If you follow author/illustrator, designer, and editorial illustrator Bob Staake, whom the Washington Post once described as “one of the most dynamic, original, colorful and humorous cartoonists working today,” then you know he’s a very busy guy. He’s written and/or illustrated over 50 children’s books to-date in his career, and he seems to never slow down.
For this reason, I was unsure if he’d have time to have a brief chat with me here today, but once I saw an early copy of his upcoming picture book, Bluebird (to be released by Schwartz & Wade in April), I crossed all appendages and hoped he would say yes. Bluebird tells the very moving story of the friendship between a lonely boy and the bird who befriends him. It’s a visually exciting, emotionally powerful tale that altogether steers clear of the maudlin, and I highly recommend it, come spring.
In December, Little Brown brought readers Look! Another Book!, Staake’s sequel to 2011’s Look! A Book! These high-octane seek-and-find books are endlessly entertaining for the observant eyes of the youngest readers (or, er, the 40-year-olds, like me, who read them too).
I interrupted Bob’s hectic schedule to ask him about these books, as well as what’s new on his plate.
Tell me about populating your Look! books with surprises and details at every turn.
Look! Another Book! is really intended as a "celebration of seeing" and acknowledging "looking" as the form of reading that it is. Almost invariably children are first exposed to books by looking at them, not reading the words, though by studying the pictures, they perceive the story and follow along with it. My goal was to have parents open the book, image-bomb them in the face, and see on the pages something that might be uniquely valuable to their pre-reading kids.
My picture books are always loaded with inside jokes, visual puns, and graphic details, but that's never been more the case than with Look! Another Book! It's really a book so over-packed with imagery that every time you pick it up, you'll discover something new–and that something new could be entirely different than what another child discovers hiding in the corners. I love when reviewers focus on (seemingly) small details like the dedication in this book, and while I won’t give that away, it is intended to speak volumes about the importance of looking as a way to avoid "titanic" problems.
I read somewhere about Bluebird: "Bob Staake has been working on this book for 10 years, and he believes it is the story he was born to write." What made you want to tell this particular story?
I began working on Bluebird over a decade ago. It's a wordless picture book that plays out in blues, grays, and blacks. Because it is the most atypical of any picture book I've ever produced and it deals with some pretty heavy themes, I realized I would never be able to place it by showing the usual cover, a couple finished spreads, and the manuscript. I posted a couple images on my Facebook page, explained that this was a book I was finally about to pitch, and they went crazy for it.
Lee Wade at Schwartz & Wade also saw the pictures and asked if my agent could send it to her. It was amazing how quickly we heard back from editors and how enthusiastic they were about the book, though a number of them found the story's resolution "too emotionally powerful." But Lee and Anne Schwartz "got" the book from the very beginning–and, along with Random House, they have not only been 110% behind the book, but completely supportive of my vision for it.
In 2001, and particularly after the events of 9/11, I began searching for a way to create a book that spoke to the many new issues that faced both adults and children, but I wanted to touch on the themes of loneliness, bullying, friendship, and loss on very abstract and poetic levels. More importantly, I considered it crucial to create an ending for the story that could be interpreted in many different ways, depending on whoever is reading the book.
The most ironic thing is that after the recent, tragic events in Newtown, Bluebird eerily reads as an emotional, yet hopeful, parable that I believe could actually bring some small peace to the families of Sandy Hook.
What's next for you?
I'm trying to count. I think I have seven or eight books coming out in the next two years; I'm always on-call for New Yorker covers; PBS had me re-designing the look of PBS Kids; I continue doing a weekly illustration for The Washington Post; [I’ll have] a national tour in April to promote Bluebird; and I'm always working on new picture book stories.
At 55, I should be thinking about slowing down a little, but I find that the older I get, they more I still have to say–to both kids and adults.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
Self-portrait courtesy of Bob Staake.