Barney Saltzberg: Author-Illustrator & Singer-Songwriter
By Bianca Schulze, The Children’s Book Review
Published: February 28, 2012
Barney Saltzberg is an über-talented children’s book author/illustrator/singer/songwriter. He has published around thirty books, recorded four CD’s of music for children, and has even written some songs for the PBS show Arthur. Once a year he teaches a class at UCLA on writing and illustrating picture books. When he is not traveling around the country speaking about writing and illustrating and playing music, you can find him at home in Los Angeles with his wife, two children (when they are home from college), three dogs and a pond full of fish.
TCBR: So far in your illustrious career as an author-illustrator you have published around thirty books. In a time when the “Girlie-Girl” culture is very prominent, your latest book, Would You Rather be a Princess or a Dragon?, is very relevant. Tell us about the book (available through iTunes as an iBook) and what inspired you to write this particular story.
Barney Saltzberg: As a father of a boy and a girl, I could see that from an early age that Disney movies and books were sending a message to all of our children. Girls were pretty and mostly pink and boys were the strong protectors. Not new concepts, but with the ability to have videos and DVDs at home, these messages become part of our DNA from watching them over and over and over. Lately, there have been less stereotypical characters and plot lines in movies and stories and that’s been a welcome change. Still, I wanted to write a book where the message is, you can be a little of both the Princess and dragon.
How did the process of publishing an iBook compare to that of a print book?
Any book still has to be written, regardless of how it’s delivered. I worked on this book in the traditional way. I made a book dummy which had the text and pictures. I sold it to Tricycle Press an Imprint of Random House books. The day I turned in the artwork, Random House closed Tricycle. I was given the book back. Many publishers loved the book but were concerned that it would be too difficult to market. Making an iBook was the perfect way to get this book out to the world without my needing to print physical books and store them in my garage, in hopes of selling copies.
Do you have any thoughts on the rapidly changing industry of children’s books and, specifically, the impact that digital media has had on it?
I have gone to the Digital Book Conference in NY for the past two years. I am very interested in this field. Children are growing up with digital content. I hope that we have physical books and digital books. I am ‘hoping’ both can survive. The publishers are all hoping to stay relevant and not have the book industry go the way of the music industry. I think many people who weren’t getting published before, now have an opportunity to have their stories out in the world. Editors are still needed! To make a book correctly, takes a team; editors and art directors are key. Also very important is the sales and PR behind a title. Anyone can now put a book in the iBook store and on Amazon. It’s not unlike putting up a billboard in your basement. People have to know it’s there or all of that work will never reach anyone.
Beautiful Oops!, your wonderful interactive book that shows children that it’s okay to make mistakes, hits on another pertinent theme: perfectionism. The idea of showing young readers how every mistake is an opportunity to make something beautiful is a brilliant one. I imagine that this was a book just begging to be created. Did you have a lot of fun making it?
I had a blast making that book. I have to say, it wasn’t my idea! Teachers had been asking me to write a book like that for years and I was resisting it. I didn’t have a picture of what the book would be. I show two images in my powerpoint when I speak to teachers and students. One shows a sketchbook with a stain from a cup of spilled coffee. I turned the stain into a monster. The other is a painting I had made for a book which a dog had stepped on. I turned each paw print into a cloud. Once I wrapped my mind around the concept I tore a piece of paper part way across and realized it looked like the mouth of an alligator. After that, it was like a scavenger hunt, looking for what mistakes I could make with ink and paint and glue…. Having my editor at Workman guide me through this process made all the difference. What would have been a ‘nice’ book, became something much more special.
As a baby, my eldest daughter loved your touch-and-feel book Goodnight Kisses. She now adores Beautiful Oops! Do either of your children have aspirations to follow your creative path?
I love that she loved Goodnight Kisses. I used to be worried about interactive books before I had children. When I realized that a book which is accessible to a baby or toddler it has the potential to help instill a love for reading at an early age, plus, it’s a bonding experience for anyone reading with a young child. I used to read and sing to my children while they were still in the womb. My daughter got her degree in English Literature and Theater. She is a writer. My son has a musical talent, but he’s in college studying business. I hope he picks up the guitar again, even if it’s to play to his own children one day.
You have recorded four CD’s of music for children, you have performed at Disney World and you even wrote songs that were on the PBS show Arthur. How often does a song you have written inspire a book or vice versa?
Once in a while a song will inspire a book. Where, Oh, Where’s My Underwear? was a song for years until a publisher pleaded with me to make it into a book. It became a pop-up book.
Goodnight Kisses was a song before I made a book. The song has entirely different words than the book, but the concept of a goodnight kiss is still there. Especially now with Youtube it’s important to have book promos. Since there are not as many book stores to walk in to, a video will help a reader know what the story is about. I always write a song now to go with each book video I produce.
While taking a writing and illustration class at Otis/Parsons in the late 1970’s, your former teacher, Barbara Bottner, had the ability to give assignments that pulled stories out of you that you never knew were there. Do you still apply any of these creative exercises to your current work?
Barbara is an amazing talent and has nurtured so many wonderful writers from Lane Smith, Peggy Rathman, Laura Numeroff and Antoinette Portis. I definitely give some of Barbara’s assignments to my students. Occasionally, I will pull something out of my bag of tricks from my Bottner days, but at this point, ideas come to me naturally, on a regular basis.
Once a year you teach a class at UCLA on writing and illustrating picture books. What do you enjoy the most about teaching?
Passing on what I have learned for the past thirty plus years. I am passionate about picture books. I share my enthusiasm for this incredible art form. I love bringing in my favorite books and sharing them with the class. Also, finding a student here and there who are open to feedback and dig in to the process of writing and illustrating is really lovely to see. I have seen some brilliant books being born over the past eight years that I have been teaching. It wasn’t what brought me there, but as a result of teaching and giving constructive criticism to my students, I find that it’s helped me to become a better writer.
You also travel around the country speaking about writing and illustrating, and playing music, with the goal of encouraging everyone to find their own stories, songs, poetry and art! Of all the questions that you are asked during these speaking events, is their one that has been the most memorable and enjoyable to answer?
There are some memorable ones which completely threw me into some bizarre moments. (I won’t go there right now). I was in China last March and was blown away by some questions at an art high school. One student asked me to describe my emotions while painting. No one had ever asked me that. I had to really think about the answer.
And how did you answer her?
You HAD to ask that question? I don’t remember exactly how I answered, but I would say now that each book elicits different feelings. For the most part, I find that painting for me is very meditative. I used to paint with music on, but now I work much more in silence. Listening to pencils and pens as they move across the paper is something I love. Painting with colors is very peaceful to me. Then of course, there is Beautiful Oops, which has a lot of sloshed on colors and scratches, and tears and spills. It was a very loose book to make. I was very happy creating the artwork for that book!
The next time you hop on an airplane for a speaking event would the passenger next to you see you reading a book? If so, which one?
I will be flying this week to NY, reading The Element by Ken Robinson. I am speaking to a national organization of art teachers and this book is perfect, given that I am talking about creativity. The book is about people finding their element. Finding what each person’s passion and individual talent is. I thought it would be a perfect book to help prepare for my talk.
To learn more, visit: http://www.barneysaltzberg.com/