Interview with Andrew Zettler, American Illustrator, Writer & Cartoonist
The Children’s Book Review | May 22, 2014
Andrew Zettler is an American illustrator, writer and cartoonist originally born the fifth of six children in Anchorage, Alaska. He now calls the outskirts of Washington, D.C., home where he lives with his wife, two daughters, and one very stubborn beagle. He is a member of the New York Society of Illustrators, originator of the comic strip Half-Baked, author of The Teeniest Tiniest Yawn, and has illustrated children’s books including Alphabet Olympics and Albert Acorn.
The Children’s Book Review: The Teeniest Tiniest Yawn may be the simplest most ingenious idea for a bedtime picture book. It’s obvious that the contagious effect of a yawn is the inspiration, but what was the pivotal moment that made you put words to paper and write this fun tale?
Andrew Zettler: After so many years spent cartooning and creating content for grown-ups, I’m often asked that exact question. Not just about this book, but about my immersion into the children’s genre in general.
Of course, the arrival of my own children played a natural role, but there’s also a certain joy in knowing just how much a book can mean to a child – especially during those golden moments as their eyes grow weary and they wind down for bed.
As grown ups, we may occasionally fall asleep with a favorite book still accidentally in hand as we nod off for the night, but a child will consciously decide in advance (often with great urgency) what books they should lovingly clutch as the lights go out. Therein lies a beautiful difference.
Observing this in real-time with my own young children has been a great reminder for me of the important role a book can play in transitioning a child from the adrenaline of their day to peaceful sleep, and it also served as a real driver in the creation of The Teeniest Tiniest Yawn.
TCBR: How many times do you think you yawned during the creation of this book? I know I yawned about 3 times while reading it.
AZ: Countless! Of course, we’ve all experienced the sympathetic nature of yawns as we watch someone across the room start one of their own, but I was amazed at just how often drawing, writing, and thinking about yawns as I worked on The Teeniest Tiniest Yawn would leave me with eyes watered and great big yawns of my own!
TCBR: We think toddlers and preschoolers are sure to enjoy it, but it would be great for beginning readers, too. What age range do you find enjoys The Teeniest Tiniest Yawn?
AZ: I’ve found the same age range to be true in my experience as well. So many households feature an age spread from one child to the next of only a couple of years, and often, they are being put to bed at the same time. With that in mind, one of my underlying goals was to weave the story and art behind The Teeniest Tiniest Yawn in a way that would be just as enjoyable for a lap infant or preschooler to hear as it would be for a beginning reader to recite on their own.
TCBR: As the illustrator as well as the author, what usually comes first for you, the pictures or the story?
AZ: For me, it’s almost always the story, though there are some exceptions. There have certainly been times during idle sketching where I’ve backed into characters whose appearance seemed to almost beg for more exploration and narrative on my part, and that can sometimes lead to the birth of a story in reverse.
TCBR: Tell us about your artistic inspiration. What or who inspires the way you illustrate? Some of the pages felt very reminiscent of Dr. Seuss but with a Japanese cartoon edge.
AZ: I think that whimsical Suessian style definitely informs my work, though I was always very smitten with the animation work of Chuck Jones from his time with Warner Brothers and Bugs Bunny, as well as the technique of both Bill Watterson of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, and Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame.
TCBR: How about your ability to rhyme? From where do you think you draw inspiration or is it just something that comes naturally?
AZ: The chicken or the egg … hard to say, I think. I’ve always been very drawn to wordplay and rhyme, so the seeds of it probably come naturally, but whatever that natural inclination may have been, it was certainly reinforced and encouraged to grow by very early exposure to the work of Shel Silverstein.
TCBR: What were your favorite childhood books?
AZ: For most kids of my generation, Dr. Suess was the dominant player in our world, and trust me, I was a huge fan too, but I tended to cherish some of his less visible titles. The King’s Stilts and McElligot’s Pool among these. Virginia Lee Burton’s Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel and The Little House were big favorites, as was Frederick by Leo Lionni.
TCBR: Beyond creating your own books, you’re also a freelance illustrator and cartoonist. Tell us about that.
AZ: I actually got my start in the business as a political cartoonist and commercial illustrator while studying at the University of Maryland, and then later moved on to comic strips of my own. To this day, I still keep a small hand in both as my schedule permits, and particularly as an illustrator. I’ve always found it tremendously gratifying to help others bring an idea to life.
TCBR: Are you working on anything new?
AZ: Indeed, I have two projects in development now that I’m very excited about. The first is a picture book geared for toddlers and early readers titled What’s Up Your Sleeve Alistair Sneed? The second is a young adult humor novel titled Between The Chairs.
TCBR: Before we end, do you have any parting words of inspiration or anything in general that you would like to share about The Teeniest Tiniest Yawn?
AZ: The Teeniest Tiniest Yawn was the very definition of a labor of love for me, and I think the joy of the process was only heightened in having two little ones of my own peeking in on the progress as it evolved. Trust me, if you ever want an unfiltered opinion on anything run it by a three-year old!
With that in mind, I’ll always have a warm memory of the day I placed the first hardcover version of the book into that same three-year old’s hands and watched from above as she carefully worked her way from cover to cover. When she was done she wrapped one of my legs in a giant bear hug and said, “Daddy, I love it, thank you for making this book for me!”
One day, perhaps when she’s just a bit older, I’ll let her in on a little secret – The Teeniest Tiniest Yawn is actually just as much for other parents and children as it is for she and I.
I hope they enjoy it just as much!
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