Seven Questions Over Breakfast with
the Devishly Magnetic Don Brown

h1 March 23rd, 2009 by jules

Here is the celebrated and award-winning author and illustrator of many picture book biographies, Don Brown. He is having A Moment with what he refers to below in our chat as his wondrous, yet flat-out evil, printer. I’m happy to welcome Don this morning for seven questions over breakfast — not only to distract him from his printer woes, but also because his books are ones I’ve followed and enjoyed for years.

If you’re a children’s librarian—whether a public librarian or school librarian—and/or a parent who keeps up with children’s lit, particularly nonfiction titles, you may wonder, as I do, where we’d be without his engaging picture book biographies, particularly since he often, but certainly not always, brings us the lives of lesser-known figures (Ruth Law, Mary Kingsley, Alice Ramsey — to name a few). And even when he’s telling us the story of more celebrated figures of history—Mark Twain, Albert Einstein, Dolley Madison—he manages to stand apart from the crowd: Kirkus wrote about One Giant Leap: The Story of Neil Armstrong, “{t}he story has been told many times, but perhaps never with so much heart and spirit.” I think the common denominator in his picture book biographies, no matter the subject matter, is that he’s bringing us the stories of those people who followed their bliss and lived with passion.

And if you enjoy his books as much as I do, you’re probably nodding as I say: Doesn’t that seem like what he’s doing, too? I’ve never read a Don Brown story in which it didn’t seem as if he was having great fun sharing with us. And, in the words of School Library Journal, he’s “a current pacesetter who has put the finishing touches on the standards for storyographies.”

I also have always been a fan of his illustration work — his delicate and quirky soft-focused pen-and-ink and watercolor illustrations, full of subtle humor and energy and an understated eloquence. In Parenting Magazine, Leonard Marcus once wrote about Uncommon Traveler: Mary Kingsley in Africa, “the pen-and-ink and watercolor illustrations are lush and deliciously wry.” (Speaking of…I had too much fun formatting this interview, since Don’s humor is about as wry as it comes. I enjoy and appreciate humor in all shapes and sizes and types, but a Good Wry makes me happy.)

But, wait! He’s done more than picture book biographies, my friends (though he’s still going strong at those — his latest is the wonderful Teedie: The Story of Young Teddy Roosevelt, to be released by Houghton Mifflin in April). Two of his most recent titles—Let It Begin Here!: April 19, 1775: The Day the American Revolution Began (Roaring Brook, December 2008) and All Stations! Distress!: April 15, 1912: The Day the Titanic Sank (also published by Roaring Brook last December)—are aimed at readers slightly older than what’s normally considered the “picture book crowd.” The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books wrote “…any kids who fondly recall Brown’s picture books from their ‘younger days’ will be pleased to see he hasn’t left older readers adrift.” He’s also written historical fiction novels for children and teens, including The Notorious Izzy Fink and The Train Jumper, both published by Roaring Brook (2006 and 2007, respectively).

So, let’s get the basics from Don while we set the table for our breakfast chat. He’s going to be having tea and toast this morning. (“Yikes, that sounds lame,” he adds, “but heavier breakfasts make me sleepy.”) I thank him kindly for stopping by.

* * * * * * *

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

Don: Both.

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

Don: Latest Books:

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

{The illustration pictured here is from A Voice from the Wilderness: The Story of Anna Howard Shaw, Houghton Mifflin, 2001.}

Don: I work in watercolor or dye, over micron pen or oil pencil.

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?

Don: I reserve blood & guts for older kids.


“With their paddlewheels churning, steamboats plowed their way up and down the river, hauling goods and people. The arrival of a steamboat electrified Sam,
electrified
everyone.
– From American Boy: The Adventures of Mark Twain, Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

7-Imp: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Don: I returned to Long Island, NY, after forays into Manhattan (Island) and Staten Island…I see a pattern.


“The next morning, Ruth flew to New York City.”
– From Ruth Law Thrills a Nation, Ticknor & Fields, 1993.

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

Don: I had been working as a freelance illustrator. I married, had two girls, and was introduced to children’s literature. Inspired, I wrote a story about early aviatrix Ruth Law, made a dummy, contacted the friend-of-a-friend book agent who pitched the book and sold it (nearly) immediately. I was entirely ignorant of my good fortune.


“Neil stood next to Buzz. Their helmets almost touched. Buzz grinned broadly. Neil clasped his hand on his partner’s shoulder.

‘Isn’t it fun!‘ Neil said.”

– From One Giant Leap: The Story of Neil Armstrong, Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

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

Don: booksbybrown.com.



From Across a Dark and Wild Sea (with calligraphy by Deborah Nadel),
Roaring Brook, 2002.

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

Don: I contrast the process of my writing non-fiction to the kids’ own experience of writing school ‘reports.’ The steps are virtually identical, reinforcing the connection between school and the ‘real’ world. I also demonstrate how much attention must go into artwork and touch on the magic of full-color printing.


From Dolley Madison Saves George Washington, Houghton Mifflin, 2007.

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

Don: I am finishing the artwork for a book about Tom Edison and working on a Gold Rush book.

Okay, the table’s set for our seven questions over breakfast, and now we’re ready to talk more specifics. Once again, I thank Don for stopping by.

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?

Don: I research and write the manuscript. Deciding on page breaks for the text follows. I doodle thumbnail illustrations for each page. Larger and more elaborate sketches follow, revealing either the wisdom or idiocy of the thumbnails. Final drawings are made and inserted into a dummy, complete with text. Pondering commences and decisions to accept or re-draw images follow. The drawings are then transferred onto watercolor paper, either by hand-copying with use of a lightbox or scanned and printed directly onto 90# Saunders hot press WC paper. (I use a large format Epson printer to accomplish this. It is both, and at the same time, a miracle machine and Satanic curse.)


“When Mary explored a riverbank, a hippo blocked her way. ‘I scratched him behind the ear with my umbrella and we parted on good terms,’ she said.”
– From Uncommon Traveler: Mary Kingsley in Africa, Houghton Mifflin, 2000.


Sketch from Odd Boy Out: Young Albert Einstein, Houghton Mifflin, 2004

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

Don: I portioned a tiny room out of my garage, the latest in a series of unremarkable studios that have included an unheated, unfinished basement visited by wayward raccoons.

I have seen illustrator Robert Neubecker’s Utah studio and officially hate his guts.



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

Ronald SearleDon: I haunted a neighborhood paperback bookstore as a kid. Buying books entirely by their covers—God bless graphic designers—I read David Copperfield, Les Misérables, Of Human Bondage, and Catch 22, to name just a few, and embarked on a life-long romance with books.

I was also obsessed with comic books and comics, forcing my parents to take subscriptions to five daily papers so than I might follow over seventy of my favorite strips. (At the time, I think there were seven NYC daily papers. Sigh.) I discovered cartoonist Bill Mauldin, Paul Coker, Jr., Ronald Searle {pictured above}, and Ralph Steadman. Grievous envy followed, as did my own career.


“The only real pleasure Jim found was in the
pickup baseball and football games after classes.”

– From Bright Path; Young Jim Thorpe, Roaring Brook, 2006.

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?

Don: Ronald Searle, Ralph Steadman, and Ronald Searle again.


“Mack built a studio, which he called Keystone Pictures, near the former lemon and orange groves known as Hollywood.”
– From Mack Made Movies, Roaring Brook, 2003.

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?

Don: Yes, yes I listen to music! My iPod has a lot of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, but there is Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, too. I also like Duffy.


From Far Beyond the Garden Gate: Alexandra David-Neel’s Journey to Lhasa, Houghton Mifflin, 2002.


From Beryl Markham’s The Good Lion (adapted and illustrated by Brown), Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

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

Don: I tended bar in Manhattan for years.

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

Don: Q: Am I the devishly magnetic bon vivant I appear to be?

A: Perhaps.


From Kid Blink Beats the World, Roaring Brook, 2004.

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Don: “Havoc.”

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Don: “Pundit.”

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

Don: Originality.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Don: Hypocrisy.

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

Don: “Shite,” from the Celtic.

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

Don: The blue note.

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

Don: The silence of broken equipment.

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

Don: Stonemason.

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

Don: Telemarketer.

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

Don: “You’re early. Go back.”

* * * * * * *

All illustrations and photos—with the exception of the book covers and the tea pot—courtesy of Don Brown. All rights reserved and all that good stuff.

NOTE: I submitted this interview to the Nonfiction Monday round-up over at MotherReader’s place today. To see today’s other posts, go have a look.

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18 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with
the Devishly Magnetic Don Brown”

  1. I’m just fascinated by people who can both write AND draw — and I really like Don Brown’s mix of earthy and ethereal; somehow everything has life, even when it doesn’t have as much definition or edges as one might expect. And I love that he writes historical books and I find out about people I might otherwise have never heard of from reading them!


  2. Ok, I just learned a new word today :devishly (I lead a sheltered life).

    I MUST see that Dolley Madison book, and Teedie. Love those presidential type PB biographies.

    Lotsa fun reading about the bon vivant!! Thanks.


  3. Tanita, “earthy and ethereal” is a good way to put it.

    Jama, I just realized it should probably be “devilishly” and that my brain was inserting an “l” and an “i” that weren’t initially there?? Just changed it. Or, I dunno…is “devishly” a word? Now I’ve confused myself. I can’t find “devishly” anywhere.


  4. Okay, changed it back. Evidently, “devishly” is a word, and it is ALSO new to me. Jama’s gonna set me straight, as she found its meaning. My brain was seeing “devilishly” all that time.

    I think I’m talking to myself now….slinking away.


  5. Once again, I am weeping at my computer, cursing the gods for my lack of artistic talent. When I see beautiful illustrations such as these, I immediately want to grab a sketch pad and draw something. But alas, I can not draw or paint or sketch, so I have to be content with oohing and aahing over these interviews. (Or maybe I just want to say I have an art studio in my house so I can fill it with pens and paper and paints).


  6. Oh, this interview was particularly entertaining. It made me laugh out loud a few times, and you know how I love to laugh out loud.

    I’ve enjoyed many of Don’t books, but I dearly, dearly love Uncommon Traveler: Mary Kingsley in Africa.


  7. Adrienne, I thought of you and all public and school librarians as I formatted this. I mean, what would we do without his books?

    Zoë, you and me both!

    Jama just showed me what “devish” means. Rock it. New word.


  8. Don Brown–I really like your biographies. “Mack Made Movies” is my favorite!


  9. Hmm — Don Brown has a lot of Neil Young on his iPod. I have a friend who would pay dearly for a Neil Young picture book biography…

    And no, it’s not me. But I’d pay dearly for one, too.


  10. Shite, that’s a fine interview. Bon vivant indeed. Don’t you just love thinking of Neil Armstrong saying, “Isn’t it fun?” ???


  11. Jules,

    I LOVE Don’s picture book biographies! They are excellent nonfiction books to read aloud. Don is adept at capturing the essence of an individual in print and writing a story of that person’s life in a way that really engages children. Every time Don published a new book I would purchase it for my school library.

    When I became the events planner for our local reading council, Don was one of the first children’s book authors I invited to be a featured speaker for one of our membership dinner meetings. I found Don to be bright and funny–and engaging like his books.


  12. I have that same printer and I fully and wholly endorse his description. Like a very moody child and you never know which mood you’ll get.

    Great interview.


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  15. I have been absent for a while, but now I remember why I used to love this blog. Thank you, I¡¦ll try and check back more frequently. How frequently you update your web site?


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