Welcome, Tom! (*Red carpet rolls out*) Thank you for chatting with us today!
I have to admit, I'm addicted to picture books. Do you feel the same? And if so, when did your addiction begin?
My interest in children’s books began in high school, when a friend introduced me to “CDB” by William Steig. Since then, certain picture books broke the mold enough that even I, with no children, took notice. I saw “Stinky Cheese Man” when it came out in 1992; it changed my presumptions about picture books and became a benchmark for its irreverent voice and sophisticated illustrations.
I've read that you consider Shel Silverstein, Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, and Judy Blume as some of your writing heroes. Tell us about the literary pieces you think of often as a writer, and why they stand out to you.
I marvel at anything from Shel Silverstein’s “Falling Up” for its effortless timing and edgy humor. In college, I fell in love with “Who Needs Donuts?” by Mark Alan Stamaty, which still holds the record for number of visual gags on each page. On the more literary side, I’m among the generation influenced by Kurt Vonnegut’s dark, ironic humor. The most recent example of “grown up” literature that colors my thinking is Ben Loory’s “Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day.” I’m probably not the first children’s author captivated by the imagery in this first line from one of those stories: “A duck fell in love with a rock.” I love this line because it’s both preposterous and believable at once. It’s preposterous because living creatures don’t fall in love with inanimate objects, especially those as lifeless as a rock. But it’s believable because we humans fall in love with objects all the time, to wit, Pinterest.
A few literary snippets hanging on my bulletin board:
“We are all refugees from our childhoods. And so we turn, among other things, to stories.” - Mohsin Hamid, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
The poem “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver
This Poem by Billy Collins, to keep me humble:
The woman who wrote from Phoenix
after my reading there
to tell me they were all still talking about it
just wrote again
to tell me that they had stopped.
I suppose that's a writer's life, eh?! You infuse humor into your writing with effortless comedic relief. Are you like this in your personal life, too…always cracking jokes or exercising puns? What are your suggestions for those of us attempting to implement more humor into our writing or drawings?
I’m genetically predisposed to see the lighter side of things because of my Dad, who always saw the funny side of life and had a refreshing ability to handle troublesome situations with humor. For instance, when he wanted to complain about a preponderance of potholes on a bridge in my hometown, he drew this is a cartoon and sent it to the local newspaper:
I also spent 25 years in advertising, and an ad agency is basically a joke factory staffed by professional knuckleheads who work 12 hours a day trying to make each other laugh. I developed a pretty good sense of humor there, but the real high water mark is if I can make my wife laugh.
In Bridget’s Beret, I admire the way you encourage children to draw, using techniques by other “famous beret-wearing artists.” You manage to keep kids laughing as they learn! This excerpt, from Bridget’s Beret, is the perfect example: “By the way, van Gogh is pronounced van Gahk. When said correctly, it sounds like you’re gagging on a prune.”
I’d already used the line “…sounds like my cat throwing up…” in a book about pirates, so I had to come up with another metaphor, and “prune” is just a funny word.
Did this manuscript have the amazing back matter upon submission, or were you inspired to include it by an editor, critique partner, or someone else? Can you tell us how you go about researching your picture book ideas and/or where you find inspiration to include such ideas?
The back-matter in Bridget’s Beret was the editor’s idea. Writing and designing it was relatively easy, but I then had to get permission from all the artists’ estates and museums that own the work. It took endless hours of phone calls, negotiations and paperwork, so I’m glad people like it. I originally had something else at the end of the book – a graphic-novel style sequence that told the story from a different perspective, in a different style. It reveals what really happened to Bridget’s Beret; I hope to someday create a whole book in this style.
In closing, what can you recommend to writers and illustrators who are still searching for their true voices?
For writers, identify one person you know well and want to impress, then write for them. Think of it more as a letter than a manuscript. This will focus your voice and avoid you trying to please everyone. I learned this lesson from creating my first book, “Everything I Know About Pirates,” which was originally created as a gift for my nephew.
For illustrators, study only the best work – don’t even look at the crappy stuff. Study the work not to mimic anyone, but to set a standard for what’s possible. And don’t forget that illustration is as much about ideas as technique; New Yorker covers are the best place to study this aspect. Then draw as much and as often as possible. I carry a small sketchbook with me just about wherever I go and find the best places to doodle are events where your mind is stimulated but free to wander: a concert, play or church service are all perfect doodling situations.
Thanks for the great advice! It's been a pleasure having you with us today. I look forward to following your work every step of the way.
Tom’s books, many of which are New York Times Best Sellers, are consistently praised for their humor, expressive characters, and rich – sometimes hidden – detail. He’s known for creating books that appeal to children and adults alike, and his wide portfolio of books offers something for every age.
Tom’s 2014 releases: This is a Moose (in collaboration with Richard T. Morris) and One Big Pair of Underwear (in collaboration with Laura Gehl).
Slated for 2015 release are “Stick and Stone” (in collaboration with Beth Ferry) and “I Wish You More” (in collaboration with Amy Krouse Rosenthal).
Tom lives in the Chicago area. In his spare time he likes to get other peoples’ kids all wound up then send them home to their parents.
For more information visit tomlichtenheld.com