For children’s author, stories are inspired by artwork
GREENFIELD CENTER Jennifer Sattler spends as much time as she can with children.
The 45-year-old Greenfield Center painter and writer also invests hours with her cartoon creations — the hero team of determined yellow chick Chick and good ol’ wonder dog Pug, the colorful flamingo Sylvie and surfing pigs Fergus and Dink from “Pig Kahuna.”
All have been featured in Sattler’s oversized, colorful picture books for children. The latest, “Chick ’n’ Pug Meet The Dude,” was recently released and is now available at major book stores.
With kids and parents preparing summer reading lists, Sattler hopes her fictional friends are chosen for trips to picnic spots, beaches and sleepover parties. Just back from a book tour that took her to Philadelphia, New York and New Jersey, Sattler answered questions about her work — and Chick and company — during a question-and-answer session.
Q: How would you describe your latest book?
A: “Chick ’n’ Pug Meet The Dude” is a sequel. When I first got the deal for Chick ’n’ Pug, they wanted three books and I had to think of some adventure for these two to go on. My husband grew up looking at comic books. I have no interest in comic books, but I know all about them through him. I needed some kind of villain, just because of the whole superhero thing. But obviously, a villain that was not really a villain and that’s where The Dude came into it. So it’s their adventure with this, in Chick’s mind, a villain, in Pug’s mind, just The Dude, a local dog.
Q: Were you thinking a little bit about the movie “The Big Lebowski,” in which Jeff Bridges plays The Dude?
A: Actually, The Dude came from a dream of the cover of a book where you would only see this giant dog’s legs behind Chick ’n’ Pug and his name was The Dude. Now, “The Big Lebowski” was probably in my brain somewhere, but that’s where it came from.
Q: Where do you get your ideas from?
A: All over the place. They’re always character-driven. The characters come first. With Chick ’n’ Pug, I was just sketching and sketched this little chick and I was a big Looney Tunes fan when I was growing up. Do you remember the baby chicken hawk? “I’m a chicken hawk,” that tough little chick? It reminded me of the baby chicken hawk and I needed someone to go with him so I started looking at dogs. The characters come first and then the story. Most of my stories seem intentionally simple at the outset as far as what they seem to be about, but they’re really about much more than that. The characters have to seem very real to me if I’m going to make any kind of a story. With Sylvie, the flamingo that turns different colors, she came from my daughter asking me why flamingos were pink. One day we found out it was because they eat pink shrimp. If they’re at the zoo and they don’t feed them enough of these pink shrimp, they start to turn white.
Q: How long does it take to do one of these books?
A: It depends on the book. Some of them come pretty fast. Usually, it’s about six months between getting the idea and really getting a good dummy put together. A dummy is like the sketchy version of the book, where you can kind of page through it to see how it flows. But everything is just sketched out. And that takes usually about six months. That’s the longest part. Once I start painting, I’m a total workaholic and I will paint until I fall asleep. My editors know me as this workhorse, and I can actually get a book painted in like seven weeks, eight weeks. Which is fast for a 32-page picture book.
Q: Your books are for kids, but adults too — they’re often reading them to boys and girls. Who is the main audience?
A: Definitely the kids. Because adults have to read them not once, usually you have to read a book 25 times — I wanted some layer there to keep the adults interested. But absolutely, my favorite thing in the world is to hear kids laugh. So they’re for the kids.
Q: Some people page through these books and probably say, “I could do this, a sentence or two a page.” But they’re tougher than that — how hard is it to produce a book for kids?
A: It’s very hard. When you have this sparse use of words, they have to be the right ones. Since I write and paint, I have to choose when I want to convey something with words and when I want to convey it with the image.
Q: How do you make that decision?
A: The paintings come first for me. I am first a painter, I have a master of fine arts from Indiana University, so I’m first a painter. I kind of see these like a movie in my head as I’m going along, so I will sketch things out. The words usually come once I see the image start to take shape.
Q: Would every author like to see their creations picked up for a television project or series?
A: I don’t know about every author. I have no interest in that, actually. Because for me, it’s so much about the experience of having a little one sitting on your lap, reading the story and this kind of quiet time together. Some of my books are eBooks, they’ve gone digital and I haven’t even seen them. I love the experience of a picture book, reading a picture book with a child. Now, if someone came to me and said, “We want to make a series of your characters,” I wouldn’t close the door to their face. But it’s not a goal.
Q: How close does an author get to his or her characters?
A: When it’s time to work on a sequel, and I get to spend all my days — I just finished “Pig Kahuna Pirates” and I just loved being in the heads of Fergus and Dink all day long. When that’s finished, then I switch over to Chick ’n’ Pug and it’s just like seeing old friends. I’m very involved with the characters when I’m working on the book. They’re very alive to me. I love doing sequels because I would hate to say goodbye to these characters. I’d hate to not spend my days thinking about what they would say or do.
Q: What’s the next project?
A: I have to decorate my studio now in Christmas stuff because I’m going to be working all summer on a Christmas book. So the next Chick ’n’ Pug book will be a Christmas book. I’m going to spend my hot summer with a fan on me and Christmas lights around me, trying to get into a festive mood. And “Pig Kahuna Pirates,” the sequel to “Pig Kahuna,” is coming out in the spring of 2014. That’s already done.
Q: What’s it like being on tour?
A: It’s kind of exhausting, because there’s a lot of traveling, but my kids are now 12 and 14, so to be around little ones again, I just absolutely love it. That’s why I got into this in the first place. They’re my people, the people I’m the most comfortable with, they’re just joyful. I don’t get to spend my days any more with kindergartners.