100 Scope Notes
Inside 100 Scope Notes

A Conversation with Kate DiCamillo and Chris Van Dusen

For author Kate DiCamillo and illustrator Chris Van Dusen, August 26th marks a triumphant return to the Mercy Watson Universe. That’s when Leroy Ninker Saddles Up, the first book in the Tales from Deckawoo Drive series is released. It’s also the first time since the Mercy Watson series wrapped up 2009 in that readers get a chance to revisit that cast of characters. I talked with DiCamillo and Van Dusen about the new series, the joy of inventing words, and cars with tailfins.

Travis: There are a great deal of distinct characters in the Mercy Watson Universe – how did Leroy Ninker end up starring in the first book in the Tales from Deckawoo Drive series?

Kate DiCamillo: Oh, good, I’m glad that you think that there are a lot of distinct characters in the Mercy Watson Universe, because that’s where I’m coming from, too. Leroy is the first to get his own story. Next up is Francine Poulet, the dedicated and valiant Animal Control Officer. And after that, the long-suffering Baby Lincoln gets her own story. In each of these stories, Mercy Watson shows up, one way or the other.

Compare how you worked with Chris on Leroy Ninker to, say, how you and Alison McGhee worked with Tony Fucile on the Bink & Gollie series.

Kate: The fabulous thing about Chis and his artwork for these books is that my characters are his characters. And by that, I mean: I write toward his vision.  I think, oh boy—Chris is going to bring Leroy back to life. And then I think, oh he is going to have a field day with this old horse (Maybelline). It is fun to see the characters so clearly in my head at the same time that I get to create new characters that Chris will bring to marvelous life.

Chris, how did working with Kate on this first book in the Deckawoo Drive series differ from Mercy Watson? Or was the process the same – right back into the swing of things?

Chris Van Dusen: Illustrating Leroy Ninker Saddles Up was pretty similar to illustrating the Mercy Watson books in that I didn’t have direct contact with Kate during the process, which is typical. And the look of the characters was already established from the original series, so I didn’t have to worry about that. But there were a couple things that made this project a little tricky.

First and most importantly, I have a hard time drawing horses! They are really difficult! All those knees and ankles and hooves- they’re tough! After several sketches, I finally got it.

I’ve heard that horses are difficult to draw! There’s even a website devoted to it. What went into creating Leroy’s horse?

Chris: Horses are extremely hard to draw! Horses and cats! That’s why you rarely see horses or cats in any of my books. To create Maybelline (Leroy’s horse) I looked at photographs of horses and printed out some reference pictures from the web. I studied the early western illustrations of N.C. Wyeth. I also referred to some of the preliminary sketches that the Disney animators created for their films. Those helped me get the cartoony look I wanted. Finally, after dozens of scribbles, I found my horse – lovable, mangy, swayback Maybelline.

My second challenge was, I had to figure the best way to produce black and white artwork. All the interior illustrations are black and white. I ended up creating the artwork the same way I did for the MW books, using gouache paint, but instead of a full palette of colors, I used just two colors- black and white. The final paintings have all the richness of my full color paintings and I’m really pleased with the way they turned out.

What creates more internal distress – making your own book, or illustrating someone elses? Or are you not an internal distress sort of person?

Chris: I wouldn’t call it internal distress, but the deadlines can be a little stressful! And whether I illustrate my own or another author’s story, the approach is pretty much the same. I try to make each picture as interesting and entertaining as possible. I make sure to vary the size of the characters, show them from all angles and use different lighting and perspectives to keep the pictures fresh.

As soon as I started reading I noticed Leroy Ninker Saddles Up is for a slightly older audience than Mercy. There’s more text and fewer illustrations. How did that decision come about?

Kate: This is one of those things that I wasn’t smart enough to think of on my own (much in the manner of having graphic sequences in Flora and Ulysses—not my idea!  Loved it!). I turned in the first Leroy Ninker story and it was written in the manner of a Mercy Watson (short, repetitive sentences; same length as a Mercy manuscript) and Karen Lotz (President and Publisher at Candlewick) said, “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun if these books were the next step up from reading a Mercy Watson book?”

I loved the idea and it just opened a whole door in my brain. I have had the best time working on these stories.

It shows. You introduce the word “instinctuals” in Leroy Ninker Saddles Up. This follows on the heels of another creation for Flora & Ulysses – “bagumba”. Question: exactly how many words are you going to make up in your career?

Kate: Can you believe I get to do that? I am nowhere near done.

Speaking of done, is there any sort of goal for the number of books in the Tales from Deckawoo Drive series?

Kate: So Leroy gets the first book. Francine and Baby are next up. And I have a good draft of a fourth book (I won’t tell you who it is about until I am done). I would like to do two more—six total.

That would pair well with the six Mercy Watson books.

Well, we’ve reached the crucial 1/6th mark of your Ambassadorship – how’s it going?

Kate: Well, aren’t you better suited to answer that question? Would you give me a gold star? Would you?  Huh?

Gold star for sure!

Kate: All I can tell you is that it is an honor and I am having fun and that seems like a fabulous combo to me.

Chris, has it been a pain referring to Kate as “Your Eminence” now that she’s the National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature?

Chris: I was so excited to hear that Kate was the new Ambassador. I can’t think of a better person for the job. I made a congratulations card for her that showed Leroy Ninker yelling, “Yippie-i-oh! Way to go!!” She’ll be great.

Chris, when you are not drawing, what is your favorite thing to do? Why do you love it?

Chris: When I’m not drawing or writing, I love to get outside. My wife and I try to walk or take a bike ride each day. I also play a little tennis and golf, but not at the same time.

If you could magically inhabit the head of one illustrator, somehow experience life through their eyes, a la Being John Malkovich, who would it be?

Chris: I’ve always thought that if I could DRAW like any other illustrator, it would be Carter Goodrich. What an incredible draftsman! His characters blow me away. And if I could PAINT like any other illustrator, I would choose J.C. Leyendecker. His paintings are so lush and gorgeous.

I need to know this, Chris: do you own a car with tailfins?

Chris: No! I wish! The closest thing I had once, was a 1959 Chevy Pickup painted bright aqua. It was so cool looking but it kept conking out on me. But I love tail fins. I think they need to make a comeback.

Kate, humor ain’t easy – what (or who) makes you laugh more than anything else in the world?

Kate: Oh boy, well.  Laughing is one of my favorite things to do. It is my official hobby. I have a few friends that make me laugh very, very loudly on a regular basis. Also, um, have you ever seen Planes, Trains and Automobiles?

I have – I love that movie.

That never fails to make me whoop. I am also hopelessly devoted to Loony Tunes.

Thank you Kate and Chris for taking my questions! Thank you Tracy Miracle for arranging the interview.

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 scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.