New Voice: Frank Dormer on Socksquatch

Frank Dormer is the first-time author-illustrator of Socksquatch (Henry Holt, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Poor Socksquatch.

All he wants is two warm feet, but things aren’t going his way. Even his friends can’t help.

What’s a monster to do?

Frank Dormer’s sweet, funny monster story will charm the socks off young readers.

What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you’re debuting this year?

I was very silent as a young reader. I didn’t want anything to ruin my concentration. I find most people are like that when reading.

I, however, have no compunction about asking several high volume questions of someone reading. Like, “What’s that book you’re reading?” Or, “Did you know the gross national product of Sweden is in the, like, billions?”

Now if you are wondering what I read, that’s a different story.

I don’t remember reading much when I was very young. When I reached age 10 or so, The Hardy Boys [by Franklin W. Dixon (1927-)] were what I remember picking up on my own and saying “I think I’ll read this.” I blew through all of the titles in the series in, like, three seconds.

If you want a more truthful answer, it took a few years. I hadn’t learned about public libraries yet and the books cost about $2 at the time and I think my allowance was about 75 cents a year.

I relied on that age-old custom called “hinting.” About three years before my 12th birthday, I began dropping subliminal hints about what I wanted. My father would sit down to eat his breakfast and find a wadded up note in his eggs benedict with a list of unread Hardy Boys books.

I also read magazines of the day like Fangoria and MAD.

As an artist, I gravitated toward the work of Edmund Dulac and Arthur Rackham during high school. As I write this, I begin to notice that there is a connection in my work between the humor of MAD magazine and the creatures of Rackham’s art.

I hope that Socksquatch works on two levels. Parents like the fun repetitive wordplay, and kids get to say things like “Got Sock?” over and over. Children like repeating rhythms in their reading landscape. It helps build confidence in their vocabulary.

As an author-illustrator, you come to children’s books with a double barrel of talent. Could you describe your apprenticeship in each area, and how well (or not) your inner writer and artist play together? What advice do you have for others interested in succeeding on this front?

I’m not sure I come with a double barrel of talent. Whoopee cushions, maybe.

I attended Savannah College of Art and Design in the ’80s, and was shuttled out the door with a piece of paper that sits on my wall to this day. Of course nobody asks to look at the piece of paper before hiring me. Although I enjoy having had the experience of college, I rejoice in the fact that many artists in the field are self-taught.

I spent time as an editorial illustrator (Family Circle sends me an article, and I create an image to visualize the writing, etc.) and began teaching as well.

During that time, I took some courses in creative writing with an exceptional writer whose name I have completely forgotten. She asked us to write a summary of our experience in the class, and I did it in comic book form. After reading a gazillion summaries, she was so happy to get pictures with words instead of just words.

I remember having a discussion of another student’s writing, and somehow we got onto the topic of setting. I had pictured the setting so well in my head from the written piece that I disagreed with how it was described.

The professor asked me to describe it and I did. Down to the last detail.

She was stunned.

It was the first time I realized that my brain is wired a bit differently. To this day, reading is my one joy. I do confess that I don’t read children’s literature much, only at my children’s request.

I started in children’s books in 2002. While waiting to get work, I decided to write my own stories to illustrate as a way of practice.

I found that my artist self and my writer self started off a bit shaky. The writer wanted to describe everything. The artist wanted to draw everything. They began to argue and then throw things like pencils and rubber erasers. I would wake up with a headache at 2 a.m. and start yelling at both of them. My wife didn’t appreciate it.

Once a person chooses this vocation and learns the basics, it’s a matter of practice.

My word-putting-down self and my artist self cohabitate better lately. I hesitate to say “writer” as my word count for this book is in the double digits and on the low side of 50.

As to advice, I never liked to state advice that others have already given much better than me.

Instead I would ask anyone who is interested in the field of children’s books a question: Can you put your writing/art next to the very best of the field and say that it is equal to theirs?

I don’t mean in terms of style or voice. Do you look at it next to theirs and visualize them on the bookshelf together? If the answer is anything less than “yes,” go back to work.

I’m still waiting for someone to tell me that.

Cynsational Notes

Illustration above is from Frank’s next book, The Obstinate Pen (Henry Holt, 2011), which is about a pen that won’t write what people want it to.

“Frank Dormer lost his first sock on the way to the Savannah College of Art and Design. His students in his art class use socks for many things from painting to puppets. He lives with his wife and three boys in Branford, Connecticut.”

Take a peek into Frank’s studio: