Seven Questions Over Breakfast
with (Wow!) Robert Neubecker

h1 November 18th, 2008 by jules

{Note: Don’t miss the Winter Blog Blast Tour 2008. Read here for more information over at Chasing Ray.}

I was all prepared to tell you about Robert Neubecker’s wonderful brand-new illustrated title, Monsters on Machines (Harcourt), a rhyming picture book written by Deb Lund, which “has just about everything a child could hope for,” in the words of Publishers Weekly (as in, hilarious, creepy monsters—with names like Stinky Stubb and Dirty Dugg and who eat things like Monsteroni and cheese during their lunch break—on construction equipment and building a Custom Prehaunted “with thistles for lawn”) . . .

. . . when I realized that he’s got more than one illustrated title out this year. Shows you what I know. But I’m glad I figured this out, since I love me some Robert Neubecker art.

If you haven’t already recognized his inimitable style—his bright, uncluttered images which nearly jump off the page with their energy—then you’ll likely recognize his Wow! titles, the first one being Wow! City!, which was his 2004 debut to children’s lit (though, as you’ll read below, he’s been an editorial illustrator for over thirty years). And what a debut it was: “The illustrations are full of life, action, and detail,” wrote School Library Journal; “filled with energy and excitement, this works as a travel guide for the very youngest readers and fun title to share for programs and lap-sit reads,” wrote Kirkus; and “children should adore exploring the numerous details of each scene…” wrote Publishers Weekly. Wow! City! was also named as a ALA Notable Book Award recipient. Illustrator wannabes, I would think, would do well to study Robert’s expert and playful use of color, shape, bold lines, perspective, and composition (especially amongst all the action on the spreads) in the eye-popping Wow! titles. Here’s a bit from each one:

From Wow! City! (Hyperion, 2004)

From Wow! America! (Hyperion, 2006)

From Wow! School! (Hyperion, 2007)
{I totally want to get Robert’s permission to put this image on
this page of our site, but I digress . . .}

Robert’s illustrated many other titles in between and around the more well-known Wow! titles, ones you don’t want to miss: Even though Kirkus was writing about Wow! School! when they wrote, “Izzy’s embrace of school is 100 percent genuine, 100 percent kid,” I’d say all of Neubecker’s titles are thusly child-centered. Each book exudes a real joy, and his art work is a visual delight.

And, as for those other titles he illustrated this year (and, oh yeah, DON’T MISS Monsters on Machines), there’s Brod Bagert’s School Fever, a collection of poems providing a child’s-eye view of school (Dial, July 2008), and I Got Two Dogs with John Lithgow (Simon & Shuster, October 2008):

Robert’s joined me for breakfast this morning. He’s got his “oatmeal with blueberries and a touch of maple syrup”, to which I say, Mmm. Good choice. Let’s get the basics from Robert while we set the table here for our seven questions over breakfast, and I thank him for stopping by.

* * * * * * *

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

Robert: I do both. I love writing and illustrating my own books, but it’s also great fun to illustrate a book by a good author. I always learn something new.

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


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

Robert: I do all of my drawing by hand, and I use the computer for my color, unless I do straight watercolor as in Beasty Bath and Hattie Hippo. The hand-drawn line with brush gives me a nice, thick, expressive stroke that reminds me of the sound of a bass fiddle or guitar. With the computer, I can use very bright, pure color with the line to create all the other notes. I often choose color by their CMYK formulas to get the purest form possible.

Illustration from Beasty Bath (Scholastic, 2005)

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?

Robert: Age range? I guess there are more words in the older books.

7-Imp: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Robert: I lived in Manhattan for most of my adult life, but I’ve been in Utah for almost fifteen years now (I’m all grown up). I have a lot of moose living next door. I’m on a hill, in the woods with a pretty view of the sunrise over the mountains. We ski and hike here, a lot.

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

Robert: I’ve been an editorial illustrator for over thirty years. I was told, early on, that I had no talent as a kid’s book illustrator and should stick to grown up stuff like politics and economics.

This I did, until I had kids. They essentially write my books for me. I dummied up a few, made a portfolio, and took them to New York to show the publishing houses. My agent made the appointments for me. Nothing happened by just sending stuff around. It wasn’t until I showed up in person with my portfolio that I landed my first book.

Robert’s “Sideways” poster. He writes at his site, “I will never again have to explain what I do other than to say; remember the Sideways poster?” The poster won “the Key Art Award for Best Comedy Poster of 2004—the Oscar of movie posters.”

An editorial illustration for Slate Magazine: “Swing states.”

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


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

Robert: I read to little kids. They ask questions that are better than those asked by my college students. I don’t have a dancing chicken act.

Back cover of Courage of the Blue Boy (Tricycle Press, 2006)

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

Robert: It makes me realize how much I actually know about this profession. Also, I pick up tips on software.

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

Robert: Yes, but I can’t tell you. It would spoil the fun.

Two illustrations from next year’s Air Show with Treat Williams (Hyperion, 2010)

Mmm. Coffee.Okay, the table’s set. We’re good-to-go with our oatmeal, and I’ve got my usual coffee. Have coffee, will interview. And now 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?

Robert: I first figure out the dimensions, then make a spread template. I print out a few dozen of these and do a rough storyboard of the entire book, changing and improving as I go. I end up with a miniature dummy and sometimes make them into little, hand-made books. I submit this to my editor for comments, and then go onto a larger, more detailed set of sketches. These can go quickly or have lots of revisions, depending on the story—characters, complexity, etc. When everything’s approved, I trace the sketches directly onto watercolor paper and draw the final image with a brush, keeping it loose and fresh.

The final drawing is scanned into my Macintosh, and the color is added digitally. I’ve recently started using a Wacom tablet, thanks to a student intern I had, and it makes everything much easier.

Foreman Gorbert from Deb Lund’s Monsters on Machines (Harcourt, 2008). Robert writes at his site, “When I was in Milton Glaser’s class, he often talked about the power of ‘big heads’ as imagery. From that, I developed the dictum; ‘When in doubt, draw a big head — if that doesn’t work, draw Elvis.’ I pass this along when I teach.”

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

Robert: I have a dream studio, actually. I had lived in lofts in New York, mostly when they were cheap and funky, so when we built our house, I added a 750 sq. ft space with high ceilings over the garage. I have one big, long white wall that I can put pushpins in and another wall of windows that overlooks my town and the Uinta mountain range beyond. I have room for all my books and wonderful natural light all day.

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

Robert: Probably the most important book I read as a kid, other than Fish Head the Cat (#1), was The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo. The story was great, sure, but it opened a door into the everyday life of the Middle Ages and kindled, in me, a lifelong love of history. Earlier, it was comics. I spent all of my allowance on comics, D.C., Marvel—my sisters had Archie and Disney covered. Classic Comics, too—any story that was drawn. For kid’s books: Dr. Suess, of course; A.A. Milne; E.B. White; Babar. My mother read Narnia to me at night. We do that now for my daughters. I really got into pulp science fiction big as a teenager—like four books a week big. After that, I became a history geek.

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?

Robert: Theodore Geisel, Tomi Ungerer, Garth Williams, E.B. White, Charles Dodgson, A.A. Milne, and Winsor McCay. They’re not all strictly alive, or three, but then I don’t much drink wine, either.

Robert’s poster for the Arizona Theatre Company for a play about Ann Landers

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?

Robert: No. I have the news or business channels on TV. Or NPR, or classical, especially Mozart. I don’t know how to work an iPod.

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

Robert: I’m blind in my right eye. That’s why all the scratches are on that side of the car and the mirror’s broken.

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

Robert: No, not really.

Another image from Courage of the Blue Boy (Tricycle Press, 2006)

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Robert: “Love.” It sounds sappy, I know. Imagine a little heart drawing. Health can fail; financial security can come and go. In the end, all that we have are those we love and those who love us; love for our work and play and for God’s creation.

I visited an AIDS ward back in the ’80s when there was no real treatment. No one there was ever getting out. There was a fierce little vet junkie who’d lost his arms and legs to a landmine. There were two guys who played cards and looked exactly alike, as we all do when the flesh has wasted away and only skin over bone remains. One man’s skin was black and the other’s white as snow. There were men painfully young, no more than boys. They loved each other. They joked and laughed and shared stories. They were overjoyed to see me. The nurses were inspired. You could feel, all around you, the love they had for these guys. It filled the room. They seemed the prettiest nurses in New York, glowing with a transcendent grace. All were apart and above the ebb and flow of ordinary life, a little universe where nothing was left but people caring for one another.

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Robert: “Fundamentalist.”

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

Robert: Being with and trusting other people. Being alone with nature in the mountains, in the ocean.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Robert: Ignorance.

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

Robert: When I was a kid, I went to a military school run jointly by the Episcopal Church and the U.S. Army. I could construct a complete sentence in nothing but curse words, without repeating a single one, before I was twelve. This was inconvenient when I was teaching at Brigham Young University.

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

Robert: Waves on shore, falling snow.

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

Robert: Cars crashing.

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

Robert: Sailboat skipper.

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

Robert: Javelin catcher.

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

Robert: “You again?”

* * * * * * *

All photos (with the exception of the coffee mug) courtesy of Robert Neubecker. All rights reserved and all that good stuff.

MONSTERS ON MACHINES by Deb Lund. Illustrations © 2008 by Robert Neubecker. Published by Harcourt. Posted with permission of illustrator. All rights reserved.

Illustrations from WOW! CITY! © 2004 by Robert Neubecker. Published by Hyperion. Posted with permission of illustrator. All rights reserved.

Illustrations from WOW! AMERICA! © 2006 by Robert Neubecker. Published by Hyperion. Posted with permission of illustrator. All rights reserved.

Illustrations from WOW! SCHOOL! © 2007 by Robert Neubecker. Published by Hyperion. Posted with permission of illustrator. All rights reserved.

I GOT TWO DOGS by John Lithgow. Illustrations © 2008 by Robert Neubecker. Published by Simon & Schuster. Posted with permission of illustrator. All rights reserved.

Illustrations from BEASTY BATH © 2005 by Robert Neubecker. Published by Scholastic. Posted with permission of illustrator. All rights reserved.

Illustrations from COURAGE OF THE BLUE BOY © 2006 by Robert Neubecker. Published by Tricycle Press. Posted with permission of illustrator. All rights reserved.

All other illustrations published with permission of illustrator. All rights reserved, dear readers.

22 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast
with (Wow!) Robert Neubecker”

  1. WOW! Sock-me-between-the-eyes color and energy! I want to live in that dream studio and see some moose.

    Fascinating interview. The airplanes are my favorite. And I agree. Love is the best word.

  2. Wow, we love the Wow books! The mulitudes of individually distinguishable people in them is incredible. They have a Where’s Wallace aspect to them as well that will have you hunting through the pictures.

  3. Fabulous interview. And, I agree, I covet that studio with a passion bordering on the sinful…

  4. Love Robert Neubecker’s work, and love the way his illustration work (especially the kids’ books) informs his editorial/commercial work, and vice-versa.

    Milton Glaser’s “you can always fall back on a big head” advice just cracked me up.

    I notice one recurring element in these interviews: they (almost) ALL name Tomi Ungerer as one of the three living authors or illustrators they’d love to share a glass of wine or a coffee break with. If he wanted, on this evidence T.U. could go without purchasing food or drink for the next 10 years! (Either that, or he’s reclusive as heck.)

  5. WOW! Color!
    I am just gobsmacked yet again by what we as humans will tell each other: Oh, you’re no good at doing anything with kids, stick to what you know with economics and politics.

    And I’d like to stride up to that soul and say, “WOW! IDIOT!”

    Okay, that wasn’t nice.
    And children’s lit is all about nice.
    So, I will say that of the WOW pages, Books and Teacher are my VERY favorite, followed closely by Art and Space… and then Ann Landers. How cool is that? I love this man’s creativity.

  6. Thanks, all.

    I’ve always loved that the teacher in Wow! School! has blue hair.

    And now I love Robert’s response to the favorite-word Pivot question. I swear, I wanna create a list of The Top-Twenty Best Pivot Answers in 7-Imp’s Short History of Existence, ’cause there have been some pretty good ones, including that one.

    TadMack, I wish children’s lit was all about nice. I’ve heard some not-nice stories. Anyway, I’m with ya on the “WOW! IDIOT!” How about “WOW! IMBECILE!”, ’cause can you imagine if Robert had not also turned to children’s books? Then we wouldn’t have his wow spreads to look at.

    John, yes, I’ve noticed that Tomi Ungerer trend, too. How influential his work has been.

  7. WOW WOW WOW!!

    Thanks for the tour and the great interview!

  8. Wow! Studio!

    Seriously, don’t you want to just go ahead and move in?

    We especially love Monsters on Machines and the Wow! books here at WPL. Jason uses Wow! City! quite a bit in storytimes. In fact, I should probably tell him about this interview….

  9. Hooray for Robert! Dirty Dugg, Stinky Stubb, Melvina, and Gorbert couldn’t be happier. Thanks for a great breakfast.

  10. Wow! Neubecker!

    I am very much in love with his art. Oh the lovely, saturated color. Someday, I hope he illustrates one of my picture books. Not that I’ve sold them, or get a say. But still.

    I guess the theme song for the Episcopalian military school was “Onward Christian Soldiers”?

  11. Thanks for featuring Robert! I didn’t know about him, but now I will certainly go find his bright books. Love his dynamic compositions. And am drooling over his jaw-dropping studio.

  12. I want a print of “wow books” for my library. My kids love the artwork in Monster on Machines.

  13. Oh. My. I want the studio. Thanks so much for this interview. I love the illustration for Beasty Bath.

  14. Wow! What a fabulous interview. I am not familiar with his work, but now that I see it-I must have it! Thanks!

  15. I remember Robert from when we both worked feverishly at The New York Times in the 70’s. Love his SIDEWAYS poster and his expressive line.
    That’s not a studio. It’s a mirage.

  16. Robert Newbecker! Wow! (I know you already said that) Wow! He and Chris Raschka are two of my most favorite living illustrators. And what a wonderful spirit and sense of humor. Wow! Thanks for this interview and all the images. I’ll have to pick up I GOT TWO DOGS, I have the others. And we love Deb Lund’s book : )

  17. Nuebecker you were a great teacher. I still think of your advice all the time. Pulling away from the cliche. And I have painted my share of “floating heads” as you predicted. YOu might remember me as Amy Barrett. You work always continies to amaze me. thought-provoking. Always a fan.

  18. […] Impossible Things Before Breakfast featured Robert Neubecker, who illustrated my friend Deb Lund’s fantastic Monsters on Machines. […]

  19. Thanks, everyone. It’s wonderful to hear from my former students who are making beautiful art… and Douglas, I’ve always admired your line, from way back. The paintings are really remarkable too…

  20. […] have seen illustrator Robert Neubecker’s Utah studio and officially hate his […]

  21. I know Robert before he got married.. We were ski bums in Park City before he started his family. He is one of the most incredible people I have ever had the pleasure of spending time with. Great skier too.

  22. […] in children’s books and in children’s entertainment — from Little Toot and Pedro to Cars. Robert Neubecker’s Little Smokey (Knopf, August 2019) provides a modern twist with an environmental edge, given […]

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