James Horvath is a children’s author and illustrator with more than 16 years experience creating whimsical and compelling illustrations that convey energy and emotion for a wide variety of clients and applications. His quirky and odd collection of award-winning characters hop and grunt across the pages of books, magazines and brochures, and dance off the shelves of retail stores. They’ve also been known to pop up — bug-eyed and bewildered — between the pixels of websites and interactive apps everywhere. When not scratching and scribbling at his drawing table, James plays with his two young sons and beautiful wife, bangs around on the banjo, climbs trees, surfs and generally has a lot of fun. Dig, Dogs, Dig: A Construction Tail, is his first of a series of three picture books from HarperCollins.
Bianca Schulze: Your new book Dig, Dogs, Dig: A Construction Tail is garnering some great comparisons; such as, P.D. Eastman’s Go, Dogs, Go! and the bestselling children’s book Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site. How does it feel to receive such positive recognition?
James Horvath: It’s great. Go. Dog. Go! Is one of my favorite children’s books of all time. I love the way P. D. Eastman drew his dogs. And even though my drawing style is somewhat different, I like to think there’s a little P.D. Eastman influence in there somewhere.
I started work on Dig, Dogs, Dig before Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site (GGCS) was released. I had no idea that a simple construction book could do so well. It’s wonderful to be compared positively to a book that’s so well liked and successful as GGCS. I’d be very excited if Dig, Dogs, Dig did anywhere near as well as GGCS.
BS: The cadence and rhyming of the text in Dig, Dogs, Dig is really fun and zippy. Would it be safe to assume that, like your artwork, your writing has been influenced by greats like P.D. Eastman and Dr. Seuss?
JH: Yes, I think I was imprinted by these great children’s authors at an early age. I really like rhyming books. There’s a certain lyrical playfulness to them, and a good rhyme sticks with you forever. I don’t know anyone who can’t pull up at least one Dr. Seuss quote from memory, and my wife tells me I sometimes recite Shel Silverstein in my sleep.
BS: You are primarily an illustrator, so it is quite commendable to pull off a rhyming book—rhyme is not always as easy as it seems. Was this an easy book for you to write?
JH: You’re right, my path to creating children’s books was through illustration, but I’ve always enjoyed writing and telling stories. With illustration you’re simply telling a story using a visual language. I combined two things I really enjoyed, so doing both feels really natural.
I had a great experience writing Dig, Dogs, Dig. It was one of those rare times where the story practically writes itself. I had a basic idea for the book, and once I started writing, the rhymes and phrases just flowed out. I wasn’t even sure where the book was going. It was a raw idea, and the pieces just fell into place. I remember writing and having a couple of those “well of course this happens next” moments.
My initial draft took less than four hours to write. I felt a bit intoxicated when it was done because I knew it was pretty good. It’s a very simple story, but I had just written something that I couldn’t wait to start drawing.
BS: You’ve certainly got the boy audience covered with the big trucks, bulldozers and diggers. Beyond the large transportation vehicles, what else do you hope readers will take away from a story-time session of Dig, Dogs, Dig?
JH: My initial goal was to write a construction book that I could stand to read over and over to my two boys. Hopefully, other parents will feel the same way when they read Dig, Dogs, Dig. But beyond that, I had this vision of a dad sitting down with his kid(s) reading the book and connecting. Going over details of the vehicles and having conversations about what each one did, how they worked, and what their jobs were.
I love those moments when my kids look at me and are amazed that I know some really cool stuff. With some dads it’s baseball, with others it’s hot-rods or computer games, but the magic is all the same. Of course I didn’t write it only for dads and sons. That’s just my reality. They say write what you know, and write from your heart, so that’s what I did.
I actually did construction when I was a bit younger. To build a house, or road, or even a dog park, it takes a team. And I wanted to be able to communicate that in a fun and energetic way. It’s a great feeling of accomplishment and pride when a job is complete and you can stand back and appreciate that you played a part in that.
BS: When, where, or what was the moment that the idea for this particular book popped into your mind?
JH: I’m not sure when I had the idea. It just kind of materialized in my head in a way that seemed like it had always been in there. The text came first, but being an illustrator I can’t really separate the two. My mind is building the pictures as I write. It just takes a few extra months to tease them out of my head and onto the paper, or in my case, the computer.
BS: What does your typical working day look like? And do you have a favorite place to write and create art?
JH: I love my simple work space. It’s a converted bedroom with my computer, reference library and what my wife might describe as “way too many banjos”. That’s totally ridiculous, you can never have “too many” banjos.
My very loose routine consists of getting up early, going to the gym for an hour or so and getting back in time to help make breakfast for my boys. My kids are wonderfully crazy, feral, homeschooled, lunatics and my wife is a Zen goddess of domestic engineering with a specialization in child wrangling. All three of them work way harder than I do at their jobs, and that allows me to sit quietly in my little capsule of creative tranquility while one crisis after another is brewed, exploded and cleaned up.
Levon, my youngest is my most devoted art director. He comes in often to check on me and make sure I’m making acceptable progress. He monitors my “dogs-per-page” quotient, “vehicle recognition scale” and usually lets me know where to hide Jinx. Sometimes, when he’s feeling generous, he even lets me decide some things. Given his involvement in the process, we recorded an interview of him discussing his new book. He does give me a little credit, but only when pushed.
BS: For over fifteen years you have worked as a designer and children’s illustrator. What led you to make the decision to establish Jamestoons Studios in 2002 and focus more on illustration? Just to be clear, your artwork is delightful and we’re glad you made this choice.
JH: I began to realize I was happiest when I was drawing. It’s pretty simple. Do what you love and everything else will take care of itself. It didn’t happen overnight, but it did all come together. On New Years Eve of 2011 I made myself a promise to finally create my own children’s book. So, over the next month I dropped over half of my clients, representing a large portion of my income, to give myself the time and opportunity to write and illustrate my own book. I took a chance, but it was my way of motivating myself.
It had been a dream for 20 years, and I was tired of just dreaming about it. You’re either doing it or your not. Unless you’re actually, physically, working on creating a book, you’re still just dreaming.
BS: What would you say are the three most important things you have taken away from your writing and illustrating experience, thus far?
JH: I would have to say, “don’t wait.” If you want to be a children’s book writer, illustrator or both, just do it. I spent years worrying about getting rejected before even giving anyone the chance to reject me.
The other thing is learning about the industry you want to be part of. When I finally submitted my story, I knew what to do, how to do it and where to send it. It makes a big difference.
And lastly, I learned to write and draw what I like and know. There’s really no secret. Practice your craft, love what you do, know the industry and put yourself out there.
BS: What should we expect to see from you next?
JH: My next book is scheduled to be released in January 2014. It’s a follow-up to Dig, Dogs, Dig. It’s called Build, Dogs, Build: A Tall Tail. Duke and the crew are building a high-rise doghouse in the city. Also, I’m currently finishing up work on book number three, Work, Dogs, Work: a Long Tail, where the dogs are building a road from the city to the beach. I’ve been drawing a lot of dogs these days.
I have a handful of other stories in development. They’re currently with my agent and we’re hoping to present them later this year. One of my favorites is about a monkey and a banjo that I co-wrote with my wife on our long vacation last year. There’s something about driving in the car on a long road trip. I think it’s one of my favorite places to come up with ideas. The possibility of a new adventure really unlocks the creative mind.
BS: As a parting note, is there anything you would like to share with your readers?
JH: I just want to say thanks to everyone who has bought or is planning to buy the book. I really enjoyed creating it. It’s been the realization of a 20-year dream. Hopefully the book and series will be a big success and HarperCollins will ask for 3 more! I’d love to keep doing this for many years to come.
For more information, visit: http://digdogsdig.blogspot.com
Add this book to your collection: DIG, DOGS, DIG: A Construction Tail