Interview : Author / Illustrator Mike Wohnoutka
When I read picture books, I often wonder about the creators’ thoughts and feelings regarding their books. Mike kindly agreed to answer some questions for me based on his books, despite his very busy September—which also included his birthday! (I was kind enough not to ask him how old he is.)
I first met Mike at the 2013 MEMO conference in St. Cloud, Minnesota. He is a charming, soft-spoken man, married with two young children. This summer he and his family had their own Battle of the Books countdown, with The Salamander Room coming out on top.
T : Congrats on your first book as both writer and illustrator! Was the experience everything you hoped?
M : Thank you! Yes, I’m extremely happy to have a book that I am illustrator AND author of.
The story went through many, many revisions (before and after I sent it to a publisher) over the last 5 years. I’m very happy with the results. It’s received some nice reviews so far. I was afraid they would suggest I stick to “just” illustrating. It’s very fulfilling to know that the story idea, the words, and pictures all came from me, but I definitely thought it would be a lot easier!
T : The delightful story and the charming characters kept a smile on my face during the entire book. My dogs can be just as persistent as Little Puppy (though usually mine would have given up much more quickly and taken a nap). Are you a dog person or a cat person? Or lizards? Birds?
M : When I was five years old I was stung by 15 bees after stepping in a beehive. That’s when I found out I was allergic to bees along with pollen, dust, mold and cats and dogs! So, I guess I’m really neither, but if I had to pick I would pick dogs.
T : My younger son, Nathan, was much like the little elephant in this story. He loved to explore, and his curiosity usually overwhelmed any natural caution that he should have been born with. Unless he was buckled in the stroller, I feared that I would lose him. Have you ever been lost as a child—or an adult?
M : I don’t remember ever being lost as a child, but I can remember a time when my curiosity got me in trouble. It was in grade school, when my friend and I found a hole in the floor of the cloakroom. We had a carton of milk and wondered what would happen if we poured the milk into the hole. Not much happened at first, but an hour later, some very upset teachers, with milk on their coats, came to our classroom door. It turned out that the teachers’ cloakroom was directly below ours. That’s when my friend and I really wanted to get lost!
T : I love the cow in Moo!—her expressions are priceless. And congrats on the Minnesota Book Award!
I grew up in the Wisconsin countryside and could see a pasture full of cows nearby. In my early memories, there were cows in our barn…though my dad was no longer
a full-time farmer. And all of these cows were black and white. Why did you make the book’s cow brown?
M : There was no breed bias here. It was purely an aesthetic reason. The only black you see in MOO! is on the policeman’s uniform and car. The type in the book is brown rather than black. Black spots would have been too stark. I like the softness of the brown against the cream color of the cow.
Hanukkah Bear by Eric A. Kimmel. 9780823428557. 2013. Gr PK-2.
T : When my older son Alex was three, he loved to help me make cake; he insisted that his job was “batter-snitcher.” Are you like Bubba Brayna in cooking skills (not in hearing and seeing,) or are you a snitcher like Old Bear?
M : I’m definitely a snitcher. My wife, Anna, is a wonderful cook and baker. I help by taste testing and licking the spatula clean, if I can get to it before our kids do.
T : For me, holiday dinner is always about pie. What’s your favorite kind of pie?
M : Pecan
T : Have you tried the recipe for potato latkes included in the book?
M : We have not, but do plan to this Hanukkah season. Last year we purchased some, a couple times, from our local Jewish deli and really enjoyed them.
T : Most of the books you have illustrated are for toddlers, preschoolers, and primary students. Though your King of Beasts looks proud and regal, at the same time, like with many of your animals, his expressions are friendly, happy, even sweet. Do you draw fierce and scary animals as well? Or as your children grow up, maybe zombies and vampires?
M : I do a lot of painting for myself, and to sell at a gallery space in northeast Minneapolis. This is where I let my dark side come out, though there are always friendly and realistic pieces as well. I have not gotten as dark as zombies or vampires, but have many different monsters. Most are friendly, but some, not so much.
T : Counting sheep or any other animals is not my thing. I read until my eyes get too heavy; sometimes I wake up with my glasses still on and the book on the floor. What do you do if you have trouble falling asleep?
M : I have a whole stretching routine before bed. Also, my iPod is full of guided meditations to help settle down at bedtime. The biggest mistake I often make is checking my e-mail right before bed. This always results in poor night’s sleep.
T : My boys loved construction equipment. When they each were two years old, a new area was being developed about a block away from our house. They’d hear the trucks’ “beep beep beep” and would clamor to watch. We spent the summer seated across the road, just watching. Alex’s favorite was the excavator, Nathan’s the scraper. Do you like big trucks? What was/is your favorite?
M : One of my all-time favorite books is Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go. I remember pouring over those drawings. My son Franklin was two years old when I was working on Jack’s House, and he was absolutely crazy about trucks. My wife and I swear the first word he ever spoke was “backhoe”.
T : Johnny Appleseed is a legendary—though ordinary—American, following a mission all his own. What ordinary or legendary person do you admire from U.S. history?
M : Martin Luther King, Jr., is one of the most admirable and courageous people in U.S. history. I was excited, and humbled, to stand on the very place where he stood to deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech when my family was in Washington D.C. last summer.
T : I love winter. I like snow-covered branches against a blue, blue sky. I like snuggling under blankets while I read a book. And mostly, I like winter because I hate the humidity of summer. Which do you prefer—summer or winter—and why?
M : I guess I would have to say summer, although I do enjoy playing hockey and cross-country skiing in the winter, and I like drinking coffee and reading a book on a snowy afternoon. But, by far, my favorite season is Fall. I love the changing colors of the leaves, the cooler weather, football, and the baseball playoffs.
T : One final question, Mike. Mackin always uses a flower on its website and marketing materials. If you were a flower, which would you like to be? Why?
M : Hmm. This is the first time I’ve been asked this question. I was going to go with being a honeysuckle, mostly because we have some in our yard and it is the flower my kids get the most excited about seeing. But then, they also pluck them and suck the honey out, so instead I’ll go with a water lily. Whenever I have a chance to go canoeing, I float by them, and they are just so amazing.
T : Thanks so much, Mike, for taking time to answer these questions. It’s been an honor to meet you and speak with you. Good luck—and I’m looking forward to seeing more of Mike the illustrator AND the author!
For those of you living near St. Paul, Minnesota, Mike will be at the 15th Annual Celebration of Minnesota Children’s Authors and Illustrators on Saturday, September 20, at the Anderson Center in Red Wing. Designed for adults and children, this day is full of author and illustrator events—and is free of charge!
And on Saturday, September 27, the Red Balloon Bookshop will be having a launch party for Little Puppy and the Big Green Monster at 10:30 a.m. Come to meet Mike and have some fun!