As a writer for Saturday Night Live, the star of his HBO special My Favorite Shapes, and a co-creator (with Ana Fabrega and Fred Armisen) of the Spanish-language TV comedy Los Espookys, Julio Torres has become known for stories that unfold in an absurdist but sweetly inclusive world. In his first picture book, I Want to Be a Vase, Torres’s protagonist is a bathroom plunger who declares it is leaving the job it was made for to “hold lilies and daisies and maybe even those glittery twigs for Christmas”—becoming “a vessel for beauty.” So determined is the plunger to become a vase that it tapes flowers to its handle, stands up to a hidebound vacuum cleaner, and liberates the other household objects to embrace their true selves, too. PW spoke with Torres about matters ranging from how coffee table books shaped his aesthetic from a young age to why the plunger and the book’s other characters don’t have faces.
You’ve noted that as a child you spent a lot of time with the art books and atlases in your parents’ library. Were there any books they read to you as a child that also had a lasting impact?
Funny enough, I don’t really recall being read kids’ books as a child. I think my truly favorite thing to do was flipping through the adult coffee table books and imagining what those worlds were. My parents were big coffee table book people, especially my dad, and we always had art history and architecture and animal books—they really liked my imagination to flourish.
I’m so visually driven, and I wanted to make a picture book that felt like a beautiful object. I think about the books that I gravitated towards as a kid— it felt like they were beautiful, glossy artifacts—and I wanted my book to feel like a coffee table book for kids.
The book was inspired by your 2019 HBO special My Favorite Shapes, which was about the inner lives of objects—a common theme in children’s literature. How did the book come together?
Julia McCarthy, my editor, reached out and said she’d be interested in an adaptation of sorts of My Favorite Shapes. I was titillated by the idea, but I was a little reticent. She referenced the toys in the special—the ones that have actual noses and mouths and eyes—and what I said to her was that in the context of that performance, from one adult to another, drawing the audience’s attention to a figurine is inherently funny. But if you put a cute little creature in a children’s book, then it’s suddenly not unexpected. I said, “How about we go the other way, and use characters that are these boring everyday adult objects?” Otherwise, it becomes Toy Story.
I feel like that’s what makes it interesting or memorable is to have a children’s book that doesn’t star a little bear or animal but rather something that doesn’t have a face. A plunger is something that kids sit next to when they’re on the toilet and don’t think anything about it.
There’s certainly a childlike quality to some of your previous work, too, like the SNL sketch Wells for Boys.
I think that’s why Julia reached out. There is a childlike wonder in my work. Even Los Espookys is like a live-action cartoon. There’s something untethered and free that I’m attracted to, and really lends itself for work for children.
You’re known for your Spanish-language work, including Los Espookys and the SNL sketch “Diego Calls His Mom” with Lin-Manuel Miranda. Did you think about making this book bilingual?
That might be the next challenge. I didn’t arrive at the place for this book where that wouldn’t feel like a gimmick. Maybe at some point there will be a bilingual book, but I want it to be a core part of the story.
How were you partnered with 3-D illustrator Julian Glander?
I wanted this to feel cinematic, like you’re watching frames of movies. I loved View-Masters and the depth of the images: they were magical little stills, and that’s what I was trying to capture here.
We researched and talked about different illustrators, and none seemed to do what I was hoping for the book. Even though they’re immensely talented, they’re all illustrators, and it wasn’t what this book needed.
It was a friend of mine, I think it was either Bobby Doherty, a photographer, or Max Wittert, a fellow comedian who’s also an artist and graphic designer, who suggested Julian. I looked at his Instagram and sent it to Julia. Julian’s work really bridged the gap between a photography book and an illustrated book.
The plunger doesn’t feel it’s necessary to prove anything to anyone—it doesn’t have to rescue another object to win approval or validate its newfound identity. It announces to the other objects it wants to be a vase and adds, “I know I wasn’t made for that, but that’s what I want to do.” Why was it important to tell the story in that way?
Something I’ve noticed since I was a kid, and that has come into focus for me lately, is that stories for children are very focused on the power of the individual and individual journey to success. It’s very much a parable through the lens of the American dream. I feel like we’re at a moment in time when we can be interested and make our kids more interested in their fellow humans, and really look at the context of these individuals’ existence. So rather than be a story of an extraordinary object in a world of ordinary objects, it’s about the story of an object striving to find happiness in a world where everyone is striving to find happiness.
To me, having the vacuum as an antagonist was important because it’s saying you will face resistance, but it behooves us to analyze why that resistance is there, and then bring more voices into the conversation and hopefully show that there shouldn’t be anything to the resist. [The plunger’s announcement that it wants to be a vase] is sort of a wake-up call for everyone else. I like that the main character is skyrocketing to happiness not by itself, but really paving the road for others, too.
Your voice and delivery are such an important part of your comedy—how did you try to preserve that in book form?
I thought about it in very cinematic terms, and rather than think about my literal voice, which is what I would use if I was performing, I saw it as a script. So I thought of different voices, and that all these objects sound completely different from each other. Because there is no narration, it really freed my imagination. And from my experience as a writer [on Saturday Night Live and elsewhere], I’m very happy and comfortable exploring the uniqueness of different voices.
There are a growing number of picture books on themes of identity—you’ve cited Julian Is a Mermaid as one you admire. What’s the hardest thing to get right in these books?
I think that identity means different things to different people. Because I’m a queer person, there is the immediate impulse to associate the plunger’s journey to that of a queer person’s. But to me, this character was about what you’re born to do vs. what you want to do—it might seem like an object is made to do one thing, but it actually wants to do something else. I think kids will see different aspects of their aspirations and identity in the book, and think about how to achieve that place of happiness in the world they live in.
HBO announced that Season 2 of Los Espookys is coming. Is another picture book in the works, too?
I’m in discussions about a coffee table book for adults. It’s in such early stages. I have a million ideas in a notebook; anything I give you now will change tomorrow. But I’d love to do another children’s book. I feel like I’m really connected to my child self.
I Want to Be a Vase. Julio Torres, illus. by Julian Glander. Atheneum, $18.99 June 7 ISBN 978-1-53-449390-2