Dan Santat is a very talented author and illustrator of over 60 books. He lives in southern California with his wife, two sons and a variety of pets. In 2015 he won the Caldecott Medal for his book Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend. This prestigious medal is awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children. Dan is the illustrator of our feature book this month, Drawn Together.
MARMALADE BOOKS (MB): In order to convey the language barrier that the boy and his grandfather had in Drawn Together, there was very little text. Your illustrations were so important to the story. How much direction did you get from author Minh Le and/or your editor? And while we’re at it, how did it work for Dude!? This hilarious high concept book (illustrated by you) only has one word by Aaron Reynolds, expressed in many different ways.
DAN SANTAT (DS): Everyone was fairly hands off on the art notes for Drawn Together. Minh was very open to interpretation in his manuscript allowing me to use either Thai or Vietnamese cultural aspects for the story. The story had a dragon in the plot and I knew of a fairly ornate dragon (or serpent) in Thai mythology so I went in that direction also knowing that the decorative clothing in Thai culture would also lend to a very detailed and ornate look for the book. I actually had no idea how the art was going to look in the book because I was exploring the story with the intention that the style of the art was going to reflect that of the characters in the story rather than my own. Spreads typically take me a day to complete, and in this case it was taking me anywhere from three to eight days. I just called the art finished once it “felt right”. I’ve worked with the folks at Disney-Hyperion for years now and they’re generally used to my art process and they know what to expect. My editor, knowing I could typically finish a two page spread in a day called in to my studio asking me if everything was okay because I was being a little quiet. All I could say was, “I think I’m on to something, but I don’t know what.”
I’m glad the book has been received well.
As for Dude!, Aaron was very specific about the narrative of the book because the script absolutely needed that information for me to illustrate the story. The page would say “Dude!” and then have art notes in parentheses to give me an idea what it all meant and what was going on in the story. It was amazing. It was a story that I wish I had written.
MB: While writing or illustrating many authors and illustrators play music that inspires the feeling of what they are working on. Did you have a soundtrack for Drawn Together? I can imagine some great dramatic action music while the grandfather and grandson battle out their artwork.
DS: I’m not really a soundtrack guy when I work. I much prefer watching TV shows and movies while in the studio. I watch everything and it would be hard to nail down what it was I was watching at the time. Game of Thrones, Westworld, and even network TV. On the occasion that I do listen to music I’ll typically listen to a local college radio station located in Santa Monica called KCRW. You can stream them on the internet if you’re curious.
MB: You’ve talked about how much your family has influenced your work. Adventures of Beekle for the birth of your son. (I love that his first word was Beekle). I was very touched when you talked about After the Fall. You’ve said it was a love letter to your wife as she dealt with horrible anxiety and postnatal depression. Do you feel that becoming a husband and a father has changed the way you approach your work?
DS: Yes, I’d say that life experiences have become a huge source of inspiration for me. I typically try to think of a life experience that we can all relate to as people and then I try to convert the emotion that is associated with that particular experience into words and images. I think that capturing that emotion is everything to the story.
MB: Is there an artist that inspires you?
DS: I’m inspired by people who are passionate about anything they do, not just art. I’m inspired by people who love a particular craft so much that they put their heart and soul into it wether it’s cooking, or acting, or whatever. I try to approach my art with an intense love of the thing I’m doing at that moment because I know that the passion will make it the best work I can do.
MB: Your sons are older now but I’m sure they loved to have you read to them. Did you test out your own stories on them and what was their reaction?
DS: I actually never read any of my stories to the kids. They get really embarrassed when they know the underlying context of a story is about them so I spare them the embarrassment. They also love to read what they choose and I don’t want to be the dad that says, “Oh, you want to read Wimpy Kid? No, no. I’ve got something better!”
MB: I’m crazy about so many of your books and I love the extra surprises that you’ve hidden in the books. I have to ask you, was there something special about the date October 24, 2059 in Are We There Yet?
DS: October 24, 2059 is the day my youngest son turns 50 years old. The book is dedicated to him and he’s so impatient about things that I wanted to leave him one more thing to be patient for.
My thanks to Dan for this wonderful interview. You are amazing and I look forward to every new book you are involved in. Pat Oldroyd