The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Jonathan Voss & Review of Imagine That
I hope that joy and pleasure are found in the words I write
and the pictures I make." ~ Jonathan Voss
Jonathan's debut as an illustrator was with Sally M. Walker’s, Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh, in 2015. And his author/illustrator debut, Brave Enough for Two (a beautiful friendship story of Hoot & Olive), released June 12, 2018. On July 16th, 2019, Jonathan released a stunning sequel, Imagine That.
Welcome back Jonathan,
If you missed his first interview, and for basic information about Johnathan and his writing go here.
ME: Was it easier or more difficult to create a sequel to Brave Enough for Two? What was the hardest part of creating Imagine That?
JONATHAN: Imagine That definitely felt harder. I think the initial idea came pretty quickly, but the carrying out of the vision took some work. I think I went into the second book with some ideas that were good but didn’t fit the tone of Hoot & Olive. At its core, the Hoot & Olive books explore the nuances of friendship. Whatever the adventure, the stories begin and end with that pair. In the early versions of the manuscript, I wasn’t making it back to them.
I think that their friendship is what makes the books so special. I'm glad you found the way back. How many drafts did it take to get the text right? To get the illustrations right?
I went back to see if I could find an exact number, but I was not successful. There were at least four versions of the dummy. But we also had a separate manuscript file that we passed back and forth. That was probably revised ten to fifteen times. I have no idea how that compares to other picture books from other authors, but it felt like a ton to me.
As for the illustrations, that was much easier. The only real struggle was figuring out how to visually end the story.
I won't share it here - but I think you nailed it! For me Hoot’s comment - “Why is it, when my imagination is the thing that’s broken, it’s my heart that hurts the most?” – reminds me so much of something Pooh or Piglet would ask of Christopher Robin. When you write about Hoot & Olive do you purposely channel A.A. Milne?
This question makes me smile. I’m not sure if I mentioned this last time, but I’ll let you in on a secret. When I’m writing, I have a head voice that is entirely different from my normal, everyday speach. It’s even different from the voice I use to read the books at story time. I don’t want to completely embarrass myself, so I won’t go into details. I will say, however, it likely plays into how I turn a phrase. Actually, the line you mentioned is one of my favorites from the book. But people don’t talk like that anymore—or not many do. It sounds like it comes from a different time. I think that’s part of it too.
Still, now that people have made the comparison to Pooh, I don’t think there’s a way to completely remove him from my head when I write. I actually think I end up spending a lot of energy trying to make sure something Hoot has said isn’t actually a line from a long-forgotten Disney movie, lingering in the recesses of my subconscious. I think I’ve developed a Pooh complex.
Uh oh. But maybe it's the nostalgia for a kinder time that draws readers to your books. Do you have a trick, for yourself, when it appears that your imagination is broken?
Creativity is harder at some points than at others for sure. Sometimes an idea is sparked by something read, heard, or seen. But to develop an idea into a story or to come up with an idea from scratch, I think it’s often, literally, a numbers game. It’s about time spent intentionally. At least it is for me.
There’s a statement that I often apply to how I approach time with my kids. I say: QUANTITY time leads to QUALITY time. Applying that to a story, then, I need to be intentional about spending QUANTITY time in a room with an invisible and silent muse (Often that means sitting there, staring at a blank screen). This will eventually lead to moments of QUALITY. Sometimes I just need to sit there. I go up and down bunny trails in my mind. I let one thing lead to the next. When something does eventually pop out as being significant, I write it down. Sometimes I never get anywhere at all. But if I never did this, I would almost certainly miss opportunities.
Unfortunately, with my busy life, if I wait for the muse to come find me for some quality time, quality time may never happen. So, to sum up: when my imagination is broken, I stare blankly off into nothingness and wait for someone to ask me if I’m okay.
*Grinning* So, in life you channel Pooh as well. That explains a lot. What was your inspiration for Imagine That?
Oh, wow… Hmmm. I have to think about this one. Originally, Brave Enough for Two, which was first called "Hoot & Olive," was only intended to be a one-off. I never once thought about creating characters to be part of a series. It was only when someone else suggested it to me that I started to consider the possibilities.
I don’t know that there was a singular “Ah ha!” moment with this one. Rather, I think it grew out of a dialogue between me and the editor. I threw out a couple possibilities. He bounced back with what he liked. I fleshed it out a little more. And so on. The only real consideration was that I wanted there to be a bit of a role reversal from the first book. In Brave Enough for Two, Hoot leads the way—at least at the beginning. In the next book, I wanted Olive to take the driver’s seat. Here’s the actual copy, pulled from the email I sent to my editor. It’s clear that the adventure needed to be worked out, but the spark was there.
It’s cold and wet outside. But when Olive gets to choose the adventure, the weather doesn’t matter. Olive invites Hoot to their secret hiding place in the attic. She has something special to show him. Hoot discovers that everything has been covered by painted pages. When Olive begins to tell a tale, all of a sudden, Hoot finds himself being whisked away on…
And that was it. We were off!
Thanks for sharing that. It is so fun to see behind the "creation veil" of a book! Do you have a favorite spread in Imagine That? Which one?
I think I have several. I was really wanting to push the illustrations with this book. I wanted the scenes to be more epic. I wanted to push the perspective harder. I wanted to create more points of interest in each spread.
© Jonathan Voss, 2019.
I think a couple favorites are (I’ll title them using related text): The G-I-A-N-T, Heroes and Kings, and Tired Giggles. Of course, there are elements I love in many of the illustrations. But those are probably at the top of my list. Do you have a favorite?
That one definitely pushed the illustrations. Wow, this is the first time someone's asked me. Yes, I do. In addition to the one above (and the two at the end that I can't/won't share), I love the image: Everything starts small.
© Jonathan Voss, 2019.
What's something you want your readers to know about Imagine That?
I wish I would have been able to share more about the heart. Unfortunately, this was one of the things that had to be cut for the sake of the story. When Olive encourages Hoot to use his heart, I never meant to imply that the heart is required for all imagination. What I had wanted to get across was that the heart is where the very best stuff comes from. It’s where ideas, dreams, and imagination collide with passion. 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—eventually that thing on the inside of us has nothing left to do but burst out and become something real—something the rest of the world can love too. I wish I could have said that.
You just did! What a great hook for this book! Did you leave treasures tucked throughout the illustrations? Could you share one or more with us? [I love the “barrel of monkeys” that pop up throughout the book!]
Yep. That was definitely one of them. There are actually several things from the first spread that make appearances in different places in the book: the castle, the dragon (pterodactyl), the ships. The flowers we see carried throughout the story aren’t so hidden. But the meaning might not be as obvious.
In the beginning, a vase of daisies has been toppled. Hoot looks longingly at a single flower. Later on, the flowers are being whisked away from Hoot in the flood. In the room of shadows, the giant offers one to Hoot. Then there’s a flower stuck in the cowboy hat from Olive’s dress-up chest. And finally, a flower is the first thing we see Hoot imagine. For me, the flowers represent Hoot’s imagination at large. I enjoyed playing with this subtle secondary visual narrative. There is also one REALLY-not-so-obvious accidental Easter egg: If you look closely at Hoot and Olive in the flood scene (you can see them in one of the windows), you’ll notice that Olive’s head scarf / bandana is yellow. That was the original color. I just forgot to change this one. Oops!
I don't think anyone would have noticed, if you hadn't mentioned it. I adore the cover. What a clever idea to have the reflection show their imagination. How long did it take to come up with the idea? Was it challenging to make it work?
This actually was one of those “Ah ha!” moments. I had done a comp for the cover, but it was rejected because it didn’t feature Hoot and Olive enough. The editor and art director gave me their feedback. Then I was back to the drawing board… literally. As I sketched out ideas, I turned to one mental image that had come to me much earlier in the process—Hoot and Olive sitting at the end of a dock. When I was young, every summer I would visit Higgins Lake in Michigan. The dock at the lake was very much like the one on the cover. [I flipped it for you!]
As I looked at my drawing and imagined a reflection, the piers of the dock suddenly reminded me of castle spires. From there, the time it took to mentally render the rest of the image could probably have been measured in seconds. It happened fast… really fast. I finished the drawing and shot it off to the editor and art director. They loved it.
And what an "Ah ha!" moment is was! It's definitely one of my favorite covers. What was your favorite rainy-day activity as a child? What about now as an adult?
Oh, gosh. I recall spending lots of time in our basement. I liked making forts in secret cubbies. I drew a lot. And starting around age ten, I began to explore the inner workings of things like old radios. I loved the speaker magnets. Sometimes, though, my fascination with how things worked had unhealthy side effects. I once cut the plug-end off an old vacuum cord. The wires were sticking out and frayed. I must have been curious to know what electricity “looked like”, because I proceeded to stick the thing into an outlet. I remember LOTS of sparks. Then the house went dark. My mom yelled my name from another part of the house—my full name. Whenever I got the whole Jonathan David Voss, it was never a good thing. [Oh no! Glad you were okay.]
As an adult—and now an author—I should probably say something like, I love curling up on the couch with a good book and getting lost for hours. Sadly, the truth is (I’m bracing, now, for the collective gasp and sigh of disapproval), I would sooner binge watch a series on Netflix. But, if I feel like being slightly more cultured, I really love puzzles—the picture kind.
Inspiration comes from many sources and we all need breaks to recharge, no disapproval here. With a number of book launches and school visits under your belt, do you have any advice for upcoming/new authors regarding either? [By the way – I want to be at one of your school visits, they sound amazing!]
That would be awesome! And thank you!
I love school visits. It’s one of the best parts of my job. In truth, my first visits were not very refined. It was a little of this and a little of that. The whole thing has really evolved. It doesn’t bring the dread and fear it once did. In fact, stick me in a room of first and second graders and I’m at home. But here’s the part I think I would want to pass on.
When I read a book or draw a picture, I get right on the floor with these kids. They love that. I get on their level. So, whatever it takes for someone to make that connection, do it. Kids are smart. You have to be real or it won’t work. Of course, different grade levels require different presentation elements. But the constant is always connection. Be genuine and don’t be afraid to be vulnerable.
Great advice. Thank you! Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us? Will we be lucky enough to get more Hoot & Olive stories? Maybe a pirate adventure?
From time to time a stranger will reach out to me and tell me how much Hoot and Olive meant to them. I’m always so blown away. It’s amazing… and humbling. I feel so honored to have the opportunity to share with so many people. I really have no idea what the future holds for my two friends. But I can say that I am always on the lookout for their next tale.
In the meantime, I am working on a new project with Holt. I’m pretty excited about it. The specifics aren’t nailed down just yet, but I will definitely keep you posted as the project evolves.
How exciting. Please do! (And don't forget about Hoot & Olive.) Thank you, Jonathan for stopping by and sharing with us. It was truly wonderful to chat with you, again.
Readers, keep your eyes peeled for Whoo-Ku Haiku: A Great Horned Owl Story (expected March 2020) by Maria Gianferrari and illustrated by Jonathan D Voss.
To find out more about Jonathan D. Voss, or get in touch with him:
Review of Imagine That
Maybe it's the uncertainty and violence of the world today, but I love reading Winnie the Pooh tales and remembering a time when the neighborhood (and me by myself) could wander the woods and play with crawdads (crayfish) for hours. Perhaps that's what first drew me to Jonathan's Hoot & Olive stories.
I adored the first Hoot & Olive adventure Brave Enough for Two. It definitely felt like the female counterpoint to A.A. Milne's Christopher Robin & Pooh. And now there is a second one to love!
Author/Illustrator: Jonathan Voss
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co. (2019)
Friendship, imagination, dreams, adventures, persistence, and heart.
Synopsis (from Publisher):
Beloved characters Hoot and Olive return in this beautiful picture book about imagination, rainy day adventures, and the spirit of friendship.
Olive is a little girl with a big, bright imagination. Hoot is her stuffed-animal owl…and her best friend. The two love adventures of all sorts. But on the rainiest of days, there is only one thing to do: stay inside and imagine a whole new world.
Just as they’re about to begin their adventure, Hoot makes a shocking discovery—his imagination is broken! Like the best of best friends, Olive comes up with some ideas to help him. But nothing is working: not the head unscrambler, the earmuffs, or the hypnosis. Just as the two are about to give up, Olive remembers the secret ingredient to imagination, and they give it one more try.
Fans of Winnie-the-Pooh and Christopher Robin, George and Martha, and Frog and Toad are certain to fall in love with the next adventure in the Hoot & Olive series.
Olive has a great big imagination, which was only a smidge smaller than her huge heart. Her best friend, Hoot, had a heart that was equally big. His imagination, however . . . Well, one rainy day, Hoot discovered something unexpected.
Why I LOVE this book:
One rainy day, Olive uses her giant imagination to create a world of wonder and fantasy. Unfortunately, Hoot's imagination appears to be lost or his "imaginator is broken." But how does one fix an imagination?
Olive tries to jumpstart it by imagining a puddle growing big enough to wash away the house. But Hoot only sees a boring puddle.
© Jonathan Voss, 2019.
So, Olive sets out to fix Hoot's imaginator. She tries "a head unscrambler" (a colander with antenna), earmuffs (to keep his imagination from escaping), and "perhaps, one or ten other somethings." But nothing works.
In a heart-tugging moment, Hoot wonders why a broken imagination would make his heart hurt and Olive reminds him that imagination requires that he use his heart, too. When Hoot asks Olive if he should try again, she replies, "You should always try again." Reminding everyone to never give up on our dreams and the things we love. When Hoot tries again . . .
© Jonathan Voss, 2019.
Just wait until you see what their imaginations create. This is a touching friendship story with so many nuggets of truth, that it holds something for every reader. The fantastical possibilities of imagination, the encouragement to never give up on dreams, ideas for rainy-day adventures, and the value of a true friend. Loaded with heart and gorgeous watercolor illustrations, which are chock full of surprises, this will be a book sure to be enjoyed over and over.
- check out Jonathan's Hoot & Olive activity kit (https://d827xgdhgqbnd.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/20120610/Imagine_That_activity_kit_8.5x11_final.pdf);
- watch his cover reveal teaser to see Jonathan's process of illustration (https://youtu.be/JiD9qa5UOoE);
- write a story or draw a picture about a rainy-day activity or adventure;
- draw a picture or write a story of something you dream of doing or would love to imagine possible; or
- play "Balloon Ball" or one of these other rainy-day games (https://mommypoppins.com/newyorkcitykids/25-exercise-games-indoor-activities-for-kids)