Today I am happy to treat you to an interview with the mucho talented Judy Schachner of Skippyjon Jones fame!
I first met Judy in the fall of 1999 at a NJAEYC conference (New Jersey Association for the Education of Young Children.) We instantly hit it off. Exchanging stories of our lives, we found many parallels. We are both author/illustrators, blond and close in age, who started our careers around 1992. We both lost our mothers when we were young. We are both shy by nature- though we had to overcome that in our professional lives. There were so many similarities that at one point Judy’s eyes lit up and she said, “I bet you love cats too!”
I told her we had a cat, but that I am more of a dog person.
“That’s only because you’ve never had a Siamese cat,” she said.
Judy is “crazy loco” over cats.
Her Skippyjon Jones books feature a spirited Siamese cat who thinks he is a chihuahua and has a wild imagination that leads him into all kinds of predicaments. The first book in the series, Skippyjon Jones won the E.B. White Read Aloud Award. Now, this is a book that truly deserves it. The writing is spectacular with tons of word play, wonderful sounds and hilarity. And the illustrations are vibrant and expressive.
There are seven (soon to be eight) books in the Skippyjon Jones series and each is as great as the first. “Holy guacamole!” Judy has been busy in the past ten years!
Iza, it seems like 9 lives ago that we both met at the NJAEYC conference doesn’t it? I knew after spending just two minutes with you that I wanted to be your next door neighbor, best friend, sister and/or Pet. Thank goodness for Facebook.
Ha ha! My husband say’s he wants to come back as one of my dogs! You would be well pampurred 🙂
I understand that your Siamese cat is responsible for the Skippyjon Jones series. Will you tell us a bit about the little kitty and how he inspired your “El Skippito, the great swordfighter?”
Yes, my sweet Siamese cat, Skippyjon Jones was the inspiration for all seven of these books. One day, while Skippy was doing some thinking inside the box, a large bee flew into our basement and stung him several times right between his two very large ears. When these bites began to rise to the occasion, I picked up the little crumbcake to comfort him and that’s when the “ milagro” happened. Skippy began to speak to me in a voice that sounded very much like Antonio Banderas. The rest is history.
I am a huge fan of E.B. White. How did it feel to win the coveted award. Do you remember what you were doing when you received the phone call?
Winning the E.B. White award was a complete and utter surprise…and what made it even more special was that I was the very first person to ever receive it. The phone call came one afternoon while I was working in my studio and since I had never heard of the award before, it didn’t really register on my Richter scale. I only hope that the great E.B. White has stopped spinning in his grave.
Are you kidding? He’d love your books.
And WOW- I didn’t know you were the first to win the award. Olé, mi amiga!
You state on your website that your editor at Dutton, Lucia, took you by the hand and encouraged you and has been with you since the publication of your first book. It’s wonderful to have such an enduring relationship with one editor. Does she inspire you with suggestions? Do you brainstorm on ideas together?
Lucia Monfried has been my editor for twenty years. I met her when she hired me to do the illustrations for Donna Jo Napoli’s book THE PRINCE OF THE POND. In this day and age it’s rare for an editor and an author to have such a long relationship. She has been a constant source of encouragement. She is teacher, psychologist, cheerleader, agent, white knight, friend and did I mention Editor?
We often brainstorm ideas and she is superb at seeing the forest for the trees…She is simply the best.
How do you get one fantastico idea after another? Do you work long and hard concocting plots or do they just come to you?
My pets are very clever, Iza. Almost everyday they do something that makes me think, “that could be a book.”
My children have been generous too. YO VIKINGS!, which happens to be one of my favorite stories, about my two daughters and their procurement of a 29ft long Viking ship, is a “life is stranger than fiction” kind of story.
I’ve written about my Great grandmother who was a cook for Ralph Waldo Emerson. While my great-aunt May and her bird Willy were the inspiration for my very first picture book. I think families are fertile ground for stories. It’s not always the momentous things that speak to us …sometimes it’s the quiet things that shout, “write about me! “
Then there are my journals, “the savings bank of the mind” as Emerson would say. These books are crammed full of ideas waiting to be turned into stories.
I believe I have a real talent for finding stories, it’s the writing and illustrating that I’m not as good at.
“Stop eet- you are keeling me.” 🙂
As both writer and illustrator, do you think of the pictures as you are writing the story? And do you create a storyboard as you write or does that come later?
When an idea for a book has been germinating in my head for a while, there comes a moment when I need to get some of it down in writing. However it’s only a matter of time before my A.D.D. kicks in and then I have no choice but to draw. In general, I write and illustrate side by side, so when I get stuck with the one, I can move forward with the other. My editor says that I am a very “organic” kind of a bookmaker. I know that I am not a linear thinker. Does any of this make sense?
Absolutely. I work that way too.
Over the years, I’ve learned not to expend too much energy on the roughs. I like to leave some room for spontaneity in the final art.
You’re so good at keeping the looseness and liveliness of the rough sketches in your final art. Many illustrators tend to tighten up at that stage. Leaving some room for spontaneity is a good thing. And you are lucky to have an editor/art director who gives you that kind of freedom. But then, you do have a great track record.
What is the most challenging part of your work?
The most challenging part of this job is handling all the other aspects of the book business. Answering copious amounts of mail, traveling, speaking engagements, publisher requests, sending out donations, school visits and of course all the self doubt and second guessing that goes along with the work. Otherwise it’s a piece of cake!…and I do like my cake.
We like it too!
Will you describe a typical work day?
I don’t adhere to any rigid daily routine. I am a person who mightily resists the idea of making a shopping list. So the idea of any set schedule is anathema to me. I work all hours of the day and night surrounded by my animals and when I’m not listening to NPR, I’m blasting my daughter Sarah’s music. I have a lovely new studio on the second floor of my home, it is a place I am happy never to have to leave.
What do you do for fun when you are out of your beautiful studio?
When I’m not in my studio working, you might find me: Playing with my cats (we lost our darling pitbull Buster, last year), reading, re-arranging furniture, painting on my walls, making jewelry, antiquing, playing tennis, doing pro-bono work, painting, enjoying my garden and visiting my daughters, Sarah, (the composer) in Los Angeles and Emma, (an Evo/Devo biologist) in Utah. Oh! And I can’t forget the man who keeps this whole operation running, Bob Schachner!! I love spending time with him too 🙂
It’s clearly a full and gratifying life. So nice to have a peek into it.
Would you care to tell us what you’re working on now?
As to current projects, I have begun creating “thinking caps” as research for a new book I’m developing called A PENNY FOR YOUR THOUGHTS.
Then there are the two characters I’ve been spending time with called Buttons ( an obsessive compulsive raccoon with a talent for recycling trash ) and Bo ( a foundling cat ) who partner up. I see these guys living in a series as well as a tree.
I’m also pleased to announce that my book, BITS AND PIECES (a sequel to THE GRANNYMAN ) will be published fall 2013…And of course there is the 8th Skippyjon Jones book in the works.
Oh, just that? 🙂
I’d better not take up any more of your time. You need to get back to the drawing board!
Muchas gracias, Judy!
Please check out Judy’s site: www.skippyjonjones and also her skippyjon Jones facebook page.
*All words with quotation marks are from Judy’s books.
Photos by Bob Schachner.