Mark Teague is a self-taught artist, whose stint as a window designer for Barnes and Noble 30 years ago reinvigorated his love of picture books and inspired him to write his own. Now, Teague has many picture book credits under his belt as both a writer and an illustrator. His newest picture book, Jack and the Beanstalk and the French Fries, is a fractured fairy tale that centers on the true villain of the classic tale: beans! Teague spoke with PW about adapting classic stories, incorporating humor into his books, and the essential elements of a good read-aloud.
You’ve written a number of books that play on familiar stories and fairy tales, including The Three Little Pigs and the Somewhat Bad Wolf and The Sky Is Falling! What draws you to adding twists to classic stories?
All of the stories I’ve adapted don’t really need twists because they’re great to begin with; every story I’ve adapted was a classic I really, really liked as a kid. I like going back as an adult to reread these stories because they look really different. I see things that crack me up, which sends me off in different directions. I don’t really start with any plan; I just see things that strike me as funny and go off in that direction.
In writing a fractured fairy tale, do you have a specific goal in mind?
I’m always looking for humor. There’s always some humor in the original anyway, but I like putting my own stamp on the original. It always starts as just mulling over old stories.
What is it about these stories that makes you come back again and again?
I’m drawn to absurdity. “Jack and the Beanstalk” is just a great absurd story. As a kid, I loved anything that offered a doorway into another world. The idea of leaving your reality and showing up somewhere else. “Jack and the Beanstalk” also has other great devices to play with: Jack makes an obviously foolish bargain and it works out in the end. That’s a great twist.
When writing humor for kids, what do you find harder: making the text or the images funny?
Writing and illustrating are such different processes. Illustrations build off the text; I don’t even think about the illustration until the text is pretty well complete. Both utilize different kinds of humor, too. The humor in text has more word play and is conceptual, while the images are more broad and slapstick. There’s also ways in which the pictures can work in counterpoint and add more meaning to text.
Where did the inspiration for this retelling come from?
Experiencing Jack’s story as an adult, I realized that Jack is kind of a horrible character. He’s a rotten little guy. Going back, I had sympathy for the giant and didn’t want to have a Jack who was essentially just a little thief. I wanted to find a new way to present him and a new way of looking at the central problem of the story. I didn’t want Jack or Giant to be the villain; to me, the obvious villain was the beans.
When structuring a book that you’ve written and illustrated, how are you thinking about its qualities as a read-aloud?
Picture books are meant to be read aloud and, if they don’t work on that level, then they fail. My kids are older now, but I’ll always read my stories aloud to at least myself to make sure the language has a good bounce and flow to it. Page turn is extremely important, for the pacing with the words but even more for the art. Turning the page should involve a treat; you know something interesting is going to happen. Whenever the page turns, I want the perspective to change. If the focus is on the left of the first spread, then it might be on the right of the next. I aim to maintain interest, change, and excitement, never letting anything go flat.
How would you describe your relationship with your editor? Is your editor involved with story ideas or the twists in your adaptations?
It varies from project to project. Ken Geist, the editor of all my fractured fairy tales, makes suggestions sometimes about things to look into or consider, but everything has ultimately been my choice. He’s been very supportive and offers suggestions of where to amp things up.
Are there any other classic stories you are considering adapting?
I don’t have anything lined up, but it’s a pretty rich vein with so many great stories to consider. I’m not sure what I’ll do next.
You’ve also written one full-length novel, The Doom Machine. Do you have plans to venture out of the world of picture books again? What are you currently working on?
I hope to work on another full-length novel. I’ve been working on a graphic novel, which is super time-consuming. It’s a young adult project, but isn’t near completion.
The Doom Machine was a project started between projects. I usually have several illustration projects lined up, but then you hit these gaps waiting for a manuscript or something in the editorial process, so I try to fill that space. I always want to try something different. It’s good to branch out and try different things, to be creative in different ways. It lets me go back to picture books with fresh eyes.
Do you ever experience writer’s block, or, for lack of a better term, illustrator’s block?
I’m not sure illustrator’s block is a thing. I can always get into the next project, which is not always true with writing. Having options and illustration work to do means that I’m never staring at a blank sheet of paper. Staying creative keeps things flowing.
Have specific artists or books influenced you or your style?
Where the Wild Things Are has been one of my favorites since childhood. I didn’t have any concept at the time that I was going to try to emulate Sendak, I just loved that book and books in general. Books were always my thing. It was kind of natural that I would go in this direction; I was always artistic and thinking up stories. I grew up in a working family; you never hear the word artist without starving in front of it. So, while I was never discouraged, illustration and art was never something considered as a career. It was never in my mind to go to art school. Of course, I found out later that that was totally wrong. This definitely is a way of life. I am grateful that that’s true.
Jack and the Beanstalk and the French Fries by Mark Teague. Scholastic/Orchard, $17.99 July ISBN 978-0-545-91431-4