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Jen's Jewels
Get the lowdown on your favorite authors with Jennifer Vido.

Interview with Dan Yaccarino

During this past school year, I have been taking a couple of classes to renew my teaching license. Although I am already a certified French instructor, my state requires that every teacher take two reading classes which actually have proven to be quite useful. For example, who would have thought that reading picture books to high school seniors would be an effective way to introduce common themes and ideas? Well, I am here to tell you that not only does it capture their interest, but also it’s a much needed reprieve from the hectic school day.

It just so happens that this month’s Jen’s Jewels fits perfectly into my French curriculum… THE FANTASTIC UNDERSEA LIFE OF JACQUES COUSTEAU. You may recognize the name Dan Yaccarino as the creator of such popular children’s television shows as The Backyardigans and Oswald. In his latest release, he ventures into the deep, dark sea to explore the world according to Jacques Cousteau. From the vivid illustrations to the fascinating facts about Cousteau’s explorations, this book is truly magnifique!

Dan Yaccarino

As part of this column, Alfred A.Knopf, a division of Random House, has generously donated five copies for you my lucky readers to win. So, don’t forget to look for the trivia question at the end. Bonne chance! And as always, thanks for making Jen’s Jewels a part of your reading adventure.    

Jen: It’s always so fascinating to hear about the “before publication” story of an author because it gives the reader some insight as to the driving force that led him to where he is today. Please tell us a little bit about your educational and professional background. And, in what way did it prepare you for a career in publishing?

Dan: Looking back, I realize that the one thing I really enjoyed doing was telling stories. I made comic books, wrote short stories and scripts, made super 8 movies, etc. I majored in illustration at Parsons School of Design and very soon after graduating I began illustrating for magazines. After a few years, I showed a children’s book editor my portfolio thinking I’d get a manuscript to illustrate, but he instead asked if I had any picture book manuscripts I’d written, which I didn’t, so I said yes and went home and wrote my first book, Big Brother Mike. Through that experience, I learned how to put together a children’s book and I really enjoyed it!

Jen: I think your story is unique in its own right because you wear more than one hat.  You’re an author and an illustrator. Let’s start by talking about your artwork. First of all, you have worked with many prestigious authors such as Kevin Henkes and Margaret Wise Brown. How did that facet of your career evolve?   

Dan: Like I said, I illustrated for magazines, which meant that I was visually depicting someone else’s ideas, but in my own way. Illustrating a book is just a more elaborate version of that. I love to work with other author’s stories and enjoy the challenge. I’ve illustrated books written by Jack Perlutsky and Naomi Shabib Nye as well.

Jen: Not only have you collaborated on many books, but also you are the creator and producer of the animated series Oswald. In addition, you designed the characters for The Backyardigans on Nickelodeon and created Willa’s Wild Life. Approximately how much of your time is spent working in television? And specifically, what aspect of your involvement in TV is most fulfilling from an artist’s perspective?         

Dan: The most important thing I learned from working freelance was how to organize my time. I’m able to balance books, TV, and film work because I know how and when I work best. I usually write in the morning, my afternoons are spent working on TV projects, making phone calls, having meetings and a variety of other things and in the evening I paint.

During the early stages of a TV series, I tend to spend the majority of my workday on it in order to get everyone on board with a singular vision. Once that’s established and I’ve assembled the right team, then my role becomes more of an overseer to make sure the show stays true to the creative vision, which requires less of my time.

I look at a TV series as a different way to tell stories. It’s remarkably fulfilling, but in a different way from books. With books, it’s mostly just myself, the editor and designer putting it together, but with a series, it’ll take dozens of people, each responsible for a small aspect of the whole, to put it together. I think of it as the difference between playing a musical instrument solo and conducting an orchestra. I really enjoy doing both.

Jen: You also have been involved with corporate projects and advertising campaigns. Whew! I don’t know how you do it all! Which of these put your artistic expertise to the test and how so? Did it meet or exceed your expectations? Why or why not?

Dan: About 10 years ago, I did a print campaign for a product called Garden Burger, which ran in magazines and on billboards. Then the ad agency told me they wanted to do a series of animated TV spots and asked if I would co-direct and produce them, so of course I said yes, but I really had no idea what I was doing. However by the time they were finished, I knew how animation worked, which was good because a few months later, I made a deal with Nickelodeon to produce my first series, Oswald.

The Gardenburger spots were a sort of a revelation to me because up until then, my images were static. Animation is a different way to tell stories and the spots far exceeded my expectations.

Jen: Currently, you reside in the Big Apple. Do you display your work in any galleries?  Are any of your paintings available for purchase? And, what piece of artwork are you most proud of and why?

Dan: Over the years, I’ve shown my work in galleries in New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo and Rome. At the moment, I have paintings available for purchase at Storyopolis in Los Angeles.

It would be pretty impossible for me to choose one image or book that I’m most proud of. I guess I’m proud of the fact that the books exist at all because it means that there are people out there who enjoy my work so much that they want to buy my books. I really try to do my best with everything I do and it makes me feel good when it’s appreciated.

Jen: Okay, let’s switch gears and talk about your latest project… THE FANTASTIC UNDERSEA LIFE OF JACQUES COUSTEAU. I have to let you in on a little secret. Besides being a writer, I also teach French part-time at our local high school. So, as soon as your book arrived, I took it right into school and read it to all my classes.  Despite being a picture book, my teenagers were truly taken aback by the depth of your story as well as the colorful illustrations. As one student said, “it truly is a work of art.” How did you arrive at the premise?

Dan: Wow! That’s wonderful to hear.

I grew up watching Cousteau’s TV series and found it fascinating. As an adult, I read quite a bit about him and found him fascinating as well. Cousteau was a visionary and way ahead of his time and I thought a new generation should know about him.

Jen: The factual information is just as the title suggests...fantastic! Approximately how much research went into the writing of this book? And, what was the most fascinating tidbit you learned along the way?

Dan: I watched most of his films that were available and read about his life as well as books that he’d written himself. I never knew he wrote so many books and was such a stalwart conservationist back when it wasn’t at all popular, but in the end, we’ve all benefitted from his hard work and faith in his vision.

Jen: In terms of the illustrations, please describe your creative process. Do you use computer graphics of any kind?

Dan: It’s funny you should ask me about that. I work traditionally, gouache on watercolor paper, and have done so for over 20 years, but recently I’ve been trying to learn how to work digitally. It’s been quite a challenge.

I usually start off with dozens of rough ideas and organize them into book form. Then I write the text and sketch out a dummy and my editor and I whip it into shape for me to start illustrating. Once the text is finished and illustrations are complete, the designer puts the book together and we tinker with it until we’re all happy.

Jen: How did you go about putting it all together…the text and the illustrations? (I love the additional informational included at the end.)

Dan: Some of my books come to me visually and some literary. I will occasionally get an idea for a book from an image I created. Other times, I’ll come up with a story and will write it out and not draw a single thing until I’m happy with the text. It’s different every time.

Jen:  About how long did it take for you to complete this project? What was the most challenging part of the task?

Dan: That’s hard to say for any of my books. I could walk around with an idea in my head for years before I even jot it down. Other times, I’ll get an idea and within a month or two, I’ve completed the dummy and signed the contract.

I guess I’d been thinking about doing a Cousteau bio for at least 2 or 3 years before getting the story right. The big challenge for me was how to tell the story of his life. Chronologically? Hit all the points that I thought were important and organize it in my own way? I ended up doing a bit of both.

Jen: How will you be promoting this outstanding book? Will you be participating in a book tour? Do you participate in author phone chats? If so, how would my readers go about scheduling one?

Dan: Well, I’m doing this interview, for one. I’m also doing signings at bookstores and appearing at conferences which I announce on my website. Yes, I’d love to do author phone chats. They can be arranged by e-mailing me from my website.

Jen: Are you currently at work on your next project? And if so, what can you tell us about it?

Dan: I’ve been looking at designs for my next picture book, Lawn to Lawn, due out next spring and I’m about to start work on a new picture book, this one about my great grandfather coming to America, which I’m very excited about. Of course, I’m writing a few more picture books as well as developing a chapter book series.

I’m also producing my new TV animated TV series, Willa’s Wild Life and developing Unlovable and Go Go America as animated TV series, which are both based on books of mine.

Jen: Merci beaucoup for taking the time out of your very busy schedule to stop by and chat with my readers.   I wish you the best of luck with this book. Bravo! Well done, indeed!

Dan: Thanks! It was my pleasure.

I hope you have enjoyed my interview with Dan. Please stop by your local bookstore or favorite library branch and pick up a copy today. THE FANTASTIC UNDERSEA LIFE OF JACQUES COUSTEAU would also make a perfect gift from the Easter Bunny! 

Would you like to try to win one instead? Okay, be one of five readers with the correct answer to the following trivia question and you’ll win!

Name one of the authors Dan has collaborated with on a children’s book.

Next time, I will be bringing to you my interview with John Pipkin, author of the #1 pick on my Top Five List for April. You won’t want to miss it.

Until next time… Jen

When a twist of fate landed Jennifer at the "Reading with Ripa" roundtable discussion with Kelly Ripa and Meg Cabot, she knew that her career as a French teacher would essentially be over. Instead, she figured out a clever way to combine her love for reading and writing and "voilà" She became a book reviewer and columnist with www.freshfiction.com. On the sidelines, her parents secretly hoped that her French degree from Vanderbilt would one day come in handy and Jennifer is happy to report that the phrases ‘Je ne sais pas' and ‘C'est incroyable!' have been quite useful when reviewing certain selections! As is typical in her whirlwind life, one thing led to another and soon she found herself facilitating a popular moms' book club and writing a column she cleverly named Jen's Jewels. (Jewelry is one of her many addictions, as is the color pink and Lilly Pulitzer, which when you think about it, would probably make for a good story! Hint! Hint! ) To keep herself away from her favorite retailer, Ann Taylor, she serves on the Board of Trustees of the Harford County Public Library in Maryland. As a national trainer for The Arthritis Foundation's Aquatic and Land Exercise Classes, she is an advocate for those like herself who suffer from arthritis, the nation's #1 cause of disability. When asked how she manages to do all of these things and actually get some sleep at night, she simply replied, "It's just Par for the Course." Hmm! Now where have we heard that before?




3 comments posted.

Re: Interview with Dan Yaccarino

Jack Perlutsky
(Mildred Mayo 8:47am May 24, 2009)

Great Interview.
(Diane Clavette 4:59pm May 24, 2009)

I agree this was a great interview.A very interesting man.Yes this is one book I hope I can find.
(Debra McDonald 5:47am May 31, 2009)

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