Author-Illustrator Interview: Tim Kleyn Shares His Inspiration & Creative Process

By Clara Hammett

When Tim Kleyn reached out to Cynsations with some proofs of his newest picture book, Set Sail for Pancakes (Viking Books for Young Readers 2022), we eagerly wanted to whip up a fantastic interview! Tim is a graphic designer from West Michigan with a penchant for silly sounds, fabulous illustrations, and tasty recipes to boot! Once you get a taste of Set Sail for Pancakes, you will look forward to many more picture books from Tim Kleyn!

Today we welcome author/illustrator Tim Kleyn and Set Sail for Pancakes to Cynsations to share a peek into his creative process.

Tim, what is your inspiration for your own illustrations and writing, and how would you say they have evolved over the course of your writing and illustrating career?

Everything is inspiration. Colors, shapes, and stories are everywhere from the moment I wake up to the moment I lay down in bed and all the ideas bounce around in my head until I fall asleep.

I’m inspired by my wife and daughter who fill my heart with love and laughter. And let me tell you that those have been the main ingredients for creating the really good stuff. Not every day is a good day, but I will always have that love and that laughter filling me up for my next illustration or story.

In art school, naturally my main inspiration came from professors and fellow students. I was immersed in art. But I think the best things I learned there was to find my own way, to trust it, and to see inspiration everywhere. So I am no longer surrounded by figure models, or professors, or artists with impossibly large portfolios and easels, but I am just as inspired. We read books to our daughter every day. We get our fair share of Sesame Street too. Sometimes we find ourselves really invested in an episode and then look over and see our daughter has moved on to her blocks or Cheerios or destroying anything in sight. And there’s a story in that too. It’s everywhere.

Please talk about the process for creating Set Sail for Pancakes. Where did the idea for this story come from, and did you have the illustrations before the text, or vice-versa?

It actually started from an illustration I did just for myself several years ago. I had a bunch of ideas with what to do with it, so I kept it in mind for the right moment. I finally wrote a full story years later, and then once I started working with my agent and then the people at Penguin Random House, the story went through a lot of revisions. I was thankful to have so many amazing people looking at my story, and it’s so cool to me that we enhanced it while keeping the same fun and fresh heart that it always had.

I have to shout out my wife Stacy here because we were always bouncing ideas off of each other, and she directly contributed to some of the absolute best elements of the story. I think starting out as a writer, I took myself way too seriously, but Stacy really coaxed the silly out of me. I love to make people laugh, but sometimes I get stuck worrying about what people think of me. So Stacy encouraged and suggested really funny stuff, and admittedly she is right pretty much all of the time (OK, all of the time). I think it’s really true that good relationships bring the best out of people, and it’s such a wonderful element to experience as an artist and writer. She really brings out my best. So if readers like this book, be sure to thank Stacy.

What is your artistic background and how do you create your illustrations?

I have always loved drawing. It was an escape for me as a kid even though I had never seen it as that. I took it really seriously. It was a natural choice to choose it as a profession, but it felt like a big leap, and it was scary. But I went to Kendall College of Art and Design where I studied the fundamentals and then developed my unique look or style to my work. From there I kept up with freelance projects and tried to keep my dream alive of becoming a picture book author and illustrator. Look at me now, Ma!

I work digitally almost exclusively in Adobe Illustrator. It’s just comfortable for me to work in and it has the tools I need to get the look I’m going for. I sometimes sketch digitally and sometimes with a pencil and paper. Both have their place. I like to have a color palette picked out, then do rough sketches, then cleaner sketches, and then go in with shapes and color. It depends on the project though. Working on the book requires a lot of extra planning, so there’s a lot of sketching. So many files on my computer and so many layers!

There are many obstacles to making pancakes in Set Sail for Pancakes, but no obstacles to making this book such a great story to read ALOUD. One of my favorite elements you included are the noises that the reader has to make when reading.

One of my favorite lines:

“Hi, cows.” Grandpa said . . . but the cows just stared.
“Mooo!” moo’d Margot.
“Mooo!” moo’d the cows.
“You speak cow?” Grandpa asked.
“Doesn’t everyone?” she responded.

Between animal sounds, the sounds of the boat and the sea, this is a feast for the ears. Please discuss the inclusion of onomatopoeia and the importance in that inclusion for young readers.

Thank you! I included a lot of that for the exact reason that it is fun to read. I really wanted to use as many tools as I could to bring readers into the experience of the book. One thing I think that a successful picture book does is give its readers things they want to say out loud or point to on each page. It helps the kid get more out of the book and want to pick it up again.

I think the onomatopoeia and the dialogue make the book feel more personal and silly. So much of my voice as an author as well as the characters’ voices can come through. Instead of just saying what happened, which certainly has its place too, you can get a feel for how the characters would experience it, how they would say things, and how things would sound. It’s a lot of fun to write too.

Right now my daughter is 18 months old, and she keeps saying new words. It’s the best. And even though she’s too little to read, she’ll babble a story to herself when looking through picture books, and she’ll point at all the doggies and kitties. She has so much fun with it and is so proud of herself. Rightly so. I just want to put a little bit of that magic into what I write and illustrate as if to remind readers that you can have fun with a story.

Do you have a favorite illustration and verse from Set Sail for Pancakes and what was your inspiration and process behind the creation of this illustration?

I loved illustrating the inside of the boat. This actually changed a lot in the editing process. Tracy Gates was my editor. Such a brilliant woman. She’s familiar with boats and had some really helpful feedback about what changes we could make. And I think the end result is so cozy and fun. I love the details. There’s a little goose sticker on the mini fridge and a lantern hanging from a rope. But I love the banana phone call part so much.

“Beep boop boo-boop.”
Margot giggled. “Hello, yes, my grandpa and I are in a very scary storm.”

It’s just fun and silly, and really true to the heart of the book. I always want to be real about things that are scary and hard. That’s important to me. But also offering a moment in there that gives comfort through humor and human connection and imagination is so good. It’s telling readers that your fears and troubles are valid, and that we can get through together. We can laugh together and sit together in a storm. We’re never denying that there is a storm, but we’re just giving ourselves permission to giggle about making a phone call on a banana.

I also really enjoyed building to the storm scenes with a growing anticipation throughout the book and illustrating the sky getting darker and stormier throughout the book. It’s really a treat to be able to craft the words and pictures together. I hope readers enjoy what we’ve done there.

Interior spread from Set Sail for Pancakes, used with permission.

Do you have any recommendations of books to read aloud to young children? And what other projects do you have cooking up?

I’m a big fan of what Kidlit Caravan has been putting out. It’s a group of debut picture book authors with some really great stuff. “Counting to Bananas” is one of their titles that comes to mind that is so much fun to read. Check out Rebecca Green too. She is one of my absolute favorite illustrators and she has worked on a lot of great picture books. Another book I Love that is full of beautiful illustrations and onomatopoeia is “Everybody in the Red Brick Building [by Anne Wynter (Balzer + Bray, 2021)].” It’s all about sounds and is a perfect bedtime story. A little masterpiece.

I’ve got a couple other projects cooking up that I can’t really talk about Too much but I’m really excited about them. My next book has a story laid out and continues with Grandpa and Margot. I haven’t done sketches for it yet. I’m going to dive into it with my editor Claire Tattersfield soon. It has some great sounds and will make you hungry. That’s all I’ll say for now. I also wrote another story that I sent to my wonderful agent Tracy Marchini, so we’ll be getting into that soon before we send to any publishers. That story is unrelated and involves an anteater and an aardvark. It’s a really personal story that came to me at some of my darkest days. It was a healing experience to start working on the draft of that one.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers and illustrators? What is Your recipe for a great children’s book?

You do you. Trust yourself, put your head down and write. You have what it takes. You will never be just like famous author or illustrator x or y, but you will always be yourself, and that’s enough. You don’t need to wait until you “figure it out”; you can start now. I think the nature of creating is such a vulnerable thing and it lends itself to really unconfident creators. I couldn’t believe when I got an agent because I thought I wasn’t good enough. And I couldn’t believe when I got a two-book deal. And I still all throughout the publishing process felt like I wasn’t good enough. But I am. And you are too. Arm yourself with knowledge and resources in the specific line of work you’re interested in, and then run in that direction. Good luck, friends!

Cynsational Notes

As a boy, Tim spent a lot of time lost in thought, dreaming up silly stories, and perpetually sketching. He pursued this path in life until it led him into the magical world of picture books. He is thrilled to be the author and illustrator of Set Sail for Pancakes, which is set to debut in 2022.

​Tim enjoys a charming life with his wife, daughter, and cat in their Michigan home. In his free time, he likes having a good laugh, a good meal, and a good sit. What more could he want?

​Tim is represented by Tracy Marchini of BookEnds Literary Agency.

Clara Hammett holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is from Jackson, Mississippi and is a former bookseller at Lemuria Books. She has reviewed children’s books for The Clarion Ledger newspaper and owned former children’s book review website Twenty by Jenny. She likes creating all forms of art and going for walks with her family. While she has held many jobs, her most recent one is that of mom. Her current reading stack ranges from Jane Austen to Jesmyn Ward and a lot of Sandra Boynton!