A hamburger boy on the run? Illustrator Mei Matsuoka simply could not resist the artistic possibilities she first saw in the manuscript for Burger Boy (Clarion), Alan Durant's cautionary picture-book tale of junk-food excess. "It really grabbed me as quirky, funny and a little out of the ordinary," she says. "I loved the wacky side of it and as soon as I read [the manuscript] I had images in my head."
Those images are of a burger-munching boy named Benny who, after overindulging, turns into his favorite snack and is hounded by curious dogs, angry cows and hungry kids. Benny's large head, sprouting just a few hairs, easily morphs into something like a sesame seed bun. And his dark brown-and-orange-striped shirt contorts nicely into a cheeseburger.
But inspiration for this literally fast food didn't come from a real-life Happy Meal. "Well, no, I'm not really a fan of hamburgers," Matsuoka admits. "I'm not a vegetarian, but I'm half Japanese and I grew up with a Japanese diet of mostly vegetables, fish and rice."
Born in Tokyo, Matsuoka moved with her family to England when she was 11. As a result she finds herself blending childhood influences like manga, and such Japanese artists as Akiko Ikeda, with those she's come to appreciate while living in England and earning her degree in illustration from Kingston University, among them Tomi Ungerer, Lane Smith, Sara Fanelli and Henrik Drescher.
Though she was initially uncertain of an illustration career path, at her end-of-year student art show, Matsuoka recalls, "I got most interest from publishers. I think my work is quite suited for children." Japanese airline ANA agreed with that assessment: in 2003 the company awarded Matsuoka first prize in a competition that resulted in 10,000 copies of an original picture book by Matsuoka being distributed to children on ANA flights.
Rona Selby of Andersen Press in the U.K., the originating publisher of Burger Boy, was also an early fan, and that working relationship continues. Matsuoka is currently drafting a new picture book about a wolf—which she's both writing and illustrating —for Andersen, due out in fall 2007. In the meantime, she has also published with Simon & Schuster (Raffi's Surprise) and Macmillan (Tell Me a Story, Mummy).
Stateside, Clarion's editorial director Dinah Stevenson first got a whiff of Burger Boy at the Bologna Children's Book Fair. "I am always drawn to books about food," she says with a laugh. "And the illustrations were extremely whimsical and entertaining." A number of reviewers concur, and have given the book a warm reception, including a star from PW and words of praise from Kirkus,which called it "a tasty and off-kilter romp." Although Stevenson has nothing under contract with the artist right now, she notes, "I'd love to work with Mei again."