Aaron Becker is among the extremely rare breed of authors/illustrators who have achieved extraordinary success with their very first book. Journey was published by Candlewick Press in August, 2013, and quickly made it onto The NY Times Best Illustrated List 2013. Aaron, a former film designer has experienced a whirlwind of recognition over the past few months, but he’s not letting it get to his head. Read about the fascinating process he went through to create his wordless story and his take on the challenges he faced prior to getting published.
There’s a lot more of this first-time author to come, and once you “read” his wordless book, Journey, you will be just as eager as I am to experience more of Aaron Becker’s creative genius. (For information about entering our book giveaway, scroll to the bottom of this interview.)
P.S. Since I first published this interview, Aaron Becker has won a Caldecott Honor! Congratulations, Aaron!!!
This giveaway is now closed. Congratulations to our lucky winner, Sharon Wedgworth. Thanks to all for entering! Please check our our Facebook Page for more giveaways.
Having a mom who was an astronomy teacher must have been pretty cool. What was that like, and did your field trips with her to the observatory play any role in the work you do as an artist?
Actually, if you look closely at Pallonezia, the waterfall city in Journey, you’ll see a golden domed observatory along the canal. Having a mom who taught astronomy also has made it easier to go into schools with my book to do slide show presentations. One of my earliest memories is going with my mom to my big sister’s 3rd grade class and watching her do a presentation. I still remember the taste of the snack they were making that day and to this day I have no idea what it was! And the sound of the slide projector. Whirrrr! Snap!
What inspired you to create a wordless book vs. a traditional picture book with words?
I think visually; language and writing does not come as naturally for me. So when I decided to make a story out of the vague notions I had of what eventually became Journey, they were all visual thoughts – mental pictures of places I wanted to inhabit. The story flowed out from these images and by the time I was done with the thumbnail sketches, I realized I didn’t need words at all.
It’s really quite remarkable that you did not need to write down any words to develop your story. Do you think it is more challenging to keep a story moving with illustrations exclusively, without the use of words?
It depends on the creator, I would imagine. I’ve recently been working on a written manuscript for a picture book, and it is MUCH harder for me. But I know authors who wish they knew how to draw so they could do the whole book themselves.
Did you purposely create your illustrations in such a way that there may be more than one way to interpret them?
That’s a great question. There are details I put in there I hoped people would find, but weren’t necessary to grasp the basic plot. But beyond that, the idea of multiple interpretations comes with the territory – it’s the risk and payoff of working in this format.
I’m going to have go back and make certain I have not missed any of those details. Are you often asked what your own interpretation of the story actually is, and if so how do you answer?
The one question I get a lot is about what the bird represents, and what I say is “Everyone has something they need to let go of. However you might answer that question – well, at least on an emotional level, that’s what the bird represents to you.”
Yes, I studied that amazing bird for quite a while myself. The first impression I got when reading your book is that you have an extraordinary ability to use your imagination like a child. Does that come naturally to you or do you have to work at that?
My father always told me I had a bit of a Peter Pan complex. Luckily, I’ve found the one career where this can really come in handy! So yes – it’s quite natural.
The castle in your book is by far the most grandiose and spectacular illustration of a castle I’ve ever seen in a children’s book. I even had a phenomenal dream about it, and I really want to visit that castle! What was your inspiration for that?
I was inspired by a combination of David Macaulay’s book, Castle and a visit to Mont St. Michel in Normandy when I was twelve years old.
Image of Mont St. Michel (left) in the Public Domain
Can you enlighten our readers about what it is like to work with watercolors when illustrating a children’s book? What are the benefits and challenges of using this medium?
Watercolor is a tricky medium and not for the faint of heart. I knew it was what I wanted to use for the book; it provided the right ethereal counterpart to the tight line work I wanted to do. There’s something soft and dreamy about it. That said, I had to actually teach myself how to use watercolors, as I’d never attempted it before. But a lot of the painting skills from oil, acrylic, and working digitally all are interchangeable; it ends up being about learning how to control the moisture, how to use brushes and inks – things that just take practice. It was a steep learning curve to say the least. Before I started work on the final illustrations, I spent three months just painting every day with the sole purpose of learning the medium.
You have worked on a number of spectacular films as a designer. Do you think your work experience with film gave you a unique edge when it came to creating Journey?
Absolutely. I learned so much about story telling through images while working with some extremely talented art directors and cohorts. There’s no better education than having talented people around you day in day out.
Fans tend to focus on an artist’s success and often don’t know about the rejections that person experienced along the way. I got a real kick out of your New Yorker cover story, where your incredible submission was returned to you. What did you learn from that experience?
It was disappointing but not all together surprising either. The New Yorker is incredibly picky. It was sort of a Hail Mary pass, much like Journey was to be honest. I had just become a father, lost my steady job in film, and I had to make a living. So I’ve put everything into what I’ve been doing for the past several years, and luckily, Journey seems to have hit the mark.
What was it like to discover you were on the NY Times Best Illustrated List with your first children’s book? I imagine getting that news was almost surreal!
It’s quite an honor. But the real surprise came when they asked me to illustrate the cover of The New York Times Book Review for Sunday, November 11th. That’s beyond an honor – more like the opportunity of a lifetime. To be chosen to represent all that is Children’s Books at this moment in time – it’s basically impossible for me to wrap my head around. There was a time not long ago when I just dreamed of having my book accepted by a publisher. Then the hope was to last on the bookshelf beyond the first month or two. As author Jane Yolen told me, I’ve had a “meteoric rise.” But to me it just feels like a relief to finally feel like I’ve landed somewhere.
And in such a big way! What is your next project?
Journey is part one of a trilogy. So I’m back through the red door, so to speak.
I’m certain many readers will be thrilled to hear that! When you are not illustrating or designing, what do you like to spend your time doing?
It used to be that whenever I had free time from doing design work for film, I would seek out activities like plein air painting (painting outdoors) or life drawing to find some fulfillment artistically. But now that I’m doing what I always wanted to be doing, I find that it’s about all I want to do! I spend more time working than ever before, and I love every minute of it. With a three and a half year old in tow, however, there are limits. And like most parents, these days I look forward to sleep more than anything else.
Ah, the quintessential parents’ lack of sleep phase . . . well that shall pass before you know it.
Aaron, thanks so much for sharing your personal journey with our readers. Your honesty about the challenges of being an artist, along with your incredible success story will undoubtedly inspire many other artists to persevere. It’s obvious you have found your calling, and I hope to be one of the first to read the second book in your Journey trilogy. Your books are sure to become classics, coveted by all who read them. And if you ever figure out what that snack was that you ate in your sister’s class, do let me know. You’ve got me very curious about that one.
Readers, I highly recommend Journey for your children as a special gift for the holidays, a birthday or any day. I can assure you, you’ve never seen any other book quite like it.
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