Seven Questions Over Breakfast With Scott Magoon

h1 November 12th, 2008 by jules

When I asked author/illustrator Scott Magoon about his breakfast-of-choice so that we could chat about his work this morning, wouldn’t you know he invited us all over to his place? And then when he threw down his breakfast-of-choice, I had to gather myself together. I’ve read some pretty great breakfast responses since I started interviewing illustrators in this series of sorts here at 7-Imp, but THIS MAN AND HIS FAMILY KNOW HOW TO EAT, I must say: “My wife and I make the most delicious breakfasts here at home, so you’re all invited over! French toast and Frittatas or maybe omelet with pretty much anything in it. Fruit, hash browns, and a huge pot of French Roast coffee. The darker, the better; the stronger, the better. Maybe a smoothie. My wife also makes amazing smoothies.”

Yeah, you read that, too. I’m not seeing things, right? That’s a veritable feast, and did he even say “the darker, the better; the stronger, the better” about his coffee? Have mercy and amen! I’m having to fan myself now.

The other reason I’m excited he’s here to chat is because I’ve been following his career as author/illustrator, and I like what he does. I also really, really love this guy, who was, arguably, The Most Unforgettable Picture Book Protagonist of 2006:

That’s Ugly Fish, the star of—you guessed it—-Ugly Fish (Harcourt). He sprung from the mind of author Kara LaReau (and the pen of Scott), and he’s merciless and selfish and annoying and mean — and has no tolerance for cute, little fish. This book is wicked funny; I don’t even want to tell you what happens, since discovering it for yourself could be one of your week’s joys (and also since I’ve run my mouth about it before here — and even in the Slightly Demented Picture Books post Adrienne and I drafted earlier this year). For Scott to have debuted as an illustrator with that book (well, it wasn’t technically his debut, but we’ll just run with that), which Kirkus Reviews likened to a Gorey, Dahl, or Belloc title . . . well, Scott got my attention right away.

Since that time, Scott—who works as an associate art director for the children’s book division of a major publisher—has written and illustrated a tale about a very creative (and very blue) pachyderm artist in an “elephunk,” needing a new perspective on how he sees his world, in Hugo and Miles in I’ve Painted Everything (Houghton Mifflin, 2007):

…and illustrated the story of a little girl named Katerina-Elizabeth who, on a long trip to Scotland, repeatedly tosses her oatmeal overboard and, unbeknownst to her, attracts to the ship a tiny sea worm, who eventually grows to mammoth size, in The Luck of the Loch Ness Monster (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) by A. W. Flaherty:

…and illustrated a story for, once again, Kara LaReau, this year’s Rabbit & Squirrel: A Tale of War and Peas (Harcourt), a cautionary tale about…well, melt-downs between neighbors:

Scott’s latest title is called Mystery Ride!, published by Harcourt this month. Remember being a child and being completely and helplessly at the whim of your parents’ schedule, having to do dreaded errands with them, whether you wanted to stop by the tool shop and the laundromat and the bank and the grocery store and the library and the mall or not? That’s what this one is about, and it’s very funny. And it manages to be all about and entirely on the side of children, yet closes with a word of wisdom from the parental point-of-view, which makes me want to clap and yell AMEN a lot. I haven’t tested this on a group of children yet, broken it during a story time of any sort, but I can say that my own children find it hysterical and, with my help, created their own melody for the “Mystery Ride!” lyrics inside. Good times.

I like Scott’s work, because his cartoon-esque style of illustration is playful without being cloying, he always has fun with perspective, he always surprises you on page turns with his comic details (and his anthropomorphic animal characters just have a certain something about them that gets kids…well, giggling), and you never know what he’s going to do next. And the titles he does with Kara, in particular, are your nice antidote to some of the painfully saccharine picture books out there on the market. Or, as the Three Silly Chicks put it in their review of Rabbit & Squirrel from earlier this year:

Once upon a time, there was a lovely, fluffy pink and sparkly book about a happy rabbit named Rabbit and her best friend, Squirrel. This is NOT that book.

THANK GOODNESS!

We Chicks love sweet fluffiness in our cupcakes. We do NOT love sweet fluffiness pressed between the covers of a book. It makes the pages stick together and that makes us cranky.

We love books that tell us a good story in a funny, smart, and slightly mischievous way. Rabbit & Squirrel: A Tale of War and Peas is such a book.

So, let’s get the basics from Scott while we set the table here for our seven questions over breakfast, and I thank him for stopping by. Rather, for letting us stop by for his family’s lovely feast!

* * * * * * *

7-Imp: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Scott: Illustrator/Author. Although I am working on writing more and have a degree in English Literature, I spend much more time per day drawing and thinking about design to not consider myself an Illustrator first and foremost. I would like to see more of a balance between those two disciplines, though, some day in my life.

7-Imp: Can you list your books-to-date?

Scott: Baby Berlitz Board Books (2005); Ugly Fish (2006); Hugo and Miles in I’ve Painted Everything (2007); The Luck of the Loch Ness Monster (2007); Rabbit & Squirrel: A Tale of War and Peas (2008); Mystery Ride! (2008).

7-Imp: What is your usual medium, or -– if you use a variety -– your preferred one?

Scott: This varies, depending on what the manuscript suggests to me. I start with the line quality. If it’s a nervous, slightly edgy story, then a nervous, thin caffeinated line with pen à la Ugly Fish. Soft and sweet friendly story works well with pencil, a la Hugo and Miles. Historical setting? Crow quill pen for The Luck of the Loch Ness Monster. Warring woodland creatures? A dirty and distressed fat black brush line, seen in Rabbit and Squirrel. The manuscript tells me what sort of line and, therefore, what sort of medium I use to create it. All of my color is digital color with a few scanned in textures here and there.



7-Imp: If you have illustrated for various age ranges (such as, both picture books and early reader books OR, say, picture books and chapter books), can you briefly discuss the differences, if any, in illustrating for one age group to another?

Scott: I did do a series of three board books for babies and toddlers for Berlitz publishing awhile back and found myself boiling my art down and down and down to big shapes of color to appeal to very young readers’ eyes. {Ed. Note: Illustrations below.} Aside from that example, where there was almost a biological need for very simple shapes, to me the difference comes and really depends, though, on the manuscript and what it calls for visually. I really let the manuscript lead me as best as I can, which means I trust the author and editor to have presented me with age-appropriate materials and I can sort of work however I see fit within their story.

7-Imp: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Scott: I live in MA, several miles north of Boston, but I consider myself a son of New England. I was born in Melrose, MA, which is even closer to Boston, but spent elementary years in southern New Hampshire, Middle and High School years in central Maine, and have been here in Mass. since college at Northeastern University. My wife’s folks live in Connecticut, and so we spend a good amount of time there as well.

7-Imp: Can you briefly tell us about your road to publication?

Scott: I always, always loved to read, write, and draw. When I wasn’t reading a Hardy Boys book or a The Three Investigators tale, I used to write mystery stories for my second grade newspaper — though how my made-up sleuthing qualified as news I am not sure. Maybe the editors/my peers thought it was true?! Anyway, I remember in Kindergarten drawing Spiderman on carbon paper to be run through a mimeograph machine (an old copier for you youngsters out there…ha) as part of a craft hour. I had a weekly comic strip in the Northeastern News called Duct Tape Man. But I guess it was more recently my true path to publication began in earnest. A few years back I was a book designer at Candlewick Press. The brilliant Kara LaReau was an editor there. She and I had a good working relationship; we had worked on a number of books together at that point and knew that I liked to draw and wanted to break into the industry as an illustrator. I came up with some character sketches for her Ugly Fish story, showed them to her. She loved them and insisted I send them to Harcourt. Allyn Johnston and Andrea Welch loved them as well and the rest, they say, is mystery.

7-Imp: Can you please point us to your web site and/or blog?

Scott: www.scottmagoon.com. I’m also on Facebook, which I update regularly.

7-Imp: If you do school visits, tell us what they’re like.

Scott: I have done a few. In addition to book signings and fan e-mail, school visits for me keep me honest and keep me coming back to my drawing table and computer night after night after night. School visits are nerve-wracking when I arrive at the school, but once I’m in the class and in front of the kids and we’ve sort of hit our stride together — they’re asking questions, or drawing along with me — it’s priceless. A typical visit might find me coming into the class, introducing myself, reading a book or two and then I do a drawing demo…how to draw Ugly Fish using only six letters for example. I also have done a “here’s my sketch, here’s the final art, here’s the proof, here’s the book” sequence as well and they seem to dig that, i.e. didn’t lose consciousness. One time a kid in the audience asked if I had taken my limousine to the school. I told him no, but my helicopter was waiting for me on the roof.

7-Imp: If you teach illustration, by chance, tell us how that influences your work as an illustrator.

Scott: I don’t teach now, as I don’t have the time, but I used to teach “a how to draw comics” class to grade schoolers, which was pretty fun. Teaching both reinforces what you know and gently punishes you for what you don’t — which can give you reason to get out there and learn more mighty quickly.

7-Imp: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell us about?

Scott: I am fortunate enough to have a few in the works. Due out next year, I have a book called Otto Grows Down, written by Michael Sussman. That story is wild, a real trip through time and space and, I think, into uncharted picture book territory, which always appeals to me, pushing the envelope (if not my luck) a bit.

{Ed. Note: Two illustrations from Otto are pictured below.}

I am also really excited to see Spoon come out next year {pictured left}. Amy Krouse Rosenthal wrote that manuscript and she is, to me, one of the most talented writers writing for kids today.


Mmm. Coffee.Okay, the table’s set. We’re good-to-go with our big, wonderful meal and strong, dark coffee. Mmm. And we’re ready to talk more specifics…

1. 7-Imp: What exactly is your process when you are illustrating a book? You can start wherever you’d like when answering: getting initial ideas, starting to illustrate, or even what it’s like under deadline, etc. Do you outline a great deal of the book before you illustrate or just let your muse lead you on and see where you end up?

Scott: I read the story several thousand times. I try to design characters individually before I start any sketches, as I believe character design is at the heart of what picture book illustrators do. I also start to collect reference materials very early on, both from online and from libraries, a good amount of which I never ever use, but it makes me feel better to have on hand. I make a few notes and sketches on the manuscript, noting a few visual ideas or ‘moments’ that leap out at me or call for its own illustration, or page turn or some other treatment of note. I’ll then set up a dummy in InDesign, which is page layout software, much like Quark. I copy and paste a spread’s worth of text from the manuscript word doc into the InDesign document and roughly place that on the pages. I’ll keep this up until I hit thirty-two pages or forty pages, depending on the length of the book. I’ll print those spreads to fit on 8.5×11 pages, which means they are greatly reduced from their final size. I’ll sketch on those for a few weeks in all of my “free time” until I have a very rough idea as to what goes where — how the type fits, what to depict, etc. It helps me greatly to have these layouts reduced as I sketch, because it forces me to focus on big picture — the spatial relationship of type and art, the pacing, and so on. It’s at this stage of the whole process I find to be the most fun and free, as it lets me take chances and think in broad conceptual and creative strokes.


Sketch for Hugo and Miles

Once I’ve got a sense of what goes where and the pacing and the character design, I flesh out the sketches a bit more so that they make visual sense to other readers. Many of my early sketches are super loose and really look like a ferret on a triple espresso scratched them with a stick. I like to at least get the sketch dummy to where my editor and designer can figure out what I’m thinking for a given spread. It’s then that I’ll send them in to the publisher. They take some time with them, send them on to the author for comments. Once I have their comments back and we’re all on the same page as it were, I will go to final art. This means I’ll trace my sketches onto art board or paper using a light table, refining them at that stage even further. I’ll then have the line work hi-resolution scanned, which takes several days. I get those scans back and I’ll color them using Photoshop CS3 and sometimes Painter. I will also scan in a ton of textures and found objects and work them in to use as elements. I might also distress my line to give it a little texture. It’s so important to me to get digital art to appear to have a “natural” look to it, which, to my eye, means scratching and wearing it with texture. It’s really all an illusion, but then again, as Michaelangelo lamented, all illustration and painting is illusion. We’re trying to capturing three — and sometimes four dimensions — in 2. Which is why he preferred sculpture, even as an accomplished painter by day. Poor guy…if he only found his calling.


Two sketches for Ugly Fish

Speaking of day jobs, I have the privilege of serving as the Art Director at Houghton Mifflin Children’s Books department during the day, which I love. It does, as you may expect, take a good chunk of time and a great deal of creative energy every day, and so I do my drawing at nights after my family goes to bed (I’m writing this very late at night, for example) and during their naptimes on weekends. It feels a bit like a triple life, and it makes for very interesting situations.

Anyway, a bit about working under deadline: it keeps me from overworking my illustration. It keeps me moving forward in a very practical way and from my perfectionist tendencies. In other words, if I know folks are waiting on me, I am much more apt to do the very best I can within a set timeframe as efficiently as possible. If I had all the time in the world, I’d still be working on Ugly Fish and it wouldn’t have turned out as spontaneous and manic as it did, which in my opinion served the book for the better. But, all the same, there sure are times when I wish I had another two or three months, to finish something: don’t we all?

2. 7-Imp: Describe your studio or usual work space for us.

Scott: Did you ever read the Cask of Amontillado? My studio is a small antechamber in the basement and quite like the setting from that story. Minus the Amontillado. Seriously, though, it’s due for a renovation, but in the meantime it has two windows, a fireplace, mantle, and some friendly spiders. Conversely, in my day job at Houghton Mifflin, I have a beautiful office that once belonged to the legendary Walter Lorraine until he retired last year. The windows are floor to ceiling and overlook the lower half of Boylston Street into the Public Garden and the city of Boston. The two workspaces sort of balance each other out.


The Studio of Amontillado


The Houghton Mifflin office

3. 7-Imp: As book lovers, it interests us: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

Scott: Authors: Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, Shel Silverstein, Dr. Seuss, Franklin W. Dixon (well, okay, the Hardy Boys series), Judy Blume, Stephen King, Sid Fleischman, Norton Juster, Stan Lee, Roald Dahl and Ray Bradbury. Illustrators: James Marshall, William Steig, Lynd Ward, Eric Von Schmidt, Garth Williams, Richard Scarry, Jack Kirby, Quentin Blake, Charles Addams, and Mr. Maurice Sendak. I’m sure there are plenty more I’m forgetting.


Scott’s sketch of a building on the Harvard campus

4. 7-Imp: If you could have three (living) illustrators or author/illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?

Scott: If I could go back in time and pick four: James Marshall, Charles Addams, William Steig, and Mary Blair. Since I cannot (but will list four): Maurice Sendak, Simms Taback, Tomi Ungerer, and J.K. Rowling.


Spread from The Luck of the Loch Ness Monster (Houghton Mifflin, 2007)

5. 7-Imp: What is currently in rotation on your iPod or loaded in your CD player? Do you listen to music while you create books?

Scott: I am a fan of jazz music and of the old crooners, so those genres are always in the mix. I also kick it with some ’80s tunes. I also listen to many audio books and podcasts, including The Classic Tales podcast by B.J. Harrison, which is this guy reading well-known but often forgotten stories from literature every week. His most recent was The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Great stuff.

6. 7-Imp: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Scott: I am a lefty.

7. 7-Imp: Is there something you wish interviewers would ask you — but never do? Feel free to ask and respond here.

Scott: “Can I buy you lunch?”


Another image from next year’s Spoon (Hyperion) by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Scott: “Yes.”

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Scott: “Bills.”

7-Imp: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Scott: A sunny dry day, about seventy degrees, or a rainy day after many sunny ones. A fire in the dark under stars. The Boston Public Library in the middle of the day when there’s some time done and some time to come. The city, late, late at night. The night and the reclusive race to get it right before its over.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Scott: Fear. Ignorance of oneself in others. The phone.

7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Scott: “Nuts!”

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you love?

Scott: The laughter of my whole family.

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you hate?

Scott: June bugs. Because their buzzing means it’s hot outside. I’m not a heat person.

7-Imp: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Scott: Crooner.

7-Imp: What profession would you not like to do?

Scott: Driving instructor or reality show cast member.

7-Imp: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Scott: “Hi. You rocked it. Do you have any questions you’d like me to answer?” But I hope to God that He can think of something even better.

* * * * * * *

All photos of Scott and his sketches and school drawing and such (with the exception of the coffee mug) courtesy of Scott Magoon. All rights reserved and all that good stuff.

UGLY FISH by Kara LaReau. Illustrations © 2006 by Scott Magoon. Published by Harcourt. Posted with permission of illustrator. All rights reserved.

Illustrations from HUGO & MILES IN I’VE PAINTED EVERYTHING © 2007 by Scott Magoon. Published by Houghton Mifflin. Posted with permission of illustrator. All rights reserved.

THE LUCK OF THE LOCH NESS MONSTER by A.W. Flaherty. Illustrations © 2007 by Scott Magoon. Published by Houghton Mifflin. Posted with permission of illustrator. All rights reserved.

RABBIT & SQUIRREL: A TALE OF WAR AND PEAS by Kara LaReau. Illustrations © 2008 by Scott Magoon. Published by Harcourt. Posted with permission of illustrator. All rights reserved.

Illustrations from MYSTERY RIDE! © 2008 by Scott Magoon. Published by Harcourt. Posted with permission of illustrator. All rights reserved.

All other illustrations (SPOON and OTTO GROWS DOWN and BABY BERLITZ) published with permission of illustrator. All rights reserved.

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20 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast With Scott Magoon”

  1. What a great interview! Of course, I hadn’t eaten breakfast when I started reading it, and my stomach commenced growling so powerfully when I read about Scott’s breakfast that I had to go eat. (Sadly, I had to settle for toast and jam–both homemade, though.)

    You know I love Ugly Fish, and I’m also a fan of Rabbit & Squirrel. I’ve missed some of these other ones, though, so I put them on hold. I’m looking forward to Spoon, too. I agree about Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s general awesomeness.

    And, OMG, don’t you just want to run out and find a piece of paper freshly out of the mimeograph machine? Remember that smell? Those machines were so much better than photocopiers.


  2. I’m totally in Swoonville again. Love love love this interview — such articulate, insightful, detailed answers. What beautiful spreads you posted, too!! Maybe you can guess my favorite: it rhymes with swoon. And what amazing sketchbooks!

    Going to have my cheerios with amontillado from now on!


  3. I love Scott’s artwork! His sketchbooks are awesome. Eldest is a wannabe artist, and I can’t wait to show her these illustrations.

    As for that mouth-watering breakfast, if only we knew where he lived…


  4. Sheesh. How is it that I missed this yesterday? Now I’m all bloaty from a huge Italian-restaurant lunch and am having a hard time, if you want to know the truth, savoring the wonderfulness of Scott’s breakfast.

    [Hmm. And yet, and yet…]

    The artwork is fabulous. That one of the little girl scrunched down in the big armchair — the filename indicates it’s from the Loch Ness book: the expression on her face is priceless. I don’t even know the context, but when I look at this picture I think of that old saw, y’know, “When you look up ‘gobsmacked’ in the dictionary, this is the picture you see.”

    A couple of other artists I thought of as I looked through this: David Macaulay (the sketch of the Harvard building) and Bruce McCall (the ship steaming gigantically, epically away from the Loch Ness monster-to-be).

    Agree with jama about the sketchbooks (though I’ll stop short of endorsing the Cheerios-amontillado combo). After seeing the sketchbooks you’ve featured here in 7-Imp interviews, I am sorely tempted to try building a sketchbooks collection.

    Thanks, Scott (and Jules!), for a wonderful interview!


  5. Thanks, you guys. John, you didn’t miss it yesterday, ’cause I posted it later at night.

    I always look forward to what Scott does. I’m eager to see Spoon and Otto.


  6. Holy smokes, I am SO excited about Spoon! love this interview with “Scotty”. I especially love to see the sketching and basement! I, too was a basement dweller for years. Yay radon! Can’t wait to see more from Scott.


  7. Love Scott’s art! Personally, the Rabbit and Squirrel spreads are my fave, gotta love buck-tooth squirrel going to brush his teeth.

    Two days later and I’m still hungry for that breakfast!


  8. another fabulous interview. I’m compiling such a list of picturebooks–my nephews are going to rake it in this year if I manage to get even a quarter of them!


  9. Another amazing interview. I particularly enjoy the sketchbook stuff, and seeing the workspaces…love those behind-the-scenes glimpses.


  10. Psst.

    Scott’s going to be illustrating one of my upcoming pbs with S&S. It was listed in this week’s PM and is called MOSTLY MONSTERLY. I am mostly thrilled out of my mind!


  11. Congrats, Tammi! Very good news, indeed.

    Thanks to everyone for stopping by for breakfast with us!


  12. Jules,

    Thanks for this interview. I absolutely love Scott’s illustrations for THE LUCK OF THE LOCH NESS MONSTER! It was one of my favorite pictures books published in 2007.


  13. Great interview, Scott, you are the Jack Parr of children’s books! Can’t wait to croon over MYSTERY RIDE ~ you did it!! Otto’s mom looks awfully familiar : )) Congrats!


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