The Cross & the Pen: HumbleBee
- 2003 1 Oct
I would tell you about the first time I met children's author/illustrator Matt Whitlock (HumbleBee Cook/FaithKidz)...but he's beat me to the punch in this interview...so let me just whet your appetite. If you love anything that speaks to the child's heart...you'll adore the work of Matt Whitlock! (As a little aside here, Matt and I have car-pooled and flown out of Central Florida together and without fail...we get lost! So, if you ever see us together, watch out and don't follow!) This week Matt and I got together for a little chat. Wanna listen in?
Eva: Matt, before we get started...tell my readers a bit about your background.
Matt: Well, I grew up on a farm in Michigan. I came from a long line of farmers, though I received absolutely no farming DNA from any of them. I hated living in the country. I am allergic to just about everything. I stayed in the house as much as possible and entertained myself: I used an old tape recorder to record my own radio shows, I ran around in costumes and disguises. I was a weird kid. Mostly, I would draw pictures. I would practice drawing Snoopy and Charlie Brown religiously. When I later became interested in animation, I would go to the store and buy up their supply of little notepads and use them as flipbooks. When I ran out of notepads, I'd animate little stick people in the corners of my textbooks. Since I was old enough to hold a pencil I decided I was going to be an animator for Disney.
I attended Asbury College and then transferred to The Columbus College of Art and Deign. CCAD had a good reputation for preparing students for Disney animation and was one of the few schools that Disney used to actively recruit from. I was so driven to get into Disney, I became a workaholic- a hermit, actually- and missed out on most of the typical college craziness. I had read somewhere once that the odds were better to get into Harvard than to get hired at Disney Feature Animation. When I was hired at Disney in 1997, I think I was one of 17 people to be chosen from 1000 applicants. I worked as an artist on Mulan, Tarzan, The Emperor's New Groove, Lilo & Stitch, the upcoming Brother Bear, as well as some TV shows and theme park rides. I left the Disney Studio last December to do children's writing and illustrating full time, and am having a great time doing it.
Eva: I know you love cartoons. What are some of your favorites?
Matt: I was raised on classic Looney Tunes and Disney Cartoons. Lilo & Stitch was probably my favorite film that I got to actually work on. I love Uncle Scrooge comic books by Don Rosa and the late great Carl Barks. I love newspaper comic strips. I absolutely love Calvin & Hobbes, The Far Side, Mutts, old Pogo and Krazy Kat strips, and of course, Peanuts, which I still love as much as I did when I was 5 years old. I got to meet Charles Schulz about six months before he passed away. It was one of the greatest moments of my life.
Eva: What happened exactly that caused you to begin writing and illustrating children's books?
Matt: I've had problems with my back ever since middle school, and choosing a career that requires being hunched over a drawing table for 10 hours a day certainly didn't help matters any. I had been working for Disney for a year and had just finished work on the movie, Mulan, when I started experiencing the worst pain I had ever felt in my lower back. The pain continued to increase over a period of about two weeks, to the point that I became completely immobile. After an exceptionally horrible evening of writhing on the floor of my apartment, I finally called my mom and asked her, "Could you fly down here? I'm having a bit of a crisis."
Of course, being the good mom she is, she flew right down to drive me to various doctors and take care of laundry and cooking. After having surgery for a very large herniated disk in my spine, I had to remain flat on my back for about three weeks. To keep from going crazy with boredom, I started drawing and writing little stories. One of the stories was about a little ant- an idea that I had originally come up with in college for an illustration assignment. I fleshed out the story, wrote it out in a Dr. Seuss-ish form, and drew some sketches of the characters. On a whim, I decided to mail it out to Cook Communications.
I don't know what I was thinking - I now know that this was an extremely backwards way to try to publish a manuscript, an unsolicited manuscript at that- but I guess I'm grateful now for being so naïve back then. Maybe it was all those painkillers from my surgery that gave me such delusions of grandeur- I don't know. Anyway, almost a year later, a very nice woman named Jeannie Harmon from Cook left a message on my machine saying that they wanted to publish the book.
Eva: I love, love, love your first book, The GigAntic Little Hero! Tell us a little about it...
Matt: It's the story of a little red ant...you know how ants are known for being able to carry things something like twenty times their own size? Well, that's where the idea for the story came from. This poor little nameless ant with very low self-esteem is too intimidated and scared to try to lift large pieces of food for himself. There's a giant banquet coming up, and everyone but him is gathering food for the event. He is approached by different insects who offer to lend a hand, but every time, they wind up ditching him halfway home. Ant is oblivious to their desertion every time, and winds up carrying each load home by himself. At the dinner, he stands to give a toast and thank those that helped him collect his food. His unreliable friends then shamefully admit that they left him to do the job alone, and Ant is shocked to find that he had the ability all along.
The title of the book is, "The GigAntic Little Hero: A Story about Perseverance." The whole message of the book is Philippians 4:13, "I can do everything through him who gives me strength," which is located along with a parents' guide inside the book. It's a good little nugget of truth, and it's easy for kids to grasp. There are a lot of fun visuals and illustrated jokes, as well. I like to sneak little inside jokes into the illustrations. If you look closely, you may spot one or two- I usually like to sneak in a drawing of my wife, my friends, someone wearing a Charlie Brown 'zigzag' shirt, you name it. There's a giant digital "Now Serving" sign in HumbleBee that had my friend Chad's home phone number included in the long number on the display. I'm upset that he moved and changed numbers before it was published, though...
Eva: What age group do your books target?
Matt: Well, the official age range is 4 to 7 years, though it's a great book for parents to read to younger kids, as well. People with kids who aren't old enough to read yet have told me that, after having the story read to them once, their child will insist on reading the book back to the parents each time after that. It's a heavily illustrated story- it's easy to grasp the plot just by looking at the pictures.
I mainly write the books to amuse myself. I don't like to talk down to children. If I think something is clever or funny, I'll include it in the book. That said, I don't recommend the books for anyone over the age of 95.
Eva: Your latest book is called HumbleBee, A Story About Pride. Why do you think it's important for children to get an early understanding of the dangers of pride?
Matt: Well, it's a fine line: you definitely want to instill in your kids a healthy sense of self-esteem, but you don't want them to turn into loudmouthed, bragging little punks, either. Actually, that can be quite a problem for adults, too. (laughs) HumbleBee is a good follow-up to The Gigantic Little Hero because it shows what can happen when you get a little too self-reliant and then forget about God. Ant wanted to thank everyone who helped him, whereas Bee forgets all about everyone else and becomes this pompous jerk.
I actually have another book in the "Bug Series" that has just come out as well called, The Non-Praying Mantis...a great book to introduce kids to the concept of praying.
Eva: Speaking of pride...you know that a lot of people in our industry call me "LadyBug." I noticed you have a really cute little ladybug in your story.... (laughing)
Matt: Ughhh...here we go. Yes, there's a ladybug whose generosity saves the day in HumbleBee. All of your readers should know that you have been bugging me- no pun intended- to make you into one of my little inside jokes. You know what? You can tell everybody that the little ladybug is you, okay? Will that finally make you happy? Here's my impression of meeting Eva for the very first time: "Hi there. I'm Eva Marie Everson and you should make a book about a little ladybug with a slightly chipped tooth because I have this little chip in my tooth that I've always been a little self conscious about and you could make up this story about this ladybug who doesn't ever smile and blah blah blah blah blah. Oh yeah, what was your name?"(laughing) You know what? It's actually a pretty good idea. Oh well, I just blabbed and now somebody's going to beat me to it.
Eva: (Laughs) Well then hop to it, Bug Man! (Sobering) Matt, how important is it for parents to read to their children?
Matt: I think it's extremely important. Reading to your child is a great way for parents to spend time with their kids and interact with them. You don't really get that interaction if you're sitting in the dark, watching a movie with them. If you start reading to them at an early age, I think it will help them develop positive attitudes about books. Unfortunately, books get left by the wayside a lot of the time. Reading becomes associated with school and with all the dry subjects that they're forced to read in their textbooks. It becomes a chore. It's easy to forget about the days that you used to read just for fun. Read to kids while they still want to be read to...
Matt: That's something that Cook tries to incorporate into their "FaithKidz" line of books, and I think it's a good idea. I think that the object is to incorporate as many of the senses as possible to make the lessons in the story more memorable. When you're using more than one sense, you become more involved and use different parts of your brain. Each 'sense' in the Faith Parenting Guide involves an activity that is based on the story's concept or characters. Rather than simply listening to the story and being a passive observer, you invite the child to become an active participant.
Eva: Finally, Matt. Would you do something very special for us? Would you pray for parents and children as they build their faith?
Matt: Sure. Lord, I'd like to ask that you'd bless every parent and child around the world. Please give parent's patience and love for their children, as you have for us. Thanks. In Jesus' name, Amen.
Eva: Parents, BEEEEE sure to check out Matt's website: www.LittleHero.net. Your children can print out pages of all the little bug characters for coloring, do word games...all kinds of stuff!
Award-winning national speaker, Eva Marie Everson is the author of Shadow of Dreams, Summon the Shadows and the recently released and highly anticipated Shadows of Light. She can be contacted for comments or for speaking engagement bookings at www.EvaMarieEverson.com