Pete Oswald has two careers; he switches between book illustration and the world of animation. Together with writer Jory John, he’s produced three bestselling picture books (The Bad Seed, The Good Egg, and The Cool Bean), and has illustrated several others. As a production designer for animated movies, he’s responsible for the look of films such as The Angry Birds Movie and Madagascar 2. His new book, Hike, tells a different kind of story. A wordless tale about a father and child, it follows the two as they take a day trip into the mountains, share some hard climbing, then cuddle at home on the couch, tired and happy. Oswald spoke with PW about resisting the urge to make things look realistic, the importance of omitting unnecessary detail, and the kind of father he hopes to be.
What was the inspiration for Hike?
Well, I have to give a shout-out to Kirsten Hall, my agent. If it wasn’t for her, this book would not be a book at all. I did this sketch, just something I posted to my Instagram, a little tiny hiker and a tree and snow. And the conversation went, “Pete, you should write this book—we should do a story about a hike.” And I said “Oh, it’s funny you should ask about that, because I’ve been thinking about a story about a child and a father.” I did a couple of illustrations along with a cover, and she went out and presented it to Candlewick.
Are there pieces of your own childhood in there?
Yes! I grew up in Utah. There’s just great outdoors stuff everywhere. [While] family friends were going to Disneyland in California, we were going backpacking in Zion National Park, and as a kid you just kind of go along with family vacations. Maybe later, when I got a little older, I might have thought, “I wonder what Disneyland is like?” But I loved it. Now I have three boys of my own. Looking through a different perspective, those were some of the best times of my life, and I want to pass that along to my children.
Did the story arrive all of a piece, or were there a lot of changes?
It took a lot of chiseling. The idea was started in a few sketches—a father and child on a hike. Originally it was set in the snow, it was really cold. We ended up going back and making it a spring book. It’s about that moment when you get out in nature and everything feels still, and you feel a new sense of perspective. I’ve had that feeling many times, and that’s what I wanted to put in the illustrations and in the story.
And you know, at first the thought was to bring the whole family along, but then it was just the father and child. We just left out the story of where the mother is. That’s part of the good thing of having the story be wordless. We didn’t even address it. We’re just opening a door slightly and letting the reader enter.
Was it a plan for it not to be quite clear what the child’s gender is?
We wanted it to be a story that anybody can relate to. And there are no words, so we didn’t have to say “he” or “she.” We left it open. My oldest son is eight, and he said, “That’s a girl!” The six-year-old said, “That’s a boy!” It works either way. It doesn’t matter. It’s a diverse family, it’s more inclusive; it’s something we really concentrated on and wanted to express.
How did you make the father such a sweet, understanding character?
My father has been really supportive over the years, so it’s sort of a blend of him and the father figure that I want to be myself, one that I could be proud of. None of us is perfect, but I want that kind of patience and understanding as a father and as a parent. I wanted to portray the kind of parent who understands that every kid is different and individual and, ultimately, who offers the knowledge for children to explore who they are. It’s sort of a combination of things that I know and things that I want to be.
The dedication is “To Dad and Papa.” Is Papa your grandfather?
It’s my father-in-law! I was lucky to marry into the family I did, and he’s an amazing person. When I look at people I want to emulate, he is one of them. There’s a lot of his personality that I wanted to express in the father [character]. And he’s also the kind of father that I’m hoping and wishing to be one day.
Did the book start out as a wordless story?
I thought we would add words the more we dove into it, but it was more powerful to not put words to it. When you go on a hike and you go out in nature, looking at the sky, at the birds—it’s hard to put that into words, to explain it to someone. You have to be there. Once we realized that, then it was really easy. It was much clearer. I can visually carry this book through the narrative without relying on the text.
Was it hard to come up with all the smaller episodes?
They came easily. I grew up with a cat, and I knew I wanted to put a playful animal in there. The Toyota Land Cruiser is based on the car my Dad had. I tried to put little bits of my life in there. But I also tried to make it timeless.
How did you decide to order those episodes, and what prominence to give them?
Filmmaking helped with that, choosing between big spreads and vignettes. After working on many films I had a library of ideas.
I know that as an animator you shape character with facial expression, and that you often use big eyebrows to indicate emotion. But here you can’t do that! There are no eyebrows! How did you develop the characters?
(Laughs.) Sometimes it’s good to have limitations. I’m trying to get to something that’s not just a perfect render of a human. It’s a feeling, pushing the design, and within that you get to caricature. You ultimately get to direct the viewer or the reader’s eye and tell them what to look at. It does have a stylized look, but the emotions are real.
Was your relationship with your editor, Liz Bicknell, fairly collaborative?
She and I did have a lot of back and forth, many iterations. In the first conversation I had with her, she was really drawn to the story, championing the idea of diversity, showing the characters in a natural setting, and letting nature itself be a character—which I hadn’t necessarily thought about.
She really gave me space and time— this book took me the longest a book has ever taken—and she always encouraged calling on [my own] emotions and memories. I had a lot of little tiny words, like when the child’s jacket zips up, ZIP, and she really cut them down and made them minimal. They’re stronger that way.
And the pacing of it—she just has a master sense of story and she knows when to end it. We knew at one point that we wanted to have the family photo album at the end of the book. I had the kid putting the photo into the album. Ending the book the way it does was her idea. [Readers see father and child looking at the album, and then, on the very last page, a close-up of the album is shown with the selfie they took already pasted in.] I really thought that was sophisticated and classy.
Who was the art director, and what was that relationship like?
The art director was Ann Stott, and I had the most back and forth with her that I’ve ever had with an art director. The ideas were there but she helped with the way the pages were flowing—a big spread there, little vignettes—she helped direct that and give that focus. Also making the characters; we didn’t want them too cartoonish. We wanted to make them feel relatable, but they’re not super-realistic. It’s a fine line. I did a lot of character sketches, and she really helped fine-tune them.
You work on the computer, right?
Right, I work on a Cintiq with a stylus pen. I’m constantly trying to get that analog feel.
Can you talk about the color palette, which is quite blue and misty?
I think I wanted to portray the idea of something being open and clean and fresh. It’s springtime, and there are new beginnings as they get up to the top of the mountain, it’s thawing and melting. I used a lot of watercolor textures especially, so the images have more of a handmade quality. I work on the computer a lot so I’m fighting that mechanical, perfect look. I can render it perfectly, every leaf can be perfect, but I’m looking for something that’s less refined. In real life, your peripheral vision is blurred, and stuff around you feels kind of soft. Especially, some of the shadows are more impressionistic. They become more of a feeling.
So if you’re an animator and you spend a lot of time in small, dark rooms, maybe doing this book about the great outdoors was a kind of a vacation for you?
Right! We do spend a lot of time in small, dark rooms. I have a little home office and it gets pretty dark, and I was telling myself, “It’s nice that I’m drawing and painting these beautiful, naturalistic spreads.”
I love working at home, though, and being able to be close to the boys and to be available and present. I get to be there for a lot of things, and I can get their feedback, which is great—to have feedback immediately from the demographic! Sometimes it’s brutally honest: “I don’t like this idea!” We don’t give children nearly enough credit. They’re so creative.
Making the book was a good reminder to get outside. I’ve lived in L.A. for 20 years now. I met my wife here and we started a family and haven’t moved since. We love it.
Is there wild country within reach of where you are?
Oh, yeah. Within 20 minutes we can be on a family hike, and that’s what I started doing with my three sons. We’re going to take our first backpacking trip this summer.
Hike by Pete Oswald. Candlewick, $17.99 Mar. ISBN 978-1-5362-0157-4