Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Geoffrey Hayes

h1 March 26th, 2009 by jules

I do a lot of illustrator interviews here at 7-Imp, but as I was formatting this one, I realized that I don’t often talk to artists like Geoffrey Hayes who create books for the VERY WEE set, as in the pre-preschool crowd. For that—and many other reasons—it’s good to welcome Geoffrey this morning for seven questions over breakfast.

Geoffrey has written and illustrated over forty children’s books, including Bear By Himself, Margaret Wise Brown’s When the Wind Blew, and the early-reader series, Otto & Uncle Tooth. To be perfectly honest, I’m still exploring his previous titles, but what caught my eye—what made me want to invite him over for a breakfast chat—are his new Benny and Penny titles for RAW Junior. These titles are Geoffrey at his very best.

Have you seen these guys yet?

Last year, Benny and Penny reared their insanely ENDEARING little heads in Benny and Penny: Just Pretend, which was one of the new TOON Book titles launched by Françoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman. If you’re not familiar with the TOON Books venture, by all means, go visit the site, because it’s a brilliant idea: Bringing early-reader titles to children but in a comic book format. (I also posted about them last April here at 7-Imp, in which I admit to sounding not unlike a motivational speaker. I also talked about the first Benny and Penny back here in January ’08. Yeah, I lurv ‘em.)

With apologies to all other TOON Books created thus far, the Benny and Penny ones are my favorites. Benny and Penny: Just Pretend—named a Booklist Top 10 Graphic Novel for Youth: 2009 (“Emphasizing repetition and word recognition, and with old-fashioned artwork that will help even the youngest readers differentiate between a comic and a picture book, this title explores sibling friction with charm and style”)—immediately engages children with its expertly-paced story of sibling rivalry and with Hayes’ cozy, inviting art.

This Spring, TOON Books will release the second Benny & Penny tale—Benny and Penny: The Big No-No—and it works just as well, if not better, than the first. Here are a few spreads, and you can click on each to see bigger, more detailed versions. I’m so glad I have these to show you, as you can see for yourself the exceeding charm of these characters:



To put it ever-so eloquently, I freakin’ love these books. Benny and Penny are rather unforgettable, and—though I haven’t had a chance to try out these two titles on a big group of kids—my own wee ones adore them and repeatedly ask to hear the briskly-paced domestic dramas of sweet Penny and her domineering older brother (who likes to pretend he’s entirely more courageous than reality will concede). Since one of the reasons I blog here at 7-Imp is to evangelize what I consider to be the good children’s titles (let’s face it — there are a lot of bad ones out there), consider this my call-to-the-altar: If you haven’t checked out the Benny and Penny titles, especially if you are around wee babes on a regular basis, I’d highly recommend it.

Back to that breakfast: Geoffrey’s here to chat about his work over “coffee, always, and orange juice. I alternate between having a roll or croissant and having an egg breakfast three times a week. I love French Toast, and my favorite egg dish is Eggs Florentine; although I most often just have my eggs scrambled.” Mmm. I’m all over the idea of scrambled eggs. I say we opt for that simple option — with coffee, of course. Let’s set the table and get the basics from Geoffrey…

Incidentally, the rest of the interview is peppered with vignettes from the first Benny and Penny title. Enjoy.

* * * * * * *

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

Geoffrey: Author/Illustrator.

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

Geoffrey: Well over forty. I’ll just mention a few prominent ones.


Benny and Penny on the cover of Time Out New York Kids, May 2008

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

Geoffrey: I began using pen and ink and watercolors. Later, I added colored pencils to the watercolor. Lately, I have been working in a different style. I draw in pencil, which feels more natural to me. When I’m happy with the drawing, I photocopy it onto heavier paper so that it has a good black line then color the copy with colored pencils. I have the option of employing the pencil as pure line, doing cross-hatching to make it look like ink, or of using the pencil as pencil with gradations of shading.


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?

Geoffrey: The differences have more to do with the type of book rather than the age range. In longer books with more text, I count on the words to carry the story and choose either peak moments to illustrate or ones that I feel can really benefit from an illustration; whereas, in a very young picture book, nearly every action or scene gets a picture. It goes without saying that the younger the audience, the cleaner and clearer the compositions.

{Pictured here and below are two of Geoffrey’s portfolio pieces.}

7-Imp: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Geoffrey: I live on the east coast –- currently in Connecticut, having recently relocated from San Francisco.

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

Geoffrey: In my mid-twenties, I was laid off from a job at an architectural firm, due to downsizing. This was the first (and only) time I had been unemployed and receiving unemployment benefits, so I utilized this time, in between job hunting, to work up my portfolio. I then made appointments with various art directors at the major publishing houses. I was fortunate to be living in New York City, where they were all located. I received mostly positive feedback but no concrete offers until I went to Harper and met Edite Kroll. Edite was determined to get a book out of me. She worked with me until I came up with my first title, Bear By Himself. Edite has been with me throughout my career and has been my agent since 1982.

{Pictured above is Tyler from A Very Special Valentine, HarperFestvial, 2007.}

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

Geoffrey: None at the moment.

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

Geoffrey: I have done many school visits, and they’re all different. So much depends upon the ages of the group, the size, even the environment itself (whether I’m in an auditorium or a small classroom or library.) I draw as I speak, usually on a newsprint pad. I find this keep the children focused, especially if I ask them for suggestions as I draw. To tell the truth, I’m not really comfortable drawing so quickly and in a different size and medium (markers). Art for me is generally a private enterprise. I’m in awe of those people who do on-the-spot portraits or caricatures. Thankfully, the kids don’t seem to notice the difference between my quick sketches and my finished art. I enjoy kids. I’m able to flow with their spontaneity, so I always have a good time. It’s nice to get the immediate feedback.


At New York Comic Con this past February

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

Geoffrey: I’ve taught children’s book workshops, although I focus more on the text and narrative flow. I also do freelance editing and have assisted individual artists with layout and pacing. All of this helps clarify what makes a book or story work and what impedes that. In being forced to explain what I have learned myself, it makes it more concrete in my awareness.

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

Geoffrey: I’m presently working on adapting my Otto & Uncle Tooth characters to a graphic novel format.

Okay, the table’s set for our six questions over breakfast, and now we’re ready to talk more specifics. Once again, I thank Geoffrey for stopping by, especially since he pulled off this interview in mid-move.

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?

Geoffrey: I almost always begin with a germ of an idea, something that intrigues me. I let it gestate, sometimes for days or weeks, sometime for years, until I’m reading to begin drawing. I’ll make notes and file them away. If I’m illustrating someone else’s text, it’s a quicker process, of course. I read and re-read the manuscript until I develop a feel for the book. Does the story call for the art to be broad and active, subdued, cartoony or more illustrative? In any case, when I’m ready to begin I start with thumbnail sketches in no particular order, simply trying to get a look for the characters and tone of the story. These thumbnails usually lead to sequences, and then I do storyboards. If it’s a picture book or a comic, I prefer to lay out the entire story arch, even though I may change it many times, once I go to dummy it up. It’s important for me to know if what I have in mind is feasible for the format in which I’ll be working; specifically, does it fit comfortably into a 32- or 48-page count? Does it flow? Does it feel cramped or drawn out?

If I’m doing an illustrated story (even a short one), I type the text out and polish that before I continue drawing. This especially works for mood pieces or where the story is more read-aloud. Sometimes, I jump back and forth between working on text and dummy. It depends on the particular work. I’m a pretty ruthless editor when it comes to my own stuff. I continue refining the story and text, even when I’m into the finished art.

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

Geoffrey: Since I tend to work small, my working area reflects this. I have never used a standard drawing table. Years ago, I designed a desk for myself and hired a friend to build it. I usually draw on a slanted light box when I am composing my pictures. This allows me to trace from different versions of an illustration until I have a layout that satisfies me. I draw the same way I cook — fast and rather chaotic, making a mess, with everything strewn around. I clean up afterwards, not as I go.

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

{Pictured here is an illustration from The Curse of the Cobweb Queen, Random House, 1994.}

Geoffrey: Margaret Wise Brown; Kenneth Grahame; Carl Barks; Robert Louis Stevenson; Gustaf Tenggren; Garth Williams; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; Chester Gould.

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?

Geoffrey: Mike Mignola, Peter de Sève, Shaun Tan.

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?

Geoffrey: “Sweet, Bitter Love” — Aretha Franklin. Sweeney Todd — Broadway cast.

Sometimes, not always {I listen to music while I create}. Often, I listen to podcasts.

{Ed. Note — Okay, so how can I NOT post this footage of Aretha singing “Sweet Bitter Love” live? Enjoy.}


Cover for Publishers Weekly, September 2008

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

Geoffrey: That I’m Catholic. That I love being high up on ladders. That I like sports bars. (Okay. That’s three!)

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Geoffrey: “Little.”

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Geoffrey: “Paradigm.”

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

Geoffrey: Reality.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Geoffrey: Hype.

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

Geoffrey: “Holy shit!”

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

Geoffrey: Rain.

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

Geoffrey: Howling wind.

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

Geoffrey: Nutritionist.

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

Geoffrey: Political office.

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

Geoffrey: “Finally!”

* * * * * * *

BENNY AND PENNY images, photos of Geoffrey Hayes, and magazine covers courtesy of TOON Books, a division of RAW JUNIOR, LLC. New York, NY. All rights reserved.

The other illustrations—with the exception of the book cover and the coffee pot—courtesy of Geoffrey Hayes. All rights reserved and all that good stuff.

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14 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Geoffrey Hayes”

  1. I don’t know what it is about colored pencils, but above all other mediums, this reminds me of being little myself. Maybe it has to do with coloring books? Anyway, I love these characters — Benny and Penny are like everyone’s siblings — the fighting and the grumping and the playing. I very much like the structure of the books — the sort of graphic novel feel. I imagine a child who starts with these being read to him or her will easily transition to reading their own graphic novels. Bonus.


  2. Benny and Penny are adorable. Must go check out these books. Thanks for the lovely interview!


  3. Tanita, that’s interesting that colored pencils do that for you. Very neat. I should have added that the colors in the Benny and Penny vignettes (the images from the first title) are off. They look slightly different than the ones in the actual book, but it could be an artifact of my computer.

    Jama, you’d love these books. I have a feeling. It’s fun to have B & P romping around the site today.


  4. I love Benny and Penny–and the TOON Books series in general. They keep surprising me in the good way.


  5. Geoffrey Hayes is a huge talent in books for the young’uns, and we adults are totally charmed at the same time. We can’t get enough Benny & Penny!


  6. Thanks for this fascinating interview and review. I didn’t know Benny and Penny but now I know I want to! I love Geoffrey’s illustrations. They have such a sweet, timeless quality.


  7. Whoa. LOVE the colored-pencil look. The expressions on B&P’s faces in that dragonfly picture made me laugh.

    (And when I was pre-school age myself — pre-schools themselves were probably pretty rare back then — I wish I could’ve had books like the B&P series and, for that matter, wish that I’d known B&P personally. Think I’d have liked them a lot. And years later I might actually have gotten over the teasing I suffered after admitting that I “like Penny a little.:)

    Sometimes I moan that it took me, like, forever to find 7-Imp — think of all I must have missed! Then I come across something like the info about the TOON project and thank my lucky stars I didn’t stop by here sooner. I don’t think the people around me would appreciate the after-effects of my head exploding.


  8. [...] Creators | Benny and Penny creator Geoffrey Hayes chats about his process, school visits and his influences. [Seven Impossible Things] [...]


  9. [...] can read a fascinating interview with Hayes on the  Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast [...]


  10. [...] You can read a fascinating interview with Hayes on the  Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast blog. [...]


  11. [...] He is also featured at everyone’s favorite blog, the always great Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, just click like crazy right here. [...]


  12. [...] Jules at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast has posted an excellent (if we may say so ourselves) interview with Geoffrey Hayes. [...]


  13. Hi, I am trying to find a way to contact Geoffrey Hayes. Do you know if he has a website, twitter or FB page? Or a way to reach him by email or regular mail?


  14. Chris, I sent him your contact info!


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