Illustrator Interview: Joe Morse on Casey at the Bat

Casey at the Bat by Ernest L. Thayer, illustrated by Joe Morse (Kids Can Press/KCP Poetry, 2006). From the catalog copy: “…about a proud and mighty slugger who strikes out during the big game.” “Illustrator Joe Morse sets the poem on gritty urban streets with a multiracial cast of characters. It’s a startlingly fresh approach that not only revives the poem for a new generation, but also brings it new richness and depth.” Cyn Note: an excellent picture book for YA and younger readers.

From Casey at the Bat: Joe Morse‘s art is “exhibited in numerous private and public collections in North America and has won many international honors…” He lives in Toronto.

Congratulations on the publication of Casey at the Bat! Though the poem has been illustrated before, wow! This version is fresh and fierce. I was blown away. What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

Thank you for the opportunity to talk about the book. Casey is part of the [KCP] “Visions in Poetry” series and each book is an illustrated interpretation of a classic poem. I was given incredible freedom from the number of pages to the direction of the narrative. Each time I read Casey at the Bat, I was struck by how relevant this 1888 poem had become.

The cartoon characters of Thayer’s creation were now playing in a contemporary game where 1/4 of a billion dollars for a ten-year contract is no joke.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

The book from meeting 1 to delivery of twenty-two spreads was sixteen months. Fourteen months for concept and two months for execution of final art. I completed all the art in oil paint first (the blue/black color). I wear a gas mask and work in a ventilated shed because of the toxic materials I use. I then painted all the color areas to ensure consistency.

I was so relieved when I delivered the final art, then Designer Karen Powers asked what about the speech balloons? We agreed they needed to be painted as separate pieces and two days and twenty-five balloons later I was done.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

I could write a novel based on this question.

I love baseball. This was a problem.

I researched an incredible amount on baseball, urban playgrounds and dozens of characters. After my first round of sketches, editor Tara Walker felt I had created a book about baseball and had not gotten inside the poem. She was right and I was back to square one.

The first thing I did was put away all my baseball reference. I then sat down infront of one of my paintings and noticed that all the ingredients were there, I had been trying to ‘book illustrate’ Casey instead of illustrate the book.

I started the new sketches by creating a narrator to tell the story of the poem. He enters the book by retrieving a foul ball and in the final spread he leaves the book and puts his headphones back on. I returned to my first readings of the poem; the audience, the spectator and the fan as central to the narrative, we join them on the bleachers.

The character of Casey needed to be real, because he stirs real passion in the spectators. But this fierce, collective connection is fleeting as he is left starkly alone after his failure.

Casey at Bat is the rare read/visual feast that really does work for kids of all ages, in part because of the graphic-novel style. It would be a particularly strong choice, say, for those building a general YA collection and/or reluctant teen readers. Did you envision this broad readership when you first started the project. What audience did you see in your mind’s eye?

I definitely saw this book as engrossing to teens as adults. I think this is the power of graphic imagery, it allows so many people into the narrative. You know it is working when a fifteen-year-old says it’s “cool” and a book reviewer says it’s “thoughtful.”

What advice do you have for beginning illustrators?

Draw all the time. Get a sketchbook and start really looking at the stories that surround you. We live in a frenetic, over saturated world–we need more people who are awake and looking in the other direction.

How about those building a career?

Don’t sit still. The illustrator Craig Frazier is a great example, his third Stanley book, Stanley Goes Fishing was published by Chronicle in March 2006. He also has self published a book of sketches, launched a website on graphic ideas, written a book on illustration, The Illustrated Voice (Graphis, 2003) and I’m sure he has another half dozen plans he’s hatching. Don’t wait for the phone to ring.

As a reader, what are your favorite recent titles for children/young adults and why?

I have two children, seven and four years old, so I am immersed in kids’ books. I also lead a bachelor program in Illustration at Sheridan Institute and teach narrative illustration.

Recent titles include Craig Frazier’s Stanley Goes for a Drive (Chronicle, 2004), an imaginative journey in looking at the world. One of my favourite kids’ books ever is The Slant Book by Peter Newell, originally published in 1910. Tuttle Publishing has republished it in a beautiful edition. A runaway baby carriage flies down a hill created by the actually slanted book. Finally, Maira Kalman’s Ooh-La-La (Max in Love) (Viking, 1994). A dog poet finds love in Paris. Wonderfully written.

Cynsational Notes

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