Have you based any of your characters on real people?
I do occasionally base some characters on real people. Arthur Spiderwick was inspired by the Golden Age illustrator, Arthur Rackham, and the boy in Gzonk
was an nine-year-old version of me.Back to Questions
What other books have you written?
TD: All my main titles are featured in the BOOKS
section of the website. Otherwise here is the short list:
Jimmy Zangwow’s Out-of-this-World Moon Pie Adventure
(2000) – A crafty boy, a homemade spaceship, 1000 Moon pies and 900 Martians. What more do you need to know?
(2001) – a bored lonely boy + a workaholic father + a gigantic pink rabbit (that only the boy can see) = Mayhem. A LOT of mayhem. (seriously, I had to put a warning on the back of the book).
The Spiderwick Chronicles
(launched in 2003) – Three kids find an old dusty field guide (made by their great uncle) to fairies, trolls and goblins. Guess what? It’s all real. (co-created with Holly Black)
G is for One Gzonk!
(2006) – This alpha-number-bet book teaches neither the alphabet nor counting. But this homage to Dr. Seuss and Edward Lear does teach silliness.
Beyond the Spiderwick Chronicles
(launched in 2007) – Three new kids and three new adventures. Thankfully, they get help from three old fairy specialists. (co-created with Holly Black)
Adventure of Meno
(launched in 2009) – Meno is an elf of space. He talk funny. His best friend is jellyfish and a wish-granting sprite. These are all about pure nonsense and having fun with books.
The Search for WondLa
(launched in 2010) – A girl is raised by a robot on an alien planet and realizes she is the only human there.
The Adventures of Luke Skywalker, Jedi Knight
(2014) – this picture retells the story of the greatest Jedi Knight of all with artwork by Academy Award-winning concept artist, Ralph McQuarrie.Back to Questions
What is your favorite book that you’ve read?
I read quite often and many of the books that I adored as a kid have shaped the types of books that I am making today.
This can be a long and ever-changing list for me. But, here are some all-time favorites:
Peter Pan and Wendy
—J.M. Barrie’s classic has surly pirates, bloodthirsty native Americans, a hungry crocodile, feisty faeries and flying kids with weapons…what more could you ask for?
—Richard Adams takes you on an incredible quest from a home colony that’s completely eradicated to Shangri-La. One the way, there are monsters, villains, allies, oh, and a fascist leader trying to seize the hero’s new home…and its all told with rabbits. You read that right…rabbits.
The Mouse and The Motorcycle
—Mouse buddy + toy motorcycle = Awesome!
—In my mind, this one of Dr. Seuss’s undisputed classics. Sadly, we need the Lorax now more than ever.
Lafcadio: The Lion That Shot Back
—One of Shel Silverstein’s lesser known titles, but one of my all-time favorites. Actually, I learned about this one when my younger brother read it for school and had me help with his book report. It is one of those stories that you will always remember.Back to Questions
What’s your favorite book that you wrote?
I love all the books that I have done. I’ve spent so much time with them as a creator that love is the only way I’ll see them through to completion. Most of the ideas for my books have taken years to develop, and then add another year (at least) for producing the book (see question below), so you can see why each one has a special place in my heart.Back to Questions
How long does it take you to make a book?
Creating a book from scratch can take some time.
I usually jot out ideas in journals and sketchbooks and will often plot out the entire book writing on loose paper. While doing so, I may add scenes and make adjustments. Along the way, I sketch characters, environments and scenes. This developing stage of a story can take years for me.
Then I begin writing a manuscript. I write out scenes in longhand then type everything into the computer, editing along the way. There isn’t anything glamorous about this aspect of the process—it’s writing, then rewriting—over and over again. I try to refine the prose to speak clearly to a young reader while not losing focus of the original spark of inspiration that got me working on the story in the first place.
This stage can vary greatly in length depending on if I am writing a 500-word picture book or a 70,000-word novel. I may sketch, but there is not a lot of drawing happening during this time. My focus is the manuscript. Generally speaking, I take several months as I work through the various drafts.
Once the writing is edited and with a copy-editor at the publisher, I begin creating the artwork for the book. I like at least 6 months to work on the final images. Bear in mind, that I’ve been sketching throughout the process. So, it is usually years from the spark of an idea until I am looking at the proofs for a finished book. For me, it is a marathon not a sprint.
On picture books, I’ll work on the story for many months refining the plot and simplifying the elements. Once my editor gets a hold of it, it can take several more months of editing and rewrites.
During that time, I’ll begin designing the characters and the initial layouts in preparation for the book dummy. Once the dummy is approved, the final art usually takes about 6 months to complete. I’ll continue to refine the text right up to the moment that the book is sent off to the printer. The whole process takes a little over a year.
For chapter books, the illustrations are less intense than a picture book and usually black & white. I can go from sketch to finished pen & ink art in about 4 months.
For the WondLa
books, it took about six months to write the story and another six to create the artwork.
Now, I am at a point where there are stories being worked on that I have labored over for years. I like this, it allows me to rethink and refine the plot and concept without having to rush to meet a deadline. Currently, there are quite a few picture and chapter books in various stages of completion. My goal is to release one book a year.Back to Questions
What’s your favorite character in a book? What’s your favorite character in a book that you created?
I am really intrigued by J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Also, I love how unpredictable Lewis Carroll’s characters are.
As for characters that I’ve created, I adore Ted, I wish I could meet Arthur Spiderwick and would love a pet giant water bear, like Otto.Back to Questions
How do you develop your characters?
I think all of the characters I’ve created start out as fragments of myself that I then build upon. For me to really understand a character, good or bad, I have to walk in their shoes. I have to see the world through their eyes I need some sort of a common denominator that I can latch onto to begin building a personality, so it ultimately comes from me.
Oftentimes, while I am figuring out who these characters are, I begin drawing them. It may be a portrait of their face, or perhaps a general body shape. Sometimes, like Mr. Spider in The Spider & The Fly
, it’s all about the costume they wear…or the house they live in. Those visual cues guide the viewer as to what sort of character they are reading about.Back to Questions
What’s your preferred method of writing? Do you write in a notebook, on the computer, with music?
I write everywhere, though usually in a sketchbook where I doodle and jot down ideas. My iPhone is also chock-full of notes that hit me when I am out and about.
I listen to quite a bit of music while I work—though I cannot listen to anyone singing while I write. The lyrics distract me. Often, I create playlists of soundtracks and themes while I create.
For instance, while working on The Spiderwick Chronicles
books my playlist consisted of soundtracks from The Black Cauldron, Braveheart, The Dark Crystal, The City of Lost Children
and The Princess Bride.Back to Questions
Do you edit as you go? Do you have several drafts, or does it come out exactly how you want it?
It never comes out the way I want it on the first draft. It is always a long process. There is a lot of refinement. This applies both to my writing and my art.
I try to capture the spark or essence of an idea as quickly and as unfiltered as I can. I jot it down or scribble it out in a sketch. Then I think about. I ponder it in all sorts of ways. What does this idea mean? How could I present it in the clearest possible way? Will others understand it? Enjoy it? Care about it?
From there, I explore the idea. I bounce it off of family and friends. I write out possible plot paths. I sketch out possible character designs. Sometimes, I put it all away and let it germinate a little longer.
To give you an idea of how this works, The Spiderwick Chronicles
was based off of an idea I had when I was 12. I made a field guide to dragons, trolls and fairies, and I never forgot about it.
In 2001, I was asked by my editor what my dream-project would be. I suggested this field guide. The story of Arthur Spiderwick—the character that created the guide—had grown over the years as I had periodically returned to the project. Eventually it evolved into the book series with Holly Black.
I took a similar route for the WondLa trilogy. The Search for WondLa
is based on an idea I explored back in 1997-1998. That’s a nice long time to figure what a story is and what it isn’t. From then to the day it was released, I wrote and rewrote drafts, had friends give feedback and visually developed the world through my drawings. For me, one discipline fuels the other: the drawings inspire words, which inspire more drawings.
Other projects, like Kenny & The Dragon
or The Spider & The Fly
, came from a longtime love of classic literature. With both titles, I started with a fresh approach to a story (or poem) that many may be familiar with. The Spider & The Fly
started when my editor sent over Mary Howitt’s poem. As I read those famous lines, my mind jumped to Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies
and Chas Addams’ Mother Goose
. I quickly sketched out my idea for the characters and setting and was on my way.
Kenny & The Dragon
was a complete re-imagining of Kenneth Grahame’s short story The Reluctant Dragon
. I wanted to re-tell the story in the tradition of old fairy tales that get re-told periodically so that readers of today may enjoy it. My hope is that someone else will tackle it years from now. Classic tales like that need to stay on kids’ bookshelves, no matter what form they are in.Back to Questions
Why do you think the Spiderwick series has been so successful?
Honestly, the series was much more successful than I ever could have imagined. In the beginning, when I pitched the concept to editor, I really just wanted to do a John James Audubon-esque field guide to fairies, trolls and goblins. There was a loose backstory on Arthur Spiderwick, the fellow who created this guide; which, of course, was what intrigued my editor the most.
We soon realized that we were discussing two books—the illustrated field guide and the story of Spiderwick. While on tour for The Spider & The Fly
I spoke with many children, from kindergarten to fifth grade, and realized the gamut of reading ability varied from child to child. I wondered if Spiderwick’s story could, perhaps, speak to readers young and old.
My editor and I realized that maybe there was more to the Spiderwick story than one big middle-grade novel. Enter Holly Black, a writer I admired, who understood fairy folklore as she had been helping me research Spiderwick’s field guide.
With Holly on board, we set the story in the modern day with contemporary kids and broke the novel into shorter books aimed for 7 to 10 year-olds. It became more a serial than a series, with plenty of artwork to visually break up the text.
Holly was encouraged to keep the tone of the books a tad older than the usual fare for the age range we now had in mind. Summoning my memories of Arthur Rackham’s eerie work, I tried to mirror that tone visually. The result was a series of books aimed for a young audience but presented in a sophisticated package reminiscent of old fairy tales.
I feel we achieved much more success with this series than we imagined. I take comfort in the fact that we concluded on a high note with plenty of titles to enjoy, but not so many that the specialness of the series became diluted.Back to Questions
What did you think of the Spiderwick movie?
The filmmakers did a great job of adapting the stories. I got to witness firsthand what goes into making a film and understood many of the changes from the source material. The screenwriter couldn’t jam everything from all five books into one film. It would have been really long, and really expensive. Perhaps one day the studio will re-examine it as a television series.
In the end, the film retained the themes of the books—like Jared dealing with his parent’s separation and the power of knowledge that can be discovered in a book. Of course, I loved seeing my creature designs brought to life by the legendary Phil Tippett and the talents at Industrial Light & Magic. That was a childhood dream-come-true!
It was an awesome ride. I’m ready to do it again.Back to Questions