THREE-EYED MONSTERS AND TOURISTY GORILLAS MIGHT SEEM WEIRD TO YOU, BUT THEY'RE COMPLETELY NORMAL TO ANY CHILD. AND ILLUSTRATOR MARK BUEHNER. HE'S PROVIDED THE PICTURES FOR SUCH TITLES AS THE ESCAPE OF MARVIN THE APE, MAXI, THE HERO AND ADVENTURES OF TAXI DOG. HE'S A MAN WITH THE MAGIC TO BRING CHILDREN'S STORY CHARACTERS TO LIFE. TASTES LIKE CHICKEN'S ONE-SHOT HAWAIIAN CORRESPONDENT, CÉSAR, SAT DOWN FOR A CHAT.
césar: Was illustration your first calling?
Mark: Originally, I went to New York with the idea that I’d do general illustration work. After not getting work at all, I started looking for an agent. I met up with the Barracas; they were a husband and wife team that represented about 40 illustrators. After seeing my portfolio they asked, “Have you ever thought about doing children’s book work, because your stuff is really geared towards it.” They had a manuscript at the time and wanted me to look at it, to see if I’d like to illustrate it. After the first book came out I received enough attention that I had work from then on.
c: After The Adventures of Taxi Dog you received a lot of good reviews and went on to do another story with the Barracas.
M: Yeah. Maxi, The Hero. They wanted to continue doing books, but my interests at the time were not there as much. So, they proceeded on with another illustrator and I went on with my wife and did some of our own books.
c: When I look at your illustrations, like in A Job for Wittilda, the colors seem to jump off the page. Have you ever been disappointed with the quality of reproduction?
M: Yeah. When Harvey Potter’s Balloon Farm came out, I looked at it and, oh my, they wrecked the book. The colors were so crazy. They really lost a lot of the subtlety. That’s probably been the most disappointing. The second one was I Did It, I’m Sorry. The pictures in that one are not quite as intense.
c: Were you able to go back before the next printing and correct them?
M: No. Usually once you see the proof, they’re along the way. All of a sudden you get a copy of the book and that’s it. There have been a few books I think improved upon the artwork with the printing. But that’s usually an exception.
c: My Life with the Wave and I am the Cat were more somber books. Did you find those more difficult to produce?
M: They were two of the books I had high hopes for when I started to illustrate them. But once I got into them, they became quite a challenge for me to do. I still look at I am the Cat and think, “Why did I make it such a challenge?” It could have been a lot more fun. It seems to get a little dark. It’s hard to put a finger on why it went that way. I guess the poem had somewhat of an influence-- being a dark poem. I think My Life with the Wave worked out pretty well. But it’s a book that takes place in the winter and it lost a little bit of the fun I had with previous books.
c: Did you ever read the original story I Am the Wave by Octavio Paz?
M: No. I’ve heard people refer to it, but I have not actually read it. I’ve heard that it’s really written for adults. But the way Catherine Cowan adapted it as a kid’s book, it’s a really fun and imaginative story.
c: Do you grid your pictures?
M: No. I always like to draw out of my head first. Once I’ve done that, I ask myself, “Do I need to take some pictures of this or can I go without them?” So I’ll go both ways. But, there’s something about making things up out of your head that gives it a nice quality you start to lose when you go more realistic.
c: The bunny and the dinosaur, the cat and the mouse. They are all hidden in books that you’ve illustrated. Have you ever thought about hiding more?
M: In some of the other ones there’re other things. It started with Taxi Dog. I thought it would be kinda fun because it’s about a dog. I thought, “I’ll put a cat on each page. Kids like that.” So I started throwing more cats in the second book. Then I kind of got into the rabbit and cat and tyrannosaur-- fun little shapes to hide. Those are usually my repeaters.
c: My daughter is four and she totally digs that. I’m sure you hear that a lot.
M: It’s fun to go through the books with kids and ask, “Where’s the mouse?” They’re kinda searching the whole picture and they get to a certain age when all of a sudden they get it. I just think it’s a fun thing.
c: You’ve worked with your wife, I work with mine. What do you find most rewarding working with your better half?
M: There are a number of things that are really nice about it. It’s always nice if you can have things in common, but if you can share that (business), I think that’s an added bonus. It’s really quite nice if you can have someone that can give you input, too. It’s been fun to work together. It’s an ongoing thing we enjoy.
c: How much influence do your children have on the stories you both create?
M: It’s a Spoon, Not a Shovel actually was quite directly a result of a family thing we did. This goes back before the book was written. Cara (my wife) and I were having a discussion with our daughter on manners, but she was too young to read at the time. So, Cara made up a quiz where she had a question and pictures. She’d say, “What do you use while you’re eating at the table?” She would have a picture of a hand, a spoon, and a boot. Then our daughter would point at the right one. Several years later, I said it would make a fun little book. That’s how it came about; from a family idea of teaching.
c: Besides your wife, how much contact do you have with the author when you’re illustrating their words?
M: Not any, really. When the publisher comes to me, they’ll have a story or a manuscript and they’ll see if I want to illustrate it. If I do, I’ll negotiate a contract. I don’t ever talk to the author. They don’t even show the author the sketches. The author is kind of at the mercy of the publisher in hoping that they get somebody good to do the books.
c: Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) created illustrations for both children and adults. Do you ever feel the need to produce art geared towards an adult audience?
M: I want the art to be sophisticated enough to entertain everybody. Sometimes there are subtle things that kids won’t get, but the parents might. Like in The Escape of Marvin the Ape. At the ballgame, if you look into the crowd, there’s a woman standing up in white. I was thinking of the movie The Natural. Robert Redford’s character’s girlfriend stands up and she’s dressed in white. So sometimes I’ll include inside jokes that kids won’t get, but parents might enjoy.
c: How do you feel about social issues? How do you think they should be discussed in children’s books?
M: I’m very conservative and very much a believer in traditional values. I think if you can take a story and intertwine a good moral value-- like in Aesop’s fables-- I think that’s great. I really try and find stories like that. It creates a dialogue between the parent and the child on a topic that would prove to be helpful, so that the child can learn or understand something. I think if a book can do that, it’s a bonus. There are a number of kid’s books that are just fun, but if they can bring something out like that, it's just so much better.
c: You do appearances at schools and other organizations. What was your most interesting experience doing one of these?
M: I went to a few schools in a little Kansas town last year, and I remember the kids being such great listeners. So respectful and excited that we were there. That really stands out as quite an amazing thing.
c: Do you have any side projects?
M: Often times, people will see a book and call with a little advertising job. I have those going on all the time. And in the back of my mind, I also keep thinking I’d like to do some fine art. The thing is, with children’s books you have a much larger audience. And when you’re doing a children’s book, there’s a lot of freedom. It's a wonderful area to work in from an artistic standpoint.
c: Aspiring illustrators all over are wondering how to become successful. Any suggestions?
M: I think there’s always going to be room for people who are the best. And there’s always room for new talent. With illustrating children’s books, I try to keep the quality level up. I sacrifice quantity for quality. I think that’s a good approach to have over time. Try and turn up the quality on things.
c: You’ve had a lot of practice drawing dogs with Maxi, The Hero. So, in your professional opinion, do dogs have lips?
M: (laughs) It depends if they’re talking to you or not. Sometimes you want to give it a little human look. So yes, you could toss in some lips with those dogs. Even chickens have lips.
c: There you have it, folks. Irrefutable proof that both dogs and chickens have lips.