Will someone hire me as librarian-for-the-day just so I can share Chris Barton’s and Tom Lichtenheld’s new title, Shark Vs. Train, with a group of children, followed by Bob Shea’s 2008 title, Dinosaur Vs. Bedtime? I think it quite possibly could be the Loudest and Most Entertaining Story Time in Recent History.
But I’m here to focus on the former title, released by Little, Brown earlier this month. In fact, as mentioned in my tremendously creative post title up there, the author and illustrator are joining me for late-night cyber-coffee to discuss the book. And its illustrator, Tom Lichtenheld (you do remember this wonderful madness, don’t you?), will share some rejected spreads from the book, once the coffee starts brewing. Yup, these spreads have little post-it notes on their backs that say “kick me.” But rejects have never been so welcome, I say. You’ll see why below.
In this book—in which Shark tells Train things like, “I’m going to CHOO-CHOO you up and spit you out,” and Train says, “HA! I’m going to FIN-ISH you, mackerel-breath”—a shark and a train square off in a series of competitions, no consistent victor ever being determined, seeing as how their respective superpowers (so to speak) are only relevant given the situation at hand: In other words, as you can see in the spread opening the post, Train’s got the upper hand on camping adventures, yet Shark can rack up the Halloween candy, given his sharp teeth, fin, and all-around bad-ass carnivorous tendencies. (That was eloquently-put, wasn’t it?) In fact, the latter is my favorite spread, though it’s not featured here. It’s pretty dang funny, what with Train’s costume-of-choice and the terrified home-owner who is distributing candy. The message is clear, yet the smart author-and-illustrator duo respect child readers enough to not lop them upside the head with it: No one opponent (rail transport, cartilaginous fish, or otherwise) gets to call the shots in any challenge. It all depends on “who gets to pick first…who names the game…and who deals the cards.”
Oh and it’s funny as hell. I hope Barton and Lichtenheld pair up again one day. Publishers Weekly went so far as to call it “a genius concept,” adding “Lichtenheld’s…watercolor cartoons have a fluidity and goofy intensity that recalls Mad magazine, while Barton…gives the characters snappy dialogue throughout.” This is, indeed, one of my favorite cartoon-style picture books of late. It’s exceptionally fun.
How they arrange for a shark and a train to be duking it out is clever, too, but I’ll let them explain. (Tom, in fact, covers that below.) Without further ado, here they are. And I thank them for joining me…
Chris: “One day in October 2006, I was having a conversation at the office with a co-worker—a writer himself and an avid reader to his own children—who observed that writing a shorter book (say, a picture book) takes less time than writing a longer book. As a card-carrying children’s author, and one who had been trying for years to get one particular picture book out into the world, I took umbrage. Oh, no, I said. It can take a long time, it’s a lot of work, revisions, finding just the right words, etc.
And then that evening, from completely out of the blue, a first draft of Shark Vs. Train just spilled out of me. I wish more of my friends would tell me how relatively easy it is to write a children’s book. Clearly, it inspired me.
But, in fact, that first draft did have a long way to go. A few of the scenarios in that draft did make it all the way into the finished book—the hot air balloon and seesaw scenes were there from the start—but most of them didn’t. Throughout the various revisions of the text, both before and after Tom got involved, the discarded jokes and situations piled up: Shark and Train on dirt bikes, Shark and Train in the Wild West, Shark and Train on The Dating Game…
Starting in fall of 2008, Tom and I worked together really closely – not just online and over the phone, but in person here in Austin. We spent a whole day together — first at Katz’s Deli and then in the children’s section at the Austin Public Library, adding and revising and scrapping ideas for dialogue and competitions and backstory. I’ve always been drawn to that sort of collaboration, and I’ve never had more fun as a writer than I did while working with Tom. Unlike Shark and Train, though, I think we managed not to disturb the other library patrons.
Tom had actually done character sketches of Shark and Train before Little, Brown even acquired the manuscript, and so I knew from way back that he completely got these characters and the sensibility of the book. His terrific illustrations show that clearly, but he added some other key elements to the story, too. Train’s caboose became its own scene-stealing character, because of Tom, and the Evel Knievel-esque climax was his idea, too.
By the time Tom and I were done with the book, it was frightening how much time we were spending on the same wavelength. One evening, as my carpool partner drove me home from work, I made some beyond-rough sketches of how we might be able to do a Halloween scene that was giving us trouble. I was so excited by what I came up with that I called Tom before I even got home to tell him what I had in mind. I began describing the scene, and Tom suggested putting Shark in a clown hat. “Tom, that’s in my sketch!” I said. Then, he suggested putting Groucho Marx glasses on Train. “Tom, that’s in my sketch!”
My next book, Can I See Your I.D.? True Stories of False Identities (Dial, 2011) is nonfiction for young adults, with illustrations by Paul Hoppe. I love the fact that Shark Vs. Train is sandwiched between that book and the recognition that The Day-Glo Brothers has received, because I’ve always loved doing both types of writing – the thoroughly-researched and the extremely silly. Now readers can see that for themselves before they get the notion that I—or they, or any writer—might be expected to limit the kinds of writing they do.“
Tom: “‘How would a shark and a train meet up in the first place?’
That’s the question Chris and I had to answer before we could move on to showing all the ridiculous contests our shark and a train compete in. We had to introduce these two disparate characters to each other, and we had to do it in a way that clearly cast them as adversaries. Shark and Train, coming from completely different worlds, had to be born enemies.
Our first effort was a failure, but an interesting one. We wrote a graphic novel-style story where the train is noisily going over a bridge, which antagonizes a shark in the water below. This, theoretically, starts their feud. It’s visually interesting, but far too contrived.
Then Chris came up with the idea of the toy box, and we knew we had a winner. It’s universally believable and puts the ensuing story into children’s imaginations, which is a world of unlimited possibilities.
Once the beginning was figured out, we started creating competitive situations. We probably sketched over a hundred situations before arriving at the combination that’s in the book. Here are a few of the more interesting ones that didn’t make it.“
SHARK VS. TRAIN by Chris Barton, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld © 2010. Completed spreads used with permission of Little, Brown, New York, NY.
All other images used with permission of Tom Lichtenheld.