Byron Barton is the author-illustrator of many picture books for preschoolers, including Planes, Building a House, I Want to Be an Astronaut, Airport, Machines at Work, and My Car. His accolades include six ALA Notable Book Awards, five SLJ Best Books of the Year selections, and two Reading Rainbow picks. Thirteen years after publishing My Car, Greenwillow is bringing out a companion picture book, My Bus. Featuring spare, blocky shapes and vibrant colors, the book centers on a bus driver who, at sequential stops, picks up an increasing number of cats and dogs, and delivers them to locales where they board either a boat, train, or plane. PW spoke with Barton about his long career as author and illustrator, and about his latest work.
You began your artistic career in animated illustration for CBS. How long did you work in that medium, and what inspired you to move on to children’s books?
I started out as an illustrator, but then thought I wanted to be a designer. I worked at CBS for a few years and did animation work using art, photos, type, and sound, put together on film. Designing elements in time was a different experience from doing single illustrations. It was exciting, but I wanted to do it with drawings, and that led me to children’s books.
Did your experience in animation at all influence your style of book illustration?
In a way, yes. What I learned in animating was how to put elements and images together. It was not just one picture, but one after another. So I put emphasis on making them all work together. The result, I think, is that I simplified details, and the subjects became more like symbols than characters.
How would you describe the stylistic evolution of your children’s book art?
I started doing children’s books with flat, free shapes and childlike drawing. Now sometimes I want to be more geometric, and maybe put in more space. My next book, My Bike [due from Greenwillow in winter 2015], has objects that may almost have a three-dimensional feel.
Your books span an array of genres and topics, but things that go – planes, trains, boats, cars, and now a bus – are a recurrent theme. Do vehicles personally fascinate you, or is that concept driven by children’s inherent interest in things that move?
Cars and trucks allow me to use bright colors, and they move easily from page to page. Kids like them, I think, because they move in a bigger space – they open up the world. When I am doing vehicle books, I am in the kids’ world and I love all the cars, boats, planes, and buses. But to me as an adult, vehicles are more like trouble. I’d rather not get on an airplane.
Have you heard, from reader feedback, that your vehicle-themed books are of particular interest to boys – and do you intentionally try to target this audience?
Maybe boys like cars and trucks more than girls, but I don’t know. I’ve heard that girls also like my books. But that’s not what I think about. I think of vehicles more as shapes and colors, and we drive and go places and do things with them – places that very young boys and girls want to know about.
Your art in My Bus was created in Photoshop. At what point did you begin creating illustrations in this medium – and do you use it exclusively now?
I first used the computer to sketch with. Then I spent time learning Director, an animation software program. I used that to illustrate and to do limited animation for Little Factory [HarperCollins, 1998], a book and CD-ROM package written and sung by Sarah Weeks. After that, I was able to do My Car, from start to finish, without pen, pencil, or paint. And now everything I do, including mailing, is done using the computer. And my paints are probably all dried up.
My Bus is reminiscent of My Car in subject matter and format. Why did you decide to do this companion volume now, 13 years after My Car was published?
After I finished My Car, which Virginia Duncan, my editor at Greenwillow Books, worked on along with Susan Hirschman [who retired in 2001 shortly before that book was published], Virginia suggested I do My Bus. But I just couldn’t get excited enough about it – I really wanted to paint bright colors and shapes without any subject matter. Ten years later, Susan called me and said I really should do My Bus. The subject matter was beginning to interest me again, so I said, “OK. I’ll try it and see how it goes.”
You work addition and subtraction into the storyline of My Bus. What inspired you to add that counting component – and to make the bus passengers animals?
I felt that a different approach from My Car was needed – less emphasis on the vehicle and more on others. I tried different people, characters, and animals going to different places. When I put the animals into the bus and then added a boat, train, and plane as their destinations, it easily became a counting book.
What do you think it is about your art’s bold colors, simple lines, and spare images that appeals to kids?
Being simple makes subjects easier for kids to understand and relate to on their own. But I think there is also a kind of mystery about large areas of bright colors. I want my drawings to be fun and I want them to be informative. The way the lines and shapes are drawn and the colors are put together is done with that feeling and intent. It is not a formula. Most of the time it is just feeling. I am very much influenced by kids’ drawings, and maybe kids see that.
Do you have any other book projects in the works?
I just finished illustrating My Bike, which was a project suggested by Susan Hirschman. And I am now working on one more book in that series, My House [due from Greenwillow in winter 2016].
So to what total will those two books bring your children’s book oeuvre?
It’s very funny. I did a counting book, so I should know. But I’m sorry, I can’t say – I’ve lost count.
My Bus by Byron Barton. Greenwillow, $ 16.99 Apr. ISBN 978-0-06-228736-6