Born in Canada and raised in London, Matthew Forsythe spent a decade after graduation traveling, taking jobs along the way as a courier in Ireland and a kindergarten teacher in Korea. He published two comics (Jinchalo [2012] and Ojingogo [2008]) before landing a job as lead designer on Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time. Picture book collaborations with Lemony Snicket, Kirsten Hall, and others followed. The first picture book Forsythe wrote and illustrated himself, Pokko and the Drum (S&S/Wiseman, 2019), was a PW and NPR Book of the Year. In his new book, Mina, life in a mouse household grows tense when Mina’s father brings home a furry friend: “It’s a squirrel!” he tells her. It has long claws and a menacing gaze, and Mina, the level-headed one, suspects that it’s actually a cat. PW spoke with Forsythe about solitude, ambiguity, and what happens when eccentric parents do unpredictable things.

Where did the story start?

It’s something I wrote in the solitude of the pandemic. I was in a small bubble and there were all these questions about who people were letting into their bubble and who they weren’t. That, and the question of how you interact with people you don’t know.

Did the words come first, or the pictures?

I wrote the script first, but the rewriting is what it’s really about—finding out where the emotional center of the story is.

Where was the center here?

Well, I think about how sometimes our parents parent us, and sometimes we parent our parents. Something I see a lot in picture books is Very Fine Parents. They’re well represented. And parents are not always ideal.

Does some of the story come from your own experience?

There are things that track, yes. My father was something like the father in the book. He worked as a comedian, a musician, he was in a band. He would perform music with great musicians, do stand-up comedy. I remember going to see him in a club when I was a kid. It was really fun and exciting. He would bring home crazy things, usually marvelous but sometimes risky. He wanted to do industrial-level testing in our apartment. I remember thinking, “This is dangerous.” My sister and I were in awe of his strange decisions.

Did it accustom you to living on the edge a little bit?

Kids don’t understand that we all move through life not understanding things around us. Learning how to live is learning how to be at ease with that idea, that we don’t know, and that’s OK. We’re all always kind of floating in that uncertainty. There’s a magic and a mystery to understanding that.

What was the creation process like?

I wrote a script and talked to Paula [Wiseman, publisher of Paula Wiseman Books] and to my agent Judy Hansen [at Hansen Literary Agency] about it, and then I spent six months painting it. It’s a nuanced back-and-forth between the images and the text, the drilling down into what the book is about, that emotional center. Then it’s, like, constructing that for a picture book, thinking deeply about the page turns, the characters, the truthfulness. That takes a long time. The actual text isn’t done until the last brushstroke is done.

Did you work on it mostly by yourself?

About three times during the process, I would send the book to Paula, Judy, and five or six people I know who share my sensibility. I asked them to tell me about things they didn’t like. They would flag the book up, and I would see where the notes lined up. I wouldn’t necessarily take anyone’s suggestions about what to do, but it showed me places that I needed to think more about. If I was going to leave something in, I had to have a good reason. One of the major things was the conceit that the cat is actually a squirrel. How do you do it in a way that’s believable? It’s delicate.

Was it always going to be a cat?

In the beginning it was originally a long series of dangerous animals the father brought home: a hawk, a fox, and some stick insects. The stick insects stayed as a history of the weird things the father brought home.

That’s such a common thing in picture books, the repeating series. What made you say no to that?

It was a little too monotonous, that series. I wanted to write about just one thing. And I try to make each spread show just one thing, so that in a group of kids on a library floor, the kid in the back of the crowd can see it. One thing in all its fullness.

What’s an element of the story that you really liked that ended up on the cutting room floor?

Well, there was one page where the father was making a cheese sculpture of the cat. It had nothing to do with the story. I was wanting him to do works of art based on the cat, like knitting a sweater for the cat... but then I thought, “This is purely for me.” The sweater I could do, but the cheese sculpture required a whole different story.

In the spread where the cat looms behind the mice as they lie in bed, the tension is so striking—the coziness of mice and the menace of the cat looming behind them. Can you talk about that moment?

That page is the whole story. It is redundant—it’s a close-up of the image that we see two pages before. Then it’s the page about the stick insects, and then back to this. I wanted to emphasize this moment and push in closer.

I’m thrilled with writing my own work, illustrating my own work. To have them dovetail into each other, you need full freedom to enmesh the pictures and the text.

What are you discovering as you work on your own books as opposed to illustrating for others?

I’m thrilled with writing my own work, illustrating my own work. To have them dovetail into each other, you need full freedom to enmesh the pictures and the text. When you’re working with another author, you have to talk to their editor, you have to have a conversation about every edit to get the images married to the text in the way they’d like them to be. I don’t have to make any sacrifices. And Paula is so trusting and supportive.

And what’s it like working with the designer, Jonathan Yamakami?

Our relationship began with The Golden Leaf. It’s wonderful. I have very strict ideas about what I want to do, but then I come up against design problems, and Jonathan solves them for me.

Illustration is a subset of design. You can work on a book for six or eight months, or a year, but if the designer is not in lockstep with you about the messaging or the context or the way something is presented, they can transform that work in two weeks with a weird font, or by obscuring images with text... those decisions that are so crucial. But philosophically Jonathan and I agree about what we want to do. He’s great to have on our team.

Can you talk a little about the path you took as an artist? Did you consider art school?

It didn’t even occur to me. My dad worked as a carpenter on construction sites, and when we went back to Canada after living in London, it was to a small working-class town. Art school seemed really frivolous. The whole idea seemed implausible. At college I studied politics.

When did you start drawing?

I always drew. I was a cartoonist for the student paper, [I drew] political cartoons. When I worked in Ireland I did illustrations for satirical magazines, spot editorials, making illustrations on the side. They were really bad. I was untrained.

When did you realize that you wanted to draw seriously?

In Korea I was teaching kindergarten, we were reading picture books together and comics, and I thought, I can’t teach as a career, it’s so exhausting, but I could try to make comics or picture books. That’s when I really started. I would draw for six hours every night. There were no distractions. I didn’t know anyone. I could really just draw for a year. I think I got a lot better that year.

A lot of my peers did go to art school. It’s three or four years of focused drawing, a period of concentrated drawing, and even for people are who are extremely talented, doing a lot of work makes them better. A huge break in my career was getting to work on Adventure Time.

How did you get that job?

I have no idea! They sent out a design test to artists in the comic book industry and I took that test seriously. I spent a week trying to do well on it. They moved me to L.A. to work on the show and they asked me to manage the whole design department.

It was a real opportunity. I worked nights and weekends and Christmas trying to learn this entire new industry. In two years, we did 100 shows. It was a class in illustration, volume, animation, and design. I was surrounded by people with Ivy League educations in art. I was getting notes from them all for two years. It was incredible, learning how to be better for two years.

Honestly, before that I had no faith in my work, but after that I had more confidence.

It sounds so supportive as a place to work. No hazing or anything like that?

We didn’t have time for that. We would deliver an episode every week. Adventure Time was heavy on design, with tons of characters, props, backgrounds—there was so little time, and there were very few egos. I thought it would be like a carnival, lots of playing and pranking, but it was just people working quietly and very hard.

How do you stay true on your own vision as you work on a story?

One of the people I sent Pokko and the Drum to is [comic artist and picture book creator] Tom Gauld. He was giving me notes, and I was giving him notes on [his book] The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess. He said that one of the things that makes an illustrator who they are is the things they don’t draw, and the things they can’t draw. It’s so true.

Jon Klassen really epitomizes that, too. He’s so true to what he wants to draw, and you can feel the joy of his drawing, what he wants to draw and what he doesn’t want to draw. You shouldn’t draw anything you don’t want to draw. It turns you into something you’re not.

I remember hearing a podcast with Jon Klassen where he talks about getting characters to get up on their own and breathe and exist, and the frustration when that doesn’t happen. Does that resonate for you?

I was a block away from Jon in L.A. when he was working on the second book in the trilogy with the turtles and hats. We would talk about it over coffee, and I saw how deeply he struggled with the finer details. He took every detail seriously, and he had a deep respect for everything that was happening on each page.

Before that, I didn’t give myself permission to feel that way. I wanted to care deeply about all those things, but I didn’t feel like I could. I didn’t know what a valid concern was, what was in your jurisdiction, what you’re allowed to speak up for or against. Jon was the first person I met doing picture books who was taking things really seriously.

When I talk to Jon and a few other writers, and with Paula, and with Jonathan, I feel like we have a shared vision.

Does it have to do somehow with a refusal to make judgments about what is right and what is wrong? Mina’s father is irresponsible, but at the same time, it’s his generosity that provides the thing that saves them.

I’m not the person to say what is the role of morality is in picture books. Yes, it’s a tool to prepare children for life in the world, but it should also prepare them for the ambiguity in the world. That’s what literature is about—ambiguity.

Mina by Matthew Forsythe. Simon & Schuster/Wiseman, $17.99 Feb. 15 ISBN 978-1-4814-8041-3