Interview with Ben Clanton

I am a big fan of Mr. Ben Clanton and his books, so I was thrilled when he agreed to stop by my blog and answer a few questions! My questions are in bold and Ben’s answers are in blue. Enjoy!

Hey Ben! Thanks for joining me here to talk about your upcoming 2016 titles!

My pleasure! Thanks for asking!

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Tell us a little bit about It Came in the Mail.

It Came in the Mail is about a boy named Liam (which spelled backwards is . . . yep, I’m a clever one ;)) who desperately wants to get something in the mail. His mailbox delivers. Liam gets oodles of mail . . . snail mail, junk mail, whale mail, pickles, a dragon, and much more. It is a “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sort of story where things get a wee bit out of hand. Liam soon finds himself buried in a mountain of mail and wondering what to do with it all. Fortunately, Liam comes up with a clever and fun solution . . . that might involve sending mail.

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The story is inspired by my own love for sending and receiving mail. Ever since I was very little I’ve enjoyed checking the mailbox. Most days I only get junk mail and bills, but I always feel a great amount of anticipation and excitement when it comes time to check the mail. I’ll confess that there have even been times when I’ve checked the mail twice (or more) in a day hoping that the mailman returned with something he forgot. There is something magic about it all to me. There is always that possibility that something truly stupendous or extraordinary will show up. It could be something that will change your day for the better, or it could be something so remarkable that it changes your life.

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These thoughts about extraordinary mail were circling about my head one day when I was doodling in my sketchbook. I ended up sketching a dragon’s head poking out of a rural style mailbox. Undoubtedly How Droofus the Dragon Lost His Head by Bill Peet (one of my childhood favorites) played a part in this image coming about. I was taken with the absurdity of it. I wrote a story about an unsuspecting kid who gets a dragon in the mail and all the problems that come about when a dragon pops into your life. You’d think owning a dragon would be loads of fun because you get to fly and go on adventures, but of course feeding that dragon could be tricky and cleaning up after one, well, dragon dung is not pleasant. Princesses, wizards, gold, and magic books were all involved in that early version of It Came in the Mail, which was lots of fun, but it was more of a story about having a dragon as a pet than about mail. I wanted the story to be more about mail. 20 gazillion drafts later and several years after that sketch of a dragon in a mailbox . . . It Came in the Mail is at last a book.

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Tell us a little bit more about Narwhal and Jelly!

Narwhal is a happy-go-lucky narwhal (I’m pretty sure Narwhal doesn’t even know how to frown). Jelly is a no-nonsense jellyfish. The two might not seem like they’d have a lot in common, but it turns out that they make really great friends. The format for their first book Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea is a bit hard to define, as it is somewhat atypical, but I suppose calling it a graphic novel works. I personally think of it as a cartoon book or perhaps it is a ‘Clantoon’ book (couldn’t help myself). It is 64 pages and has three stories in it.

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The first story ‘Narwhal is REALly Awesome’ is about how Jelly and Narwhal become friends. Both of them think they are imagining the other because Jelly has never seen a Narwhal before and Narwhal has never seen a jellyfish. In the end, they both end up deciding that the other is an imaginary friend. The second story is about Narwhal and Jelly forming their own pod of awesomeness with their ocean friends. And in the third story Narwhal and Jelly read the best book ever — even though it doesn’t have any words . . . or pictures.

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Unknown-2.jpegLike It Came in the Mail the Narwhal and Jelly books have long been in the works and have gone through innumerable permutations. I first came up with them while standing in line for ice cream (a not uncommon event for me). Perhaps it was because of the waffle cones or maybe the rainbow colored crosswalk nearby had something to do with it, but a story about a narwhal and his missing tusk-tooth-horn-thing came to mind. Soon other stories featuring this narwhal and a jellyfish joined the first swimming around my head. I came up with storyboards and a mock-up for three Narwhal and Jelly picture books within a week. The trouble is that the picture book format didn’t really work for the stories. When viewed individually they seemed slight, but when viewed as a whole . . . well, the whole was greater than the sum of the parts.

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What a book would look like with multiple Narwhal and Jelly stories took a couple years for me to figure out and then there was the difficulty of pitching the unusual format. I am so very grateful to Tara Walker and Tundra Books for seeing my vision and giving it a chance.

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I whaley love Narwhal and Jelly . . . I feel a stronger connection with these characters than any of my characters so far and that is saying something. Hopefully the first couple books (the second is tentatively titled Super Narwhal and Jelly Jolt) will do well enough that I can bring the heaps of other adventures and stories featuring this duo to the surface.

What do you use to illustrate your books? Can you tell us about your process?

I am a self-taught illustrator and I find that my illustration process is continually changing and developing. I generally do line and watercolor illustrations. Sometimes for my linework I use ink (a dip pen recently) and often I use pencils (6B or a black or sepia colored pencil). For paper I use Strathmore Aquarius II watercolor paper, but have even used elephant-poo paper before.

I generally render my art traditionally and assemble/collage it digitally in Adobe Photoshop. I like for the human hand to be visible in my work, and sometimes (often!) I struggle against my inner perfectionist to maintain and/or add some ‘beautiful messiness’ to the work. I like using Photoshop to put everything together because it allows me a lot of flexibility to alter things and move illustrations about.

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My favorite part of the illustration process is the very beginning stages when I am first coming up with the story. I will draw a character time after time in my sketchbook to get a feeling for who they are and how to draw them. It is super tough in my opinion to draw a character consistently, but also have them come to life and be varied and real. I think achieving this (a constant struggle for me) is similar to becoming good at a sport or instrument . . . it is all about practice.

I am in my element when it comes to the next stage of putting a dummy book together. I absolutely adore storyboarding. So much fun! I don’t always go about it the same way. Each book is its own experience, but often I use a blank book (which I get from barebooks.com). They are 28 page long blank books so not exactly the right pagination (most PBs are 32 pages), but good for my first go at a story. I dive right in. I will go to a coffee shop or a park and sit down and do the full dummy in one sitting. Of course, it is only draft one, but by the time I go to do this the story has usually been swimming around my head for long enough that the bones are pretty well developed. Sometimes I just use copy paper at this point and draw small pictures of my vision for each page. Either way I’d gladly spend all day making these quick mock-ups. I probably could go on and on about it so I’ll stop myself there.
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Have you always been into writing and illustrating?

As a kid I loved drawing. I especially liked to draw my own cartoon characters and caricatures of famous basketball players. I wasn’t really into writing and wasn’t a huge fan of reading (unless the book had ooldes of pictures). And sadly I actually stopped drawing all that much too when I got into middle school and high school. It was in college while volunteering at a nearby elementary school that I truly discovered my love for books and for writing and illustrating. I started carrying around a sketchbook everywhere. At first, I actually mostly just wrote stories. I was slow to delve into drawing and not hugely confident about it. Still working on that! 😉

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What’s the most exciting part of your job?

I think I made my love for storyboarding pretty clear, but the most exciting part for me is (probably doesn’t come as a huge surprise) receiving letters from kids who have read my books. I love getting those letters and drawings. And I also find doing school visits to be exciting. It is a really uplifting and fun experience. Getting to draw with the kids and see their stories is amazing. I love it when they take my characters and make them their own. It is also a huge confidence booster to hear ‘you’re such an amazing drawer . . . how did you get so good at drawing pictures?’ . . . always an all around great experience.

I am tempted to say meeting authors and illustrators I admire is also one of the most exciting parts of my job, but it all too often ends up being a mortifying experience. I get really excited and end up star struck and typically make a fool of myself.

What inspires your creativity?

Foremost seeing the creativity and ingenuity of others. The drawings and stories kids send me for sure, but also if I read a really clever or endearing book. Random things also spark my creativity, but alone time in my mind often gets the best results . . . ice cream lines, walks with my dog, and sitting with my sketchbook in a park are all things I do that often get the creative juices flowing. Sometimes pressure will inspire creativity for me. Tight deadlines can be good . . . often not for the book I’m working on but for generating new ideas for new books. Drawing a story on the spot for kids or what I think of as ‘jazz drawing’ or ‘improv drawing’ also gets great results.

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Unknown-4.jpegWhat is one thing that readers don’t know about you, that only you could tell us?

I often make sound effects when drawing all alone and make up little songs about what I am drawing (they aren’t very good . . . and, no, I will not sing one for you).

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If you weren’t writing and illustrating books, what do you think you’d be doing?

Well, I’ve always wanted to be a professional basketball player, but I rather doubt that is what I would realistically be doing if I weren’t making books. I also for a long time wanted to be an astrophysicist, but I doubt that is what I’d be doing either. Maybe I’d be a librarian? I think that would be brilliant! Or maybe I’d be a movie director. I obviously don’t have small dreams. What the hay . . . let’s go with . . . I’d probably be ruling the universe, so be thankful I make books instead.

What can readers expect from you in the future?

Lots more stories in the works! I recently finished illustrating WE ARE THE DINOSAURS by Laurie Berkner and I will be illustrating at least one more of her songs. I am currently working on a sequel or a companion book to REX WRECKS IT! called BOO WHO? and the second Narwhal and Jelly book. I also have a picture book series in the works with Simon & Schuster about a mutant potato called Rot. In addition I’ve got stories in the works about such things as spiders, alligators, attack llamas, time-traveling salesmen, dark things, ice cream, and pink pandas. Also, a coloring book!

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Anything else you’d like to share with readers of this blog?

Sure! Some of my favorite picture books of this year so far are A Hungry Lion, or A Dwindling Assortment of Animals by Lucy Ruth Cummins, Quackers by Liz Wong, and A Beginner’s Guide to Bear Spotting by Michelle Robinson and David Roberts. Also, Fox and the Jumping Contest by Corey Tabor (which comes out in October) is completely brilliant. Oh, and Peddles by Elizabeth Rose Stanton is adorable. Those are a few titles that come to mind right away. And . . . I would like to be able to turn into either a dragon or panda at will.

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