Ben Clanton is one of the coolest author/illustrators in children’s literature right now. I found his book Rex Wrecks It! by chance in the picture book stacks of my bookstore and it quickly became one of my favorites. Lucky for us, he’s been very prolific in a very short period of time, so we have many great books to read from him!
We had a great time chatting for this interview. I hope you’ll enjoy it! You won’t be RAWRY you stopped by to read. 😉
Alia: Q1. What are three words to describe yourself?
Ben: Kind, creative, and ambitious. That last one is always what gets me sorted into either Gryffindor or Slytherin even though I feel like a Hufflepuff.
Alia: Haha. Nice. Yeah I’ve been sorted as a Ravenclaw or a Gryffindor. I think I feel more like a Gryffindor but I’m not quite sure.
Ben: Hooray for a fellow Harry Potter fan! I’m far too fond of those quizzes. I take a new one almost every year.
Alia: Have you done the “Official” Pottermore one yet?
Ben: Yes, both the one from the previous Pottermore site and the revamped one. I was a Gryffindor the first time and am now a Slytherin (as much as that pains me to say).
Alia: Yeah I heard that happened to a lot of people and they’re kinda upset, lol. It’s totally understandable though. Identity crisis kind of situation.
Ben: I take some solace in that apparently Merlin was a Slytherin and he wasn’t such a bad guy.
Alia: True, true. I know some great Slytherins. Okay, next question, lol.
Ben: Haha! No promises I won’t steer the conversation back to HP.
Alia: HAHA! Well let’s see how you answer question 2. I feel like HP might have some influence. This is a big question…
Q2. Why picture books? Your art style is very approachable; you could illustrate really anything for kids…
Ben: Great question! And thanks! I do have an interest in exploring & making other sorts of books and content, but picture books are particularly dear to me for a number of reasons. For a start, the format allows for a great range of creative exploration. There are so many options with what you can do with the words and pictures in a picture book that other formats don’t provide. I feel like in chapter books, for example, the illustrations usually parallel the text. But in picture books, the illustrations augment the text or even contradict it. Also, with the picture book there is much less of an expectation that it will follow particular narrative conventions. So that out-of-the-box potential that picture books welcome is a big part of why I love them.
Also, I was a reluctant reader of words as a kid. Chapter books were hard; I didn’t read my first on my own until 4th grade. But picture books I could spend ages with. I loved reading the pictures. Still do! I’m a highly visual thinker.
I also love the general brevity of picture books. They are poetic in many ways. So much can be said in a picture book and of the format.
Alia: Yeah it’s obvious that picture books are what you enjoy creating. You put your heart into each one and it shows.
I’m also a very visual thinker so I’m drawn to the magic of picture books. I agree with you. Their brevity also leaves a lot for your imagination to fill in. A lot of people might say that chapter books do that (obviously they do) but picture books also have room for exploration. Kids know this magic immediately (and some adults). 😉
Ben: Just so! They welcome creativity, interaction, and the really good ones become like a friend that you want to spend every night with just before you go to bed. Something special about that time just before dreams and how you choose to spend those last waking hours. Some kids will form such a bond with a particular picture book that it might even see hundreds of readings or viewings.
Alia: Exactly. It’s a pretty special thing to find a book that you connect to!
Okay next question? 🙂
Ben: Sure thing! I could easily get stuck talking and thinking about the picture book format all day.
Alia: Oh man, me too! But onward!
Q3. Do you like ice cream and if so, what’s your favorite flavor and topping?
Ben: ‘Like’ is not a strong enough word. I don’t like ice cream, I love it!
Ben: Caramel ice cream with hot fudge sauce is my favorite.
Alia: Oooh nice choice.
Ben: I spend so much time in ice cream lines I’ve come up with a few of my books while waiting in ice cream lines. 😉
Alia: Haha really?
Ben: True story! My Narwhal and Jelly series for a start. And both of those characters have a love for waffles which I think might have been a result of the smell of freshly made waffle cones while I was standing in line.
Alia: LOL the smell went right to the creative side of your brain.
Ben: And stuck! Narwhal and Jelly both have a borderline obsession with waffles!
Your favorite flavor?
Alia: I mean, that’s a pretty awesome obsession if you ask me. So many possibilities.
My go-to ice cream flavor is probably chocolate chip cookie dough. I’m not big on sauces or toppings. Just give me the scoops.
Ben: Fair enough! And classic choice! I approve.
Alia: lol Thanks!
Q4. Congrats on your new baby boy, by the way. 🙂 Are you already thinking up stories to tell him?
Ben: Thank you! Lots of stories in the works but none that have been inspired by Theo as of yet. I’m sure there will be many, though! I can’t wait until he is old enough for me to share my stories with him and my favorite books.
Alia: Yeah that’s going to be fun. Some babies are so attracted to color and faces and books.
Ben: Adds a whole new level of specialness to making stories!
Alia: For sure! “My dad makes books” I mean…your coolness factor…
Ben: I wish I had been working on more board books now that I have a baby. But Mo’s Mustache will be coming out as a board book. Rex Wrecks It! too!
Alia: OMG!!! I’m excited!
Ben: Haha! I’ve heard from other authors with kids that their kids aren’t overly impressed because it is just part of their lives. That’s okay with me as it is pretty great to have books be a part of everyday life.
Alia: That makes sense. Right! Your kid is going to grow up with so much richness. All the creativity and that’s great!
Q5. You REALLY like jokes and puns, don’t you?
Ben: I do! I so dearly do! Which, funnily enough, if you just met me on the street and had no idea what my job was, you wouldn’t begin to expect it. I’m generally a fairly serious person. But I do love to play with words and am overly fond of puns (both the bad ones and the good ones).
This is the point where I’m supposed to make a clever joke, but they tend to come to me at the most inopportune times.
Alia: Haha the best ones come organically. I really love how you integrate them into your stories. It’s really fun. I love corny jokes anyway so it’s perfect.
Ben: Haha! Yay! Kindred spirit!
Alia: Yay! I also read that you studied Anthropology? Me too!
Ben: I’m not surprised! I read that open letter you wrote to J.K. Rowling about her new writings involving magic and Native American peoples and it seemed to me you had a solid foundation in anthropological thinking. Told you I might steer things back to HP!
Alia: Ah yes!
Ben: But perhaps that is a conversation for another time as I’m sure we could both get stuck on that particular subject.
Alia: Well, thank you. I really enjoyed studying Anthropology and Native studies. Really enjoyed.
Haha you weren’t lying. 🙂
Yes, for sure.
Ben: I see in your profile photo that you’re holding a copy of Thunder Boy Jr.! Great book! J.K. should have consulted someone(s) like Sherman Alexie!
Alia: Yes! Such a good book. I love that book. I anticipated it for over a year before it came out and both Yuyi Morales and Sherman Alexie came through (of course). Sherman is amazing and yes, she definitely could’ve and should’ve!
Let’s talk a bit about your art, if you don’t mind.
Ben: Much less interesting of a topic. 😉
Alia: Haha! I mean, it’s a hot (and important) topic BUT I do really enjoy your art.
Q6. For Mo’s Mustache, did you really use a mustache as a brush to make the art??
Ben: Haha! Yes, and according to my bio for Vote for Me! I’m nine feet tall and am President of the Universe. What is for sure true, though, is I used elephant poop paper for Vote for Me!. The mustache is admittedly a fib.
Alia: Oh man, I’m too naive, lol.
Ben: Hey, knowing me I might have actually done it!
Alia: Ah, so that’s why the art in Vote for Me! looks speckled but unlike your paint splatters. That’s neat. Yeah I could see you taking a mustache and crafting your own paintbrush. Cause why not?
Ben: Exactly! When I remake that book someday I promise to look into that!
Alia: Yes, please, lol. Or a sequel? *wink wink*
Ben: Haha! Perhaps! I’m finishing a sequel to Rex Wrecks It! called Boo Who? currently and I wasn’t sure that would come about. Wouldn’t say ‘no’ to another with Mo!
In regards to the materials/art question, I do like to use techniques and media that fit with the content of the book. For example, with It Came in the Mail (my latest picture book) mail ephemera plays a big role in the art.
Alia: Oh yeah! I’m really excited about that! Rex Wrecks It! is my favorite of yours.
That’s really cool and probably makes it more interesting for you.
I noticed that with the mail! I have some questions about it later for you! I have a few things I want to mention about your art, if you don’t mind.
Ben: Please! Have you noticed I can’t draw backgrounds? 😉
Alia: lol. You like to splatter paint and draw squiggles and stars?
But it’s actually pretty cool, I think. Some picture books can get too busy and I like how you focus in on what we need to see. In general, I love how your style is so simple but not really; it’s pretty complex. Just a few lines and a pop of color go a long way. You create really cool stories about relationships that are fun to look at. 🙂
Ben: Thanks Alia! Definitely some Mo Willems influence there for me. I like to focus on the characters and story and let the reader fill in the white space. To me this goes back to the question regarding the picture book format . . . less can often be more. That’s what I strive for! And the reader really does bring a lot to the book. It’s a collaboration. I’m not making the book alone.
Alia: Ah yeah I can see that! Definitely. It’s a conversation you’re sending out to people to continue.
Ben: And splatter paint is just too much fun! Also, as I can get somewhat tight when doing final art, it forces me to loosen up and go with it.
Alia: Oh man, it is! I just did a workshop with Hervé Tullet and one of the best parts was when he told us to lift the brush and DROP it on the paper. So fun!
Ben: I’m jealous! Hervé Tullet’s work is amazing! I’ve got to try that!
Alia: It really is! He’s so kind too and you should. It’s very freeing.
Q7. Would you rather have a dinosaur best friend who’s a master chef or a monster best friend who’s slightly better than you at basketball?
Ben: Haha! Tough one! This one requires some serious thought as both are great options. I think I’ve got to go with the monster best friend who is slightly better than me at basketball. I like a challenge! Even more than food! Which is saying something.
Alia: Yeah I agree this is a tough question, lol. Good choice though. You’d probably have more laughs with your monster best friend too (and maybe a few arguments).
Ben: Yes! I think so! Can you make this happen for me?
Alia: Umm I wasn’t expecting that question. Let me see who I can call…I’ll get back to you.
Ben: Figures! 😉
Alia: Haha! Okay Q8. I’m all about stories and characters that reflect our world. How do you feel about the push in the publishing industry to get more diverse characters, stories and authors out there?
Ben: I think it is hugely important! It has been great to see the increasing rhetoric and push to have more diverse books, authors, and industry people.
Alia: I think so too!
Ben: In addition to writing and illustrating books, I’ve been working as an editor-at-large for Sasquatch Books (their Little Bigfoot imprint) for about a year. We’ve had a number of conversations about this!
Alia: Oh wow.
Ben: And whenever I’m with fellow authors and illustrators it has come up a lot recently. We’ve all got to keep at it! Keep moving forward!
Alia: Definitely. It’s important for our children to see themselves in books and to learn about others (and each other). It’s how we build community. Books are important parts of development, yeah?
Ben: I was just trying to formulate something coherent along those lines!
Ben: Yes, way important! Books are such a great space for exploration!
Alia: Definitely. It’s the only space for exploration for some children.
Ben: True! For new topics and familiar ones and subjects that are uncomfortable.
Alia: Exactly. We need it all.
Alia: Q9. Seems like you’re pretty busy (yet amazingly organized). Any non kid-lit books you’re currently reading or strongly recommend?
Ben: Haha! There was a time I wouldn’t have had any recommendations outside kid-lit, but now I listen to a lot of books while illustrating. I’m big into science fiction and fantasy in particular. Recently I’ve been enjoying (?) or at least captivated by the Game of Thrones books. I’m finishing the fifth and will be impatiently awaiting the sixth and seventh. Haven’t watched any of the TV series yet! Red Rising series by Pierce Brown is gripping. And I’ve been listening to a lot of Brandon Sanderson lately.
Alia: Very cool. Oh man, I’m sure you’ll have strong feelings about the series. 🙂 I’m always meaning to listen to audio books but I never do…
Ben: I love audio books! I usually go through 2 or 3 books a week. It’s lovely!
Alia: I think I’m gonna have to try them soon.
Ben: But it has got to be the right voice actor. The wrong voice actor can totally ruin the experience.
Alia: Yeah I’ve heard that. There’s a science to it! Has to feel right.
Q10. Your next book, It Came in the Mail, comes out June 21st (Yay!). Do you mind talking about it a bit? I’ve read it and it’s very sweet. Also what do you hope children take from it?
Ben: Thanks!! It Came in the Mail is particularly special to me. I’ve been working on that one for a long time. Since 2011 I believe. Might have even been 2010. I love mail! I love to get it and I love to send it! And I love the experience of opening a mailbox . . . there is always that ‘what if’ possibility. Perhaps there will be something special in the mailbox. Perhaps something extraordinary and life changing! I’m very good at coming up with elaborate daydreams involving mailboxes. It Came in the Mail is pretty much a love letter to mail! The story itself has evolved a lot since I first had the idea for it. My first take focused a lot on the dragon and became more or less about the pitfalls of having a dragon as a pet. Which was actually quite a fun take, but that wasn’t what I wanted the core of this book to be about. I wanted it to be about the mail and reciprocation. But I didn’t really have a specific message I was setting out to impart.
But I suppose what I hope is that children will be inspired by it to dream big dreams. And send mail! And, perhaps even pay it forward!
Alia: There’s something special about knowing that someone took the time to send you something, isn’t there? Waiting, anticipating or being surprised. I think children will enjoy it; there’s a lot packed in there for them to experience, learn and reflect on!
Ben: Thanks! I hope so!
Alia: You said that you’ve been working on It Came in the Mail for a while…and that you love mail. I think we can see that in your book The Table Sets Itself! It’s obvious that you lovingly spent time on those spreads with the postage stamps and envelopes and letters.
Ben: Haha! Yes! I have a feeling this won’t be the last time mail plays a big part in a book of mine. Even in Mo’s Mustache it all starts with receiving a package in the mail!
Alia: Oh yeah! “Huzzah!” He’s so cute (and frustrated). >_<
Ben: It can be tough being a little monster thing!
Alia: It really can. I’m sure your monster friend will tell you that during a game of pick up, lol.
Ben: Haha! He better not if he is beating me!
Alia: Haha! 🙂
You touched on it earlier and I’m wondering…(Q11.) Did you actually collect the old postcards & envelopes featured in It Came in the Mail and then draw on them?
Ben: Not all of them. Some of those were ones I found online free for commercial use, but many are ones I collected. I would frequent antique stores and thrift stores and seek them out. My wife’s grandmother has a treasure trove of old love letters sent in those classic airmail envelopes! And because of the history of the ephemera (and because drawing on them was a bit daunting) I actually drew on blank paper and scanned the images and combined them with the ephemera in Photoshop. Same for the burned paper in the book. Actually, I got in trouble with my wife over that. I work late and was inspired at two in the morning one night to burn the edges of paper for the dragon illustrations.
Apparently the smell of burned paper is enough to wake someone up in the other room! My bad!
Alia: Ah, I see. I guess that’s the cool thing about technology; you can use it to make so many great effects and art. I love those classic airmail envelopes! They’re lovely.
Haha well I’m glad you decided to do the burned paper. It adds something special to the story and design. I’m a night owl too so I understand completely.
Also, I like the bolder line you use in It Came in the Mail! It looks good and I feel like this book story-wise and art-wise is showing off how much you’ve grown as an author and illustrator.
Ben: Thanks! That is so good to hear! I feel like a bolder and more expressive line is working much better for me than my previous line work. With each new book I’m learning new things. Which can make it hard to look back at books I’ve done. So many things I feel I could do better now! But I suppose it will likely always be that way. Growing pains!
Alia: Yeah, we always look back and think about how we could’ve improved. But I think it looks great!
Q12. Is there any cool place in Seattle that you recommend and like to escape to to relax?
Ben: Seattle has a lot of great places! But I really love to be by the water. The Bainbridge Ferry or Vashon Ferry or really any of the ferry rides around here I find to be particularly relaxing and enjoyable. Great for being inspired too! Oh, and Molly Moon’s Ice Cream is pretty great. Grab some of that and head to the park. Maybe stop by Elliot Bay Books first or University Book Store.
Thanks Ben for taking time to chat with me! It was fun and I wish you the best of luck with promotions for It Came in the Mail! I can’t wait to see it on bookshelves! 🙂
If you’d like to learn more about Ben Clanton, check out his: