As a person who abhors censorship and supports free thought and expression in all forms, Banned Book Week is one of my top favorite holidays. This is the time of year when we highlight those books that may terrify a small percentage of the population because of what they fear may happen if the information held within their pages is shared.
The horror! Run for the hills! Grab your pitchforks and torches! We must destroy what we don’t understand!
I obviously disagree. Knowledge isn’t inherently bad or good, it all depends on how you use it.
But I digress.
I’ll be celebrating this fantabulous holiday in a few ways, first by listening to a free audio version of Kurt Vonnegut’s SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE, read by the author himself. I actually read it the first time when I was in high school. My dad had it lying around, probably found it falling out of an overstuffed bookcase, and the title or cover must’ve appealed to me. I don’t remember much except the last line of the book. If you’ve ever read it, I’m sure you know why. (I actually remember peeking ahead to see if it really ended like it said it did. I’m sure I’m not the only one.) I look forward to rediscovering this story, again. Listening to the tale in Vonnegut’s own voice will be an extra treat.
For the second way of celebrating, I turn to the American Library Association, who just released the yearly list of top ten frequently challenged books with the CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS (series) by Dav Pilkey in the number one spot. Reasons? Offensive language, unsuited for age group. Now, I’m pretty sure there are no curse words in CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS, so what could this offensive language be? And unsuited for age group? I can’t think of anyone that would be more suited to read a story about a superhero named Captain Underpants than kids. Who do they think would be more suitable? Adults?
What are they talking about? Someone please explain this insanity.
Here’s the book synopsis from the author’s website:
Meet George and Harold, a couple of wise guys. The only thing they enjoy more than playing practical jokes is creating their own comic books. Together they have created the greatest comic-book superhero in the history of their elementary school – CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS! But George and Harold’s principal, mean old Mr. Krupp, doesn’t like their pranks OR their comic books. He’s cooked up a plan to catch George and Harold and stop their shenanigans – once and for all! This book is about what happened when that plan backfired, and Captain Underpants leaped off the page to save the day!
And here’s the story behind the story from the author’s website:
This book is based on a superhero that Dav Pilkey invented way back in 1973 when he was a second-grader. The comics that Dav made were very much like the comic book that George and Harold sell on the playground in Chapter 3.
When I began making children’s books in 1986, my goal was to one day make a book about Captain Underpants. I wrote several different versions of this story, including a 48-page comic book, but every publisher who saw it turned it down. When the book was finally accepted in 1996, it was a real dream come true! — Dav Pilkey
Many of the things in the book are taken directly from Dav’s childhood: the practical jokes, the comics, even the cheesy animation technique called “Flip-O-Rama” (Dav and his friends used to amuse themselves by making these flip-action animated pictures in elementary school).
Dav Pilkey had dyslexia when he was a kid. He was always discouraged by wordy texts, small type, and lengthy chapters.
My goal with The Adventures of Captain Underpants was to make a chapter book that SEEMED like a picture book. So I wrote incredibly short chapters and tried to fill each page with more pictures than words. I wanted to create a book that kids who don’t like to read would want to read. — Dav Pilkey
Nope. Just not seeing anything diabolical mob violence-worthy there. Guess I will take a chance and actually READ THE BOOK before passing judgment. Yes, in solidarity of Mon Capitan el de Underpants, I shall read the first book of this series, and maybe even while in my underpants. Cape optional.
Welcome back to Part Two, the Question & Answer portion of our interview with illustrator and exotic beard cultivator, Jerry Bennett. (To catch up with the goodies you missed in Part One, click here.)
Valerie Lawson: Thanks for stopping by on your busy schedule, Jerry. Welcome back from the New Orleans Comic Con. I hope you enjoyed your time in The Big Easy.
Let’s get right to the questions, shall we? You’ve recently been appointed to the position of Oklahoma SCBWI Regional Illustrator Coordinator; tell us about the role you play in Oklahoma SCBWI. How do you see that changing?
Jerry Bennett: That’s a good question, as I am still trying to get a feel for the position, since Oklahoma’s never had one before. It’s a tough pair of shoes to fill when the few and gifted group of illustrators we have are spread out across the state. My ultimate goal would be create a united group of Oklahoma illustrators that are able to encourage and fellowship together in our like-minded goals. I have a feeling the best way will be to do that through social media, so I’m in the process of building the best forms of internet communication for the illustrators to share what they are doing, and can help critique and promote each other’s work to strengthen and enable them to be the very best at what they do…I’m in the process of getting some events going that can be done for little expense and can yield valuable time of camaraderie and skill-building. One will be a sketchcrawl, where the artists will meet, whether it be a zoo, a mall or other scenic spot, and draw on location for skill-building, for reference researching or simply for fun. It can be a great chance to get to know the other illustrators and critique and encourage one another.
VL: That’s fantastic. Even though the full title of SCBWI is Society of Book Writers and Illustrators the focus seems to have been more on writers than illustrators in the past. Since you’ve become involved, there have already been exciting opportunities for illustrators at our annual spring conferences, including working with an art director on an art piece prior to the conference, just like one would for a book project. The feedback on that one in particular had to be amazing. How many novices get that kind of interaction? You’ve really helped to energize the illustrator portion of our group. I really look forward to seeing what great things you bring next.
Let’s go back to the beginning of your illustrious career. When did you know you wanted to be an illustrator? When did you start pursuing that seriously?
JB: I’ve always loved to draw. Always. It was in eighth grade, after trying to impress a girl by drawing a portrait of her, and all the gushing from everyone who saw it, made me realize that I could possibly do this as a career. [After the girl saw and loved the portrait, I chanced a request to a school dance with her. She said no.]
VL: I love getting to know someone better by probing into their childhood for embarrassing stories – what can I say, my father was a therapist and I have issues. So, here they come:
Thinking back to your childhood heroes /role models when you were a kid, who were they? What drew you to them? What powers/abilities did they have that you wished you could have? Do you still feel that way about them now?
JB: I see what you did there; ‘Drew’ you to them?
I was very heavy into knowing who made all my favorite movies. I was ‘drawn’ to the process of animation and special effects for the Star Wars movies as far back as elementary school! The power to bring anything, any creature, any ship, to life astounded me.
VL: What did you want to be when you were in grade school? What influenced this choice?
JB: I wanted to be a comic book artist! (All this time and nothing has changed!) Star Wars and Marvel Comics was my main source of influence. Still is.
VL: Are you saying you haven’t grown up, yet?Never mind.
As a young kid, what was the worst trouble you ever got into? And what was your punishment?
JB: Me? I never got into trouble.
The worst I can think of was when my brother and I decided to spray graffiti with graphite on our neighbor’s wall. Our mom caught us, and told to clean it up and go next door to apologize. (We pretended we apologized, and quickly cleaned it up!)
VL: Even when you were getting into trouble you were drawing. Nice.
Were you ever afraid of the dark, of anything under your bed or in your closet?
JB: I think I was, but I also remember waking up under the bed often, so was I afraid of myself?
VL: Bah ha ha! Maybe you were battling monsters in your sleep.
Tell me about your most memorable adventure you had with your friends outside of school.
JB: When I was with my high school choir in Hawaii, my best friend was having issues with his girlfriend, and he wanted me to fix things with her, and had locked me on our seventh floor balcony until I promised I’d help. I would do no such thing, and climbed over to the next balcony and escaped. Yes, that was crazy and dumb. I was able to enjoy the rest of the trip after that, when he realized I wanted nothing to do with their problems.
VL: Hawaii??!!! I don’t know what kind of budget your school had, but my only band trips were to…oh, wait, I quit band in my sophomore year. Man, I hope they didn’t go to Hawaii. Maybe I should have joined the choir. And that was some crazy spidey stunt climbing over the balcony, if I say so myself. Crazy. Peter Parker wold have been proud.
Did you ever have a clubhouse or secret place of your own? What did you do there?
JB: My brother and I made forts out of our beds with blankets. Does that count? (Yes, it does!)
VL: Oh! Love blanket forts! Definitely counts.
VL: Did you ever have to deal with a bully? How did you handle it?
JB: Ugh. I remember when I rode the bus, two kids wanted to look at my Swatch, and I was naive enough to show them. They never gave it back, as they got off the bus and pretended they didn’t have it. When I pressed, one got in my face, while the other got behind me on his knees to trip me as I was pushed over. Days passed as I fantasized what I wanted to do, but eventually resigned that my Swatch was gone, and I went on with life, thinking that they will end up in prison one day while I lived a better life than them.
VL: Wow, that was pretty was a pretty mature attitude. I probably would have made an ineffective voodoo doll or something.
Tell me about the most interesting place you have ever lived. What did you like/hate most about it?
JB: I was born and raised in Oklahoma City, and at the time, found nothing interesting about living here. It may be why I
drew and played video games all the time: to get away from such a boring world I lived in. But now I can look with grown up eyes at all the awesomeness we have here now. The culture, the diversity, the friendliness that is a trademark for Okies.
VL: What was the worst job you ever had while going to school? Did your friends ever come by while you were working and embarrass you?
JB: In high school, I worked at Foleys (which is now Macys) as a sales associate, and I loved it! Friends did come by, but it was never embarrassing, though I was glad they never came by when I worked in handbags. I had always worked in the men’s and young men’s departments, then soon started working in all these women’s departments, housewares, and Godiva. I think they thought I was gay and better suited to work in ladies’ clothing. I didn’t mind it one bit.
VL: Ha! I can so see you selling the heck out of some ladies’ clothing. Best way to meet girls, too.
What is the most embarrassing thing one of your friends ever did to you?
JB: I remember in sixth grade, while stuttering and getting the nerve up to ask a girl to be my girlfriend, my brother, who was waiting impatiently to walk home with me, piped up and asked her if she wanted to be my girlfriend. She politely refused, citing she already had a boyfriend.
VL: Who was your childhood best friend? Are you still friends today?
JB: Honestly, I think my brother was my best friend. He was killed in a plane crash over 17 years ago now. It was understandably difficult.
VL: Very understandably. He must have been a great guy.
What would be your dream illustrating assignment?
JB: I’ve always wanted to draw a Spider-Man or Superman story, but now I’d throw in a Star Wars story into that mix, since Star Wars is a huge comic book property now, too! It would be amazing if I was approached by Scholastic to do a graphic novel series based on the Gregor the Overlander series by Suzanne Collins!
VL: Oh! Gregor the Overlander, that would be very cool as a graphic novel.
What has been your favorite book to read/book you’ve been most excited about over the past year?
JB: I have really enjoyed the graphic novels of Doug TenNapel. I’ve discovered and read several this year, with Cardboard being my favorite, but they all have such heart, humor and action, all packed in very well flowing panels. Check ’em out!
VL: Speaking of graphic novels, what are you currently working on?
JB: I’m multi-tasking, creating a sci-fi comic book, Nadir’s Zenith, creating several tee designs, selling prints of my work at comic book conventions, and deciding if I want to do another picture book for a local author. Something I’m very excited about is I’m writing, or more accurately, learning to write a graphic novel I will illustrate.
VL: I hear that you and your lovely wife are working on writing every week. If you’re putting in the work, then you ARE writing it! I am really looking forward to the graphic novel, Jerry. It sounds exciting. Thanks so much for taking the time to stop by!
If you are ever anywhere near Jerry Bennett’s vicinity, you will know it when you hear his boisterous and unmistakable laughter. His is a personality that fills up a room and yet graciously makes plenty of space for others to share in his bright light. Jerry is the Regional Illustrator Coordinator for Oklahoma SCBWI and recently he did a fantastic presentation for our Tulsa group where he walked us through the illustration process of a picture book manuscript. One lucky soul had her words chosen at random for Jerry to bring to life right before our eyes as he talked with us about his process and his history of being an illustrator. I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t write a story while telling others how I write a story.
He should be talented; he started drawing at the age of two and never stopped. His dad worked at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City while he was growing up so some up his very first drawing were of airplanes. Then came Star Wars. He knew right away that would be a life-long obsession. As he is a part of the JediOKC, an Oklahoma City Star Wars fan club that does some awesome charity things, I guess you can say that was an accurate prediction. Other things influenced his art in his youth – Transformers, Spiderman, Garfield (really? Okay, he’s a fuzzy cat person). Then came a seminal moment when he realized that he might actually make art a career.
It all started with a girl.
It was eighth grade and he was shy. So, how to get her to notice him? By drawing, of course. He drew her portrait and everyone who saw it thought it was great. That gave him the confidence to ask her out.
She turned him down.
His first rejection. He took it in stride and thought about how he might actually be able to make money with his art. He was on his way to becoming an artist. He developed an even tougher skin in art school where he learned to accept critiques of his work weekly. Meanwhile he had begun working on t-shirt designs during high school, something he is still doing to this day. His top seller, the Star Wars/Ghostbusters mash-up“It’s a Trap” has sold over 3,300 shirts. Marvel even licensed him.
More recently, he’s done some illustrations for a self-published series of books, The Pirate Bride and its sequel, The Lost Crew. He has also done the illustrations for the comic series Nadir’s Zenith.
We were ecstatic that Jerry was going to share his talents with us.
He began by reading the text aloud.
The first step is toread the story.
Here is all he had to go on:
“Two hippos sailed a sky blue boat.
Jack wondered how they stayed afloat.
They only had one ruby oar,
Which made it hard to get to shore.”
(Thanks to Linda Mai for allowing me to share her text.)
You have to understand the plot, the characters, and the details before you can begin to illustrate. Jerry reads through the story several times. He’ll read it aloud with different inflections, using different voices – some funny or silly – to get a range of ideas. He said just as readers get images in their head when they read a novel, so do artists, yet artists are able to translate those images into illustrations.
One thing Jerry mentioned that made the inner editor in me cringe a bit was the reminder that if you’ve received the manuscript from a publisher, you won’t have much say in changing the text. You are stuck with the words you are given. Your job as the illustrator is how to best interpret the words and how to make the biggest impact on the story with images. You have to remember that in the author/illustrator partnership, you have two completely different artists, two owners sharing the same creation, yet working independently of each other.
As an illustrator of picture books, you should always be looking for ways to enhance the story. In the example that Jerry chose, there were hippos in a boat with only one oar. He decided Jack was the observer of the story and the illustration should focus on the hippos. He also thought that it would be funnier if the size of the oar and the boat were exaggerated compared to the hippos to make their predicament seem more outrageous. Nothing in the text said anything about what type of boat or how big it was – that was left up to him, so he took advantage of it to add something visually enticing for the reader.
The second step is to create a thumbnail layout.
For picture books, this is usually a layout of thirty-two pages of quick and simple sketches, just to place things. This can be in any format that works for you – a simple sheet of paper with thirty-two boxes marked out, a mock dummy with pages, etc. Jerry now does this digitally on his Wacom tablet. This purpose of the thumbnail sketching is to figure out the best possible way for the story to look. All aspect of the text is included as well as the imagery.
The third step is creating the individual pages of art for the initial layout.
When drawing free hand, he starts with the lightest sketching. Normally at home his work starts out on his Wacom tablet, then he moves it over to a pro tools program. His workstation is set up in an easel so he can draw naturally. Jerry usually listens to music, often movie soundtracks, while he is creating. The amount of time it takes him to complete a project can vary. For a comic, it takes him about a month while working eight to ten hours a day.
The fourth step is to send layouts to the editor.
If any changes need to be made, the editor will send it back with notes. He will rework it before the final layout. This step can be repeated as needed, just like with novel revisions.
Until at last everyone is happy with the end result.
Not bad for less than sixty minutes while giving a presentation, eh?
As I hope one day to interview fellow authors and other amazing people who have touched my life, shaping my character in various ways – for good or bad to be determined later – I wanted to test out some sample questions that were more probing, more revealing and less banal than the common, “Have you always wanted to be a writer?” and “Where do you get your ideas from?” that everyone else always asks. What I needed was a brave soul to subject to my arduous questions, someone to practice my interviewing skills on. I sent out a call for volunteers. I had one person come forward with the condition that “he” remains anonymous. Reluctantly, I agreed. Herein follows my first attempt at an in-depth interview. Enjoy.
Me: Thank you for joining me today, Mr. Quixote, or may I call you Don?
DQ: Sure, Don is fine.
Me: Great. Don, could you start out by telling us a little bit about your experiences from childhood? Did you have any hero or roles models when you were a kid?
DQ: Sgt. Rock of Easy Company was my favorite comic book. I saw my brother as the coolest person around and I wanted to be like him. I learned early on to be careful what you wish for. For many years I idolized him. Later I realized my Step-father was the better role model.
Me: Interesting. At one point when I was young, I wanted to be Wonder Woman. I think I liked the idea of her being powerful, deflecting bullets and all that and she was the only girl super hero.
Did you ever have clubhouse or secret place of your own? What did you do there?
DQ: Yep, one summer’s vacation away from my grade school at Kaiser Elementary. I talked some neighborhood buddies into building a fort in our back yard. We didn’t have any wood but there was a new house being built down the street and there were piles of scrap and new wood laying about. We started with the scrap and quickly realized that wouldn’t be enough so we started walking away with long planks of new wood off their stacks they were using for framing the house. I know the workers saw us doing this but they never said a thing. I remember thinking this was not a right or wrong thing as it was just logical that we get what we needed for the fort. Kinda puzzled to this day as to what those workers were thinking about us kids hauling off all that wood. The fort turned out to be shaped like a pig pen (long and narrow with missing slats to use for shooting Indians from.)
Me: So, tell me Don, what was your most memorable adventure that you had with your friends outside of school.
DQ: It would have to be the night a few of us decided to use my Dad’s car to go hunting rabbits at night. This was, and still is I think, called “spotlighting”. A deer or rabbit when hit with a spotlight will freeze in place long enough to get it’s ass shot off. We were out behind Lake Overholser dam outside of Oklahoma City when we spotted a rabbit. I pointed the car’s high beams at the luckless creature and one of my friends jumped out of the car on the right side with a semi-auto .22 cal rifle and started shooting at the rabbit. Unfortunately for me the rabbit started running to the left of the front of the car and my friend began shooting rapidly trying to catch up to the rabbit. Well, as he swung his rifle towards the escaping rabbit his line of fire swept over the front of my Dad’s 1959 Desoto neatly plugging the left hood ornament three times. I’m pretty sure my first words were something like “Oh Shit! You shot my car!” It took my Dad about a month to discover the bullet holes and when he asked me about it I had a really good story ready. He bought it … I think.
Me: Wow! That kind of makes any trouble I got into not seem quite so dangerous. At least there was no gunfire involved with mine. I’d love to hear the story your dad swallowed about the bullet holes that didn’t land you in trouble. I’m picturing something about witnessing a bank robbery followed by a police shootout, but then my imagination tends to leap a little on the wild side.
DQ: It’s probably better if that remains a mystery.
Me: I understand. Can’t blame me for asking. Tell me about the most interesting place you have ever lived. What did you like/hate most about it?
DQ: Other than where I live today, which is more wonderful than interesting, it would be when [I] lived in Tacoma Washington. We were poor as church mice; living on food stamps…We were surrounded by beautiful and exciting natural and free things to do. Clam digging on Puget Sound, watching big trawlers unload; crossing the Narrows Bridge after being told of how the last one built was destroyed by wind, sending cars and people to the depths of the Sound. Hiking up parts of Mt. Rainer, inner tube sliding in the snow on Mt. Rainer. Any car trip in that area was a treat. Eventually, [I] began to hate the constant rain, cloudy days, and wood pulp mill smog that permeated the area…
Me: What was the worst job you ever had while going to school? Did your friends ever come by while you were working and embarrass you?
DQ: [The worst job I ever had was] Bus Boy at Kip’s Big Boy restaurant. It was a special kind of humiliation to be cleaning up the messes that the cool popular guys and their dates from school left. These BMOC’s assholes would come in with the very girls I spent the majority of my waking hours fantasizing about.
Me: Sounds a bit like my least favorite job; McDonald’s. I especially loved working the drive thru when they made us wear these ridiculous foam Chinese hats to promote some new nugget sauce. The stupid things caught on everything and choked the crap out of you. On Friday night, during peak cruising time, every other carload of (intoxicated) popular kids asked me – with dripping sarcasm – if they could have my awesome hat. Thank God they didn’t have Facebook back then. I’m sure my picture would’ve been snapped and uploaded a thousand times.
Along this same line, what is the most embarrassing thing one of your friends ever did? Especially when trying to impress members of the opposite sex?
DQ: [My friend] Jonny was always experimenting with weird ways of communicating. He decided to spend the day juxtaposing the letter “F” in front of every word in any sentence he spoke. It blew up on him when he asked the Homeroom teacher, “Say, where’s Bucket Face?”
Me: Ouch! I’m guessing you were Bucket Face?
(Silence, followed by icy glare)
Next I’d like to move on to more serious subjects. Did you ever have to deal with a bully? How did you handle it?
DQ: There was a time I was riding a 50cc motorcycle to school and the only way I had of locking it was with a combination lock. Apparently one of the local n’er-do-wells watched me unlock it enough times to get the combination and I began finding my cycle parked differently each day with extra miles on it. I figured someone was taking my bike at lunch time for rides and then bringing it back. I told the vice-principal about it and he said he would come out with me the next day and help me catch the guys doing it. Well here’s where trusting authority didn’t pay off. The vp didn’t show but a friend and I staked out the parking area and waited for my bike to come back. The guy driving the bike was the local bully and I confronted him (most unlike me) and we got into a shoving match and were about to begin [throwing] punches when his friend who was riding on the back jumped in with some lame excuse about borrowing the bike. About that time the vp finally showed up and took the bully and his friend away. I felt good about standing up to the bully.
Me: That must have been a very satisfying feeling – solving your own problem and standing up to your bully. It was nice of the vice principal to show up in time to stop the violence from happening. At least he was good for something.
Me: As a kid, what was the worst trouble you ever got into? And what was your punishment?
DQ: There were so many…I guess when I shot a BB gun at a neighbor’s window and broke it. I was about 9 years old. I think I was grounded for that.
Me: Were you ever afraid of the dark, of anything under your bed or in your closet?
DQ: After watching The Blob at the movies I imagined it was under my bed so I walked on top of my furniture to get out of the bedroom the next morning.
Me: Aah! The slow-moving atomic jello is coming to get you! This leads us to the next question, what was the scariest thing that you ever experienced as a kid?
DQ: This would be the time when I was younger than 9 (as it happened before we moved to OKC). I was taking my nightly bath in the summertime. We didn’t have air-conditioning so the high bathroom window was open. I was minding my own business when suddenly a monster with huge claws was scraping at the screen trying to get in and devour me. I screamed and everyone came running as I cried, “There’s a monster trying to get in the window!!” While he never confessed to me I’m pretty sure it was my brother using the garden shears to scrape on the screen.
Me: That sounds terrifying. Why was it again that you looked up to your brother as a hero figure?
(Another silence, punctured by an icy glare.)
Ahem, next question. Have you ever had a near-death experience?
DQ: Yes, being married to your mother.
Me: We-ell, that answer may have just given away your secret identity, so I think we’ll end there.
DQ: Thanks alot, I’ve successfully repressed all of those things and you just had to dredge them up. I know my mind will work on this and open up those vaults of pain during my sleep and I will visit them again, and again, and again. Like I don’t have enough angst in my life you had to get all this going?
Me: That’s all we have time for. Thanks for being my guest, today, “Don”. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you. May some of the windmills you tilt at in the future actually be ferocious giants.