The Storytelling Possibilities of Illustration
An interview with
John Steven Gurney

  John Steven Gurney has illustrated over a hundred books for children, including all of the titles in Scholastic's The Bailey School Kids series and Random House's The A to Z Mysteries series. He has illustrated six picture books, many magazine stories, and the board game Guess Who for Milton Bradley. His illustrations have also appeared in advertisements for Nabisco, TV Guide, Molson's, and the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Dinosaur Train, his first book as author and illustrator, was published by HarperCollins in fall of 2002.  

Q: What did you do before you became a children's book illustrator?

JSG: I studied illustration in college and was lucky enough to start getting illustration assignments right away. I also worked as a caricaturist. During the early years of my career, drawing caricatures at bar mitzvahs and sales promotions was a major part of my income.


Q: What first got you interested in children's books?

JSG: In elementary school I was always the kid in class drawing funny pictures. I wanted to be a cartoonist for Mad magazine. When I was in fifth grade I started taking an illustration class after school. We would go to an artist's studio, and she would read stories to us while we drew pen and ink illustrations. I really enjoyed the storytelling possibilities of illustrations and have wanted to be an illustrator ever since.


Q: When did you start illustrating children's books?

JSG: When I was an art student at Pratt Institute I won a poster contest sponsored by Molson's Golden Ale. My winning illustration ran as an ad in Rolling Stone magazine, and a small publisher noticed the ad and tracked me down. That led to my first children's book in 1981, The Temptation of Wilfred Malachy, written by William F. Buckley, Jr. The book was part of a series of scary stories written by authors better known for their writing in other genres. It made a bit of a splash, as picture books by celebrities often do, but the popularity came and went rather quickly, which is also common with celebrity picture books.


Q: How many books have you illustrated?

JSG: Over a hundred, believe it or not. Most of them are chapter books with painted covers and a limited number of black-and-white illustrations inside. Among those are at least sixty Bailey School Kids books, nine Bailey City Monsters books, twenty-six A to Z Mysteries, and at least six picture books. I have also illustrated puzzles, board games, and advertisements.


Q: Of all the books you've illustrated, which is your favorite?

JSG: My favorite, without question, is Dinosaur Train. Of course I am biased because I also wrote the story, basing it on my son. More importantly it is the kind of illustration that I most enjoy doing: anthropomorphic animals realistically painted in funny situations.


Q: Who are your favorite illustrators?

JSG: Among my favorite illustrators working today are Maurice Sendak, Lynn Munsinger, Scott Gustafson, and Mary Granpre, to name a few. Historically, I never cease to be amazed by the work of Norman Rockwell, Dr. Suess, and N. C. Wyeth.


Q: Why do you illustrate books for kids?

JSG: I usually think that I'm illustrating books for myself that kids will hopefully want to look at. Now that my kids are in school, I get to experience firsthand how illustrations in a story can really hook the reader and how they contribute greatly to the love of reading.

I feel like a movie director every time I illustrate a book. I get to use theatrical, pictorial devices such as lighting, color, and perspective to convey the story. I enjoy illustrating stories that other people have written. As an illustrator I feel that I contribute to the telling of the story. However, my goal is to get to the point where I can invent all of the characters I illustrate because I have many stories that I would like to tell.


Q: Where do you get ideas/inspiration for illustrations?

JSG: Dinosaur Train was inspired by my son's obsession with dinosaurs and trains. For The Bailey School Kids series I get people in my community to pose as the characters, although by the time I'm through with them, they are often unrecognizable and mercilessly caricatured.


Q: What are you working on now?

JSG: I've just finished illustrating the last of the A to Z Mysteries: The Zombie Zone. I am currently illustrating the latest Bailey School Kids book, The Scariest Halloween Ever (Super Special #7). I have written about six stories that I'm circulating to different publishers. I hope to someday have a whole list of books that I've written and illustrated.


Q: What tips do you have for aspiring illustrators?

JSG: Marry someone with health benefits. Seriously, it's a rewarding profession when things are going smoothly, but from a business standpoint, stability is always fleeting. In the short term, if you can work in one style and do it well, it's easier to get assignments. However, in the long term you're better off being versatile in order to adapt to the changing marketplace. More than anything else, I would say jump on any assignment that allows you to display your skills. And it's nice to have other skills in order to support yourself during the dry spells, whether it's caricaturing, digital design, or construction.


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