It’s All in Alphabetical Disorder
by Sue Corbett
The Miami Herald | September 9, 2006
The path to success for artist Tony DiTerlizzi, a 1992 graduate of Fort Lauderdale’s Art Institute, wasn’t straight — which is just the way he likes it.
”I’ve always wanted to zig when people expected me to zag,” he says.
Take for example, DiTerlizzi’s idea for a lavishly illustrated guide to mystical creatures. He pitched the idea to his publisher, who told him to write a novel based on the idea instead.
The result: The Spiderwick Chronicles, a series of five chapter books, co-written by Holly Black, with more than 3.5 million copies sold, and a feature film in the works.
Or how about DiTerlizzi’s unwillingness to sugarcoat the ending of the gothic illustrations he created for the classic poem, The Spider and the Fly? People warned him that allowing the beguiling heroine of a kids’ picture book to get eaten might not go over big with critics.
Not to worry: The book won a Caldecott Honor from the American Library Association.
And then there’s his latest book, G is for One Gzonk! (Simon & Schuster, ages 4 to 7, $16.95) which DiTerlizzi will introduce to South Florida audiences next week. It was supposed to be an alphabet book, but that turned out to be far too orderly a concept for DiTerlizzi’s style, a sort of demented exuberance that gives kids giggle fits.
”It’s kind of anti-establishmentarian,” DiTerlizzi, 37, admits. “I wanted to mess with the conventions of alphabet book.”
Gzonk is an homage to his influences — Edward Lear, master of nonsense — and the good doctor, Seuss. You don’t need a DNA test to see that the ”Snoopy Bloobytack” in Gzonk, a blue-skinned, long-limbed ”creachling,” descends directly from the Grinch.
Picture books were important to DiTerlizzi as a kid growing up in Jupiter. What stayed with him most about the stories his mother, Carole, read to Tony and his younger sister and brother, was that they made her laugh, too.
‘If you’re really, really lucky, and the kid says, `read it again,’ there’s got to be something in there for the parents,” he said.
Young Tony took on the mantle of ”author” in elementary school.
He wrote and illustrated a book about one of his favorite topics — bugs — ”and carried it around like he was a biologist,” Carole DiTerlizzi recalled. “He was about 9 years old and this book was 30 to 40 pages long.”
By his senior year at South Fork High in Stuart, DiTerlizzi had taken every art class the school offered, so his instructor, Tom Wetzl, created an independent study project for him — illustrating Alice in Wonderland.
”Tony was the type of student who spent his lunch hour in the art room and drew all weekend,” Wetzl remembers. “If I gave an assignment, he would far exceed what was required because he would explore every aspect of it.”
DiTerlizzi enrolled at the Florida School of the Arts in Palatka, but the academics nearly did him in. ”All I wanted to do was paint and draw.” Instead, he completed his academic requirements at Palm Beach Community College and finished his degree, in graphic design, at The Art Institute.
Launching a career as an illustrator from South Florida didn’t work, so he and his wife, Angela DeFrancis, moved to New York. He landed a job drawing ”fantasy art” for the game company that made Dungeons and Dragons. ”I got to do a lot of Minotaurs and Vikings,” he says, the glee still evident in his voice. “A lot of that stuff wound up fueling Spiderwick.”
Writing and illustrating his own books was his goal, but even being in New York, where he could show his portfolio to art directors in person, it was tough.
Then, DeFrancis, who was working at a MAC cosmetics store near the offices of Scholastic, found herself one day doing an editor’s makeup.
‘Angela told her, `Oh, my husband does kids’ books,’ which I’m sure this woman was thinking, ‘Just put on my eye shadow, lady,’ but what she said was, ‘Have him drop his stuff off.’ ”
DiTerlizzi brought in his portfolio early Monday morning. Impressed, the editor began calling around the office, trying to find an art director. Everyone was in a meeting except a colleague named Kevin Lewis, who had arrived after the meeting started and didn’t want to waltz in late. He looked through DiTerlizzi’s work and was taken by an illustrated version of a lesser-known poem by Edward Lear, The Quangle Wangle’s Hat.
”It wasn’t very salable, but you don’t often find artists who have that kind of deep knowledge of the classics,” Lewis said. He didn’t buy the manuscript, but when he moved to Simon & Schuster a year later, he published DiTerlizzi’s first picture book, Jimmy Zangwow’s Out-of-This-World Moon-Pie Adventure.
The next project DiTerlizzi offered was an early version of Gzonk! Lewis rejected it, knowing an alphabet book from an unknown artist would be a tough sell. But he zeroed in on one illustration of a huge, floppy-eared pink thing. ”Write me a story about him,” Lewis said. That became DiTerlizzi’s second book, Ted, about a boy and his imaginary friend.
Lewis had long wanted to commission a picture book version of Mary Howitt’s classic poem, The Spider and the Fly, and thought DiTerlizzi might be the right artist after seeing the bugs he drew for Alien and Possum by Tony Johnston. ”He had these nonsensical creatures in waist coats. They were just awesome,” Lewis said. He asked DiTerlizzi to read through Howitt’s darkly cautionary poem, first published in 1829.
‘By morning he had an absolute vision for how he wanted to do it. He called here, so excited. `It’ll be all black and white, like an old movie. It’ll be in an attic and the spider will live in a dollhouse,’ ” Lewis recalled. The finished illustrations are a perfect blend of creepy and goofy, but initially, Lewis’ bosses expressed concern.
”There were people who were absolutely freaked out by it. They wanted it in color,” DiTerlizzi recalls.
Some saw the ending as problematic, Lewis said. ‘They were asking, `Is there a way we can save the fly?’ and I said, ‘No, there really isn’t.’ This poem’s 175 years old. Everybody knows the fly dies. It’s a cautionary tale about someone trying to persuade with kind and flattering words.”
DiTerlizzi worried about career suicide. So did Lewis after a friend read it and said, “Ohmigosh. It’s Silence of the Lambs for kids.”
The book debuted, however, to stellar reviews. In 2003, it won a Caldecott Honor for outstanding artwork.
DiTerlizzi and Lewis had finished Spider (but not yet won the Caldecott) when DiTerlizzi pitched his biggest idea yet: a lavishly illustrated ”field guide” to the faerie world. DiTerlizzi envisioned a coffee-table quality book of 100 or more full-color paintings.
Lewis was skeptical.
”I knew from experience that, unless a person already has a huge audience, we would have a difficult time selling a book like that,” Lewis said. ‘But he had this elaborate backstory about three kids and how they had found this guide so I said, `Tell me more about the Grace kids,’ and I began to see a way we could get the story out in a more commercial form and create an audience for this big art book he wanted to do.”
DiTerlizzi drafted a journalist, Holly Black, who had interviewed him while he was working on Dungeons and Dragons, to help him craft The Spiderwick Chronicles, a series of illustrated chapter books for the elementary-school set, based on the adventures of three siblings, Mallory, Jared and Simon, who stumble upon a long-lost copy of their Uncle Arthur Spiderwick’s rare book.
”Holly was so well-read in fairy folklore, I knew she would rock it,” DiTerlizzi said. The two plotted the stories together, trading pages back and forth.
A new trilogy is planned for release next year, and last year Lewis did publish DiTerlizzi’s ”big art book,” Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You to rave reviews and healthy sales.
So now DiTerlizzi’s has zig-zagged back to his kooky alphabet book and this time, he’s a big enough star among booksellers and, most importantly, kids, to get it published. ‘What I do think about always is, `What can I do to make a kid crack up?’ or, even better, have him say, ‘This is really cool.’ ”