October 9, 2018

Let's Talk Illustrators #85: Jon Agee

I will admit that sometimes I wait to interview a book creator. Not because that person is busy––books and books might go by while I wait––but because I'm waiting for the right book, the book I have to talk to them about. Jon Agee is one such creator, and the book I've been waiting for is The Wall in the Middle of the Book. You probably know Jon's work by now (they've won many, many, awards), but I waited for this book because it addresses what a book is: two rectangles connected by a line down the middle. Wall puts forth a hilarious story that uses the gutter (middle of the book) as its crux and opens our minds to the possibilities of what lies outside of the book itself. Enjoy our conversation!


About the book:
There's a wall in the middle of the book, and our hero––a young knight––is sure that the wall protects his side of the book from the dangers of the other side––like an angry tiger and giant rhino, and worst of all, an ogre who would gobble him up in a second! But our knight doesn't seem to notice the crocodile and growing sea of water that are emerging on his side. When he's almost over his head and calling for help, who will come to his rescue? An individual who isn't as dangerous as the knight thought––from a side of the book that might just have some positive things to offer after all!

Let's talk Jon Agee!


LTPB: How did the idea for this book come about? After creating so many books in your career, what was it like to sit down and really think about what a picture book is physically and how you could use the structure (ie the gutter) to tell a story? 

JA: I’ve always been fascinated by the many different ways a picture book works. On the surface it looks very simple: 32 pages, a handful of sentences, beautiful images, smart design, you read from left to right, each page turn is important, and down the middle of each spread is this thing we call the gutter. 

A picture book artist has great respect for the gutter. Unlike a painter or traditional illustrator, when we sketch a spread for a book, we don’t just draw a rectangle––we draw a rectangle with a line down the middle of it. 



The gutter is a key part of the books design. It’s versatile, open-minded. It can isolate pictures and text on opposite pages, but at the same time, pictures are free to migrate across it. 

I thought it would be interesting to treat the gutter like a wall. A tall, solid barrier. I drew a sequence of sketches where, on one side of the gutter, a little girl is happily stretched out on a towel, reading a book. On the other side, an enormous tidal wave approaches. The waves surges, and smashes into the middle of the book, but goes no farther, and the little girl, without even looking up, continues to read her book.

I did more sketches, of falling boulders, oozing lava, stampeding rhinoceroses, all held back by the wall in the middle of the book. It was an intriguing effect, but it was not the story.


LTPB: Once you had nailed down the concept you were going to explore, how did the story and characters evolve (textually and visually) as you fleshed out your ideas and began to bring your characters to life? 

JA: The first narrative ideas focused on this girl's desire to get to the other side of the book. A giraffe could stretch its neck over the top of the book to eat apples from the tall tree on the other side. A gopher, out for a stroll, could burrow under the book and continue on its way. A ghost could effortlessly stride through the middle. But the girl was stuck. And my concept was stuck, too. 

So, what if the little girl didn’t care to get to the other side of the book? What if she had this wild impression about what existed over there? And she had no intention of finding out if it was true? We all know people like this. People who are frightened of the unknown, of things that are different. Anyway, this concept––maybe it was inspired by contemporary events, I don’t know. But it appealed to me.

The girl (or boy––you can’t tell as they are dressed as a knight, in armor) tells us how satisfied she is to be on the “safe” side of the wall, and then, suddenly, water enters the knight’s side of the book, and rises higher and higher. The knight is incredulous. How could this happen? The tables are turned. And how will the knight escape? These were some of the challenges that made the book so fun to write.



LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book?

JA: The pictures were done by hand: watercolor, crayon, textured paper. They were scanned into Photoshop and adjusted a little bit. Not too much. I’m not a fan of overly digital art.




LTPB: How has your creative process changed since your first book almost thirty years ago? How do you approach each new project with a fresh eye? How do new ideas come to you?

JA: I still doodle in sketchbooks, in a quiet place: on a couch, in a stuffed chair. And every once in a while, an idea, for whatever reason, sticks. For many years I wrote books whose protagonists were odd, lonely, grumpy middle-aged men. Gradually, with some nudging, I became more comfortable writing stories with children front and center.
 

LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us? 

JA: I’m working on another picture book. It’s a kind of Monty Python-esque scenario, where a girl goes to an animal shelter determined to find a dog. The animal shelter has many interesting creatures, but no dog. Will she leave a satisfied customer? I’m not telling. Ok, yes.

The other book is a graphic novel where everything written or said is a palindrome. its called Palindrama. It follows the odyssey of a boy (Otto), who wanders away from his parents, becomes lost, and eventually makes his way back to them through a wacky palindrome world. It involves wonton soup, a guy obsessed with counting Toyota’s, a duo named Mr. Alarm and Dr. Awkward, a polka-dotted street (Stop! See spots!), stacking cats, palindromic book titles, newspaper headlines, epitaphs, graffiti. And it will sell for $17.71.

LTPB: If you were to write your picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why? 

JA: William Steig. His pictures have just the right amount of humor and humanity, qualities I like in a person. And since Bill preferred to draw animals, I’d be ok as a donkey, mouse or dog.

A million thanks to Jon for taking time to answer some questions! The Wall in the Middle of the Book published last week from Dial Books!

Special thanks to Dial Books for use of these images!




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