FLR: Humor and adventure abound in all the Skippyjon Jones books. How do you manage to build such great adventure and suspense while maintaining the humorous elements?
JS: I think I’ve got the pacing down. I know what has to happen and when. The humor is in the dialogue and expressions of the characters. It’s like writing a sitcom for characters I know inside and out. Plus my editor has taught me well. No matter how funny, clever or masterfully written… if it doesn’t move the plot along… it’s gone.
FLR: Are the books based on your childhood experiences at all? What other events in your life influenced the “birth” of the Skippyjon Jones series?
JS: Writing a book is like making a good stew. You start with a big pot. Then add a very funny brother named Kevin, who was famous in our house for his over-active imagination. Add a handful of Siamese cat named Skippy, one basement with a bumblebee in it, and a tussle in the litter box. Finally, a dash of Antonio Banderas.
FLR: How did you (and Skippyjon) become interested in the Spanish-speaking/Latino culture? How did you pick up the Spanish phrases that are used so effectively throughout the Skippyjon books?
JS: I took Spanish in high school and forgot everything as quickly as I learned it, except for my “excelente” accent and a few phrases. During the creating of the series I was fortunate to have spent several years getting to know some very special Spanish speaking adolescents. They called me “Mamalita” and the first book is dedicated to them.
FLR: The Skippyjon Jones board books – even dealing with such routine concepts as numbers and colors – really stand out for their imagination and sense of fun. All the illustrations also seem ideally suited… did you originally plan to use as much white space as you did? There is quite a difference between the board books and the picture books on this level. How is your creation process different for each format?
JS: When my editor suggested that I do some board books I was so excited. Oh joy! A chance to be simple… white space… more joy! And besides the little concepts, it’s just Skippyjon in all his Skippy-ness. It can’t get any better than that!
FLR: Skippyjon Jones won the first E.B. White Read Aloud Book Award in 2004. Why do you think the books work so well as read-aloud titles?
JS: It’s interesting, at least to me, that two of my books have won read-aloud awards. Yo, Vikings! won Planet Esme’s first ever John Chapman Award for best classroom read-aloud. Then Skippyjon won the first E.B. White Award. It must be something about the dialogue. Adults compete in front of me to see who reads it the best and children as young as pre-school have memorized every word. These books appeal to the ham in all of us with a little salsa on the side.
FLR: Is your Siamese cat, Skippy, similar to the fictional Skippyjon? Does he have any amigos of the canine persuasion?
JS: My cat Skippy is as nutty as his character. He eats plastic trash bags and lords over a 65-pound Pit Bull named Buster.
FLR: Do you ever meet people who acquired Siamese cats after meeting El Skippito? Do you ever receive pictures?
JS: I meet and hear from people all the time who have named their new kittens Skippyjon Jones. A cab driver from Georgia just sent me pictures of his two Chihuahuas, Killer and Boo Boo. They will make an appearance in an upcoming story.
FLR: Did the size of Skippy’s ears and head go through several incarnations? What gave you the idea for his trademark -- over-sized ears?
JS: Skippy’s ears were very large when he was a kitten. Now it’s his tummy that is too big for his head!
FLR: The illustrations in the books are vivid, well crafted and very appealing to the target audience of children three years and older. What sort of background did you have in illustration and/or art and design before doing the Skippyjon Jones series?
JS: I graduated with a BFA in Illustration from The Massachusetts College of Art, followed by a stint in the greeting card industry. The main thing that prepared me for this career was reading as many picture books to my children when they were young. That’s certainly how I learned to write.
FLR: How has your writing/illustration changed since you began creating children’s books? Do you have a favorite children’s book from your childhood?
JS: Richard Scarry’s books are what I remember most from childhood. My main thing is to keep learning. Each one of my books is a little different from the last one. I didn’t come into publishing with one outstanding style and I’m grateful that my publisher lets me experiment. Each book tells me what it needs and I try to listen.
FLR: As a children’s book creator, how do you think children’s books are evolving? Do you feel that illustrations have suffered or been enhanced due to the increasing exposure of children to visual stimuli?
JS: Children’s books have become very sophisticated. I think that’s why so many artists are drawn to doing them. There is far more variety in children’s book illustration than ever before.
FLR: When you create a new book, do words and story tend to develop simultaneously for you, or does one come first? Do you tend to work on several projects at the same time or focus on one title until completion?
JS: I like to work in dummy form right from the beginning. Pictures fill in the spaces where the words aren’t working and vice-versa. I usually think of a title right away and almost always have my beginning sentence. It’s the rest of the book that’s a problem. I can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. It’s best for me to stay focused on one book at a time. But I’m always generating new ideas in my journals. The most exciting part of my job is just imagining and conceptualizing. I have wildly decorated hatboxes filled to the brim with visual prompts… rusty keys, old sequined hats, dragon shoes from China, etc. I can go absolutely crazy thinking of ideas for books. I just hope I live long enough to do them all.
FLR: Which authors and illustrators have influenced you the most? Do you think of yourself as an illustrator or an author first?
JS: I never had any intention of becoming a writer. Failed every grammar course I ever took and can’t spell for beans. So I’m not comfortable calling myself a writer. When I see all the amazing illustration published today, I’m not even comfortable calling myself an illustrator. So where does that leave me… as a student, I guess. One who is just beginning to get it.
My all time favorite illustrators are Martin and Alice Provensen, Evaline Ness and Trina Schart Hyman.
FLR: What was it like working with Lloyd Alexander? What other authors would you like to work with?
JS: Lloyd was just lovely to work with. He was very funny and so encouraging. It was a true honor to have illustrated for him. Lloyd chose the very last illustration from How the Cat Swallowed Thunder to frame and hang on his wall… right next to one of Trina’s illustrations. I loved that!
FLR: We love I Know an Old Lady who Swallowed a Pie! How early in the creation process did you get the brilliant idea for the final image, when the old lady becomes a float in the Macy’s parade?
JS: I came up with the balloon idea very early on but had to fight to keep it in the book. As it turned out every review mentioned the end illustration. That’s when I learned to stick up for myself.
FLR: We asked before about the relationship between Skippy and Skippyjon. Now we have to know: might he actually be the kitten of Grannyman fame?
JS: No, the kitten in The Grannyman is Tink, Skippy’s twin brother from a different mother. Both Skippy and Tink make an appearance in Yo, Vikings! along with our dog Buster. He is sitting in the cab of the burley truck driver. Another dog of ours, Mugsy, is also in the book.
FLR: Do you have ideas for other series you would like to develop?
JS: Oh yes indeed I do! Thank you very much for asking but I don’t think there is enough room to list them all… hee hee.