Jon Agee’s first book came out in 1981, and he’s published more than 30 since then, including The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau, Dmitri the Astronaut, Milo’s Hat Trick, and Life on Mars, as well as a slew of palindrome and other wordplay books. His picture books often establish a single, bonkers premise—What if an astronaut took a box of chocolate cupcakes to Mars? What if a magician’s hat contained a bear instead of a rabbit?—and pursue it to its logical conclusion. The Wall in the Middle of the Book imagines a brick wall that runs down the book’s gutter between the left and right-hand pages. The stumpy, undersized knight who narrates addresses readers directly, explaining the difference between the “safe” side of the wall, where he is, and the dangerous side, the other side, where the ogre is. He proves to be mistaken about which side is really the safe side, though, and readers have the pleasure of finding this out before he does. PW spoke with Agee about how writers develop story ideas, venturing into digital illustration, and Leo Lionni’s signature typeface.
On your website, you write about the gutter (the place in the middle of a picture book spread where the pages are sewn into the binding) and what a problem it is for illustrators. Did The Wall in the Middle of the Book begin as a way to deal with the gutter?
For sure, yeah. The gutter has always been a challenge. You’re going to lose something from any picture that crosses the gutter. So I simply thought one day, what if I treated it as if you couldn’t get across it?
Did the story start out pretty much as it is now?
Originally, I just had it as an invisible barrier. On one side of the book I had a picture of a girl at the beach on a towel, and on the other side, an enormous tidal wave that crashes into the middle of the book, smashes into the barrier, and then settles back on its own side. And she’s just sitting there. Then I drew a rock slide, big boulders, a volcano, then a herd of rhinoceroses. And I thought, that is kind of fascinating, but it’s not enough for a story.
So I drew all these rectangles with a line down the center, and I drew scary ominous things on one side and an unaffected child on the other. Maybe the kid wants to get to the other side. She is stuck, she can’t get through. She could balloon over, of course, or catapult herself over. And then I thought, what if she doesn’t want to leave her side of the barrier? She’d think, “I’m on the safe side.” And then something happens on her side of the book. OK, I thought—now we have something interesting.
It sounds as if you did most of the conceptual work before you ever showed it to your editor. Did she change anything, or give you any ideas?
My editor is Lauri Hornik, and I’ve been with her something like seven years. She makes suggestions, but she’s very subtle. With this book she really loved the idea, and I think she said just to keep working at it to try to get it right. I’m sure along the way she must have suggested a few things to help shape it—nuanced suggestions. There are times I think that she’s so subtle and gentle that I don’t give her enough credit. It’s like a marriage, your relationship with your editor.
I think it was Neil Gaiman who said, “If you show your work to someone you respect, 90% of the time when they point out a problem they’re probably right. But if they show you how to solve the problem, 90% of the time they’re probably wrong.”
The artwork looks as if you made painted surfaces and then started collaging with them digitally?
This is the first time I’ve ventured into using digital media more heavily. In a couple of previous books, we just laid in some flat sky. This was more painting big swatches of color and then scanning them in and then cutting them on the computer using Photoshop. I didn’t want to go too nuts with that. I’m not a big fan of highly digitally produced art. It tends to look rather slick if you go too far. I love the folks who are able to use digital stuff in a nonobtrusive way. Jon Klassen is a master of it.
Previous books you’ve done are illustrated in this kind of clear-line, Tintin style with very bold black outlines, but there are no outlines at all here. What changed?
I was careful about the outlines because everything’s happening against a white page with this ant-farm perspective. If I think the shapes are going to be graphic and bold, with those big arms and legs, that’s enough. Everything is very iconic and sculptural, so I thought, OK, no line is necessary here.
That kind of style, using big pieces of painted paper to make collages, it’s sort of Eric Carle-like, isn’t it?
Right, and Leo Lionni—very big shapes on that white page.
But their colors are very saturated, whereas yours are very calm.
With the Wall book, people who had done this a lot told me, “Be careful! It will look very different on paper!” When we got proofs back, the book looked a lot paler. I worked with a guy in San Francisco who’s a Photoshop expert, and thank goodness for him. He said, “Don’t worry, bring everything over, we’ll look at it all,” and with just a few little adjustments he could change the saturation.
What role did the art director play?
Well, that’s Lily Malcom. I think of Lily and Lauri as an inseparable team. Some editors you work with and then you’re introduced to the art director at the end. But Lily and Lauri speak to me almost always together. They rely on each other, they trade off. And Lily has as many ideas conceptually, as many ideas about narrative and story, as Lauri does. I don’t know how long they’ve worked together, but there’s really great chemistry between the two of them.
Editors and art directors don’t often work so closely together, do they? And neither do illustrators and art directors, necessarily.
I kind of want a close relationship with the art director. It’s that other set of eyes. I really want to interact and engage with the art director right from the get-go. As confident as I am in my sense of book design, there’s always a suggestion I can use. Because they’ve worked with so many picture books, and I’m just working on my own. [Lily’s] got a lot more experience in that respect than I do.
We do that with typography, when you’re trying to make the type match the illustrations, and to hold its own, not to overpower it. There’s a beautiful collaboration between picture and type. It’s not just the type, but the placement of the type. These are all just little parts that make a picture book go, like the parts of a car.
I have colleagues who are great illustrators, but they’re the first to tell you that as far as typography goes, book design, they’re much more comfortable just doing pictures. Whereas people like Eric Carle and Leo Lionni, they are great designers and illustrators. [The type for] every book of Leo Lionni’s was always Century Schoolbook. His pictures are always in the Leo Lionni style, and the layout of the pages is always very similar.
Do you have a lot of story ideas just sitting around that you haven’t done anything with?
Oh, for sure! I’ve talked about this with colleagues. All of us seem to have notebooks that we doodle in, and these notebooks pile up, and we tear out pages, and we write down addresses on them, and they sit around, and you have notebooks from 10 years ago, and then you [look at them and] think, “Oooo, that’s interesting!” I have a closet full of books that I can’t throw away.
The lesson is that in order to come up with one great idea for a book that really grabs you—for that one idea—you have to do a lot of stuff. You’re just writing stuff down all the time, you’re finding times to dream up ideas, on the couch, in bed, waiting for a friend. Maybe they aren’t stories. Maybe they’re scenarios, two people talking to each other, a goofy picture. You do enough of that and something will come together. You find quiet times to just draw, and ideate—is that a word?
…to let your mind wander and just play and be loose and engage.
When you talk about your colleagues, I get the sense that you’re close to them, that you talk frequently. Can you say a little more?
Well we don’t see each other much because we’re scattered all over the country. I have a friend in Michigan, one in Portland, I have other people I see at book conferences. It’s great—we’re like little satellites. We admire each other’s work, we congratulate each other on books we saw, books from, like, two or three years ago, and then we see each other in Dallas or God knows where, and that’s the way it works. Sometimes we get a chance to see each other giving a talk. We’re at these festivals at the same time, and sometimes we’re giving talks in different spaces and we don’t get to see each other. But when we do, it’s wonderful.
What are you working on now?
So the next project is a picture book, currently untitled, a kind of Monty Pythonesque sketch, where a girl goes to an animal shelter looking to find a dog. The animal shelter has many unusual animals, but no dog. Will she leave a satisfied customer? (Hint: I think so.)
The other book is a graphic novel where everything written and spoken is in palindrome. It’s called Palindrama. It follows the odyssey of a boy called Otto who wanders away from his parents, becomes lost, and eventually makes his way back to them through a strange palindromic world that involves wonton soup, a guy obsessed with counting passing Toyotas (“A Toyota, a Toyota... a Toyota...”), an odd duo named Mr. Alarm and Dr. Awkward, news headlines, epitaphs, graffiti.... And it will sell for $17.71.
The Wall in the Middle of the Book. Jon Agee. Dial, $17.99 Oct. ISBN 978-0-525-55545-2