Seven Questions Over Breakfast
(and Pass the Cigars) with John Manders

h1 January 19th, 2009 by jules

Illustrator John Manders is here for seven questions over breakfast (there he is with Sherman and the day’s first cup of coffee). He can’t linger for too long, since he and his wife just moved into an old farm house in November and have a ton of work to do. And, since John has only been able to answer interview questions “in between plumbing emergencies, appliance deliveries, demolition, unloading and unpacking, and—of course—billable work,” as he put it, I’m even more grateful he took the time to stop by. In fact, about the picture above John told me that behind him and Sherman is the void to be inhabited eventually by a refrigerator. Seeing as how he also just installed a new copper pipe to replace a decrepit old iron hot water line (er, John did…not Sherman), he says that he can be a plumber if the bottom falls out of the children’s book biz, but I hope that doesn’t happen, because I like the energy he brings to his illustrations way too much.

Back in October of last year, I did a feature on John’s latest illustrated title, Where’s My Mummy?, published by Candlewick in July ’08 and written by Carolyn Crimi. As I said in that post, I follow John’s career with interest, because I think he is one of the best illustrators today whose style is primarily humorous, cartoon-esque. He can create truly funny, child-accessible art—knowing just where to add the right details that will get a preschooler hee-haw-laughing—and his work is fresh, brisk, and interesting (without being too cutesy), conveying that Chuck-Jones sensibility somethin’ fierce. I have peppered this interview with some illustrations of his from various titles so that you can see this for yourself. Usually, I’m a Total Nerd about noting from which book an illustration comes. For a few of these, I’m not sure myself (doing this interview has shown me there are way more of his books I need to see and that I wasn’t half as familiar with his work as I thought), and I don’t want to bug John now about that, what with all the home improvement he has goin’ on. But this is a good thing, because it just means you can go out yourself and get familiar with more of his books, if you’re so inclined. And, as an Illustration Junkie, I believe that will just make your life exponentially better anyway.

As one of our astute readers put it so perfectly at that Where’s My Mummy? post, John’s work has a “crazy-anarchic feel to it” that I love. As Kirkus once pointed out about John’s illustrations for Dan Bar-el’s Such a Prince, he’s “playing clear homage to ’50s-style Disney cartoons.” It’s that exaggerated, animated energy that draws me to his illustrated titles. And today he’s sharing some sketches with us so that we can get a sneak peek into his process, such as with these images from Where’s My Mummy?

And I still say that The Perfect Nest by Catherine Friend was the Flat-Out Funniest Yet Most Under-Rated Picture Book of 2007. I posted about that one here and here. ¡Caramba! and sacré bleu! and great balls of fire! but this book is snort-outloud-funny, not only thanks to Friend’s writing, but also to the spot-on screwball humor John brings to the story with his paintbrush.

Here’s Jack from that tale: He’s trying to attract the perfect chicken that will lay the perfect egg to make the perfect omelet.

Let’s get to the interview…We’ll get the basics from John while we set the table. Oh, and what is John’s breakfast-of-choice? you ask? “Coffee and doughnuts. Really good coffee, from freshly ground beans, thick enough for a quarter to float on. That’s to start off with. And who doesn’t like cold pizza, if there’s any in the fridge? Then something healthy, like cold cereal with sliced bananas or peaches (in Summer). After that, I like to fix myself a one-egg omelette with bacon and cheese. Maybe a half-grapefruit, because fiber is important. Following that, I find that a bagel with lox, cream cheese, a slice of red onion, and a few capers is the perfect way to top off the morning meal. A robust cigar, as an efficacious aid to digestion, and I’m ready to begin my day.”

I have to say that this will be my first breakfast cigar, but I’m definitely up for something new.

I thank him kindly for stopping by.

* * * * * * *

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

John: I’m an illustrator. I’m hoping to be an author/illustrator in the very near future!

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

John: Here are five of my favorites—-and they are already beloved children’s classics:

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

John: I like to paint with gouache (sounds like “squash”)—it’s opaque watercolor and a favorite medium of old animators.

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?

John: My usual crowd is 5- to 8-year-olds, who read picture books. Since many of my audience are just learning to read, the challenge is to tell the author’s story in pictures. You can’t simply repeat with images what the author already said in words—that would be boring—so I’ve got to tell the story in a way that words can’t. That means discovering things about the characters or the plot that the author may not have included in the manuscript. I also need to pace the action, make the characters believable, and design a world that the reader accepts as real. Keeping the creative energy at the same level throughout thirty-two pages—plus cover, endpapers, and flaps—takes discipline.

I’ve made a few forays into the world of chapter books. These require less work at the rendering stage—one black and white image per chapter, highlighting a dramatic moment. There is still a lot of prep work: designing characters and settings.

7-Imp: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

John: Up until October 31st, I would have answered that question: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. But now I can tell you it’s Franklin, PA, a lovely little town in the northwest corner of the Commonwealth. My wife and I just moved into a 100+-year-old farmhouse outside of town. I love old houses and over the next few years we’ll be restoring this beauty. We live on two acres with a bit of woods, which our neighbors tell us are full of deer, porcupines, possums, skunks, coyotes, and bears. Somewhere in this howling wilderness, I intend to build my new studio.

John’s dog, India, “surveys the tundra.”

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

John: Back when I was a graphic designer, hoping to be a children’s book illustrator, I sent a series of four postcards—a four-part story of St. George and the dragon—to art directors and editors of children’s magazines. I let a week pass in between mailings, so by the time the fourth postcard arrived, people were waiting for it. I got several assignments from that promotion. I continued to work for magazines, and eventually an editor from Houghton Mifflin spotted my work and invited me to illustrate a book.

Around that time, I established a relationship with legendary illustrators’ rep, Harriet Kasak. She helped me to hone my style and was infinitely better at negotiating fees than I am. Through Harriet, I added textbook assignments to my portfolio as well as more trade books. Nowadays, I do trade picture books almost exclusively. Harriet—my rep, guide, and mentor—passed on in 2003. I continue to work with her very capable successor, Mela Bolinao, at MB Artists.

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

John: Please visit me at!

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

John: The fun begins the moment my limo pulls into the school’s fire lane. Once my advance security team has cleared a path through the paparazzi, I’m hustled into the cafeteria/auditorium which is usually packed to the rafters with students hungry for a face-melting performance.

For younger crowds, I read from one of my books, then create a painting for them. I describe the tools and materials I use and explain the steps of the drawing and painting process. I’ve been reading from Henry & the Buccaneer Bunnies lately, so I dress as a bunny pirate and we sing a buccaneer bunny sea-shanty while I paint.

The older kids get an in-depth presentation about how a picture book gets illustrated—with lots of visuals, like original sketches and paintings, to pass around. I talk about every step, from manuscript to printed book, and how important it is to work with a creative team: art director, editor, and designer.

At the show’s climax, I like to launch myself off the stage and do a little crowd-surfing.

“You can see some of the kids in the mosh pit.”

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

John: I used to teach graphic design at Pittsburgh Technical Institute. As much as I love to teach, I had to give it up—it’s the only more time-intensive occupation than children’s book illustration. One of my favorite things about illustration is you don’t have to take attendance or grade projects.

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

John: I’m about to start painting a story about a cat who becomes a celebrity in a Venetian coffee shop, circa 1890. I’ve begun sketches for another story about a Tyrannosaurus Rex who is a birthday party guest. I’ve got sketches to do for stories about: a turkey race, a store where you can purchase a new mother, and the year Santa took Christmas off.

Mmm. Coffee.Okay, the table’s set for our seven questions over breakfast. Have freshly-ground coffee. Have cigar. Can chat. 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?

John: I generally start by reading the manuscript several times. Then I roughly sketch characters. When I’m ready to get down to business, I create a storyboard of thumbnail-sized sketches. These allow me to show the art director how I envision the story. While he’s looking at that, I do any research that may be necessary: costumes, settings, and whatnot.

By the way, I recently undertook to write some stories. I find it natural to draw the storyboard first, and then write the text.

Once I have approval from the AD, I create finished sketches based on the thumbnails. I also draw model sheets of the important characters and design the settings.

The AD looks at the sketches and incorporates them into layouts with the text. I make any final changes he asks for and, with approval, begin the color stage.

I come up with a palette—the colors I’ll use for the illustrations. Color is an important tool to convey emotions or atmosphere and unify all the images. I create color sketches for all the paintings.

Finally, I paint! I assembly-line the paintings, first laying in the sky wherever it appears throughout the book, then the background—if the story takes place in the woods, I paint trees for a couple of weeks. Then I paint the foreground on all the paintings. Then I paint a character, and paint only him wherever he appears in the story. And so on with the other characters.

Painting a book can take two to three months. I don’t want it to look like the project took that long. This method keeps all the paintings looking consistent.

As soon as I finish each painting, I label it and put it in a poly envelope. I put the whole job in a cardboard portfolio case, then wrap that in a bigger cardboard envelope (with a couple of stiffening boards), and send it to the publisher via overnight delivery. I always test my package first by firing a pistol at it. If the bullet doesn’t penetrate through to the artwork, it will withstand the ordeal of shipping.

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

John: Hoo boy, that’s gonna be tough. As you can see, I have commandeered a room in our new house for my studio. This will be a temporary makeshift operation until I save enough money to build my dream studio out back.

That studio, or the Funatorium, will be a one-room structure with lots of storage and counter space. The back of the studio will face North, so that wall will be all windows with a view of the woods (I’ll be able to spot any charging bears before they get too close). There will be a little wood-burning stove, a big sink for washing up, and enough lights for the studio to be seen on Google Earth. Of course I want to minimize the studio’s carbon footprint, so I’m looking into alternative energy sources to power the whole operation. I’m currently designing a methane reclamation system for our dog.

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

John: On Beyond Zebra by Dr. Seuss; The Sea Serpents Among Us (this was a library book I borrowed as a wee lad, and I don’t remember the names of the British husband/wife team who wrote and illustrated it. I loved the drawing style); a story about a princess by A. A. Milne that made me laugh out loud; Donald Duck comic books by Carl Barks; comic strips: Pogo by Walt Kelly; Li’l Abner by Al Capp. As I grew older, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court; later, everything by Mark Twain; the Horatio Hornblower series by C. S. Forester; Asterix le Gaulois comic books by Goscinny & Uderzo.

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

John: Whichever three most resemble Sophia Loren, Maureen O’Hara, or Louise Brooks.

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?

John: While I paint, I listen mostly to recorded books. I listen to history, historical fiction, and I like the lecture series available from Modern Scholar or The Teaching Company.

While I’m sketching, words are distracting. If I’m listening to anything, it’s classical music. Usually that means Renaissance-era music—Tallis Scholars and The Anonymous Four are favorites. I’m also a fan of jazz from the ’30s and ’40s. Of course, there’s a lot to be said for listening to nothing at all.

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

John: I’m afraid of heights.

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

John: That reminds me of something funny.

Once, when filling out a questionnaire from some elementary school students, they asked me, “what would you be if you weren’t an illustrator?” I wrote, “rich.”

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

John: “Splendid!”

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

John: “Awesome!”

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

John: Watching Nigella Lawson make toast with jam on the Food Network.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

John: Lazy minds.

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

John: “Great Googalooga!”

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

John: The bells of the seminary near my old house.

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

John: Rap music. Whining. Professional sports figures describing what they do in an irritating monotone. Elderly rock stars singing jazz standards. Loud, one-sided cell phone conversations.

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

John: High-seas piracy.

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

John: Sales.

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

John: “Good afternoon, Sir. Here is your martini. May I light your cigar? Look, here come your pets—they’ve been waiting for you!”

* * * * * * *

All photos of John, photos of his studio, and sketches and paintings courtesy of John Manders. All rights reserved and all that good stuff.

WHERE’S MY MUMMY? Text copyright © 2008 Carolyn Crimi. Illustrations copyright © 2008 John Manders. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

10 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast
(and Pass the Cigars) with John Manders”

  1. Right. That’s it. When I grow up, I’m going to be an illustrator. Doughnuts AND pizza? And playing in gouache? John Manders is SPLENDID. What fabulously energetic art.

  2. Oh man, this is SUCH a great interview. When I was a kid and was sometimes allowed to stay up for The Tonight Show, I used to fantasize about being a guest, dazzling Johnny Carson with my repartee. John Manders would be the kind of guest who’d make me just shut up and listen and learn, I’d wager.

    (These seven-questions posts consistently demonstrate one gift you Seven Imp-resses (ha) have: self-control. In ones like this one, especially, it must KILL you to stick with the prescribed list of questions rather than engage in back-and-forth. But they also demonstrate generosity: letting your guests have the floor. Kinda like, oh, say… Johnny Carson?)

    As you know, I love John Manders’s energetic style. He does one very interesting thing in many of my favorite panels/pieces: he makes me look at a single something, with admiration and a big grin, and only when I’m savoring that moment do I sort of stand back and look at the rest of the frame and bust out laughing. The best example of this above is the one of the cow and the cowboys and -girls at the barn dance. The cow’s face is like an attention magnet; isn’t that a great look? But then the surroundings sink in: the cow’s not dancing WITH the people, and they decidedly aren’t laughing themselves. She’s taking over the dance floor! The hooves on her hips is a little bit of genius.

    (The people there remind me of the “players” in one of those old vibrating-sheet-metal toy football games, who couldn’t stay on their feet, either.)

    That assembly-line process he describes: maybe it’s common, I dunno, but I thought it was brilliant.

    (Aside: John Manders, if you’re reading this: if you like Tallis Scholars and Anonymous 4, do you know the Waverly Consort?)

    I almost fell over when I read his answer to the last Pivot question. Amen.

  3. TadMack: Me, too. Or maybe in another life if I happen to get one little teeeeny tiny shred of artistic talent, which I do not possess in this one.

    John, you jut became an even MORE astute reader in my mind. Because, yes, I find it very tempting to try to throw in my own comments on the witty or brilliant or wonderfully weird or just flat-out weird or what-have-you/fill-in-the-blank comments of those interviewed. But, sure, it’s better to let them have the floor. At least I try not to intrude, as tantalizing as it may be.

    And, shoot, once again I love your description of his art in your comment here. When are you going to start your own illustration blog?

    I also love his final Pivot answer, though the first time I emailed him in response, I think I typed “awesome!” at some point. D’oh!

    I think my very. favorite. part is the image of him firing a pistol at his final, packaged art work — just to verify that it can handle shipping.

  4. Great googalooga! Doesn’t sound like swearing to me. I’m gonna use it for other things.

    A pirate with bunny ears? Sophia Loren? Nigella Lawson making toast? My kind of guy. Frenetic anarchy. Thanks for a great giggly jump-startin’ interview. 😀

  5. What a splendid illustrator, and what a funny guy. He obviously put quite a lot of time and energy into answering your questions, and it’s obvious he puts that time and energy into his artwork as well. (The pistol-firing and the methane reclamation system were two of my favorite funny moments, and his answer to heaven involving his pets scored a big AWWWW.)

  6. When are you going to start your own illustration blog?

    Roughly about the same time you and Eisha start to publish these interviews between covers! 😉

  7. Wow, another outstanding interview. Love the insights into the artistic process, the tidbits of info you wouldn’t see elsewhere, and of course the amazing drawings. That’s one hot mummy being sketched there…and he sounds like a great guy.

  8. […] I’ve made clear before (when he stopped by for coffee and cigars), you 7-Imp readers know I love me some John-Manders art […]

  9. […] thing as they did the PW reviewer: Old-skool animation. Think Looney Tunes. Chuck Jones. Move over, John Manders. (Or, uh, don’t move over. I love your art work. There’s a place for both of you!) […]

  10. […] earlier this year, I love the brisk, riotous energy Manders brings to picture books. (Also, when he visited in 2009, he brought cigars. […]

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