Joe Kulka is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book Undercover Ostrich. His other books include The Christmas Coal Man and My Crocodile Does Not Bite. He teaches at the Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for an ostrich attempting to go undercover?
A: I always have my sketchbook with me and one day just started drawing goofy looking birds. One kind of looked like an ostrich and I drew a fedora on him. It reminded me of a gumshoe detective from a bad 1940s crime movie, who of course works undercover.
I immediately liked the idea and the way that sounded like a good book title. I went from there and played around with the silliness of something so large and obvious as an ostrich being able to blend into everyday surroundings.
Q: Did you work on the text first or the illustrations (or did you work on them simultaneously)?
A: It was a lot of back and forth. I drew a bunch of different birds that it would be fun to see the ostrich try to mimic. The text was the thread that helped me make sense of it all.
Q: How did you first get interested in writing and illustrating kids’ picture books?
A: I graduated from the University of the Arts in 1987 and had my portfolio geared towards medical/scientific illustration and editorial illustration.
As I was about a month away from graduation, Charles Santore came to visit our class and showed his work from his first foray into picture books, his version of Peter Rabbit. I was blown away and thought, “Well, too late to take a children’s illustration class now.”
Soon after graduation, I was lucky enough to get a job at a medical publisher’s filling in while one of their staff illustrators went on pregnancy leave. I was thrilled that someone was willing to pay me to draw but after my 11th spleen illustration I realized I didn’t want to do medical illustration forever.
I slowly began transitioning my portfolio from medical to children’s book illustration. It wasn’t until 2000 that I finally got my first children’s books to illustrate. I realized soon that I would like to write as well as illustrate. That took another seven years for that dream to come true when my first book as book author and illustrator, Wolf’s Coming!, was published.
Q: Who are some of your favorite picture book authors and illustrators?
A: Charles Santore is, in my opinion, the greatest living illustrator. How he has not won a Caldecott is beyond me. His work is gorgeous and he is an incredibly nice man. I love the work of David Weisner. Molly Idle is a fantastic illustrator and her Flora books are just a joy. Mark Pett’s work I greatly admire.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Currently I am illustrating a book about holiday cookies fighting over which one is the best cookie. I have a few dummies of my own that I am shopping around and hope to hear good news on them soon.
Q: Anything else we should know?
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Yep. Only you can prevent wildfires! For the past 15 years, I have been working with the USDA Forest Service illustrating all sorts of materials featuring national icons Woodsy Owl and Smokey Bear, including posters, memorabilia, and picture books on both.
And that I teach in the illustration department at Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia, the nation’s only all-women’s art college.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb