By Allison Estes & Tracy Dockray
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations
From the promotion copy of Izzy & Oscar (Jabberwocky/Sourcebooks, 2015):
Have you ever taught an octopus to roll over? It’s harder than it looks.
Discover why octopuses make the best pets in this charming picture book about friendship and embracing individuality!
Izzy has always wanted a pet. So when an adventurous octopus squiggles into town, Izzy decides to keep him. After all, a real pirate captain has to have a mascot. Oscar is not very good at going for walks or playing fetch. (Although he is amazing at hide and seek). And he’s definitely not like other pets…
But he is just right for Izzy.
Readers will be tickled by Izzy’s attempts to teach Oscar to behave like a dog, a parrot, a pony-and gratified by Izzy’s realization that in the end we love others for who they are…eight arms and all!
Visit Sourcebooks’ Izzy & Oscar Pinterest page!
Allison Interviews Tracy
AE: To get to be a published author, I had to read a lot and write a lot of course. But I didn’t study it in college, I just sort of went out and did it.
My first published book was a ghostwriting job I got through a friend who recommended me. I had to write a few sample chapters, but the editor approved and I got the job. It was for a YA action/adventure series called Adventurers, Inc. by Mallory Tarcher (Kensington, 1994).
So, my question for you is, how did you get your first illustrating job and what was the title?
TD: I was living in the Lower East Side of New York, making puppets and painting murals when I decided that I really wanted to illustrate children’s books. I created what I thought a portfolio should be and my boyfriend pretended he was my agent and showed it to publishers.
A wonderful young editor at Farrar Straus and Giroux saw my portfolio and hired me to do a nonfiction book titled MicroAliens. I said “yes!” and was beside myself with joy… even though I had no idea what a microalien was.
AE: Some books are harder to write than others, and in different ways, and no matter what, I love the process of writing. It’s also a wonderful moment when you hear that a book has been accepted for publication. But the best thing is when I finish a book: I get elated, and full of energy.
What’s your hardest/best thing in the illustration process?
TD: I run around the brownstone doing the Snoopy happy dance every single time I’m told I have another book I get to do. I guess, the best thing about the illustration process is that I get to do what I love to do for a living! Wow!
It’s not all sun and roses because sometimes an editor or writer has a definite idea of what your illustrations should be. And we are all good at some things and not as perfect at others.
AE: When I am writing, I tune out everything, enter another realm of consciousness, am irritable if interrupted, and feel dreamy and satisfied when I finally emerge. I have heard it called the “flow state.” What is your illustrating state-of-mind?
TD: I love the feeling that happens when doing something enjoyable with concentration. Flow state sounds a little groovy but for lack of a better word we’ll use it.
Whether it’s cooking, illustrating, writing or even hammering nails into wood, it’s moving and thinking and concentrating on accomplishing something. Usually, my kids bring me back to earth a lot quicker. Shocking sometimes, but what’re you going to do…?
AE: Right now, what is your favorite book that you have ever illustrated?
TD: My favorite book that I’ve illustrated, so far, is my Lost and Found Pony (Feiwel & Friends, 2011). I absolutely love drawing horses. So much so that I had to write a book about them so I could draw even more of them.
Allison, I know that you’ve written lots of horse books, funny that you and I got together to illustrate one about…. An octopus!?
But I really enjoyed that challenge. Octopi are so much more than I thought they were. It’s been so exciting illustrating your “Izzy and Oscar” although, making sure to get Oscars tentacles just right in the illustrations would mess with my groovy flow… in a big way.
Tracy Interviews Allison
TD: Neil Gaiman wrote, “People who wrote the rules know what is possible and impossible. You do not. And you should not, the rules of what is possible and impossible in art are made by those people who have not tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them.”
Sometimes, I think that not knowing how hard it is to break into the world our craft gave us the courage to try it. In your question to me, you mentioned that you didn’t study writing in school and that you applied yourself after school learning your craft. This is interesting because that is the way I approached illustrating too.
So, what did you study in school? Have you used it in your work now?
AE: I loved acting when I was a teenager, and when I went to college I studied Theatre and English. I also competed on the forensics team (which doesn’t have anything to do with crime scene investigation—it’s speech and debate) in the speech and interp events. And somewhere in there I took a broadcast journalism class that I really loved, where I had to write and produce ads for radio.
The performance aspect of the theatre degree has stood me in good stead when I do author appearances, especially for large audiences: I learned how to use physical gestures to help portray characters and how to project!
On the forensics team, I learned to cut a longer piece of literature into a short excerpt, and several tricks that help you be really good at reading aloud—it’s a bit like acting with a book in your hand.
And writing 30-second radio ads is a lot like the way you have to think when you’re writing picture books: short and to the point, but still with some conflict, characters you care about, and emotional interest, so you have to choose your words very carefully!
And I think all the things that fascinate us throughout our lives, all the things we throw ourselves into for the sheer love of it, end up coming through us to shape our craft.
TD: There are always the upsides and down to everything. You’d said you were always so excited to get another writing project to do. So, on the flip side, what was your worst book experience: was it the making of the book, a very difficult time that you were working through while writing, or was it a review that made your feelers droopy?
AE: I wrote a lot of books for series, that I really poured my literary soul into because it was the writing I had to do at the time.
And series by nature are more likely to go out of print, because there are just so many titles and so many series that can fit on the shelves, and your reading audience outgrows them after a while.
So I think when The Short Stirrup Club went out of print was a big downer in my writing career.
TD: They often say that writers are sponges absorbing their experiences and then using them in their writing. Are you that type of writer? Can you cite an example?
AE: I think that’s true, but I don’t think I go around consciously noting things and storing them away to write about later.
It’s more like the stuff soaks in, and then when you go to write something, there it is: the analogy you want, or the idea for a character, or the late afternoon light shining through icy tree limbs…you can’t help but be a sponge, and you can’t help writing about what you’ve absorbed.
TD: As a writer yourself, I was interested in who were your favorite writers to read?
AE: I think I have read thousands of books: truly.
As soon as I learned to read, I was always with a book. My first favorite was Little Black, a Pony, by Walter Farley (Random House, 1961). The second was a little grocery store book called Fawn Baby by Gladys Baker Bond (Whitman, 1966).
As I got older, I read all the Newbery award winners (and I still do), and, really I read anything, everything: magazines, whatever was on my parents’ book shelves, whatever was at the school library…the library in our town had one wall of children’s books, and I’m pretty sure I had signed my name on the check-out card of almost all of them.
Now I still read every night before I fall asleep. For a few years I’ve been trying to catch up on classics I never got around to: I think Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813), David Copperfield (1849), and Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (1862) are some of the most sublime literary inventions ever.
Austen, Dickens, Hugo: no one can write like that anymore. No one.
I’m also a great fan of Kipling and have read nearly everything he wrote. I love Steinbeck. I love short stories; Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall (Scribner, 2010) is one of my favorite collections.
I could go on and on…but I’ll wrap it up with this: I’m currently reading George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series (I’m on the fifth) and I keep a copy of James Stephens’ Irish Fairy Tales by my bed and never get tired of reading it: it’s some of the most beautiful prose ever written.
TD: I really related to you when I read about your never getting your gray kitten. I always wanted Sea Monkeys. They always looked so amazing in the comic book ads. I never got them as a child but for my 18th birthday my mom finally got me Sea Monkeys! She said she didn’t want me to feel like I’d been denied my dream. Ha!
When I got them, I was dismayed to discover that they were really just brine shrimp.
You have a lot of animals in your life now, what is a memorable pet moment for you, happy or sad? Do you regret not having an octopus as a pet?
AE: Well, finally getting a gray kitten was a biggy, of course. Once Santa brought me a hamster. I was thrilled! It was the best Christmas ever! My first pony…my first dog…my first horse…But, happy and sad? Actually, this pet moment will always stay with me:
Last October, the same day my folks left town on vacation, our sweet old lab Stella commenced to dying. Sad as it was, she was ancient—about 105 in human years—and came naturally to the end of a long, happy life.
It is a long, hard, sweaty job to dig a hole in the hard-packed Mississippi dirt big enough to bury an 80-pound dog. No one was around to help except my 11-year-old son, Lucas. And help he did. Together we hacked and chipped and dug through the hard, red clay until we got Stella’s grave dug, and together we laid her down on her favorite old bed and covered her up.
It is no easy thing to look at death. Lucas never faltered. That day my old dog left this world, I saw the little man in my son.
Allison Estes has written more than a dozen books. Izzy & Oscar is her first picture book, and was really different and fun to write!
Some of her other books are The Short Stirrup Club series (ten titles) for middle-grade readers, four titles in the Thoroughbred series (fun because she got to start over in #24 with all new characters), and Paw & Order: Dramatic Investigations by an Animal Cop on the Beat, which is an adult book but fine for animal lovers of all ages and full of happy endings.
After 29 years in New York City, Allison recently moved back to her home town, Oxford, Mississippi. She lives in the country with her son, two grandparents, two dogs, and two horses.
Right now, when she isn’t busy cooking supper, taking care of dogs and horses, teaching writing workshops and driving to soccer, she is working on another picture book, another adult book, and more happy endings.
Tracy Dockray grew up on the plains of West Texas with a love of books and innumerable pets. She moved to New York where she studied fine art and acquired several old motorcycles.
Her career veered from sculpture to puppet making to murals and finally to children’s books. She is ecstatic to have illustrated 30 books including two that she wrote herself.
Tracy now lives in a creaky, cavernous brownstone in Greenwich Village, with a hairless cat, two fuzzy dogs, two children and a very tolerant husband.
She is thrilled to have been able to illustrate Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series and The Mouse and the Motorcycle series since she has a soft spot for them both.
Although Tracy studied Fine Arts in school, she has come to the happy conclusion that drawing pictures for children’s books is the finest art she knows.
Find Tracy at Facebook.