Chris Raschka and Jon Klassen: A Caldecott Conversation
Chris Raschka: Do you remember the first moment you thought that you might like to make a picture book?
Jon Klassen: I went to school for animation, but I remember a day in my college apartment when I’d bought a whole pad of multicolored construction paper and I drew a picture of two kind of crappy monster-looking things running at each other and I wrote in between them “It would be the best fight”. Even though it was just fooling around, I remember liking what text brought to the picture, and how it sort of took the load off the drawing. After that I started doing lots of one-off pictures that had captions next to them, and learning out how text can really augment or even contradict the picture. This is something that can’t really be applied in animation, though, so while I was in school and working at studios afterwards, it always just felt like fooling around. Later on, when I got my first offer to do a picture book with Cats’ Night Out, it was so fun to begin to use some of that stuff I’d been trying out on my own – framing text and using it to bounce off the pictures.
It was really exciting.
Were books always in the back of your mind when you were starting out or did you come to them as a the result of other interests?
Raschka: When I first seriously considered pursuing a career in art, that is, I’d burnt all my other bridges, I really had no idea what part of art I would follow. All I really knew was that I liked to paint. At that point I had sold some landscapes and one magazine cover. Over the next few years, I concentrated on selling more work to magazines and newspapers, which I did. And then I picked up Vladimir Radunsky’s book, The Pup Grew Up!, from a stack of faced-up books on a table in the old, the original, Borders Books in Ann Arbor. And I thought, “This is what I want to do.”
I had no idea really about children’s books at all, how they were put together, etc. But at least I suddenly knew what I wanted to do.
Is there something you tend to do first, after switching on the light, feed the pirhana, say, when you walk into your studio, if you have a studio?
Klassen: I work at home, mostly, and I always boil water for tea first thing. This is much more about habit than anything else, though. I probably only make tea out of it half the time and I only drink the tea half of that. I think I just enjoy putting a kettle on the stove to boil, and having something warm in the room. I like the sounds and the gas going on and all of it. It sounds like waking up.
Are there weird comfort things like that that work themselves into your day? Things that don’t really practically apply to work or anything but are sort of designed to help keep a routine throughout the day?
Raschka: Most definitely. I, too, put on the kettle. In my case, the electric kettle. My studio is in an apartment building fourteen blocks from my home. I sweep the floor. And I poke around at, or water, or feed, the cactuses on my window sill. Then I pour the water over coffee in the coffee funnel, take the cup over to my tippy swivel chair, and sit and stare out the window for way too long.
During the course of a day, do you like to balance creative work—drawing, painting, printing, doodling, writing—with administrative work—mailing things, putting things away, cleaning the bathroom, answering questionnaires, or do you kind of binge on one type of thing or another?
Klassen: I’m still figuring all of that out. I’ve heard of people allocating certain hours to certain things, but I haven’t gotten there yet. I think it helps to have only one job, though, so you can organize it. I take on other types of jobs, animation stuff, that requires I kind of be in touch all day sometimes, so it’s harder to get a routine down when that stuff is going on. Someday, though, it would be great to have a whole thing where you wake up and warm up with drawing or something and then answer some mail and then do a book page a day. I’ll probably get one perfect day like that and then I’ll die.
Were you good at the administrative thing right away? All the other stuff besides the actual working on a book? I guess that question includes correspondence and even touring. So much of the extraneous stuff seems to require different skills that aren’t necessarily built into whether or not books are your thing, I’m finding.
Raschka: Oh, yes, all the other things. Doesn’t it seem like everybody else does all the other things perfectly and with ease and you still have no idea what you’re doing and you’ve been at this for years? I should speak for myself. I think finding the balance in the external things is one of the great challenges of the freelance life. Lordy, I sometimes wish I had a boss, or a time clock to punch out of. I do try to live by the clock of my own making, and when I do I generally feel best. Funnily enough, I’m writing these words in a non-sanctioned other-things time of my week. But it’s the day after New Year’s, we have guests staying with us from Vienna, my son is home from college (he’s studying animation, by the way) and this morning I woke up at four remembering that I had promised to finish these answers by Christmas. But then, I am always tinkering with my schedule. Some day I too hope to find the perfect mix. But I will say, as a reminder to myself, that crafting a well-balanced day, and working day to day, leaving the grand scheme to take care of itself, is all that is required.
This is sort of like the last question, except just focusing on creative work. Do you mix things up, working on several projects at once throughout a single day, or do you just work on one project at a time, each day, or over the course of the life of the project?
Klassen: I usually end up working on several projects during a day, but it’s not necessarily a preference. It’s amazing when the schedule allows you to sit down and just work on a book all day. It’s like a luxurious bath. It’s the kind of day you dream about when you first get into books – just quietly getting it done. That being said, there are a lot of advantages to working on a few things at once. It gives you fresh eyes on a thing to try a different medium for a while. It reminds you of how great books are. I’ve found that generally it’s good to get out of the form you’re working in and look outside of it for reminders of what’s exciting about it. I’m beginning to look at other illustration less than I used to, partially because I worry that I’ll incorporate other people’s solutions to problems that I should come to on my own, but also because I really like finding threads of things I’m thinking about in other mediums altogether — photography, for example. I don’t know much about taking photographs, though, technically. I wish I did.
Are there other things like that that you go to? Are there other areas you wish you could get into?
Raschka: Yeah, I agree. Mixing it up can help. On the other hand, sometimes I’ve found the proper expression by simply going on and on, over and over, on the same thing, until it finally looks like what I want. So hard to know when to stop. I think maybe the only thing I would like to do more of is simply painting outside. Painting landscapes and cityscapes. Walking around and then sitting down somewhere and painting. Kinda sentimental I guess, but that’s what I like to do.
What is your favorite brush, favorite pencil, favorite paint, favorite computer, favorite paper, favorite pencil sharpener, favorite eraser, favorite sketch book?
Klassen: I used a big fat Chinese ink brush for the silhouettes of the animals and the plants in the hat books. I get the ink and paper and brushes in chinatown at a paper store for super cheap. The paper seems to be the most important part. I always like paper that has some noise in it, but not too much tooth because if it’s going to be reproduced in a book later, I want it to look like it suits the kind of paper the book will be printed on. My favorite pencils are these silver “Progresso” kind I found at an art store around here. I like a 9B. A good trick is to keep a roll of magic scotch tape around, and go in on the pencil drawing afterward and pull up some of the graphite. It looks great. I bought an electric pencil sharpener this year, an X-acto kind, for the first time – it plugs into the wall and everything. It’s life-changing. I use a Mac and Wacom, either my old little tablet or a Cintiq. My Mac tower has been busted for a while so I’m just running everything off my laptop.
Is there one tool or one technical thing that changed your work, or enabled you to do things you might not have tried without it?
Raschka: Wow, 9B. That’s heavy, man. Very heavy. I like the scotch tape thing. I’ve been doing something similar with watercolor. Painting a large splotch and then pulling most of the pigment off with a kind of tissue paper. I started doing this because sometimes the back side of the paper looks better than the front. Also, kind of along the same lines, I’ve painted recently in a very non-authentic kind of way on Japanese rice paper. I’ve just kind of soaked the paper in watercolor, heavy water, heavy pigment. Then let it dry all wrinkled and even tearing. And then glued it down on bristol board. I’ve just completed a book for Liz Bicknell at Candlewick on the musician and visionary, Sun Ra, a book which I’ve been working on for many years, in this manner. Very messy. As far as tools that changed my work life, maybe it’s hand grinding sumi ink. For better and worse. I wonder if I should get an electric pencil sharpener. I have a pretty nice Berol Giant hand cranker that I’m quite fond of.
Do you sit, stand, or lie on you belly to work, or what?
Klassen: I sit on a high desk chair with a pillow on it that my mom made me. It’s an old drafting chair and the height isn’t adjustable, and it’s a little too high for the desk I have and my legs get comfortably pinched against the underside of the desk. The chair is on little wheels and one of them falls out of the chair whenever it gets a chance, which is always catastrophic, and happens at least 4 or 5 times a day.
Do you have a window where you work? If there is, what’s the view? If there isn’t, what’s your favorite thing hanging on the wall?
Raschka: I like the wayward wheel. That sounds hilarious, and possibly dangerous. My view here is quite lovely. I’m on the fourth floor in an old Art Moderne building of Manhattan, which has the wrap-around the corner windows. My corner is to the Northeast, into the courtyard of my block. So I can stand at the window and count the water towers (9), look into people’s windows, (the neighbors have had their baby), study the back yards, (the building at 367 is still covered in scaffolding and a black shroud and I assume the long-suffering renters are still on a rent strike). Also, the birds are nice.
What is the best thing you have done in the last month, not directly related to your work, i. e. you ate a triple scoop—lemon, coffee, marzipan—ice cream cone or you went scuba diving off the coast of Nebraska or something?
Klassen: I got to be in New York a few weeks ago when the leaves were all changing and I took a walk through the park and ate a cup of instant noodles by the skating rink. It doesn’t get much better than that. What’s your favorite lunch?
Raschka: Favorite lunch: big slab o’ rye bread, hunk o’ hard cheese, butter, my own pickled peppers. mm mmm. That’s it. Happy New Year. Now back to my well-balanced day. What do I do next!!!!!!!??
I’d like to thank Chris Raschka and Jon Klassen for participating. I’d also like to thank Laura Rivas for her help in making this interview possible.
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About Travis Jonker
Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.
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