deliberate
when working on it, but I’ll admit that it feels as though not as much
is hinging on each line or picture in the same way. With picture
books, you don’t have room for anything to feel arbitrary. I like

Also, I thought you might want to see these. Sam started out as a
print of a weird dog (top) and then I made a print of another
(cuter) dog, and he kept coming up in my sketchbooks until he became
Number One Sam (bottom). Number One Sam by Greg Pizzoli Number One Sam by Greg Pizzoli

What do you think are the most important considerations when creating a book trailer?
How do you think through compressing an already spare narrative into a short
animation? Are there aspects to animation you wish you had access to in
picture book art or vice versa? (I guess mostly I’m curious about how book
trailers share storytelling space with picture books and what they can do
differently. Does that make sense?!)

Ya know, it’s a complicated thing this book trailer business. I am
really happy with the two we’ve done so far, but I definitely can’t
take all the credit. Jimmy Simpson, directed and animated both the
trailer for The Watermelon Seed and for Number One Sam, and he is
pretty incredible to work with. Both times we started working, I had
already finished the book, and I had a very basic sense of what I
wanted the trailer to be, but he figures out all of the transitions
and added all of the touches that make them work as well as I think
they do. For example, the “wink” shot from the Number One Sam trailer –
that’s all Jimmy. And of course, he does all of the animation.

I draw the stuff, which is somewhat complicated because you have to
keep everything separated, meaning draw the arm on a different layer
from the body, and the hand on a different layer than the arm, and the
ear on it’s own layer, etc. Basically everything needs to move
independently of everything else, but my characters are pretty simple,
so it’s not too big a deal.

And the music is key. My buddy Christopher Sean Powell composed the
music special for both trailers. What a talent, right? He plays in the
band Man Man, and has his solo music project called Spaceship Aloha,
and was a part of a pretty seminal band from these parts called Need
New Body. I’m thrilled we get to work together on this stuff.

But, to your actual question, I see the trailer and the book as
completely separate things. They have their own pacing, and their own
objectives. With the book, you want everything to feel complete, and
have an emotional pay off of some kind. And you have the narrative arc
to keep things together. With the trailer, it’s more of a tease. You
don’t want to give it all away. And I guess our objective is to just
make them fun and unique.

Book trailers have become more popular, and there is a sort of
template for how they are done that we have tried to stay away from.
We just want them to feel different enough to maybe stand out. It’s a
super small community in some ways, and my book trailers certainly
aren’t racking up millions of views or anything, but we enjoy making
them for their own sake, partly I think because we all just like
working together. If other people dig them, and check out the book on
top of that, that’s icing.

What types of trophies do you have lining your shelves? What kind do you
wish you had? Side note: What would a book called Number One Greg be about?

Beyond my published books, which I kind of think of as trophies in a
way, there are a couple. Last year when I finished the art for Number
One Sam, my editor Rotem sent me a trophy that I keep on my bookcase.
And recently I was looking through some old family photos and found a
first place ribbon that I had won for a school wide art contest in
the 1st grade. My family moved around a ton when I was little, so the
actual winning piece was lost. I remember it though! It was a big
piece of yellow poster board with a marker drawing of outer space.

Maybe it’s time to do a space book? Number One Sam by Greg Pizzoli Number One Sam by Greg Pizzoli breaker And now for some art from Number One Sam. Thank you, Greg! (Click to make any of them larger.) Number One Sam by Greg Pizzoli Number One Sam by Greg Pizzoli Number One Sam by Greg Pizzoli Number One Sam by Greg Pizzoli



The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend


by Dan Santat

published 2014 by Little, Brown (release date is tomorrow, April 8th. I’d recommend lining up outside your local bookstore as soon as possible. You want this book.)

Sometimes, you can tell that a story is going to squeeze its way into your soul.

I got those story-goosebumps when I saw this trailer recently. Hat tip to Mr. Schu and Margie Myers-Culver probably. Or maybe Mr. Santat himself. But:

breaker Maybe sobbed is a more appropriate word choice than saw, because that’s what I did. It was all I could do. But some things you see with your eyes, and some things you see with your heart alone.

I saw Beekle.

This is Dan Santat’s first offering as an author in a decade, though he has illustrated about a trillion books in the meantime. His work is inviting and bold and gripping and nuanced and so clearly Santat. Paired with his own words now, they haunt and amaze. Sweeping and startling and so very shivery.

(Speaking of all those Santats, my students peek under every dust jacket thanks to Kel Gilligan. They are super disappointed if a) the library mylar is in the way and b) if it’s a plain old case cover. Smarties.)

Thank goodness for this: The Adventures of Beekle: An Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat And this. The Adventures of Beekle: An Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat Whether accidental or intentional, the title is a nod to other epic journeys. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, Tintin, Pete and Pete (remember those redheads?). All of those escapades belong to memorable characters.

But Beekle. See him up there on the cover? That milky lump with the crooked, shy smile? No one has remembered him yet, because no one has ever imagined him. Not with their eyes, and not with their hearts.

The folks at the bus stop (save the tiny schnauzer) are too busy with real life and grownup things like tracksuits and newspapers. Of course they can’t see him. That’s why he’s looking at you, the reader. So in you go. The Adventures of Beekle: An Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat The Adventures of Beekle: An Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat Beekle was born on a magical island, a home for imaginary friends to wile away the days until they were dreamed up by a real friend. He waited and waited to be picked, and watched everyone else get imagined. And Beekle was alone, so . . .

. . . he did the unimaginable. The Adventures of Beekle: An Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat The whiff of a wild thing on those waves . . . you recognize Beekle’s sailboat and crown, right? SENDAK_1963_Where_the_Wild_Things_Are_pp31-32

(image from here.) The Adventures of Beekle: An Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat Beekle’s sailboat reaches the real world, but no one stops to hear the music. Like any good adventure and friend seeker, he finds branches to climb and a lookout to perch. The Adventures of Beekle: An Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat The Adventures of Beekle: An Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat But no one came.

And then.

If you slowed down and savored the pictures, you might have seen a gust of wind pick up something thin and white. That thing, thin and white, stuck right to a limb holding Beekle. That thin and white canvas, her dream. The Adventures of Beekle: An Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat So many moments add to the magic of this, in addition to the anticipation and raw rooting we are doing for our hero. See the leaves? The stars? That’s how she drew the leaves. That’s how the leaves look on the tree, too. That shape creates instant charm and magical mood, sure. But also, remember the beginning? The waiting and the hoping? On the island, all of that happened under the stars. The Adventures of Beekle: An Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat Friends are matched under the stars.

That’s when the world begins to feel a little less strange.


If there’s a word that means flabbergasted and gobsmacked to the infinitieth power, that’s what I was when I got Beekle in the mail from Dan’s editor at Little, Brown, Connie Hsu. Not only did I get a sneak peek at this gorgeous story, but I got my very own friend. 

beekle  How did he know a squatty, mechanized lightbulb bearing tools for creating and messing up and creating anyway was the perfect friend for me?

The stars must have been out that night above Dan’s studio. Thank you, Dan. So, so much.

Out the Window

Out the Window by Cybele Young Out the Window by Cybele Young by Cybèle Young

published 2014 by Groundwood Books Out the Window by Cybele Young Don’t you hate throwing your ball out the window and being too short to see where it bounces? The worst. Out the Window by Cybele Young Out the Window by Cybele Young But the worst gets better, because in its place a spectacular parade clash-crashes by. Except when you’re a frantic, too-short creature, it’s really hard to see over the windowsill. Good thing you’re a clever whippersnapper, and push that chair up to take a peek. Out the Window by Cybele Young Out the Window by Cybele Young Out the Window by Cybele Young And just when you can finally see outside, the book tells you to turn around.

You’ll stumble smack dab into the spectacle.

Juggling shrimp on a unicycle! A bat on a hanging, clangy contraption! Pink swans pulling a turtle on a wagon! Out the Window by Cybele Young Out the Window by Cybele Young Out the Window by Cybele Young Thanks to this parade, you might just get your ball back. It’s one fantastic game of catch.

And check out this trailer to see the book in its glorious action. Mesmerizing.


P.S. – Remember the Twitter chat with Groundwood Books and Cybèle Young? The transcript is here, if you want to add to your art-to-study and books-to-love pile. It was such fun!

Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker (and an interview with illustrator Christian Robinson)

Josephine by Patricia Hruby Powell and Christian Robinson written by Patricia Hruby Powell, illustrated by Christian Robinson

(Published 2014 by Chronicle Books.)

Have you seen the buzz flitting about this book yet? Allow me to flit a bit more. It’s a spectacular collaboration, a spotlight on an unforgettable lady. I have to believe that Patricia Hruby Powell’s dance background fueled the sparkle in her words, and Christian Robinson’s connection to Josephine is electric in his art.

Have you seen the trailer? (The music is by Patricia’s husband’s jazz band!)

breaker Before you enjoy my chat with Christian Robinson, be sure to check out this post at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

Initial cover and color sketches? Yes.Christian RobinsonAnd this interview at Seven-Imp from 2012 is where I first fell for Christian Robinson. Also, more swooning over at Design Mom, where I covered Harlem’s Little Blackbird.

Perhaps you saw his art at Google last week in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?Christian Robinson's MLK Google DoodleGorgeous.

Here he is. So happy to have him visit. (Click any image to enlarge.) breaker Hi, Christian! Can you tell us a bit about your process, both the physicality of creating and it’s origins?

I like to do my research. I’d describe the start as cultivating curiosity for the characters and setting in the story. I go to the library and absorb all the visuals and facts that will influence and inspire the work.

Then I start sketching, sometimes rough concepts; other times, more polished work. I basically work on creating enough art to share my vision with the art director and editor.

Then layout sketches — I like to use Post-its. These are great, because I can easily switch out sketches that aren’t working.

Then, once approved by the editor and art director, I create images in Photoshop, tying down shapes and colors. Then, final art collage and acrylic.Josephine by Patricia Hruby Powell and Christian RobinsonHow would you describe your studio in three words?

Sunny, quiet, magical.

Now how about a little more. It seems like it would be a magical place to capture the spirit of your work. What do you think?

The creative process in general is pretty magical. I imagine that magic must rub off on any space ritually used to make stuff. Josephine was illustrated in my studio/bedroom. It’s a sunny, warm and small room in a big San Francisco Victorian home built in 1891. I like creating in bright spaces, with lots of natural light, I also like being able to look out a window and take in any inspiration the city has to offer in the moment. Now I work in a larger shared artist studio, which is also nice. Josephine by Patricia Hruby Powell and Christian RobinsonI am crazy about your short, What is Music? Can you tell us about the inspiration behind that? Could you ever have anticipated those golden kid-responses?

Thank you, glad you enjoyed it! Well, I was inspired by the work of John and Faith Hubley, who created animations to home audio recordings of their daughters playing together as children.

(Moonbird is one of the many award winning shorts they made together.)

I could only cross my fingers and hope the questions I asked would get such responses!

The story about Josephine Baker being in your early awareness of art is remarkable. What does the magnitude of that feel like?

It feels unbelievable, like I’m I might wake up at any moment. This was a dream project for me, but it also carried a lot of self-imposed pressure, this is Josephine Baker we’re talking about! I had to constantly remind myself to just trust the process, and not have a panic attack every time I couldn’t illustrate something as well I would have wanted.Josephine by Patricia Hruby Powell and Christian RobinsonWho are your creative heroes?

Honestly, Beyonce – ha! Kind of true though. Josephine Baker, Ezra Jack Keats, Hayao Miyazaki, Ray and Charles Eames, Sade, Yuri Norstein. Pretty eclectic list, but it’s what’s coming to mind at the moment.

What memories of picture books do you have from your much younger years?

As a child I struggled learning to read and write and needed a little extra help to keep up in class. I remember being intimidated by reading and not being very attached to books without pictures. My love for books came later. Although I totally remember feeling like a champ in elementary school if I was able to get to Eric Carle’s The Hungry Caterpillar first during reading time.

If you could collaborate with any artist, living or dead, and across form or genre, who would it be and why?

Picasso, because he’s Picasso! I’m sure I could learn some things from one of the world’s most celebrated and inspiring artist.Josephine by Patricia Hruby Powell and Christian RobinsonWhat’s next for you?

Currently illustrating a picture book loosely based off my childhood experiences of riding the city bus with my grandma. Written by the amazing Matt de la Peña.


Raise your hand if you’ll join me first in line for that collaboration? Seriously. And Beyonce! As if I needed one more reason to be crazy about this guy. Thank you, Christian! And thanks, too, to Patricia Hruby Powell for writing words that dazzle. This one is spectacular. Check it out!


Thanks to Chronicle Books for the images in this post, and also for a review copy of Josephine. All thoughts (and gushing) my own.