With The Boy, the Bear, the Baron, the Bard and its follow-up, Midsummer Knight, Gregory Rogers demonstrated the limitless possibilities to be explored for a boy who follows his passion and curiosity. The same could be said of the man who created them.
Here Rogers discusses his third book starring that same boy, The Hero of Little Street, and the endless possibilities of stories told wordlessly. In it, the boy finds himself in London's National Gallery, where he first plays with a dog that has jumped out of a painting and then joins the dog jumping into another one that takes him to 17th-century Delft.
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You make London’s giant National Gallery feel like a living room. There’s a great moment when the boy climbs inside a contraption and the museum guard orders him out. Did you wander through the gallery looking for the things that would capture a boy’s attention?
To kids, a gallery is a big playground with lots of running space, decorated like a rich Auntie’s house. The interior of the National Gallery that I created in this book is an imaginary one, so I threw in all sorts of exhibits that helped the story along. But the three paintings that I used in the book do, in fact, live in that gallery. So, among the fantasy that I created, there is a touch of reality.
Was van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait the inspiration for this book? In that very staid painting, the terrier indeed looks poised to leap.
The story line I developed used the device of a painting as a portal to another world. But I had no particular painting in mind in the early stages. I even invented paintings originally.
The idea of a dog came next, so I invented a dog. But then I suddenly remembered the van Eyck portrait from my school art lessons and, in particular, that rather scruffy little dog that always looked as if he would rather be somewhere else. And it turned out that—coincidence No. 1—that painting was in the National Gallery in London, where my story is set.
Coincidence No. 2: The other two paintings I chose to use in the story [Vermeer’s A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal and also Little Street] were also in that same gallery. I think I had been trying to find a story line for at least a year before all the pieces of the puzzle started to fall into place. Serendipity.
There’s a Pied Piper of Hamelin quality to the boy and the pipe he plays in Delft, luring the town's dogs to freedom. How did that element play into the story? Did it come right away, as soon as the Lady at the Virginal gave him the instrument?
One thing most school children learn to play is a recorder. The recorder was also a common and popular instrument in Vermeer’s time and even appears in his paintings. So it was quite natural the Lady Seated at the Virginal would have one lying around somewhere. When she gives the boy the recorder, he has a way of communicating with the dog. And if he could communicate with one dog, then he could communicate with all dogs.
The Pied Piper idea emerged much later in the development of the story and served to not only rescue the captured dogs, but also to rescue the boy from the bullies at the end of the book. There were many times when single ideas ended up causing multiple effects throughout the story. And these ideas came about by accident or coincidence.
While the Vermeer portrait takes up a full page, the van Eyck takes up only a small portion of a panel illustration. How do you figure out what to emphasize in order to get the flow of the story?
The Arnolfini portrait was quite prominent in my early sketches. But as I worked and reworked the story, only the dog was important, and not the whole painting. Unlike the Lady Seated at the Virginal, where the entire contents of that painting are of value to the storytelling. And so that painting is featured prominently. Writing a story like this is a continual evolution of ideas. And with any process of “natural selection,” only the strongest ideas remain.
The aerial views place us in a context—Trafalgar Square, a hallway of the National Gallery, the streets of Delft—and then you zoom in for the action scenes. How do you decide when to pull back for a larger panorama versus a close-up?
An aerial view is a way of “pressing the pause button” on the story—a chance for readers to relax and take in lots of information at their leisure. It’s also a way to reveal the whole world of the story and not just the intimate details that you get in lots of close-ups and sequential panels.
I always think of that scene in Hitchcock’s The Birds when the camera soars way above the drama below, and how much impact that viewpoint has. Of course, immediately after such aerial “breathing space” we get back to the thick of the action.
Does the lack of text free you up? Do you find that you map out a story in words, too, or solely in pictures?
When I create a purely illustrated text, there are no limitations. The challenge therefore is to start creating those limitations to narrow down the possibilities in my story. Even though Hero of Little Street started with established characters and a setting from the previous books, the rest of the story was a mystery.
I find that I create my stories with a mixture of written story lines and sketches of characters, locations and sequences. I don’t have a set method of development. If it feels right, I do it. I will explore ideas in words until I can’t go any further and then start sketching my ideas instead. Then back and forth [writing and sketching] until the book comes together. The writing part of the process stops [for wordless books] when I have a story line that works. Then the pictures take over.Jennifer M. Brown lives and reads in New York City and blogs at Twenty by Jenny.