SCBWI Bologna 2012 Author-Illustrator Interview: Bruce Degen

By Laurie Cutter for SCBWI Bologna 2012
at Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Bruce Degen has written and illustrated numerous award-winning books for children.

He has illustrated the highly acclaimed The Magic School Bus series by Joanna Cole, Ms. Frizzle’s Adventures series, also by Joanna Cole, the ever-popular Jesse Bear books by Nancy White Carlstrom, and several books with Jane Yolen including the Commander Toad series as well as Jazzmatazz, written by Stephanie Calmenson.

Bruce has written and illustrated several books among them Jamberry, Daddy is a Doodlebug, Sailaway Home, and The Little Witch and the Riddle.

In the summer of 2012, he’ll release a new book, I Gotta Draw. It’s about Charlie Muttnik, a young Brooklyn dog who is just crazy about drawing all the time.

You’ve done printmaking, watercolor, pen-and-ink, gouache, and more. What are your favorite types of illustration and why?

Different kinds of books might suggest different kinds of techniques and materials. In The Magic School Bus, there is a whole lot of detail all jumbled together, so a fine pen line was a natural to use for outlines. Watercolor goes very well with pen line, so that’s what I use and also there is some shading with color pencil.

More on this book farther down in the post.

Jamberry called for a completely different technique. I used graphite pencils for the drawings, which were the black plate, and the red, yellow and blue layers were all applied on acetate overlays. Some people don’t realize the Jamberry is a four-color, pre-separated book, which took a tremendous amount of hand work, and why I am glad it is still in print, since it came out in 1983.

When we decided to do a few books on Social Studies topics with Ms. Frizzle instead of science, I decided to use gouache instead of watercolor to give the books a distinct look. I love gouache, it has bright flat color with a velvet surface, but being opaque it is harder to use than watercolor over pen.

My latest book, (I Gotta Draw), which will be out this summer, uses watercolor with graphite and color pencil to give a kind of old-fashioned look to the pictures.

Which particular artists do you look to for inspiration? Which authors?

It isn’t possible to name all the people in children’s books I found inspiring. I am in awe of Maurice Sendak, who is not? One of his books that I really love is Zlateh the Goat by I. B. Singer.

There was a show at The Jewish Museum in New York City, and some of the original art was there. Finely hatched pen and ink drawings. I was hoping that maybe Sendak had worked oversized and had the pages shot and reduced, because the hand is so fine. But no, he worked same size. All of that exquisite drawing was done just as you see it. It could make you insanely jealous.

Another inspiration when I was just starting out was Arnold Lobel. The sophisticated and yet sweet way he could render a grasshopper, a mouse, a frog and a toad, the drawings charming and elegant and humorous all at once. I think I’ll leave it at that. There are too many marvelous artists in the field.

As for authors. I have been lucky to be paired with wonderful authors. Joanna Cole  and I have been doing The Magic School Bus since 1985 or so. She is clear, funny, and imaginative, as well as a great researcher and able to distill important concepts for children to understand.

Sometimes when I pick up a nonfiction children’s book, I can almost hear her voice in my head rewriting a section that is a bit wobbly, or poorly stated. And she can write very funny lines that stay in the character of the book.

Ms. Frizzle’s class may be slightly sassy, but they are not disrespectful, either to their teacher or to each other. A fine line that is lost in a lot of children’s entertainment these days.

Jane Yolen is another amazing author to have been paired with. From Commander Toad, which is an early reader with terrific style (and puns), to Mouse’s Birthday and Dinosaur Dances, each book was a completely different kind of writing, and all wonderful.

What’s your favorite response to one your books from a critic or reviewer? What’s your favorite response from a young reader?

My favorite response from a young reader is a girl in Brooklyn who made a comment about MSB (Magic School Bus) Waterworks. She picked up the tiniest detail.

There is a small figure of an inspector at a reservoir who is checking that the water remains unpolluted. It was 1985. I put a tiny pipe in his mouth. I thought it made him look professorial.

The young reader pointed out that he was polluting the air because he was smoking. She was right. So I said he was trying to give up a bad habit, and there was no tobacco in the pipe. It was empty, and there was no smoke coming out of it. By the way, I don’t smoke.

As for critics and reviewers, I am very grateful that the books have received the incredible reception they have here, and around the world. The awards, the reviews, the enthusiasm is beyond anything I could have imagined. And we are now in our 26th year in print.

The response of families to books like Jamberry is very heartwarming to me. Parents will tell me it is the first book their child asked for specifically. It is a good baby book, and they will tell me that they read the rhymes over and over and can still recite them years later. That is the best critical response any author-illustrator could ever hope for.

How do you do research for your illustrations? Any unusual stories from your times of researching that you’d like to share with us?

Joanna does the research first for the Magic School Bus books, and then she sends me cartons of books. Sometimes research involves going to aquariums, like I did for Magic School Bus On the Ocean Floor. I went to five or more in different cities.

When we did the Magic School Bus in the Time of the Dinosaurs our expert consultant from the Yale Peabody Museum came up to my house with a sampling of different dinosaur teeth and he put them on my dining room table. He wanted to show that carnivores had very similar shaped teeth, they are all designed to slash and cut meat, but herbivore’s teeth were all different shapes, depending on what kind of plants they ate.

I visited the National Hurricane Center in Florida, and for the book on electricity I went out with a crew from our local power company so I could watch how they replaced electrical cables and the unique tools they used, which they gave me to take home and draw. I was disappointed not to be able to go up to the top of a telephone pole in a bucket, but they said I wasn’t covered by insurance.

Your two grown children and your daughter-in-law are all practicing artists. How might parents nurture artistic abilities in their children? How might teachers best encourage their students in the arts?

Visit interviewer Laurie Cutter.

I met my wife in art school, so the chance we would have little artists might be greater than average. But I think all kids have creative skills. Some may have it in visual arts, some in other areas like writing, or music.

But the one thing I would advise is to have different materials around the house appropriate to the kids’ ages and just let them draw. Give them time, give them a place to work. Stay tuned. If they want to, they will ask for more.

I would suggest that any kind of artistic activity is good, but I would emphasize original drawing, as opposed to say, filling in the colors of a coloring book. And all kids like to copy things they admire, it helps to understand how things are made, but I would avoid making that a primary aim. Letting individual approaches flower.

It is just wonderful to go into a school on an author visit and see kids drawing their own Magic School Bus adventures, characters, ideas. It is a little disappointing to see a well-meaning teacher just copy a prepared drawing over and over and have all the students just color them in, even if it makes a neater display.

Also, finding classes in workshops and museums on weekends if available, that give kids a chance to try things they never did before is a great way to expand their interest in art.

Tell us about your new picture book, I Gotta Draw, coming out this summer.

This is a story about a young dog, Charlie Muttnick, who grew up in Brooklyn, and who just loves to draw. He has to draw all the time, even if it means doodling all over his homework. His report card is a disaster. His frustrated teacher finally comes up with an idea to keep him drawing and painting all the time, even while he is taking spelling tests and history.

It is somewhat autobiographical.
One of the important themes is…Why does Charlie love to draw so much? I spent a lot of time writing and rewriting the page that deals with this, getting it condensed down to the essence, I hope. The joy of making something happen on that page. And who knows what it will turn out to be? And the physical thrill, the little shiver of turning to a new page, and having all the possibilities in the world just waiting to happen.

Another theme is how Charlie’s teacher tries heroically to deal with the large class, and all her teaching responsibilities, and yet find a way for her students to blossom.

My school in Brooklyn was a huge old red brick pile, four stories high; it took up a square block. There were many classes and each class had 36 kids. And yet, there were teachers who could help change lives.

What were a few of your favorite books as a child?

I think I just read everything. From classic Golden Books like Five Little Firemen and The Paint Kittens, to Hans Christian Anderson (who has a real mean streak) and fairy tales.

One of my favorite books was My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannet, which was a very imaginative adventure story where a young boy frees a captive baby dragon on a wild island. It has everything. Adventure, scares, and terrific illustrations.

 I can remember going to the library and not wanting to wait to get it home and read it yet again, so I sat under a big tree in the park halfway home and read until it felt like I was in the forest on that wild island.

What happens to your sketches when you’re done with them?

I have lots of sketches–to do character studies, dummy sketches for each page, and then final artwork. Once upon a time, there was a gallery in New York City that specialized in showing and selling the original art from children’s books. I sold some pieces there. But then there was the need to re-shoot a book, and I lost track of where those pages went.

So generally I hold onto the art, in case I will need it again. Sometimes I sell the preparatory sketches at places like ABC, American Booksellers for Children, as a fundraiser. Or I give some pieces as gifts.

Have you had any special mentors in your life? Who?

Years ago, I was an art teacher in high school in New York City. I was lucky to have as my boss, the chairman of my art department, one of the best art educators New York City, or maybe this country ever had, Renee Darvin. She showed me what it was to change kid’s lives by recognizing talent and helping them develop their skills, and inspiring them to go on to art schools and win scholarships, or else just be forever enriched by the development of their talents.

Is there anything so wonderful as saying to a young student, “You know you are really talented.” and having her say, “Do you really think so?” and seeing the world open up.

Renee showed me you could make great things happen even in the big stupid bureaucratic Board of Ed, that there were many inspiring teachers making things happen, and she went on to teach at Columbia Teachers College and inspired generations of new teachers.

She knew excellence, openness, creativity, generosity. When she died, just a little while ago, hundreds of students, colleagues, friends, mobbed the funeral hall. And no one wanted to leave.

I Gotta Draw is dedicated to her.

Cynsational Notes

Laurie Cutter is fascinated by various cultures and much of her writing is infused with a cross-cultural flavor. She grew up as a missionary child in Burundi, Africa, and has lived in Kenya, Germany, and the Pacific Northwest.

Laurie’s picture book, The Gift, is published in Dutch, and she’s written many picture books and a YA poetry manuscript. Follow Laurie on twitter.

The SCBWI Bologna 2012 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Showcase in conjunction with Cynsations. To find out more, visit the SCBWI Bologna Showcase Special thanks to Angela Cerrito for coordinating this series with SCBWI Bologna and Cynsations.

8 thoughts on “SCBWI Bologna 2012 Author-Illustrator Interview: Bruce Degen

  1. Wonderful interview, Laurie and Bruce. Count me in the crowd of parents who can still recite Jamberry years later. We used to sing it ~ such a FUN book!

  2. Does anyone know how to contact Bruce? I'd love to ask him a few questions and/or find out how to buy prints or original artwork.

  3. Does anyone know how to contact Bruce? I'd love to ask him a few questions and/or find out how to buy prints or original artwork.

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