In Ali Bahrampour's picture book Otto: The Story of a Mirror (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), the shiny, oval title character runs out on his dull job at a hat shop after dealing with an especially vain customer named Curly Joe. Otto becomes a wayfarer on the high seas, "not knowing where the waves would take him, but happy nonetheless."
Otto's rootlessness might describe Bahrampour himself, although he is loath to admit it. "My girlfriend says it's totally autobiographical, that it's based on every crummy job I've had, and wanting to get away," he says, though he remains unconvinced. He allows only that he leads a "jaunt-to-jaunt" existence in and around New York City. "Most recently I was working in a library, but now I'm drawing and writing for the summer," he says. "I live cheaply. It's a philosophy based on necessity."
This happen-what-may approach may be anathema to careerists, but it apparently stokes Bahrampour's imagination. He describes Otto as a daydream brought to fruition. "I was doodling in a language class—it might have been Russian," he says. "I drew a picture of a mirror and a sort of proto-Curly Joe character chasing the mirror. And then I tried to reason what the story might be from there."
Bahrampour developed book dummies for Otto and another as-yet-unpublished manuscript. He does not have an agent—although he is thinking of finding one—so he planned to shop his portfolio to various publishing houses. But before he did the legwork, his sister, New York Times journalist Tara Bahrampour, intervened. She had published her memoir with Farrar, Straus and Giroux ("It's about her childhood in Iran— and mine I guess. I'm sort of a peripheral character," Ali says). Tara contacted her editor, Elisabeth Kallick Dyssegaard (now at Ballantine), who put Ali in touch with FSG children's editor Robbie Mayes.
Bahrampour remembers being on the defensive at first. "I had never worked with an editor, so I was prepared to defy any advice," he says. He intended to preserve the book's comical crowd scenes, which he models after Brueghel's teeming peasant villages, Bosch's alchemical fantasias and, more prosaically perhaps, Richard Scarry's bustling cities. He also worried that a children's editor would introduce some "namby-pamby" elements that were contrary to Otto's dry wit.
"As a child, my hackles would raise when there was any patronizing tone or winking at the parents," Bahrampour says. "Sometimes authors pander to parents at the expense of enchanting the child. I liked authors that were a little darker, with a bit of absurdism. I loved Struwwelpeter, and my favorite book was The Beast of Monsieur Racine."
Bahrampour's fears were unfounded, for he and Mayes shared a dislike for the sugary. "I trust his taste and his sensibility," Bahrampour says. He also feels fortunate that Mayes sent Otto to Maurice Sendak, who provided a blurb. "[Sendak] is one of those people, like Tomi Ungerer or Richard Scarry, whose books are so elemental it's hard to believe that someone even wrote them," he says, again thinking of his own childhood reading.
Bahrampour is now working on another picture book for Mayes, a story of an insect-collector called Luna Likes Bugs. He senses that his cartoon style is becoming freer with experience. "The more you practice, the looser you get," he says. "The next book will be a little more inky, with more variation in lines. The pen I used for Otto was just one thickness." He adds that his artistic experiments have led him into a world of fountain pen admirers: "There are lots of nib maniacs, it turns out, on the Internet," he says.
Besides chatting online with members of "nib fan clubs," Bahrampour has met some of his public face to face. "I have a friend who's an elementary school teacher in California; in one of the crowd scenes, she's at a table being drawn," he says. "I read Otto to her class and her students picked her out." He hopes to do readings in New York too. "I used to work at a settlement house, running a literacy program in Brooklyn," he says. "Because I was doing this first dummy, I promised them I would come back when it was published." Like Otto, Bahrampour has every reason to seize the day.