Sunday, April 7, 2019

Q&A with Stephen Savage

Stephen Savage is the author of the new picture books The Babysitter from Another Planet and Sign Off. His other books include Little Plane Learns to Write. He lives in Brooklyn.  

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Babysitter from Another Planet? 

A: I’m always racking my brain for new ideas. As a picture book person you have to come up with something that will interest not only my editor, but me. Often when you come up with ideas, it’s a difficult process. You come up with a bunch of stinker ideas, but you don’t know if it’s good or a stinker at the time.

This book started as a title. I came up with the title first. That has never worked for me before, but with this one, I wrote a draft, and another draft, and showed it to my agent, and she thought there was something there. Babysitting is a pretty universal theme for kids. 

And there was the film The Brother from Another Planet years ago, by John Sayles. I loved the title. I don’t think it’s good advice for anybody to start out by writing titles, but it worked!

The character [of the babysitter], I stumbled upon in the second draft. She’s a Mary Poppins figure, a perfect figure. In literature, the babysitter is always way better than the parents.  

Q: We talked the last time about whether the text or the illustrations come first for you, and you mentioned that in this case the text came first, and you also talked about the mid-century, Mad Men feel to the illustrations. How did the text and the illustrations work for you with this book?

A: The text is always the starting point. I’m working on a new book. I have the text written, and I go back and read the words as I’m making the illustrations….

The pictures can show you how to supplement the idea. The mid-century setting is not in the text, but it ends up being a nice part of the story. Kids don’t know what mid-century is, but they might like the setting… The Incredibles has a mid-century setting. There’s something that’s visually [appealing] for kids.

Something will be introduced in the text and finished in the illustrations. The nightlight is broken, and the babysitter smiled—and she’s a glowing nightlight. I thought she could use her finger, like E.T., but it didn’t work. My editor, Neal Porter, suggested making her the nightlight.

None of that is in the text—the picture is like the punchline to a joke. Without the framework of the idea, that she’s the perfect babysitter, it wouldn’t make sense. 

Q: You have another new book coming out, Sign Off, a wordless picture book. What was the inspiration behind it?

A: It was a completely different process, nothing remotely similar to the approaches I’d used. If you use the same approach over and over, you get the same book.

I was walking down 5th Avenue in Park Slope, where I live, and I saw a construction man sign. Everything in New York is so old, they’re always fixing it. The character was dutifully digging. What if he was tired, and wanted to take a break? Go and have some fun?

The idea [was] that characters jump off their signs and have fun. It had to be at night—there’s the idea in literature that when you’re sleeping your toys have fun.

Creating a complete story took a long, long time. It took maybe 30 drafts to try to flesh it out into a bigger story. It had to have characters and a climax. People would say, I don’t see this as a full story. Where do you go with it?

I met Allyn Johnston, who publishes Beach Lane Books, at a wordless book panel. She said she’d be happy to look at [the book]. At the time it had some words in it…She said it had to be wordless—it’s the language of the signs. They have to exist in a wordless world. 

It was a lot of trial and error. The idea of the characters making the sun rise just happened accidentally. The book is 56 pages, twice as long as a normal picture book. That was another story to negotiate, to make it be a story.  

Q: Can you say more about what you’re working on now?

A: I’m doing a sequel to The Babysitter from Another Planet. We’re not sure exactly what’s going to happen and what would make sense. It’s The Return of the Babysitter from Another Planet. The language of these books is like ‘50s monster movies, even though it doesn’t end up being a scary story. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Stephen Savage.

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