I began my professional career at Walt Disney Feature Animation in Orlando, Florida in 1996. This in itself was nothing short of a dream come true. Disney was at the height of what many called an "Animation Renaissance," with box office smashes like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. The first film I worked on was called Mulan, working in Character Animation on Mulan's friends in the army, Ling and Chien Po. After that I was fortunate enough to work on several other incredible films such as these:
The thing I loved most about Disney wasn't necessarily animation though; it was the stories they told. I would say that storytelling has always been my overriding passion even. It's just that getting hired to be an animator at that level required an amount of dedication that is almost hard to believe, and it basically took over for a few years. But I always wrote. Besides having kept a journal for over 25 years now, I've never gone without keeping some kind of writing notebook for jotting down whatever story ideas I had.
While I was working on the bigger movies at Disney, I got really into Writing and Directing my own short films on the side. A big part of this involved Storyboarding. For those who don't know, this is basically when a script's WORDS get translated into DRAWINGS. The thing is, because I was often storyboarding my own scripts, I was basically Writing and Illustrating my own little movies for years. So in time it wasn't a very far stretch to start writing and illustrating BOOKS as well.
My real break into publishing came at the 2012 BEA, when a nearly wordless Picture Book I had Co-Written and Illustrated was noticed by a Literary Agent. That book, called The Monkey Goes Bananas, was published by Abrams in 2014 to absolutely stellar reviews. An equally well received sequel, titled The Monkey and the Bee, was released the following year.
On the right is one of the first drawings I did for The Monkey Goes Bananas. As simple as it is, that sketch actually set up the entire premise of a monkey trying to get some bananas from another island. Of course, there is the water in the middle, and once we put a shark in it, the gags practically wrote themselves.
The labels in the sketch (The Monkey, The Bananas) were initially just there for us know what the simple markings were, but as I fleshed out the artwork, we realized that keeping the labels was kind of funny in overstating the obvious, and they ended up being a major part of the book's style.
By the time the second Monkey book came out, my son was in second grade, and just making the transition from Picture Books to Chapter Books. And this really opened my eyes to a few things. For one, even though I loved some of the Chapter Books out there, I always wished they had more pictures. I also wished they were longer. Longer and with more pictures. That's what I wanted. And so I started to toy around with story lines that might support that kind of thing.
It didn't take long to come upon the idea of a grade school mermaid keeping a journal. I felt like I could write 150 pages of that pretty easily, but for the longest time I couldn't figure out a way to make it look like I wanted. Mainly because I thought any book of that length would need to look all clean and tidy, even if every page had illustrations, like the Dork Diaries have. But then my agent sent me these books called The Popularity Papers (by Amy Ignatow) for inspiration, and I realized you could basically do anything you want...in full-color even, as long as the story supported it. So thank you Amy Ignatow! Around the same time I was doing research for a freelance project and came upon a whole world of Art Journals and so-called Junk Journals...and that's all I needed.
All this led me to develop the loose, watercolor look of the Third Grade Mermaid pages my agent sent out to Editors, which sold to Scholastic Press a short time later. The first book came out in Spring 2017, and is exactly the easy-to-read, novel-length picture book I was looking for years ago.
At this point in time, I'd have to say that being a Writer/Illustrator of children's books is easily the most fulfilling job I've ever had. It's odd even calling it a "job." I mean, I love to write, I love to draw, and I love books. What could be better than rolling that all together into one job? But besides that, I'm free to write the kinds of stories about reaching for the (seemingly) impossible that inspired me in the first place, and have the chance to pass that inspiration along every time I sit down to work.