Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Stephen Shaskan

h1 January 17th, 2012 by jules

I initially created this interview format, the Seven Questions Over Breakfast one, for brand-new illustrators — so that my readers and I can meet up-and-coming artists. Turns out I use it for more experienced authors and artists as well, ’cause the ready-made format, given my busy schedule, makes it, quite simply, easier to post any interviews at all. But my point? Today’s featured illustrator, Stephen Shaskan, is definitely new to the scene, his first published picture book released last Fall by Chronicle Books (and featured here at 7-Imp). Having this cyber-breakfast with him is, I think, a good introduction, a way for all of us to get to know his work a bit more.

photo by Karl RaschkeStephen’s thickly-lined and quite manic art from A Dog Is a Dog was met with good reviews. “Shaskan’s debut looks simple,” wrote Publishers Weekly, “but it’s in fact a polished and controlled piece of work. … There’s a chunky, woodcut feel to Shaskan’s hip and cheery art, and he gives each of the animals abundant personality.” As I already said here at 7-Imp in the 2011 post, I liked his debut. It’s a fun and clever book for the youngest of readers, and I look forward to what comes next from Stephen (whose last name, he likes to assist readers, rhymes with “trash can”).

So, I invited him for a breakfast interview to find out what does come next for him. His breakfast-of-choice? “Dim sum. Especially the steamed pork buns, shrimp with cilantro dumplings, Chinese broccoli, and crispy shrimp balls!” He added, “if you’re ever in Minneapolis, I’ll have to take you to the Mandarin Kitchen. If you’re super adventurous, you can try the chicken feet, shark fin, and beef stomach!”

Well, dim sum for breakfast is new for me, but I’m game. I’m going to put on lots of coffee, too, as usual.

I thank Stephen for visiting.

* * * * * * *

Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Stephen: Author/Illustrator/Music-maker/Substitute Preschool Teacher Extraordinaire.

Jules: Can you list your books-to-date?

Stephen: A Dog Is a Dog (Chronicle Books).

I also illustrated Art Panels, BAM! Speech Bubbles, POW! Writing Your Own Graphic Novel (Picture Window Books), which my wife, Trisha Speed Shaskan, wrote.

This is not to mention the eight books that I wrote and illustrated before I ever even sent out A Dog Is a Dog, some of which I am constantly revising. A Dog Is a Dog was the first book I ever sent out. It was the book that I thought could make it. Luckily, I was right. Victoria Rock picked it out of Chronicle’s slush pile. They weren’t crazy about the art (pictured below), but based on what they saw on my website, they thought that I could pull it off. I jumped at the opportunity to work with Chronicle. I was pleased that they wanted me to change the art, because I had progressed as an artist. I started writing children’s stories as a way to show I could illustrate a sequence of events.


Original, rejected art for A Dog Is a Dog

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

Stephen: I sketch, using mechanical pencils, scan my sketches, and finish all the art in Photoshop. During my senior year at RISD, I fell into screen-printing. I continued to screen-print after graduating, mostly local rock show posters. I try to bring a printmaking feel into my digital art by adding imperfections that would naturally occur when printing.

Jules: 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?

Stephen (pictured left, as a baby): I tend to stick with the younger set. I’ve worked as a preschool teacher for nine years and focus my work around the kids I work with.

For Writing Your Own Graphic Novel, I drew an older child (pictured below). Picture Window’s art director had always liked my work, but it seemed too young for what they were doing. When this project came up, they thought I could handle it. I liked the challenge.

Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Stephen: I live in Minneapolis, MN. I grew up in upstate New York, went to school in Providence, RI, and lived in Brooklyn for six months after graduating, then moved to Minneapolis to form a band. I still play music. I created the music on my book trailer for A Dog Is a Dog, and I write and play kids’ songs, as well as some electronic music with a friend.


Stephen with his wife, Trisha

Everyone thinks of Minnesota as Garrison Keillor, Fargo, Michele Bachmann, and the Mall of America. But I think of Minnesota as the home of Bob Dylan, The Replacements, Soul Asylum, Hüsker Dü, Tapes ‘n Tapes, Cloud Cult, Al Franken, Jesse Ventura, Paul Wellstone, Walker Art Center, and Prince! Minneapolis and St. Paul have awesome bars, great chefs, and a thriving underground music scene. The Current, our public radio station, is an alternative rock station. We also have a fantastic writing community. We are home to the Loft Literary Center, Hamline University has a low residency Master’s program in writing for children, Children’s Literature Network (CLN) started here, and there are several state- and independently-funded grants and fellowships for writers and artists.

If the weather wasn’t so cold in the winter, we would be over-populated.

Jules: Can you briefly tell me about your road to publication?


“…the first illustration that I did that was focused on children’s book illustration”

Stephen: First off, I would not be published without my wife. She also writes for children and was the person who inspired me to write/illustrate for children. She taught me everything, and what she didn’t know we learned together at local and national SCBWI conferences and at the Loft Literary Center. As for craft, I learned the ins and outs of picture books by reading them everyday for nine years.

I was also working on single panel comics, called Planet Schmuck. They were loosely based on the children I worked with. It seemed like a natural progression.


I am always put off by writers I meet, who say, “I read so many picture books, and think, I could write one better than that.” I write picture books in hopes to write something as great Sendak, Shea, Shannon, Rathmann, Bottner, Willems, Crews, Krauss, Johnson, Portis, Mayer, Klassen, Keats, Marshall, Scieszka, Wiesner, Gorbachev, Foley, Steig, Freeman, Blair, Munsch, Martin, Carle, Cronin, Brown, Long, Wood — and the list keeps going.

After several years of studying picture books, reading them out loud to kids, writing my own, creating dummies, and having professional portfolio critiques at conferences from John Rocco, Adam Rex, and Victoria Jamieson, I felt it was time to send one out. A Dog Is a Dog was the dummy I sent out. I researched the market (editors/publishers) and sent out to nine different publishers. This was September 2008. I received a handful of rejections and felt the project was dead.

During August 2009, Victoria Rock from Chronicle Books sent me an e-mail saying they’re interested in the project. November 2009, the book passed through acquisitions. March 2010, they made an offer. The contracts were signed by August 2010. The finished art and manuscript were done by May 2011.


“Whether it suns on the beach, or glides on the ice.”
(Click to enlarge)


“Whether it’s hairless and cold, or wrapped up in furs.
A cat is a cat, if it didn’t . . . or did! A cat is a cat, unless it’s a . . .”

(Click to enlarge)


“A squid is a squid, when it’s stuck . . . or set loose.
A squid is a squid, unless it’s a . . .”

(Click to enlarge)


“A moose is a moose, in the clear . . . or the fog.
A moose is a moose, unless it’s a . . .”

(Click to enlarge)

Jules: Can you please point readers to your web site and/or blog?

Stephen: www.stephenshaskan.com.

There will be a blog attached to it soon.

Jules: If you do school visits, tell me what they’re like.

Stephen: I haven’t done one yet, but I am very open. Being an educator, I would like to work with teachers to make the experience most meaningful to the students, but also to make sure the kids have fun.


Stephen at a Target Book Festival

Jules: If you teach illustration, by chance, tell me how that influences your work as an illustrator.

Stephen: I don’t teach illustration, but I do teach critical thinking skills to preschoolers. I feel that critical thinking is the root of all great art. The preschoolers that I work with influence my art more than any college illustration students could.

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

Stephen: I currently have three dummy books circulating, three dummies that I am working on, and a project with Beach Lane Books.

The project with Beach Lane Books is The Three Triceratops Tuff, a Cretaceous retelling of The Three Billy Goats Gruff. It will come out in Spring 2013.


From a new dummy book, called Little Choo


A “finished” piece from a dummy book, called Birthday Party!

Mmm. Coffee.Okay, the coffee and dim sum are ready, and it’s time to get a bit more detailed with seven questions over breakfast. I thank Stephen again for visiting 7-Imp.

1. Jules: 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?

Stephen: I have no one way of writing/illustrating a book. I have a list of ideas for books. There are about thirty different ideas and counting on that list. For over half of those ideas I have some part of the project started, whether it is character sketches, a finished piece of art, a hand-written first draft, completed draft, or just a few lines. Periodically, I look at my list, and think about what I have done and whether a project is worth pursuing.




Early art for A Dog Is a Dog

I am currently working on three different projects. Each of these has a finished manuscript or what I consider finished (pre-editor). For one, I am in the stages of sketching out the complete dummy and creating four finished pieces of art. For the second one, I am working on one piece of finished art and lots of sketches. For the third, I am working the beginnings of character sketches and ideas for spreads. I am also working on that second book, The Three Triceratops Tuff



More revisions to the art for A Dog Is a Dog


Final spread: “…whether it’s naughty . . . or nice.”
(Click to enlarge)

2. Jules: Describe your studio or usual work space.

Stephen: My studio is in my basement. I have a collection of robots and all things spacey. I’m a bit of a Star Wars geek. About three years ago, I realized that I had everything I really needed, and so for birthdays and Christmas all I ask for is toys. It makes Christmas and my birthday awesome! The room is decorated with IKEA modern furniture to fit the space-age theme. I am currently working on a book with robots, and I am very excited! I love robots but have always had such a respect for them that it took me a long time to finally come up with a good enough idea using robots. I still haven’t thought of any ideas for a space-themed book, yet.


More revisions to the art for A Dog Is a Dog


Early version of final spread from A Dog Is a Dog

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

Stephen: Definitely Mercer Mayer’s One Monster After Another, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, Arnold Lobel’s Mouse Soup, and Dr. Seuss’ If I Ran the Zoo. I loved The Runaway Pancake and The Monster at the End of This Book.


But I also loved Marvel and DC comic books. My favorites were the X-Men, the Invaders, Teen Titans, Vigilante, Doctor Strange, and Daredevil. My favorite thing to read was Mad (magazine). I also read Crazy and Cracked, but Mad was my favorite. It was just the right amount of satire and naughtiness and contained some of the best cartoonists.


Created by Stephen, age 8

4. Jules: If you could have three authors or illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose? (If they’re deceased, I won’t tell.)

Stephen: I would love to sit with Ruth Krauss, Crockett Johnson, and Maurice Sendak.

But it would almost be better to view that friendship without the filter of having an outsider in the room. These are people who are intentional in their work. They truly attempt to understand the world of the child. They bring child development into their work. They understand that a child is constantly using play to explore and understand the “real” world, and this play often involves fears. Books are a safe way of dealing with these fears. They also understand that this use of play/imagination is always happening. Young children are in a state of imagination and reality at the same time. Not only is it a way to deal with fears, but it is also a way to understand the world they live in.

I would also like to get Jon Scieszka (whom I have met), Bob Shea, and Mo Willems in a room, but I think that would be better with hard liquor.

5. Jules: What is currently in rotation on your iPod or loaded in your CD player? Do you listen to music while you create books?

Stephen: I am a big fan of Pandora Radio. It doesn’t take up space on my computer. I have seventy bands I’ve created stations for, I put it on “mix,” and it’s constantly popping up with new bands. A lot of electronic music, ranging from early ’70s German experimental to LCD Soundsystem.

The artists I could listen to every day are Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, Gary Numan, Black Sabbath, Prince, and LCD Soundsystem.


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

Stephen: I keep a big bar of Trader Joe’s Swiss Dark Chocolate with 30% Whole Hazelnuts next to me when I work.


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

Stephen: I think I would want everyone to know that I take writing and illustrating for children very seriously. There is a reason behind every part of every picture — and every word. I love librarians, teachers, bloggers, parents, grandparents, and any mix of these, but I only write for children. I write for the stinkers and the thinkers, the 99% of children who don’t fall into society’s thoughts of childhood sweetness.

One day at the preschool I work at a new three-year-old child was starting in the classroom. It was her first day and first time she ever met me. She came in and sat right next to me at the table for snack time. She looked like a little girl version of Denis Leary, a rumpled little curmudgeon. She turned to me and said, “I like to go on fast roller coasters, really fast.” I instantly loved her spirit. There are already a few lines and character sketches about this child.

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

Stephen: “Curmudgeon.”

Jules: What is your least favorite word?

Stephen: “Boho,” as in “Boho Chic.”

Jules: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Stephen: Music.

Jules: What turns you off?

Stephen: Idiots.

Jules: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Stephen: I like them all.

Jules: What sound or noise do you love?

Stephen: Good music.

Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?

Stephen: Crows.

Jules: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Stephen: I always wanted to be a make-up special effects artist, animator, or space traveler without all the science stuff like cabin pressure and breathing in a space suit.

Jules: What profession would you not like to do?

Stephen: Anything to do with sewage or mass amounts of animal feces. Dirty diapers are bad enough!

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

Stephen: “Party can start: Steve is here!”

* * * * * * *

Opening photo of Stephen taken by Karl Raschke.

A DOG IS A DOG. Copyright © 2011 Stephen Shaskan. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Chronicle Books, San Francisco.

All other artwork and images used with permission of Stephen Shaskan. All rights reserved.

The spiffy and slightly sinister gentleman introducing the Pivot Questionnaire is Alfred, © 2009 Matt Phelan.

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10 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Stephen Shaskan”

  1. Thanks to you both for this wonderful interview. I am going to add it as a link to my review of A Dog is a Dog. I can’t wait for The Three Triceratops Tuff. I’m smiling at my computer just thinking about it. About three years ago two fourth grade students illustrated two three-ring binders filled with cartoon characters that they had created themselves. I cataloged them and put them on the shelves for circulation. I sure wish I would have had Art Panels Bam!, Speech Bubbles Pow! then but I’m off to get it now. Thanks again.


  2. I loved A Dog is a Dog! So fun to get to know it’s creator…


  3. What a fun interview! Steve is a real gem. Now I have “Cars” by Gary Neuman stuck in my head. :)


  4. [...] A BIG THANK YOU TO JULIE WALKER DANIELSON, for this great opportunity! [...]


  5. Love this interview! Especially your thoughts about Kraus, Johnson, Sendak who like you, I think, took writing and illustrating for children seriously.

    I want to see more of Planet Schmuck.


  6. Thanks for all the kind words everyone. I really loved doing this interview! To Debbie, here is a link to my Planet Schmuck face book page. http://www.facebook.com/pages/Planet-Schmuck/204539302931186


  7. Fantastic! So fun to see the original DOG art. And the baby pic, band pix, etc. I’m here in Minneapolis with Stephen and Trisha and get to see them occasionally at kidlit events. They’ve had a great couple of years–can’t wait to see what they each do next!


  8. And he’s a substitute preschool teacher? Love that.

    Also love “space traveler without all the science stuff like cabin pressure and breathing in a space suit.” Doesn’t EVERYONE want to do that?

    I’m looking forward to more books from Stephen. A Dog is a Dog is a favorite of ours here at the library.


  9. The book sounds great! Interesting and original premise!


  10. Great interview, and I love his art. So cool to hear from someone “starting out” (well, with a lot of work and knowledge behind) and hear about what went right + wrong. It’s encouraging! And I bet he would make a tip top pre-school teacher.


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