“You know, your work is bright, colorful and simple,” said a children’s book editor to illustrator and author Dan Yaccarino more than 20 years ago.
Yaccarino said he didn’t start off doing children’s books. He said when he began working 25 years ago, he primarily did editorial illustrations for publications such as Business Week, Time and Rolling Stone.
“That’s what I really started off doing right out of art school, almost immediately. And then a friend of mine had published one or two picture books and suggested to me that my work would be appropriate for children’s books, which was something that I had never really considered,” Yaccarino said.
Being eager, young and wanting to try new things, he made an appointment with an editor and showed him his portfolio. Yaccarino remembers that it was filled with adult subject matter such as business and politics. At the time, he admits he didn’t know how his work would fit into children’s books.
The editor though saw through that though and asked Yaccarino to write a book.
“I had never thought of doing it because I was this editorial illustrator working on current topics and adult-like things, so it was a giant shift but I really enjoyed it once I started to tap into that part of myself,” he said.
To find inspiration for his first book, Yaccarino looked inside himself. He said he thought about what interested him when he was picture book age.
Consequently, his first book was about a younger brother’s relationship with his older brother. The book was told through the viewpoint of the younger brother.
“I immediately had tapped into that area of my childhood,” Yaccarino said.
Growing up, he wrote a lot of comic books and radio plays, so he said he was used to writing but had never actually sat down and written a formal story. Because he had done comics though, he said he did have a sense of how pictures and words worked together.
“So I just applied it to the picture book format. And once I had tasted what it was like to create characters, a universe and the story, I really took to it very quickly,” said Yaccarino.
He illustrated the next two books after that but didn’t write them. It took him a few years to come up with a subject matter that he was happy enough with to submit as his next written book.
This is Yaccarino’s 20th year creating pictures books. He said 55% of the time he writes the book himself which he really enjoys but said he also really enjoys just illustrating because he approaches it in a different way that uses a different part of his brain.
“When you’re the author/illustrator you are responsible for everything. When you’re given a manuscript, it’s a different mindset. The manuscript is mostly written. But when I write a picture book, I’ll write it out with pictures first, without writing a word. I am trying to get the visuals as strong as possible,” explained Yaccarino.
He said if he shows his series of illustrations to someone and they are able to get the story without any text whatsoever, then he knows he has been successful. In a picture book, the pictures do the heavy lifting and tell the story.
“The text is there to enhance the pictures but the pictures are really leading the way. They’re really telling the thrust of the story. That’s where your adjectives are, where your adverbs are and where your passages of description are, actually in the illustration,” he said.
Yaccarino’s visual style has been described as “retro” and he said that’s no accident. He said that’s just his taste, having grown up in the ‘60s.
“There were certain comic books and certain packaging I was drawn to and I would save them. I liked the way they looked. They tended to be very simple, graphic and clean. I try my best to make my work very simple, graphic, clean and colorful. If you come to my house, my furniture is really the same. Walls are not cluttered up. That’s what’s pleasing to me so it’s reflected in the artwork,” said Yaccarino.
In addition to his books, he is also the creator of two animated television shows, Oswald and Willa’s Wild Life.
He talked a little bit about the difference between working on books versus a television show.
Yaccarino said when he works on a book it’s mainly him, his editor and art director. The small team helps him make his work as strong as possible. But he said TV is completely different.
“TV uses a group method. My position on the two TV shows is creator and producer. I came in with the raw material but then to execute all these different aspects of it, I had a team of a few dozen people working on visuals, and then we had the actors and the editors. It’s my vision and they’re all there to serve the vision of the show, but they take their creative cues from me” he said.
Though it’s his vision, Yaccarino believes everyone needs to have a voice. He said his goal is to hire the best people possible for the job. He wants his writers and designers to better than him. He said that’s how you get something that everyone is proud of, that everyone can put their fingerprint on.
“It’s a collaborative mindset and I was afraid that I wouldn’t take to it because I’d been working mostly by myself. And then to be in the position of an executive producer for these shows is very different for me but I enjoy it. It’s just a different way of working,” Yaccarino said.
An exhibition of Dan Yaccarino’s artwork is on view at the Joslyn Art Museum through April 14th. On Saturday, April 13th, the artist will be at the museum from 10:00 until Noon. While he’s here, Yaccarino will also be doing some school visits.
He said he enjoys visiting kids in the schools. It’s a nice break from his work in the studio, where he works in a vacuum by himself.
“You’re focused on what you’re doing and that’s great, but sometimes you need to get back in touch with the people you are working for,” he said.
Young readers always have interesting stories to share with Yaccarino and he loves meeting them. He fondly remembers one little boy who was anxiously waiting in line to see him. The boy squirmed as he waited for his opportunity to meet Yaccarino and talk with him.
He said the boy kept saying, “Excuse me. Excuse me.” When he finally got his chance to talk, Yaccarino said the little boy stuck his hand in his mouth, pulled back his lip and said, “I have a canker sore right here.” Laughing Yaccarino said he was thinking, “Thank you for sharing.”
Another little boy once gave him a cookie from his pocket. A gesture Yaccarino described as “sweet.”
“How many people get that experience? This is how grateful, how excited, how happy he is. And that really touched me. It reminds you who you’re working for. For some of these kids, these are the first books they read and comprehend and experience. It makes me want to work that much harder and make the best books I can,” he said.
Dan Yaccarino will be at the Joslyn Art Museum, 2200 Dodge Street, on Saturday, April 13th. The event is free and open to the public. Call 402.342.3300 or visit joslyn.org.