Most people of all economic stripes, I would venture to say, have had the experience of owning that one piece of clothing that makes them feel utterly comfortable and happy when they wear it. Maybe it fits just right; maybe it has the perfect pockets in just the right places; or maybe they know they look good in it. This kind of sartorial bliss is the subject of Kenneth Kraegel’s new picture book, Green Pants.
The book’s protagonist, Jameson, adores his green pants, which make him feel powerful, talented, and amazing all at the same time. When his cousin Armando shows up with his new fiancée, Jo, not only is Jameson smitten with the upcoming addition to the family, but he learns that he’ll have to wear black pants in their wedding. Suddenly, a story about awesome pants becomes something more, as Jameson must decide how much of his green-pants devotion he is willing to relinquish for family.
This is Kraegel’s third picture book, and its detailed, uncluttered illustrations, along with a cast of endearing characters and humor in spades, are a delight. I talked with Kraegel via email about the story and artwork – and may have even put on my own best pair of pants for the occasion. (Okay, so they were pajama bottoms, but in my world those are superior pants.)
The back-flap bio on the book says this story came to you as you pulled on your own pair of awesome green pants. How'd you get from there to a story about compromise?
It didn’t take long for this story to come together. Usually, I have to really struggle and re-work stories to make the plot line seem natural, but this one came easily. Once I had Jameson at the wedding in a black tuxedo, I needed to find a good ending. I think it was probably a visual inclination that gave me the idea for the compromise. I really like the pictures with him in midair, dunking, diving, and dancing, and it just felt like the energy of the book needed to have him up in the air one more time, this time yanking his black pants off.
At first, the story seemed like a rock-and-roll story. I thought Jameson embodied that wild joyous relief, when you are finally free of all constraints – like when school’s out for summer. You turn up the music and WOOOOHOOOOOO! Jameson tames his soul for the love of Jo, puts on the black pants, and admirably performs everything required of him. But once all of the requirements have been met, the pants come flying off, and he is glad to be back to himself again.
However, the longer I worked on the story, the more I came to appreciate the quieter story of Jameson’s mother being played out behind the scenes. My son is now six years old, and I am quite familiar with how difficult it is, as a parent, to know when and how to lay down the law. I imagine Jameson’s mother making all these calculations in her head, trying to figure out how to respond to the distraught Jameson, torn between his two passions. Getting the right tone with the mother-son dynamic was the hard part, and I am grateful to the insights of my editor and others at Candlewick for help with this.
I love the straightforward dialogue and text, then interrupted by these really flowing, descriptive, hyperbolic moments when Jameson sees Jo. (“Jo had the nicest smile Jameson had ever seen, and her eyes seemed to sparkle like the autumn sun shining upon a running river.”) They made me laugh out loud. Were those moments as fun to write as they seem?
Yes, they were fun to write, and I am really glad you noticed them! I love flourish and chivalry. I usually take it a lot farther initially and then have to bring it down a few notches in later drafts.
You often work in watercolors, yes? What is it about that medium you like?
Yes, all my books have been in watercolor, and I haven’t experimented that much with other mediums. I like the variation of watercolor on paper. I use cold-press watercolor paper, which has a fair amount of texture. That makes drawing details more difficult than it would be on smooth paper, but gives the paint more variation.
In nature, almost every surface is patterned or varied; tree bark, sand, grasses, even snow is made up of individual snowflakes, if you look closely. Human-made materials tend to be more uniform and monotone – plastic, drywall, paper. I think those natural surfaces that show more and more detail the closer you look are extraordinarily beautiful and, I suppose, that is what I am aiming for when I make a picture, a complexity that you don’t see at first glance.
Have you done school visits with this book yet? I've not (yet) read it to a group of children in a story time, but I'm thinking it will be of great appeal to them.
Yes, I have visited schools with this book. It has been a lot of fun. I think kids tend to believe the green pants really have special powers for Jameson, which is how I think of it too. Forget attachment objects; these pants make him fly!
I gave a presentation to around 300 K-2 students, and as I started, they were a bit rowdy and noisy, so I stopped asking them questions and trying to be interactive and just read the story. Then it was quiet. Three hundred faces were staring right at me, wanting to know what happens next. Stories have magic.
What's next for you?
I am at work on another picture book with Candlewick. It will be longer, and it will be my first book without people. Animals take center stage in this one.
Do you still have your green pants? Are they still amazing?
No, sadly those pants are long gone. They were canvas Carhartts, and they don’t make them anymore. Alas, I have never found their like.
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.
GREEN PANTS. Copyright © 2017 by Kenneth Kraegel. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.