An Interview With Aaron Becker
Today’s interview with Aaron Becker, author and illustrator of JOURNEY (Candlewick Press, $15.99, Ages 4-8), comes to us courtesy of Hilary Taber and just before the naming of the 2014 Caldecott winner and honors announcement later today.
NOTE: At the time of posting we did not know that JOURNEY was named a 2014 Caldecott Honor Book. Congratulations to Aaron Becker!
Treat yourself and your children to one of 2013’s most talked about picture books, Aaron Becker’s JOURNEY. Though wordless, this colorful tale speaks to its readers in so many different ways, a big part of why JOURNEY will continue to bring immense pleasure to so many for years to come. Find out about Aaron Becker here with Hilary’s insightful interview.
Hilary Taber: Thank you for this interview, and thank you so much for the book as well. It’s gorgeous, so beautifully and wonderfully illustrated. My family has enjoyed it so much.
Aaron Becker: Thank you.
Hilary Taber: Congrats, too, on all the starred reviews! Horn Book Best of 2013, a New York Times Notable Children’s Book, so many accolades for JOURNEY. It must have been so fun to get those, and very affirming.
Aaron Becker: Yeah, it is and has been an amazing response. Like nothing I anticipated or was really imagining.
HT: Was your family delighted?
AB: Well, for sure. Totally, yeah … I mean, that’s something I always wanted to do … a children’s book, and to get to do one is delighting enough. And then people respond to it in ways I wouldn’t have even anticipated. It’s just very exciting.
HT: So, you have always wanted to write a children’s book or illustrate one?
AB: Oh, yeah. When I was a kid I made my own books … I wrote my own stories and drew pictures … it was one of my hobbies. This is my first book and I’m almost forty … there was a career in the middle there. I spent about a decade working as an illustrator on motion pictures.
HT: Do you feel that your career in movies helped you as a picture book illustrator?
AB: It sure does. Certainly there’s the technical side of just learning the craft of telling stories through pictures. We do that in film and in books. So, there’s just a lot of technical stuff I learned – composition, how to lead the reader’s eye, where you want them to go – but it’s a different craft as well. So, there’s some crossover for sure.
HT: I have some familiarity through my family with film production. I read that you refer to the picture book as having sets in it. Are the main characters like actors?
AB: I know, I caught myself using that word (sets), I noticed that too. It’s how I think, only right now I’m working on the third … there are three Journey books … I do think in terms of film. In some ways I think that if films were easier to make, less capital intensive, and less time intensive, I’d be making short films, not books. The nice thing about a book is that the scope of the project can be taken on by one person … it’s easier for me to be just like, “Okay, I’ll work with an editor – you know, with an agent.”
HT: Do you feel that you had people in your past, family or mentors, or somebody that was very key or crucial to you becoming an illustrator today?
AB: It’s easy for me to think in terms of books I like, but my parents definitely were important. Especially my mom, she was very focused on feeding my interests. She bought me a pad of paper, she bought me markers, and she made sure I had trips to the library to get out my drawing books and stuff. So, I was encouraged, but I wouldn’t say there was anyone around me doing this kind of work. It was my own interest for sure.
HT: It was your own journey.
AB: Yes, it was absolutely my journey. I started working on this book just after my daughter was born, and I had lost my job with the film company … I had always wanted to do this children’s book thing, a now or never kind of feeling, all my cards on the table, just a “Hail Mary pass.” It definitely felt like a journey, especially because it took so long for the book to come out. You know, it was about a three year process from inception to publication, which actually isn’t long for a book. It seemed like forever.
HT: Does the acceptance for publication get easier after you’ve been published or does that stay the same?
AB: Oh, if a publisher is happy with what you’re doing … I didn’t even think about doing a second book to be honest, I was just so excited that I got to do a book … I wasn’t working for Lucas Film … and at some point I was talking to my agent about something to do with Journey’s publication. We started talking about, “Oh, should I do another book?” So, it wasn’t difficult. We had a meeting with Candlewick, and they’re like, “Sure, let’s do it.” So, it wasn’t like a laborious project to get that second contract, but it took a while because it simply didn’t occur to me that I could do another book or that it was even in the cards.
HT: I’m so excited that there are going to be more books! Can you tell us anything about the new books, or am I asking too much?
AB: (Laughs) I can tell you a little bit about it.
HT: Oh, cool!
AB: You know, I mean, the idea is that I wanted to do a very complete story arc as opposed to an ongoing series … I wanted the story to be very complete … . Once I knew that I was going to be doing an additional book, I outlined both books at the same time, so I sort of formed a complete story about the girl. So … we go back through the red door …
HT: Do you feel that you know this character really well? Is she you do you think?
AB: Yeah, she’s definitely me. The story become pretty autobiographical by the end of the third book. The second story is very much an adventure story, but then in the third story it gets a bit more personal, and goes back to her relationship with her family. It gets touched on at the beginning of the story, and she goes off to Narnia, and leaves it behind so I wanted … to somehow come back home, and resolve things with her family because it really doesn’t get resolved that they aren’t meeting her in play … I wanted that chance to do that. So, that’s what’s going on in the third book now.
HT: That’s great to know because that was actually one of my questions. The family at the beginning of the book, I noticed, are all involved with some sort of electronic gadgetry. Mom’s on the phone, but she’s cooking. Dad’s on the computer. Maybe the girl in the pictures’s an older sister? That’s how I read it anyway. She seems to be on some sort of gaming device, or iPod, or something like that. Do you feel that technology has encroached upon our family time?
AB: Well, for sure it’s such a common experience now. I don’t think there’s anyone who’s not going through that personally or with their family. I think it’s even a stand in for all the things that get in the way between a child and their parent … it’s just a kind of a handy visual cue to show that they’re occupied. I use computers, but … I feel ambivalent about them. On one hand I see their use, on the other hand I see that they get in the way of our personal relations.
HT: I was just going to tell you that when I passed this book around to my family, my mother, who is a writer, saw a whole creative process going on, the creative journey. Sometimes, she said, you need to pull away from people to be creative, and then come back to being collaborative as the heroine does in Journey. It seemed to her like you were saying that the only way to make the creative journey is to make the journey on your own, just creating, and only then can you enter into a collaborative process with somebody else.
AB: That’s great. I love that you just put it out there, people are going to see what they want to see, and it works for them. The story is loose enough, and it has to be the exact right amount of looseness and tightness. If it’s too loose you can’t follow the story, and if it’s too tight, it doesn’t get to be your own.
HT: Do you have any favorite stories about children or adults who read the book in a particular way?
AB: When I asked kids what journey means, I get the best responses. They are often something like, “A journey is when you’re going somewhere and you don’t know where you’re going to end up.” So much more profound than what I was thinking! So, to the extent that the title of the book could be interpreted differently or can have different meaning to different people, every picture does as well.
HT: Do you feel that there were any books that you read as a child, or in particular any wordless picture books, that have influenced you as an artist?
AB: Well, on the wordless front, I always really liked Chris Van Allsburg’s stuff, and he didn’t do strictly wordless books, but his pictures had that feel to them, sort of stories within the stories … The Mysteries of Harris Burdick which has words, but it does sort of only hint at the story. No, I think for me I don’t know where the wordless thing came from, except for the fact that I think so visually. It was much easier for me to write the story just by sketching it out.
HT: In Journey the illustration of the castle is so beautiful, so gorgeous, and just so intricately detailed. I’ve read that you drew inspiration from a castle in France and from David Macaulay’s Castle.
AB: Oh, yeah.
HT: It’s interesting, one of the people I had look at the book said that what they saw there was a “World Castle.” I asked, “Could you explain that a little further?” and this particular person said, “I see architectural influences from all over Western Europe in the castle.” Is that true?
AB: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. You have to imagine all these different cultures. It’s an old castle that built up over many years, and they traded with lots of people. It’s right on the ocean, they traded with lots of different cultures, so that has sort of seeped into it. There’s a little bit of Asian influence, Moroccan, and African influence.
HT: That’s great. That page stays with me visually just because it was so impressive. I imagine, and this is just me guessing, and you correct me if I’m wrong, but was that the most time consuming part of making the book?
AB: Oh, that castle drawing? Gosh, was it the most time consuming? It probably was. It’s a pretty detailed drawing. I would have to say … yes (laughs). Technically, from a watercolor standpoint, the hardest painting was the forest because of the need to get the different layers of leaves in there just right along with the right amount of darkness and light. Strangely enough, when I got the scenes with the “sky scapes” that was hard for me to do, to paint clouds. I had never done watercolor before I did this book, I had to teach myself watercolor … I knew if I wanted to do a children’s book, I wanted to do it in watercolor. So, when I finally got to the sky, I thought okay, I’m out of my league here. I’ve got to practice this some more before I move forward.
HT: I didn’t know you had taught yourself watercolor. That’s a very difficult medium, I’ve heard, to get everything just right.
AB: It’s hard. It’s unforgiving. Once you put a pigment down you can’t lighten it. You know what I mean? So, if you put down a light blue and it goes a little bit too dark, you can’t remove that darkness. It’s stuck in the paper.
HT: What was your favorite part of creating Journey?
AB: My favorite part of the process? Hmm … each stage of the game there was something exciting. I mean, getting the contract was probably my favorite part. I got to do a book. I finally got a contract. It was just so thrilling, and then getting to do it was so much fun. They would send me proofs, fold and gathers, and getting to see it becoming a book was extremely exciting. Getting to see the final, bound book was unbelievable. I was like, “Whoa! This exists! That’s great!”
HT: I would imagine that there were pretty big celebrations at various points of this journey, of getting it published. I was just wondering, was there one, big celebratory moment when everyone in your family was just so happy?
AB: Yeah, my wife and I were at a hotel in New York City for some event related to the book. I think I was just going to a bookstore and I was doing some bookstore signings. We’re at the hotel and I got an e-mail. I was already pretty excited just to be traveling and promoting the book, and then an e-mail came in from the art editor at the New York Times Magazine. He … was asking me if I would be interested in doing a … cover for their children’s book issue. And that was it. That was the pinnacle of my career. I couldn’t imagine things getting any better. So, we went out and celebrated that night for sure.
HT: What do you hope that children will take away from reading Journey?
AB: For a young child – I just want them to enjoy a story, and have a moment when they realize that they can tell stories themselves. What really, really impacts me are the eight and nine-year-olds who come up to me at a signing or reading and I’ve captured them before they got lost. When you turn eleven or twelve life starts getting complicated. You start to think that you need to leave this world of enchantment behind. If I can capture some of those kids and get them to believe in the usefulness of their imagination, the ability to find wonder then I’ve done my job. That’s certainly what I hope this book can do, as well as with adults who have totally lost that ability altogether. So, to rekindle some of that, even in a small way …