Interview: Greg Pizzoli on Children’s Book Design

Philadelphia’s Greg Pizzoli has long been one of my favorite illustrator/designers, and I have closely followed his work at every turn. One of the most exciting developments has been his foray into the world of children’s books, which seems to be turning out one charming success after another.

Greg was kind enough to pull back the curtain on his working process, as well as a part of the publishing industry that many aspire to enter, but where a precious few manage to make it.

Cover and title page for "Number One Sam" by Greg Pizzoli

Cover and title page for “Number One Sam” by Greg Pizzoli

You recently released your second children’s book, Number One Sam—how did the experience differ this time from the process for The Watermelon Seed.
The process was similar in many ways. It’s a completely different story of course, with new characters (though Kroc from The Watermelon Seed makes an appearance) but it’s the same format, and I had the pleasure of working with the same editor, and the same art director, with the same publisher—so I guess the biggest difference was that we had all worked together before, and knew each other so much better. It was a lot of fun.

On these books, do you write the story first, or get inspired by illustrations, or some combination of both?
The Watermelon Seed started with the idea of the child’s fear of swallowing seeds and having a plant grow in your belly. Kroc was a character I used for a lot of promo stuff and really enjoyed drawing, so the two just fit together. Plus, I think it was unexpected to have a crocodile love watermelon—it seems less likely than if he was a pig or something.

Often times the two things—writing and drawing—are happening in different sketchbooks around the same time, and they inform one another, and something that happens in one book makes its way over to the other, and the elements start to collide into stories.

Pizzoli produced a series of fun buttons encouraging young readers

Pizzoli produced a series of fun buttons encouraging young readers.

Many people talk about a desire to do children’s books, but few ever manage to see it through, much less find a publisher. What set you on this path and can you walk us through the process a little of idea to bookshelf?
I’ve always wanted to pair text and images togetherwhether it was my early attempts at weird gig posters for equally weird musiciansor the hand-made zines I made my first year of graduate school at The University of the Arts (where I teach part-time now).

My second year of graduate school I had a mentor who had acquired her mother’s enviable vintage kids book collection, and with it, a love for subversive and funny books. She passed some of that appreciation along to me, and I made a screenprinted children’s bookhand-printed and bound (edition of 100) as part of my graduate thesis. That book, along with promo postcards, helped me get my foot in the door at a NY publisher, and it took a couple more years of lucky breaks, and I was on my way.

The process of idea to book on shelf is complicated and long, long, long. It usually takes about two years from the time I sign a contract for a book for it to hit the shelves. And that’s assuming a relatively free schedule. I know that seems like an incredible amount of time, but the writing/editing and drawing/editing all go through multiple stages and we spend a lot of time finessing, and making it all work the way we want the final to truly be.

Usually I have about a year to do the book, and then it takes another year for the publisher to proof, produce, market, and distribute it. It’s a long process, but there are few things in my life as gratifying as holding a finished book in my hands and reading it to a group of kids screaming with hysterical laughter.

How does your illustration process work? (Are you doing everything by hand and scanning it in? Some hand, some digital? Working by pen or tablet or mouse? Details, details!)
Everything starts with pencil and most everything ends with a Photoshop file. I haven’t yet sent a publisher original drawings or paintings for them to scan. Honestly, the process changes book to book. The Watermelon Seed had a lot of screen printing and Photoshop.

Number One Sam was basically drawing with a Wacom tablet over pencil sketches in Photoshop. For my books with Disney*Hyperion, we always print everything on uncoated paper stock with spot colors, and I think they definitely have a distinctive feel because of it. So, for Number One Sam, I drew everything in Channels, not Layers, which can be a little nuts.

I’ve got another book coming out soon that is a mixture of pencil, rubber stamps and digital, and it’s being printed CMYKbecause it just felt more appropriate for that bookand it should feel really different. I enjoy mixing it up as much as I can.

Cover and interior page from "The Watermelon Seed" by Greg Pizzoli

Cover and interior page from “The Watermelon Seed” by Greg Pizzoli

The Watermelon Seed seems to be a runaway success. What has the reaction been so far for Sam?
Thanks! The response to The Watermelon Seed has been amazing. Winning the Theodore Seuss Geisel Award has definitely been the highlight of 2014. And Number One Sam is doing great as well! It received starred-reviews from three major review publications, and was featured in the New York Times Book Review, which was pretty surreal.

To be honest it’s too early to know how well it’s selling, but people have been writing to me via my website, blog or twitter (@gregpizzoli) and telling me how much their kids are loving it. So it’s out there, and it’s doing it’s job.

Are there any other ideas as far as taking these characters into other commercial areas? I know I would love a stuffed version of Sam!
Not just yetI’m crossing my fingers for a movie firstand then we can worry about the lunch boxes and stuffies!

Pizzoli himself hopping behind the wheel at his book signing

Pizzoli himself hopping behind the wheel at his book signing.

You seem to really embrace the idea of making these book launches special. What are some of the fun things you have done?
Basically we just throw a party and theme it around the book. Like race car themed cupcakes or a cake shaped like Kroc. A lot of cakes, I guesshaha. I really like to do pre-orders to encourage people to order from the local shop in town that hosts my book launches (The Print Center), as opposed to Amazon or another online giant.

So usually I do a screen print that has some art from the book, and for Number One Sam, we made felt pennants that say “Number One,” so the kids (and adults) waved those around and had a unique keepsake. I think it’s important to make it specialthe books can get expensive for people, and for them to take a risk on a book for their kid, when the kid is probably begging for another go at the iPad or whateverit means a lot, and I do what I can to hopefully show how much I appreciate people taking a chance on one of my books.

You also do a lot of traditional illustration, how does the process differ when you are working on a book versus an editorial assignment?
The biggest difference is the time! I really enjoy the process of working for editorial or a product or something that requires pretty quick turnaround because all of the same problem-solving elements to making books are there—it’s just quicker and has less pressure in some ways.

What are you currently working on? Any more books in the pipeline?
So much! Thanks for asking. A book that I illustrated is coming out in August. It’s a Halloween themed counting picture book and was written by Carol Brendler. It’s called NOT VERY SCARY. In 2015 I have two new books that I wrote coming out.

The first is a non-fiction picture book called Tricky Vic: The Impossibly True Story of The Man Who Sold The Eiffel Tower. It tells the absolutely true but totally unbelievable story of a con-artist from the early 20th century who convinced some Parisian scrap metal dealers to buy the Eiffel Tower from him. He also conned Al Capone, and ran a pretty successful counterfeit operation here in the U.S. That’s being publishing by Viking in March.

I also have another picture book coming from Disney-Hyperion: This one is about a little cat who doesn’t like his family very much. One day, he sees an ad in a comic book for a magic diamond that grants wishes. He orders one, and makes a wish … That one is called Templeton Gets His Wish and is coming out May of 2015. Again, it’s printed in spot colors (including a super-bright orange) and I’m finishing up the art now.  Other stuff in the pipelinebut probably too early to mention for now.

Thanks, John! Always a pleasure!