.I met him after I reviewed his most recent book, Young Zeus. I was very impressed by how true to the original myths his re-telling was, while still being able to appeal to children (my son loved it). I was happy to have the chance to talk with him about it, and to find out more about where his ideas come from.
.In my review of Young Zeus, I had mentioned the contrast between the front cover - which is fairly benign - with some of the interior artwork which is... perhaps less benign. Certainly much more interesting and involved than I would have at first suspected. Going back to look at some of your previous books - such as the High Rise Private Eyes series with Cynthia Rylant, the contrast seems greater still. Do you feel that Young Zeus marks a significant change for you as an illustrator?
.I do feel like I've pushed the content further than I do with most books. Artistically, my work didn't change, only what I chose to show young readers.
.One of the earliest images I worked on was the picture of Cronos eating one of his children. I remember seeing Goya's painting, Saturn Devouring his Son, when I was young and being changed by that image. I'm not looking to traumatize children, but also didn't want to alter this detail about how horrible Cronos was. Otherwise, there would be no story. That more or less shaped the tone of the whole book.
|Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son|
|From Young Zeus, Cronos Devours His Children|
I usually think of Zeus as being kind of like the Greek stand-in for Yahweh. As in, Zeus is the Primary, most powerful god who ever existed, an unmoved-mover and all that. In your book, you also tell the story of his father and his grandfather - which narratively must have been tricky to pull off.
.According to the Greeks and depending on which version you read, in the very beginning there was only Chaos. Not chaos like we know it, more like nothingness. From Chaos was born Erebus (night) and Gaia (earth). Somehow Gaia gave birth to Uranus, the sky, who in turn became her husband. Together they had twelve children, the Titans, including Cronos and Rhea, Zeus' parents. As far as I know, Zeus was the first god to have relations with humans and that's when the line between myth and history becomes blurred.
.We imagine the Greek gods as being the most human of all deities - what with their jealousy and arrogance and lust.
.It was exactly the humanity of the Greek gods that allowed me to play a little bit and imagine Zeus as a normal kid! I was intrigued by the question, "How did someone like Zeus get to be such a powerful god?" What was his childhood like? Was he godlike right from birth, or did he grow into it? There was nothing I could find written about the idea.
.There is a sense in the story that we're really reading an origin story, the likes of which I associate with Superman... or perhaps Jesus? The same sense of a young child with amazing, godlike abilities, and how he came to understand them.
.What goes into the making of greatness? Is it something you can see in a child's eyes or hear in their words? What were Abraham Lincoln, Michelangelo, Martin Luther King or Jesus like before their genius was noticed and nurtured by adults? Or for that matter, what about monsters like Genghis Khan or Stalin?
.Well, I'm not planning on a Young Genghis book anytime soon. But imagine a young child who believes - no matter what their circumstances - that they can become someone who can literally change the world. I'll never forget a brief interview I saw with a young African-American child when Barack Obama had just been elected president. Up until that moment, he had never dreamed it could be possible for a black person to reach those heights. He started to say that it meant maybe, someday, even he might... and he trailed off, choking up, unable to finish saying what was before then unimaginable. Every child has the right to believe there is greatness within them.
.You've mentioned before that you had wanted to work with mythology for a long time. Do you have other myth-themed books in the works? Young Prometheus? Lil' Hercules?
.I have given thought to writing more "Young" books. Basically, whether or not I like working on sequels boils down to the story. If the story is solid and there's a good reason to say more, then they can be fun. I'm not being critical of artists or authors that make a career on one theme, but personally, that would be a slow death for me. That's one reason I like doing stories written by other authors. When I'm out of ideas, it's nice when one lands on my desk!
|Neville by Norton Juster and G. Brian Karas, October 2011|
.This year marks the 50th anniversary of The Phantom Tollbooth, and they plan to release Neville at the same time. Nice coattails to be riding on!
.How important do you think picture books are - not just as an entertainment for children - but as an artistic medium?
.The stories have evolved and resemble the real world more than their predecessors. There is still and always will be a place for books that are comforting and reassuring to children, but there are now more titles than can help children understand a more complex world that often doesn't have happy endings.
|Tomi Ungerer and an angry squirrel|
.I approach my work with the same belief and have authors and artists like Tomi Ungerer, Maurice Sendak and Roald Dahl to thank for blazing that trail!
.Click here for more conversations with storytellers!
.Click here for my review of Young Zeus!