Robert Neubecker is an artist and freelance editorial illustrator whose work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Business Week, Time, Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal. Neubecker moved to Utah in 1994, and, inspired by his young family, made his publishing debut in 2004 with the children's picture book Wow! City!, which he followed with Wow! America! and Wow! School! Neubecker, who currently works for Slate.com, says that his daughters helped him write his children’s books: “All I did was observe and take notes.”
Let these books take your kids to the beach.
Your Wow! books capture the excitement and enthusiasm of seeing the world through the eyes of a child. Can you talk a little about your decision to include the ocean in this series?
Well, the ocean is the most wondrous thing ever, no? When I lived in New York, I did a lot of surfing on Long Island. It was a life-transforming experience. The ocean is a giant living organism, very powerful, very spiritual. Now that we’re in the Rocky Mountains, we travel to beaches along the Pacific from Costa Rica to Oregon. The girls love it, and [they] can wander the beaches and play in the surf for hours. Wow! Ocean! is nonfiction, like all the Wow! books.
I am guessing that these Wow! books are quite research intensive. If so, how do you go about doing that research?
Wow! City! was my love letter to New York. I drew upon my experiences from over 20 years, but especially my student days, when we had no money and the city itself was our entertainment. For Wow! America!, I had traveled widely as a child and drew on that experience. I got the Niagara Falls quote from the Internet, about the teacher who went over the falls in a barrel and said: “No one ought ever do that again!”
Wow! School! took quite a bit of research. My daughter Josephine was in a wonderful preschool at the time, and I spent hours in the classroom. I consulted with her teachers, Elaine Burns and Kim Dankers. I also worked closely with my editor, Donna Bray, who had a little boy going through the same experience.
Wow! Ocean! was easy and wonderful. I emptied the library of all books fishy. I ran the sketches by Greg Welch, a marine biologist with the city of San Diego. And I spent a lot of time in the ocean.
Can you tell me about something you discovered when researching Wow! Ocean! that you hadn’t known before?
Killer whales, or orcas, are part of the dolphin family. [My daughter] Izzy set me straight on that one.
Wow! Ocean! has subtle labels on everything. Are these in all the Wow! books?
No, the labels are new to Wow! Ocean! There were just too many interesting fish not to label them, and kids love it. When I did Air Show! with Treat Williams (2010) we labeled all the fantastic airplanes because, well, wow!
Can you talk about how your life as a children’s author meshes (or contrasts) with that of an editorial illustrator? Is it easy to move back and forth?
I don’t have any problem going from one to the other. It’s actually easier mentally to be an editorial illustrator, because at the end of the day your drawing goes to press or online, and you’re done. A book is more like a show of paintings that takes months to complete and is always there in the back, or front, of your mind. As far as adult/children sensibility goes, again, they’re just me in different contexts. I love doing both.
I enjoy how you populate your books with your family.
When I was drawing Wow! City!, including Izzy was logical because she essentially wrote the book, at 18 months, by exclaiming, “wow!” at everything she saw. Then I looked at pictures of my friends for dad reference, but none of them had any hair. I wanted a young(ish) dad… so I used me. I figured no one would know. Then it got out of hand. The mountain in the Wow! books is literally out my window.
What’s on your drawing table now?
Arrrr! Pirates! I’m illustrating a wonderful pirate poetry book called Shiver me Timbers! by Douglas Florian for my mateys over at Beach Lane Books (Simon & Schuster, August 2012).