Tad Hills is the author and illustrator of the well known Duck & Goose series and, most recently, the bestselling picture book How Rocket Learned to Read. Tad studied painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture, creative writing, and poetry at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York; but says that his greatest education came with the arrival of his two children.
TCBR: You have a stack—or should I say, a whole shelf—of published books under your belt. Which of these books has had the biggest impact on your writing and/or illustrating career?
Tad Hills: I would have to say that Duck & Goose had the biggest impact on my career. Prior to Duck & Goose I had published a bunch of novelty books, such as touch and feel board books and a book of knock-knock jokes. These books were fun and interactive but had no storyline, no narrative. Duck & Goose was my first attempt at writing a picture book. It was the book that made me feel like an illustrator AND an author.
TCBR: How Rocket Learned to Read is your latest book to burst onto the bestseller lists. It’s about a dog named Rocket who is learning to read all on his own with help from his teacher, a little yellow bird. Can you tell us why you chose to write this particular story?
TH: I guess the seed for the story was planted three years ago, when my family and I got a dog and named him Rocket. We all fell instantly in love with our puppy and I knew he would, in some way, inspire a book. A year later I used him as the subject for a PW cover illustration (spring children’s books 2008). That cover—an image of a dog sitting quietly with a little yellow bird perched on his nose reading—inspired the story. So I think I can say that I did not choose to write this story, it chose me.
TCBR: You once said, “Every day I wish that I could make art with the simplicity and fearlessness that my kids do.” How much influence would you say your children have on the books that you create?
TH: I am always watching and listening to my kids and their friends. Some of these observations have ended up in my stories, some have served as starting points for exploration. Also, both my kids have always been very honest critics of my work. And I trust their opinions.
TCBR: I read that your favorite books from your childhood were Robert McCloskey’s Blueberries for Sal, The Biggest Bear by Lynd Ward, and chapter books by Thornton Burgess. Can you explain why you were able to connect with these books?
TH: The house where I grew up was surrounded by fields and woods. We had grapes, fruit trees, a field of blueberry bushes and a very dense forest beyond. The settings in these books felt very familiar to me. Also, my mother was a teacher for the Audubon Society. We would often have live animal guests at home that she’d bring to schools.
TCBR: Your grandmother was an accomplished artist. We’d love to hear about the ways she nurtured your artistic and creative abilities as a child.
TH: My grandmother was very supportive not only of my artistic abilities but also of the way I saw things. Literally. The way I might see a face in a knot in the wooden floor or an animal in a cloud. She appreciated a child’s eye.
TCBR: At what point did you consider yourself a writer and an illustrator?
TH: After I wrote and illustrated Duck & Goose. It was quite a long haul completing that book. I figure that I’ve earned the right to consider myself a writer and an illustrator.
TCBR: I have been led to believe that one of the things you enjoy most about being an author/illustrator is the school visits. Is there one of these visits that stands out the most? If so, why?
Oh, and by the way, I know this is one of your favorite things to hear during school visits, so I have to let you know: I’m writing a book! I just had to share.
TH: Every school visit is fun and great in its own way. Kids are such a fantastic audience. They listen and don’t miss anything. Their questions and comments are insightful and often surprising. Recently a little boy asked me why I write stories about animals and not kids. And I think he understood when I answered that my stories, in a way, really are about kids.
TCBR: Are you working on anything new?
TH: There is a new Duck & Goose board book called IT’S TIME FOR CHRISTMAS which comes out this fall. I am also working on a chapter book about two ducks that are the subject of a picture book series. They live in the author’s house with his family and an assortment of other characters.
TCBR: What one piece of advice would you offer to parents who are helping children select books to read?
TH: I think it’s important that parents choose books that are age appropriate for their kids. Some 5 year olds may be able to read just about any book but may better appreciate them when they’re older. Ask a librarian or a knowledgeable bookseller for some help. Above all, encourage your kids to read.
TCBR: Is there anything else you would like to share with your readers?
TH: Read to your kids. Have your kids read to you. Or—and this is a great way to get reluctant readers reading—encourage your child to get comfortable and read to a pet (or even a doll). Pets and dolls won’t judge a reader’s ability and they’ll love the attention.
Author Photo © 2007 Courtesy of the Author
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