Your new picture book, Santa Claus: The World’s Number One Toy Expert, gives children a peek into Santa’s everyday life—he meets lots of kids, works long hours all year, and finally delivers the “exact right toy to the exact right kid.” How were you able to take the traditional subject of Santa Claus and make it fresh and fun?
Initially, I was intimidated by the idea of a Santa book. So many stories have been told about Santa—his workshop, the elves, the reindeer, the sleigh, and all the distracting trappings of the North Pole. Instead, I wanted to focus on how hard Santa’s job is. Can you imagine running that entire operation? I am in awe of Santa. He’s got an incredible work ethic. He has an amazing ability to delay gratification. He never, ever misses his deadline. And despite all the pressure, he retains a playful attitude. If he weren’t Santa, I’d find all these admirable qualities pretty irritating.
At its heart, this book is about gift giving. Giving a gift that is just exactly right takes a certain magical mix of thoughtfulness, creativity, and hard work. And no one is better at this than Santa Claus.
What are some of the stories behind the illustrations?
I did some serious research into Santa’s lifestyle and personal habits, and a lot of what I discovered about him is in the pictures.
For instance, Santa is a caffeine addict. He drinks strong, bracing cocoa—with a peppermint swizzle stick. He sometimes pretends the peppermint stick is a cigar. I’ve heard that when the pressure gets to be too much, he pours a little something in the cocoa to take the edge off, but don’t worry…I didn’t put that in the book.
When he isn’t actually in his Santa suit and boots—and he usually isn’t—he wears red high-top Converse tennis shoes. I have always been a sucker for red tennis shoes, so I was delighted to find out that Santa loves them, too. I married my husband in large part because he was wearing a pair when we met.
Santa also wears patterned boxer shorts that sometimes reflect the passing of seasons throughout the long year. It turns out that he shares this habit with my three boys. My oldest son, Graham, started wearing his pants lower and lower with every passing year, until by high school he was showing his whole boxer-clad rear end. The colors and patterns of Easter, Halloween, and Valentine’s Day were all celebrated this way, as well as his hobbies and interests—electric guitars, Hawaiian hula girls, chili peppers. All displayed for the world to see. Then his two younger brothers began showing off their boxers, too. For the past five years, I have been looking at and laundering a festive collection of patterned boxer shorts in three different sizes.
By the way, Santa buys his shorts at the Big and Tall Shop in size 6X.
On your website, you mention that creating thumbnail sketches and “determining where the page turns will be, how the words and pictures relate to each other on the page, where the drama will build, and what the overall design of the book will be” is the “most dynamic stage of the book’s development.” What was the most challenging stage of creating Santa Claus?
In the case of this book, the title and the book cover image proved to be the most challenging. At first I called it Santa Claus: Toy Tester. By the time I’d completed the interior artwork and it was time to work on the cover, the title was How Does Santa Know? I sketched enough cover ideas to label them from A to Z, and my editor and I pored over them. We were both excited about that title and a particular image, so I went ahead and did the finished artwork. But it still wasn’t right. We did a lot of head scratching—it usually isn’t this hard. I went back to the drawing board one last time. The title Santa Claus the World’s Number One Toy Expert, and the cover image of Santa bouncing on the pogo stick, is the result.
When writing and/or illustrating children’s books, what elements do you consider to engage the child?
I try to be clear and concise. I didn’t like ambiguity when I was a child, and I still don’t. I do like surprises, though, so I try to do the unexpected. If a book packs an emotional wallop, then it is going to engage the reader—whether that reader is a child or a grown-up.
Along with writing and illustrating children’s books, since 1990 you’ve served as an instructor of children’s book illustration at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, and beyond that, you’re a full-time mother of three sons. What is a “typical” day like for you?
Typical day? Yeah, right. It would probably go something like this: My husband and I get up and yell at the boys to get out of the shower so that we can also shower before we have to drive them to school. By the time we leave the house in the morning, we are completely undone by the chaos. Inevitably, someone forgets a lunch, homework, a backpack, or that it is picture day and they are required to wear a tie to school. To calm myself down, I hike in the hills above our house with my dog, Rocket. When I get back home, I go out to my studio and get to work. This is my favorite part of the day. (Don’t tell my kids.) I listen to music while I am drawing or painting, but not if I’m writing. When school lets out, I lock up my studio and say good-bye to the peace and quiet. I pick up kids and drive them to where they need to go. I do laundry. Cook some dinner. Pester the kids about their homework and dirty socks left on the floor. And then I beg them to get off the phone and please go to bed.
If you knew me, you’d know that I’m not complaining. I wouldn’t change a thing.
OK, maybe I’d wish away the dirty socks.