The Marvelous Thing: Interview with Gilbert Ford

Hey Gilbert! Thanks for joining me here to talk about your upcoming 2016 title!

Thank you for having me on your blog. 🙂 

Tell us a little bit about The Marvelous Thing That Came from a Spring.

The book is a non-fiction picture book about the invention of the Slinky. Although Richard James invented the toy, his wife, Betty came up with the name and was the marketing genius behind its success.

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What made you want to tell this story?

I still play with the Slinky as an adult. Whenever I’m stuck on an idea I pick it up and strum the coils. One day while I was doing just that, I was trying to think of a non-fiction picture book that hadn’t been done, and I was holding the answer right in my hands.

I was blown away by the illustrations in this book. Tell us a little about your process.

Thank you, that’s kind of you to say.

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I drew everything on the computer for this one. Then I designed parts of it like a paper toy: to be printed, cut out, and assembled into a diorama. I incorporated vintage toys, since the book is about a toy, and wanted to show that the models were real. But it was hard to guess the size of the art from the photo, so I included recognizable, found objects in the dioramas. I transformed a washcloth into grass, a cool whip cap into a trashcan, a pipe cleaner into steam, and a chalkboard into a starry night sky. I thought that by changing an everyday thing into something new, I would be teaching a child how to invent like Richard James, who turned an ordinary spring into a marvelous thing.

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Watch a video about Gilbert’s process for this book here. 

I see you have Soldier Song: A True Story of the Civil War coming in 2017. Tell us about that.

Soldier Song (written by the wonderful Debbie Levy) is very different from Slinky. With Slinky I could be clever and imaginative with the art. With Soldier Song, I was illustrating a very serious story where there was much sadness, but also some joy. I had to make myself really emotional for this book, jumping from highs to lows quickly to create the art. So I woke up at 5 Am in the dead of winter when I knew I wouldn’t be disturbed. I listened to Joanna Newsom’s YS album while I sketched because the songs were long and had emotional depth. I hoped it would rub off on paper. I also looked at propaganda illustration for symbols to represent war without showing blood.  I decided that the final art would be in complementary warm and cool colors, since the book dealt with the dualities of North vs. South, destruction vs. creation, and life vs. death. The medium, although digital, is designed to resemble old woodblock and silkscreen techniques. I’ll be talking more about this in December/January of next year.

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Have you always been into writing and illustrating?

I started out as a drawer when I was old enough to pick up a crayon and continued to draw my whole life. I was a storyteller as soon as I could talk, but I didn’t really begin writing until 2nd grade. By high school, I was winning awards in poetry and editing the school literary journal. Then I went to Pratt, but they only offered one creative writing class as an elective. (Now they have a creative writing department)  I would write friends long letters when I was first out of school, but discovered people were too busy to read them.

So I stopped writing.

I didn’t compose another story until I started illustrating books for kids. I enrolled in grad school at VCFA, and that reignited my love for writing all types of stories. Now I’m able to channel my efforts to a better audience! 🙂 

What’s the most exciting part of your job?

I like the part where I get to think up the stories. I often pace when I brainstorm, so if I’m walking in circles like a caged animal in my apartment, I’ll plug in my headphones and walk to Fort Greene Park, playing the story out in my head. I’ve lived in the neighborhood for 20 years, so of course everyone waves to me, but I never see them because I’m working.  I only see the story in front of me.

What inspires your creativity?

Pretty much everything! The people I meet. The artwork I see. The books I read. The music I hear. Theflea market a block away from me. I’m constantly rummaging.

What is one thing that readers don’t know about you, that only you could tell us?

I’m not sure I can draw a straight line. I also can’t spell. But those setbacks haven’t stopped me from trying to draw and write.

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

I also enjoy new technology and teaching. If only I could do all three!

What can readers expect from you in the future, after Soldier Song?

The next book out is called How the Cookie Crumbled, about Ruth Wakefield and her invention of the chocolate chip cookie. It’s another non-fiction I’ve authored, but where Slinky was told in a straightforward manner, the writing in this book is more playful. The story has an intrusive narrator with the voice of someone telling a tall tale. He gives the readers three versions of the story circulating and asks them to decide what really happened. I hope people like it!

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

I’ll be promoting The Marvelous Thing That Came from a Spring this fall. If you’re in the NYC area please stop by one of the book events and say hi! When I’m not lost in thought, I’m actually quite social. 🙂 

Thanks for having me!

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