Heading back to school after summer vacation can be good news or bad news depending on how you look at it. That’s why we’re thrilled to share our Q&A with Jeff Mack creator of Good News, Bad News a picture book about Rabbit and Mouse, two friends with very different points of view.
Author/ Illustrator Jeff Mack
Q: How did you get started writing and illustrating books for children?
A: When I was in first grade, I loved stories about monsters. Our library had just two monster books: Famous Movie Monsters and Bigfoot. I wanted more, so I made my own. Usually they were in comic book form and starred the other kids in my class. At the beginning, it would seem like a normal day, but, by the end, everyone got eaten by monsters.
One of my early drawings of Famous Movie Monsters.
Luckily, my teachers encouraged my creative pursuits no matter how weird or gross my stories were. They wrote me notes of encouragement, and created opportunities for me to read them aloud to the class. Some of the kids who heard them asked me to illustrate their stories. Back then, my style was pretty scribbly. Now, after years of practice, it’s only scribbly when I want it to be. But one thing hasn’t changed: my audience. I’ve been writing and drawing books for young readers ever since first grade.
After college, I rented an apartment in New York City, and showed my portfolio to different publishers. I met with editors, listened to their advice, experimented with new styles and gradually began to get work illustrating other author’s stories.
The first book I professionally illustrated was called The Icky Sticky Chameleon. It had a long sticky rubber tongue and a choking hazard label on it. Years later, Hush Little Polar Bear, became the first published book that I wrote and illustrated. It’s a meta-bedtime story, which means it’s a bedtime story about a bedtime story. And it’s not a choking hazard.
Q: Where did the idea for Good News, Bad News come from?
A: A lot of my ideas for books start with the characters. In this case, I was thinking about a friend of mine who has the opposite view from me about almost everything. If I say, “Wow, it’s hot in here,” she’ll probably say, “Where’s my sweatshirt? I’m freezing.” So I wanted to show how two friends with opposite attitudes could become even better friends once they learn to see things from each other’s point of view. I just needed to think of a plot that would give them a chance to show these attitudes.
An inspirational moment outside the bakery where I was first inspired to write Good News, Bad News.
Then came a really hot day. It was too hot to think. The good news was there was an air-conditioned bakery nearby that had great soft serve ice cream. The bad news was their soft serve machine was broken that day. But that turned out to be good news because it got me to try something different: a piece of the best chocolate cream pie I’d ever tasted. The bad news? As I brought the rest of the pie home in the car, it melted. But that turned out to be good news too. Because the melted pie gave me the premise I was looking for: the value of an event depends on how you look at its cause and effect.
So I sat down in the shade and made a list of causes and effects that might occur when two friends go on a picnic together. I made one character see the negative side of everything and the other character see the positive. And for the ending, I thought of a situation that would make them trade their points of view. I wrote many drafts of Good News, Bad News. Some of the early versions had lots of words. One had no words at all. I didn’t try it with just “Good News” and “Bad News” until the fourth or fifth draft.
A very early sketch of the protagonists in Good News, Bad News.
One early draft of Good News, Bad News included a scene where our heroes explore a cave. Even though I liked this part at first, I eventually decided I didn’t need it to tell their story. Now that the book is finished, I like it better without the cave scene.
In another draft, I felt like I repeated the phrases “Good News” and “Bad News” too often. So I took all of them out. Later, I decided that it didn’t work that way either.
In the next version, I decided to leave in “Good News” and “Bad News” and take everything else out. That way, I let the pictures tell the story.
One of the most challenging scenes to show without words was the one where the mouse crashes into the tree with the umbrella. I found it difficult to show why Rabbit was happy about the tree while Mouse was annoyed about it. Here’s one of many sketches that I never used for that part of the story.
Q: Are you more like Rabbit or Mouse in the story?
A: Most people who’ve met me would say I’m more like the rabbit. But they’d be wrong.
Q: What medium did you use to illustrate Good News, Bad News?
A: I used a mixture of pen and ink, collage and digital. At first, I drew the outlines with pen on paper. Then I scanned some cardboard into my computer for texture, and colored it with a digital drawing tablet.
I make a storyboard like this for all of my picture books. It helps me remember what goes where.
Q: What is your studio like? Do you do your writing and illustrating in the same space?
A: My studio is messy. There are books and stacks of drawings everywhere. Straightening, organizing, and dusting are low on my list of priorities. Writing and illustrating new books is much higher on the list. Sometimes I write and illustrate in the same place, but usually I don’t. I like to get out of the studio when I can. I wrote and drew about 400 pages of my first two Clueless McGee books in the same bakery where I thought of Good News, Bad News.
And I created drafts of Good News, Bad News lying in the back yard, sitting at the kitchen table, on a train to NYC, in a hotel room, in a copy shop, in a parking lot, and, yes, at a hilltop picnic following a long hike.
These days, if I’m using my computer to make final pictures, I have to be in my studio. But if I’m painting or drawing, I can set up almost anywhere. I’ve painted entire picture books at the kitchen table. But I usually wait until after dessert.
My studio. Here you can see my assistant, McGee, secretly painting all of the characters’ hands and faces.
Q: Who are some of your favorite artists and writers?
A: My favorites change frequently. But there’s a series of paper collages that the painter Alex Katz made in the 1950′s that never fails to inspire me. Some other artists I keep coming back to with a feeling of amazement are Velazquez, Joseph Cornell, Yoshitoshi, the writers Flannery O’Conner and Voltaire, and the filmmaker Luis Buñuel.
My favorite children’s book creator will probably always be William Steig. There’s so much compassion and positive humor in his drawings and stories. His adult humor conveys the same level of sensitivity, even when it’s about something deeply troubling.
Two early sketches for the cover.
An early cover design and the final cover.
Q: What is your motto?
A: My motto is “put your heart into everything you do.” Even if you think what you’re doing is very small, there’s a chance that someday, somewhere it may affect someone in a positive way.
Q: What natural gift would you most like to possess?
A: I went hang gliding for the first time last month. I’d like to be able to fly like that without the glider.
Q: What was your favorite book when you were a child?
A: My favorite book as a child was On Beyond Zebra! by Dr. Seuss. It’s a glossary of made-up animals and the imaginary letters they start with. I remember loving the spooky, lonely feeling that I got from this book. I also loved the weird humor of these impossible animals. It inspired me to invent my own creatures and write stories and poems about them.
Q: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
A: I’ve always wanted to write song lyrics. I think I could write a good pop song with just four words. Plus, there aren’t very many places in children’s books where you can use rhymes like “babies” and “rabies” and that’s a goal for me.
The author cuts loose. A rare glimpse! Professional go-kart racer is my Plan C in case the lyricist profession doesn’t pan out.
Q: What’s the funniest question anyone asked you at an event or school visit?
A: During one school visit, a second grader asked me, “How much did you have to pay to get your pictures in that book?” He seemed pretty happy to learn that it was actually the other way around. And I was pretty happy to tell him.
For more pictures and stories about Jeff Mack, visit www.jeffmack.com.
Leave a comment to enter to win a Good News, Bad News Prize Pack including a signed copy of Good News, Bad News, a signed “Reading is Always Good News” poster, and a set of Good News, Bad News buttons. Winner will be notified by August 20th.
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