Walk on Through
Walk on Through
Children’s book creator Aaron Becker opens the door to a creative world
BY JEFF ROEDEL
A few years ago, acclaimed illustrator Aaron Becker left his career working in Hollywood art departments for a true adventure. He struck out on his own by moving to the East Coast, starting a family, and helping a new generation of young readers to embrace their inherent creativity and believe in themselves.
Every young person can be creative and find their voice, Becker believes. And in his hit book Journey, a lonely girl discovers a magic door in her room that leads to a world of wonder and even danger. Once through it with her powerful red marker, the epic landscapes of myth and fantasy and the raw, very real emotions of childhood, come together and to roaring life for her in this spirited and wordless volume.
The Wall Street Journal calls his work “gorgeous” and “confident.”
Becker recently spoke to New South Story Lab about his creative process, his inspirations and what’s coming next. “I’m researching my new book, and I’m thinking of setting it in Louisiana,” he says. “I’ve never been, but I’d like to see the coastline and fields of sugarcane.”
Becker can’t say anymore about his secretive new project, but Journey and it’s follow-up Quest are available now from Candlewick Press. Visit storybreathing.com for more information on Becker and a behind-the-scenes video on the creation of Journey.
JR: One thing that always strikes me about creativity is how it intersects and interacts with any life challenges the artist is facing. How do you take questions about life and turn that into creative exploration? Or even answers?
AB: That’s a big question. For me it was definitely an organic process. Growing up, drawing was my way in to addressing the world around me. It was—and is—a way of handling life. Most kids have some kind of outlet for that. And it is an empowering thing. Because all kids face something, whether it’s a problem at school or a sick grandparent or their parents getting a divorce—that’s the stuff of childhood. In retrospect, I can see how Journey tells the story of girl who is dealing with things the way I did and many children do. Essentially, she’s saying ‘home life can’t change, but I can use my talents and work through things that way.’ Her talent just happens to be magic. And Journey is the story of her exploring her magical realm.
So she’s an incredibly relatable character for young readers. I think in order to understand the world, kids have to create their own version of it. A version they can control. To make some sort of structure out of the chaos. That’s what I did. I wanted to be an astronaut at one point but decided to draw pictures of stars and spaceships instead.
JR: Some children have a lot of support from a parent or teacher to grow this creative outlet you’re talking about, but others might not. And if they don’t have that support, I think they tend to go to books or movies that give them that encouragement and spark their imaginations. Your books are now one of those sources of inspiration for young people exploring their creative side. How does that feel?
AB: That’s the kind of thing you never imagine is possible. I didn’t, and couldn’t have planned that. I was just making the best book I possibly could. Honestly, my intentions were not altruistic, just purely artistic. But to have people tell me that it means so much to them has been a real gift. One parent told me recently that Journey helped them get through the loss of a child. It’s my hope that children can go back to the book again and again as a source of encouragement, but I didn’t plan that.
JR: One of the many interesting facets to Journey and its follow-up Quest is the fact that they are wordless adventures. They are a series of watercolor images that tell the story without any narration. Tell me about that decision.
AB: My background is in film, and showing action and telling a story with only visuals. This was storyboard storytelling. To me, words can often feel redundant. At a book fair at my son’s school I picked up a book about a horse, and one page said ‘then he became sad.’ And it’s like, just show us he became sad! You don’t have to say it. The byproduct of having a story without words is that the audience is invited to bring more of their own interpretation and their own personality and experiences to the story. It becomes more personal the less specific it is.
JR: And your imagery, done in watercolor, follows this concept. It’s very beautiful work, but not as highly detailed as maybe it could be.
AB: That’s right. Particularly with characters, it’s best not to get too detailed with the faces and the clothes. Being a bit vague leaves so much more room for the viewer to see him or herself in the character. Just look at Calvin & Hobbes. If Calvin had been extremely detailed, you’d just think ‘Look at this punk kid.’ But there is not a lot of detail to his face, and that’s perfect. Less detail can be the better way to go. Look what happened when George Lucas re-did his Star Wars movies with Special Editions. He added more detail to them. He answered questions fans had with very specific answers, and it kind of ruined them. I’ve always felt that mystery and allowing viewer interpretation makes for a more powerful piece of work.
JR: Now that you are a successful children’s book creator, what were some books and artists you loved as a child?
AB: Definitely Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are). I loved anything he did. His detailed lines and his sense of form and perspective are amazing. I read books by Mercer Mayer (Little Critter). He was sort of criticized for copying Sendak’s style, but he’s really good at it, and I like his work, too. With both of them there’s this whimsy that’s still grounded in reality. There’s a guy named David Macaulay (The Way Things Work) who illustrated these different children’s guides to machinery and castles and things like that. These books I just loved from a young age. As I got a little older and started drawing a lot myself, I got really into Chris van Allsburg, who did The Polar Express and Jumanji. His sensibility with his marks is so good.
JR: How did leaving the film industry, and leaving California, to be a self-employed artist in Massachusetts change your work?
AB: It entirely changed it. Disney had bought the film studio I was working for, and I wasn’t interested in being an anonymous figure in the machine. When Disney shut down that studio, I had a sink or swim moment in my career. Life pushed me to take risks, but I’m glad it did. Now as an independent artist, I’m not thinking in terms of what will make the Art Director happy. I’m my own artist for the first time.
JR: How is your work different now from the creative personal work you did for fun while you had your day job in the film industry?
AB: That’s interesting. Well, when I had my day job, my personal work was not concerned at all with communicating or finding an audience. Success didn’t cross my mind. Commercial appeal didn’t cross my mind. I was just making what I wanted to make in my spare time. Now I have to think like the director. I have that responsibility creatively to make something that others will engage with and respond to. My work can’t simply be for my own fancy anymore. I have more freedom artistically now, but also more responsibility.
Images Courtesy Aaron Becker