Describe your new book.
My latest project is the recently released book Skelly and Femur, a follow-up to Skelly the Skeleton Girl, released in 2007. In the book Skelly the Skeleton Girl, Skelly found a bone and tried to solve the mystery of where it came from. In Skelly and Femur, things have gone missing in Skelly Manor. Skelly's missing the buttons off her dress, her dog Femur is missing his bone, and it seems most of her friends are missing something, too. Why have so many things gone missing? That's the mystery waiting to be solved within the pages of Skelly and Femur.
What movie character is most like you?
I would choose Mikey from The Goonies: a total misfit who gave himself the title of a Goonie because of his misfit status, but who has a small cluster of close-knit friends whom he cares deeply about. Or maybe E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, a character not of this world whom few understand and who has gifts he thinks are ordinary that others find extraordinary. Or Frankenstein, a creature unsure of why he's here, and who does not understand that there is a dark side to people — a fact that leads to his eventual demise. Possibly Luke Skywalker, a farm boy from a small town, much like myself, who has big dreams with no idea how to make them a reality. Edward Scissorhands? A character that looks a bit scary on the outside while inside he's shy, caring, and talented.
It is interesting to look at all of these characters and to feel a connection with every one of them for the same reason. They're outcast, misunderstood, gentle, and almost naive when it comes to the intent of others. I think most of us have felt a connection with characters of this nature at some point in our lives. I believe that's what makes these characters endearing and relevant to so many people, myself included. I've learned it's okay to be the misfit; it's the misfit who is the most interesting character of most stories, the one who gets to go on incredible adventures. Yes, I'm fine with my misfit status.
How do you write?
About five years ago, I was diagnosed with dyslexia. By the time my diagnosis came, I'd learned to cope with the effects of dyslexia, more or less. The form I have not only mixes up letters and numbers, it visually causes me to see only a single written word in my center field of vision, while those around it are jumbled and distorted. It also makes it close to impossible for me to retain or understand formulas such as those found in mathematics and grammar.
Once people know of my dyslexia, the first question they ask is "But you're a published author. How do you write?"
When I get an idea for a story, it does not present itself in words; it comes to me visually — I see the story in images. My notes for a book are not words, but a series of sketches, which allow me to think the story through. I often sketch key characters and environments before ever writing a single word. At this stage, I draw storyboards (a series of drawings that depict the entire story from beginning to end) of the book like I would do for animation. I then design a rough ride version of the story just as I would an attraction for a theme park, as I did when I was an Imagineer at Walt Disney Imagineering. This provides me with a clear visual script to see if the story is conveyed clearly through the staging, layout, and color of the images. From here, the writing starts in earnest, and the words and images begin to intertwine to tell a single story.
Why do you like Halloween?
Let me start by saying I don't like Halloween, I love it, and here are some of the reasons why: The amazing plethora of colors of foliage on trees this time of year. Watching the Halloween special It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Going to the pumpkin patch to pick out my collection of pumpkins for the year. Carving my pumpkins and watching them magically glow when a flickering candle is placed within. Decorating the house with my giant collection of vintage Halloween decorations. Having a Halloween celebration to share all of these things with my friends.
It's the magic of season, the colors, the traditions, and the Halloween icons that have connected so deeply with me, and as a result, these influences appear continuously in different forms throughout my work. Besides, who doesn't like to be safely frightened one night a year by someone creating a little bewitching Halloween mischief? Not me.
What was your favorite story as a child?
I was introduced to James and the Giant Peach in the second grade. My teacher read the book aloud to us one chapter each day during daily story time, sharing the illustrations on the pages as she read us the story. From the first day, when she read the opening line, "Here is James Henry Trotter when he was about four years old," my imagination was ignited, and I have been enamored with the book ever since. Seriously, as I sat at my desk listening to the words of the book and viewing the illustrations on the pages, I wondered to myself, who wouldn't like to be taken away from the trials of their everyday life on a giant peach flown through the sky by a huge flock of lassoed seagulls on their way to a great adventure?
One element I find brilliant about this book, and most of the works by Roald Dahl, is Dahl's ability to present stories that are a bit off-kilter, and somewhat spooky, all the while making them accessible to readers of any age. He makes the frightening and scary palatable and even enjoyable for the reader, letting them know it's okay to be scared, it's part of the story.
Equally balanced in the original edition of James and the Giant Peach are the illustrations created by Nancy Ekholm Burkert, which perfectly complement the words of Roald Dahl. They are atmospheric, moody, and dramatic, containing wonderful characters and environments, some of them breathtakingly beautiful. The majority of the illustrations are black and white, yet ever so cleverly sprinkled throughout the book are illustrations tinted with limited color, mostly the color of peach. The color is subtle and used for dramatic effect quite successfully, showing the immense talent of Nancy Ekholm Burkert in the creation of her illustrations.
I still have my original copy of James and the Giant Peach filled with the magical words of Roald Dahl and the equally magical illustrations by Nancy Ekholm Burkert. For me, the two will never be separated, and the book first introduced to me so many years ago during storytime in my second-grade class continues to inspire me today.
Why do you like color?
Color is one thing I find more interesting than plate tectonics or even dinosaur bones.
There is a psychology to color and it is so exact; people use it to influence you every day. Did you know retail stores know which colors get you to stay in their shop and make you spend more money? Restaurants know what colors to use to make you want to sit and relax and eat more? Did you know it is someone's job to sit down every year and decide what next year's color trends will be? They are deciding what color you will be told is the new must-have color, which is ironic, because there are no new colors, just new marketing of color. Their choice will be told to fashion designers, interior designers, furniture designers, magazines, and so on, and they will all work together to convince you what color is the new color of the season.
How does color affect the storytelling process? Profoundly, people see color and they feel it is emotional effects, often without even knowing it. Color can tell a story on it is own without the use of words. Color can make you feel happy, sad, frightened, comfortable, and relaxed. Pretty amazing for something we see everyday and don't think much about.
Is your life as glamorous as it looks?
People often think a career as an author, artist, illustrator, and designer is pretty glamorous. I can see how it may appear to be so, but the reality is very different from the romantic images it conjures in one's mind.
A typical workday for me is 12 to 14 hours of work, and I rarely make it to bed before one a.m. every evening, or maybe that should be morning. This time is divided between dealing with clients, art directors, and editors, and illustrating, designing, writing, and painting. The combination depends upon what I need to accomplish at any given time. My workdays are all seven days of the week. I don't have weekends off. Deadlines are often on Mondays, which means I have a lot of crunch time on Saturday and Sunday.
Is this a complaint? Not really. It's simply the reality of the work I do and the process it requires. Is it a lot of work? Yes it is, a lot more than most realize. It is more then just sitting at my desk drawing and painting whatever pretty pictures I want to create for the day, which does sound dreamy, I admit. Is it worth it? When something you do does not connect with the public, it is heartbreaking. When something you do connects with the public, yes it is nothing short of amazing. It is even more rewarding when people tell me I've inspired them to draw or paint, and when children come to a book signing or send me drawings they've done of some of my work because they enjoyed it so much. Those times make all the hard work and long hours worth every moment.
Dreams and Stuff
I was raised in a trailer park in a tiny little Oregon town. I never thought I'd be able to achieve my dream. My dream was to be an Imagineer at Walt Disney Imagineering; that's what I always wanted to become. When the time came for me to go to college, I went to a small local college where we shared our career goals upon entry. After weeks of classes, a professor who was well known for his paintings of ducks, we'll call him Mr. Duck, was determined to bring me to deal with reality. During the middle of class, Mr. Duck decided to use me as an example of someone not facing reality in choosing their career goals. Mr. Duck's dictation to the class went like this, "Jimmy Pickering here" — pointing at me as if I were on the witness stand — "thinks he's going to walk out of this school and into the front door of Disney Studios and be the king of the world starting at the top of the ladder. What he doesn't realize is Disney gets hundreds, if not thousands, of portfolios from around the world every day. What makes him think they're going to look at a portfolio from someone who comes from a small town in Oregon? I'm here to tell you they won't. With the high caliber of portfolios coming in every day, they pick only the cream of the crop. His portfolio won't get a second look. It's time for us to focus and work towards careers based in reality, not frivolity." This speech was given to my class while I sat in my chair being spoken of as if my dreams were on trial, feeling totally humiliated.
Did this devastate me? Of course it did, and I often wonder how many other students were stopped from achieving their dreams by similar speeches given by Mr. Duck. Luckily for me, after the initial devastation dissipated, his rhetoric did not destroy me; it motivated me to leave the school and apply for the school I dreamt of attending, California Institute of the Arts. My first application to California Institute of the Arts was accepted, and I attended the School of Film and Video, studying character animation. When I left college, my first job was my dream job. The kid from the little town in the middle of nowhere, the kid Disney wouldn't give a second glance to, was hired as an Imagineer at Walt Disney Imagineering.
Why am I sharing this? Because I know just like me there are people, both kids and adults out there who are reading this blog, or maybe the reader of this blog has a child or a friend or a friend with a child, who think they cannot achieve what they truly wish for in their heart.
I'm here to tell you: Yes, you can. If a little boy from a tiny town, living in a trailer park with severe undiagnosed dyslexia, can achieve his dream of becoming a Walt Disney Imagineer, then go on to become an illustrator for Hallmark Cards, an art director for Universal Studio, a fine artist, a children's book illustrator, and a published author, you can achieve your dreams, too! I don't care what age you are, you may be in grade school or you may be a grandparent, your dreams are achievable.