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An Interview with Illustrator Jon Agee

Posted By Jacob Hope, 05 September 2019
Updated: 05 September 2019

Jon Agee is the author and illustrator of numerous picture books.  Milo's Hat Trick and Little Santa have both beenrecognised as American Library Association Notable Books.  The brilliantly witty and timely The Wall in the Middle of the Book is published by Scallywag Press as is Life on Mars.  We were delighted to have the opportunity to interview Jon for the blog.  


Were you interested in illustration as a child and if so, which illustrators made a particular impact upon you and why?


I was always drawing.  Mom, an artist, encouraged that.  I grew up with Edward Lear’s Book of Nonsense.  The limericks – of grown-ups doing silly things to themselves and others – were particularly liberating, along with his lively pen and ink drawings.  Garth Williams was another favorite.  His pen and ink illustrations – for Charlotte’s Web and many other books – exuded warmth and had a tactile, sculptural feel.  There was also a well-thumbed album of New Yorker cartoons from the 1950’s, filled with material by Charles Addams, Peter Arno, James Stevenson, Saul Steinberg – all the greats.  It no doubt helped shape my sense of humor. 


In your work, comedy is often derived through what the pictures show but the text does not, is this an important way of helping pre-readers to feel empowered and to begin inferring meaning?


Yes, the pictures often show you something that the text deliberately leaves out.  This may be for comedic effect, as in Life on Mars, where the text never mentions the very large Martian creature following the little astronaut.  The hope is to create an inviting  tension between text and picture, which draws the reader in.


More often, picture book text is spare because the pictures do most of the work.  Years ago I wrote a book about a grown-up astronaut, named Dmitri.  When Dmitri returns to Earth from a two-year stay on the moon, nobody remembers him.  So, he goes to the Museum of Space Exploration to get an idea of what happened while he was away.  It turns out, a lot has happened.  A vast exhibit hall shows the exotic discoveries of more recent astronauts: a fragment from the ring of Saturn, a Plutonian Asteroid, a Venusian Splurge, part of a crater from Mars, even a small planet called Zoltrop.  The illustration is elaborate, so the text is brief: “The main exhibition had changed while he was gone.  Dmitri was impressed.”


Life on Mars really encourages us to look, how important do you think this skill is for young people in the modern world and what role can illustration play in helping to develop this?


Looking is a big part of picture books.  There is a joy to discovering things that are never mentioned in the text.  The picture/text dynamic encourages us to use our intellect, to see beyond the surface of things, to expect the unexpected. 


 In some ways, Life on Mars feels almost an allegory for how picture books can widen our understanding as young children, the world can feel a very unfamiliar and alien place.  You showcase emotions very clearly in your work, are picture books a useful way of helping to make sense of these and even of the world?


When I work on ideas for stories, I’m trying to make sense out of something, even if it’s absolute nonsense.  There is always a clear logic to my stories, no matter how implausible or ridiculous-sounding the plot.  In Life on Mars, a little astronaut misses the biggest find of his life simply because he doesn’t look behind him.  Children can follow his missteps, and empathize with his up and down journey.  And maybe they can laugh along the way.   


The Wall in the Middle of the Book is a masterpiece of minimalism.  It is also a very timely book with so much discussion around borders and movement.  Do you feel picture books can be an effective way to explore often sophisticated issues affecting society and can you think of examples where this happens?  Were you conscious of this when creating the book?  How does it feel to have the book endorsed by Amnesty International?


The idea for Wall was sparked by the architecture of a book; thinking about the opposing rectangular pages as unique places, separated by the binding in the middle.  Many months later, a story emerged from this.  The concept of a protective wall seemed ripe for parody.  So I turned it on its head.  It was simply a coincidence that the book was published at a time when a controversial wall was being discussed here in the States.


Many picture books explore important issues that affect society.  Among Dr Seuss’s books, he covered racism, environmentalism, and nuclear war.  Maurice Sendak’s We’re All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy was inspired by a photograph of homeless children in Brazil.  John Burningham’s Aldo seems to be about a girl whose parents have separated.  In William Steig’s Amos and Boris, a mouse, fearing he’s about to drown in the ocean, talks candidly about mortality.


The Amnesty International endorsement was a first.  I was delighted!   


 The book makes clever use of the gutter to create a physical barrier, how conscious of the format of the book are you when creating the layout and composition of your illustrations and how does this affect them?


Part of writing and illustrating a picture book involves figuring out the way you want to physically (graphically) present your story.  Will it be the standard 32 pages?  Does it need to be longer?  Will it rely on a few big page turns, or many?  Will it utilize single page spreads and double page spreads (where the picture crosses the gutter) or simply double page spreads throughout?  Will the story break the fourth wall?  Will it ask the reader to interact?  Will it incorporate text in the picture?


It’s not enough to simply be a good illustrator, writer or designer.  A picture book is about sequential images, the play of words and pictures, pacing, timing, scale, perspective, point-of-view, etc.  Left and right page (verso and recto) can have distinct roles.  Page turns can set up punch lines and surprises.  There are a lot of things to consider, which is part of the reason I enjoy what I do.   


 The Youth Libraries Group supports libraries and librarians, how important have libraries been to you during your life? 


 As a kid, stepping into the local public library was like walking into a church, because it was so quiet, and – being a kid – I was inevitably told to be quiet, which was awkward, but then I found my book, settled in, and it all made sense.


 I loved my college library.  A beautiful, modern space.  The chairs, though, were too comfortable.  A fair amount of unintentional napping took place in that library.  After college, I used the great New York Public Library.  It was an important resource for rare children’s books, obscure books of wordplay, and the main reading room, with it’s vaulted ceilings, was a beautiful place to be.  Across the street, there was the picture library, where I could find photographs and images of pretty much anything I was researching. 


More recently, I visit schools and libraries across the country, talking and reading to children, and meeting smart, passionate librarians.  


 Picture books can sometimes be overlooked in promotions and activities, have you encountered any best practice that you could share?


I promote my books by talking at schools, libraries and bookstores.  Publishers are always finding new ways to publicize books.  These days many books are previewed with a book trailer – a short video –which readers can access on social media, before the book is published.  


What challenges do you think exist in the field of illustrations and how do you feel these are affecting – or likely to affect – the market?


The challenge for illustrations would seem the same as always.  The difference might be that illustration is moving more to digital art.   There are new technical challenges, I suppose.  But, for now, publishers are just as happy with hand-painted artwork as they are with art that arrives via the internet. 


What is next for you in your work?


I’m working on picture book projects, as usual, and a graphic novel where everybody speaks in palindrome, which is to say, everything that’s said In the book, will read the same forward and backward.  It’s been a longer project than I’d imagined.  



We are grateful to Scallywag Press and to Jon Agee for their time and support with this interview.



Tags:  Humour  Illustration  Reading for Pleasure  Visual Literacy 

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