Ever wonder what the silhouetted figures on road signs do when no one’s around? Stephen Savage shares his findings in a wordless picture book, Sign Off (S&S/Beach Lane, May).
What sparked your curiosity about the after-hours antics of road sign characters?
Five years ago, a utility crew was digging up the street near my Park Slope apartment—it seems like Brooklyn is always being torn up. I noticed their orange “men at work” sign with the picture of a round-headed guy digging a hole. I’d seen this sign hundreds of times, maybe even thousands, throughout my life, but on this day it occurred to me, “This guy’s working hard. He’s probably ready to jump off his sign, put down his shovel, and take a break.” Then I began imagining a series of adventures for this character.
That’s quite a minimalist image to trigger a picture book.
It is. But when you look back at the pictures that have inspired art through the years—like vintage signage, commercial art, and luggage labels from the 1930s—they don’t seem like art, but their design is great, and they’ve inspired some masterworks. It occurred to me that these sign characters are about the size of a four- or five-year-old kid, and they’d probably identify with them in a way.
Why did you opt to tell Sign Off as a wordless story?
Actually, the book wasn’t supposed to be wordless. When the idea came along, I assumed I would tell the story with words. I wrote a traditional male hero’s tale about the construction man I had noticed near my apartment. But the story seemed clunky and overwrought, so I abandoned the project.
What moved you to return to it?
In 2015, I participated on a panel about wordless books at Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C., moderated by Beach Lane publisher Allyn Johnston. Her opening remark, “I’m not even sure I like wordless books,” made me laugh, but afterwards, when she asked me what I was working on and I told her the struggles I was having with my construction man story, she suggested I try it as a wordless book.
And that idea appealed to you?
I do love the genre, but I had already authored two wordless books—Where’s Walrus? and Where’s Walrus? And Penguin?—and I figured I’d gone as far as I can go with this format. But Allyn’s simple suggestion breathed new life into the project and opened up all kinds of possibilities.