Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Ben Clanton

h1 October 7th, 2014 by jules

Pumpkin granola with vanilla almond milk. Sourdough toast. And a cup of hot apple cider with caramel. Mmm. That’s the breakfast I’m having this morning with author-illustrator Ben Clanton.

Once upon a time—2010, to be exact—Ben visited 7-Imp before he was even a published author and illustrator, and it’s good to have him back. As you’ll read below, Ben has several picture books under his belt and more on the way. His brand-new picture book, Rex Wrecks It! (Candlewick, September 2014), is filled with what the Kirkus review calls a joyous energy. And I know for a fact that it is a story-time hit.

I love, in particular, to see Ben’s pencil and watercolor drawings (there are many in this interview today), and guess what? He recently started a Facebook page showing off his darker doodles. It’s called—you guessed it—“Dark Doodles,” and it’s here. Want to see one? Ben posted this just last night.

Perfect. It is nearly Halloween, after all.

Ben seems to be enjoying the new Facebook page, and so do those who have gone to visit it (including me). “I’m always careful about which sketchbooks to bring to signings and school visits,” he tells me. “Often there are dark things amongst the oodles of cute.”

So, to see both the dark and cute, keep reading below. Ben sent tons of art (which is how you win this blogger’s heart). I thank him for sharing.

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Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Ben: Author/Illustrator!

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

Ben: I’ve written and illustrated four picture books: Mo’s Mustache; Vote for Me!; The Table Sets Itself; and Rex Wrecks It! And I’m happy to say several more are in the works.

Books I have illustrated: Jasper John Dooley: Star of the Week by Caroline Adderson; Jasper John Dooley: Left Behind by Caroline Adderson; Jasper John Dooley: Not in Love by Caroline Adderson; Max Has a Fish by Wiley Blevins.

(A 2015 Jasper John Dooley title)

Jules: What is your usual medium?

Ben: Typically, I use a mix of ink (micron pens and dip pens), watercolor (Daniel Smith watercolor sticks), and pencil (6B or HB) — plus a bit of digital magic (Photoshop CS5).

My preferred paper is Strathmore Aquarius II.

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?

Ben: I find that illustrating a chapter book comes with certain expectations — generally, the pieces are black and white, have backgrounds and/or depict scenes, and do less of the storytelling than the words. Not always the case! But usually it is.

I find that picture books are much more open and allow for greater creativity. The format is more malleable when it comes to shape, size, color, the integration of the text, content, and design. For me, this sort of freedom is both challenging and rewarding.

The above illustrations are from
Caroline Adderson’s
Jasper John Dooley series

Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Ben: I currently live in an old brick mill next to a pond in North Andover, MA. But Seattle, WA; Kalispell, MT; and Portland, OR, will always be home too.

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

Ben: I first became interested in writing children’s books when I was a freshman at Willamette University. I had a developing passion for social justice and service-learning and figured that I could make a difference by addressing important topics in children’s books. As a result, my original story attempts were extremely didactic. But with some encouragement from my girlfriend Kelsey (now my wife!) and her mother, Teresa Walsh (who happens to be an illustrator), I started to read picture books voraciously and began drawing and painting.

I became hugely passionate about making books. I joined SCBWI (an excellent decision for anyone who has an interest in creating children’s books) and attended conferences and workshops. When I graduated from Willamette (Anthropology major, Politics minor), I moved to Seattle and started to work at a before- and after-school program. My typical day started with reading stories with kids (sometimes my own stories — great opportunity to test them!), working on my stories between shifts, and playing with the kids. I learned A LOT about how to make books of interest to kids because of that experience.

It was during that time that I was featured on this very blog (a 7-Imp’s 7 Kicks post)! Shortly after that post (and because of it!), I received an email from Tara Walker at Kids Can Press saying she would love to see more of my work. I sent her several picture book dummies, but none of them were quite right for Kids Can. However, Kids Can was interested in having me illustrate a new chapter book series, Jasper John Dooley by Caroline Adderson. Not very long after that I came up with a picture book that Tara and Kids Can were interested in, Vote for Me! [pictured below].

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


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

Ben: I love doing school visits! Generally, I prefer to meet with smaller groups (one or two classes) at a time, because that way I can do more specialized hands-on stuff with the kids — like play drawing games or make up stories with them! I enjoy getting the kids involved. Often when I’m making drawings for the kids I’ll have them come up and pose as angry unicats and that sort of thing.

I also really like corresponding with kids. It is fun and inspiring to hear about what the kids enjoy, and I love the drawings kids make.

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

Ben: My latest picture book, Rex Wrecks It! (Candlewick), just came out. The story started out in an unusual way for me. Typically, a story idea comes all at once for me and I start by writing it down. This one started with pictures. I wanted to do a book that featured some of my favorite things to draw — things like dinosaurs, robots, monsters, and unibbits. The narrative came about from a comic I had drawn in my sketchbook about a little Godzilla character who kept messing up play time for everyone.

My next book will be Something Extraordinary (Simon & Schuster), pictured below. I think I set the bar rather high with that title! It comes out next June.

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I’m also currently working on a graphic novel and just finishing my first draft of the first chapter book I’ve ever written.


A cover mock-up for the chapter book
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Mmm. Coffee.Okay, we’ve got more cider, and it’s time to get a bit more detailed with seven questions over breakfast. I thank Ben 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?

Ben: So far, I’ve found that each book is a little different. But I have noticed that my best ideas usually come in a flash of inspiration. Often this happens when I’m allowing my mind to wander (not an uncommon occurrence). I might be out for a walk, taking a shower, or driving somewhere when suddenly I stumble upon something I find funny and/or interesting. Next thing I know a story is playing out in my mind. Often I’ll let it tumble around my head for a bit and write down the occasional note about it in my sketchbook.

Funnily, some of my best ideas also come about when I’m under pressure. When I was working at a before- and after-school program in Seattle, I would make comics for the kids on the spot. Two of my books (Mo’s Mustache and Rex Wrecks It!) were a result of such comics.

When I feel like it is time for the idea to really get my attention, I sit down at the computer and type up a manuscript. I let it sit for a bit and then start the process of editing and fine-tuning. For me, writing a picture book feels the same way as writing a poem. Each word counts, and the way they are organized (or not!) is imperative.

Once I have actually written the story down, I start the process of drawing the characters and exploring the visual style of the story. I also start the storyboarding process at this point. Typically, I start with small thumbnail scribbles and with each revision make it all a bit bigger and more precise. At this point I have to change up a lot of the wording to fit with the visual half. I want the words to be able to stand on their own and for the pictures to be able to as well, but for both to work best when together. The interplay of the two is very important to me.

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When creating a book dummy, I draw all the elements by hand and then assemble them in Photoshop so that I can move them around easily on the spread and try a number of compositions.

I approach final art in a similar way. I draw and paint each character and element individually, scan, and then assemble in Photoshop. It can be a bit of a time-consuming and meticulous affair, but also strangely cathartic. There is the danger at this point in the process of snuffing the life out of the illustrations. I try to allow happy accidents. I want the human hand visible in my work. I often find myself battling the perfectionist in me.

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

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Robot helpers
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View from the studio window
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Ben loves books
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Ben: I work from home and pretty much everywhere I go (always have a sketchbook with me). I tend to be a messy person, but recently I’ve been doing a good job of keeping it all somewhat organized. I definitely feel best when my work space is on the clean side.

I have a number of studio assistants [pictured above]. My dinosaur, Rex, isn’t so helpful. When my workspace is messy, it is usually his fault. My robot helpers make much better assistants.

I also have an intern, who joins me for walks in the woods. Her name is gigi.

Ben and gigi

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

Ben: A lot of the classics! Where the Wild Things Are, The Very Quiet Cricket, Make Way for Ducklings, The Story of Ferdinand, everything by Tomie dePaola, and all the books by Dr. Seuss were frequent reads for me.

And when I say “reads” I mean that I read them visually. I wasn’t too keen on reading words when I was a kid, but I loved the pictures. Recently I discovered some correspondence between my mom and my third-grade teacher in which my mom expressed concern that all I did was look at pictures. She was afraid I’d get too far behind, because I didn’t bother with the words. It was Harry Potter that ended up getting me into the words. That series made me the book addict I am today.

Oh, also, It Zwibble and the Greatest Cleanup Ever! LOVED that book!

[Pictured below are some early images and final art from Mo’s Mustache,
published last year by Tundra Books.]

Thumbnail doodles
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Pictured above: Early drawings
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Character work
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Cover wrap idea
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Cover wrap
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“Mo’s Mustache Manual”
(the flip side of the dust jacket)

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Dummy image
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Final spread
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Dummy image

Dummy image
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Dummy image
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Final spread
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Final spread
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4. Jules: If you could have three (living) authors or illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose? (Some people cheat and list deceased authors/illustrators. I won’t tell.)

Ben: Quentin Blake, David Roberts, and Chris Riddell. I have a thing for those British illustrators!

[Pictured below are some early images and final art from The Table Sets Itself,
published last year by Walker Books for Young Readers.]

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Final spread: “Where in the universe were Dish and Spoon?”
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Final spread: “It looked like Dish and Spoon might never return. …”
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Final spread: “Izzy would have taken off for France right then and there,
but her parents didn’t understand.”

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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?

Ben: I like to listen to audio books, when illustrating. I go through several per week. Currently, I’m listening to Stoneheart by Charlie Fletcher and read by Jim Dale. I’ve got a voice crush on Jim Dale. Kelsey (my wife) and I have all the Harry Potter audiobooks (read by Jim Dale), and we fall asleep to them every night. Many people are surprised when they find out I work while listening to an audio book, but for me drawing is sometimes like breathing and, at other times, a meticulous task. In both cases, it is nice to do something else at the same time.

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When I write, I tend not to listen to anything, but sometimes I’ll listen to music — Jack Johnson, Vampire Weekend, and James Taylor are a few favorites of mine. My book Mo’s Mustache was a bit of an exception. When I worked on that book, I listened to The Bee Gees and anything else that put me in the mood to dance. Drawing and dancing at the same time is lots of fun. I also make sound effects when drawing, but typically when I’m the only one around.

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

Ben: Whenever I mow a lawn, I imagine it is a televised lawn-mowing competition. The announcers evaluate my technique and everything. Speed matters — but so does the quality of the cut. Yep.

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

Ben: What is your dream project?

I really want to start or take part in making a quarterly children’s magazine with 100+ pages, printed on uncoated stock. It would have oodles of random awesomeness — stories, comics, coloring pages, drawing games, jokes, nonsense, and art made by kids. And all of my favorite illustrators would take part, of course. Something akin to The Goods but magazine format — so room for even more.

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* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

Ben: “Doodles!”

Jules: What is your least favorite word?

Ben: I feel that most words (even the ones that grate on me a bit) have their place. But one that does send a shiver down my spine is “moist.”

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

Ben: Walking in the woods, ice cream, bookstores, hot chocolate, games, drawing …

Jules: What turns you off?

Ben: Apathy.

Jules: What sound or noise do you love?

Ben: The sound of the ocean.

Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?

Ben: Shouting. But that depends on the situation.

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

Ben: Professional basketball player!

Jules: What profession would you not like to do?

Ben: Butcher.

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

Ben: “What do you want to go back as? I think you’d make an excellent dragon!”

p.s. Don’t miss Ben’s 2013 conversation with Jama Rattigan.

All artwork and images are used with permission of Ben Clanton.

REX WRECKS IT. Copyright © 2014 by Ben Clanton. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

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

10 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Ben Clanton”

  1. totally laughing here about the lawn mowing technique.
    ANd if you ever start that magazine filled with awesomeness for kids, I’m in.
    Love it and your work!

  2. Fantastic interview. You can sketch my books or mow my lawn any time!

  3. Thanks, Jules for this vast and wonderful peek into the brilliant world of Ben Clanton. I just couldn’t stop smiling at this interview. Ben–I love the magazine idea and, of course, you know you can mow my lawn, anytime. I’ll try not to judge. 😉

  4. This interview is funny and full of life. And I love, love, love all the art.

  5. Incredible. Ben is CRAZY talented. Greatly enjoyed this interview.

  6. There is no way that Ben Clanton is a messy person. No way. His books are so neat, in every wonderful sense of the word. Love this interview! So much talent.

  7. Love everything about this! Now I am obsessed with wanting to get him to come to my kids’ Montessori school. My son and some of his classmates have been working on designing comic strips for weeks and they would just EAT THIS UP. Glad he has so many new projects in the works–can’t wait!

  8. I really enjoyed this interview! His work is so simple, in a great way, and funny, such a coherent vision. I love Mo’s Mustache and that Sir Lancebot cover is excellent! Look forward to seeing his new books. I envy his collection, wow.

  9. I just love Ben!!! He is amazing and now after reading his wonderful interview I want more. I have been following him since I found out about him. He has come to my blog a few times and I was so excited each time. I adore his spirit and his awesome illustrations.

  10. […] Check out some of the inside spreads from the book (along with lots of other cool stuff) in this interview at 7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast. […]

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