Jory John is a nationally bestselling author who has written a variety of darkly funny books for readers of all ages. He’s known for his ability to give non-human picture book characters a distinctly human touch — with a bit of misanthropy to boot. (You may recall the lonesome dinosaur on the cover of All My Friends Are Dead, a fan-favorite read for grown-ups, the greedy cake-obsessed monster in I Will Chomp You!, or his hilarious Penguin Problems and Quit Calling Me a Monster!.) We asked the author about exploring darker themes in picture books, which of his characters he relates to the most, and how he’s unintentionally nailed the whole picture-books-for-both-kids-and–adults thing.
Your picture books, including All My Friends Are Dead and Penguin Problems, are known for having an underlying yet distinct dark humor. Why do you think the irony of exploring darker themes in picture books appeals to readers?
I really just try to write what makes me laugh, stuff that’s an extension of my sense of humor. I don’t necessarily try to create things that will appeal to specific people, as much as I try to generate ideas, excavate them fully formed*, and then, much later, consider who might be the perfect audience for the work. And because I don’t necessarily categorize something when I’m writing, it’s always interesting to me to see what appeals to specific readers, and why. With that said, I feel like the people who enjoy the humor in either book you mentioned might be people who share a similar outlook: that sometimes life can be tricky, that we all have problems and struggles and complaints, so we might as well get them out there — express ourselves! — for other people to deal with and process. That’s healthy, right?
*Steven King compared writing to excavating a fossil and trying to get as much of it out of the ground, intact, as possible.
Where do you find inspiration for your curmudgeonly characters?
I look within.
What kind of feedback about your books do you get from kids during bookstore events, school visits, etc.?
This is one of my all-time favorite perks of being an author. I love the chance to meet readers and parents of readers and booksellers and teachers and librarians and … who am I forgetting? Why did I start listing categories of people? In any case, the feedback is varied, but it generally involves a.) one specific book that meant something to the reader and b.) why it appealed to them and/or how they connected to it, which makes me very c.) happy and then I feel d.) inspired to get back to work, so I e.) drive — or fly — home and, if it’s late, I will f.) go to sleep for exactly eight hours, and when I g.) wake up in the morning, I’m h.) raring to go. Yes, indeed. After I drink some i.) coffee, maybe two cups, I start to work on either j.) a preexisting project or k.) something new. (This answer is getting too long. Let’s just say I used the rest of the letters of the alphabet, from “L to Z,” in a clever way and move on to a very short answer. Cool?)
What’s the most rewarding thing about writing children’s books?
I am excited and fascinated by the idea that my books might possibly become a part of a child’s life, experience, sense of humor, routine, and lasting memory. I can’t believe that I get to sit in a room and think up ideas and that, eventually, those ideas will travel into bookstores and libraries and schools and homes across the country. What a job! What an honor!
What was your favorite book growing up?
There were so many. Man alive. For the purposes of this interview, I will pick one. Or some. Let’s say it was any (or all!) of the George and Martha books, by James Marshall. I still read them, to this very day. I recently bought the anthology. So good. He made humor look so easy, which it isn’t. I was also a huge syndicated-comics fan and loved anything by Charles Schulz and Gary Larson, who created/drew Peanuts and The Far Side, respectively.
What picture book character do you most relate to?
The penguin in the forthcoming Penguin Problems, written by me and illustrated by the amazing Lane Smith!
Is that allowed? No? Oh. Okay. If I had to look to somebody else’s work, I’d probably just go ahead and choose the aforementioned George, of George and Martha. He always has good intentions. He values close friendship. He wants to do nice things for people. He’s creative. Deep down, he’s trying his best. Also, our names kind of sound the same.
Finish this sentence: The best thing about reading aloud to kids is…
… the instant, honest feedback you get from each and every sentence.
Books by Jory John
Jory John is the author of the picture books Penguin Problems, I Will Chomp You!, Quit Calling Me a Monster!, and the E.B. White Read-Aloud Honor Book Goodnight Already!. He is the co-author of the New York Times bestselling novel, The Terrible Two, and the national bestseller All My Friends Are Dead, among many other books. He is also the editor of Thanks and Have Fun Running the Country: Kids’ Letters to President Obama. For six years, Jory taught writing at 826 Valencia, a nonprofit writing and educational center in San Francisco.