Writing Children's Books with Jarrett Krosoczka
Children's Book Author/Illustrator
After reading Jarrett Krosoczka's books, I was amazed by his ability to let his paintings tell a story and amused by the unique characters he introduces. With skillful brushstrokes his artwork is fun and captures children’s emotions and imaginations. On top of all that he has spent a great part of his life working with sick children. A true source of inspiration it was a pleasure to speak with Jarrett and learn how the children’s book industry works, listen to his advice on getting a story published, and find out about the process he goes through when writing and illustrating his books.
CCB: When did you realize you wanted to be a children’s book author/illustrator?
JK: Since I was a kid I knew that I wanted to do something involving art and narrative art. I pretty much grew up wanting to be a cartoonist for a comic strip or a comic book. I thought I wanted to do animation. When I was a senior in high school I came across a few current children’s books that were out there and it got me thinking about the possibility of picture books. By the time I went to college I knew I wanted to write and illustrate picture books. It all stems from wanting to play with pictures and words together as an art form.
CCB: In Max for President there is a scene where Max doesn’t win the election and in the painting you sort of fade away and place him in the middle of the page with just these foggy brush strokes behind him. I was amazed because you really captured what it would be like to have that kind of disappointment as a little kid. How do you prepare yourself to take on these childhood emotions?
JK: I think a good part of it is instinctual. I’ve always stayed connected to my younger self. Whenever I’m creating I think to myself what would I have wanted to read when I was a kid or also what would I want to read now? I’ve worked with kids a lot over the years too, so I’ve gotten to know kids through working with them and I also grew up as the oldest of eleven cousins so I was always around kids. I try to tap in to my inner child and see what I would have liked.
CCB: What appeals to you about writing children’s books?
JK: For me to be able to write and illustrate is awesome because I get to have full control over this little world. I love being able to create these characters, the worlds for them to live in, their problems, and the solutions to their problems. I get to control the whole picture and it’s great because my publisher does allow me a certain amount of freedom. They give me incredible guidance, but they really do trust my artistic integrity and my vision. It’s probably the only place where you’re going to have that much control in creative media.
CCB: What is a typical day in the studio like for you? Are there any routines or rituals when you start to write or draw a story?
JK: There really is never truly a typical day. It depends on where I am with the project. If the project is at the point where it’s being brainstormed and I’m trying to get the initial ideas I really can’t sit in my studio because I’ll just get distracted too easily. So it usually helps for me to either go to a coffee shop and to be honest I usually do my best writing and brainstorming when I’m traveling. So if I’m on a plane or if I’m somewhere where I’m forced to sit there, shut my mind off, I can really just cut loose. The “dummy book” is a mock up copy of what the book is going to look like with the text in place and with sketches of what the illustrations might look like. When I finish the “dummy book” I send it to the publisher and say if it was already picked up we’ll go back and forth on revisions. This step can take anywhere from a month to ten months.
It becomes more ritualistic when the paintings are due. When I’m working on the paintings it’s more the crunch time, and that’s where I have to be in my studio. I can’t paint anywhere else. That’s the time in my career life where I feel like it’s more of a regular job. I really am able to have so much freedom in terms of being able to sleep a little bit later or work later at night. I try to wake up at 8:30 or 9:00, I have my glass of orange juice, and I check my emails. If I’m really feeling motivated maybe I’ll go to the gym, nine out of ten times I don’t. Then I’ll just come in to my studio and I’ll paint from 10:00, 10:30 to maybe 1:00AM. With breaks for meals and maybe breaks for Judge Judy or time where you just need to take a break and watch some mindless TV for a bit. That goes on for typically anywhere between three or four months. In terms of the entire process of being an author and illustrator, revising a book takes up 70% to 75% of the time, which only leaves 25% to 30% of the time to actually create the art. For me I’m fortunate that I work very quickly, but I would say on average a typical painting in the book might take me two to three days or so, or maybe more towards five days if it’s more complicated. It all depends on the book, the picture, how many characters are in it, and what the lighting is like.
That’s how I spend my time in the actual creation of the work. Then there’s this whole other facet of what I do in that I do get on the road to promote the books, do readings, go in to schools and talk to kids about what its like to be an author and an illustrator, and sign books at book stores. If I were to add up all my time on the road in a year it would be fair enough to say that maybe a month and a half to two months are spent out on the road promoting it.
CCB: Could you take us through the process of how you work on your stories, and give us an example of what your schedule is like?
JK: Well my latest book is called Punk Farm. I’ll give you a time frame of what it was like for that book. I had the conception for the book in June of 2003 and it came about when I was volunteering at The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, which is a camp for kids with critical illnesses. There were these five campers who were acting like rock stars and I came home and I realized there was a story that I had tried to put together maybe two years before that about a rock star. I wasn’t sure what it was supposed to be so for about a year and a half to two years I had this idea of rock stardom sitting on my brain. After I returned from camp in June of 2003, I was going through a bunch of old sketchbooks and I saw a picture of a pig and I realized that my story was supposed to be about animals that become rock stars. I spent from June of 2003 to February/March of 2004 revising the book, forming it, and shaping it up. I would say I then spent from February/March 2004 to June of 2004 doing all the artwork for it. So I finished all the artwork, gave it away, and have moved on, and then the book came out April of 2005. So there is almost a whole year there where you finish the book and eventually it comes out. After that I went out to L.A. for a book festival and then I did an entire West Coast book tour. I also did a few other local events. So now its summer and summer is a quiet time for publishing unless you’re Harry Potter, which I’m not. But for now, school is starting up again and so I’m going to be doing another book festival in Boston in September. I’m going to be in Houston for two weeks doing school visits and school visits are a great way to make extra income when you are an author and an illustrator.
I am starting to make royalties back from my books but when I go out and do school visits it does a few things. It promotes the work because I’m getting out there in front of kids, in front of teachers, and I’m reading the books and I’m hoping they fall in love with and enjoy them. It’s crazy when you are reading a book and they know every word or you just pull out the book and you can hear kids murmuring that they love it. It’s like being a rock star, it’s like being able to go out and perform your song in front of a big group. So I’ll be in Texas for two weeks, then I’ll be in Kansas City for a week doing school visits and speaking at a conference out there and that stuff goes on all year. Also In all of that time when I was waiting for Punk Farm to come out, I actually finished the book that comes out next year which will be called Giddy up Cow Girl. I feel so fortunate to be at the point now where I’m just creating books, painting, getting out there, promoting them, and now it’s my only job. It’s been that way for about a year now. I’m able to really support myself because of the school visits. If it was just for the books I don’t think that would be a possibility yet. I think its right around the corner but the school visits are twofold because you are promoting your work and getting paid to give these presentations.
CCB: Is there any other way you were able to make some extra money when you first started?
JK: I taught courses at Montserrat College of Art for four years. That was a great way for me to have additional income while I was beginning to publish because it was an extra job where I was talking about what my job was, and it forced me to think more critically about what I was doing and how I was creating. I think if you’re trying to make a career in the arts you’re going to need to have a second or third job and a job that has flexibility. Teaching was great because I would teach maybe two days a week and it still informed what I did as an artist. It’s a great deal if you’re trying to make a living as an artist, musician or whatever. I was teaching juniors and seniors in college. Before I got my college teaching job I was teaching junior high kids at local art centers for a while too.
CCB: What medium do you create your paintings out of?
JK: I use acrylic because it dries very quickly. I use layer upon layer of color and so I actually keep a blow drier right next to my desk. Sometimes I put color down and then blow dry it right away. Say for instance I’m painting a scene and I paint the wall pink and then I realize that I don’t want the wall to be pink, I want it to be blue, so then I cover up the pink with blue and while you can’t see the pink necessarily, that color pink still plays an important part of how I created that exact color of blue. So now whenever that wall comes up later in the book I need to paint it pink first and then cover it over again.
CCB: Are there any authors or illustrators that influenced your work?
JK: In terms of how my work evolved I would say my two biggest influences on how I create would be Charles Schulz who created Peanuts and John Singer Sargent who was a famous portrait painter at the turn of the century. When I went to college I primarily thought of myself as a cartoonist where if I were to draw a character it would be a black line drawing and then sometimes I would fill in the color. Then I had to take all of these traditional painting classes. In one of these classes we had to do a master copy and I copied a John Singer Sargent. When I copied this painting it was just sort of a watershed moment for me when I realized that even though his pictures are very complicated, the way in which he laid down his paint strokes was almost simple in a sense that he wasn’t blending color on the canvas, he was just mixing a different color and putting it down very confidently and then it suddenly looks like a fully realized form when you pull back.
CCB: What kind of advice would you give to someone interested in becoming a children’s book writer or illustrator? What skills are necessary to succeed?
JK: What I often tell people is that you need to be insatiable. You need to be on a constant quest for self improvement, constantly working on your craft. You need to constantly write and illustrate. I’ve heard some people ask, “We’ve written this story, how do we get it published?” If they’ve only written one story your odds of getting published are a lot slimmer. You’re better off just constantly creating and to constantly submit. I actually started submitting my work when I was nineteen and I was still in college because I was impatient and I wanted to get rejections out of the way while I was still a student. The story I sent out would get rejected and it was a story about this giant orange slug. It would get rejected and rejected, and over the span of the next two years, but I would still send it out. Then I would start sending out my postcards, web site on the front, and full contact information on the back. I was sending out these postcards and nothing was hitting and Grace Lin (fellow children’s book author) suggested that I start sending my postcards to the editors because I had been sending them to the art directors and I was getting impatient again. I was just out of school and I was trying to start my career and make a living and my parents were constantly asking me if I had a job to which I would reply, “I do have a job. I am an author and illustrator even though no one pays me yet!” So I sent out a huge batch of postcards to editors on a Monday and that Thursday I got a response from an editor at Random House who saw my work and liked it. Before that, I would send out my postcards, wait a few days and then pick up the phone, and actually follow up and ask if I could meet with them in person. People were very polite with me and only a few people were mean. It’s still a very supportive environment. There’s nothing really to fear in picking up a phone and calling to follow up.
My advice would be to constantly work on your craft, and be insatiable in submitting work. Having a web site for me was crucial too. I would have never gotten that initial invitation had I not had my web site because this editor liked what she saw on the postcard but then she was able to go to my web site and see fifteen/sixteen illustrations that she also liked and then she realized she wanted to see more and meet me. Often people give up way too easily and on the flip side those people who don’t give up too easily and are still submitting their work, should still also be creating new work too. For me I had the slug book that was getting rejected and rejected so I wrote a second book and that book got rejected and a third and a fourth and those never hit. The first book that got picked up, Good Night, Monkey Boy, was actually put together three weeks before I met my editor. I was constantly creating new stuff and that’s the book that hit. You need to try new things too, so with every new book I wasn’t relying on the same narrative devices, the same storytelling devices. I would say to myself “I’m going to try and tell a story from this point of view, I’m going to try and tell this story with as few words as possible.” You need to change it up too and see what’s going to hit. It’s like finding yourself; you need to find your creative self and exactly where you fit in. But after all this time the book that I am revising right now is about that giant orange slug. It will end up being my eighth book, coming out next fall. It’s called My Buddy Slug.
CCB: Do you have a whole bunch of stories that you have written that you are waiting to put out or do you keep a collection that you will never publish?
JK: It’s kind of like a story graveyard. There is a book I wrote called Nobody Messes with Margaret which never got published. It got picked up but then it sort of fell apart. I have a dozen stories or so that I put together and maybe I submitted them and maybe I didn’t. Even this past year I pitched a story, it didn’t get picked up because it just wasn’t right. Even though it wasn’t right, I had to get it out of my system so that the next book could come out. So I do have a drawer that’s full of old “dummy books” that either got rejected or nothing ever came of them and who knows maybe twenty years from now I’ll go back to it. I still have all these other stories in the pipeline that are just blips of ideas in my sketchbook that will probably come in the future. But who knows, you have to be very patient with the stories. It’s a very organic process so you can’t really just force it. I try to have a bunch of ideas going at once and eventually the idea that is ready to come out will come out and hopefully get picked up.
CCB: I read a quote from an article on your site that said you, "Never wanted to fall into a gimmick or rely on the same tools or follow a recipe." Does this mean that you will never consider putting out a series from one character like Monkey Boy?
JK: Especially while I am at the start of my career, I have wanted to create different worlds. I think what I was trying to communicate through that quote is that I am trying to brand myself as Jarrett J. Krosoczka, this guy who creates great books. I didn’t want to be the guy who just created Monkey Boy. I wanted to build up my name as something where if I came out with a book you would recognize it and you would be excited. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t work on a sequel. I’ve put together a sequel to Punk Farm. My philosophy has become that if at the end of the story the character’s problem is resolved there might not be any need for a second story because it might just water down the first story. So for Baghead at the end of the story he takes the bag off his head, he gets the crazy hairdo stuff, and beyond that I’ve never had an interest to do a second book. Even though a lot of kids have asked me to do a second book because kids tend to go back to that as one of their favorites. I have really enjoyed the homemade Baghead sequels that kids have put together on their own and shown me and they are far more creative than anything I could ever do. But with Punk Farm I just really fell in love with these characters and it’s this weird emotional attachment you get because you are spending so much time with these characters, you really get to know them. I pitched a sequel but they want to see how the book does in the market place first before they would pick up a second book. I am though, in the process of creating a graphic novel, which potentially could be a series. That has the potential for being something that will be episodic because I think the nature of the story would lend itself to that. That project is set to launch in the fall of ’07.
CCB: I read that you said you have about a three month window to succeed in book stores and that you really have to fight to have your book displayed as opposed to just having it be in a shelf with just the binding being visible. So how do you as an author/illustrator go about helping your book be successful? How do you fight to have it get displayed?
JK: Well in terms of getting it to be displayed, that’s usually a decision that comes from the individual bookstore or in the case of a book chain, it probably comes from their corporate headquarters. In terms of what do I do to help my book succeed, that’s just getting out on the road and doing book signings and readings. Basically the reason why that is important is because it helps the current book and also when another book comes up maybe a year or two later they remember meeting you and they might be more apt to pick it up.
CCB: How does that feel when you see that?
JK: It’s awesome. I always creep into bookstores. I have to go and see if they have my book and typically when I am walking towards the section and I can see it from maybe fifteen feet away I get so excited, it’s such a cool feeling. I have this tradition where the day a book comes out, the day it is officially released, I go into a bookstore, find it on a shelf or sometimes I ask someone to help me find it and I just say, “I am looking for this book. I’m not quite sure who wrote it but this is what its called,” and then I’ll often watch them butcher my last name and people will always not knowing it’s me say, “Oh that’s a weird name.” Then I’ll pay with my credit card, sign the slip, and walk out totally undiscovered. It’s amazing, the first time I ever walked in and looked under K and found my book. I can never describe that feeling, it was just so exciting. It always is exciting to see your book, but the very first time I was just beside myself, I couldn’t believe it.
CCB: Is there anything that people would be surprised to learn about your career or has anything about writing children’s books surprised you?
JK: People are typically surprised by the amount of time it takes. It takes a year for a book to be released once you have finished the art. Probably what surprised me the most was the waiting part. It was toughest with my first book where I was waiting a year for it to come out. Now I have so many projects going that all of a sudden I’m finishing up a project and a book is coming out in two weeks and it totally sneaks up on me.
CCB: I know that you have spent many summers as a counselor at The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, how did you become involved with the camp and what have you learned from your time there?
JK: When I was sixteen I was a part of this group in my high school where they sent kids up to this camp in Maine called Camp Sunshine and that was a camp for kids with cancer and their families. It totally changed my life because everyone has problems in life and you focus on your own problems but when you work with kids who are sick you suddenly realize how inconsequential your problems are. It was through that camp that I heard about The Hole in the Wall Gang and it was amazing for me to think that I could work there for the entire summer and that would be my summer job. These kids are just regular kids and they never complain about their own issues or their own problems. Really what I got the most from them was their spirit of life. For me when I was submitting my work and getting rejected, I would always bring my projects to camp and show them to the campers, and they would give me encouragement because I could see that they were really responding positively to my stories. With the slug book that is being picked up, I have former campers who are now eighteen and in their early twenties who remember the book from when they were campers and they are psyched to see that it’s finally getting published. I also made some of the best friends in my entire life from working with the other counselors. It’s nice too since my schedule is very lenient I still volunteer two or three weeks during the summer, my job affords me the freedom and flexibility to do that.
CCB: A journalist described your characters as, “rugged individualists,” explaining that they display a great deal of personal empowerment. Is that how you would describe your characters?
JK: That was an amazing article because every now and then I get an article written about me that helps me understand myself or my work so much better. That whole interview process with that reporter was neat because I didn’t realize how much I actually do pour myself in to my characters even if it’s sometimes subconscious. Yes I would describe them as rugged individualists and I think that often times people are trying to ask what’s the moral of the story and I never write with the intention of giving a moral. For me I try to create stories about characters that are slightly off. They’re funny in their own way and if anything I want kids to be able to identify with the characters and also hopefully want to read more and possibly write on their own and draw on their own as well. Generally the kids in my stories are full of life and spunk and are kind of wise guys, but never to the point where it’s totally disrespectful.
CCB: What do you hope to accomplish during your career and what can we expect from you in the future?
JK: Honestly I just hope to continue to do what I am doing, creating solid stories with pictures and words. I think you can expect more picture books, you can expect a graphic novel, and for that I was looking through old pictures and artwork I did as a kid and realized that I grew up doing comics and I hadn’t done them in so long. Who knows down the line? I am starting to be approached by producers who are interested in taking the books and turning them either into television shows or movies. I’m very overprotective of my books. Like I said before, Baghead takes the bag off his head and there’s no need for a second book let alone a TV series about Baghead. That just doesn’t make sense to me, but if the right person had the right thing to say about the right book, I think I’d be very open to doing that. I’ve gone back and forth with it over the years because I remember at one point I said, “No, it’s a book and it’s going to stay a book,” but at the same time I realized that television or film isn’t necessarily bad. It could be really great, but when I step out of my little safe zone of the book world, it makes me so nervous because I don’t have control over my characters anymore. No matter what they tell me I have, I really have no say in the end. When you are working on a book you are asking someone to invest say a few hundred thousand dollars to make this book happen so you are given a lot of creative license. When you’re suddenly asking someone for an amount in the millions, you’re not going to have as much creative control, so if I ever moved forward with any of that it would be with very small steps. Basically what you can expect from me is you can expect more books. That is the bottom line.
* Interview conducted by Michael Maniaci
Find out more about Jarrett at his web site: studiojjk.com
Visit The Hole in the Wall Gang to see how you can help children with cancer and other serious diseases: holeinthewallgang.org