All in the Family

All in the Family

Second-generation kid’s author and illustrator Thacher Hurd

Books by celebrities from Madonna to Jay Leno may be evidence that the art of crafting children’s literature isn’t something you learn in an afternoon. Artists and writers like Berkeley’s Thacher Hurd have devoted their lives to marrying just the right artwork to compelling and concise stories. Son of children’s book legends, the husband-and-wife team of Clement and Edith Hurd (Clement illustrated Goodnight Moon, which was written by Margaret Wise Brown), Thacher studied art at California College of Arts and Crafts. After graduating, he set out to become a “serious artist,” but realized that children’s books best expressed his style. Since 1978, Hurd’s written and illustrated 25 children’s books including Art Dog, Mama Don’t Allow, and his latest, Sleepy Cadillac (HarperCollins, 2005). I checked in on Hurd recently to find out if he has plans to release a pop album.

Paul Kilduff: Given your upbringing, is it destiny that you ended up being a children’s book author/illustrator?

Thacher Hurd: I guess in a way, yeah. I went to art school and using pictures to tell stories seemed really interesting to me.

PK: Was your fine art training necessary?

TH: It was a way to get into it. I loved figure drawing and I loved all kinds of painting and that’s just the way I learned it.

PK: Goodnight Moon is such a classic. Is there pressure to try to live up to that?

TH: It’s kind of like having Tom Hanks as your father. But when I was growing up it wasn’t such a big deal. It really took off in the ’70s, and more so in the ’80s and the ’90s. When I was growing up it was like my parents, they did these books, and Goodnight Moon was one of many.

PK: Why do you think it’s become such a must-have children’s book?

TH: It’s funny because when they published nobody put any money into publicizing or trying to sell it. I think it’s because the book is extremely simple. It’s a child naming things in his world and it’s a very mysterious book.

PK: I remember reading it to my daughter and although she knew it almost by heart she wanted to read it again and again. Is that an important quality for a children’s book?

TH: Yeah, I think that’s the hard part–to write a book they want to come back to. They know exactly what’s going to happen in the end, but they’re happy to read it over and over again. It has this soothing quality.

PK: In a children’s book what’s more important, the writing or the illustration?

TH: My parents always impress-ed on me that the writing’s really important. If the words aren’t right, no matter how flashy the pictures are the kids are never going to come to the story. They’ll be interested in the pictures for about one reading and then they’ll lose interest.

PK: Do you prefer either aspect?

TH: I’ve actually gotten into the writing a lot lately. I’m doing a 200-page, middle-grade novel for 8- to 12-year-olds–a long chapter book. It’s really fun. It’s all writing. And I’m enjoying not doing illustrations. I’m enjoying not showing what the main character looks like.

PK: Sleepy Cadillac appealed to me because I love big, old, American cars, but they’re so impractical now. They were really dreamlike and you really don’t see that with cars anymore.

TH: I have two feelings. I mean we’re consuming the natural resources of the world at a horrifying rate. And on the other hand, yes, I love those old cars. I mean they were full of character and beauty. Those old, big, finned ’50s cars are gorgeous objects. And the cars you see now are so incredibly bland. I saw a brand-new Jaguar the other day. It looked like a Toyota.

PK: Do children’s book’s go through focus groups with little kids?

TH: They did for a while when my parents were starting out with Margaret Wise Brown at Bank Street College in New York. But they don’t do it anymore. I do it kind of informally. If you read a picture book to a group of first- and second-graders, halfway through you’re going to know whether it interests them at all.

PK: What do you think of celebrities authoring children’s books? Are they qualified?

TH: Well, if they’re going to do children’s books we should be allowed to be in A-list Hollywood movies. The disturbing thing is that it distorts the business of children’s publishing. What happens is that if you can get Madonna to do a book and you know you can sell a million copies of it, it means that all your advertising and energy goes into selling Madonna books. What you’re doing is you’re selling bad books and the rest of the authors in the house get short shrift.

PK: What if Sean Penn wrote a children’s book?

TH: I’m sure they try to get all [actors] to write children’s books. Billy Crystal’s really funny but he wrote one and it was just so treacly.

PK: If somebody asked me, I’d do it. I think it’s deceptive. Everybody thinks they could do one in a day, right?

TH: Oh, absolutely. That’s why you don’t see anybody asking Jay Leno to write a symphony because everbody knows writing a symphony is really hard and children’s books look really easy. I think that authors are going more and more to foreign publishers. In publishing, it used to be that sales were considered not that important. Sales were for people who wrote potboilers or trashy novels. And the rest of the publishing world, including children’s books, was driven by editors who were into publishing good books.

PK: What do you think of Oprah’s book club phenomenon? She hasn’t gotten into children’s books . . . yet.

TH: Oh, I wish she would. She’s amazing. A lot of Americans don’t read. They watch a lot of TV. To have somebody who is so energetic and charismatic as Oprah saying, “Read this book. Start a book group. Talk about books,” I mean that’s a fantastic thing.

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