A graphic designer for 30 years before turning to creating picture books, Michael Hall’s style is minimalistic and has an algorithm in his art, similar to Charley Harper and Ed Emberley.
At Lemuria today, I sat down to talk with Michael Hall about his new book with HarperCollins from Greenwillow, Frankencrayon. When a mysterious scribble has ruined a picture book, and causing it to be canceled, what are the crayons to do? Should they just go home? Frankencrayon saves the day when he realizes that "Even a messy scribble can be a lovely thing." A book about discovering the beauty in the imperfect, Frankencrayon will have kids noticing layers within the illustrations.
Here, Michael Hall talks about his writing and illustrating process, walking around with his wife, how science and math are big factors in his work, and what he thinks kids understand when reading his books.
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CM: Where are you from?
MH: I grew up in Ann Arbor Michigan, and have lived for the past 30 years in Minnesota, where I am currently.
CM: Tell me a little bit about your latest book to be published by HarperCollins, Frankencrayon.
MH: Frankencrayon began as a story about crayons trying to clean up this scribble. As they try to clean it up, the scribble gets worse and worse. While working on the Frankencrayon, the book became more and more complicated. Eventually it turned into a “canceled” book because of the giant scribble, and it has a lot of things that are not normally in picture books. The time sequence is all over the map, going back and forwards in time, it breaks the 4th wall, and it has talking memos. It was a challenging book to create.
It is a follow up to Red: A Crayon’s Story. I’m thinking of doing a third crayon book one day.
CM: How many picture books have you written?
MH: So far I’ve published six as of a couple of days ago. I just finished my seventh picture book a couple of months ago and it will come out in late summer or early fall.
CM: What is your new book about?
MH: It is a book about the celebration of autumn. It is called Wonderfall instead of wonderful, and uses plays on words, like “Frightfall,” instead of frightful, and “Thankfall” instead of thankful.
CM: Can you describe your illustration style? What art are you most drawn to?
MH: I am drawn to abstract art, art that is not trying to be a tree or a dog. I am drawn to simpler things. My biggest influence are graphic designers, since I was a graphic designer for 30 years. The idea of taking something down to its simplest level is really important to me.
CM: How do you create your illustrations?
MH: I’m interested in the visuals, so I like to do the pictures first. In my first two books, the pictures were done before I knew what the story was going to be.
For my process, I begin with creating textures that I paint, ink, or roll on paper, sometimes using charcoal. Then I make shapes by cutting paper. I take those two elements, scan them into the computer, and put them together. It gives me more control. That way, if I cut something, but don’t like the shape, all I need to do is cut another shape and replace just the shape, not the entire texture. More and more I’m doing more in the computer, and instead of cutting paper, I’m creating my illustrations in the computer. I still love making the textures out of ink though.
CM: When you were a child, what were some of your favorite picture books?
MH: I remember The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson. I think I sort of related to Ferdinand the bull. I also really loved Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. I love books like that, books you can go to again and again and find something different.
CM: Your books have that quality—each time reading your book reveals something different. The reader may realize that one illustration may have been cut up to become another illustration. For example, in Frankencrayon, the scribble becomes the butterfly. Frankencrayon says “Even a messy scribble can be a lovely thing.”
Do you think children notice those hidden elements? Do they see the butterfly? Does your simplistic and abstract style work for kids?
MH: My thought is that they may get it, or they may see it on their 5th reading. What I was surprised at is that all the kids that I’ve read it to so far have been very cognizant of what has been happening right off the bat. I think grownups don’t always notice what children do. I think children are accepting harder concepts in Frankencrayon really well.
For example, my crayons don’t have faces on them. I want the child to be able to use his or her imagination, to pick up a crayon and pretend it is whatever they want it to be.
Once you put a face on things, you humanize it. Human expressions communicate so quickly, that when you look at the face, you get the emotion right away and move on to the next page. I want the kids to work on it a little bit, to create the story for themselves.
CM: Let’s talk about science. You started out as a biochemist in a lab. What have you carried on as a picture book author and illustrator from working as a scientist?
MH: There is a way of scientific thinking that I continue and influences what I do. There is a sense of trying to make realities that have internal logic and having the discipline to having the pieces fit together properly. Even if the story is absurd, the pieces need to fit together within its own reality.
I use math all the time in my stories in my art and arranging things. In It’s an Orange Aardvark!, there was a huge topological problem, so it was fun to figure that out.
I think scientifically about non-scientific things.
Here’s an example. I walk around with my wife a lot. And we walk in the city. She likes it when I walk between her and the traffic. When we go around the corner, I have to switch sides. In one of our walks I tried to figure out a formula so I could always know whether I’m going to switch sides or not. If you add the numbers—three crossings and turns, and its an even number, then I don’t have to change sides. It’s easier to look at which side I’m on, but it’s fun to have an equation for it.
CM: What are some contemporary influences of yours?
MH: I’m influenced by many graphic designers, including Paul Rand and Ivan Chermayeff, and I really love Christian Robinson’s work, Chris Haughton’s Shh! We Have a Plan, and Marion Bataille of ABC3D.
CM: You’ve created stories featuring animals, crayons, and your next book is about seasons. What subjects are you drawn to?
MH: I tend to anthropomorphize characters. It’s always been a part of me that I would do that.
The seasons book, Wonderfall, came about because my editor Virginia Duncan asked how I would feel about making a book about the fall. That book is a little different because it didn’t come together the way things normally come to me, which is randomly.
I thought when I started out writing picture books that I would have specific things to write about. I was surprised to find that my stories were not about what I thought I was going to write about. I think that is the fun part of writing—if you find something that is visually or verbally interesting, or sounds interesting, and you follow that, you wind up writing about something that is important to you through a magical process.
I don’t set out to make books about anything. I have made a lot of books about accepting chaos, finding beauty in unexpected places, accepting that we all have a lot of emotions, good and bad, and accepting change.
CM: What’s up next?
MH: There is an alphabet book that I’ve been working on for years and years that I thought would be my first book but has wound up taking forever. It had 160 pages at one point. That might be my next book.