Tag Archive for Agee Jon

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.

Picture Book Round Up: Human Relationships

When I was at school, one of my best friends had the most extraordinary hair. Tight springy curls that fuzzed out from her head like Medusa with her snakes. Now, in the school library, I’m all agog at the number of different hairstyles, the fancy braiding, curls escaping from scrunchies and bobbles. But also the different personalities of the children – just like picture books they come in all shapes and sizes. Here are some latest picture books about humans and human relationships.

miras curly hairMira’s Curly Hair by Maryam Al Serkal, illustrated by Rebeca Luciani
Mira has the same problem as my school friend. Her hair curls everywhere, and it won’t stop. She wants someone with whom she can identify, but her mother has luscious straight hair, of which Mira is a little envious. Mira tries to stop her curls unfurling in all sorts of ways, but they won’t. It’s only after a rainfall when her mother’s hair springs back to its natural curls, that Mira feels happier.

Set in Dubai, with its beauty as the backdrop to Mira’s life, this is a book that begins firmly in the domestic sphere – Mira doing a handstand in her room, Mira’s mother’s table with laptop, glasses and flowers – and out of the window the scenery of palm trees and sea, of the cityscape. The illustrations come into their own when they escape the domestic sphere, just as Mira’s mother’s hair escapes its restrictions and returns to its natural state in the rain – here the illustrations show the range of patterns on clothes, on the pavements, in the rain, and the characters seem uplifted by the fresh rain’s scene -their faces upturned. The backdrop changes to one of traditional Islamic architecture and across the pages stream colourful birds, perhaps real, perhaps imagined, as they fly through the mother’s hair, they also experiencing freedom.

The colours in this book zing – it’s vibrant, bright, the rain makes the natural landscape appear lush and sensual. This is a lovely book of acceptance of who you are, seeing yourself in others, and also understanding that there is no perfect way for hair to be – misnomers such as ‘unruly’, and ‘misbehaving’ to describe hair have no place here. Instead, a natural head of hair is to be celebrated. You can buy it here. 

the wall in the middle of the bookThe Wall in the Middle of the Book by Jon Agee
Modern fables tell us much about our own political times, and any book with the word ‘wall’ in the title conjures ideas of division and animosity, but mostly fear. Cities were originally built with walls around them to keep people out, not to keep people in. Agee cleverly uses the physical space of the book to build his wall – the wall runs along the centre gutter of the book. On one side, (verso), a young knight explains exactly the purpose of his wall – it’s to keep out the dangerous animals (tiger, rhino, gorilla and mouse pictured on the recto). And the most dangerous thing of all – the ogre.

When the knight’s side of the book fills up with water though, he’s plucked to safety over the top of the wall by the ogre. And discovers that the recto side is actually quite pleasant. Agee breaks the ‘fourth wall’ of fiction – addressing the reader and acknowledging the ‘book’ as his setting – thus eliminating all boundaries entirely. The book challenges our pre-conceived ideas of what’s frightening ‘without’, when actually the threats may come from ‘within’. And also, asks the reader if our knight is the most reliable of narrators.

Illustrations are full-page, blocky, simple yet exceedingly expressive. Text matches in its apparent simplicity, yet stimulates thought. All excellent food for thought in these wall-building times. You can buy it here. 

goliathGoliath: The Boy Who was Different by Ximo Abadia
Brighter colours here, using primary colours with spots of green and black in recognisable but also blocky illustrations that feel almost like retro jigsaw pieces fitted together, in this story of being different.

The boy, our new Goliath, is huge and red and doesn’t fit in. In despair he sets off on a quest to discover why, and it is the moon who offers perspective on the problem, explaining that it is both big and small depending on who is looking at it.

The story of perception is not new, but it is the artwork that dazzles here.

The illustrations themselves present the issue of perspective – a forceful display of shapes and lines that form images within the reader’s mind, the bold strange shape of the boy contrasted with the normality of a silhouette reading a newspaper, children with backpacks walking to school.

In the end, the boy’s acceptance of himself, leads the others to accept him too, and rather than he grow more like them, the illustrations show that they become more like him in colour and shape. Fascinating and like Goliath himself, different. You can buy it here. 

the bandit queenThe Bandit Queen by Natalia and Lauren O’Hara
Another most distinctive picture book, this latest tale from the O’Hara sisters is stylish, clever and subversive. There’s something quite delightful about renegades, naughtiness and bad behaviour in children’s books. My Naughty Little Sister and Horrid Henry of course, but also in AA Milne’s delicious rhymes, the spoilt behaviour of Mary Jane, Christopher Robin lying about his wheezles, and those two little bears who lived in the wood, one of whom was bad and the other good.

Here, a crew of bandits are incredibly naughty, making noise through the night, peeing without precision, throwing cutlery. Yet, they face a challenge when they break into an orphanage, steal socks and clocks, a picnic box, and inadvertently, a baby! She becomes their Bandit Queen, but after a while their antics begin to grate on her, and maybe she’ll have to hatch a plan to change their ways.

This clever rhyming book contains some interesting morals within, discussions about routine and learning, about friends and family. And belonging and greed. There’s a huge amount within this characterful picture book, and the illustrations are simply exquisite – with an old-fashioned feel that makes it seem like it’s worthy of longevity. You can buy it here. 

grobblechopsGrobblechops by Elizabeth Laird and Jenny Lucander
Using tales from old is another way of making a book a ‘classic’, but this modern update of a tale by Rumi, the 13th century poet and Sufi mystic, is both appealing and refreshing. It does revisit the themes of childhood fears (monsters at bedtime), and parental persuasion, but it stands out with its careful observations of how we live now. Amir is scared of the monster. The monster is illustrated with fang teeth and sticky-up hair, yet with a kind of beguiling cuteness behind the horror. (It’s all the eyes.)

The whole book is told in dialogue between child and father, Amir at first suggesting how monstrous the monster will be and the father explaining how he will defend Amir against him, but gradually the talk becomes more about how to occupy the monster called Grobblechops, even suggesting that he may need sympathy, perhaps suffering loneliness or envy of Amir.

Parents too will enjoy the attention to detail – the father’s laptop, his need for ‘evening time’ with his wife, the domestic scenes. With humour throughout and also such compelling illustrations, the reader feels totally drawn into the tale. In essence, warm and comforting for those with night-time anxieties. You can buy it here.