Dan Santat is the most recent winner of the prestigious Caldecott Award for his book “The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend.” He has also been a big part of our blog. Over the course of Bookie Woogie's 140 reviews / seven year history, Dan holds the record for most books featured. There are a smattering of creators with 2 books that we've looked at. There are just two authors with 3 books reviewed. But Dan was the only person who happened to garner 4 reviews. Clearly we love his work! We're honored that Dan took time out of his crazy-busy, book-making, interview-giving, festival-touring schedule to chat with us about Creative Life. Thanks Dan!
(portrait by Gracie)
We'll start things off by taking a look at his latest...
Dad: “The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend.”
Gracie (age 14): Oh, it has a long title. All along I thought the book was just called “Beekle.”
Elijah (age 9): It’s about a little white chubby guy who needs a friend. He doesn’t have one because no one wished for him.
Isaac (age 16): Imaginary friends get claimed by little kids -- imagined by little kids. But Beekle never got imagined, so he decided to go out to the real world to find someone who could be his friend.
Elijah: He had to sail on the clouds.
Dad: What did we notice as Beekle moves further away from his imaginary world to the real world?
Isaac: It goes from bright, happy colors to depressing and gray.
Gracie: The colors are lessening. Everything is gray and sad. Except for music.
Lily (age 12): And cake.
Gracie: Good things. Because music and cake make people happy.
Dad: And we know that’s not random a decision. Dan Santat could have put all these grownups in green dresses and red shirts. So why do you think he chose to fill the grownup world with whites and grays?
Gracie: Because old people are boring.
Isaac: Because in the real world, everything is just regular. There is nothing--
Gracie: Nobody’s special. That’s the lesson here. Ha ha ha.
Isaac: There is a lack of imagination.
Dad: What happens next?
Isaac: Beekle finds some kids on a playground, but there was still nobody there for him.
Gracie: This looks like such a fun playground. You can climb in a whale! Our playgrounds are NOT this fun.
Isaac: He climbed a tree and saw a little girl who was drawing. But her paper blew away into the tree, so he grabbed it for her.
Elijah: It was a girl named Alice, and the paper had a picture of Beekle handing Alice a picture of Beekle handing Alice a picture of Beekle handing…
Dad: It could go on forever.
Gracie: All the pages she was coloring show the pictures from "The Adventures of Beekle," even all the beginning pictures from before we met Alice. See, there’s Beekle walking around the boring-cake-grandma-lady.
Isaac: Alice turned out to be the… the… Imaginator.
Dad: Sounds like a super hero: “The Imaginator.”
Isaac: He’s the Imaginee. So she’s the Imaginator.
Gracie: That’s what they call them at Disney World.
Elijah: She was the one who had imagined him. She wrote his story.
Lily: She’s a Creative.
Dad: They are a match!
Lily: The end papers show that the imaginary friends match up to the interests of the person who imagines them.
Gracie: Like, there’s this little kid with a kite, so her imaginary friend is this cute little cloud guy. And there’s a girl with origami stuff, so her imaginary friend is a paper-looking panda.
Dad: So the end papers are important. They are more than just filler.
Gracie: I love the endpapers!
Lily: The other imaginary friends in the book are colorful.
Elijah: I love the imaginary Octopus Guy. Have you ever seen a purple octopus with such freakishly big eyes and designs all over him?
Gracie: But Beekle doesn’t really have any color. He's just white. So that’s weird.
Dad: Do you remember what Alice’s interest is? What would “white” represent if you are an artist?
Elijah: This book is pretty cool.
Lily: It’s like traveling through imagination.
And now, an interview with Dan Santat:
Dad: Thanks for chatting with us today!
Dan Santat: We’ve known each other for, like, seven years. But technically this is the first time we’ve met!
Dad: It's the first time we’ve had a conversation.
Dan Santat: How are things in Michigan?
Gracie: Cold and wet.
Lily: It’s been raining a lot.
Dan Santat: That’s not a problem here in Southern California. It never rains. We have no weather here.
Gracie: Come to Michigan. You can get frostbite and sunburn in the same week.
Dad: Let’s interview! Who has a question?
Isaac: I’ll start. You wrote "Beekle" and "Sidekicks," but a lot of your books are ones you illustrated for other authors. What are some of the things that are different when you’re making your own book compared to doing art for some one else’s story?
Dan Santat: I think the beauty of illustrating my own books is that when I write, I already have illustrations in mind. So I don’t have to say certain things because I know they will be illustrated.
Dan Santat: If I am illustrating for someone else, I have to play with the author on equal ground. Even if I think a visual element might be a better solution, I still have to respect the text. But when I am writing, I know the underlying meaning I want to communicate. And if I can convey the message more effectively in illustrations, I have the flexibility to lean that way.
Isaac: Do you have a specific example of how that played out in "Beekle"?
Dan Santat: There’s a spread where Beekle finally leaves the island, and you see the Rainbow Dragon coming out of the cloud, and the text says, “He did the unimaginable.”
Lily: That’s my favorite!
Isaac: It’s a great page.
Lily: All those colors.
Dan Santat: I like to let the illustrations say as much as possible. So I don’t write, “Then he built a ship and left to go find a friend in the real world…” That’s already being communicated in the illustration. You already see him sailing off on a boat. He’s clearly going on an adventure. So I don’t have to write that. Rather, the text has the power to add something extra. Saying “he did the unimaginable” gives it some heart, a little more charm.
Gracie: You do a good job with visual storytelling.
Dan Santat: Aw, thank-you.
Gracie: If you took all the words out of the book, you could probably still tell what was going on.
Dan Santat: Actually I think if you just read the text alone, you could also interpret things in a completely different way. The words almost tell a different story that just happens to run parallel with the visuals. And I think that’s the place you want to be with storytelling. You don’t want words that tell you what you are already looking at. You want the pictures to say one thing and you want the text to imply more. You don’t want it to be a one on one relationship. Like figure skaters who have to work in tandem to make this beautiful performance. They are feeding off of each other.
Isaac: Very cool.
Elijah: How are you able to illustrate so many books? You have a ton of them.
Dan Santat: I look back over the last ten years of my life, and I can see how much work I’ve done. But I don’t think it was until after I won the Caldecott that I asked myself how I did it. Last year I did 13 books.
Dan Santat: That’s so mentally and physically exhausting.
Isaac: I bet!
Dan Santat: I never want to do that ever again.
Kids: Ha ha hah…
Dan Santat: A lot of my work is dictated by my need to provide for the family. I’m always worried that things will fall apart, and then suddenly I won’t have anything. So I take everything I’m offered, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. But I’ve also gotten great opportunities to work on projects with some amazing people which you would be foolish not to take. Like last year I worked on 13 books, but 5 of those were books with Dav Pilkey. And you’d be a fool not to work with Dav Pilkey.
Dad: But on top of what you are saying – those 5 Ricky Ricotta books with Dav Pilkey were gigantic! Each one of those books was like 10 books worth of illustration!
Dan Santat: Right. Right. So how do I do it? I have a very streamlined process that helps me tremendously. With picture books, I can do a spread a day.
Dan Santat: With a graphic novel like Sidekicks, I told myself, “I am doing 5 pages a day.” If I know how many I have to get done in a day, that’s all I focus on.
Gracie: So what part of the work is the most important to you? Where do you invest most of your creative energy?
Dad: Since your time is so limited.
Gracie: Is it in character design? Something else?
Dan Santat: I’m really poor with character design. There are people who will draw the character over and over again. I’m a little different. I jump right into the dummy book. I’m figuring everything out while I’m drawing the dummy book. Doing the sketches is the most important part to me. I probably spend 70% of my efforts making sure the sketches are tight and perfect. So then when it goes to color, everything is a smooth process.
Dad: When you say sketches, are you talking about composition?
Dan Santat: Everything… Page turns and pacing. Composition. The forms – like if I’m drawing a hand, that hand has to look perfect in the sketches – I don’t want to have to fix that in the finals. If the sketches are solid and perfect, then the finals just turn into a big coloring book I fill in.
Isaac: Is there ever a time where you just don’t have inspiration though? If you have artist’s block, if things just aren’t coming to you, is there a system or something that you have? Do you just keep trying? Or do you go away and do something else for a while?
Dan Santat: If that happens, typically I’ll pick at it a little bit everyday, just a little at a time. 15 or 20 minutes. I pick at it lightly because if I get to a point where I am downright frustrated with myself, I’ll never want look back at it ever again.
Dan Santat: When I have a creative block like that, I’ll keep myself occupied. Sometimes I’ll read. Sometimes I’ll sketch. I’ll ask friends if they’ve read any other books similar to the idea I’m working on. I might explore those books to see if they jostle something in my mind to get me moving forward.
Dad: I know Isaac has an art question for you. Maybe you can jostle something loose for him...
Isaac: I’ve been looking at different people’s art in comics and graphic novels. When there’s an action pose, like someone is kicking at a wall, one of two things will happen. It will either look like there is a lot of motion and he’s actually kicking the wall. Or it will look like a character just has his leg up and is holding a pose. In your books like “Sidekicks” or “Ninja Pigs” it looks like your illustrations have motion in them. How do you get that? Is there something you keep in the back of your mind while you are drawing?
Dan Santat: Have you ever read “How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way”?
Isaac: I’ve heard about it from a lot of different people. I know that artists I’ve looked up on youtube have recommended it.
Dan Santat: I swear by it. There’s a great spread that talks about how normal people punch vs how super heroes punch. A lot of it is about exaggerating the form. If a normal person throws a punch, it would be two feet planted on the ground and they are throwing their fist into the body.
Dan Santat: But if you are Captain America, that’s not good enough. You are leaping into that person. And you are not just throwing your fist in there, but your shoulder is in there too… See if you can push it further. On a scale from 1 to 10, see if you can push it to a 12. Really overdo it.
Isaac: Okay. That’s cool.
Dan Santat: There’s also another great book. I think it’s called Bridgman’s Constructive Anatomy. His philosophy of drawing has to do with “wedging.” So you look at the torso like a rectangular block, and the hips would be another rectangular block. You draw these two blocks on top of each other and then connect the forms. But you treat it like a sponge. If you are turning the body, you are twisting the sponge. If you are leaning backwards you are bending the sponge backwards. You have to draw the figure with those kind of properties in mind.
Isaac: Very cool.
Dan Santat: It’s really observation. Experimentation. Repetition. If you want to draw an effective punch, don’t copy a photo of someone throwing a punch. It’s best to have the idea in your mind of what a powerful punch is, and then express that.
Dad: The feeling.
Dan Santat: Express the feeling of a big punch rather than trying to reproduce a photo of someone throwing a big punch.
Isaac: Okay. Thank you!
Elijah: You make both graphic novels and picture books. What do you like most about each?
Dan Santat: Picture books are the hardest things ever to make.
Dan Santat: Yeah. With a graphic novel you have the freedom of 150 to 200 pages to tell a story. You can use as many panels as necessary to build a character’s emotions. But with a picture book, you have 17 spreads for everything, beginning, middle, and end.
Isaac: It’s like a haiku.
Lily: Or any poem.
Isaac: Getting your thoughts across in a limited number of syllables.
Dad: Shorter doesn’t make it easier.
Dan Santat: One of the biggest struggles with "Beekle" was trying to establish – okay everybody, there’s this island where imaginary friends come from and they have to be imagined by kids in order to leave the island. To explain this whole new world I’ve built in 2 or 3 spreads? Tremendous challenge!
Lily: That makes sense.
Dan Santat: So when I make a picture book, it’s more about telling a metaphor or expressing a single idea. But with a graphic novel it’s more about character and building emotion. Fortunately, in "Beekle" I could tell this metaphor about being a father and meeting my son for the first time, and that in itself injected a lot of emotion into the story.
Gracie: So that’s the story behind Beekle? Your son?
Dan Santat: Beekle was my son’s first word for bicycle.
Gracie: Awww, I didn’t know that.
Dan Santat: I came up with the original idea for the book back in art school. At that time it was about an imaginary friend who was so bizarre-looking that no child could imagine him. But after the birth of my son, it became a metaphor for the birth of my son. The journey of being a father. The anticipation of saying, “What is this child going to be like?”
Gracie: We know you also made the TV show “The Replacements.” I’m wondering how writing TV shows compares to books.
Dan Santat: Working on television was not my favorite thing. You have a room full of executives who do not necessarily have a good sense of storytelling or of art and design. But they do have a job, which is to tell you how to get the most viewers into a time slot. So rather than helping you speak true to your voice, it is more important to them to appeal to as many people as possible. So all your content is watered down to make it palatable for everybody. Which can be really frustrating.
Dan Santat: At one point, everything I turned in would get notes for changes. Nothing was ever okay. It can get you to a point where you feel like you don’t know how to write anymore. It got really discouraging. So after I found out the show got picked up for a 2nd and 3rd season, I left. I decided I needed to focus my attention in children’s books because that’s where my voice will be purest in its form. I was really proud of the books while I made them, but it wasn’t until they came out and I saw how well they were being received that I thought… okay, I’m not crazy. Those executives are crazy.
Lily: How did you react when you found out Beekle won the Caldecott Award?
Dan Santat: Around the end of the year, everyone starts making their predictions about who will win. That’s the last thing you want read because it will always stay in your mind. But when teachers start tweeting AT you saying, “Hey, you won our mock-Caldecott,” you start feeling like this might happen. My publicist and my agent had to call me and say, "You need to stop reading these things because it’s driving you insane."
Kids: Ha ha ha ha…
Dan Santat: But then the Hornbook did a Caldecott prediction on their blog. And my publicist and agent both sent me that link… “Oh, Hornbook talked about you – this changes things.” I remember saying, “You told me not to read this stuff! And yet you are sending me this link!”
Kids: Ha haha ha ha.
Dan Santat: So the day before the announcements, my wife made it a point for me to not have my mind on it at all. Which meant we had to be surrounded by friends, we had to do something to keep my mind occupied. I received “crossing-my-fingers-for-you” emails the night before. Which I appreciated, but at the same time I’m like, please – my nerves. I said, there’s no way I’m going to fall asleep, so I worked. I closed my eyes around 2:30 and woke up at 4:15, a bundle of nerves. The first thought in my mind was, maybe they already called the winners and it wasn’t me. Why did I even think I had a chance? And then you feel bad about feeling sad. This is all from months and months of people speculating. It just builds up. Then 15 minutes later at 4:30 the phone rang and I thought, this has to be it... there is nobody else who would be calling me at this time.
Lily: The Caldecott people call really, really early in the morning!
Dan Santat: I answered the phone thinking at best it would be an Honor... no way would it be the Medal. When they told me I won the Medal, I just cried. I started crying right there on the spot.
Dan Santat: It’s just such an emotional thing. You never think it’s going to ever happen to you. The entire following week turned into a huge emotional rush.
Dan Santat: So there’s this thing – it’s great to win a Caldecott Medal of course.
Dan Santat: But the other end of winning is that now you are more mindful of the next projects you take. There’s a feeling of this quality that you have to uphold now. I’m working on the manuscript for my next picture book, and I can’t help but think this has to be as good as Beekle. And it doesn’t. But you put that pressure on yourself. Being given this honor, you feel like you have to live up to it. Daily.
Dad: Well, we're so happy for you. And thanks so much for chatting with us!
Dan Santat: My pleasure! Thank you guys! I hope we get a chance to meet in person someday.
Dad: Yes, me too! And I'll say again, we love your work. I’ve been going through the archives, and we’ve reviewed more of your books than anyone else’s. All along, you’ve been a big part of this blog.
Dan Santat: Well, thank you for seven wonderful years of your support! You guys have been instrumental for me. I feel like from the beginning it was you guys and Betsy Bird and Jules Danielson who really picked me up from out of all the authors and illustrators and put me on this pedestal. For a lot of the accolades I’ve received, I owe a huge thanks to you guys.
Beekle and the Octopus Guy, by Elijah
imaginary friends, by Lily
plush Beekle, by Gracie
Beekle and the Rainbow Dragon, by Isaac
Author/Illustrator: Dan Santat
Published, 2014: Little, Brown
Like it? Here it is!