In Hey Otter! Hey Beaver!, Brian Pinkney shows how two friends with very different play styles and personalities—the improvisational Otter and the purposeful Beaver—can have fun together and even weather a mishap (Otter causes Beaver’s dam to have a Jenga-like fail) without either one losing their cool or sense of individuality. “It’s in the spirit of play,” Pinkney explains. “You build a sandcastle and eventually the tide will wash it away, and we get together and do it again.” Pinkney’s conversation with PW also touched on how he and his wife’s respective aquatic habits and work styles influenced the book, why he dances when he works, and why he’s unlikely to hop on the digital bandwagon.
Hey Otter! Hey Beaver! is dedicated to your wife and frequent collaborator, Andrea Davis Pinkney. Is there a particular reason for that?
This is probably the eighth book [dedicated to her]. I don’t even know what the count is now.
We love the water in different ways. It’s a joke we have that she’s like beaver and I’m like otter. She’s a swimmer—when she gets in the pool, she does laps. I jump in the water and I do headstands and somersaults and if I make it to the other end of the pool I’m happy. When we go on vacation, I go to the beach, and she goes to the pool.
Our work styles are like that—she’s focused and driven and has a checklist. I wander around the studio, I dance, I pick up things and see how they go together, and it’s in the spirit of play.
The idea for Hey Otter, Hey Beaver started about 10 years ago—my books usually take about 10 years from [the time] I get an idea to when I finish them. At first I was going to take it to a different publisher. It went all the way to the acquisition meeting. And in the meeting, someone said, “Wow, it’s so fun and great, but, well, you know in the real world the otter would eat the beaver.” And that was the end of it.
My editor at Greenwillow was Virginia Duncan. I love working with her. I can bring something at different stages of development and she has a way of looking at it and she gets really quiet, and she points to something, and I say, “I know exactly what you’re talking about.” Just give me a couple of suggestions and I’m off running and dancing.
The text has an intriguing chant-like rhythm that’s established with the title. How did that come about?
The way I write is the way I dance. I’m actually dancing now as I talk to you—other people pace, I’m like an otter, I have to dance. I’m writing in the way things come to me, in a flowing way. I was also a drummer—I still am. I love working with words in patterns.
In one version I was writing, I decided it needed to be a song, like they were singing back and forth to each other—that pattern of echo and reply. But my process is I’m always going down several paths at the same time. One version was a kind of a straight dialogue, one is a song, one was probably rap, one was first-person, and then I start seeing which one resonates more with me.
Do you ever have an urge to work digitally?
You know, I buy Photoshop, I look at the tutorials and it’s like, No... it’s not fun. You’re a dancer, you like dancing—I’m going to dance digitally?
When I’m making the art it’s a whole-body experience, I have the watercolor brush in my hand, I’m moving my wrist, my arm, it’s physiological and kinetic. I can make a mark and not know where it’s going to go.
I have an iPad and got the software where you can draw on the iPad and I thought, this is great. And then I realized my shoulder was becoming misaligned because I was just using my finger. When I draw I’m using my whole arm and body. When I sketched on the iPad I had to freeze my body and just draw with my wrist.
You’re a prolific creator—and September will see the publication of A Walk in the Woods, for which you completed illustrations started by your late father. How do you find the time to do everything you do, and what’s on your plate now?
I have another book that my dad had started—I call the process [of working with his manuscripts] “pondering and wandering”: how do I find my way into this one? He did a really tight dummy but he didn’t do finished sketches, so I’m contemplating whether his line is strong enough or how do I add my line to it.
I’m also working on a book with Andrea—she’s still working on the manuscript. I’ve got another book with Virginia at the moment. This book is about two brothers—inspired by my relationship with my younger brother—and the tension that can rise out of that, and like some of my other books there’s a bit of mystical transformation in it.
I get to my studio at about 7:30 in the morning, set up what I need to do, do an online dance class at 8, do an online yoga class at 9, take a nap, then I jump up and start painting and then take another exercise class. I’m constantly moving and producing and playing. But I have a natural sense of timing, and when I have a due date, I meet it—it’s [figured into] the amount of play I do.
I will say that’s not true with writing. I don’t write to deadline. That’s why a book can take 10 years to write. But for art, I have an internal sense of what it takes.
Hey Otter! Hey Beaver! by Brian Pinkney. Greenwillow, $18.99 Feb. 21 ISBN 978-0-06-315982-2