In Chez Bob, a nefarious and lazy alligator realizes he can turn the tiny birds in his habitat into dinner by opening a restaurant on his nose. This plan to eat the unsuspecting customers is thwarted when Bob becomes enmeshed in something more powerful than his hunger or his toothy jaws: a civic-minded community that adores him. As with Shea’s other books for children, the premise is offbeat and the humor is sly. But Chez Bob also marks a departure for Shea in several important respects, which was the main topic of his conversation with PW—after, that is, he revealed why he and his protagonist have the same name.
You and your protagonist share a first name. What’s that back story?
I used to live in Manhattan in a small apartment, and I couldn’t do my own laundry, so I’d drop it off. And whenever I’d pick up my laundry, I’d say, “Laundry for Shea,” and the woman at the counter would say, “Shea, Bob?” And I thought, That’s my fancy French restaurant name.
The book itself had been around for a while in my files. I had a dummy sketch that I hadn’t done anything with, and then I showed it to Andrea Spooner at Little, Brown and we were off to the races from there.
The book affectionately spoofs contemporary life and civic mindedness. The birds are foodies, and when they build a town around Bob and his restaurant, they’re sure to include “an extensive transportation system”—which you map out. Bob even joins a book club. What were you hoping to communicate?
The [foodie culture aspect] was always part of the story. There would be huge lines to get into Chez Bob—if you look at one of the illustrations, there’s a tiny velvet rope.
My feeling is that kids are in the world—they’re familiar with these things, they notice things. So it’s not like I’m delivering that humor for adults and kids won’t know what I’m talking about. I mean, if you’re going to make a new development or a new infrastructure plan, you need to think things through: what would the residents want? They’re going to want public transportation, which I thought was hilarious, because birds don’t need public transportation—they can fly.
This book is as close to my personal sensibility and sense of humor as any book I’ve written. In other books I’ve put in jokes that are like the reference to “an extensive transportation system” and they get cut. But this time, everything got in.
There are a lot of birds in the book—they’re highly expressive, and do a lot of different things, including playing basketball. How did you wrangle so many different characters?
It’s absolutely the most characters I’ve ever worked with—as far as illustration goes, this is the most ambitious book I’ve ever tackled. I narrowed it down to 10 core birds that are always around Bob. They’re sort of the hero birds, although they also function as one character. I had charts with sketches of each of the birds taped to the wall to make sure I was drawing them consistently.
I love drawing birds because my background is graphic design and they’re nice graphic shapes—it’s easy to simplify them down to a color and shape. But you can also take a lot of liberties with them and they’re still birds. They’re like a base flavor—you can play with them anyway you want. You can make one a peacock. Or you can make one bird be the outspoken one at the book club.
The combination of tropical colors and the lightness of the birds give the pages a visual effervescence. Were you deliberatively trying something different with the artwork this time?
I made a conscious effort to try to use a more sophisticated palette. I wanted the beginning of the book to be darker and more primordial, and then, after the transformation into Chez Bob, I wanted everything to be sparkly and shiny. I explored color a ton before I got started, because I never thought it was my strongest suit. I thought, This time, I’m going to really make the color integrated into the story and make it more impactful.
Chez Bob by Bob Shea. Little, Brown, $17.99 Sept. 21 ISBN 978-0-316-48311-7