Author Q&A: Mark Teague
The prolific writer and illustrator talks about his inspirations, his working style, and how to get kids to love stories.
PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8
It would be hard to find a dinosaur-loving kid who hasn’t read one of Mark Teague’s How Do Dinosaurs books. The best-selling series—written by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Teague—includes the classics How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night? and How Do Dinosaurs Go to School? The books are applauded for helping both children and adults cope with everyday dilemmas like bad haircuts, summer-camp misery, and moving to a new home.
Teague has been illustrating and writing picture books for nearly 30 years. His first, The Trouble With the Johnsons, came out in 1989, after he was “discovered” by a book buyer at a Barnes and Noble he was working at in New York City. He modestly says it was “dumb luck” that he got into the book industry, but his fans, old and new, would disagree: His gently humorous books, mostly fronted by a goofy animal character or two, have an enduring appeal. The latest is Felipe and Claudette, about an odd-couple dog-and-cat duo who must learn to live in the same house.
Teague gives back to his readers in other ways. He has done his share of book events at schools, and he has championed literacy for kids, working with the organization Read*Write*Now, among others.
Q | What inspired your newest book, Felipe and Claudette? Did you hark back to Dear Mrs. LaRue, with its canine protagonist, when you were writing and drawing this?
A | I wasn’t inspired by Dear Mrs. LaRue so much as I was by a situation in my own household, where our old, grumpy cat, Joseph, had formed an unlikely friendship with our new dog, Lulabelle.
Q | Tell us about the message behind Felipe and Claudette.
A | I’m terrible at analyzing my own stories. I’ll just say the book is about the power of friendship. Also, it’s a tribute to the many magnificent, grumpy cats and ridiculous dogs I have known. I hope it inspires people to adopt pets from their local animal shelters.
Q | Most of your books feature animals. Do they speak to you in a certain way? Was your childhood filled with animals?
A | I’ve always loved animals. As a kid, I had a special affinity for the half-stray cats that used to wander around the neighborhood. Even now, I spend most of my work time with a cat sleeping on my lap.
Q | I’ve read that you were surrounded by books early on. Can you talk about the importance of books in the home?
A | My mother was a prodigious reader, and she introduced all of her children (there were seven of us!) to the public library at an early age. Mom would go home with novels, and I would walk out with a stack of picture books. I guess it isn’t surprising that I ended up making picture books for a living!
Q | Your first book came out in 1989. What spurred you to start illustrating and writing books?
A | I had a job in a big New York bookstore, where I made signs and displays for both the interior and the Fifth Avenue windows. The job was wonderful art training and also an inspiration, because I was often in the children’s department. When I decided to write and illustrate my own book, the children’s buyer at the store helped introduce me to publishers.
Q | When you’re working on a new book, do the characters and drawing come first? The words?
A | Generally, the words come first. The exception would be books for very young readers where most of the storytelling is contained in the art. If I can make the language very clear, the pictures tend to follow. Most of my sketching involves drawing the characters over and over, trying to discover all of their moods and gestures before I confine them to the actual story. The characters feel more real to me once they have gone through that process.
Q | I’d guess you had a passion for dinosaurs growing up. How can kids channel their passions into writing stories?
A | The biggest part of writing (and illustrating) is paying attention to detail. We naturally pay close attention to things we care about; that’s where our stories are. Good stories begin with interesting characters. We all have interesting characters in our lives. I spend a lot of time just watching my pets.
Q | A couple of your books are reimagined fairy tales. What inspired you to tackle these?
A | I grew up with fairy tales and I’ve always loved them. The worlds they depict are strange but also comforting. It’s a lot of fun to start with these familiar stories and then play with them to see what new directions they might take. The stories I turned into books often started as bedtime stories I told to my own kids when they were little.
Q | Can you choose a book that was the most fun to work on? Or the most frustrating?
A | You mentioned Dear Mrs. LaRue earlier. That was both fun and frustrating. I loved the characters and thought I had the basis for a good story, but it took me a long time to figure out how to write and illustrate it. Sometimes the most challenging projects are also the most satisfying.
Q | What format do you use on school visits? Is there a certain type of kid you find yourself speaking to?
A | I try to be informal, to have conversations. It’s good to know what kids find amusing. Usually we’re in agreement about those things. Sometimes I’ll notice a kid doodling, or drawing along with me. I feel a special connection with those kids because that’s how I was when I was the same age. Those are the future authors and illustrators!
Q | How can teachers get kids to love writing (and reading) stories?
A | I had teachers who were wonderful storytellers and teachers who read great books aloud. My favorite teacher, Mr. Rosenberg, built a reading loft inside his fourth-grade classroom and stocked it with all kinds of books, including comics. For him, reading was a reward, never a chore. I make my books with the same idea in mind.
Photo: Gordon Trice © 2016