A compulsive doodler, Jon Burgerman has displayed his vibrant, spontaneous artwork on social media, posters, textiles, and apparel, as well as in videos, murals, and—with Dial’s 2017 publication of Splat!—in the pages of a children’s book. This week, the publisher is releasing Burgerman’s second picture book, Rhyme Crime, in which a burglar with a knack for rhyming is on the loose. The elusive culprit targets unsuspecting, googly-eyed cartoon characters, purloining items and leaving replacements that rhyme, so that a cat takes the place of a hat, a smile is swapped out for a crocodile, and so on… until the villain attempts to find a rhyming substitute for an orange. British-born Burgerman, who now lives in Brooklyn, shared with PW insight into how his love of doodling helped launch a picture book career.
How did your penchant for creating cartoon doodles ignite other artistic aspirations?
Actually, I’m a doodler in all aspects of my life. I am always thinking and making at the same time. I doodle when I’m on the phone, always making scribbles when I’m having conversations. So as I talk, I’m half thinking of what I’m creating, and half not. When that happens, ideas slip through—ideas that I might be too self-conscious to do otherwise.
What first inspired you to parlay your doodling acumen into a children’s book?
I’ve always wanted to try different things, and doing picture books was in that mix. When I moved to New York seven years ago, I met so many authors and illustrators who were making picture books. I’d known a few before, but I wasn’t aware that there was somewhat of a renaissance—a new wave of picture book creators—working close by in New York City. So I did start thinking that maybe I would try doing a children’s book.
Where did you begin?
Actually, one day opportunity came a-knocking! There was an actual knock on my studio door, and my friend Oliver [Jeffers], who works upstairs, said his literary agent, Paul Moreton [now Burgerman’s agent as well], had a picture book script, and asked if I would be interested in illustrating it. So Paul sent me the text, and I read it, and said, “It’s cool, but it’s not really for me—what would I do with it?”
Meaning you didn’t like the idea of creating the art for a project you didn’t originate?
Traditionally, illustration is commissioned by an art director who has an article or some ad copy, and says, “We’ve worked out what we want—you draw it.” I am sometimes commissioned to illustrate different kinds of stuff, and sometimes it’s quite nice to be told what to do. But in the case of illustrating a book, I’d never done it before—and I wasn’t sure how I’d do it. I’m not the greatest person for that kind of thing, since I have zero confidence in myself most of the time.
But you were more comfortable trying your hand at creating your own picture book?
Coming up with the text myself seemed to make more sense. What I did first—and I’m sure it’s not uncommon—is try to make a picture book like other picture books I knew. I asked my parents what books I liked as a kid, reread favorites, and did some research in bookstores. But what I came up with wasn’t quite clicking, and everyone said, “I like your idea, but it’s not a picture book that is unique to you.” So I said, “Okay, maybe I can come up with a silly idea.” And I did, and I made Splat! in one sitting. And Oxford University Press published it in the U.K. and Dial published it here. So now I mostly blame Oliver for what I’m doing!
Did your penchant for doodling and scribbling serve you well when you began creating picture books?
I’ve done lots of improvised drawing performances over the years, which I think is pretty similar conceptually to writing. I’m not entirely sure where it’s going to go, and I’m excited to see exactly what will happen. For me, writing is a mix of trying hard and not trying, and letting things float to the surface and magically appear. When you find a good book idea that you really believe in, it can all happen quite quickly—but getting to that stage can take years. You just never know.
Did the concept and creation of Rhyme Crime come to you easily?
Actually, this book came from everyone telling me not to make a rhyming book. About five years ago, I was in a little band and had gotten into rhyming through the songs we did. So I felt it was natural to start writing books in rhyme, but people said that rhyming books are difficult to do, and told me not to make things too complicated for myself. So to combat that reaction, I started thinking how I could make rhyming integral to the story—what would make the rhyming important?
How did you find your answer?
I spent a bit of time asking myself, “What would happen if…?” and, kind of like with Splat!, it clicked right away. I think with books, the excitement is in turning the page, and kids like to be the ones exacting the action, so I had to find a way to set up the scene on one page, so that readers see the result when they turn that page. Apart from the ending, I did the book in one go. I felt as though I was back writing a song—when you think you have a great idea and can’t write it down quickly enough, and within 10 minutes you have a skeleton of the thing.
Did you create the art for these picture books digitally or by hand?
I drew all the images for the books by hand, on paper, in the same sketchbook I have in front of me right now—along with the same pens I used. I then scanned them and added the color on the computer.
So you have your sketchbook and pens in front of you, and you’re speaking on the phone—might you be doodling at this very moment?
I am! It helps me concentrate in a way—keeps part of my brain busy so the other part can get on with the other things. So I’m here drawing a character with fluffy cheeks that’s a bit hard to describe. I’ll send it along when we finish talking.
And so he did.
Rhyme Crime by Jon Burgerman. Dial, $16.99 Apr. ISBN 978-0-7352-2884-9