“Like many American boys born in the wake of the Apollo missions, I decided early on I would be an astronaut. My mother was an astronomy teacher at a local college in my hometown of Baltimore. She would take us along on her nighttime field trips to the observatory; its musky smell relieved with the opening of its domed roof. The vastness of the starry sky was thrilling. Below, above, to the right and left – nothing but infinite space.
At some point, I surmised that a career in actual space travel required military training, and this seemed like a lot of work. So I switched gears and started drawing pictures of outer space instead. There was palpable joy in this: creating civilizations and stories filled with a cast of characters of my own design. To be sure, these worlds were reflections of places inside of me. But more importantly, drawing was an immediate path for creating something I could manage on my own terms. These worlds were mine and mine alone. With a pad of paper and a set of markers, I could pretty much do whatever I wanted. For an eight year old confined by the limitations of his material existence, this seemed like a pretty good deal.
Years ago, after working as a designer in San Francisco’s dot-com craze, I quit my job and headed to Monterey, California for a children’s book conference. At the time, I had a vague idea of why I thought it’d be fun to write and illustrate books. After presenting some hazy ideas to a guest editor from Candlewick Press, I left the conference content to wander. I traveled. I returned to art school and earned my chops. I worked in the Bay Area with some of my heroes in film design for nearly a decade. But eventually, the children’s book bug returned. This time, I had some real drawing skills and a much greater understanding of why these books might matter. After all, I had my own child by this time, and it was becoming clear to me that there’s no purer form of story-telling for an illustrator than creating their own book full of pictures. Luckily, children seem to like this kind of stuff. And publishers will go along with it as well if the idea is up to snuff. When my agent gave me the good news that my first book had a solid offer, the name of the editor sounded eerily familiar. It was none other than the same editor I’d met in Monterey nearly fifteen years before.
I now live in Amherst, Massachusetts where every day, I return to that place of being a kid again, ready to fly into outer space with a ship of my own design. I’m fortunate to have a job that lets me keep doing this, and I would imagine that even in the darkest of my creative slumps, surely this must beat astronaut boot camp.”
Aaron recently (and deservedly) won a Caldecott Honor for his picture book, ‘Journey’. Whether you read it aloud or read it to yourself, you’ll be left speechless. In the former case, because Journey is a wordless picture book. In the latter case, because Journey’s story and artwork are breathtaking.
What do you hope readers will get from reading ‘Journey’?
My hope for readers, and this goes for both adults and children alike, is that it will connect them their sense of wonder. It’s not hard to find the world an enchanting place, but sometimes we have to remember it’s there.
Henry: Well, it worked for me.
A little girl is bored. Sepia-toned images symbolize her ennui. Until she (and the reader) notice a little red marker lying on her bedroom floor. She uses that marker to draw a portal through which she enters a magical city of waterfalls and flies through the air on craft of her own creation.
Journey reminds me of ‘The Red Balloon’. But Aaron has elevated a simple concept into an emotionally moving ink and watercolor journey. Some of the art covers a two-page span, some a single page, and some pages sport three small illustrations. Aaron’s use of image size for pacing and emphasis is profound.
Incredibly, this is Aaron’s publishing debut! Kids and parents alike will read (and re-read) this book, just like I did as a young boy with ‘Where the Wild Things Are’. I give ‘Journey’ five out of five stars. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.
What aspect of writing/illustrating do you find most challenging?
Coming up with a story is always much harder than doing any illustrations. While inventing places and costumes and characters comes relatively naturally to me, finding the reason for them to exist (and for the reader to care about them) is always the hardest part.
Henry: As a writer who cannot draw beyond stick figures, the story is much easier than the illustrations for me. It just proves the old saying, “the grass is always greener when someone else is drawing it.”
It’s hard enough to be a published author, but to be an author and an illustrator is amazing. Did you start with one skill and later add the other skill?
I used to help film directors with developing the look and feel for their animated movies; so story telling was always a part of what I did. But the visual side was certainly what I spent the most time on, and so when it came time to do my own book, I felt pretty confident I could make something *look* beautiful. Though I did teach myself watercolor! Everything I had done previously was either in oils, acrylics, or digital, but I wanted ‘Journey’ to have a precious, handmade feel that only watercolor can pull off. It was a steep learning curve, but I think it was worth it!
Henry: So basically, writing and illustrating a New York Times bestselling debut book was not enough of a challenge, so you decided to work in a brand new media. Did you also grow berries from which you distilled your own organic watercolor paints? *slaps own forehead in disbelief*
Do you belong to a critique group?
I do. Having a group to bounce ideas off and share work with is essential to me. Sometimes my best ideas come from these conversations and discussions. I feel amazingly indebted to these friends and colleagues.
Henry: I agree completely. There’s that expression, “You only get one chance for a first impression.” Critique groups are extremely helpful in that regard. We never have 100% clear self-perception. We already know our characters’ motivations, but have we conveyed them to the reader?
What is your illustration process? How much digital work, if any, is involved?
I always start with a sketchbook, to keep the ideas flowing quickly without getting hung up on details. But eventually I scan these pencil drawings and play around with them a bit on the computer; this is what illustrators used to use xerox machines, and before that, light tables, and before that, cut and paste. It’s just a tool to move images around and test out ideas that have been sketched on paper. Sometimes things need to be shrunk, swamped, or cut all together. Once the story is finished, I go back to the computer and build out all of the architectural elements of the story in a 3D program, which helps speed up perspective and helps me create more dynamic compositions than I might otherwise be able to accomplish on paper. Once I’m happy with the shapes and designs, I print out a very light outline onto watercolor paper that helps speed things up for the final painting. It’s a laborious process, but it helps me create complex images that would be prohibitively time consuming. Now if I had ten years to write my next book…
Do you have any favorite quotes?
“A man’s work is nothing more than to rediscover, through the detours of art, those one or two images in the presence of which his heart first opened.” Albert Camus
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
I would love to be able to stop time. For one, I’d get a lot more done every day and could take a nap in the afternoon. And two, the world would be so quiet. I’d pick the perfect sunny spring day and just take a long walk in absolute stillness.
Henry: You’d be surprised how many authors choose that power. It sounds like you want to live inside a story.
Where can readers find your work?
In fine bookstores everywhere, and at http://www.storybreathing.com
This interview is also posted at the San Diego Children’s Books Examiner.