A demanding, briefcase-toting baby wearing a onesie styled like a business suit—complete with necktie--is clearly in charge of the household in The Boss Baby, due from Simon & Schuster’s Beach Lane Books with a 100,000-copy first printing. This picture book is written and illustrated by Marla Frazee, two-time Caldecott Honoree (for her own A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever and All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon). Though her new book is simple in concept—a new baby takes over a household—Frazee talks about some of the challenges she met while creating it, and about her earlier experiences as a writer and illustrator.
Did your own role as the mother of three inspire this tale of a take-charge baby?
Actually the idea came from several places. First of all, I haven’t had a lot of experience with bosses, since I’ve never had a real job, with the exception of a six-week stint right out of art school working in the story department of Disney Studios. But I’ve heard plenty of people complain about bosses, and during one of those conversations, I began doodling pictures of a baby with a diaper on saying, “Waaah,” and the idea of a baby as the boss came to me. That doodle hung on my studio wall for years, and occasionally I’d look at it and wonder if there was something there.
When did it strike you that there was indeed a book in the doodle?
One night, right around Christmas 2008, I started to write what became the first draft of this book and I began cracking myself up. So I rolled with the idea. Initially I had the baby’s relatives and family friends as part-time employees, and I had the baby fire the dog. The story had a bigger cast than the final version, which only has the baby and parents in it. I showed the first draft to my editor, Allyn Johnston, and she loved it enough to say, “Let’s write up a contract.” But then when I actually started to draw, I began to worry that maybe the book wouldn’t work.
What made you hesitant?
As I did a series of dummies, I realized that the book was getting further and further away from being funny. And I showed about five pages to Allyn and she agreed—she said that it wasn’t as funny as she thought it would be. So I reworked it and got rid of the supporting cast. For me, it’s common to do revisions, but it’s not so common to see an idea that was just about there almost fall apart. I’ve had ideas fall apart before, but that usually happens very early on, but this was later—several months into it. That was what was so hard.
What drove you to stick with the project?
My youngest son, James, got a cat that Christmas, and that was a first for us. That little kitten started doing crazy things—like pooping on beds, in the fireplace, and under the Christmas tree—and was stressing the whole family out. James felt so bad, since he had asked for the cat, and I remember saying to him that yes, the kitten was a little monster now, but pretty soon we’re all going to love him. And I realized that that was in fact what my book is about: a little creature can take over your life and make you feel as though you’re no longer in control.
So that kitten helped The Boss Baby get on track?
It did help, and then one night I had dinner with a TV comedy writer who made the comment, when I talked about my frustration about the book not coming together, that “comedy is commitment.” And it clicked into place for me that I believed in the premise of the book, and thought it was funny, so I went back to work on it. I didn’t tell anyone I was still working on it—I did it in secret. I realized I shouldn’t think of the baby as a baby but as a real irritant. So I gave the story more of an edge, and when I finally showed Allyn the dummy of that version, she said, “Let’s do it.”
Babies seem to be a recurrent theme in your work, given that you’ve illustrated the folk song Hush Little Baby, Everywhere Babies by Susan Meyers, and Woody Guthrie’s New Baby Train.
Yes, it’s kind of weird, because I’m not really a baby person. When I’m writing, I never think about writing for babies, even though the books may be about babies. Of course babies appreciate being read to and the closeness of that experience, but I’m always aiming my books for the picture-book audience. That’s the group I’m most in communion with—and the audience I was writing for in The Baby Boss. Kids know when they’re being bossed around by someone, whether it’s someone older than they are or younger. Or even a cat.
You have said before that picture-book readers are the most discerning interpreters of illustrations. Does that intimidate you?
I find it a challenge and an honor. No one looks at pictures as closely as this audience. One of the things I find so inspiring about illustrating for kids this age is that they will read the story in the pictures without any stress. No one has to teach them to do it—it’s not like teaching a child to sound out words. They take it in and appreciate it on their own, more expertly than any other group. Once they become proficient readers, they’ve lost that intensity and discernment they bring to pictures. I feel as though I’m just learning to play an instrument yet am performing before an audience of virtuosos. I know they’ll notice any mistake I have made. And kids definitely point it out when I do!
Which do you prefer, illustrating your own words or illustrating stories written by others?
I’d say that they are very different creative challenges, but one is not easier or harder for me. I love illustrating a text I’ve not written, since there’s something, for lack of a better word, acrobatic about it. I can launch off from it and know it’s not going to fall apart. I have the manuscript in hand that has been edited and has, to paraphrase Mem Fox, the perfect words in the perfect places. For me it is like putting together pieces of a puzzle.
At the same time, I love working from the ground up with books I do myself. I like taking a book all the way through.
You teach courses on children’s book illustration at conferences and at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, your alma mater. Does that provide any inspiration for your own work?
It very much helps my work. Sometimes in that moment, when I’m trying to keep a student inspired, and struggling to articulate what’s not working, I will realize things about my own work. I find teaching a great learning experience for myself, and very exciting.
Speaking of exciting, it must be very gratifying to have won back-to-back Caldecott Honors, last year and this.
Of course I still have to pinch myself. It totally blew me away, both times. Allyn called me the day before the award for A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever was announced, and told me how much it meant to her to have worked on that book—no matter what happens. But I was totally stunned when the phone call about the award arrived—both times.
Is it intimidating to have set such a high bar for yourself?
Truly, winning a Caldecott Honor is such a humbling experience. Each time, starting a new book, sitting there staring at a blank piece of paper, is intimidating and always humbling. I have lots of anxieties and neuroses, and I find myself saying, “That’s it. I’m done. I’ll never win anything again.” At the same time, it’s such fun to start a new book, which I’ve just recently done. I feel scared as I always do when I try something different, something new. But I guess that’s good. Being in my studio, drawing at my table, is very grounding for me.
The Boss Baby by Marla Frazee. S&S/Beach Lane, $16.99 Aug. ISBN 978-1-4424-0167-9