Children's book author and illustrator Peter Brown turned one embarrassing incident into a career any aspiring author or illustrator would envy. Parent & Child recently sat down with the young author to discuss the waddlers of this first book, the woofer in his second, what makes a great picture book, and what's next for Peter.
Parent & Child: Your first published book, Flight of the Dodo, tells the story of a waddling penguin that is pooped on by a flying bird. Some think that being pooped on by a bird is a sign of good luck — any thoughts?
Peter Brown: I must be very lucky. I've been pooped on seven times, and counting. As far as I know that's a record. I've never met anybody who's been pooped on that much. I think people enjoy sharing their bird poop stories, and that positive energy helps in life. I turned my experience into a book that is now in stores so I feel like that's pretty good luck. But I'm not very superstitious.
P&C: Tell us a little bit about your second book, Chowder.
Brown: Chowder is about the bulldog I wish I had. I can't have a bulldog because my roommate is allergic to dogs, and my building doesn't allow dogs, so I guess I need to move out if I'm going to get one. I just love them. I think they're funny because they're so ugly and so cute at the same time. It's perfect for a fun character. I started thinking about them a lot, and before long I had done some drawings and paintings and I had this little guy who just sort of blossomed into a character that I really loved and thought other people might like too.
Some people early on were comparing Chowder to Olivia, the pig from Ian Falconer's books, but I think they're very different. Olivia is so headstrong and confident, and Chowder is sort of figuring it out as he goes. He doesn't really know what he's doing, which is a lot like me. I think a lot of people will hopefully be able to relate to him because he's not totally sure of himself, has a good heart and does his best.
P&C: How did you decide on the name Chowder for this character?
Brown: When I was in art school I had a good friend, Mike Carpenter, who is this tough, little, stocky guy from Boston. He has red hair, swears like a sailor, used to be a fisherman, and is pretty tough. He used to cook for the gang and would make chowder among other things. Except he wouldn't say "chowder," he would say "chowda" with an "a." So "chowda" was a word that was floating around our circle of friends while we were in school. In fact, some friends even toyed with the idea of creating a design company called "Chowda." When I created this bulldog character, I didn't have a name for him right off the bat. His first name was "Bob Dog," which I thought was funny, but everyone was confused and thought it was "Bob the Dog." I decided to switch the name, and "Chowda" just popped into my head. I didn't want to spell it with an "a" at the end — I don't know why, but it was just a word that was in my head and seemed very appropriate for an ugly, weird, little bulldog.
P&C: I saw on your Web site that you started writing books at the age of 6. Could you tell us a little bit about your early books?
Brown: Well, my very first book is posted on my Web site and happened because I had a pet dog that ran away. I was really attached to my dog, so we ran all over the neighborhood calling out his name, trying to get him back. The next morning he returned, and I was really happy to see him. My mom thought it might be a good opportunity for me to be creative and try to turn it into a story. She was a special education teacher for 25 years and was always very nurturing and encouraging. So I made a book about the adventure of my dog Buffy and me. We get lost in the woods and have to spend the whole night away from home. So that's how it started. I kept writing off and on for fun all through out school.
P&C: Besides encouraging you to write about your adventure with Buffy, were there things that your parents did to help foster your creativity? What advice would you give to parents to help their children be more creative?
Brown: It didn't hurt that I wanted to be creative. My mom was really good about finding things on my level. She would know what my interests were at any given point, and would try to use that as a launching point. For example, I was really into video games and she encouraged me come up with my own characters. She knew I liked that. I used to draw monsters and figure out what their personalities would be, what they would eat, their favorite places to hang out and things like that. She knew I had that in me, so she would ask: "If you could design the coolest video game what would that be?" Instantly I was into it. I think every kid has his own little hook to get him excited about things, and thinking creatively.
P&C: Your books feature animals as the main characters. What do you think children can gain from being around animals and having pets?
Brown: I really like making books about animals because I find that they are sort of an analogy for a certain kind of person or situation. Flight of the Dodo is about flightless birds who want to fly. You can draw lots of comparisons without being so literal as saying: The little boy who wishes he was good playing soccer works hard and becomes a good soccer player. I like to put a bit more of a funny, quirky spin on things. I am always trying to find an animal that would be a good representation for a certain kind of character, or a certain kind of story.
As far as kids having pets, I just think it's good for a lot of reasons. It's good for overcoming fears. I know a lot of people are afraid of dogs, so I think if you are a kid who grows up in a house with a big dog you're probably going to be more eager to go out and do things and not be afraid of dogs among other things. I think my dog had a lot to do with the development of my personality.
P&C Are you a dog or cat person?
Brown: I like cats — but they don't like me! No, I like cats, but I just feel like dogs are more fun. They are more engaging and active. Cats obviously have real personalities, but dogs are just more fun I think. I don't think you have to be either a dog person or a cat person. I like animals. I was recently in Maine and walked past a farm with cows and some other animals. I was just intrigued by them. They're so interesting. I just like animals I think.
P&C: The topic of accepting other's differences appears in both of your books. Why do you think this is an important lesson for children to learn? Are there any other themes or lessons you intended children to take away from your books?
Brown: I could talk for hours about this. I think especially in this day and age there's such a lack of tolerance for people's differences on a global level. I just think it's more important now than ever to be accepting. It's a crazy world we live in. I know that growing up I always struggled with being an outsider. I always had friends, but I was never one of the cool kids, and that can be tough when you're growing up. If I can introduce a character that's going through a lot of the same things that a lot of little kids are going through, and that they can relate to, it will hopefully inspire them to broaden their horizons, reach out more and just get along. It sounds a little clichéd, but I think it's really true and important.
The lessons in my books always come later. In Chowder and Flight of the Dodo the first thing I developed was the main character. As I explore a character I start thinking about his essence and what lesson can be learned from that. I started out Chowder with this cute little guy whose personality I wanted to figure out. The more I developed that, the clearer the potential lessons became. It wasn't like I said "I need to make a book about getting along and accepting others." If you start off with the purpose of teaching a particular lesson you're running the risk of beating people over the head with it. I think it's much more effective to have a subtle lesson.
P&C: How do you come up with your story ideas?
Brown: All different ways. Where ever I go I have a sketchbook and a little note pad. If I have a good idea I feel desperate to get it down on paper or else I'll forget it, and may never have another good idea for the rest of my life. My ideas come from experiences. For Flight of the Dodo a bird pooped me on while I was on a date. It was really embarrassing. That got me thinking about embarrassing bird poop stories, and eventually about flightless birds. I guess I just get ideas from life experiences.
P&C: Do you spend more time perfecting your stories or your artwork?
Brown: The story I suppose. I'm obsessive about my paintings, but it's easier for me. I'm about to start painting the second Chowder book, and I'm kind of flying by the seat of my pants. I like to have tight finished sketches and tight finished color studies so I can sit down and not have any decisions to make. I don't have time to make the color studies that I would like to make, so that makes me a little nervous, yet I know that I can do it. I'm a perfectionist about my painting, but because I have more confidence in it, I don't stress about it. Writing stresses me out like crazy. I really enjoy writing, but I feel like I have so much to learn. I know people who get an idea, sit down, and a week later they've got a finished manuscript that's great. I've never had that happen. For me it takes months to write a 1,000-word story — that's just the way I work.
P&C: What do you think is special about picture books? What makes one great?
Brown: The real art of picture books is telling the story with pictures as much as possible. I have had a few offers to illustrate other people's manuscripts for picture books and I always say no because it's not going to be collaborative. It's going to be: Here's the manuscript, you can't change it, visualize it and go to work. When I am making my own books I am writing the story and making the pictures simultaneously. I can say to myself, I don't need this sentence because I'm showing that in the picture, or I need to reword this sentence because I'm not going to be able to make this illustration clear enough. There's a lot of back and forth. The goal is to have a very unified project where everything comes together. There are people like Lane Smith and John Scieszka who are friends that collaborate on picture books. I think their books are brilliant because they are two people working together. I never understood the system in place where authors and illustrators work independently. It doesn't make much sense to me. It will make a better book if it's more collaborative.
A great picture book has to engage the reader with the illustrations. I do a lot of school visits these days, and I always say to the kids that if you were to read Flight of the Dodo without looking at the pictures you'd miss half the story. When children are young you are also trying to just get them interested in reading. Reading is not a natural thing for a lot of kids, it takes them time and practice. I think kids are also very visual so that's why picture books are perfect. You have to make sure that you are not spelling it all out in words. What I always try to do is make sure the pictures are really important to telling the story.
You've got to have a good story, and you have to have characters that people care about. I think there is a lot in the style of the illustrations. Sometimes really simple illustrations are great, but there's something to be said for very rich art. If you can create a world that almost seems like it could exist, kids will believe it more and be more excited and drawn into it. The books I loved the most in my childhood were the books with really rich details and were almost three-dimensional. My ideal with my illustrations is to have a quirky unique style, but to render it in such a way that it almost seems like the Dodo is a real thing. You can imagine seeing it in person and you can imagine it being a really round object. I want people to be able to imagine the way the birds would walk, and what they would look like if you were actually with them in person. I think that adds a lot to a book.
P&C: Have you considered bringing your art and stories to other formats such as TV or movies?
Brown: I actually have a film agent who is showing Flight of the Dodo to a bunch of different movie producers. I'm definitely open to it. I worked in animation for a couple of years and have a lot of friends and connections in that industry. I think at some point I will try to make that happen. I would love to do fine art painting, gallery painting. I have a lot of stuff in my head that's maybe not appropriate for kids — it's just a little darker and not something you would want in a picture book. Eventually, if I become more confident in my writing I would love to write chapter books or a young adult novel, but that's years away. I want to do everything. I just like being creative and I have so many interests that it's almost overwhelming at times.
P&C: What's next?
Brown: The Fabulous Bouncing Chowder is the sequel to Chowder. Chowder goes away to summer camp, and as usual, he doesn't quite fit in. He finds his own way of impressing the other dogs and really stand out in the crowd. Right now my life is about the first Chowder book. Things are going really well, it seems like a lot of people are going to like it. I recently had a day when I was on the radio, interviewed for a newspaper article, and I participated in this really great book event. It was like boom boom boom, one day was just a free for all — it was really fun. I like it, but days like that can be exhausting.