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May 14, 2019

Let's Talk Illustrators #108: Rowboat Watkins

It was such a treat chatting with Rowboat Watkins about his latest picture book Most Marshmallows. And I'm not just saying "treat" because the main characters are made from real-life marshmallows but because Rowboat is an absolute pleasure to try to unravel. Enjoy our chat!

About the book:
Most marshmallows are born into marshmallow families, play with marshmallow friends, and go to marshmallow school where they learn to be squishy. Most marshmallows read a book before bed and then fall asleep to dream ordinary marshmallow dreams. Is this book about most marshmallows? It isn't. Because Rowboat Watkins knows that just like you, some marshmallows have big dreams, and just like you, these marshmallows can do anything they set their minds to. This sweet and silly book is an inspiring reminder that by being true to ourselves each of us can be truly extraordinary.

Peek underneath the dust jacket:

Let's talk Rowboat Watkins!

LTPB: Can you talk a little bit about the visual evolution of Most Marshmallows? Why did you decide to explore this particular story through the lens of marshmallows?

RW: As a general rule, I don’t have strong feelings about marshmallows, one way or the other. They first appeared in a different story I’d been trying to write about a poodle a bunch of years ago that never went anywhere…other than into a folder on my desk. In that story the poodle was being bullied at school by a bulldog (sorry lovable bulldogs), and he tried to make himself dream about tough things in order to make himself feel tough in real life. One of the tough things he dreamt (dreamed?) about were burnt marshmallows. Why burnt marshmallows seemed tough, I don’t know. I am not a bullied poodle. Unless I am, and I just don’t realize it. All I know is a marshmallow appeared in a subsequent story I ended up writing about a rude cake. Rude cakes who kicked each other on purpose and never said sorry were one of the other tough things that poodle dreamed (dreamt?) about. The cakes seemed tougher to me than burnt marshmallows, but toughness is in the eye of bullied beholder, I guess.

Anyway, like I said, the poodle story never quite worked, but his dream about rude cakes lead to my writing a book about a rude cake. In which there happened to be a bullied marshmallow. And for the next few years I kept drawing marshmallows in my sketchbook. For no good reason other than that I liked drawing them. And I guess at some point, I started to wonder what life would be like as a marshmallow. Or, more specifically, I started to wonder what marshmallows dreamt (dreamed?) about. Which is what lead to this book. More or less. So it was because of a poodle that I eventually wound up writing a book about dreaming marshmallows. I think. Does that answer your question? Or make any sense? For the sake of full disclosure I should tell you that my dog is a poodle (my wife’s choice—I wanted a bulldog). And while she is not bullied, she is beyond cowardly and shy. I have no idea what she dreams about, but I am pretty sure she has no clue what a marshmallow is.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations? How does your process change from book to book?

RW: I used real marshmallows, construction paper, cardboard, cake sprinkles, twisty ties, acorn tops, and other stuff lying around the house to make this book. I’ve never made a book like this before. I usually just draw things. I’m not adventurous by nature. But I do like to build things just for. If I’m being totally honest, it wasn’t until I’d started building and posting random silly photos onto Instagram that I realized I was having more fun making these weird constructions than I was having making my actual work at the time. And that even though I wasn’t a photographer, that maybe I could find a way to make illustrations out of real everyday materials I liked playing with, and photographing them. With my phone. Seemed crazy, but worth a shot. When I’d first started thinking about writing a book about marshmallows it was going to be drawn. It was only by accident and Instagram (with which I have a very conflicted history) that I wound my making this book the way I did.

LTPB: What can you tell me about the design of this book? The trim size, casewrap, dust jacket, etc. How involved were you in adding these details? How do you design your casewraps and endpapers to be extensions of the central story?

RW: I wanted a small trim size because I wanted the book to be close in size to actual marshmallows. Which aren’t very big. Especially the mini ones you put in hot chocolate (sorry marshmallows who might be reading this). It seemed scary or wrong to have a big book about marshmallows printed on glossy paper. So that’s how we wound up with an 8 x 8 book. Printed on uncoated paper. Because there is nothing big or glossy about real marshmallows.

While I don’t think the cover and case cover and endpapers need to be central to the story, they should be related to it. Right? The case cover for the book was actually one of the first test images I made for myself, before I even tried to pitch and sell the book. Originally it going to be the endpapers. But so much happens after you sell a book and start working on it with your editor and designer. The overall design of the book (and the text) winds up one big collaboration. There are lots of spoons in the broth, and mine was just one of them. The cover is generally the part of any book where my spoon feels the smallest. Because the cover has many more spoons involved than any other part of the book. But I am never without a spoon, regardless of its size at any given point in the process, and I have a great editor and designer at Chronicle, and I totally trust their brilliant spoons when I have no idea what my spoon is talking about.

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

RW: I just finished a book about a mermaid named Mabel, who wishes she had a mustache. Long story. You’ll need to read the book one day. And I’m now working on pictures for a chapter book series about snarky squirrels, which was written by Jory John. I’ve never worked on a chapter book before so I’m still trying to get my bearings on how to approach this project. Which is to say, me and my spoon have no idea what we’re doing. But that’s pretty much how I feel all the time, so I’m hoping that’s just the bullied poodle part of my brain talking, and that I will eventually figure it out one way or another. Or that my spoon will.

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

RW: My dog. Because she doesn’t know how to draw. And never plans to. As far as I know. This would go perfectly with a text I never plan to write. As far as I know.

Thank you to Rowboat for taking time to answer some questions! Most Marshmallows published from Chronicle Books last month!

Special thanks to Rowboat and Chronicle for use of these images!

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