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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Ben Hatke

Ben Hatke is an artist, writer, and comics creator. He learned painting through studying the Italian Masters and by training at the Charles Cecil Studios in Florence. He lives and works in Front Royal, Virginia with his lovely wife and growing family. Ben loves swords and whistles and juggling and adventures. Breakfast is his favorite meal of the day.

Ben’s the Eisner Award winning author/illustrator of Early Reader, Little Robot (2015),

and the author/illustrator of picture books - Nobody Likes a Goblin (2016), Julia’s House for Lost Creatures (2014), and graphic novels – Mighty Jack and Zita the Spacegirl (2019), Mighty Jack and the Goblin King (2017), Mighty Jack (2016), The Return of Zita the Spacegirl (2014), Legends of Zita the Spacegirl (2012), and Zita the Spacegirl (2011).

Ben's also the illustrator of Ann M. Martin's Missy Piggle Wiggle middle grade series.

Today, we get the privilege to talk to him a bit about himself and his most recent picture book, Julia’s House Moves On, which releases September 29th.

Welcome Ben, thank you so much for agreeing to talk with me about your books and writing.

Thank you for having me!

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

BEN: Well, let’s see… I live and work in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. I love archery and paddling around in my canoe. I dabble in certain types of circus skills (juggling and stilt walking and fire tricks, for instance). I’m fascinated by all kinds of storytelling that combines words and pictures and I take a lot of inspiration from both folktales and the natural world.

I make a lot of comics. I also make picture books and do some prose writing. I don’t know if I can pick a favorite type of book to write. I think my favorite type of book would be whatever I’m working on at the moment.

I have a tiny little studio right outside of our house where I write and draw my stories. It’s packed to the gills with books and pens, paper and brushes, paintings and bows and arrows, swords and leather working tools and strange inventions. The door is painted Tardis Blue and it even has a little Police Call Box sign like the Tardis because I like to believe that any tiny space where story worlds are being made is actually “bigger on the inside."

I adore Dr. Who and LOVE that idea about our creative spaces! What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

One Halloween, when I was about ten or twelve, I dressed as just a huge shambling eyeball. My dad helped me with the costume. It was one of those huge inflated balls that used to be in big bins at certain stores. We turned it inside out and stuffed it and painted a big iris on it. The rest of the costume was red pajamas and red cloth strips hanging down so it looked (I hoped) like the optic nerve. I was an odd child.

That is awesome! What an inventive costume. Would you say there is a common thread in your picture books and graphic novels?

Good question! I think one of the things that keeps coming up is the idea of the “found family”—characters traveling out into a big, sometimes scary or hostile world, finding friends, and bringing them back home. And, because my work is so visual, the more colorful and fantastic those friends are, the better. I loved Julia’s House for Lost Creatures, especially the turtle and Patched Up Kitty. [If you haven't read this book & don't get the reference to "the turtle," you are in for a treat!]

Even the Goblin (in Nobody Likes a Goblin) brings all his newfound friends back to the dungeon for a feast. What was the inspiration for the sequel Julia’s House Moves On?

For years, I’d thought of doing a trilogy of Julia books. My original conception was to make the first one about the house itself—the interior, and the persons living in a house, and how they get along. The second book (which became Julia’s House Moves On) would be about the house in the world. The exterior of the house, maybe, and how it relates to the world. Also, it would be about moving and the things you take with you and the things you’re forced to leave behind. The third book (which I’ve just finished and turned in) would have been about the house in a community, or the house as it relates to its place. That was the original idea but, like most of my stories, the tale grew in the telling. I really enjoyed writing and drawing the third Julia book.

Oh my gosh! How exciting! I can't wait to see this third book! Congrats. Did your experience creating two graphic novel trilogies Mighty Zack and Zita the Spacegirl differ, or perhaps help, in creating a sequel picture book?

Graphic novels and picture books are very different beasts. But the language of storytelling is the same, and working in comics gives you a really good sense of pacing a page and a tone of little visual tricks you can use. I think they go together well, though in a picture book, because of the constraints of printing, you have to work hard to make everything fit together perfectly. There’s much less wiggle room.

Interesting. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

Wow. Again, hard to pick favorites. I loved Trina Schart Hyman’s illustrations, though I didn’t discover her until I was a little older. One of my favorite books when I was young was William Stieg’s Rotten Island. It’s genius and kind of joyfully mean spirited.

I'm going to have to find this one. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration (as a child or now as an author/illustrator)?

Probably Jim Henson—the man who could bring both Fraggle Rock and The Dark Crystal into existence. He really was an artistic genius. There’s a fantastic biography about this by Brian Jay Jones that I would recommend. [Jim Henson: The Biography -]

Thank you very much for the recommendation. Do you have any plans for writing another adventure picture book like Nobody Likes a Goblin?

That book. I really had a good experience making that one. I have a few new and different book projects coming up, but I really don’t know right now what my next picture book will be.

I've had a really great time using it as a mentor text! And I can't wait to see what you come up with next. What is your favorite medium to work with? Your least favorite or hardest? Or maybe one you’re wanting to try?

One thing I really love about picture books, the way I work on them, is that the art is purely traditional media. They are all ink and watercolor illustrations, scanned and usually almost no digital corrections. It’s a real challenge! But a challenge I enjoy. I love ink and watercolor. I’d like to branch out at some point. I have a bit of background in oil painting, but I can’t currently imagine painting a whole book in oils.

I'm even more impressed that these images aren't digitally done! What is the hardest thing for you the writing or the illustrating? Why?

In a certain sense they are the same. But I suppose the hardest thing for me is just getting the story to work. Getting all the emotional beats to land right, both visually and in the text. So in that sense, making the finished art (working off the rough thumbnails) is almost an afterthought.

© Ben Hatke.

What was the toughest aspect of writing/illustrating Julia’s House Moves On? The most rewarding? What is your favorite spread?

© Ben Hatke, 2020.

As always, the toughest part is just doing draft after draft (there were at least 8 separate drafts for Julia’s House Moves On) until the book works. Each draft you work on you think “this is it, this is the one, then you read over it, or you read it to your (very kind and patient) editor and you realize, no, this is horrible. This is embarrassingly bad. So, you go back to the sketchbook and start again. Or you print out all the pages and lay them out on the floor and rearrange them and throw some away and scribble scribble scribble. The toughest thing is to trust the process—to believe that you aren't just crazy and worthless, and you eventually will hit on a version of the story that works. [FYI - I chose my 'favorite' spread.]

That's a struggle many, if not all, will be intimately familiar with. Is there something you want your readers to know about Julia’s House Moves On?

In this book, near the beginning, a little creature called a “ghillie” shows up. In Scottish folklore a ghillie is a little, mossy, leafy, disheveled woodland fairy. My version of a ghillie is a little more …creaturely.

You're ghillie is so cute! Many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in Julia’s House Moves On? Could you share one or more with us?

Oh, there are plenty! Lots of little things to look for that weave through all three books. But I’ll say that in this book you can find both Goblin from Nobody Likes a Goblin and the robot from Little Robot both sort of hidden.

Oh, that was fun to hunt for them! How are you staying inspired these days?

Oh! Well, as I write this, it’s the year’s first chilly morning and there’s a fire burning in my tiny studio wood stove. We’re on the very cusp of Fall, which is my most inspiring time. This afternoon I’ll be working on a story about the many lost loves of a crafty old fox character named Renyard (my version of Reynard), which I hope to post online through the month of October. I find inspiration from reading new things, from never failing to have a book or two or four that I am in the middle of. From going outside for long walks. From small adventures. From travel (though less of that this year). And from watching my wife and my daughters and my friends as they engage the world and bring me new and interesting ideas.

(I don’t always feel inspired. Sometimes I feel sluggish and empty, artistically, but today I am very optimistic about it all).

Thank you for your honesty and for sharing these great ideas for finding inspiration. I can't wait to meet your Reynard. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

Oh, let’s see. I’ve already shared a bit about Julia’s House Goes Home. And I’ve mentioned my Renyard story. One of the other things kicking around in my sketchbooks is a short project about the life of Leonardo da Vinci. I love that guy very much.

That would be interesting. What is your favorite animal? Or animal that you are enamored with at the moment. Why?

My eldest daughter has really introduced me to animals I wouldn’t normally have thought much about and through her I’ve come to love and appreciate vultures (of all kinds!) and the very endangered painted wolves of Africa. Angelica posts her artwork on Instagram as @merlobird.

Be sure check out her Instagram page. She has some amazing images & posts! Thank you, Ben for stopping by and sharing with us. It was wonderful to chat with you.

It was a pleasure!

Come back Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Julia's House Moves On (maybe I'll even highlight that little ghillie...)

To find out more about Ben Hatke, or get in touch with him:

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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