In This Is Not My Hat, a minnow steals a big fish’s bowler hat while he’s asleep. Part of what makes your art so striking is that the water, or background, is black instead of blue.
Initially, it was more of a mid-tone, like a teal, or a green. But I was fighting it value-wise. Also, since the fishes’ eyes are such a big part of the storytelling, the darker you can get behind them, the more their eyes are going to pop. And I just like the simplicity of using black. Black has problems as far as printing goes, but it’s just much simpler as far as color goes. And I just liked the moodiness of it. It felt quiet.
You’ve said this isn’t a sequel to your bestseller, I Want My Hat Back. But given the similar titles, people are bound to see it that way.
I don’t think I could have done this book without having done the first one. So in that respect, I think it is that. The biggest goal we had was to make it a book that you could read on its own and still get as much out of it as anybody else would have who had seen the first book—and I think we pulled that off.
How’d you come up with the idea for the fish book?
It was a really round-about process. I didn’t want the new one to look like we were riding on our coattails, but I wanted to keep the same tone, because I really enjoyed writing it. There were a lot of stories that I got halfway through, before realizing they didn’t work. We also talked about changing the object into a different thing to avoid some of that [sequel] talk. But the more I got into it, the more I really liked the idea of using the hat again.
What other objects did you consider using?
I was thinking of a scarf for a second, just because fish can’t wear very much. [Laughter] I also considered making a pointy hat, but that looks like a dorsal fin on a fish. And anyone who hadn’t seen my first book wouldn’t really know it was a hat. It would look like a silly triangle.
You’ve worked on major animated movies, including Coraline and Kung Fu Panda 2, and on an animated music video for U2. Did it stress you out knowing it was for Bono and the Edge?
Not especially. I was working at DreamWorks at the time, and you finish these films that you’ve had in your office for a couple of years, and then they go out and you realize, “Oh, yeah, it’s number two in Russia.” You just don’t think of the scale when things go out—you just can’t comprehend it—especially when things get spread around like these music videos with the kind of reach that U2 has. You just have to hunker down and focus on making the thing OK as far as you’re concerned and hope it translates well. There are moments when you sort of panic, and you realize, “Oh man, if this thing looks bad, it really is going to get seen by a lot of people.”
Is making kids’ books less nerve-racking?
With books, there’s so much pressure, too. With film, at least there’s a separation. You do the paintings and no one ever sees them—they see the film. But when it’s a book, it’s on paper and every line you’re making is every line in the book, and that’s just terrifying. That’s the scary stuff. I was much more scared doing my first book than I was ever doing videos or films.
Read the SLJ‘s starred review of “This is Not My Hat” (Candlewick).