Welcome to the Q&A for the May edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here).
This month I’m talking with illustrator and author Troy Cummings and giving away three signed books: his new picture book Can I Be Your Dog? (Random House) and our even-newer easy readers Mighty Truck: On the Farm and Mighty Truck: The Traffic Tie-Up (HarperCollins).
Our I Can Read books come on the heels — make that wheels — of our two picture books about Mighty Truck, his ordinary-pickup-truck alter ego Clarence, and various vehicular acquaintances.
In Can I Be Your Dog?, the canine main character embarks on a letter-writing campaign to come up with a human companion. Kirkus says in its review, “A large format and bold, exuberant illustrations are well-matched with Arfy’s enthusiastic personality and can-do attitude. The letter format makes this a fine choice for early-elementary students learning to compose letters.”
If you’re a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address and you want to be the one lucky, lucky, lucky winner of signed copies of On the Farm, The Traffic Tie-Up, and Can I Be Your Dog?, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on May 31, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.
In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Troy Cummings.
Chris: There were some pretty big differences for me between the process of writing our Mighty Truck easy readers and my previous experiences writing picture books, but I’m curious about your perspective as an artist. How did illustrating for the I Can Read format compare to your prior work on picture books and your Notebook of DOOM series?
Troy: It’s been really fun to learn how to illustrate for these different types of books, and the types of reader each book serves.
In a picture book, the audience ranges from a baby on a lap, to pre-K kid studying the pictures, to a grade-schooler who can read, to the parent/teacher/librarian/stevedore reading out loud. It’s a wide audience, and I feel like we have lots of room to play in the illustrations.
I can put in some little background details that might be a surprise for the second or third reading, or visual jokes/surprises that happen across the page turn. And I think picture books work best when the illustrations aren’t just showing us what the words are saying, but instead are complementing — or even contrasting — what’s happening in the text.
As for the Notebook of DOOM series, which is a heavily-illustrated early chapter book series, my readers are a more focused group: students who know how to read, and are ready to transition into full chapter books. The DOOM books are structured like a middle grade book — many chapters, multiple characters, with a mystery in each book and an arc that connects the books together.
But they’re also heavily illustrated, with a lower word count and an easier vocabulary (both in terms of what the words mean, and how to “decode” the words for students learning to read). In these books, my illustrations can behave similarly to those in a picture book, but they also need to be a little more direct, in terms of supporting vocabulary or keeping the story clear for readers who come back to chapter 9 a couple days later.
But still, the DOOM books work as read-alouds for parents/teachers/librarians. They kind of straddle that line.
Finally, the I Can Read books have a very specific audience: students who are learning to read — right now! So to that end, I think my job is to support what’s going on in any given moment of the story. The illustrations need to be clear, and simple, and explicit, and show exactly what’s happening in the sentence on that very page. We can still put in some jokes and surprises, but they should never overcomplicate things, or make the reader have to pause and puzzle out what’s going on.
Chris: Mighty Truck and Mighty Truck: Muddymania! have centered on Clarence and his best pal, Bruno, but one of the things I’ve enjoyed about making these easy readers is that they’ve given us a chance to focus on the side characters. Stella is prominent in The Traffic Tie-Up, and Hattie and Mr. Dent get their turns in the upcoming third and fourth I Can Read books.
As the illustrator, do you have a favorite Mighty Truck supporting character, or one that you’re especially hoping to see more of?
Troy: The supporting characters have all been a blast to dream up. I think my favorite may be Hattie, though, because steamrollers are super-fun to draw. (If you’ve never drawn a steamroller, I recommend it. Very therapeutic.)
I also really enjoyed drawing Zip and Beep, Hattie’s young bulldozer cousins. [Chris adds: These little ones were Troy’s idea, and they’ll be the title characters in our third I Can Read book, coming this December.] They’re loosely based on certain fast-running, sand-digging, early-reading family members of my own!
The character I want to see more of would have to be Throttle, the cat belonging to Mr. Dent, the surf wagon. Throttle has some funny surfing scenes with Mighty Truck in the fourth I Can Read book.
If you’ve never drawn a cat surfing with a monster truck, I recommend it! Less therapeutic, but really fun.