Little artists everywhere might get a shock from the picture book The Day the Crayons Quit: Crayons have feelings, too, and they’ve got a bone to pick with Duncan, the little boy who finds a stack of angry letters from the unhappy occupants of his coloring box.
Red, Blue and Gray Crayons are exhausted. Pink Crayon takes umbrage with being a “girls’ color.” Beige is a little bored, and Orange and Yellow both think they should be the color of the sun.
Veteran picture book illustrator Oliver Jeffers (Stuck) brings debut author Drew Daywalt's story to life with—what else—crayon illustrations that are the perfect blend of scribble and subtlety. Originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, Jeffers lives and works in Brooklyn but found time at the 2013 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference in Chicago to talk to BookPage about his newest book. We pulled up two chairs in the Penguin booth to chat about those grumbling crayons.
BookPage: When I was a kid, I had actually written my own crayon story. It was called “The 99 Crayola Crayons Are Coming,” and it was all about how they were coming to my house. So I have to ask: What sort of relationships have you had with your drawing utensils throughout your life?
Jeffers: Obviously, when I was very young, I treated them with as much disrespect as I could possibly muster. They were often projectiles hurled at siblings. But then having been through art college, I started respecting things that I work with, and [with] the realization that if I break them or I lose them, I have to replace them. I changed an awful lot. They get abused whenever I’m working fast, but then I clean them up and put them back where they should be. Yeah, anything goes, really. I use all different types of materials. Crayons, pens, pencils, little bits of paper, whatever’s lying around.
What ends up being the most destroyed?
The most destroyed are grease pencils. They’re pretty soft and they’re really hard to, they have that stupid device—they’re not really artist’s materials. They’re really more for construction, and they have that stupid way of sharpening them where there’s a string down the side, and you have to peel it down and sort of roll it around. Then of course, you inevitably make it too long and it snaps, and you lose your temper, and it becomes a projectile all over again.
Which of these crayons do you most feel for?
Probably the white crayon because he’s invisible. Nobody ever uses the white crayon. Even if you have black paper, it barely shows up because it’s so waxy. I feel for him.
Are any of them bellyaching?
Yeah, overdoing it.
Let’s see. I think Orange and Yellow. That’s frankly an immature little argument they’ve got going on. They should wise up.
What was it like working with Drew Daywalt? He’s a debut author who came up with the story. What was the process of working with him?
It’s an old story that had been floating around publishers’ desks for about six years, I think, until Michael [Green, publisher of Philomel] made the connection to put me onto it. So it was a finished manuscript at that point, and I had a few suggestions which fortunately he wasn’t too offended by my trying to insert myself. As soon as I read the manuscript, I knew exactly what I would do, how I would bring it to life. The process was relatively straightforward, and we didn’t actually talk to each other until the book had come out, which is unusual for me.
This is the first ever picture book I’ve illustrated for someone else. I’m not sure how it’s normally supposed to go. But yeah, this was great. I knew exactly what I wanted to do and I did it.
Did you ever feel like you wanted to influence the story that was already written?
There were a few things that I felt like at the start—it was a bit long and Drew agreed with me. We took two crayons out. The name also changed, the kid’s name. Before, it was a name that wouldn’t necessarily translate. I sell books in the UK and Europe and Central and South America, and the original name was a very, very American name that would have, I think, made it too geographically specific. Duncan is much more generic, which turned out fine.
What would you like kids to remember the next time they pick up their crayons?
There’s no real lesson or moral value here. I think that kids should just have fun with them, really. The rules are that there are no rules. Do what you want with them. If you do want to use them as projectiles, go ahead.