Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Jan Thomas
(In Which Adrienne and Fuse Also Join Us for Oatmeal)

h1 June 23rd, 2009 by jules

This is author/illustrator Jan Thomas with her Public Relations Officer and Security Chief. She’s here with her canine staff today to chat over breakfast with what I’ll call the Jan Thomas Appreciation Society. And that would be Yours Truly and two of the country’s best children’s librarians (all hyperbole—which regular readers know I’m guilty of—aside), Adrienne Furness of What Adrienne Thinks About That and Betsy Bird over at A Fuse #8 Production. Adrienne has written posts like “My Profound Love of Books by Jan Thomas”; Betsy has written reviews like this in which she’s declared things like, “All right. That’s it. I can’t take it anymore. Could we please please PLEASE just get it over with and declare Jan Thomas some kind of national treasure / picture book genius?” and “Thomas has that rare gift for synthesizing a book down to its most essential parts”; and I’ve posted about Jan’s work a bit as well—having turned into such a big fan of her titles, thanks to Adrienne—but the 7-Imp Jan-Thomas sightings are hardly tantamount to my fan-dom. So, I decided I wanted to shine the spotlight on her, too. And when I—lucky me—snagged her for an interview, I asked Adrienne and Betsy if they’d like to contribute some questions and/or say a bit about their own ardent devotion to Jan’s books.

Jan’s titles, aimed squarely at the preschool crowd, are flat-out FUNNY. And the best part is that they work on this very manic, laugh-outloud level for young children (“riotous,” wrote Kirkus in one review), yet the humor is droll enough to have the adults chuckling, too. Jan’s comic timing is spot-on. “Exquisite,” if you’re The Boston Globe. (“If there’s genius in knowing what to leave out and what to put in, then Thomas is the new Einstein of picture books,” reviewer Liz Rosenberg added.) Her cartoon illustrations, thickly-lined with bold colors, are perfect for a story-time crowd and also riotously, over-the-top funny. I mean, seriously, dear readers. Can I say “funny” enough? If you haven’t picked up a Jan-Thomas picture book and ESPECIALLY if you’re hankerin’ for a good laugh, well then, you can’t say you haven’t been encouraged by three fanatical bloggers. (And oh-so many more I wouldn’t even have time to list: Jan inspires comments such as this from Mary Lee over at A Year of Reading“Jan Thomas is my new favorite picture book author based on just two books…” And this from Franki: “So, of course I will buy any book that Jan Thomas writes from here on out…”)

Yeah. Jan Thomas Fans are hard-core.

Before we get to Jan’s interview, here’s a bit more from Betsy and Adrienne. I asked them what their first Jan Thomas Experience was, if they’ve used her titles in story times, and what else they think we can do to get the rest of the world to read her books.

Adrienne: I have this distinct memory of holding What Will Fat Cat Sit On? and thinking it was going to be dreadful. I tend to read picture books in piles of twenty or so, and I remember I was feeling cranky because nothing in that day’s pile was grabbing me. I started flipping through the pages of Fat Cat, seeing what I thought was a pretty standard No, That’s Silly book (some of my favorites in this genre are Who Hoots? by Katie Davis and Do Pigs Have Stripes? by Melanie Walsh), but then I came to the page where the chicken shouts, “Sit on the pig! Sit on the pig!”

This surprised me, so I started the book over again, paying more attention and laughing right outloud. Then, as is my habit when I fall in love with a picture book during a normal work day, I ran around the back office area, interrupting everyone to read the book aloud to them.

I’ve been using Thomas’s books in storytimes every week for months now. We tend to have large storytime groups at WPL—it is not at all unusual for us to have 80 kids at a storytime, ranging in age from teeny babies right up to six- or seven-year-olds. Thomas’s style is brilliant for this range. Her illustrations are bright and bold enough to attract the attention of toddlers, her subjects are silly good fun for the preschool crowd, and I think school-aged kids (not to mention the adults in the room) can have a deeper appreciation of the way Thomas plays around with readers’ expectations. What she manages to pack into a few words and thick lines is impressive. And funny, funny, funny. I love books that really make me laugh.

Betsy: Darn right. On my end, we can’t keep the doggone things on our shelves. I think my branch has about ten copies of What Will Fat Cat Sit On? alone, but you wouldn’t know it from the vast gaping hole that lives where the name “Thomas” should be. And I can attest that while Ms. Thomas wins over children, adults are keen on her as well. Particularly librarian-type adults. Recently at a staff meeting to celebrate New York Public Library’s 100 Books for Reading and Sharing list, the librarians performed The Doghouse with stick puppets. Needless to say, I think my role as the actual doghouse itself could have technically been considered an off-off-Broadway performance (in that Broadway is about two streets away). I was very staid.

But, to answer your questions, I think I saw What Will Fat Cat Sit On? at an ALA Conference, actually. There was something about that cat’s sly, slightly demented smile that caught my eye. I was instantly hooked from page one. I think there might have been a brief flicker of a “Is this a Mo Willems knock-off?” for one-half of a second. Then I read two pages, and it vanished entirely. Jan Thomas is her own beast. I’ve used her books with classes of Pre-K to third graders, and she never gets old. They love them some Thomas.

To get other people to discover her, all we have to do is keep reading her aloud. ‘Cause, eventually, she’s going to be a story-time classic. You can feel it already. She’s got the look.

This morning, for our breakfast chat, we’re going to have oatmeal. Jan says she eats it daily. Perhaps her family does, too:

I’ll throw in some strong coffee—I know at least Adrienne and I would wither up without some—and I thank Jan for stopping by. I also thank Adrienne and Betsy for their presence at our chat this morning. Let’s get the basics from Jan while we wait for our coffee to brew and oatmeal to heat up.

* * * * * * *

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

Jan: So far, I’ve only illustrated my own ideas, but I would like to venture out and work with someone else . . .

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


Betsy: Is it true that you submitted What Will Fat Cat Sit On? as a manuscript consultation during an SCBWI meeting and the editor loved it so much that she purchased it?

Jan: That’s sort of what happened. I went to an SCBWI meeting in Albuquerque, where Gretchen Hirsch from Harcourt was presenting. I didn’t have a manuscript consultation with Gretchen, though. The day after the meeting, I sent her my dummy for What Will Fat Cat Sit On? (Attendees were allowed to submit without an agent.) Two weeks later, Gretchen called, offering me a two-book deal. I was lucky to get the deal — but even luckier to have Gretchen as my first editor.

That’s definitely me {here on the left}! I think… Gretchen {where the right arrow is}.

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

Jan: I’m a serious doodler. I have a huge pile of sketchbooks and take one with me everywhere I go. I work and re-work my drawings on paper. When it’s time to create the finished artwork, I scan in the drawings and create the final work on the computer.

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?

Jan: So far, I’ve only illustrated for one age range. (I think of my books as picture book/almost early readers). I’ve tried to focus on making them fun to be read aloud and read alone. Can You Make a Scary Face? (coming in August) is quite different. It’s a read-aloud/interactive book. The drawings are even bigger and bolder, so kids can see them well at a distance.

Betsy: Would you ever consider doing a different format? Easy books, for example, would be ideal. Or what about an older graphic novel?

Jan: I’d love to, and think it would be a not-too-difficult transition. My current books—with their simple words—are almost easy books, and the speech bubbles make them almost graphic novels.

7-Imp: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Jan: I live in Socorro, New Mexico, a small, dusty town with lots of beautiful southwestern scenery, sunshine, and green chili.

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

Jan: See Betsy Bird’s question above. (I LOVE Betsy’s Fuse #8!)

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

Jan: (soon to get a facelift).

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

Jan: During my last school visit, I tested Can You Make a Scary Face? It was a blast. It REALLY got the kids involved.

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

Jan: I could never teach illustration. I think everyone’s artwork is perfect . . . no matter how abysmal it is.

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

Jan: I recently bombarded Allyn Johnston at Beach Lane Books with ideas. Then she presented me with a very exciting idea. We’ll see what happens next. I also have a couple of books with HarperCollins that will be released in the next few years. The first one involves a duck, a pumpkin, and trouble.

Mmm. Coffee.Our table’s set. Time for our breakfast chat. I thank Jan again for stopping by, and let’s keep at it…

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?

Jan: It usually starts out with going for a long run, walk, or bike ride. That’s when I come up with a nugget of an idea (rarely a finished idea). I try to let the idea tell me where it wants to go. (Most of my nuggets fail, because I can’t come up with a good ending.) I sketch it up until I have enough to show my husband and kids (aka, critique group). I’ll continue to work on the idea, show it to them, work on it, show it to them, work on it . . . pretty soon my family is sick of it (me) and that’s when I know it’s time to send it to my editor.

My editor, Allyn Johnston, at Beach Lane Books gives me great ideas and feedback. I revise it, she gives me more feedback, and so on. Allyn really contributes to the final product.

My lovely editor, Allyn Johnston:

Allyn sent me this photo with the caption: “I guess it’s time to admit that these past number of months working with you have been kinda tough on me . . .”

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

Jan: My office is in the back of our house. (There’s usually a dog sleeping at my feet.)

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

Jan: I read Pippi Longstocking . . . over and over and over.

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?

Jan: I would have Mo Willems, Jon Scieszka, and Adam Rex over. But, I’m terribly shy. I’d probably just stare at them, gaping like a fish. It would be awkward. I’d better not have them over.

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?

Jan: There’s always some form of music playing in our house. My 16-year-old is a drummer, and my 12-year-old is a guitarist. They’re very good — and very loud. I have quite a variety of music playing on my iPod too. Lately, the CD I can’t seem to get enough of is Sky Blue Sky by Wilco.

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

Jan: I insist on having my back to the wall in a restaurant. It drives my family crazy. I also like spending time in my closet. I call it my “happy place.” You don’t think there’s anything wrong with me, do you?

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

Jan: I wish someone would ask: “Does it bother you that people are so intimidated by your breathtaking beauty and intelligence?”

For some reason, nobody has ever asked me that.

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?


7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Jan: Peas. (I hate peas so much that, instead of eating them, I once stuck them up my nose and had to be taken to the emergency room to have them extracted. I was four years old when I did that . . . or was it fourteen?)

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

Jan: Creating children’s books, getting outdoors to run, bike, and paint . . .

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Jan: Back hair (except for my husband’s, of course, which is, uh . . . charming).

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

Jan: “#*$%,” and “%&#*,” and “#*$&!!!” (But, I’m not allowed to curse—my kids tell on me.)

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

Jan: The sound of a can of Pringles potato chips being opened.

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

Jan: The stifled gasp of a dentist.

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

Jan: I’d probably like to be a musician, an animator, or the smiling, waving person standing in the caboose of a train.

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

Jan: I would not like to be a Biological Observer on a factory trawler in the rough Bering Sea, during the bleakest, most frigid months of winter. (I had that job once.)

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

Jan: “Don’t worry! I love your books, and I’m going to make a huge exception in your case . . . and the cow is going to be fine.”

* * * * * * *

All artwork and photos (with the exception of the coffee mug) courtesy of Jan Thomas. All rights reserved.

18 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Jan Thomas
(In Which Adrienne and Fuse Also Join Us for Oatmeal)”

  1. What an EXCELLENT way to start my day!! Jan Thomas’ work makes me smile (if I’m not laughing out loud)!! Proud to say I introduced Duck, Pig, Cow and the rest of the crew to K-2 teachers in Michigan, so a whole new fan club has begun!

  2. This was a total gift!

    I’ve been considering making myself a “Fan of Jan” t-shirt ever since I first met Fat Cat and company.

  3. You know what? I just enjoyed that interview so much I’m going to reread it again. And again and again and again.

  4. Hah, I KNEW I wasn’t the only back to the wall in a restuarant person! When the forces of crazy waiters rise up, Jan Thomas and I will be safe! I am a recent convert to all things Thomas, by way of the Doghouse and Rhyming Dust Bunnies. I must immediately go forth and find that Fat Cat book-looks great!

  5. Thanks, everyone. It was fun having Jan—and crew—over for breakfast.

    Ask me how excited I am about those TWO NEW FALL ’09 TITLES!

    Jennifer, now I’ve got this elaborate story in my head about the Waiter Rebellion. My husband is also a back-to-the-wall restaurant-diner. I’ve never understood it, but I see he’s not alone.

  6. Actually, I think Tony Soprano & Co. favor(ed) sitting backs to the wall, too, although obviously they couldn’t all do it at the same time. Keeps you alerted to the comings and goings of potential rivals and threats, and warns you of the approach of people you probably want to smile at even if you hate their guts.

    Er, not saying any of this applies to present company, of course.

    I can see why kids favor Jan Thomas’s books even before they hear or read the first word. First, there are the big thick black outlines which suggest If you hold a big fat black crayon in your little fist, I bet YOU can draw like this, too! And the manic expressions on the characters’ faces — well, put it this way: they seem infused with the same deranged glee as many of the characters on the 1970s-era Electric Company TV show. (E.g. Rita Moreno singing the “Hey, you GUYS” song.)

    And those impressionistic landscapes? Whoa.

    Thanks to Adrienne and Fuse for helping out!

  7. Ha! This interview was almost as funny as her books, which is saying a lot…

  8. Me too with the back-to-the-wall in restaurants! My joke with my BFF is that it’s so my enemies can’t sneak up on me (she totally enables this quirk of mine, which is, I guess, why we’re BFFs).

    The interview is great, and all the images! I can’t wait to see those future projects, particularly Can You Make a Scary Face.

  9. A great interview! loved every word!

  10. What a great interview!I plan on visiting it again.Thanks Adrienne for the shout out!

  11. Hahaha! I love the picture of Jan’s editor and the caption that goes with it. Hahaha!

  12. Great interview – and I think Adrienne’s real-life doggies are ADORABLE!

  13. I am thrilled to find this interview. After reading Rhyming Dust Bunnies, I went and got the other three from the library and my 3-year-old daughter Ivy (intrepid co-blogger) immediately fell in love with them. Me, too. Yay, Jan!

  14. […]  […]

  15. […] a wonderful in-depth interview, read 7-Imp’s interview with Jan. Advertisement GA_googleAddAttr(“AdOpt”, “1”); GA_googleAddAttr(“Origin”, “other”); […]

  16. […] made clear in my 2009 interview with Jan Thomas (for which Betsy Bird and Adrienne Furness joined me), I really enjoy Jan’s books. They make […]

  17. […] perfect for the preschool and kindergarten crowd. To learn more about Jan Thomas, read an author interview from the excellent book blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.  Share one of her books […]

  18. My 5 year old LOVES fat cat. Laughs her little butt off while reading it. Thank you for creating books that are fun and with few words so she isn’t intimidated by attempting to read it!

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