Peter Brown | The Curious Garden
October 26, 2009
Dr. Kent: Welcome back to Sound Authors. It’s my pleasure on the show to welcome Peter Brown, who has written a gorgeous book, and the book is called, ‘The Curious Garden.’ Welcome to the show Peter Brown.
Peter Brown: Thanks for having me.
Dr. Kent: Your website is equally as fun and fascinating as your book. It’s at once retro and new. Tell me about this book, ‘The Curious Garden.’
Peter Brown: ‘The Curious Garden,’ was inspired by a real place called the High Line which is an elevated railway in Manhattan that was used for about 75 years to transport commercial goods up and down the west side of Manhattan, and then in 1980 they shut it down, and for about 30 years, what happened was all sorts of wildflowers, and plants and trees started growing there, all by themselves. It became this sort of strange urban wilderness area up on this elevated platform in the middle of Manhattan. So I was really inspired by that, and I began noticing other places like that, other examples of nature kind of surviving in unlikely places. So I decided to make a story about a boy who discovered nature living in a really unlikely place – in the middle of his gray, dreary city, and then he takes care of it.
Dr. Kent: It’s such a great word, ‘curious.’
Peter Brown: It means a lot in this book too because the boy’s curious. His curiosity leads him to discover the few scraggly plants in the beginning of the story. The plants in the garden sort of take on their own personality: they’re curious, and the plants begin exploring the forgotten corners of the city. The concept of curiosity is a big part of the story.
Dr. Kent: So you are both the author and the illustrator, which I love because I’m a huge fan of Doctor Seuss, and a lot of those early books kind of have the vibe that your book has. You’re looking at it, and it’s art, and it’s tangible, it’s simple, but it’s also got that level of complexity to it. Who were your role models in figuring out how to do all this, and how do you work in both text and artwork?
Peter Brown: Well, I’ve loved storytelling ever since I was a kid. I had a great time writing silly little stories and drawing pictures for as long as I can remember. Some of the books that really made me want to make picture books were ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ by Maurice Sendak, and a lot Dr. Seuss’s books, and later in life, when I was in art school, I discovered a book called, ‘The Stinky Cheese Man,’ by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith which was really inspirational to me. Those are some of my influences.
Dr. Kent: ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ is now a movie. I’m actually planning on checking it out tonight. I’m a kid at heart.
Peter Brown: I actually just watched it a couple of hours ago on the IMAX. It was really great. So you’ll have a good time.
Dr. Kent: It’s one of those books that, when I was a kid, I opened up that book, ‘Where the Wild Things Are,’ and you’re transported to a new world. I’m just looking at one of the layouts from your book, and there are these scenes, scenes with all sorts of little fun details, and there’s the kid way in the background. How do you picture these scenes in your mind before you sketch it out?
Peter Brown: This book was a long time coming. I first discovered the High Line, the inspiration for this book, back in 2002, and was kicking around this idea for years. Over the course of about five years, I was visualizing all different scenes of the world that I was slowly solidifying in my imagination. In that period of time, I’d do everything, I’d do tons of different scenes, most of which never made it into the book, the best of which did make it into the book. I had a lot to work with when I actually sat down and sunk my teeth into this project. I had a lot of background material to work with at that point. I really just imagined what it would be like to be this kid, to be Liam living in his dreary, grey city, and there’s not much color, there’s really no parks or trees or greenery or anything like that. Then all of a sudden he discovers a few things that are just barely surviving. I pretty naturally slipped into that kind of perspective and the story began to unravel itself before my eyes once I really got into his mindset. The perspectives in the different scenes just sort of made sense to me. He takes care of the garden and the garden recovers and thrives and spreads down the railway, and then out across the city. It had its own logic to it, and a lot of the illustrations reflect that straight line that I saw from the beginning of the story to the big finale.
Dr. Kent: Do you picture your reader when you’re writing this? Do you go back to being that age – the age of your readers? How do you get into the mindset of writing these books?
Peter Brown: I definitely have a big imagination and I definitely enjoy trying to picture the world from the point of view of my audience. I don’t have tons of interaction with kids. Some people will either have their own kids, or they’ll go to some sort of place where they can read their stories that they’re working on to an audience of children. I actually don’t have that – at least not yet. For me, it’s more about just remembering my childhood and remembering how I saw the world, remembering what was really exciting to me, or mysterious, or confusing, or funny, or silly. I spent a lot of time thinking about the things that I did for fun when I was a kid.
Dr. Kent: In your bio, you talk about your grandfather, who loved to paint. How did you get into this? Of course, at a very, very young age, you crafted some books of your own, and you painted and drew. How did you get into all of this?
Peter Brown: I grew up visiting my grandparents and seeing my grandfather hunched over his desk, painting these little landscapes mostly from memory of places he’d seen on trips. Some things were more abstract as well. So I grew up realizing that making art was a good use of one’s time. I followed in his footsteps. He was never a professional artist, he was just an amateur artist, but I still learned that lesson. So I just drew, and I knew that that was a perfectly good thing for me to be doing. Like most kids, we wanted to be good at something, almost anything would be fine, so the thing that I happened to be good at was drawing. Once I got labeled as the artsy kid in class, I just went with it. I took that as permission to just be the art kid, and I just drew like crazy. That was how I started on my path to making art. A lot of the art that I would make would be telling stories, coming up with interesting characters, or interesting scenes that told a story. It was at a young age that I really fell in love with the storytelling, both with words and with pictures.
Dr. Kent: How do you do your final illustrations? Is it all on paper? Do you use your computer at all? What’s your method?
Peter Brown: I sketch the book out with pencil, and I’ll use the computer to cut and paste different little drawings that I might have done, to put them together in a single composition. Before I ever sit down to paint the final art, I’ll have each page printed out. I’ll have a computer printout of each sketch, but that sketch will be composed of different things that I cut and pasted all together. That’s the extent of my use of the computer. Although I do use the computer for color studies, so I’ll plan out the color for each illustration on the computer as well. Then when I sit down to make the final artwork, which is all done by hand with paint – with acrylic and guasch paint – I have these finished sketches; I have the finished color studies, so all the decision making is done, and really it’s just about me looking at those things as reference and putting paint on the canvas. I don’t paint on paper, actually. I paint on what’s called illustration board, which is essentially heavy duty cardboard with a really nice toothy paper surface to it.
Dr. Kent: How would you describe your style? It kind of has a little bit of – when you said your grandfather painted miniatures – it almost has a little bit of that feel to it, a little feel of American primitive. How would you describe your style in these books?
Peter Brown: I would say, my early books, ‘Flight of Dodo’ and the charter books, it was more dimension, it was more light and shadow and form. ‘The Curious Garden’ is a little bit flatter. For the earlier books, I was really trying to combine naive art, art by self-trained artists that have almost a childlike quality to them – I was trying to combine that sensibility with something like what you’d see in a Pixar movie: these realistic, detailed, rendered, dimensional forms of art. I thought if I could find a way to combine this really modern, hyper-realistic Pixar style with this childlike, naive art style, I could come up with something cool. So that’s what I was doing for the first few books. With ‘The Curious Garden,’ it’s similar to that, but as I said, this art is a little bit flatter, there’s not as much dimension to the shapes. Mostly because I knew there was going to be so much detail: so many flowers, so many bricks, and birds, insects, and flower stems, and all that kind of stuff. I wasn’t going to have time. It just wasn’t going to be practical for me to render every single detail as thoroughly as I had in some of my earlier books. So that’s why this book feels like my art, but with a little bit less dimension to it.
Dr. Kent: Tell me a little about your earlier books. It’s all great stuff. You’ve got ‘Chowder,’ and ‘Barkbelly’ and ‘Flight of the Dodo.’ How did you come up with these concepts? Are they still out there? Are you still promoting them?
Peter Brown: Yes. ‘Flight of the Dodo’ was my very first book. It was my first born, which is about a penguin who’s a flightless bird, obviously, and he gets pooped on by a flying bird, and decides that he’s had enough and he wants to see what flying’s all about, once and for all. So he gets his flightless friends together, and they build this hot air balloon. The fact of the matter is that I’ve actually, as silly as it sounds, I’ve actually been pooped on by a lot of birds over the course of my lifetime. One of those times just got me thinking. It was a pretty embarrassing incident: I was on a date, actually, with a girl. I remember being really embarrassed and humiliated, and for some reason I thought to myself: you know what would be even worse than what I’m going through right now is if I were a flightless bird being pooped on by a flying bird. As soon as that idea popped into my head, I knew I had something. So I jotted it down, and from there, that story wrote itself after that point. So that was a lot of fun.
Dr. Kent: You jotted it down on a napkin and impressed your date?
Peter Brown: I always bring my little notebook with me wherever I go. I was in the public restroom and [laughs], I don’t even think I’d finished cleaning myself up before I started jotting down these ideas. I think she was impressed that I was able to turn those lemons into lemonade, so to speak. There was not a second date, unfortunately.
Dr. Kent: [Laughs] At least you got something out of it, exactly.
Peter Brown: I really did. It was probably the best date of my life.
Dr. Kent: There’s a little spot on your website, it’s called, ‘My First Book,’ and then you’ve got this little how to build your own little book for kids. It shows a book that you actually put together at six years old or so.
Peter Brown: That’s right.
Dr. Kent: Were you digging through old materials, and there it was? Or was this something that your folks said, ‘Hey, do you remember you did this?’
Peter Brown: When ‘Flight of the Dodo’ first was published, my mom sent me a little care package, including a lot of artwork that I made when I was a child. One of the things was this book, ‘The Adventure of Me and My Dog Buffy,’ which was the first book that I ever made for fun when I was six years old. I had completely forgotten about it. As soon as I saw it, it really brought me back. The funny thing is, that books is about a tree-climbing dog, and that factors into the story, because he can see out into the forest. Peter and his dog get lost in the woods and Buffy climbs the tree and he can see their house far away. As I was discovering this book that I’d made when I was a child, I was working on ‘Chowder.’ The really weird thing was that at that exact moment I was actually working on this illustration of Chowder the bulldog in a tree, which is a weird coming-around-full-circle back to this idea I’d had as a kid, but I hadn’t even thought about it. So maybe somewhere in the back of my head I have this obsession with tree-climbing dogs.
Dr. Kent: That’s great.
Peter Brown: So, yes, that was the first book I made. I made other books after that, but that book has been really handy because I do quite a bit of school visits these days. I go to schools and libraries all over the country, really, and do these presentations and I brought that book with me, the first book I ever made, and it’s been a great addition to my presentation. The kids get to see this book that I made when I was their age, and it’s a fun little story, but it’s certainly not brilliant; it’s just kind of silly – the kind of things that they’re working on, so it drives home the point that if they like writing and drawing, they should stick with it, because they could really do something with it, the way I have. The teachers of course love that I’m teaching that lesson to their students.
Dr. Kent: Right. All of your websites are fun to play around in also. Your Chowder website is very simple; it looks like a normal webpage, the pictures aren’t moving, and then all of a sudden, Chowder of course is drooling. Do you do those Flash illustrations also?
Peter Brown: Yes, I make my websites myself. My knowledge of Flash is quite limited, but I know enough to add some fun little details to my website. So, yes, the drool coming off of Chowder’s tongue was a lot of fun. On my website, Peter Brown’s Studio dot com, there’s this windmill that’s turning.
Dr. Kent: I like the sheep.
Peter Brown: Yes, you can roll over the sheep with your cursor, and they ‘Baa,’ and they run all over the place. I have a lot of fun with those websites, but they always end up being a lot more involved than I imagine. I always think I can bang it out in a couple of weeks, and six weeks later I’m still sort of slavering away on these things.
Dr. Kent: The books are fantastic. ‘The Curious Garden’ is out there in stores. It’s for children from three to eight, but honestly, I’m a huge fan of children’s books. I think it should be three plus.
Peter Brown: Yes, I agree, thank you.
Dr. Kent: It’s called ‘The Curious Garden.’ Awesome illustrations in there. I hope to chat with you again some time.
Peter Brown: Oh, thank you so much. This has been great.