Tom's illustrating career began when his nephew wrote a letter asking his Uncle Tom to draw his favorite thing: a pirate. That letter inspired his first book.
Over twenty years later, Tom is still creating books with a child's perspective in mind. I think we share the sentiments of many, many children and parents by wanting to send a huge "Thank You!" to his nephew for inspiring Tom's debut into the world of children's literature.
Parents, be on the lookout for some of Tom's forthcoming work, which he mentions at the end of the interview. One of his latest projects is "Groovy Joe," a series by Tom and Eric Litwin. Their first book, 'Groovy Joe: Ice Cream and Dinosaurs' was released this week. The second book in the series is on his drawing board right now.
Tom was kind enough to answer some questions about his work, motivation, and how we as parents can inspire our children to lead creative lives. Here is our interview with Tom Lichtenheld:
You have an incredibly impressive body of work, including six NY Times best sellers. Do you have a favorite or particularly special book that you’ve created?
Books are like children – I try not to have favorites – but some are special, and for different reasons. ‘Everything I Know About Pirates’ will always be special because it was my first book and because I wrote it for my nephew. From that experience I learned that I do my best work when I write or illustrate with a single, particular child or person in mind.
How did you find your style?
I developed my style from many influences, like Mad Magazine, R. Crumb, and Bill Watterson.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
Getting responses from kids is very rewarding, because it means I’m reaching them and bringing joy. I also appreciate that I can show them that reading is fun.
You have worked with Amy Krouse Rosenthal on a number of successful books over the years. How did that collaboration begin?
We met through a mutual friend and immediately hit it off as creative collaborators.
Does your prior experience in the advertising world impact the decisions you make creating children’s books?
Definitely. What I learned from working in advertising is the importance of ideas, the linkage between words and visuals, how to take criticism, and the fun of collaboration.
What was your favorite children’s book when you were growing up?
Yes. I always loved to draw, and my parents sent me to art classes.
When did you realize that you wanted to be an author & illustrator?
When my first book got published – almost by chance – and I discovered how much fun it was.
Do you ever have creative slumps? How do you get out of them?
Yes. I ride my bike and ask for advice. I also keep in mind that creativity is not a fluke or a novelty – it’s my job, so I just need to put my head down and keep working.
How does one decide what a frustrated bird looks like, like you were able to do in ‘Sing!’?
It’s all in the eyes and mouth. I imagine the feeling, then draw it quickly and simply.
What other authors/illustrators inspire you?
Oh man, lots of them. Jon Klassen. Lane Smith. Oliver Jeffers. Marla Frazee. And I get especially excited when I discover new authors/illustrators who are coming up with fresh ideas.
From start to finish, what is your favorite part of the process of creating a children’s book?
Definitely the very beginning, when I’m just dabbling with ideas and anything is possible.
I understand it took four years to get your first book, ‘Everything I Know About Pirates,’ published. Why didn’t you give up?
Well, I was pretty sure it was a good idea, but I almost did give up. Then I was fortuitously introduced to a literary agent, who liked it, and sold it to a publisher within months.
Do you have any words of wisdom for parents to encourage creativity in their children?
For young kids, give them time and space – unstructured and undisciplined with no expectation of what will come of it. For older kids, if they have aspirations in a creative field, keep in mind that one can make a living with creativity, but it may take more resourcefulness than would be needed for a conventional career path.
What new projects are you working on that can readers look forward to?
I recently finished the artwork for the sequel to ‘Goodnight Goodnight Construction Site,’ which is called ‘Mighty Mighty Construction Site.’ Both are written by Sherri Duskey Rinker. It releases in spring 2017. Currently on my drawing board is the second book in the Groovy Joe series written by Eric Litwin, ‘Disco Party Bow-Wow,’ which will release in late 2017. After I finish that, I have a few new manuscripts that I’m considering.