A pencil is a simple being. It is unassuming and yet capable of almost anything. The superhero of drawing tools, it is versatile, ordinary and pretty bloody amazin’ when in the hands of the right human beans.
Pencils mean different things to different people. I am a wordie, and so to me a pencil is a writing tool, a yellow, bumblebee-decorated letter-former. To Ohh Deer’s Jamie Mitchell though, it’s a drawing thingamajig, used to translate the pictures in his head into reality. Pencil strokes, soft and hard, can create anything from fur to the letter ‘a’, and in this way, the pencil, a classic and a friend, beats the cardboard box every time for imagination potential. One thing is for sure, you know you’ve found someone special when they pick up a pencil and see both a drawing tool and writing implement.
The award-winning Peter Brown does exactly that. His illustrations are eye-poppingly awesome, and the words he marries them to are just as mind-blowing. Because of this, I have nothing but awe for this talented creative.
With books such as The Curious Garden, Children Make Terrible Pets and You Will Be My Friend! to his name, it’s hard not to be impressed by this writer-illustrator who makes ‘books for children and their adult slaves’. Having grown up in New Jersey, Peter studied at Art Centre College of Design and now lives in Brooklyn. His books have earned him a string of awards including two E.B. White Awards, a New York Times Best Illustrated Book award, a Children’s Choice Award for Illustrator of the Year, the Caldecott Honor and two Irma Black Honours. With five New York Times bestsellers to his name, he’s a regular illustration extraordinaire.
I spoke to the intimidatingly talented Peter Brown about life, the universe, and imaginary friends.
Describe your average day.
I like to start my day by reading. I read all kinds of stuff, but I usually read books that are somehow related to one of my projects. I find that reading in the morning is a nice, relaxing way to get my creativity flowing. I’ll read for about an hour, and then I’ll head into my studio and read and write any important emails that are waiting for me. Then I’ll get down to business. Writing and illustrating picture books is a weird line of work, on any given day I might write, sketch out storyboards, work on color studies, work on final art, have phone conferences with one of my agents or one of my editors or one of my art directors, or I might do all of those things. Or I might spend the day in the park, looking for inspiration. I have a wall in my studio where I hang up my storyboards, so I can see all the pages of a book at once, and get a feel for how the pages all work as a whole. I spend a lot of time standing and staring at that wall of sketches. I might ride my bike to meet a friend for lunch, and then it’ll back to the studio for an afternoon of work. I’ll break for dinner around 7pm, and if I don’t happen to have plans at night I might go back to my studio after dinner. But I usually like to take nights off, unless I’m working on deadline.
How do you sort the good ideas from the bad?
Most of my ideas are bad. They’re worse than bad, they’re embarrassing. But I jot down any idea that grabs my attention, and I add it to a big file of ideas that I have in my computer. Every so often I’ll look through that idea file and see if any of my old ideas have relevance to anything I’m currently working on. But I never really know if any of my ideas are good or bad, I just know which ideas get my imagination fired up. If any idea sticks around in my mind for a while, and keeps me interested, then I know it’s good enough.
Can you describe your studio?
My studio is a 200 square foot rectangle, with a couple of big windows. I have two heavy wooden doors that I’ve converted to desks, which go end-to-end along one of the long walls. One of those desks is for my computer setup, the other is for painting and messy artsy stuff. On another wall I have a bunch of long metal strips, from which I’ll hang up sketches and storyboards with magnets. I have a big bookcase, which is overflowing with beautiful books. I have a cabinet for office supplies. In one corner, by the ceiling, I have a TV so I can watch inspirational movies while I work, or so I can watch soccer matches (I’m a fan of the English Premiere League, though I don’t have a favorite team, which probably sounds ridiculous).
Do you start with the words or images first?
It’s always different. Some of my books begin with images in my head, and I’ll draw and draw before I ever find the thread of a story. Other times I’ll start with a few words, and then I’ll write and write before I ever have a clue what the characters might look like. But my process usually begins with both words and pictures. My words and pictures inform each other, and that helps me make more engaging stories, so I like to get them both involved as soon as possible.
What were your favourite things to do as a child?
I always loved drawing weird characters, so drawing was way up on my list of favorite activities. But I also really loved playing soccer (or football, depending on which continent you’re in), playing video games, and playing in the woods behind my house where I’d climb trees, build forts, and ride bikes with my friends. Pretty typical boy stuff, I guess.
How did it feel to become a New York Times Bestseller?
My first three books were not bestsellers, and I had become comfortable with the idea that I’d never have a bestselling book. I thought it was a miracle simply that I was getting paid to write stories and draw pictures. And then The Curious Garden hit the bestseller’s list, and I’ve been having amazingly good fortune ever since. It’s always exciting one of my books hits the bestseller list, but honestly, I try very hard not to pay attention to those things that I can’t control: sales, reviews, awards, etc. The important thing is that I do my best work. A book is successful if I’m proud of it.
Are you working on a new book?
My newest book, Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, just came out a month ago. And just before I went on my book tour for Mr. Tiger, I completed another picture book about a boy who thinks his teacher is a monster, that book has the strange title of ‘My teacher is a monster! No I am not.’ and will hit bookstores (in the States) next July. And right now I’m trying to figure out what my next project will be. I’m thinking I might finally write my first children’s novel, we’ll see.
Strongest childhood memory?
Trips to an island of the coast of Maine. My family would rent a house on a little island an hours ferry ride east of Bar Harbor. The island was like a playground, with big rocks to climb, and a dense pine forest, and fields of wild blueberries, and tide pools full of starfish. There was no hunting, so many of the animals were quite comfortable with people. One time, I was in the little grocery store with my mom, and when we turned to leave we saw that a deer had walked right into the store and was casually walking around. I’m not sure I’d be who I am today if I hadn’t had those experiences on Long’s Island.
Did you have an imaginary friend?
I always wanted an imaginary friend, but I never actually had one. I don’t think I understood how imaginary friends worked.