Transcript from an interview with Mark Teague

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Mark Teague. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Mark Teague

Making books with mom

From the earliest age I can remember, I was always drawing pictures. So it was kind of a natural fit. Before I was even able to write, my mom would write the stories. I would dictate, and my mom would type the stories for me, and then I would draw the pictures to go along with it – which I'd actually forgotten until my parents moved about five years ago. She found some of these things when they were moving and sent them to me.

They are terrible stories. They're just awful. They just go on and on and on. There's no plot or anything, but I loved them. You know, it was something that I took to naturally. I really never thought of it as a career, even growing up. It was just something I did to play – which, I guess is the greatest thing you could say about your job – that it just feels like play to me.

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Playing with dinosaurs

It seems to me to be very different when I'm working with another author. It's a different kind of challenge, because I'm sort of borrowing someone else's imagination. And with the dinosaurs book, it is a very sparse text, and it doesn't really explain who the dinosaurs are, or what's going on in the scenes. But that's fun, because that gave me a lot of room to play around.

And I just started messing around with it. My original idea was using all tyrannosaurus rex, because I just thought that was the greatest dinosaur. It was always my favorite dinosaur as a kid. I started playing around with that, and then I found that it was a lot more amusing to me that the parents were human, rather than just an entire dinosaur family. So, that was established pretty quick.

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Making faces

I was actually talking with Don Wood, the illustrator. He said that illustrators always draw themselves, which is funny, but it's kind of true. He was looking through the book and saying, "Oh, I can see you in that." And it's true.

My wife pointed out to me at one point, which I wasn't really aware of, that as I draw, I'm always kind of making the expression that I'm drawing. I'm not watching myself in a mirror or anything, but it sort of seems to channel through into the art.

It's almost like acting. You feel like you're really being a big, hammy actor and trying to get all that expression out onto the page.

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Dear Mrs. LaRue

There are two stories going on simultaneously; because there's the dog's version, which you can't really trust, and then the real version, I suppose. So I had to figure out a way to juxtapose those images. That all came together. I decided to do the dog's fantasy in black and white for a couple of reasons. One is that his vision of things is so dark and it's like a film noir, a very grim vision and overly dramatic. So that lent itself to the black and white. I also heard that dogs actually see in black and white, so it seemed like it worked that way.

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A real food hound

He was an incredible food hound and just would do anything for a snack. He would eat anything, too. He would go into our garden and steal cucumbers. He'd steal virtually any kind of food.

I kind of had to admire it, because it was like a personal commitment of his – he didn't even have to like the food. He would go for it, anyway. So, he'd steal olives and things that – you know, he'd get that weird dog look on his face when he was eating. But he'd still go right for it. So, I always admired that. It was like he had a cause in life, and he stuck to it.

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Artistic kids

You can kind of spot them. I see them when I go into the schools and I'm drawing. There are always some kids who are watching very closely, and they're drawing along. And they are really talented kids. You see it a lot. I think sometimes those kids are not always the best students. They're often kind of in their own world. They're spacey. They're drawing pictures when they should be doing math assignments, and I think it maybe goes against the grain, sometimes, to encourage that kind of behavior.

But maybe you don't really need to. Maybe you just have to give them paper and a pencil every now and then and let them go. I think kids like that will kind of find their way. That's sort of my feeling. I wasn't really trained to it, but obviously, it was deep inside of me. The main thing – not just for artistic kids, but for anyone – is to encourage them as they get older and start thinking about careers, to really follow their heart and to go with what they love, rather than maybe following money or things like that – just to really follow their passion.

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Eat your vegetables!

I think the worst thing that happens is if books become a chore for children and it's like, "eat your vegetables." I think that parents have to be honest. Children are modeling what their parents do. So, if their parents don't read, and they don't have books in the house, and they sit in front of the TV all day, they can't really expect that much from their children.

I think a big thing for me was that I grew up in a family that always valued books. And they weren't really taught. They were just around – and we all read. It was just something we did. And that sort of what the atmosphere is in my family, as well.

I know it's hard for some kids that are dyslexic, or if they have reading disabilities. Reading doesn't come that easily to all kids, and you can't expect that all kids are going to be huge readers. But I think every human loves stories. And so if they're not reading, tell stories to them. Tell classic stories. Do it orally. Reading time with your kids is a really important thing. Sit down with your kid – and read to them.

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The bad haircut

I do look for universal conflicts and traumas. I can remember these things from being a kid – you know, the bad haircut, or just being late for school. They're kind of ordinary, everyday things. I like to take these mundane things and then build them into these great, huge fantasies – just let the imagination run wild and get very overblown and sometimes overwrought with these things. That's where, to me, a lot of the humor comes from.

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"I used to walk to school with my nose buried in a book." — Coolio