Ursula Vernon considers herself a "creator of oddities." Vernon, the daughter of an artist, didn't spend her childhood dreaming of becoming one herself, but after being unsuccessful at pursuing a career in science, she decided to try her hand at art, which was fortunate: She turned out to be pretty good! Since then, she's been busy creating comics for kids and adults. Her latest, graphic novel Dragonbreath, debuts with Penguin's Dial Books imprint in early June. The first in a series, Dragonbreath features Danny, a young dragon struggling to learn to breathe fire and to stay on top of things in science class.
Parent & Child: Where did you draw the inspiration for Dragonbreath from?
Ursula Vernon: Dragonbreath is based on my love of both mythical creatures and all the weird, wacky creatures that really do live here on Earth. I had this vision of a school full of all the strange reptiles and amphibians that I find fascinating—Komodo dragons and iguanas and giant salamanders and purple frogs—and then, a complete oddity, a real dragon in the middle of them.
P&C: If you were a mythical creature, what would you be?
Vernon: I think I'd like to be a bunyip. Bunyips are an Australian water monster, and nobody's ever seen one, although they say you can sometimes hear them calling at night. I like the mystery. Also, I just like saying "bunyip."
P&C: Looking to the future, what do you have in mind for these characters?
Vernon: The second book, Dragonbreath: Attack of the Ninja Frogs will be out next spring, and the third book, featuring Danny, [his friend] Wendell, and school lunches gone bad is tentatively scheduled for fall 2010. After that . . . well, who knows?
P&C: When did you first become interested in writing and drawing? Which did you prefer as a child?
Vernon: I definitely preferred to write as a child. It didn't seem as hard, somehow—if I drew a chicken, it looked only vaguely like a chicken, and I usually had to tell people what it was, but if I wrote "Suddenly, there was a chicken!" then, by God, there was a chicken! (And suddenly, too.) Over time, the art got easier and the writing got harder, though. I didn't get seriously interested in art until I was in college—my mother was an artist, and I tried to rebel and go into science, which didn't work very well—and now in a lot of ways, drawing is easier. A drawing only has to hold the reader for a few minutes; a book has to hold someone's attention for hours or days.
P&C: What drew you to the comic style you employed for this book?
Vernon: The art style in Dragonbreath is based on a series of paintings I did over the years, featuring small pinkish lizards that look suspiciously like Danny and Wendell. I always liked the characters, but I never quite knew what to do with them until one day I put a T-shirt on one and gave him spikes, and suddenly everything clicked into place. The limited color palette was a by-product of printing—I only got one color and its half-tone, so I made a virtue of necessity and made that color work really hard.
P&C: What is your favorite kind of art? To view? To create?
Vernon: It's so hard to pick just one! My house is covered in different kinds of artwork from abstract and stylized to realistic to photography. Ultimately, though, I think I most like to look at art that's nothing at all like I would draw myself. I love strong graphic design and completely abstract art, because I'm terrible at it myself. But I love creating strange surrealist art—small animals in worlds with giant fruit flying around over their heads and so forth.
P&C: What made you decide to write and illustrate children's books?
Vernon: Honestly, I don't think I ever actively decided—my agent took a look at some paintings I'd done, with odd little descriptions, and asked me to write a book based on it. I'm not sure if she expected anything, but the following year, Nurk: The Strange Surprising Adventures of a (Somewhat) Brave Shrew was published. Dragonbreath was my next big project—I wanted to do something with children's books, while incorporating my love of comics as well. It just seems to be the role I fell into, rather than waking up one morning and going, "Hey, I want to be a children's author!"
P&C: What is an average day like as an author/illustrator?
Vernon: Writing a book like Dragonbreath, and to a lesser extent, any illustrated book, falls into two stages. First I write the script, so for several months, I'll write anywhere from zero to twenty pages a day. (I know that there are writers who sit down and reliably write a page or two a day. I tend to write in spurts, punctuated by a lot of gardening and playing video games.) Once the script is written, and my wonderful editor has gotten it revised and edited and generally ready to go, then I get to illustrate it. For a book like Dragonbreath, which has a lot of illustrations, I'll spend two or three months painting at a fairly steady pace of two illustrations a day. It's much steadier than the writing, but it's also much more exhausting, and doesn't leave as much time for video games.
P&C: What kind of advice would you give to kids who want to be artists?
Vernon: For kids, I'd say that it's hard work, and it takes a lot of practice, but not to get discouraged. When I started out, my chickens didn't look like chickens and my horses were weirdly lumpy and the less said about the people I drew, the better. If you keep trying—and if you learn to draw what you SEE, to look at things and draw exactly what you see, instead of drawing what you think must be there—you'll get better. We all start out drawing what's in our heads, and then we learn to draw what's in front of us, and THEN we get good enough that we can start drawing what's in our heads again, and really make them look real. When I got frustrated when I was trying to learn to draw, I used to tell myself, "OK, I'm not very good now, but if I keep doing this, in five years, look out!" And five years later, I was so much better I could hardly believe it, and five years after that I was making a living doing it. All it takes is time.
P&C: What about parents whose kids want to be artists?
Vernon: Be encouraging. Depending on the age of the kids, drawing classes can be really useful. And for those too young for formal classes—give them paper and big boxes of crayons, talk to them about the drawings, and if that's the field they're drawn to, it'll be clear. Above all, I think, give them things to draw. I still love going to the zoo and seeing the animals, and now I come back and paint arrow poison frogs and capybaras, and occasionally I even get paid for it. Museums get me drawing dinosaurs, both now and back then. Visuals and experiences to draw on are just as important as tools to draw with.