Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Robert Neubecker. The transcript is divided into the following sections:
First kids, then kids' books
I've been an editorial illustrator for 35 years and I started at the New York Times when I was a child, about 21 years old. And so I'd been a newspaper man for most of my career. I worked for Time and Newsweek and a lot of the magazines. And now I work for Slate.com which is an on-line news magazine.
When I had my first daughter, Isabelle, in 1998, she just started suggesting things, being with her. I'd written a script for an animation called "Courage of the Blue Man" years ago, and that was my first book, and it became Courage of the Blue Boy and it was printed by Tricycle Press in '04.
With Isabelle as a baby, Beasty Bath came about because I had to figure out a way every night to get her in the bathtub and get her into bed, and Beasty Bath is a book where she starts in the bathtub and she ends up in bed. What's unique about that is when Isabelle was young, she didn't know she was a little girl.
She thought she was a lion, she thought she was a dragon, she thought she was a lizard, she thought she was a bird. And, in fact, I own a bathrobe with a terrycloth belt and she wore that belt around her waist for like two years. I had to take it off and clean it when she was sleeping.
So Beasty Bath is basically non-fiction And in the book she transforms into all these different characters where she's a lion and a dragon, different things.
Wow! City! Isabelle wrote also. When she was 18 months old she, had three words — wow, hi, and mom. And I took her to New York, which I had lived in New York for 22 years before I moved out to Utah, and being new parents, my wife and I wouldn't put her in taxi cause there are no car seats in taxis. It's dangerous, okay, so I put her in a backpack — a kid-carrying backpack.
We hiked our kids all over the place in the mountains. I put her in the backpack and I took her on the subway and she'd go on the subway and she'd say, "Wow!" And she saw the airplane when we were leaving to go to New York City. She said, "Wow!" And basically, so she wrote the book. And what I did was I took all of my favorite experiences in New York
There's a fire station on 18th Street, Engine Company 12 I believe. I lived next door to it when I was in art school and every few hours you would hear all this noise. You know, "Wonk, wonk, wonk," and a fire — and a fireman would run out in the middle of the street and he would stop traffic. The fire engine would come out with the sirens blaring and this little red light would be turning around on the side of the firehouse and there would be all this noise and confusion.
And these guys would go roaring down the street and they would either come back four hours later smelling of smoke or they'd come back 15 minutes later all kind of disappointed, you know. And so that became the keystone spread of Wow! City! and it was basically my own experience. And I did a drawing of that and I showed it to the people at Hyperion and they bought the book on the spot.
I also put in the Chinese New Year's Parade which, when I was an art student, was a must do cause it was free entertainment, you know, and the kids would take these entire blocks of 1,000 firecrackers and light the whole thing and throw it in the street. So much of the technique in Wow! City! is to try to capture the kinetic energy in the noise.
You know, like "Wow! Subway!" Fourteenth Street was my station and the trains would come around that curve on 14th street and they'd screech, you know. And so, anyway, so I tried to catch the noise and the excitement of the city. We ended up not calling it "Wow! New York!" so the kids in San Francisco or Chicago or any big city could enjoy it as well.
And that was my first book and that's how I got into it. And then once I got into it, I got hooked on it and every book that's come from them has been an exciting experience all its own.
Capturing the kinetic energy
Well, first of all, I'm impatient with rendering, although I can do it. I was a watercolorist for 30 years. You know, Milton Glaser was one of my teachers when I was a student and the end result of the design project, or in this case the picture, depends on the problem you set up.
And if you wanna show kinetic energy or something quick and simple, you do it quick and simple. If you have a picture that has a thousand things in it, then, you know, it's gonna take you a week to do. Some people just like to do a thousand things, and so they paint them or they love, you know, to render every hair on a cat.
And I can do that if that's what the problem demands, but generally what I'm interested in is getting it out there, getting it quick and making it fresh. I've been a newspaper illustrator for a long time and when I was young at The Times, we had about, you know, a two or three hour deadline.
And I spent most of that time trying to think of something to draw, you know, because you were doing a political article and it's gonna go to press in a couple hours and you have to do something clever or you're gonna look bad, you know. And hopefully you're gonna do something just great, you know. And so the thinking part is a big part of it.
So the drawing becomes kind of an exercise, kind of thought to paper. With the "Wow" books it was very much like that, trying to keep the energy in that kinetic part. The way I do it now, I mean, I actually do several different approaches. I sort of evolve. But when I do an editorial drawing, I do a very quick sketch and I use a Mont Blanc pen.
I couldn't afford one today, frankly, but I bought a couple of them back when I was an art student, you know, for 50 bucks or whatever. And they had gold tips and gold is a soft metal and with — you know, you fill it with fountain pen ink and you draw it. It's effortless to draw with.
And I do all my sketching with a Mont Blanc and then I scan it, and then I print out the sketches in blue ink on nice paper. I used to have interns and assistance who would painstakingly trace all of the sketches, but the idea is to draw directly from the sketch.
Comics were done in two stages. There would be somebody who'd just do all the pencil drawing and someone to do the inking because it was a separate technique. So all the pencil drawing was done in blue pencil because the camera couldn't see the blue, and then the inker could see the ink — of course the blue pencil and he would ink over the blue pencil and they'd photograph it and the camera wouldn't see the blue.
So I'd print out all my drawings on really nice water colored paper now in blue and I do all of the ink on top of the blue pencil. So, in other words, what I'm saying is I try to keep the energy of the original sketch not by redrawing it but by actually drawing from the original sketch.
In the '80s I did a lot of painting and I had friends like Tiki Smith and Becky Howland and fine artists that were really interested in political work.
And I had done a lot of political work with my illustration, and I wanted to find a way that I could do political narratives as fine art, you know, as gallery work. And so to do that I thought, well, what is the bare essence of illustration. So I started with just a brush, India ink, and watercolor paper, and I went around the streets and collected overheard phrases and I illustrated these overheard phrases.
The first one, I was in a taxi and the guys said, "Why did God make me a cab driver?" And I said, "Walker and Broadway, right side, far corner." He said, "Why did God make me a cab driver," you know, and I, "Okay, thanks, buddy." But I thought about that that was my first one. And then there was some drunk lurching in the street and somebody yells, "Learn to live, fella."
So I illustrated that. And then I'd illustrate as many as I could think of in single words and then I did lyrics from rock and roll songs. And I had hundreds of these black and white drawings and they were done in about two minutes. Anyway, when Bill Gates wanted to start an on-line magazine, Slate, he hired Newsweek and Time Magazine, and he got Mike Kinsley as editor.
Patricia Bradbury, he brought her in from Newsweek. And Patricia had seen these drawings I had done and she thought that they would be perfect for the, you know, nascent Internet because they would download black and white. And she knew I could deliver on deadline. So I started working for Slate doing these simple black and white drawings, just brush and ink on watercolored paper.
And that's how that style evolved. And eventually I went to Bill Gates, not directly, and said, "Can I have a raise," and they said, "Can you work in color?" So I said, "Okay." So I started adding color to the black and white drawings digitally. And eventually the magazines, you know, started asking for that over my watercolor style. And so that is how that grew out.
Never too many monsters
Monsters Beasty Bath, you know, it's full of monsters. Monsters are fun. I just did a little board book with little Simon called Too Many Monsters. And it's a takeoff on the "I Love Lucy" thing where she's in the chocolate factory and she gets behind and its Anyway, it's a counting book and this poor kid
Originally the dad was gonna be involved. "What's going on in there?" But there's this kid and these monsters keep cropping up in his room. He's pushing em under the bed and he's stuffing em back in the lamp shade and like it's an everyday occurrence for monsters to be popping out in the room and he's just gotta push em away.
Monsters on Machines is one of my favorite books. It was the first one I did with Andrea Welch who is Beach Lane Books. And it's written by Deb Lund who's a lovely author. And what I love about this is, first of all, there's monsters involved, okay, and also there's bulldozers. There's lots of bulldozers.
And bulldozers are really fun to draw. You know I mean, here's a bunch of them, okay. And the nice thing about this was Andrea had seen Wow! City! and she wanted that kind of kinetic energy. I'm trying to find my favorite Oh, here. I have a photograph of my children that looks exactly like this, two of my kids and a couple of the neighbor kids eating.
So I don't know. I mean, there is something lovely about monsters. You don't have to be realistic, you don't have to draw the figure and you can just draw whatever you want to. And I can make them up; they're fun to make up. Anyway, you know, there's another big bulldozer.
There was a cover we didn't use that was only a big bulldozer. What else can I show you on this? Well, okay, here's, you know This I love big heads. When I was studying with Milton Glaser, I don't know if he ever actually said this, but I look at his body of work and I see he does a lot of posters with the big head, like Duke Ellington, things like that.
And I tell when I teach — I teach art on the college level from time to time — and I tell the kids, "When in doubt, draw a big head." Okay? It's always effective. It's wonderful.
The truth about babies
Sophie Peterman Tells the Truth, Andrea Welch was my editor on this and when she called me, she said, "Robert, I have a book for you. It's about babies. It's about stinky babies." So, oh, yeah, stinky babies. I know all about stinky babies!
When my daughter Josephine was born, my daughter Isabelle didn't have the kind of sibling rivalry that Sophie does. Instead, she just suckled onto my wife. So Isabelle is like on onto Ruth, so the baby, you can't leave the baby off to die. So I took charge of the baby. Okay? So as soon as the baby was weaned, which was only about six months, okay
And in those six months, of course, I was having little tea parties with Isabelle every night, right? You know, "Okay, here." It was a ritual, you know, the tea party, whatever. Played with blocks for a while, then she'd finally get sleepy. But once I had charge of the baby, babies don't care. You know, as long as you change their diaper, they're not uncomfortable, you feed them, they don't care who does it.
Okay? So Daddy got the job. And for 700 straight nights I walked a little path around the baby's room with the baby on my shoulder to put her to sleep. And you can't fake it; the baby knows. If you half walk for like only 10 minutes and the baby's not out and you try to put her in her crib, she will wake up. You have to repeat. So it may take 45 minutes, it may take an hour and a half.
But you can't stop until she's asleep. And then you lay her down as gently as possible. Okay? And if she wakes up, you start over again. So, anyway, so when I got this book, I read the manuscript. I said, "Oh, yeah. I know that world."
"My name is Sophie Peterman and I am here to tell you that if your parents ever ask, 'Would you like to have a little brother or a sister someday,' you should definitely say, 'Nooo!' That's what I should have said three years ago when my Mom and Dad brought my little brother home from the hospital."
"Everybody came over to see him. 'Look at his teeny weenie, teeny, tiny fingernails. Aren't they sweet? Look at his eensy, weensy little toes. Aren't they precious? What a cute, widdle, itty bitty baby. Getchie, getchie, getchie goo.' What was wrong with these people? Were they nuts?"
"My name is Sophie Peterman and I am here to tell you the truth. Babies are not sweet, babies are not precious, babies are not cute. Babies are YOUR WORST NIGHTMARE!" So, anyway, so she tells the real truth. And you love babies. They're not what they're cracked up to be.
Treat Williams is a neighbor of mine and he was at my house Our kids go to school together. And he was at my house one day and he saw the airplane from Wow! City! and he said, "Wow, airplane!"
"Let's do an airplane book." And I thought, "Okay. I have an idea." My father lives in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Oshkosh, Wisconsin, is the home of the largest air show in the United States with 10,000 airplanes every summer. You can't get a hotel room in Oshkosh during the air show for love of money — it's booked out five years.
I said, "Look, if you fly us to the air show, we can stay with my Dad and we can make a book about it." He said, "Okay." So what we did is Well, first of all, I mean, this is so cool, this book. I mean, we have this is Navajo 95 Charlie Lima, which is Treat's airplane, and that is the authentic actual instrument panel. So all you need is a cardboard box and this book and you've got an airplane.
Now, when we went on this trip I went with Treat and two pilots from Delta Airlines who had flown in military and had flown I mean, these guys were so veteran pilots, Carl and Harry.
I'm gonna read you just a little bit. What was so interesting to me was the way they talked. Dad and Carl ran through the takeoff checklist. "Fuel full," Carl asked. "Check," said Dad. "Flaps for takeoff?" "Check." "Radio's on?" "Check." "Let's taxi out. Ready to go?" "Yep." "Check avionics?" "Got em."
"Directional gyro?" "Check." "Transponders?" "Set." "Navajo 95 Charlie Lima taxi into position and hold." "95 Charlie Lima, positioned to hold, Roger that." "I'm gonna fly in a stunt plane," Ellie said. "You can't. You have to be a pilot," said Gil. "I will be a pilot some day," said Ellie.
So the dialogue, you know, was so much fun about this. "Okay, line her up. Check the heading. Yep. Run the engines. Full power. Air speed's alive. 95 knots and liftoff." "Vroom!"
It was so much fun listening to this! Anyway, so once we get down to the air show, then we have the air show. And, of course, I went crazy because there's nothing cooler than 10,000 airplanes in the whole planet earth. And there's, you know, there are all these pilots and these guys had actually flew them, old guys in their 80s with big, Beechway Ford Liberator Bombers with windows, you know, with these signs in the window that said, "Jets are for kids."
And so I drew a B17 and the Fokker Triplane And we gotta have a big helicopter because "Helicopters," said Carl. "What's so special about helicopters," Ellie asked. "Can they do stunts?" "Some can," Carl said. "But what's really special is that they can they fly places that no airplane can — straight up, straight down and they hover in the air."
"They can be flying ambulances and rescue people lost at sea." These facts are really important for kids. And we have the Blue Angels. And "Wow," said Ellie, "They can fly with wingtips as close as the length of a soda can at hundreds of miles per hour," said Gil. Which is actually true. And Treat heard that from one of the Blue Angel pilots. Can you imagine, those big airplanes?
So, anyway, Ellie gets finally, she'd been bugging 'em that she wants to do stunts. She goes up in a pit special which, by the way, is this fantastic airplane, tiny, little stunt plane with a 13 foot wingspan. They can go do loops and barrel rolls and spins.
And then she does her loop and that's kind of the highlight of the book. And she goes all the way around. And then they land. And then they take off. "Dad, can I be co-pilot," is the last line of the book.
Dedicated to Johnny Cloud
I grew up loving airplanes from television. And we had a lot of World War II veterans when I was a kid growing up who had flown planes.
And I loved comic books and one of my favorite comics was Johnny Cloud, Navajo Ace which flew a P-51 Mustang. And I dedicated a book to him. And I would draw model airplanes, every kind of airplanes, and I know all of the different airplane models and, you know what — from the F22 fighter plane way back to the Wright Brothers' plane. And these pilots know them too, only I draw them, they fly them.
And when we all got together in Oshkosh, it was like just a feeding frenzy for airplane geeks. And, in fact, I got hollered at when I was drawing the B-17. I was like, "Oh, this is so cool. This is great. Whoa!" And I had this intern working for me and she yells over across the studio. She says, "Bob, Bob, don't geek out on me. Stop it." So, anyway, so we hope you guys like the book as much as we loved making it.
Wow! Sharks, dolphins, and jellyfish!
The new "Wow" book is Wow! Ocean! And I always wanted to do a Wow! Ocean! because I'm a surfer and once you get in the ocean, you spend that much time in the ocean, just the marvel of it, the awe of it, the power of it, the vastness of it, it's almost a religious experience. And so doing Wow! Ocean! was just a natural choice for me.
When I got into doing Wow! America! and to a lesser extent, Wow! School! though, which — one of the things about the "Wow" books is they can be very informational and be like a teaching tool. With Wow! Ocean! I thought it'd be really interesting to do, you know, whales and the different kinds of whales.
Again, it's not a definitive encyclopedia of sea life but it's for very young readers to have an introduction to what the different kinds of whales look like, what the different kinds of jellyfish look like, different kinds of what you would see in a coral reef, tropical fish. And we do dolphins, whales, coral reef, sharks, which they love. I have a daughter who's obsessed with sharks.
She's seven years old. What's her favorite movie? "Jaws." Terrified her the first time she saw it, but then you tell her it's a rubber shark and she can't get enough of it. There's tadpoles and as a family, we've spent hours and hours, you know, on the seashore just looking at tadpoles and wandering amongst them. You know, it's fascinating.
So I label every different kind of sea creature. You know, "Wow! Deep!" — we do the angler fish, you know, with the light and all of these things. So everything's labeled and everything has to be precise. And I spent a lot of time in a library checking it out and I am gonna have a marine biologist do the final proofing of it to make sure that everything's right because once you print 30,000 copies, you can't have a mistake.
When I was a little kid, I thought that if something was in print, it was gospel. It was like literally carved in stone. When I got into journalism as a grownup and began to realize how human people are and how things slip in, you know, I realized that that wasn't true. I think with children's books you really have to make a special effort to be accurate on everything that you describe and everything you do.
I have a fifth grader and if I say some And we have a tortoise, you know, and I say "turtle" every now and then because I'm lazy. And she says, "Dad, it's a tortoise." Anyway, so you can't have a flaw. You can't have a mistake.
And I do a lot of research because, you know, I mean, if you're gonna label anything, you've gotta label it correctly or else don't label anything. You know, you're either in or you're out that way. But I find that really interesting in Wow! Ocean! to do the labels. I thought it would be interesting cause I know how the kids love that.
Keeping the art in e-books
The i-Pad, I think, is brilliant. Kindle I'm not crazy about because it's black and white and it's just very text heavy. I'm very excited about what can happen. The only danger, I think, is if people forget to bring the drawings along, but I don't think that'll happen because, you know, there's been illustration ever since mankind painted on cave walls.
And to look at just vast blocks of grey type has never been that interesting to me and especially with children's books. So I think basically we are just changing mediums. However, I think that in certain situations there always needs to be print. You have school situations, places where you have to, you know, the portability, the toughness of books.
So in other words I think that these mediums will co-exist just like radio and television. So the content, I think, will always be there; I think the delivery system will change and evolve.
Comic book heroes
Every week, you know, I'd get my allowance and Saturday morning and I would go down to the drugstore in my small town and I'd buy as many comics as I could afford on my buck and a half.
And I liked This is a whole 'nother rap, but I preferred DC Comics over Marvel and the only Marvel Comics I really liked were Fantastic Four because there was this kind of family unit where they had this family dynamic going. But DC Comics were more of outward looking. In other words, you know, Superman and Batman, except for Batman was a little bit dark, but Superman, the Flash, the Atom, Johnny Cloud, you name them, they had kind of bland personalities but they were engaged in really interesting villains and they went on interesting adventures.
But they were kind of steady at ease. They didn't have a lot of interior conflicts. They weren't tortured by, you know The Marvel Comics, you know, they were all like You know, Spiderman was always torn between all of these demons, you know, of course, the Thing, which was part of Fantastic Four, you know, he hated being the Thing.
He thought he was a monster. You know, they had this inner turmoil going on which was really interesting to some people, but not to me as a kid. I wanted to explore the universe with Superman because, you know, he could fly in outer space, or the Atom rides on photons, you know, light particles, you know, cause he's so small. So he can roam around at the speed of light.
And I was more interested in that, in the science of that and all that other stuff. The Marvel Comics, their villains, they always had just one villain, right? Just like Fantastic Four was always up against Dr. Doom and, you know, okay, what more are we gonna do with Dr. Doom. And I'm really not interested in the Thing's inner conflict anymore and I'd really rather go with Superman and find out a way to to to trick Mr. Mxyzptlk — to say his name backwards.
That is more interesting. Now how are we gonna do that? Or Lex Luther would get together all the arch-villains of history. You know, he'd get Hitler, Napoleon and Julius Caesar, which I don't think are really arch-villains. But Lex Luther would bring em back into modern times and you'd have Julius Caesar ruling New York City and Hitler trying to take over South America, and I thought that was much more interesting. So that's my comics rap.