I really loved it when Judy Schachner, New York Times best-selling author/illustrator, told me “immmersing myself in my girls’ books and dancing in the living room with my kids was the best training for putting my dreams on the table.” Suddenly, I have a renewed energy for my boys’ request to play “baby and mama cheetah” for the millionth time.
Over the past two decades, Judy has sold millions of children’s books. Her current offering – the wildly popular Skippyjon Jones series – has hit The New York Times bestseller list multiple times and is so hot it’s being turned into a movie, a musical theater production, and a line of adorable product created by acclaimed children’s clothing designers Cozy Toes. Skippyjon Jones is beloved by everyone from school kids to teachers and parents to bold-face names like Gwenyth Paltrow and Padma Lakshmi.
My kids turned me on to Skippyjon Jones after their teachers read a book at school. I instantly saw the draw: rhythmic text; supercute Siamese cat who pretends to be a heroic chihuahua called El Skippito; the fun way that “Holy Guacamole!” rolls off the tongue. And as you’ll see in the q&a, Judy herself is so endearing because, despite all her success, she exudes a grounded sensibility and humbleness. She’s a living example of “follow your bliss and the success will come.”
If you’re not familiar with the books (board books, too), get them (or win them – see below) for your kids or someone else’s because Skippyjon Jones is the scrappy, energetic character that has qualities we can all relate to…if you’ve ever needed a “Calgon moment” you know why the idea of pretending to be somewhere else is necessary.
And for those who need to embrace Skippy fully, there’s loads of cute Stuff to get decked out in. See it here and enter the code STUFF at check out to receive Free Shipping. (in full disclosure, I received a sample of the cape and mask and can tell you that it’s incredible quality)
(A) Check out the great Skippyjon Jones Stuff — enter the code STUFF at checkout for Free Shipping!
(B) WIN A SKIPPY PRIZE PACKAGE:
TWO SKIPPY BOOKS AND A HAT (adult or kid)…PLUS TWO BOOKS FOR YOUR SCHOOL!
There are a bunch of ways you can enter (enter until 4.25.11):
1) Follow Mom Culture or Skippyjon Jones on facebook
2) OR tweet about the contest
3) OR blog about it with a link back to the Mom Culture website
4) OR post about the contest on your facebook page.
(And not to exclude those who don’t tweet, facebook or blog – if you do none of those things you can just leave a comment on this blog post)
**Remember to leave a separate comment here on this blog post for each thing you did to enter. (e.g., if you do two different things you’ll leave two comments stating what you did and have two chances to win)
You started your professional art career at Hallmark. How did you transition from greeting cards to children’s illustration?
I was an illustration major in college. Children’s book illustration was not offered as a major, but I loved that kind of illustration and thought maybe I’d want to do that one day. After I graduated, I had an interview with the publisher Houghton Mifflin in Boston. They liked my work, but at the same time I was offered a job at a greeting card company in New England so I took that and then moved to Kansas City with Hallmark.
I didn’t love the greeting card work and I left Hallmark after a year because I was homesick. Not long after that I met my husband and had an opportunity to put my efforts into creating a portfolio of children’s illustration. I started it in 1979, but then we moved and had kids. I felt so fortunate to be able to stay home with my kids and I focused on that.
After reading hundreds of books to my kids, I felt really strongly again that I needed to illustrate children’s books. At some point, I couldn’t keep talking about it – I just had to do something. When my youngest started school full time, I returned to working on my portfolio and gave myself a year to “make it” in the business. I contacted many children’s book publishers in New York and asked for appointments to show my portfolio. I had really great interviews with the publishers who saw me, and then someone at Crown (an imprint at Random House) asked if I also wrote stories to go with my illustrations. I told a lie: I had no intention of writing, but I said “of course I write.”
So what was your first book as author and illustrator?
I took my Great Aunt May character from my portfolio and turned it into a story called Willy and May. It was actually published by Dutton (an imprint of Penguin), not Crown, because I was illustrating a chapter book for Dutton at the time and they, too, asked if I wrote stories to accompany my illustrations. I showed them Willy and May, and they scooped it up. I’m still with Dutton today and have had the same editor, Lucia Monfried, for 20 years.
Talk more about pursuing your passion once your kids were in school full-time.
My mom passed away when I was a child. Having the opportunity to be a mother, share time with my kids, own my own home — these things felt like a dream that my mother never got to have. My favorite job was being a mother and that period of time when my kids were young was a really nurturing time for me. Immersing myself in my girls’ books and dancing in the living room with my kids was the best training for putting my dreams on the table.
For the aspiring writers, how does the publishing world work today: do you have to have an agent or can you get appointments as you did?
Even back then people said I needed an agent. I don’t know what it is about me, but when someone says I can’t do something, I just go ahead and do it anyway. I don’t think about it and have a big plan, I just feel it out. I still do not have an agent.
When I started doing this, it wasn’t about money for me. We lived simply. My first children’s illustration job took me nearly a year to complete and consisted of 74 illustrations. I made $4000. No one goes into children’s books for the money – you do it because you love it. I never asked for a raise, I just figured that if my books sold, things would work themselves out. I loved the people I was working with and learned so much along the way.
Let’s talk Skippyjon Jones — this character and these books are a huge success. Why do you think Skippyjon Jones resonates with the kids?
I think kids love stories with animals as main characters and they love humor. The kids identify with this cat who has a lot of energy, is tenacious, and truly believes he’s this other character (a chihuahua.) Kids love to pretend to be someone else. My own daughter pretended to be an American Red Fox for the first 8 years of her life and my youngest daughter wore goggles and a leopard print silk scarf that she used as a cape and said she was John Lennon.
When I would go to school visits for my earlier books, I would take a slide show that showed my pets and other things that inspired me and the kids related to that. They also loved it when we would pretend to be different characters, whether it was putting on a Spanish accent and pretending to be a great bullfighter, or asking them to say something with a British accent.
Kids also might be connecting to the fact that Skippy looks a bit different from his siblings, that he’s being raised by a single mom, and he’s the only boy in the family — he’s a bit of an “odd man out.” And despite his mischief, Skippy is loved unconditionally by his mom, Mama Junebug Jones. I get letters from kids who really love that aspect.
Skippyjon Jones Class Action, the book that will come out this summer, includes a character who is considered a bully. There’s a lot of focus on bullying in schools today – is the forthcoming Skippy book a response to this current issue?
Not really. I wrote the book mainly because so many kids told me they wanted Skippy to go to school. In this case, the song “Wooly Bully” was in my mind and I often include an allusion to something in pop culture. The idea of a bully at school is always scary and I was bullied as a kid by a girl in school, but the bully in this book is not meant as a statement. The bully character is there as the problem that Skippy and his friends have to deal with, but in the meantime they get to be at school, go into classes, and meet other students like the poodles which were so fun to illustrate.
What was the turning point – when did you realize that Skippyjon Jones would be a series?
When I did my first book, I had no expectation that he would turn into a series. But after the first book was published, there was a great reaction and a demand for another book. The book started to gain a lot of traction through word-of-mouth and because of my visits to schools, libraries, and book stores.
I always say there’s a cult of Skippy. The most gratifying thing is that there are many adults who love to get into character and read the books to their kids.
Let’s talk about how you create. Do you write first or illustrate first?
I start with a journal. For example, the title of the book I’m currently working on is Cirque de Ole and was inspired by my cats walking on the 2nd floor banister. I looked at loads of books on circuses and then put anything that inspires me in my journal: sketches, words, things I cut out from magazines. By the time I finish filling my journal I have all this good stuff to put into my book.
When I begin to actually create the book, I do everything by hand. I start by folding 16 pieces of paper in half to get a 32-page book. Then I go back and forth between writing and illustrating, depending on what’s flowing that day.
What is your medium?
Acrylic and some pen and ink.
The movie rights to Skippyjon Jones have been sold. Will you be involved with the story or animation? (James Keach, producer of Walk the Line, and his producing partner Trevor Albert (Groundhog Day) picked up the rights)
No, but I have spoken with the animation studio and writers.
It fascinates me that someone is going to copy your illustration and writing style. Will you give any input in terms of a story idea?
They want me as involved as I want to be. The thing that’s important to me is the sensibility of the story. Skippy is an innocent – he might get into some trouble, but he does so almost naively. That’s the story I want to convey: he has a great imagination, he has a family and a loving mother. I suggested that it might be interesting to do a backstory — where did Skippy come from, who is his father? I joke that his father is Tom Jones (of “What’s new pussycat?” fame.)
So they are free to write a creative treatment, but they also say there’s no point doing it if I’m not happy.
What’s the estimated release date?
They say it takes about 3 years, so not for a while. But in the meantime, Theatreworks USA is doing a Skippyjon Jones musical. I gave them input and they did a fabulous job writing the story and music.
How does it feel to have spawned a Skippy industry that includes a film, musical, books, and products?
Incredible. I never expected it or looked for it. This is a life I never dreamed I’d have. I just added a studio on to my house to do my work and it’s amazing to me because I didn’t even always have my own bedroom growing up.
Did you have a creative upbringing or a creative mentor?
Because my mother had breast cancer and was ill and died when I was young, sometimes a relative stay with us to help out and I would have to give up my room. I put my things in a box and stayed in the living room, so I had no bedroom at times, but I did have an attic. The attic was my space. When my mother was alive, she believed in letting kids’ legs dangle and letting kids play.
I truly believe you need to give kids space to create and I was often left alone to play as a kid. I was given loads of paper and I hung it up along the bathroom wall and would draw, draw, draw. I drew with the door closed because I didn’t want anyone to see me, but I made these characters come alive. Little did I know it was such an intense practice for what I do now.
So drawing was your catharsis?
It was. It was my safe release where I could draw myself into all kinds of fantasies and it took me far away from the sadness I was experiencing. My imagination saved my life.
How did you encourage your own kids’ creativity?
I really believed in playing; we read a lot; we only watched tv on special occasions. I made costumes and had a lot of art supplies around. I would get my kids started on something and then let them go. I wasn’t their playmate or teacher, but I gave them the tools to do things. Our big extravagance was a 29 foot Viking ship in our backyard (the inspiration for Judy’s book, Yo Vikings; see a news story about it here)...link is small in the middle of this page of her website)
My favorite snack is: Peeps
Don’t ask me to: Make a phone call
I would put into a time capsule my: Cats’ fur balls which I have been collecting (I had to ask Judy why she’s collecting them and she said that she wants to make a necklace out of them because really they’re just boiled wool…you have to love an artist’s perspective)
My favorite place is: Home
When I have a creative block I: Read
My favorite mantra is: Stop talking about it and just do it