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Mr. O'Malley, Sign My Shoe:
A Conversation with Kevin O'Malley

By Anna Olswanger

View an Excerpt from Kevin O'Malley's Resume

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ANNA OLSWANGER: So how long have you been signing shoes?

KEVIN O'MALLEY: I guess I was in fourth grade when I decided to do children's books. I was not a particularly good student. I would tell one kid to bang erasers over another kid's head, and then I would laugh. They sent me to the library which was the “time-out” place if you were outrageous. They put a stack of books in front of you, and for years I thought picture books were either about girls picking flowers or long-dead white inventors. I couldn't stand them. Then I read Where the Wild Things Are, and it changed the way I looked at books.

OLSWANGER: You decided both to write and illustrate children's books when you were in the fourth grade?

O'MALLEY: When I saw Where the Wild Things Are, I thought, “Boy, a guy who gets to draw monsters! That's a marvelous thing.” But it didn't occur to me how marvelous the writing was until much later. Writing is hard. I tend to let the pictures carry the weight when the text should. For the last few years I've been struggling to be a better wordsmith, to balance words and pictures.

OLSWANGER: Is art school the place to learn children's book illustrating?

O'MALLEY: College offers you the expansion of your technique--working in oil, working in charcoal, working this way and that--but I think a children's book illustrator should apprentice. I've offered it to some talented students in this area. I've said, “If you want to save yourself tuition, sit with me for a year and you'll learn a lot more about how a book is made.”

OLSWANGER: What's the most difficult thing for you about illustrating?

O'MALLEY: For me, it's coloring in the pictures. Because once you get the concept down--the layout--you're almost like a performance artist. And time constraints being what they are--I'm trying to make a living exclusively doing children's books--it's very tricky. I can't spend a year on a book. I can't afford to. I did six one year. This year I probably have done three, four, I don't even know. I've been doing so many books, they're rolling together now. And that's a problem because your illustrations, I believe, will begin to suffer.

OLSWANGER: What's your work schedule like?

O'MALLEY: Nine to three, generally, without lunch. By then my head is ringing, and in the summer the attic's too hot. I like getting done at three. I like picking up my kids at school, going out and gardening, hanging around with my neighbors. At 3:00 today, I'll be dry walling my friend's kitchen.

OLSWANGER: How do you decide what medium to use with each book? \

O'MALLEY: I change with whatever the character of the book is. For example, I wanted to do Chanukah in Chelm with the Marx Brothers, which would have meant a 1920's look, but we couldn't secure the rights to the Marx Brothers, or at least Groucho's attorney said no. (Chico's widow is very nice.) So that didn't work, and in subsequent conversations with Jewish friends of mine, particularly parents, they said they wanted nostalgia, a sense of “old worldness.” That meant cross-hatching to me. It meant a lot of line work. And then I used oil to wash color over it--to the great distress of the gallery that sells some of my work. The archivist said, “You painted oil on paper without gesso? It's going to be dead!” Well, that's the look I wanted.

OLSWANGER: And the text is what inspires you to capture a certain look?

O'MALLEY: More important than the text, music inspires me. I try to find music that matches the story I'm working on. With a book called The Box, I found Bella Fleck and the Flecktones. As I turned each page, I could hear the music change. It rolled right over; it was extraordinary. With Rosie's Fiddle, I found some bluegrass players. Right now I'm working on a Mother Goose book, and I want to find the music to ABC News Tonight. There's probably a whole symphonic arrangement out there, and I want to put that on in the background and get the newsy feeling.
     Music is crucial to me, but getting the concept sometimes requires silence. I need to block out the design of the book and make little notes like, “Three characters in this scene close up,” before I get the music going and start doing the pencil work.

OLSWANGER: How important is realism to you?

O'MALLEY: In one of the last pages of Cinder Edna, the man is standing in front of his cottage. You look at the picture and everything is perfectly fine, but if you ask the guy to stand up, he couldn't stand on his own porch. He couldn't fit in his door. The attempt to get all the stuff that I needed into the picture forced me to squash perspective, but I'll be honest: what's important to me is changing now. Drawing each blade of grass doesn't do it anymore. The design, not exact representation of three dimensional space, is growing important. I'm thinking maybe it's the dynamic of the art that kids like. They don't care so much for that detail parents love. If you've got the mood down, if you've got the action of “Art Dog” racing off in his car with a great flame coming out the back, kids will go, “Oooooh!” Does it look like a real flame? Maybe yes, maybe no, but it works.

OLSWANGER: Do you have certain principles that guide you as a writer and illustrator?

O'MALLEY: Sometimes I can see my son sliding away from me when we're reading books together. He'll say, “There's a message coming, a horrible always-say-please-and-never-just-take message coming, and I don't want to hear it.” I was the same as a kid. I didn't need to be constantly harped on. I still hate moralistic stories. I don't particularly care for the political correctness of some of them. I'm all for saving the planet, but some of these books go over the top. So I try to write books for that time when a parent and child are sitting on the couch at 7:30, and the parent's laughing and the child's saying, “Why is Mom or Dad laughing over this part of the book? I don't get it. Oooh, that's cool.” And I try to build a great moment.

OLSWANGER: Do you always agree with your editors about your humor?

O'MALLEY: Sometimes they don't get it. They want to see what we used to call in the audiovisual business “watermelon shots,” pictures of people who have just been handed slices of watermelon. (You have to smile when somebody gives you watermelon.) But that's not the image I want to get across all the time. There's a writer Jean Shepherd--I'm in love with the guy's work--who writes about nostalgia without sentiment. He grew up in the Depression; his Dad was constantly working on his car that had bald tires. This is a sad thing if you look at it one way, but in Shepherd's world, it's part of life. It's a smile. He wrote a story about his dad, who was a fireworks junky, catching his leg on fire with a Roman candle. And he says he remembers his dad running into the house with his pants on fire. But it was the greatest Fourth of July he can remember! Now, an editor reads this and says, “That's not right. We've got to put that fire out and make sure Dad's okay.” But if you write it right, you don't need to say Dad's okay. You know it because it's part of growing up. There's ups and downs. Some editors want only the ups.

OLSWANGER: How much do you collaborate with your editors?

O'MALLEY: I wrote this story that's coming out, Leo Cockroach: Toy Tester, and initially I wrote it like Robert Benchley, sophisticated and talking to the audience. The editor said, “I love this story but maybe you can pare it down.” I said okay, and I tried. She said, “But maybe you can pare it down some more.” I said, “Okay, you're probably right.” I began to like it more as it played out as a straighter story without so much “nudge-nudge-wink-wink.” The editor had strong suggestions and she made it a better book.

OLSWANGER: How much research do you do for your illustrations?

O'MALLEY: One of the things that keeps me going is the ability to draw whatever I need out of my head, by thinking of the structure of the thing. So if I need a phone from the 1920's, I have enough memory to make that phone. But if somebody wanted a realistic representation of a deco phone in a rich man's house, I would have to research it.

OLSWANGER: Did you get your ability to wing it from art school?

O'MALLEY: No, it comes from working for a Christmas display company. I wanted to be able to draw without having to pull reference on things. If they asked you to draw a jingle bell, and you understood how a jingle bell is made, you could draw it. Does it have a seam? Things like that come in. You understand how a chair sits on the ground, how it sits in the environment, the basic structure of it. You understand perspective.

OLSWANGER: Would you ever write and illustrate a book that's not humorous?

O'MALLEY: I want an upbeat ending. I don't want people to go away feeling sad or depressed in any way about the book. But in between it doesn't have to be so static, it doesn't have to be happy-happy-happy. It can roll, even when it gets sad. It doesn't stay sad for long. Great humor writing does both. It is able to touch on humanity and make you laugh about it. But it doesn't take itself so bloody seriously. Why isn't great humor considered great literature? I used to argue this all the time. Why am I reading Death of a Salesman and Death in Venice? Jean Shepherd, why isn't he a great writer? Ambrose Bierce, why isn't he a great writer?

OLSWANGER: What does success mean for you?

O'MALLEY: I used to go to the library and look at the illustrators that I admired but never heard from again. And I thought, please let them be dead. Because if they're not dead, what happened to them? Why aren't they doing it anymore? And one day I went into a shop down at the harbor that sold a t-shirt I designed. I said, “I drew this.” The woman who ran the shop said, “I used to illustrate children's books. I did about twelve, I guess.” I asked her what happened. “There's no money in it,” she said.
     Most children's book writers don't make a living at illustrating. They have to have jobs doing other things. Bernard Waber was an art director up to about ten years ago at Time-Life. That's how he lived. Now, I'm trying to do it without any other means of support. And it can get you down. It can beat you up. But I would love to do this forever because when I get calls or letters from kids who say, “I am this person,” or, “I love that book,” that's the reward. That's the payoff. When you go to a school and they love you, that's the reward. I visit schools as often as I can. I actually enjoy performing more than doing books because when we're doing the retelling of a fairy tale, or we're lampooning Disney for its horrible vision of women and the Ken dolls that are the heroes, the energy just fires up. I start laughing until the tears come out of my eyes. I love it intensely.

OLSWANGER: Have you ever been banned?

O'MALLEY: The first book I ever did, Froggy Went A'Courtin, was banned in Baltimore County. A man accused me of being in league with R.J.R. Nabisco and the tobacco lobbyists because he felt Froggy bore a vague resemblance to Joe Camel. Froggy ran around smoking a cigar and this was enough to convince him I was taking money from the lobbyists. Well, had I known there was money in it, I might have done it!

OLSWANGER: What do you think your legacy will be as a children's book writer and illustrator?

O'MALLEY: My grandmother, who passed away before I was born, did a decoupage of a cottage. Surrounding it were little flowers, and my aunt had this hanging up. It was beautiful. My aunt, my mother, and their brothers thought nothing of it. As they got older, they began to see the value in it and they spent a lot of money to restore the decoupage.
     One of the speeches that I intend to give one day is to try to get parents to do one creative thing in their life--build a bird house, do a decoupage, make a collage--because that thing will be your legacy. Your memory will be turning in that piece long after your children are dead. Your great-grandchildren will say, “My great-grandfather did this, and I can see who he was in this piece.”
     That's the beautiful thing about children's books. I have twenty-five books now, and I think, “If I die tomorrow, my kids will have these things.” It's a nice feeling, a darn nice feeling, I have to say, to know I've left them this legacy. I'm not a religious guy, but it's comforting to me.

OLSWANGER: If you couldn't write and illustrate children's books, what would you do?

O'MALLEY: I would give it all up tomorrow, especially in the spring and the fall, to work in the garden. It is restoring to me, to plant and design. In this little townhouse I'm negotiating with my neighbors to take over their lawn so I can have more room to garden.

OLSWANGER: Have you done a book about gardening?

O'MALLEY: Not so much about gardening, but about order and how as adults you become more orderly and want straight lines. You see people boxing their plants and squaring things off and edging their walks “just so.” In the book a little boy loves to compost things, but it's smelly and messy, and his parents like to kill the weeds with insecticide. For them, order is important. I see it with myself now. I say to my son, “Noah, you're stepping on the Impatiens.” And I think, “Here I am, becoming the orderly guy that my father was, and his father was.”

OLSWANGER: So have your illustrations become more orderly over the years?

O'MALLEY: My abilities have become more orderly. I am able to focus in a more linear manner on the job at hand. Before, it was a bit chaotic. I might move from page sixteen to page thirty-two if the inspiration took me. Now, the only way for me to go is to start on page one and build to page thirty-two. And I'll tell you what else has changed over the years. When my pencils get down to three inches, I glue two pieces together and stick them in there. I've gotten cheap. I see my kids are coloring, and they don't care how much paint they waste. They don't care at all, the little heathens.

OLSWANGER: Any last words?

O'MALLEY: Buy my books.


Kevin O'Malley's latest books that he would like everyone to buy are The Candystore Man by Jonathan London (Morrow, 1998), Colliding with Chris by Dan Harder (Hyperion, 1998), Jump, Kangaroo, Jump by Stuart J. Murphy (HarperCollins, 1998), Leo Cockroach...Toy Tester (Walker, 1999), My Lucky Hat (Mondo, 1999), and Halloween Pie by Michael O. Tunnell (Lothrop, 1999)

Kevin O'Malley's WWW site

Copyright 1999 by Anna Olswanger. All rights reserved.
An earlier version of this interview appeared in
Book Links.

Other interviews by Anna Olswanger are available at Anna Olswanger Books.

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