I grew up in Holland, playing soccer and drawing cartoons. I was eleven when my family immigrated to America. Speaking no English, where language failed me, drawing helped me communicate. When I was thirteen I was invited to visit the Disney Studio, and was encouraged to make my own animated films. Comic books and animation became a passion, which eventually led to a job at the Disney studio. Since then I’ve worked on such films as “Frozen,” “The Princess and The Frog,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” “The Road To El Dorado,” and most recently, “Mary Poppins Returns.”
Music and old movies help put me in a creative mood, letting my mind wander off and spark ideas. Entertaining my kids with bedtime stories inspired me to write children's books. At Disney I was taught to observe the world around me for inspiration, so I always keep sketchbooks handy for doodling at airports or doctor’s waiting rooms. Our very fat and funny cat inspired a series of picture books called Fuddles.
My Creative Process
I don’t really have a process- I don’t sit down with grand plans of making a masterpiece. I allow inspiration to dictate ideas. Sometimes this comes in the way of a story premise- the what ifs, like what if a vain butterfly didn’t like the designs on its wings, so it dipped into a bucket of paint, only to discover that now its wings are too heavy to fly so it can’t show off its new wings?
Other times ideas come from doodling. I come up with a character I like, and start pondering its personality and a situation/story. Then I’ll play with ideas for a period of time- sometimes a few hours, sometimes a few months. I explore all the ways the story can be told, or I might completely revise the whole thing. Or it ends up going nowhere, and I shelve the idea and move on to another story.
I also like sharing my ideas. I belong to a writers group that meets monthly, and I get great feedback there. Working in an animation studio, there are lots of creative people to bounce ideas off. I also run ideas by my wife and older daughter- both very creative in their own ways. They don’t hold back in their criticism, but I learn plenty from them.
For a picture book, once I have a solid story, I make a book dummy. Here, visualizing the story forces me to question things, to make decisions on how to tell the story, balancing text with images. Working mainly digitally, (I draw with a stylus on my laptop,) I work out compositions to pace the story, going back and forth between altering text and images. Visualizing the story often exposes weaknesses or story problems which I hadn't previously considered, forcing me to rework the story or the character.
Once my book dummy is finished, and an editor has bought the concept, (no small feat!) the process starts all over again, questioning everything and reworking the dummy, as well as dealing with the visual style and color.
I like to make people laugh, but I hope kids will be inspired to read. Creativity can be a very powerful thing, I love the Albert Einstein quote, "The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination," and I try to convey that to kids.
I've learned much about from books- world events as well as people, from John Adams to Winston Churchill, Chuck Yeager to Walt Disney. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl inspired me to write my own books.
In Holland as a child, I loved reading and being read to on cold, winter days, where a good story could take my imagination to far away places.
Bill Peet was a Disney artist turned children's book author/illustrator. Many artists have inspired me, from Michelangelo to Bill Watterson, (creator of Calvin and Hobbs,) Hal Foster, (creator of Prince Valiant,) Steven Spielberg. I have a big collection of children's books, and it's wonderful to see the great illustrations of so many good artists.
I'm an early riser, and I love coming downstairs early in the morning while my wife and kids sleep, the house all to myself. With a cup of coffee, I start the day brain-storming, or doodling ideas. I always have numerous book projects in various states, and I play around with sketchbook ideas I've scribbled or drawn the previous days. The middle of the day is awful for me- I drudge through it sleepily. Then some time after 4 pm I get a second wind, and I'm back in high gear.
To let my mind drift, I play classical or jazz music, or I go running. I often get ideas while driving, playing story scenarios in my head. I try to put myself in a positive state of mind, free of the worries of the day. I might think of a movie or book or painting that had an impact on me, that made feel the power of artistry.
Initially, being an animator, and moving an audience emotionally through drawings and storytelling, made me want to try doing my own thing. Then, observing and sketching our son playing with the chickens we had in our backyard, gave me some ideas, which I eventually turned into Jimmy Dabble, a middle grade novel.