Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Jeff Newman

h1 February 16th, 2010 by jules

I’ve got my cereal bowl ready this morning, as I’m having Lucky Charms with author/illustrator Jeff Newman. I have to say: I like this interview. I want to take it to the zoo to visit hippos and rhinos. I like Jeff’s responses, particularly his…well, his economy of expression. (The good kind, that is. I’ve had some interviewees exhibit an economy of expression coupled with an obvious apathy for the interview, but Jeff is both to-the-point and friendly.) And I am happy about all the art he’s sharing this morning. In my world, Jeff is one of children’s literature’s newest sensations: In a just world, I think he’d Go Places. His art work and storytelling are fresh and funny and like no other’s.

I admit I haven’t read his first book (Jeff lists his books below), but when Hippo! No, Rhino came out in ’06, looking easily like a book that might have been published when I was but a wee babe, it quickly became one of my favorite picture books from that year. (And there are precisely seven skerjillion picture books about zoos in this world; that one’s probably my favorite of all.) Most of the story in Hippo! No, Rhino, as well as his new title, is told through the illustrations, School Library Journal calling it a “clever exercise in promoting visual literacy.”

Wait. What was that? Did I mention his new title? Well, let’s get right to it. I can’t wait any longer. I love his new picture book so much. I really do. If it had a neck, I’d hug its neck. My favorite picture book thus far in 2010 this one is. It’s called…

…and Betsy Bird gave it a glowing review (the glow is well-deserved)—a detailed review, as always—here, so go and read, if you’re so inclined. “Brilliant brilliant brilliant” is how she closed her review for this title, and she’d be right. And that was after she wrote, “{t}his book is remarkable without having to breathe so much as a word.” That’s also true. The Boys is all about a shy boy, new to town and afraid to approach the neighborhood kids at the baseball field, who then finds himself sitting with four elderly men on a park bench. I don’t want to give anything away here (Betsy’s review has a plot summary, if you’re hankerin’ for one), except to say that the old men, including the surly one, find a way to bring the boy out of his shell. Now, that all sounds like an ABC Afterschool Special, but really…go pick up a copy of this wordless gem. Gem gem gem. It is a gem.

(By the way, this was published by Simon & Schuster and should be released next week. You see, I thought it was already out; I have an early copy of the book. I KEEP DOING THIS. My apologies. I’m generally disorganized. You won’t have to wait too long for this one, though: The Simon & Schuster site says February 23rd, and—incidentally—you can browse inside the book a bit at this link over there.)

Let’s get to the interview. I’ll set the table for our breakfast chat (the cereal’s ready, but I’ve got to brew some strong coffee) and get the basics from Jeff in the process. I thank him for stopping by. (Quick note: Don’t miss Minh Le’s ’08 interview with Jeff at the one and only Bottom Shelf Books.)

* * * * * * *

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

Jeff: Author/Illustrator.

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

Jeff: Reginald, Hippo! No, Rhino, and The Boys.

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

Jeff: At the moment, gouache.

Early spreads from The Boys

7-Imp: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Jeff: Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but born and raised in Ashland, Massachusetts, home of the electric clock.

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

{Ed. Note: Pictured below is an illustration from Stanley Yelnats’ Survival Guide to Camp Green Lake (Yearling Books, 2003).}

Jeff: I moved to New York City with my friend, Amy, in 2000, after she’d been hired as an assistant to an art director at Random House. One day, she mentioned that the art director was looking for someone to illustrate the cover for a new Harriet the Spy book (written by someone using a pseudonym, I think; I never found out who it actually was) and that she was willing to give me a shot at it. One of the stipulations of the project was that the illustrations had to resemble those of Louise Fitzhugh, the author and illustrator of the original Harriet the Spy books, so I spent the next week trying to draw like her. {Ed. Note: Sketches below.} I don’t think I came very close, but I got the job anyway.

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

Jeff: and

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

Jeff: I’m writing and illustrating another picture book with Simon & Schuster, and I’m illustrating Rabbit’s Snow Dance by James and Joseph Bruchac for Dial Books. {Ed. Note: Sketches for Rabbit’s Snow Dance below.}

Mmm. Coffee.Our table’s set now for seven questions over breakfast, and we’ve got our Lucky Charms. Let’s get a bit more detailed, and I thank Jeff again 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?

Jeff: If I’m just illustrating a book, I’ll read the story once. Then, I’ll re-read it while doodling characters and scenes in the margins of the paper. After that, I’ll go through the story for a third time and decide where the page breaks will be. Next comes a miniature, thumbnail dummy (or several), in which I’ll work out the pacing of the book and the general composition of the pages. That’s followed by an “actual” dummy which is about 75% the size of the final trim, is at least half in color, and includes more detailed sketches. I try to refrain making them too detailed, though, because I like to reserve a little room to surprise myself with the finished illustrations.

Sketches from Hippo! No, Rhino
(Click to enlarge.)

Character designs for Hippo! No, Rhino
(Click to enlarge.)

Thumbnail dummy sketch for Hippo! No, Rhino
(Click to enlarge.)

Dummy for Hippo! No, Rhino
(Click to enlarge.)

Cover ideas for Hippo! No, Rhino
(Click to enlarge.)

The process for writing and illustrating would ideally share many of the same steps, and it does, but I haven’t found it to be quite so straightforward. The Boys, for instance, started with a drawing of a boy dressed as an old man. Based on that character, I wrote a rough draft of a story that vaguely resembles the one in the published book. Except that it had words. Lots of words, and they weren’t very good. So, I decided to take all of them out. And that made it much better. At the same time, it completely changed my approach to the illustrations, which now had to carry the story on their own. But moving to a wordless format necessitated a streamlining of the story. There was a lot of back and forth and constant whittling, almost all the way up until the end, that I think would have been impossible if I was just illustrating someone else’s book.

Early 2004 sketch for The Boys

From the dummy for The Boys

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

Jeff: It’s a windowless, sparsely-decorated room in an old tannery. The building also happens to be listed on a “haunted Milwaukee” website. But the only uninvited guest I’ve had so far was a mouse that was after my Triscuits.

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

Jeff: I liked Miss Nelson is Missing by Harry Allard and James Marshall (who would definitely make the list below, if he was still alive). I was actually scared of Viola Swamp. There’s one image of her standing behind a frosted glass door, just before she enters the classroom that still kind of troubles me. Now that I’m thinking about it, I really hope that scene is in the book and not some kind of repressed memory.

{Ed. Note: Pictured left is an interior sketch from The Boys.}

I liked Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears, but I don’t remember why. I just know that I would look at it every time I went to the school library.

I loved Roald Dahl (especially The Witches). I loved Susan Cooper, just for The Dark is Rising series. And I especially loved Lloyd Alexander and The Chronicles of Prydain. I loved anything that had to do with the country of Wales, apparently.

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?

early illustration from THE BOYSJeff: Marcia Brown, Tomi Ungerer, and David Ezra Stein. I think that’d be a nice mix of old and new.

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?

Jeff: I do. Right now I’m listening to Dr. Dog, Rod Stewart and The Faces, and Radiohead, among others. I also download a ton of podcasts (Uhh Yeah Dude, Filmspotting, and Hometown Tales are some of my favorites), which are perfect for long stretches at the drawing table, as they’re usually between one to two hours in length.

Pie War

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

Jeff: That I pooped my pants at a circus when I was twelve. It’s like the worst age and place to do something like that.

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

Jeff: I don’t think so. I’ll have a better idea what that question might be if I get the chance to do a few more of these.

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Jeff: “Relax.” Also my wife’s least favorite word, as it turns out.

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Jeff: “Hormel.”

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

Jeff: Connecting with someone on any one of those levels.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Jeff: Small talk.

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

Jeff: My dog barking in her sleep.

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

Jeff: My phone ringing.

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

Jeff: Acting.

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

Jeff: Sign-holder, as in the guy that holds a sign outside Little Caesar’s in the freezing cold, advertising two large pizzas for ten dollars. God bless that man.

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

Jeff: “I blessed the Little Caesar’s guy for you.”

* * * * * * *

All artwork, sketches, and photos used with permission of Jeff Newman. All rights reserved.

The spiffy and slightly sinister gentleman introducing the Pivot Questionnaire is Alfred. He was created by Matt Phelan, and he made his 7-Imp premiere in mid-September. Matt told Alfred to just pack his bags and live at 7-Imp forever and always introduce Pivot. All that’s to say that Alfred is © 2009, Matt Phelan.

17 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Jeff Newman”

  1. Jeff’s answer to the final question cracked me up. Thanks for an awesome interview and some behind the scenes goodness.

    I’ve been a fan of Jeff’s work for a few years. I once won some original “shrunky dunks” or “shrinkly dinklys” in a “contest” on Jeff’s blog. I use the term contest loosely since I didn’t have to do much to win. They’re really cool pieces.

    Milwaukee is lucky to have him.

  2. Interesting! Thanks for the chance to learn more about Jeff and his work. Love the feet dangling sketch. Can’t wait to check out The Boys — between you and Betsy, it sounds absolutely fantastic.

  3. Awesome interview! Jeff’s a big talent and a great guy. I hope The Boys gets all the love it so deserves.

  4. Great interview. I love all the book excerpts. The only book I was familiar with was Reginald. It is nice to read about his newer books.

  5. The mouse followed you from Porter Rd. in Natick.
    Didn’t know I had that much influence on you at the circus! Think it was M. Roby!
    God will bless you for thinking about Little Caesar!
    Betty barks in her sleep?? Wowee

  6. My brother is awesome 🙂

    and he’s done grosser things than poop his pants at the circus…pepperoni pizza incident of ’87.

  7. Terrific interview – love his Pivot answers. And that his sister says there are worse things than that.

  8. Such gorgeous work! Great interview!

  9. I’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting for The Boys to arrive here since Betsy’s review. Soon, I hope. We love Hippo! No, Rhino here at the library. I put a copy on display just this afternoon, in fact.

  10. Also, Lucky Charms. MMMMM. I gave them up many years ago, but every time I see a box, I want some. They may not taste as good as my memory, though, I suppose.

  11. Fantastic choice of interviewee by my favorite interviewer. And this was really a guy I wanted to know more about too. Thanks so much!

  12. […] My February 2010 interview with author/illustrator Jeff Newman is here. […]

  13. […] and cover from James & Joseph Bruchac’s Rabbit’s Snow Dance, illustrated by Jeff Newman (Dial, November 2012)   * * *   (Click to […]

  14. […] artwork here is by Jeff Newman, who visited for breakfast in 2010. I always like to see what Newman is up to. There are some final spreads at the bottom of this […]

  15. […] week, I wrote about Tricia Springstubb’s Phoebe & Digger, illustrated by Jeff Newman and to be released by Candlewick next week. If you missed it, it’s here. Today, Jeff shares a […]

  16. […] an Elephant Fly? (coming to shelves in August from Simon & Schuster) in which Dan Richards and Jeff Newman explore what it looks like to a child when a parent stares into a cell phone. But mostly they tell […]

  17. […] week, I wrote here about Dan Richards’ Can One Balloon Make an Elephant Fly?, illustrated by Jeff Newman (coming to shelves in August from Simon & Schuster). Today, I have a few spreads from the […]

Leave a Comment

Should you have trouble posting, please contact Thanks.