A bluebird befriends a lonely boy – and risks its life to protect him in a city park – in Bob Staake’s latest picture book, Bluebird. Published this week by Random House’s Schwartz & Wade imprint, the book is a departure for Staake, who has written or illustrated more than 55 children’s books, is a New Yorker cover artist, and has done illustrations for a variety of publications, including the Washington Post, the New York Times, Vanity Fair, and the Wall Street Journal. Bluebird, Staake’s first wordless book, features a subdued palette that is a dramatic contrast to the Technicolor hues found in most of his books, and is a deeply personal work. From his Cape Cod home on an unusually warm day for this late-arriving New England spring, Staake spoke to Bookshelf about his latest creation.
Can you recall the moment the idea for Bluebird came to you?
In 2002, I was walking around Central Park on a quintessentially gorgeous spring day. The trees were flowering and the light was perfect. And there was a bird that seemed to be following my path. And I thought, “I’ve got do something here. There must be a way to capture this moment in a book.” And as I walked along, I thought about how to take this simple, lyrical moment and tell it in a story – with no words.
But it took you a number of years to figure out how to do that?
We had just moved from St. Louis to Cape Cod, and I was ready for a big change, but I knew that this would be a completely different book from what we’re used to in picture books, and from what I’d done before. As a relatively new picture book author, I didn’t think I had – what’s the right word? – maybe the credentials to do a book like this. I started this wordless book, but other things got in the way, like New Yorker covers, illustrations for magazines and advertising, and other children’s books. It ended up being very difficult to take the time I needed to finish it.
What finally spurred you to do that?
I’d put the book aside for years, but in 2011 I decided to post some sample spreads on Facebook, and people went crazy for it. I suddenly realized that I really had something here, and decided I had to finish this. I fleshed it out with some sample spreads, including the crucial spread when bad things happen. That’s the scene I knew I had to nail, because any editor would wonder, “Can he pull it off?” It was a matter of sitting down and roughing out the book. I knew where I wanted the story to go – I just had to do it.
And what was your next step?
My primary editor, Diane Muldrow at Random House, turned the book down. I knew it would be a big departure for her, since the books I’ve done with her, including The Red Lemon and The Donut Chef, are very different from this. I sat down with my agent, Gillian MacKenzie, and said I think I have something here, and I want to make sure we do this right. So we put the book up for auction, and there was a lot of interest. At the end of the day, we had four offers – the houses that turned it down said it was an amazing book, but they couldn’t take the risk with it. But Lee Wade had loved the book from the time she first saw it on Facebook. She loved all the slightly scary, challenging things that might have scared off other publishers.
Like the scene where the bird is struck by a stick that kids in the park throw at the boy?
Yes, that’s the crucial moment in the story. Children and parents can infer a lot from that, and the ending can be interpreted in different ways. I didn’t want to telegraph the ending, or have it be didactic. It turned out that Lee understood that, and with any issue or question she had, she’d say, “Here’s what we suggest, but you don’t have to do it.” You don’t hear that much these days, and that attitude is a dream come true for any author or illustrator.
How did you find the hero of the book, the boy who finds a friend in the bluebird?
As an adult writer of children’s books, I have always thought back to that five-year-old Bobby Staake growing up in Los Angeles in the 1960s. My younger brother had health issues, so he was understandably my parents’ focus. As a result, I came to rely on myself and muddle through life by trial, error, and self-preservation. I was a loner as a little boy – much like the child in Bluebird. I would draw alone, I would read books alone, I would listen to records alone, and I think that childhood experience made me a better picture book author as an adult. The boy in this book is 100% me. Maybe there is something innate in me that can accept the negative, turn it into a positive, and go on living for tomorrow, and that’s the subtext of Bluebird – we all find ways to survive.
What inspired the story’s bullying theme?
The so-called “bullies” in the book are simply children who, by no fault of their own, find devious ways to make life miserable for others. We encounter these people throughout our lives, so I thought it might be nice for me to expose kids to them in a picture book while they’re still young – so they might find ways to avoid them.
Why the decision to make Bluebird wordless?
I love writing visually, and wordlessly, because this is was how I read books as a kid. I didn’t really read, but I was a voracious page turner. Nothing would delight me more than pulling out old National Geographics and encyclopedias and looking through the pictures. For years, I have said that this is how children learn how to read. They don’t read, they look. Parents sometimes denigrate the importance of looking in favor of reading the words. It is just as important.
What drove the palette of the art, which is much subtler than your earlier books?
It’s all about poetic restraint, which I love. It forces you to create in ways you may not be accustomed to, ways that challenge you. Sometimes surprising things happen. I am someone who is known for vivid colors – my wife says jokingly she’d expect nothing less from a guy who grew up close to Disneyland. Here, I tried to reduce the color, and used only blue, light blue, gray, white, and black. The color and the lighting are big parts of this book. I tried to imbue personality in the characters using very simple tools.
So you obviously tried a number of new things in Bluebird.
I think it’s fair to say that the common denominator of my books is the fact that they are all different. At the end of the day, I’m in my little studio, all alone, and I have to entertain myself. I’m not one to sit back on my laurels and do the same crap over and over. There’s too much of that in the children’s book world. I’m not sure if it will bode well for me to be so unpredictable, but it seems to work and to keep me trying new things. I know whatever I do next will be something completely different, something I haven’t done before.
That unpredictability does seem to work, given your loyal fan base.
I’ve made friends with my fans by being approachable and respectful of them. I make it clear to them how grateful I am that they buy my books – that lets me do what I do. In a way they really are part of the creative process. Adults tell me that there is something retro about my books that reminds them of books they read as kids, and they want to share them with their kids. And it’s amazing to me that a lot of children who grew up reading my board books and then picture books are now grown up, and sharing my books with their own kids. That’s something I didn’t realize would happen, and it’s wonderful and fascinating to me.
Bluebird by Bob Staake. Schwartz & Wade, $17.99 Apr. ISBN 978-0-375-87037-8
To read PW's review, click here.