If You Think Kids’ Books Are Child’s Play, You’re Missing Out
Illustrator Stephen Savage on the burgeoning art scene in children’s book publishing
We’re used to seeing art in museums. We’re even open to considering 21st-century prestige television to be a legitimate art form. Meanwhile, there’s a slew of creative genius flying underneath the radar in a medium that often isn’t taken seriously: Children’s book publishing.
Stephen Savage is one of the most inventive and engaging kid’s book artists currently working, and his sharp, crisp illustration style has plenty for grown-ups to admire, too. His sweet, zany stories—starring sneaky zoo animals and a parade of hardworking boats, planes, and trucks—are a colorful delight.
We asked the author of Where’s Walrus? and the forthcoming And Then Came Hope to share his thoughts on everything from Alexander Calder to Star Wars.
Do you have to truly understand — or even like — kids to write a great kid’s book? Does it help to be a parent?
Look, I know plenty of folks who do not have kids but create amazing work. In my case, though, becoming a father really improved my storytelling game.
I got my start with illustration-only jobs. Within a few months of my daughter’s birth, I was inspired to illustrate and write Little Tug. A whole slew of vehicle books soon followed. I was immersed in kid-world and there was abundant inspiration.
In the end I think the secret is the ability to tap into one’s own childhood. Max in Where the Wild Things Are and Peter in The Snowy Day are undoubtedly kid-versions of their creators (Maurice Sendak and Ezra Jack Keats). Those books are classics because the vibe feels real.
Are you inspired by so-called fine artists, past or present, whose style is close to children’s art?
Who doesn’t love the naive quality of Henri Matisse’s cut-outs? Alexander Calder’s work has that same playful and child-like quality. My parents took me to his retrospective exhibit in 1976 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the next day I was making my own wire ‘circus’ sculptures in our basement.
I’ve always loved going to the museum. But ‘fine art’ isn’t what really inspires me as an artist. I like good ol’ fashioned commercial illustration from the 1920s to the 1950s: travel and beverage posters, luggage and fruit labels, matchbooks, and signage. And because children’s books are a storytelling art, I get ideas from film and theater, too. I probably carry a little Star Wars into every book I make.
You’ve written books with and without words. Where’s Walrus?, notably, is text-free. What’s fun or liberating about relying solely on images to do the narrative work?
Creating a wordless book is a lot like playing Charades (it’s no accident that this is probably my all-time favorite party game). Yes, you are hobbled by the fact the you can only talk in pictures. But the challenge of that often causes you to express more. It makes the communication funny and absurd, too, which is just right for kids. And it also means that when you do finally break through to your audience, it’s so rewarding.
I imagine it’d be quite easy to create a kid’s book that is impressive, and unique, and beloved by parents and other adults…but that somehow fails to connect with the target audience: children themselves!
Picture books must appeal to two very different audiences. That’s a tall order. As a toddler, my daughter loved a book that my wife and I couldn’t stand. The goofy faces, the haphazard composition, and the lurid colors made the two of us cringe.
Then there are those books that seem totally geared to adults. These ‘grown-up picture books’ go right over the heads of kids. I’d like to think my books have cross-over appeal and speak to both audiences.
Are your choices driven by any scientific understanding of how infants and very little kids comprehend narrative, colors, shapes, and so on?
You’d expect that publishers would use focus groups and other marketing and research-based methods when creating books. But I haven’t seen it.
I do what I’m sure most kid’s book artists and publishers do: create books for the kid in us. I think the work falls flat when one tries to make something one ‘thinks’ kids will like. Even that standard notion that kids books must have abundant color in them: Who says they do? As a kid, I remember loving the spare, black and white line drawings of Calder and Jean Cocteau.
Your books often focus on plucky but underappreciated mechanical things: a tiny tugboat, a garbage truck.
I guess I’m just riffing on The Little Engine That Could—the ultimate plucky little vehicle in children’s literature. It’s hard to resist the power of that archetypal character. It speaks directly to kids.
Aesthetically, I like the straight lines in a boat, train, plane, or truck. Someone once told me that my mechanical characters are warmer than my human characters.
Would you say that kid’s books have come into style over the past decade?
They’re calling it the ‘New Golden Age of Children’s Books.’ I entered the field in 2004 with a book called Polar Bear Night — written with Lauren Thompson — and there was tons of new interest building way back then. Jack Ziegler published a hilarious New Yorker cartoon that year that made that point…two super heroes are flying over the city, and one of them is saying “Yes, but what I really want to do is write children’s books.”
I’m sure all of the focus on early childhood education has had something to do with making kids’ books cool again. People figured out that books truly are the key to a young child’s intellectual and emotional development.
What recent changes have you noticed in the field?
I’m thrilled to see that publishers are starting to publish books with diverse voices and characters as part of the seismic shift in the county’s attitudes about race and gender. The work has just begun and needs to continue. I’m also heartened that the young illustration students I teach at SVA represent a new wave of artists who are bringing diverse experience and representation to children’s books.
Is there a simple ‘Golden Rule’ you’d offer to up-and-comers who are making art for children?
It’s the same advice a basketball coach gives out: Shoot the ball every day and pretty soon it’ll go into the hoop.
I’m using a sports metaphor here because the emphasis in art should be on practice and process, not end product. Nobody walks into a yoga class for the first time expecting to strike the Handstand Scorpion pose. The goal is to stretch, move your body, break a sweat and make it to the end of class. Om…
How has your own process changed over time?
My tools and techniques haven’t changed that much in 25 years. I’ve alternated between linocut and Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. Those tools are great at creating the flat colors and subtle gradations of my beloved midcentury-style illustration.
I’ve been in a very precise and controlled digital mode for many years but am breaking out my printmaking tools for my next project, Moonlight. It was time to go ‘acoustic’ again.
Painters and other artists are fond of saying — with varying degrees of pretentiousness — that every picture is really a self-portrait. Is there a part of you that’s Walrus, Supertruck, and Little Tug?
I guess artists tend to tell stories about characters that are like us, or that interest us. I’m a huge fan of the silent-movie star Buster Keaton. He’s stoic and ordinary on the surface, but intense and complex on the inside. And he’s probably the model for Walrus. I also like the ‘Supertrucks’ of the world — those people in our lives who are talented and hard working but don’t have to brag about it.
This quality of self-reflection, by the way, is the ultimate goal of the artist. It’s not about learning to ‘draw good.’ It’s about putting yourself into the work.
Stephen Savage’s latest children’s book, And Then Came Hope, will be published by Holiday House on May 4. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter! And don’t forget to check out more art, creativity, and design coverage at #FF0083!