A Q&A with Jon Agee

Jon Agee has published more than 30 picture books, but may have come to MinervaReads readers’ attention with his picture book The Wall in the Middle of the Book. This October, he comes to England from the States, and is appearing at The Children’s Bookshow, following the publication of his latest picture book, Life on Mars, on August 1st.

life on marsLife on Mars follows a young astronaut in pursuit of evidence that there is life on planet Mars. As he explores the red planet, beautifully illustrated in stark black outlines, unbeknown to him, a large simpatico alien follows behind. Rather sweetly, the astronaut does discover life on Mars, but doesn’t quite make the discovery the reader has. Agee has pictured this planet’s landscape as rather hostile; large empty surfaces, dangerous craters and looming mountains, but this contrasts so well with the warmth of life itself that the reader is drawn into the book, both in terms of cheering on the astronaut and the alien life form. With wit in illustration and text, this is a mission accomplished.   

Before his performance at The Children’s Bookshow, I’ve been lucky enough to ask Jon some questions.

You’ve published more than 30 picture books.  Do you find it gets easier with each book?

Yes, probably, though every book seems to have its own evolution, from original idea to final execution.  The text for My Rhinoceros was written, almost word-for-word, in a notebook in one afternoon.  The Wall in the Middle of the Book began as a simple notion; treating the book’s middle (or gutter, as we call it) as if it was a solid barrier.  But it took many months for a story to materialize.  Little Santa had a promising, offbeat premise, but  – as so often happens – I couldn’t figure out where to go next, and I tossed the dummy in a file.  Months later, looking at it again with fresh eyes, the rest of the story came quickly.

So, a concept doesn’t always come to you fully formed? For example, with Life on Mars, did you start with an astronaut seeking life, or the box of chocolate cupcakes (the astronaut has taken cupcakes as a gift for the life form he hopes he’ll find)?

Book concepts begin as wisps of an idea: a doodle of people chatting, a phrase or sketch that has an unusual juxtaposition.  If it amuses me, I pursue it.  With Life on Mars, I made drawings of a little astronaut walking around a remote planet, communicating with the folks back on Earth.  “Do you see anything?” they ask.  “Nothing yet,” he responds. His matter-of-fact conversation, juxtaposed with the ominous alien creatures watching him was the spark for the story.  The chocolate cupcakes came later.

What comes first, the illustrations or the text?

Doodles (loose drawings) of people and other living creatures, followed by text or talk balloons.

the wall in the middle of the bookThe illustrations in Life on Mars have very strong defined shapes with clear thick black outlines. Whereas in The Wall you went without the outlines. How do you decide what sort of illustration will suit the subject matter?

Every book seems to require its own palette, or motif.  For Life on Mars, the sky was a flat black.  As a counterpoint, I gave the planet texture, with crayon, colored pencil and wash.  The landscape was made up of simple shapes (craters and rocks), so a thick black outline worked well.

The Wall has a two-dimensional look, like a compressed stage set, where the reader follows the action from the front row of the theater.  Since the artwork was mostly large, strongly defined shapes against the white page, I didn’t think an outline was necessary.

And the faces are drawn very simply and yet are still full of expression – the reader can work out what’s going on without the text. How do you imbue a character with expression?

Since I draw simply, I use everything available: the face, body (posture), gesture, gait, scale, juxtaposition, lighting.  In Life on Mars, the little astronaut has about ten distinct emotional episodes.  When he steps out of his spaceship he surveys the Martian vista from up on a rock.  This suggests confidence.  When he walks, he stands upright, and his footprints follow a direct route.  Again, confidence.  As he becomes doubtful, his footprints start to zigzag.  Then there’s a close-up of his face.  He looks concerned.  Further on, his posture slumps.  He abandons his box of cupcakes.  All these elements are used to convey the way the character is feeling.

Much of your text is very honed down, very sparse. Does it take a while to get to the state in which not a superfluous word is used?

The editing process doesn’t seem to stop until we’ve sent the book to the printers.  With a picture book, you’re revising both pictures and text, and how they relate to each other.  As pictures are revised, the text usually needs to be whittled down.  It’s inevitable that you fall in love with a word, line or phrase, and sometimes, only late in the process, you realize that it has to go.

In fact, many of your books play with words. Does this come fairly naturally? 

I think so.  In Nothing, a wealthy eccentric states that she has everything, but she’s never had nothing.  So she sets out to buy nothing.  In Terrific, a grump named Eugene proves – with sarcasm – how a word like “terrific” can mean two different things depending on how you express it.  Another double meaning appears at the end of The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau.  The text reads that Mr. Clousseau “returned to his painting” and the picture shows that he has – believe it or not! – walked into a painting.  In Life on Mars, the word “life” suggests a Martian creature, but it ends up meaning something completely different.

I should add that, along with my picture books, I have created a fair number of books of wordplay: anagrams, oxymorons, spoonerisms, tongue twisters, and four volumes of palindromes, beginning with Go Hang a Salami!  I’m a Lasagna Hog!  (Forwards and backwards it says the same thing).

Your books are also full of humour – how important is this in a picture book?

True, my books are often funny.  Humour is useful when writing about serious or complicated subjects (see many books by Dr. Seuss).  That said, humour is not essential.  One of my most favorite picture books, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, is not a very funny book.

What advice would you give a child who wants to be an author/illustrator?

Keep a notebook: write in it, draw in it.  Read all kinds of things: books, articles, old letters, fortune cookies.  Look around: at artwork, movies, theatre, dance, nature, animals, and people at work and play.

Two recent books, Life on Mars and The Wall, both refer in some way to topical events – Life on Mars to the essence of our being and space exploration (the anniversary of the lunar landing), – and The Wall to the divisions in our society. Is this on purpose – do you try to write topically, or are the topics just in your head?

The Wall was inspired simply by the architecture of a book; thinking about the opposing rectangular pages as unique places, separated by the binding in the middle.  Many months later, a story emerged from this.  The concept of a protective wall seemed ripe for parody, so I turned it on its head.  It was simply coincidence that the book was published at a time when a controversial wall was being discussed here in the States.

Life on Mars came about from doodles of a young astronaut wandering a barren planet, watched, unwittingly, by curious alien creatures.  There was something amusing about the juxtaposition of us knowing – and his not knowing – what was going on just behind him.  What does it mean?  The truth is, when I’m working on a book, I don’t think about what it means.  I know there’s a message or a moral, but I leave that for the readers to figure out.

With thanks to Jon Agee for answering my questions so comprehensively. To purchase tickets for The Children’s Bookshow, click here, and to purchase Life on Mars, click here. With thanks to Scallywag Press for the review copies.