Today we’re talking to Kelly Collier about A Horse Named Steve.
Here’s the thing, guys. HERE’S THE THING!!! Kelly Collier is a debut author-illustrator who sent in an unsolicited submission to Kids Can Press. Yes, that’s right. UNSOLICITED. That means she didn’t have an agent or work in children’s books for over eight years trying to gain the trust of her colleagues before accidentally slipping manuscripts into their coffee. No, she created an awesome story and just mailed it off to a publisher. And guess what? A HORSE NAMED STEVE IS NOW A BOOK YOU CAN BUY IN A STORE OR CHECK OUT FROM A LIBRARY.
And an amazing, hilarious, stylish book it is! A Horse Named Steve tells the story of an incredibly self-absorbed horse who wants to be exceptional. It’s such a funny book that my brother recommended it to ME. He had no idea that my colleagues and I had been developing marketing plans for it for the past ten months and that maybe—JUST MAYBE—our marketing was the reason he found the book in the first place. But I digress … Let’s talk to Kelly!
Tell us about your debut picture book, A Horse Named Steve. How did you come to write it? I’ve told you this before, but I love that my brother recommended your book to me. I think that’s the best endorsement EVER!
How A Horse Named Steve came to be is still a bit of a mystery to me. Especially because I don’t consider myself much of a writer. I actually struggled with spelling and grammar all through school. I did love art, however, and after high school I went on to graduate from Sheridan College’s illustration program. The idea for A Horse Named Steve came from a doodle I did to fill an old picture frame. I had just moved into a house and was trying to make my white, barren walls feel more “homey.” The honest truth is I wrote a draft of A Horse Named Steve and submitted it with some illustrations in an attempt to get the illustrations in front of someone.
When I met with my editor, I even suggested that she hire someone else to write it, and I would just draw the pictures. I will forever be grateful that she didn’t let me do that. I remember sending her a few early drafts of the manuscript and I was struggling with it. She finally said something to me that clicked. She said, “The humour in your manuscript is not matching up with the humour in your drawings.” Suddenly a light bulb went off and I was like, “OMG, THE BOOK CAN BE FUNNY?!” Hahaha! It seems so silly now, but I really had no idea. I sat down immediately and just drew it out and wrote it. I remember feeling so liberated. I had been so consumed with worrying about my grammar and run-on sentences, but she let me just be me. It was really great.
In a world where most children’s books are so brightly coloured and in-your-face, the art style in A Horse Named Steve is more subdued. You went with minimalist line drawings and a muted palette. In a way, it’s kind of reminiscent of Shel Silverstein’s work. Why did you decide to take this approach?
For years, I worked with bright colours and acrylics. I sort of got burnt out and took a break from painting for a long time. When I got back into it, I started working with pen and ink. My original concept for the book was actually more graphic, with lots of handwritten fonts. I wanted it to be all black, white and gold. Steve was kept simple so he didn’t compete with all the crazy fonts I had envisioned. However, it turns out kids have a hard time reading crowded, crazy fonts. (Who knew?) So, we re-worked it, but one of the elements that stayed was the simplicity and subdued nature of the art.
What are some of your comedic inspirations? And what are some of your favourite picture books?
My brother is a pretty funny guy. I have a twin sister, and when we were growing up, I think he made it his job to make us laugh. We laughed all the time. He definitely is a huge inspiration. I actually hear his voice in my head while I write. I think one of the first funny picture books I bought was The Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Tales. I bought it when I was in college because I loved Lane Smith, the illustrator. But the writing by Jon Scieszka made me realize that kids’ books can be entertaining for adults too.
I know you’re working on a sequel to Steve right now. Are there any other picture book ideas you’re playing with?
The sequel to Steve is keeping me busy at the moment and I am bouncing around ideas for a third Steve book, but nothing solid yet. I am always trying to think of new ideas. I even have a sketchbook that I carry around with me everywhere. Ironically, I never use it because I hate drawing in public. I had this romantic idea when I was in school about how I would sit in coffee shops and draw all day and sip lattes. Meanwhile, the truth is I need to be alone, I need to make a huge mess and erase things a billion times and I need to get up every fifteen minutes to open my fridge and stare blankly inside it.
Fart jokes in children’s literature: Yea or nay?
Also a very good question, Naseem. There is no denying that kids find farts funny. But I feel like a fart joke is best done discreetly and quietly … just like a real fart. You don’t want it to be too loud or in-your-face because it may turn people off. You know what I’m saying?
CAN’T HEAR YOU, KELLY! TOO BUSY FARTING!
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Naseem Hrab is a writer, a storyteller and a pretty good friend. Her comedy writing has appeared on McSweeney's Internet Tendency and The Rumpus. Naseem worked as a librarian for a time and now works in children's publishing. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.