Before we get into the details of your interview, I must say I've been a fan of your books ever since I discovered "Bats At The Beach." I'm intrigued by your unusual choice of animal subjects and would like to know how you ended up with bats and now alligators?
The bat books grew out of a frosty window our daughter noticed one chilly December day as we were getting her ready for school. She pointed at the bumpy silhouette at the top of the frost, and said, “Look! It’s a bat, with sea foam.” I’d never planned to write a book about bats, never planned for the one book to become a series. The bats became a fun an interesting way to look at activities which are most often shared in groups—trips to the beach or a library, a baseball game, a musical concert. I’ve enjoyed thinking about how we view the world, and how different these familiar activities might be if they occurred at night (and sometimes upside down).
The alligators in Gator Dad came from the original sketch I drew when I was first thinking of the story, ten years ago. Then I thought maybe I should do more traditionally cuddly animals. Rabbits? Bears? Especially for a book that could be read by dads who might tire of overtly cute animals, it seemed to me that alligators were the most appropriate animal. That sometimes tough dad exterior often hides a gentler inside.
How did your interest in writing for children develop?
I think my desire to write began with my older sister, who for as long as I can remember always wanted to be a writer. Younger siblings often don’t want to be “left behind.” But we grew up in a family that values creativity, and it wasn’t long before I enjoyed making stories and pictures on my own.
Perhaps more important, I’m from a reading family, and I was exposed to some books that changed how I thought—Jane Langton’s children’s books such as The Swing in the Summerhouse, The Diamond in the Window, or Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain. Edward Eager’s magic books. I remember how magical reading itself felt—being transported away into a different world, and the beautiful pain of being torn out of that world at the last page of the book. I also believe that if you’ve witnessed magic, at some point you have to wonder if you’ve got any of that magic in you, too. Could I create something that affected someone else the way these books affect me? Some day I’d love to do a book that leaves readers with a lump in the throat.
How does your career as a writer influence other areas of your life and vice versa? I’m guilty of that very American habit of identifying yourself by what you do as your job. I write. I draw. It seems that being an author/illustrator has created a bit of attention deficit, because I’m always looking around for things that could be additions to stories, always curious. It seems I’m always thinking about what I’m working on. Having a home office further blurs the line between work and “private life,” because you’re never physically distant from your work, too!
What do you do when you are not writing?
These days, if I’m not working on a new book, I’m most likely visiting schools around the country. But for relaxation, I read, I have a wood shop in the basement and like building things, and I enjoy bicycling. For years I had a big vegetable garden out back, but it became shaded by trees. Those trees threatened our house (two have fallen on it in the last three years!), so we had them taken out last spring . . .and now for the first time in years, it looks like I’ll be gardening again. I’m having a little of the “re-opening an important space” feeling depicted in The Secret Garden!
Briefly, what's your book "Gator Dad" about?
In its simplest form, Gator Dad is about an alligator dad getting through the day with his three kids. But underneath, I see it as a celebration of dads who are actively involved in their kids’ lives (something that’s good for both the kids and the dads), and perhaps even as a visual script for dads who are more likely to do something to show their love than they are to say something. My hope is that kids of those fathers will recognize some of this alligator dad’s actions in their dads, and realize that even if dad doesn’t say he loves them, he really does.
I see Gator Dad as a book for kids and for their dads, and would be thrilled if people began to think of it as an automatic “expectant dad” gift, the way people often give graduates copies of Dr. Suess’s Oh, The Places You’ll Go.
What inspired you to write the book?
Around the time our daughter went off to college, I was looking through a decade-old sketchbook. It included a sketch of a big alligator with his arm around a dejected little gator, both sitting on a wall. I had found that having a child leave home leads to contemplation, and something about that sketch resonated with me. I started thinking about all of the times we’d had when I was a stay-at-home dad, and I thought about my relationship with my own dad. . . and the book began to take shape.
What are your current/future projects?
I’m just starting work on a picture book called Got to Get to Bear’s!, about a character who’s received a summons from a friend who never asks, and how she makes her way through a rapidly-growing blizzard to find out what he wanted. That will be published in fall, 2018. I’m also thinking a lot about a story of grief and renewal. I’ve got a motley group of unusual characters in mind, jostling for their place in line!
What is your writing process? Do you follow a regular routine?
I think that if I were solely a writer or an illustrator, I’d have a more regular routine than I do. Instead, my days are shaped by where I am in the story process. When I’m working on the text for a story, I’ll write daily, but the concentration required for writing is pretty intense, and I can’t do it much longer than three hours. When I’m working on sketches or final paintings for a book, I’ll draw or paint daily for as many as 14 hours. But mixed in with these days of writing and illustration are school visits, which punctuate my schedule and keep it varied. As a result, most weeks are decidedly interesting.
What book(s)/author(s) have influenced your writing and how?
I credit Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever for all of the details I put into my illustrations. As a boy, I spent hours poring over the pictures in that book for little things. An apple falling out of a mountain climber’s backpack. A balloon getting away from a mouse. There was so much to look at! Other writers from my early years are Jane Langton and Jean Craighead George (as mentioned above), who gave me a sense of magic in the ordinary, and a desire for self-sufficiency. One inspiration came from a real-world interaction: Harry Devlin, of the Wende and Harry Devlin team (the Cranberry picture books, but also my childhood favorites The Wonderful Treehouse and The Knobby Boys to the Rescue) visited my school when I was in fifth grade, and made me realize that being an author and an illustrator was a real job.
What part of the writing process do you find most challenging and how do you deal with that challenge?
For me, the most challenging part of writing is committing to one line of thinking or one way to tell the story. There are so many possible ways to go—which one serves the story best? For instance, I have one story idea in my queue that might be a simple picture book. It might be a series of picture books. Or it might be a chapter book, illustrated with line drawings and punctuated by occasional color plates, and involve a much larger swath of time and characters. And I haven’t settled on either which route I’d prefer to go as a write, or which would be most satisfying to readers.
Anything else you'd like readers to know about you and/or your book?The “robot rides” that Gator Dad gives to his kids in the book comes from my childhood, when my Dad would put my older sister or me on his shoulders, and we’d steer him through the house by tugging on his ears. A tug meant a 90-degree turn, even if it meant running into a wall, and a robot ride always involved a lot of laughter.