“Whatley allows children to explore [the original fairy tale] on one level while enjoying a fractured fairy tale on another.” Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“This book will be of great help in starting discussions on what an illustrator does. The pigs expressions are priceless.” School Library Journal
Bruce Whatley is the illustrator of many popular and award-winning books, including The Teddy Bears' Picnic, There Ain't No Bugs on Me, What Will You Wear, Jenny Jenkins?
and Captain Pajamas,
which he co-wrote with his wife, Rosie Smith. He lives in Australia.
Questions and Answers with Bruce Whatley...
Q: What do you like most about writing and illustrating children's books?
A: A picture book is a great showcase for an illustrator. Usually you have a canvas of 32 pages to play withplenty of room to create a world of your own and tell a story or voice an idea. But I also like to play with the format of a book. Though a book is full of two, dimensional art, it is actually a three-dimensional object. It has a front, a back, and a middle. It can pop up, pop out, and even prop up a leg of a chair. It can make you laugh, make you cry, and maybe even make you think.
I mainly like to make people laugh. I like to entertain but subtly take the reader somewhere unexpected. You can't beat a good twist at the end, and I strive to make those last few pages a total surprise.
Q: When did you start to write?
A: My first book, The Ugliest Dog in the World, came out in 1992. Before that I worked in advertising as an art director, writing and painting only occasionally. I worked on a variety of accounts creating press, print, and television advertising in London, England, and later in Sydney, Australia. When I look back at the TV commercials I wrote, I realize that all along I was actually writing children's books -- I was just in the wrong medium.
I don't actually know alot about writing. I couldn't read until I was ten, and even now I don't find it easy to read. Yet I have developed a passion for writing and telling stories, and I'm learning more and more about the craft of writing all the time.
Q: Where do your ideas come from?
A: Most of my ideas come from my family. Many are generated with my wife, Rosie Smith, who has written several books with me. Rosie and I will keep bouncing the idea back and forth, sometimes the kids throw in an idea or two, and eventually it grows into something tangible. Then I grab a notepad and start playing! In some cases, like with Captain Pajamas, it just comes out of the blue.
Q: What are your main influences as an illustrator and author?
A: My biggest influences have been the early-American artists like N. C. Wyeth, Joseph Leyendecker, and Maxfield Parrish, and among my contemporaries, Chris Van Allsberg and William Joyce. I love the worlds they create.
But television has also been a big influence. Like many people in my generation, my childhood evolved around black-and-white television-Roy Rogers, The Lone Ranger, Rocky and Bullwinkle. It may just be nostalgia, but there is something innocent about the '50s that has a particular appeal.
Movies and television are still a big influence. Detective Donut and the Wild Goose Chase is actually a spoof of the movie The Maltese Falcon with Humphrey Bogart. The back, grounds are all based on scenes from the movie, and the goose is actually a cross between Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre.
Q: How do you go about illustrating books by other authors?
A: Even when I illustrate someone else's story, I am always looking for my own story to tell. The Night Before Christmas is a good example of this. I picked up on the line "Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread." I thought it might be a bit scary having a rather large gentleman covered in soot, carrying a big sack, come down your chimney. So when St. Nick comes down the chimney, he sees on the mantel an old photo of a little boy dressed up as a cowboy. He asks the dad if it's him. The dad is still a little unsure of St. Nick but he admits that it is of him. St. Nick then reaches into his sack and gives him a toy of his childhood hero (Roy Rogers).
Q: Which book of yours is your favorite?
A: It would have to be Whatley's Quest. It started out as a simple alphabet book -- a vehicle for me to explore my abilities as an illustrator-and it turned into a mega journey that is still continuing today. Quest is a journey through the alphabet in search of a hidden treasure: the ability to read. That is what the alphabet gives you. It was the hardest story to write, and yet it has no words. The idea was that I supplied the pictures, and children could make up their own stories. Each page is linked to the next and is full of verbs, adverbs, adjectives, and nouns for the children to locate and link together for themselves.
Q: Why do you illustrate each book in a different style?
A: Different styles suit different stories, depending on content and the intended audience. I also love to experiment and push my abilities to the limit. I find illustrating to be a continual learning process. Usually by the time I've finished illustrating a book, I've thought of a better way of doing it.
I wanted to illustrate The Night Before Christmas in oil paint. I completed the cover and three inside spreads before I realized it wasn't working and I reverted back to my old favorite, gouache. I didn't have the experience to paint in detail with oils. A year later I was determined to use oil paint for The First Noel because it would give me the rich depth of color I felt the story needed. I experimented, changed my technique, and found a way of doing what I couldn't do the year before.
Q: What is your next project?
A: It is curious how characters simply sketched on a sheet of paper become such close friends and often take on a will of their own. They will no doubt find a way to escape! I'm working on several picture books right now.
I have also always had a strong interest in animation. Most of my illustrations are animated in that they capture the moment just before or just after something has happened. I can see some of my work going in that direction.