Stephen Savage at WORDS

Stephen Savage has only illustrated a few children’s books so far, but he’s already becoming a notable name in the field. His debut book, 2004’ Polar Bear Night, was named one of the year’s best by The New York Times, Time magazine, the American Library Association, and others. The follow-up, this year’s The Fathers Are Coming Home,  is earning more enthusiastic reviews, and brings Savage to WORDS in Maplewood for a reading and book signing event on Saturday, December 11, at 2 pm.

Savage spoke on the phone from his home in Brooklyn to talk about his work as a children’s book illustrator…

What is different about illustrating for children vs. adults?
The main difference is that the storytelling part, the narrative part is different. A picture book is for very young kids and it’s like a little movie—a simple movie with simple characters and broad strokes. They’re often stories about animals, and you use the most basic storytelling you can. People who want to do children’s books sometimes forget that and make it overly complicated.

How did you get connected with the story for The Fathers Are Coming Home?
I’d done Polar Bear Night, and someone at Simon & Schuster saw that book and thought I’d be right for this book by [Goodnight Moon author] Margaret Wise Brown. They told me it was an old manuscript that had never been published and they thought it was like Polar Bear Night: a little bit retro, a lullaby, a goodnight book. They wanted everything to look iconic and classic and timeless, like it could have been done in the 1940s.

What did you try to bring out in the Fathers story?
Even for families without fathers, the book is really about different kinds of families. The fathers who are coming home can just be a parent coming home or a single parent. A kid reading it is going to imagine all these different kinds of families of different sizes and different species. The book is saying that they’re all families. I think it works today because there are so many different types of families—some kids are adopted, some come from multi-racial families, etc.

What’s different when you’re illustrating someone else’s story as opposed to your own?
This was the second book I’d done, so I was used to looking at someone else’s text and reacting to it. But now I’ve done a book, Where’s Walrus?, where I came up with my own story. It’s hard to do both things. As you illustrate books with other people’s text, you’re learning story mechanics while illustrating. Maurice Sendak illustrated tons of books before he wrote Where the Wild Things Are.

Tell me about Where’s Walrus?
It’s a wordless picture book about a walrus that escapes from the zoo. He’s chased by the zookeeper and he keeps trying on different hats to elude the zookeeper. I was thinking a lot about Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, and the zookeeper is like a Keystone Kop. The book is like a silent movie.

What do you like about doing in-person events like the one at WORDS?
A visual artist doesn’t have contact with the audience like a musician does. When you do an event, you’re really seeing who the book is for. Kids respond to the book and you realize it’s working. Initially you’re doing the book for yourself, but the events make you realize it’s going out into the world.

Stephen Savage Reading and Book Signing
All ages.
What: Meet children’s author and illustrator Stephan Savage and hear him read from his new book The Fathers Are Coming Home.
Where: WORDS, 179 Maplewood Avenue, Maplewood, NJ.
When: Saturday, December 11 at 2 pm.
Cost: Free.

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