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19 Questions with Author and Illustrator Bob Staake

April 8, 2013

Today RAoReading welcomes Bob Staake to the blog, you may recognize his work from children’s books, New Yorker covers and countless advertising images, and did you know that his picture book The Red Lemon was named a New York Times Best Illustrated book? Tomorrow Bob’s latest book, BLUEBIRD will be in bookstores and libraries. We’ll be very surprised if you don’t run to your bookstore and get your own copy after reading what he has to say here.


Tell us about the inspiration for Bluebird?

The idea for the story of BLUEBIRD came to me as I walked through Central Park one spring. I studied the birds, watched the kids playing, marveled at how beautiful New York looked on that April afternoon and felt I could meld all of that into a multi-layered story about friendship that could be embraced as both tragic and triumphant. I started to think about what first grade personally felt like for me and once I started mining those memories, I pretty much saw the entire story played out in my mind. I took the train back to Providence and by the time I arrived home in Cape Cod, I had the story finished. Little did I realize that it would take me another 10 years to finally show it to Lee Wade or Schwartz & Wade/Random House. Even though the story was unlike any book I had ever done before, Lee saw something timeless, unique and uncommon in BLUEBIRD and she wanted to publish it. For that I will forever be grateful.

Did you set out to create a wordless picture book?

I recall making a conscious effort to set a couple poetic restraints on myself when creating BLUEBIRD. First, I wanted to see if I could tell the story using no words at all. Secondly, I wanted to force myself to turn away from my trademark Technicolor palette and simply use grays and blues. I would have thought that those constraints would have really hampered my writing/illustration style, but I never felt restricted at all. Instead I theatrically blocked out the book using a jumble of wordless, duo chromatic frames, and I was pleasantly surprised at how well everything flowed.

Building a Better Bluebird

Your art can be seen in many places, New Yorker covers, advertising, and of course books, what’s your favorite assignment?

It sounds trite, but I honestly look forward to tomorrow’s assignment as my favorite. I’ve never been an artist who has rested on his laurels and looked backwards. To me, it’s the challenge of doing something new, unexpected and scary that inspires me. Few things intimidate artists more than that blank piece of paper staring back at them, but I see that stark whiteness as my playground of self-surprise. Few people on this planet are given a daily blank canvas on which they’re asked to create, so I embrace, savor and dive face first into every one of those experiences

What is one thing about you that would surprise your readers?

You mean besides the fact that I bake the most insanely decadent double fudge chocolate chip cookies in the history of cocoa? Probably that when I work in my studio I can go 20 straight hours before realizing that I’ve been obsessively working there without music or NPR in the background. I guess I just have this strange, non-artist ability to hyper-focus – and, happily, I have little control over that. Oh, I was also detained by the Secret Service for “wandering” into Richard M. Nixon’s San Clemente estate, given a federal citation for climbing the Lincoln Memorial, and accidentally drove off the Grand Canyon in 1978.

Do you use social media? If yes, how do you feel about the role social media plays in your writing/artistic life?

I’ve never been a big “joiner”, but I joined Facebook very early – and it didn’t take me long to develop a following of 5000 fans. Within the Facebook community I seem to have this reputation for consistently posting daily cleverness, goofiness, and sometimes, marginal inappropriateness. My followers absolutely love that, so my page reads as a constantly active, wildly kinetic playground. Oftentimes, I’ll post a few sketches of potential book covers or preliminary pages to gauge audience reaction – to learn that EVERYone has an opinion. If an author is clever, quick-witted and fully engaged with his followers on Facebook, it can prove to be an incredible forum to connect with their fans – and generate new ones.

What has your favorite book event experience been?

I was honored to be asked to create the poster for the Los Angeles Times 2012 Festival of Books and as part of that was asked to speak at my alma mater, USC. It’s always great to meet fans, but even better to meet people who you grew up with who buy your books for their kids and grandkids. I’ll be going back there again this year as part of my book tour for BLUEBIRD and really look forward to it.


What book made the strongest impression on you as a child?

When I was a kid I read a Little Golden Book about Popeye. Popeye sat in a small rowboat in Kansas and had to get to the Pacific Ocean, so he did the obvious; he dug a 3 foot wide trench heading west, it filled with sea water when he got to the California coast, and then he could effortlessly pilot the boat through his manmade transcontinental canal. I was transfixed by those picture book images of Popeye single-handedly solving a seemingly insurmountable problem. It was that book that made me think, “I wanna write and draw stories like THAT when I grow up.”

What was your favorite genre to read as a teenager?

I was a huge “looker” as a teenager. For me, I always saw looking AS reading, and I would gain as much insight, knowledge and inspiration from viewing the illustrations, photos and graphics in a book as I would from reading the words.  One of my biggest regrets these days is that parents and teachers don’t elevate the importance of LOOKING as a crucial in helping develop a child’s love of books. We emphasize words, but sometimes we fail to recognize that those images on the pages are just as important in the complete literary experience.

Did you always want to be an artist? And how did you enter the children’s book world?

We have Super 8 films showing kids doing cartwheels, jumping jack and handstands in front of my father’s camera — and then I proudly enter the frame showing off a coloring book page smeared with crayon. I wasn’t sure if I would be a painter, cartoonist, architect, writer or designer, but I always knew that I would be some sort of an artist. As a freelance illustrator for 35 years I had always been hired for one book publishing project or another, but in 1998 I started creating board books for Simon & Schuster. The imagery in the books was created digital in Photoshop 3.0, so for the time they were considered pretty cutting edge — but I used them as a learning experience and stepping stone into the world of picture books. Today I write and/or illustrate 4-5 picture books a year, which sounds unusually prolific, but I’m fortunate to be a very fast worker (even though I STILL use Photoshop 3.0).

What’s your favorite snack food when you’re working?

Wait a minute – you mean I’m allowed to snack? Did I miss a memo?

Do you always work in your studio or do you have other places where you create?

I used to have eight computers in 3 locations; 2 homes and 1 studio. It was brutal because even though I could transfer files back and forth via ZIP drives (remember those?), it drove me crazy never knowing which version on which computer was the most current file. That all changed in 2004 when we decided to move full-time to Chatham, Massachusetts. I then had only one computer in one studio to worry about – and I honestly think isolating my work activities to one small 20’x12′ building lead to an explosion in both my creativity and productivity.

Do you have favorite music to listen to when you work?

I’m pretty politically involved so when I remember to listen to radio, I always listen to news on NPR or the BBC. In terms of music, it’s everything from The Talking Heads to Steely Dan, Dave Edmunds to The Clash, Raymond Scott to X.

We call your books children’s books, but do you think they’re for adults too? And do you have this in mind when you’re working on the books?

Never in the history of publishing has a 4-year-old walked into a bookstore and laid down $18 for a new picture book. Never happened. It’s adults – parents and grandparents – who purchase these books for their kids, so they’re the ones I try to first appeal to. Reviewers have always pointed out that there’s something “retro” and familiar in my children’s books, a sort of “vintage” kid book look that I don’t believe isn’t conscious, but in ways may very well be. I guess that makes my work appear “assuring” to adults and maybe when they then give my books to their kids they’re impressed that their reaction to my art and writing is even more positive. The fact that my books seem to have this broad appeal among multi-generations has always made me very, very happy.

Sketch from Bluebird

What is one piece of advice you would like to give to aspiring authors?

Constantly write. Don’t fixate on ONE story, find that one and then move on to the next 15. You’ll never learn how to write books for children unless you find a way to develop some sort of “creative momentum” within yourself that compels you to tell one story, then another, then another. Honestly, you really need to write 50 so-so stories, 30 okay stories and 20 good stories before getting to that one GREAT story.

Do you ever experience writer’s block?

Never. I know that it is a ubiquitous problem among artists and writers, but thankfully I have never suffered from an inability to come up with ideas.

Do you have favorite part of the book making process?

Few things make me happier than when I finish a book and then have to design its end papers. End papers are often overlooked by both the publisher and reader, so I make it a point to create very elaborate, geometric and kinetic ones that can’t possibly be ignored. I do that because it’s those end paper that quite literally hold the pages of a book together — so for that alone they demand respect.

Do you have any characters that sneak into other books? If yes, have your readers noticed these little cameo visits?

Every time I place a cook in a scene people think it is the hero from ‘The Donut Chef’. I’m certain I’ll now be hiding bluebirds in my future books, but more often than not I sneak in visual puns, subversive asides and graphic nods onto my pages. Even though I have to put myself into the mind of a 5-year-old kid when I create my children’s books, I remain an adult – so I enjoy finding small ways to acknowledge all the moms and dads who find themselves reading my stories to their kids. Making adults smirk when they spot a pig reading a copy of ‘Gone With The Swine’, a hunchback wearing a Notre Dame football helmet or Steve Jobs using a Red Delicious apple as a cellphone – these are just fun things that I hide in my books to keep myself entertained.

What are you working on now?

I’m about to start the color art for MY PET BOOK for Golden Books. It’s a rhyme about a boy who doesn’t want a puppy or a kitten, he wants a book as a pet. For a true bibliophile there are some great scenes in the book, so I can’t wait to dive into it.

Is there anything that you would like to say to your readers and fans?

All the work I do would be pointless were it not for all of you. Thanks so much for being so supportive, encouraging and for inspiring me to write the next 100 stories – as I search for one great story.

                          The Red Lemon                   Donut Chef

Many thanks to Bob Staake for joining us today.

Please share your thoughts in our comments section.


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