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Jon J. Muth has known he wanted to be an artist since childhood. But the painter’s journey to children’s books was more of a winding road. Nearly 16 years after illustrating his first picture book, Karen Hesse’s Come On, Rain, Muth has become a celebrated children’s author in his own right.
After spending three years in Japan and studying the art of shodo (brush calligraphy), Muth wrote Zen Shorts, the tale of a wise panda, Stillwater, told through a blend of watercolors and Asian-inspired brush drawings. The first in a series, Zen Shorts was named a Caldecott Honor Book. As his booklist continues to grow, Muth revisits one of his earlier works, Batman’s Dark Secret, designing a new cover for the release of this winter’s hardcover edition.
Q | What was your inspiration for the Batman’s Dark Secret cover?
A | David Saylor [vice president and creative director at Scholastic Book Group] and I decided that we needed to be iconic and very graphic. I had done a piece that included Batman at the top of the stairs and a young Bruce Wayne below him. It was very film noir–looking, but we decided it was a story in itself. So we zoomed in.
Q | How does interpreting a familiar story like Batman’s differ from creating a new world?
A | You can use the mythology that the character already has. If you are using a character like Batman that people are already familiar with, you can imply [things] without explaining. But, since this is a children’s book, I can also do the reverse. Batman has so much [history], but ideas about him may be new to young readers. To a degree, I get to create a new story.
Q | You began your work as an illustrator of comic books.
A | I’ve always loved words and pictures together, so comic books were the perfect place to experiment with that. There’s a conceptual thing that occurs: It’s not the words and it’s not the pictures. It’s a little like what happens when you are watching a film, but to me it’s more intimate. It’s just a conversation between you and the creator of the comic book. I learned a lot about storytelling by working in comics, including how to choose an action in a scene and how to show emotion.
Q | What brought you to children’s books?
A | I was just finishing a very dark comic book when my first child was born. It’s nothing new to anyone who has children, but [having a baby] was a life-changing experience. I decided I wanted to tell different stories.
I wrote a story about a father and son [for Kodansha, a Japanese magazine]. It was surreal for me. I got to work on things that I was feeling about being a new parent. The story took on a whimsical tone that just felt right. Then, after working in Japan for three years, my agent and I decided to see if there was an audience here in America. I took the book to comic book publishers—it was broken down in panels like a graphic novel would be—and they said, “This is great, but we’re not doing children’s books.” So I took it to children’s book publishers and they said, “This is really great, but we’re not doing comics.”
I was trying to figure out what to do next when David Saylor called and said, “I know you weren’t looking to do children’s books, but would you mind looking at this text from Karen Hesse?” He sent me [Come On, Rain!], and I read it and it was so moving. I saw everything immediately. So I said I would do it.
Q | You’ve had several hits, including Zen Shorts. Why tell that story?
A | While I was on tour [promoting The Three Questions and Old Turtle and the Broken Truth], I would sometimes do ink drawings with the students I met and talk about Asian art. As I drew with a large brush and ink, I would tell stories from Japan and China. I realized that my experience of these cultures was something a lot of children did not have access to. I came home thinking that I really wanted to tell those kinds of stories.
Q | Any new books in the works?
A | The book I’m working on right now is called Mama Lion Wins the Race. It’s based on my youngest son’s stuffed animal, which he has had since he was born. This thing is loved. It has been resurrected and loved again. I don’t know how many stitches are original any more. Since they were born, I’ve told my kids stories that included making their stuffed animals talk and interact with our world. This book grew out of that. I’m finding that the only time I can really work on it is if I’m feeling really happy. It doesn’t seem to work if I am worried about something.
Q | Do you find inspiration in the images around you?
A | The natural world is probably my biggest inspiration. My family also looms large in the work that I have done in children’s books. They are characters in the books. That is where the inspiration comes from—though stuffed animals are new for me.
Q | How would you describe your illustration style?
A | This is really hard; it’s like describing your handwriting. I’m trying to get to the essence of things—the emotion of things—by depicting the surface. I like it when people feel like they could walk into my work.
Q | Any favorite teachers?
A | I have a lot of teachers I remember fondly and many who meant a lot to me. If I were pushed to find a favorite, I would have to say my high school art teacher. He was larger than life. His name was John Wilson and he taught art at Western Hills High School in Cincinnati.
By the end of my high school years, I had earned enough credits that I was taking about four to five hours of art a day. So I was in [Mr. Wilson’s] room a lot. That was a great experience. He was really capable of finding each person’s natural level and ability, and he would try to speak to that.
Q | So you found art at an early age?
A | My mom was an art teacher. She would take me to museums almost every week. I never had to think about what I wanted to be. I just was.
Photo: Bonnie Muth