Sunday, July 12, 2015

4 Questions and 4 Sentence Starters with Marc Brown

Good morning, Mr. Marc Brown! Thank you for visiting Watch. Connect. Read. to celebrate the release of your latest picture book, Monkey: Not Ready for Kindergarten. You beautifully capture the emotions and worries of a child/animal about to start kindergarten. I’ve met a lot of children like Monkey on the first day of school.  What planted the seed for Monkey: Not Ready for Kindergarten?

Marc Brown: A few years ago, I gave myself permission to do more of the kind of picture books that I’ve been aching to do while drawing aardvarks and learning about television. That has been an amazing experience but it was time to establish a turning point and do new things. MONKEY is my attempt to deconstruct the picture book and use the very essence of the art to reflect what a young child is feeling. At the outset of making the art for MONKEY, I was greatly influenced by the emotionally expressive drawings and paintings of Cy Twombly. This and other visual influences were internalized and then something clicked and I felt like I was flying as I made the art. I have never enjoyed illustrating a book more. For me this book was a personal milestone.

I heard you speak about your process at Anderson’s Bookshop during your book tour for Arthur Turns Green. Please walk us through how you created one of the two-page spreads for Monkey: Not Ready for Kindergarten.

Marc Brown: The way I approached the art in MONKEY is very different than the way I make the art for Arthur books. MONKEY begins with an underpainting that I hope reflects the feelings that are going on in that scene. I have a very detailed set of drawings in ink that tell me where all the elements of the page will be placed so I know where the negative spaces can be most effective. The negative space in this book became a useful, telling element, so unlike a traditional picture book where the negative space feels rather useless and almost dead. Making the abstract texture of the negative space extend and enhance the primary storytelling elements is what I found so exciting about illustrating this book.

I smiled from ear to ear when I spotted Dancing Feet! in the scene when Monkey’s parents take him to the library. Do you think Monkey’s teacher will read it to the class?

Marc Brown: Let’s have three cheers for Lindsey Craig who wrote the book! She sure knows kids and how to have fun with words. I hope Monkey’s teacher will read it aloud to the class. She appears to be a teacher who likes what she does. Oh, you’re reminding me how much fun that book was to illustrate. My art director at Knopf, Isabel Warren Lynch, suggested incorporating basic shapes within the art that children could discover and this unleashed something in me I didn’t realize was there. The art began to take on a life of its own. There was an immediate freedom in drawing and then cutting out the shapes. I love to read this book and FARMYARD BEAT to very young kids when I visit a school. They naturally join me and it becomes a joyful little chorus of readers.

If we visited your studio, what would we see? 

Marc Brown: I work in two very different studios. In New York City my studio was a tiny garden shed behind our house in the West Village. From above it looks like a piece of pie. You enter my studio through two french doors, so you can see what’s inside. At the widest end on the left, I built a work table that is about six feet long where I stand and work. The walls around my desk are filled with pictures from magazines and working drawings for my books. The other end of the studio is the width of a door and behind it are all the things we need to care for our small garden. The only other thing in the room is a tall Shaker cabinet with two doors comprised of glass panes. Inside you can see a thirty year collection of American blue and white spongeware pitchers.
In 1988 we bought an old farmhouse called Pilot Hill Farm on Martha’s Vineyard that was falling apart amidst a beautiful piece of land near the Vineyard Sound. I immediately fell in love with the place but it took my wife, Laurie, five visits to agree that we should take on the enormous restoration project. We are there almost half the year to tend our gardens, grow things and do our creative work. At Pilot Hill Farm, my studio is above what was an old sheep barn and I have many windows and a very generous space with two large worktables and many white storage drawers where I keep ideas , papers, photographs and memories. I have lots of books, future projects in various states of gestation, a few American game boards on the walls, a large bowl of cloth balls that very young children would play with in the 19th century, I have my Emmy Awards that seem to spend more and more time in the closet and a few favorite painted 18th century Windsor chairs. Too much information?

Not at all! Thank you for taking us through your spaces.

Please finish these sentence starters:

Did you know New York has 1600 places where you can find pizza? Some of them are VERY good. It is my home for half of the year and I never tire of walking and looking and being mostly a spectator in this amazing city. If you haven’t yet walked the HighLine Park or seen the new Whitney Museum of American Art, please do. I love most that this city values its history and yet is constantly growing and changing. O. Henry said it best, “It’ll be a great place if they ever finish it.”

Picture books are the soul and foundation for who we become. Reading them with a child on our lap is one of the best ways to share our values. Every picture book is an opportunity.

School libraries are the heart of the school. The library in my elementary school was kept locked and opened only once a week by a woman with long blood-red fingernails.

Mr. Schu, you should have asked me…”Do you like your job?” I do. I feel like the luckiest person in the world when I go to work each morning because kids are my boss.

Thank you, Marc Brown! 

Borrow Monkey: Not Ready for Kindergarten from your school or public library. Whenever possible, please support independent bookshops. 


  1. Terrific interview! I've been reading the Arthur books with my students for years - they're a fun and safe way to talk about the issues they're dealing with! I also drew a pretty decent Arthur - thanks for the lesson!

  2. As a New Yorker, I couldn't help but chuckle when I read your note about NYC having 1600 places where you can find pizza and some of them are very good. I am a huge fan of Arthur, as is my son. We're looking forward to reading about monkey's adventures in kindergarten.
    Wonderful interview!