Keeping It Weird: Author and Illustrator John Steven Gurney on Writing for Kids, His Career and Nice Robots | Kids VT | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Keeping It Weird: Author and Illustrator John Steven Gurney on Writing for Kids, His Career and Nice Robots

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Published November 14, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.


John Steven Gurney - COURTESY
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  • John Steven Gurney

Did you know that Ghosts Don't Eat Potato Chips, Vampires Don't Wear Polka Dots and Mummies Don't Coach Softball? You would if you'd read the Adventures of the Bailey School Kids books, which include each of those titles. The 80-plus volume series, by Marcia Thornton Jones and Debbie Dadey, was published in the 1990s. Each volume follows a group of elementary students who try to determine whether an adult they encounter is actually a supernatural being. And each one shares the same illustrator: Brattleboro's John Steven Gurney. His enticing book covers pull in early readers with rich colors and vivid expressions.

Bailey School Kids is just one of several series Gurney has helped readers visualize. Others include A to Z Mysteries and Calendar Mysteries. He's illustrated more than 150 chapter books, and his artwork can be found on board games, puzzles and a shopping bag for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Gurney also writes and draws his own stories, including the picture book Dinosaur Train and, more recently, the Fuzzy Baseball middle-grade graphic novel series, in which his self-described "weird and wacky humor" is on full display.

The books follow a team of bat-swinging, base-running animals called the Fernwood Valley Fuzzies as they take on one goofy opponent after another, including, in the recently released fifth volume, Baseballoween, a team of monsterlike animals called the Graveyard Ghastlies.

Fuzzy Baseballoween - COURTESY
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  • Fuzzy Baseballoween

Gurney grew up in Bucks County, Pa., received a bachelor's of fine arts in illustration at Pratt Institute in New York and later a master's at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. He honed his skills by spending his college summers drawing caricatures on the boardwalk of Atlantic City, N.J.

Twenty-six years ago, he left Brooklyn and moved to Vermont with his wife, Kathie, now a pre-K teacher, and their two children. Gurney has visited dozens of schools to talk with kids about his work over the years, covering more than 30 states and six countries, including Vietnam, Saudi Arabia and Poland.

When he isn't busy writing and illustrating kids' books, Gurney teaches illustration, drawing and visual storytelling at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania. Kids VT caught up with him at home in Vermont to find out what it takes to be a professional artist and how he convinces kids to keep reading.

KIDS VT: How did your career as a children's book illustrator get started?

Cover art for Trolls Don't Ride Roller Coasters - COURTESY
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  • Cover art for Trolls Don't Ride Roller Coasters

JOHN STEVEN GURNEY: It took a long time to get published. When I came out of college, my work was focused on social satire, and when I went around to children's book publishers, they said it was a little too dark. When you're 20, you're writing and drawing for other 20-year-olds, and your friends think it's cool. But I had to adjust to the market. Also, after you have kids, you definitely understand how you have to adjust.

KVT: It's been said that to write a book for kids, you have to think like a kid. Is that true for you?

JSG: Lots of times, I'll see books and think, The 11-year-old me wouldn't like that, or, The 6-year-old me would love that. So you have to be in touch with yourself when you were that age.

KVT: You spent years illustrating A to Z Mysteries and The Adventures of the Bailey School Kids chapter books, among others. What did you like about that work?

The School Skeleton - COURTESY
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  • The School Skeleton

JSG: I had a great time doing the chapter books. Between those two series, it's probably 100 books. For an illustrator, it's really rare to have that kind of consecutive gig. It's like being an actor: You get cast, and if you do well, they give you more parts like the first one. It was like a Norman Rockwell experience, because I got people I knew in Brattleboro to pose as models. And it was great to be able to visit schools and talk about those books, because the kids were always excited. I still get letters from people who say they loved those books when they were a kid. But the books weren't quite as weird or as wacky as I wanted to be.

KVT: What's the origin story behind Fuzzy Baseball?

JSG: I've always loved animals. If I hadn't become an illustrator, I think I would have gone into zoology. And I like drawing animals being funny. Fuzzy Baseball was a picture book idea first, but when I visited schools to talk about other books I'd illustrated, I noticed that the graphic novel sections in school libraries were getting bigger and bigger. So I changed it into a graphic novel.

KVT: How would you describe the books?

JSG: They're ensemble comedies. They're not just about baseball. The characters are almost like a troupe of actors whose personalities emerge. I've tried to broaden the circle of who's reading the books by bringing different groups of characters into it. One book has ninjas as the opposing team, another has robots, and another has dinosaurs. If you're in first or second grade, you're going to think the pictures are funny. Fourth and fifth graders understand the humor more than the younger ones do. And there are references that adults get a kick out of.

KVT: Like the lines about tube socks, Edgar Allen O'Possum, and old-school, slice-and-dice TV infomercials. Those are aimed at adults, right?

Dinosaur Train - COURTESY
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  • Dinosaur Train

JSG: Yes, but I watched a lot of "Star Trek" as a kid, and for a long time I didn't understand half of what they were talking about, but I still loved it. Later, as I got older, it was like, Now I get it. I'm hoping for that kind of effect.

KVT: What else did you watch or read when you were a kid?

JSG: I watched Warner Brothers cartoons like Bugs Bunny, and I liked Mad Magazine. That's the aesthetic I'm going for.

KVT: How much was Fuzzy Baseball inspired by your own childhood baseball experience?

JSG: I never played on an official team. I lived in a neighborhood with a lot of kids, and we just played in each other's backyards. My organized baseball experience came later, as a dad, coaching. I was also a big Phillies fan.

KVT: When you're developing a book idea like Fuzzy Baseball, what's your process?

JSG: The first thing I do is sketch the characters, which helps me imagine their personalities. Then I start thinking about the gags, the comedy. The hard part is structure, stringing everything into a plot and giving the reader something to care about and be curious about.

Fuzzy Baseballoween  interior art - COURTESY
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  • Fuzzy Baseballoween interior art

KVT: Do all the recent discussions about banning books affect what you do?

JSG: Not a lot. Every now and then, you get someone who's kind of rigid about what kids can read, but it's more a situation of a librarian saying they don't want kids reading a certain book of mine because it's above their reading level. I don't want to come off negatively about librarians because they are my heroes. But if a kid likes the book...

KVT: What role does teaching college students play in your work life?

JSG: Being an illustrator is a solitary career, and I like being around other people. When I had kids at home, it was great, because I could be with them a lot. Maybe sometimes I had to stay up until 3 a.m. to finish a project, but that was fine. Working with students keeps me from being alone all day. It's also fun. I create an assignment, and 25 students produce different responses. Sometimes what comes back is what I was expecting, and sometimes it's a surprise, which is really cool.

KVT: What are your goals as a children's book author? To teach? Entertain? Impart a moral lesson?

JSG: No moral lessons, ever! I don't like it when books get sanctimonious. I'm glad that I illustrated A to Z Mysteries, but every now and then, the kids would say something like, "It's time for lunch. Let's go wash our hands." Why is that in the story? It's like a strange public service announcement. The books I write are meant to be comedies. There's always some kind of hook, whether it's baseball, ninjas, robots, dinosaurs. There's always an opposing baseball team, but they're not bad guys. I didn't want to have a new set of villains in every book. My robots are very nice robots. 

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity and length.

How to talk with your child about their art

South Burlington's Davis Studio shares these strategies for engaging your budding artist in conversation about their artwork.

  • Let them use their own words. Say, "Tell me about your artwork." Avoid guessing or asking them, "What is it?"
  • Be specific with your comments, and ask interesting questions. Say, "Those repeating lines really catch my eye." Avoid saying something vague such as, "Good job!" Say, "How did you do that?" or "What materials did you use?" Be curious about their art!
  • Give them time to identify their feelings. Say, "How do you feel about it?" Avoid quick praise such as "I love it!" or criticism such as "I don't think you got the nose quite right."
  • Take the time to really look at the art that was created. Slow down, observe, listen and pay attention to your child's responses. Praise effort more than product: "Wow, I can tell you worked really hard on that shading."

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