“MIKE loves drawing and writing almost as much as he loves cupcakes and ice cream (and that’s a LOT!). He is the author and illustrator of everyone’s favorite polka-dotted elephant, Little Elliot. His debut title, Little Elliot, Big City, released in 2014 to critical acclaim, has won several awards, and has been translated into over ten languages. There are now four books in the Little Elliot series, including Little Elliot, Big Family; Little Elliot, Big Fun; and Little Elliot, Fall Friends. Meanwhile, Mike had the pleasure of illustrating What If… by Samantha Berger, All the Way to Havana by Margarita Engle, Worm Loves Worm by J.J. Austrian, and contributed to What’s Your Favorite Color? by Eric Carle and Friends. He is currently working on his first graphic novel! Publishers Weekly named Mike a “Fall 2014 Flying Start.” In the same year he won the Society of Illustrators Original Art Show Founder’s Award.” (extracted from author’s website)
Thank you, Mike, for joining me!
Your debut success, Little Elliot, Big City (2014), features a young elephant feeling isolated in New York City. Was any portion of this storyline influenced by your own childhood?
The story hinges on a specific childhood memory. When I was very young, my Mom sent me on an errand to the deli. I was so small that the clerk couldn’t see me over the tall deli case counter. Grown ups were cutting me in line! One gentleman finally noticed me, and helped get someone’s attention. I think we’ve all experience being overlooked as a child. But as we see in the book, a person of any size can make a difference.
You’ve mentioned in past interviews that you developed the character of Elliot in your sketchbook, following your move from NYC to Seattle, over a period of 10 years. What was it about this character that kept you coming back to him? Did your character change much as you developed the picture book?
The reason why I kept coming back to Elliot was that he made me happy (and a little bit sad). There’s a nostalgia about him that reminds me of my childhood. He definitely has gone through a metamorphosis from when I began drawing him to when he first appeared in a book. Even since Big City, he has changed slightly as we got to know each other better, both in terms of how he looks and his personality.
You’ve mentioned in past interviews that you think creators should do work that makes them smile. Do you have any advice for how to identify one’s authentic voice, as it seems you did when you kept returning to Elliot?
I think it’s all about listening to your gut. Your character needs to make you feel something. If your character doesn’t make you feel something, a viewer certainly isn’t going to. There needs to be substance, as well as style. Your characters should be like children. They are pieces of you that go on to have their own personalities. Don’t be afraid to put yourself on the paper.
On your blog, you mentioned traveling to Cuba as research for All the Way to Havana. Are there any specific features of your illustrations that you feel reflect your immersive experience of Cuba? Any features that would have been absent if your research had been done remotely?
I think that when a specific place is so essential to a story, like Havana is to this book, you need to think about it as another character. Every good character is going to have a distinct personality. So, when I went there, it was in part to take visual reference for how everything looks, but more importantly, I went to meet Havana, to try to get a feeling for its personality. It’s hard to put something as abstract as personality into a concrete visual example, but I think my work benefited from experiencing Havana’s energy. I tried to instill that energy into every image while I worked. I’m not sure I can point out specific things like this pothole or that palm tree. For me, it was more about recording the feelings I had when I was experiencing Cuba.
The story of All the Way to Havana talks about making the most of what’s available and piecing vintage cars together from a variety of parts. Your car illustrations are so detailed and beautiful! Did you try to reflect the original vintage designs or something more representative of Cara Cara’s story?
Some of the cars in the book have subtle exterior variations from their original model (different tail lights or a variant hood ornament), but most are closer to the originals. It’s not always about the exterior of the car, but more often what’s ticking on the inside. A good example is the page that shows Cara Cara’s engine, which is modeled off of a car that truly had many different engine parts, none of which were original.
Can you tell me anything about the graphic novel you’re currently developing? How does the illustration experience differ between picture books and graphic novels?
My graphic novel, Flamer, is a YA graphic novel about a boy coming to terms with his sexual identity at a scout camp during the summer before high school. It’s definitely meant for an older crowd than I’m used to, so the immediate difference is the style, which is much looser and more expressive. The book is also over 300 pages, which is quite a departure from a 40 page picture book. That being said, an average comic panel is going to be much less detailed than a picture book spread.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Since it’s Spring, here’s a fun Easter egg you can find in All the Way to Havana! There’s a page where a man is getting his haircut in the background. That’s me! I actually went to that very barber, and he gave me a haircut that he deemed “muy suave.”