The cheerful star of Stephen Savage’s Little Tug isn’t the tallest, biggest, or fastest boat in the harbor. Yet when the other vessels need help, he’s always there with a push or a pull to guide them to safety, and they, in turn, comes to his aid when he gets tired. Published this month by Roaring Brook’s Neal Porter Books, the picture book follows another solo effort, Where’s Walrus?, which was one of PW’s Best Books of the Year in 2011, among other accolades. The Brooklyn resident has also illustrated Lauren Thompson’s Polar Bear Night (2004) and Margaret Wise Brown’s previously unpublished The Fathers Are Coming Home (2007). Savage, who also creates editorial art for numerous newspapers and magazines, shares the story of his artistic beginnings and his picture book career to date.
Did you have artistic aspirations as a child?
I always made art, but like a lot of kids I didn’t know what to do with it – how to turn it into a job. My parents both really appreciated art and encouraged me to make art for the sake of making art, not to figure out the job thing. I remember my parents taking me to a Calder exhibit at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, where I grew up, and I definitely responded to his sense of play. His works were almost like toys; they had a real entertainment aspect to them. He wasn’t making art for a museum, but was having fun bending wire!
So Calder was an inspiration to you as a kid?
He was definitely an early inspiration. I remember going through a Calder phase. I had a studio in our basement, and my parents got me a blowtorch and I melded wire into a sculpture when I was 12.
Hold on. Your parents gave you a blowtorch at that age?
This was the ’70s and I guess parents gave their kids blowtorches then! My parents weren’t hippies, but my father was a college professor, and I guess there was some hands-off parenting. I have a three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, and as a parent I don’t quite get the idea of having a child in a house with a lit flame!
Well, clearly it helped spark your interest in being an artist. What were your next steps on that path?
I graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1987 with a degree in art history. In college, I wasn’t as much interested in making art as in writing about art and art analysis. Then in 1989, I came to New York thinking I’d go into publishing, which seemed to be the best place to go given my interests in writing and art. But I wasn’t sure if I was a word or an image person. My first job was in production at Franklin Watts.
Did that whet your appetite for becoming a published author yourself?
At that point, I started doing some illustration on the side, and came up with some ideas for novelty books. So I did two of them in cut paper, Making Tracks for Dutton in 1992 and Animals Under Cover for Little Simon in 1994. And then I submitted these books as part of my application for the masters of illustration program at the School for Visual Arts in Manhattan. And that was the turning point for me.
When I got my masters in 1996, I emerged from my cocoon and pretty much hit the ground running. I started getting editorial illustration jobs, and my first piece was for the New York Times. Then I started working for Entertainment Weekly, my first magazine job, which was a huge shot in the arm.
And what led you back to children’s books?
While I was at school and in my editorial illustration, I was doing art that had a bit of a vintage children’s book look – from the 1940s and ’50s, kind of childlike and playful. Someone had told me that if I was interested in showing work to publishers, it’s stronger to give them a manuscript rather than just a portfolio. So I pitched an Edward Gorey-type book called Ghost Zoo to David Saylor at Scholastic. Lauren Thompson was an editor there at the time, and was also writing books. And she told me she didn’t like my story, but loved one of the images from it – a ghost bear in the moonlight – and wanted to write a story about that image. So she wrote Polar Bear Night and I illustrated it. When I look back 10 years later, I realize how lucky I was to have this amazing opportunity.
What led you to write and illustrate your own picture book, Where’s Walrus?
After we finished Polar Bear Night, I started talking with David about a new book, and he saw an image of a walrus I’d done for a school assignment, where we had to go to an aquarium and create an illustration. David envisioned that walrus as the basis of an entire book, and told me if I could go home and figure out how to do that book, we’d be golden. I did – but that process took me six years!
And how did you make the creative leap from a walrus to a tugboat?
I wrote Little Tug in the weeks after my daughter Chloe was born. I needed an escape from the day-in and day-out drudgery of newborn care. One of the things that struck me the most about holding Chloe was just how tiny she was. I felt like a giant. At the same time, I was making trips down to my studio in Red Hook in Brooklyn, and gazing out over the harbor. The boats seemed like members of a family, with the tug as the baby. I was already interested in tugboats – they are so darned cute and feel so kid-friendly. So I put those two ideas together. And the other element was that the parenting routine really keyed me into the cycle of night and day, with waking up in the middle of the night, then seeing the sunrise and seeing the sunset. Those cycles became a big part of the book.
Did you use a different illustrative technique in Little Tug than you did in Where’s Walrus?
Where’s Walrus? was completely digital, but with Little Tug I used charcoal to get some grainy gradations and add warmth. The digital part only came in at the end, after I’ve done all the drawings and pieced them together. I love the idea of changing illustrations technically, and using the technique that best suits the book rather than applying one style to whatever story I’m working on.
And how was it that Little Tug ended up with Neal Porter?
I had actually come across Neal years ago, though he didn’t remember me. When I was at Franklin Watts, he was at Orchard and worked in the same building. I had a friend who was another 20-something lackey and was working for Neal. When I’d go down to grab lunch with him, I’d see Neal.
After I started working on Little Tug, I showed it to David Saylor, but we were still in the middle of Where’s Walrus? and he said, “Let’s finish this one first.” So he said he didn’t mind if I showed it to other publishers, and in August 2009 I e-mailed Neal, and wrote, “Let’s do a picture book sometime!” in the subject line. He wrote back and said he was a big fan of Polar Bear Night and asked if I had any ideas for books I’d write myself. I sent him the proposal for Little Tug in the form of a QuickTime movie, and he e-mailed me back saying, “I love it. I want to do it.” This all happened over a period of 15 minutes – it was almost too good to be true.
What’s on your drawing board now?
Polar Bear Morning, the sequel to Polar Bear Night, comes out in January from Scholastic Press. And later in 2013 I have a counting book, Ten Orange Pumpkins, due from Dial. And there are a couple of other books in the works that aren’t yet scheduled.
Has having your own child fueled your interest in creating picture books?
Now that I have a child reading books I’ve become even more of a fan of the picture book format. And I feel like Little Tug has tapped my interest in doing more books. The more I do, the more I understand and get to love this incredible art form. It’s such an honor to feel like I’m a member of this community – and such an incredible honor to be adding to the picture book canon in some way.
And at three-and-a-half, is your daughter becoming a fan of your books?
Actually, I don’t really think so. She knows my books really well, but somehow doesn’t really see them as part of her library – the books she asks us to read to her again and again. She seems to see my books as separate. And I’m not sure they are so much to her taste. She’s a really verbal kid and likes more dialogue in books. I’m like the anti-dialogue author.
Little Tug by Stephen Savage. Roaring Brook/Porter, $12.99 Oct. ISBN 978-1-59643-648-0