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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Jacob Grant

My first introduction to Jacob Grant was through his humorous book Little Bird’s Bad Word. Without using any particular “word,” Jacob perfectly captured a parent’s embarrassment and mortification when their youngster enthusiastically and naughtily uses a fun sounding word, everywhere. And the discovery by a youngster that not all words are created equal. Such a universal life experience is creatively portrayed using birds. Now, he tackles the issue of prejudice surrounding spiders, through the experiences of a neatnik Bear, in the his book Bear's Scare which releases tomorrow.

Living in Chicago with his own "busy little force of nature," he is also the author/illustrator of Scaredy Kate (2014), Cat Knit (2016), Through with the Zoo (2017), and the illustrator of the upcoming book Owls Are Good at Keeping Secrets: An Unusual Alphabet (2018).

Welcome Jacob, thank-you so much for stopping by to talk about your newest books, writing, and illustrating.

ME: Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write/illustrate? How long have you been writing/illustrating? What is your favorite type of book to write/illustrate?)

Jacob: I’ve been writing and illustrating books for the past 7 years, and for all of that time I’ve worked from my home studio in a tiny Chicago apartment I share with my wife and toddler. When we were pregnant with our boy, we knew it was time to clear out of our small rental space… then a couple years went by. So! Here we are, expecting a baby girl, and I’m both excited and terrified to share we’re now in the process of buying a home. A home with a studio that is not in the living room!

How scary and exciting. Best of luck with this new phase of parenting, home-owning, and creating. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

I’m a creature of habit, and my favorite snack is a tart granny smith apple with crunchy peanut butter. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit I eat one around 3:30pm every day. My routine is so very predictable, and yet, I never grow tired of it.

What is your favorite medium to work with? Your least favorite or hardest?

Vine charcoal remains my preferred medium for three important reasons. Number one, I love the variety of textures it can make. Number two, it’s easy to clean off of my scanner when moving to color on the computer. And number three, (and this is a big one), vine charcoal is super cheap.

That is always really important. Would you say there is a common thread in your books (Scaredy Kate, Little Bird’s Bad Word, Cat Knit, Through with the Zoo and Bear’s Scare)?

Scaredy Kate, is the oddball of the group, as I was still exploring what sort of book I liked to make when it was published. It will always be my first baby, but I still had much to learn.

I might be too close to the work to be completely objective about the rest, but I would say that it’s clear I like to make my characters miserable. Whether it’s a bird that learns the word he’s been sharing is not so great, a cat whose best friend changes, a goat that cannot find the space he needs, or a bear that has to face his own prejudice. The interesting part is to see how they deal with their individual struggle.

Also, I’m terrible at naming characters. Apologies to Little Bird, Cat, Goat and Bear, respectively.

I'd say you definitely took to heart the advice not to coddle our characters. Where any of your books harder than the others to illustrate and/or write?

Bear’s Scare was a particularly challenging one. From the time I dreamed up the concept, to the day we found a publisher, nearly 2 years had gone by. When Bloomsbury picked it up and I revisited the story, it was clear that both the writing and art needed a lot of work. Thankfully my editor, Mary Kate Castellani, could see the potential in Bear’s Scare, and together we molded the book into something wonderful.

Great editors always seem to find the gems within the drafts. What was the inspiration for Bear’s Scare?

Most of my ideas for picture books start as a doodle, and Bear’s Scare is no exception. Every day, I try to set aside a little time for free drawing, and one day I thought it would be amusing to make a spider look adorable. I’ve never been a big fan of the leggy creatures, and once I thought more about why that is, I realized that much of it had to do with looks. That’s not very fair, is it? After drawing this friendly spider, I knew it must have a story to tell.

Spider is cuter than normal, but I am still not sure I like them. Looking at the book's stats, I noticed that it is listed as 40 pages long. A bit unusual for a preschool book. Was this your idea or your publisher's? Did you get any pushback on the length?

The page count can be a bit misleading. Like the majority of picture books out there, Bear’s Scare is made up of 16 spreads of story. When you start to account for pastedown, endpapers, copyright page, title page, it all starts to add up. No special treatment for this Bear!

Interesting. How did your publication experience with Bear’s Scare differ from the other four? Do the number of rejections and revisions ever get/seem less?

I can only hope that’s true! Little Bird’s Bad Word has been my only easy sale. (I think my agent sold it to Feiwel & Friends within several days.) Everything since then has been an exercise in patience and persistence.

Revision is an important part of making any book and I embrace it knowing that the resulting story will be stronger for it. Rejection however, never gets easy. It’s a constant in this industry, so it’s important to generate lots of ideas, and know when it’s best to move on.

So, the rejections don't recede; we just develop better coping mechanisms. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child? Do you have a favorite recently published picture book?

The Stinky Cheese Man probably made the biggest impression on me as a child. It’s difficult to imagine a dream team stronger than Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith in the early 90’s. It’s a wonderful book, but I have no doubt that this lasting impression came from Jon visiting my grade school in a suburb of Cincinnati. Author visits are powerful!

As for recently published books, that’s a tough one. I keep a constant flow of library books moving through our home so there are quite a few I admire. I’m a big fan of Ashlyn Anstee’s books, anything Kenard Pak works on, and Hilary Leung’s board books are favorites for story time. I could go on and on.

Never underestimate those author visits. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration?

When I first saw Hayao Miyazaki’s, Spirited Away, it changed the way I thought about art and storytelling. His other animated films are full of inspiring moments, but this story of a girl whisked off to a fantastic place and how she learns to grow and overcome her challenges sticks with me. If you’ve read my first book, Scaredy Kate, you can guess where the inspiration came from.

Aside from that, I need to give credit to Pendleton Ward and his animated show, Adventure Time. This gem came around at a time when I had lost much of my interest in illustration and art in general. Suddenly there’s this clever, funny blend of all my childhood interests that makes creating things look fun and approachable again. Without that show, I wonder if I would be making art today.

Then we are all grateful to Pendleton Ward. Especially since you are the illustrator for the upcoming book, Owls Are Good at Keeping Secrets: An Unusual Alphabet, by Sarah O’Leary (December 2018). How different an experience was it to illustrate another writer’s manuscript?

Without a doubt, one of the most challenging parts of making picture books is coming up with the brilliant idea that someone wants to publish. I have to say that being approached by a publisher with something that’s already lined up to be published is immensely refreshing. It’s great fun taking an author’s words and dreaming up interesting ways the visuals can play off of them. It’s especially fun when your author is as clever and charming as Sara O’Leary.

Okay, now I'm dying to read this book. Any advice for writer’s that would make an illustrator’s life easier?

I use loads of illustrator notes when I plan out my own stories, so I can keep track of what I’m picturing in my head for any given scene. I haven’t experienced this, but I can imagine it could be creatively stifling if an author provides too many illustrator notes for what they want a book to look like. That’s not to say notes can’t be useful, just that it’s probably best to use them sparingly.

Is there something you want your readers to know about Bear’s Scare? Did you hide any treasures in the illustrations that you are willing to reveal to us?

In the original drawings I made of Bear’s home, it was a very rustic looking cabin. I imagined it being dug into the side of a hill, looking very hobbit-like. His furniture had lots of visible branches and stumps and other natural bits built into it, and it felt really cozy. When I later revisited the book, I realized that I had it all wrong! Bear’s character is all about keeping things nice and tidy, so of course his choice of home should reflect that. And so, I went about making Bear’s cabin as modern as I could manage. He’s quite the sophisticated Bear, (even if he doesn’t wear clothes).

I love how the character of Bear dictated his setting. If you could share one thing with your younger self and/or kids today what would that be?

That your path through life does not always move in a straight line and that’s ok. Whether you grow up wanting to be a doctor, a marine biologist, or a picture book maker, you can always change your mind later and delve a new path. You can do pretty much anything if you’re willing to work for it.

So very true. People don't stay in one career for life anymore; they change jobs and careers more easily than they did in the past. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

As I write this, I’m in the process of finishing the art for the follow-up to Bear’s Scare, currently titled, Bear Out There. In this new story, Bear steps out of his tidy home and into the forest to help his friend, Spider. Bear has the best intentions, but a search in the messy forest might be more than he can manage.

Poor Bear, I can just imagine how miserable you could make him. Is there anything about writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or anything you’re glad you didn’t know about in advance?

I wish I had read all of the beginner advice SCBWI offers before I jumped into making my first book. I was very naive, but my biggest mistake was deciding to finish the art for an entire dummy book. Later I would learn that it’s best practice to finish a quarter of the art and sketch out the rest. Had I known this vital detail, I could have saved myself months of effort that went into making a book that was fairly bad. Though I have to say, it did feel important to prove to myself that I could finish a book, so maybe it wasn’t a total loss.

What is your favorite animal? Why?

Goats! I grew up in a semi-rural suburb outside of Cincinnati, and for the first ten years of my life we had two goats in our back pasture. Even then, I knew it was an odd pet to have, and I loved it. I adore their unusual eyes, their awnry nature, and their interesting eating habits. Also, goat cheese might be my favorite cheese. To be perfectly honest, I wrote Through With the Zoo just for the excuse to make a book about a goat.

Thank you, Jacob so much for stopping by and sharing with us. It was truly wonderful to chat with you.

Be sure to stop by Friday for the Bear's Scare Perfect Picture Book Friday #PPBF post.

To find out more about Jacob Grant, or get in touch with him:

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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