Jon Agee interviewed by Jake Hope
Jon Agee arrives for our interview buzzing with energy and enthusiasm after an early morning tennis match. Born in 1959, he didn’t have the internet, iPhones or any digital distractions as a child. Jon’s mother, who was herself an artist, gave him and his sister a pad of paper and drawing was their entertainment.
The earliest children’s book writers and illustrators that Jon was attracted to were British. He was captivated by the nonsense poems of Edward Lear, ‘It was fun as a child to see grown-ups being silly because my parents were not so silly. They were very proper and grown up.’ Winnie the Pooh by A A Milne and E H Shepherd was another favourite ‘there’s a gentle droll humour and I didn’t realise at the time just how wise the stories are.’ Jon found Alice in Wonderland fantastical, mysterious, dangerous and scary but, ‘Edward Lear more than any of the others stuck with me. There was something about the stories and poems for children but they were often for adults, they were odd and silly and it just appealed to me. When I began writing and illustrating books myself, a lot of my early books were for grown-ups. I suspect Edward Lear had something to do with that.’
Another influence from a young age was the New Yorker magazine which Jon still gets to this day ‘My parents had these old albums which were just the cartoons. As a kid I would flick through these cartoons which were really meant for grown-ups. Some of them I understood, some went over my head. Edward Lear and the New Yorker dovetailed and had a sensibility I shared.’
Jon went on to study at Cooper Union School of Art where despite enjoying painting static images, he became particularly interested in film-making and animation. ‘I wanted to tell stories, that was where film and animation came into it.’ Towards the end of his time at Cooper, he began to produce cartoons and comic strips, which he shared with friends but never showed to his teachers or professors. ‘They were very personal. Much more personal than anything I created for school. Some were just one image, some were stories.’
When he left college, a publisher suggested Jon tried writing a picturebook for children. ‘They looked at my portfolio and said there were a lot of pictures which had little stories and they felt maybe one could be the basis for a book.’ He fell into publishing almost by accident. In 1981 he was living in New York City ‘It was a very quiet time in publishing. In those days you could make an appointment with a publisher and possibly meet with an editor. Jon had a meeting with Random House, when he got back to his apartment there was a message on his answering machine ‘the editor had raced back to ring me after the publication had been agreed’. Jon’s first book was If Snow Falls. ‘It is a very small book. It only has two sentences. I was just learning how to do picturebooks at the time.’ Jon feels much of the book is very much like a movie with a camera that zooms in on a house. ‘I really learned by just getting into it and finding that a picturebook is normally 30-40 pages and a handful of sentences and then there are all these other elements like the page turns, it’s not simply enjoying one single image, it’s how these images relate to one another.’
Jon’s artistic process begins with filling notebooks with loose drawings. ‘I try to draw situations which are unusual or where I’ve turned things on their head.’ There have been times when he’s gone through notebooks and picked through the thread of ideas.’ One was Little Santa about Santa Claus as a very young child. His family are grumpy as they hate living in the North Pole and want to move to Florida. ‘Santa loves the snow and ice and is crazy about it, I knew they were wanting to leave but at that point I got stuck. I loved the premise and the idea that Santa didn’t fit in but didn’t know where to go from there. I put it aside for a couple of months and when I pulled the notebook off the shelves a couple of months later it gradually just unfolded. They were all ready to go to Florida and there was a blizzard. As Santa was the littlest one, they sent him down a chimney to go and ask for help, he met a reindeer and some elves and the story came together.
Talking about Life On Mars, Jon describes how one of the ‘unique elements to picturebooks is how one thing can be said in the text yet something quite different or more elaborate can be happening in the pictures.’ For him, this is one of the joys of creating picturebooks. In Life on Mars, ‘there is something happening where the narrator is clearly not seeing what is following him and the humour comes from that. There’s all this incongruity which can happen between text and pictures which is very dynamic. I love that!’
For the joys the form has, it also has challenges. ‘If you have pictures that go across the gutters because of the way the binding works, you lose them and it can be a bit of a headache. If someone does a painting, they don’t have to worry that they need to leave room for words and for the gutter.’ Jon describes The Wall in the Middle of the Book as his revenge on the gutter. ‘I was able to put a physical wall in the middle of the book and the pictures couldn’t get across. It was liberating to treat the gutter as though it was an impenetrable barrier.’ Jon was looking for a way to turn this concept into a story. ‘I’m always looking for ways to tell an interesting story. It also happened that this made an interesting comment on judging people without getting to know them.’ The book was endorsed by Amnesty International, something that Jon never considered would happen with a book of his, but which is describes, with characteristic modesty, as a really pleasant surprise.
Jon’s picturebooks are enjoying renewed attention in the UK thanks to Scallywag Press. Sarah Pakenham was introduced to Jon’s work at the Taipei Book Expo in Taiwan. The relationship was a special joy for Jon as it meant being reunited with his former editor Janice Thompson who published The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau at Faber and Faber in 1988. The chance to revisit the work has been welcomed by Jon. ‘I always felt it needed to be larger. Most picturebooks these days are a bit bigger. The new book is a bigger format and is 40 pages.’ This has enabled the metafictional ending to be emphasised with the picture and accompanying line of text where Felix ‘returned to his painting’ to have their own individual pages. ‘Everyone acknowledges when they finish a book there is always at least one picture where you wish you could redo that picture. With new paintings and revised layout, this version is the director’s cut!’
Alongside his picturebooks, Jon has created numerous much loved collections of wordplay including tongue twisters, anagrams, palindromes and oxymorons. ‘The ones I’m most known for is palindromes. In 1991 I published a book called Go Hang a Salami! I’m a Lasagna Hog! At the time there was only one cartoon book of palindromes, I didn’t know much about them but started creating them myself. They are funny sounding, magical and off-beat but absolutely need a picture. Children love them when I visit schools and it turns out I’m pretty good at them.’ Jon has a forthcoming book this autumn, Otto where all the dialogue will be in palindromes.
Many of Jon’s books have been lauded with accolades and critical acclaim, asked what his proudest achievement has been, he comments ‘the fact the books are still in print and that people are reading them and find them relevant. I’d love to think the books are changing people in a good way, expanding their imaginations and helping them to feel more creative.’
Jake Hope is chair of the working party for Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals. He is a children’s book and reading development consultant. His book Seeing sense: visual literacy as a tool for libraries, learning and reader development, is published by Facet Publishing, 9781783304417, £39.95.
Little Santa, 9780803739062 hbk
Life on Mars, Scallywag Press. 978-1912650156, £6.99 pbk
The Wall in the Middle of the Book, Scallywag Press, 9781912650057, £7.99 pbk
The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau, Scallywag Press, 9781912650576, £12.99 hbk
Go Hang a Salami! I’m a Lasagna Hog!, 9780440830450, pbk