Author-Illustrator Spotlight: Jonathan Mckee
Happy Thursday and welcome to Picture Book Spotlight!
It's that time of year again. That wonderful time of year when I redefine the word tired and fall asleep every night, imploding like a dying star onto my pillow, only to scrape myself out of bed with a spatula to do it all again the next morning. Yes, that's right...it's back to school for this teacher.
Despite the zombie-like state I now find myself in, I wouldn't change a thing. Because through the adrenaline-fueled, paradoxical, simultaneous exhausting, and energizing magic that is every first week of school...you somehow always get used to it. And the students are there every day to provide that double-shot of energy, keeping you coming back for more. They're worth the tired, aren't they? Worth the cerebral-cortex-melting sensation of memorizing 150 names in less than a week that can only be likened to the feeling a toaster has when you attempt to shove an entire box of waffles all in at once (I do not recommend this). Yes, they're worth it. So, to all my fellow teachers out there...keep showing up. They need you. They're worth it.
Have a great school year!
In other news, THE BOOK OF RULES comes out in about two months. Ummm...what? How? Just...how? Wasn't I just writing it the other day? Where did the time go? Surreal. I don't really know what to expect in the next few months. I feel like I'm going to go into some sort of blurred warp speed and then find myself sipping eggnog over Christmas break wondering what in the heck just happened. Send positive vibes. And soup. And fall-themed coffee beverages...boots and scarves.
Something maybe I don't share enough is that I primarily wrote this book with a beating teacher's heart. It's interactive nature begs a group of kiddos to take the journey and avoid being eaten by Dennis together. I can't think of a better time for kids to have fun together, get their sillies out, and look each other in the eyes and say, "I see you. I'm glad you're here. I do not want Dennis to eat you" (my favorite line from the book). If that message or vision resonates with you, then Tom Knight and I are grateful for any pre-ordering, recommending, reviewing, Goodreads "want to read-ing" you can muster.
Alright. That's enough about that. You came here to read about a cake book! If you haven't grabbed a copy of Jonathan Mckee's debut, OH LOOK, A CAKE! you seriously need to rectify this. Like yesterday. It's just pure fun. My oldest son, Peter has been obsessed with this book and went for a few weeks requesting it every night. If you want a lighthearted, conversation generating picture book that is deliciously dark, look no further. Asking Peter questions about what happens in the book was a delight as a parent. To see him putting two and two together with the biggest smile was pure joy. All that said, Jonathan Mckee better be in full creation mode for his next book because I will definitely be snatching it off the shelves. If you want a mentor text that showcases a skilled example of creating space for the reader to construct meaning, while offering clever, nuanced suggestions as to what happened, grab a copy and see what Jonathan does. I'm always a bit too heavy-handed and have been working on a more subtle approach to theme, so this was a nice beacon for that. And it will just make you want cake so...buy it. Cake is awesome.
As is the norm around these parts, this post has a giveaway. Clarion Books is giving away one copy of the book to a lucky winner, so be sure to see details at the end of the interview for your chance to win it!
And after the longest introduction in Picture Book Spotlight history cause Brian likes to hear himself type...
CUE THE SPOTLIGHT...
Congratulations on your debut with OH LOOK, A CAKE! I couldn’t believe this was your debut--your voice and style feel so established! We definitely need more of your books out in the world so I hope you have lots in the works. Talk to us about your background and how you got into kid lit and what this picture book means to you.
Firstly, thanks for having me on Picture Book Spotlight!
I’m from Northern Ireland and I come from a long line of ‘makers’. My dad built planes, his dad built planes, and his dad built ships - his most famous job was the interiors of the Titanic! And I am a ‘maker’ too. I started in graphic design/animation, then moved to London and got into the world of User Experience (that’s a fancy term for designing apps and websites). At the same time, I gravitated towards picture books because they allowed me to bring a lot of my skills together under one roof: storytelling, illustration, animation, character design and graphic design. The nice thing is, when making a book, you get to jump between these skillsets and keep things fresh.
This book will always be special because it’s my first. You can only be a debut author once, so I’m very proud that this is the book I ventured into the publishing world with.
The images presented themselves first. I could clearly picture how each animal would cause a problem, but the words to articulate that came later.
The first draft didn’t have a cake and it was more about the relationships between who was coming to the party. For example: ‘You can’t bring along Lion because he’d eat Antelope! … Well, just sit them at opposite ends of the table!’ It was funny but not focussed enough. Adding the cake provided that focus and created a fun dilemma for the characters – ‘We’ve found a nice thing… and we know we want it… but we don’t want to admit that. So let’s make weak arguments to rationalise our greed.’ To me, that was a very funny, but very human story.
The ending wasn’t in the first few drafts. The story went up to Sloth’s realisation. After that, they ate the cake and Sloth complemented Lemur on his genius. But letting them get away with it felt like a cheat and too easy. So I did what I had to do (no spoilers!).
In terms of influences, the key one was actually an old TV show called ‘Yes Minister’, made in the UK in the 1980s. It made fun of politicians and showed how the government is really run (a lot like Veep in the US). A recurring thread was: no matter what was thrown at you, you could always get the outcome you wanted - you just had to ask the right questions or give the right answers. That mix of politics, absurdity and confidence definitely shaped the tone of this book.
Most of the readers of Picture Book Spotlight know I have a bit of a twisted sense of humor and gravitate towards dark comedy, especially when it involves characters being eaten. My debut picture book is about a monster that eats children unless they follow the rules...kinda twisted. This is probably why I enjoyed your book so much. Another thing I love about your book is its deep respect for levity and fun. Recently, I’ve noticed I seem to seek out books that are unashamedly silly so that our family can bond through those shared experiences. Lay out the case for silly and why it’s okay for stories to be wholesomely lighthearted and why that’s needed in uncertain or troublesome times.
Firstly, congrats on the debut! It’s sounds suitably dark but fun!
I mentioned in my first answer that I grew up in Northern Ireland. If your readers don’t know much about that part of the world, we had a conflict that lasted many decades. Thankfully things are now very peaceful (when Covid eases, I recommend a visit). However, in those darker days, people turned to humour as a coping mechanism because it provided moments of relief. So an appreciation for levity is a big part of my culture.
This is why funny stories are so important - they help us step outside ourselves, if only for a brief moment. If time is a long-term healer, then humour must be a short-term one. It’s like a circuit breaker for your brain and sometimes that can make all the difference in a tough period. Also, laughter has lots of benefits for you physically. It helps you take in oxygen quicker, improves your immune system and generally makes you more relaxed. So it is literally good for you!
Nowadays, the whole world feels like it needs some levity and I’m glad I can provide a tiny amount of it.
Something I also really appreciate about this book is its unapologetic nature. Things happen, man. They...happen. And we have to deal with it. It never explains or preaches or ever gets close to being didactic (something I have been navigating and working on). Within the events that happen toward the end, readers have to make explicit inferences for the meaning to fully land. Books that offer these kinds of moments are my favorite--especially as a father of an emergent reader. The art and story requires us to ask...what happened to the cake? And finally...what happened to Sloth and Lemur? My son LOVES this book and every time I ask him these questions he just lights up and tells me all about what happened and why. Having that shared moment and conversation with my son is something I truly treasure, so thank you!
Talk to us about creating space for the reader to construct meaning by leaving out or only hinting at what happened. And, without giving too much away, were these moments always minimally presented or were there drafts where the words did more of the heavy lifting? What advice can you share on how we can achieve this effect in our own stories?
I’m happy to hear you and your son had a good time reading this book!
The end (again, no spoilers!) originally paired the last line of the book with the final spread. In the editorial process, we split them up because it created more tension going into the moment and more opportunity for questions once the moment had passed. But there was only ever that final line and it never changed. The images always did the heavy lifting. With big moments like these, a picture really does tell a thousand words.
Creating space for the reader is a fine balance. If you leave it too open, you risk confusion. If you unequivocally define what’s happening, then you’re shutting down opportunities for conversations and creative thinking - and that’s boring! So I try to find that sweet spot. It’s like a colouring book – you’re creating the outline of the story but you’re also leaving gaps for the readers to fill in.
Great books invite readers to be part of the storytelling. It’s just about finding the appropriate opportunities to engage them. These can vary in scale, from whole spreads to an individual character. For example, with expressions on my characters, I like to hold back and leave a little room for interpretation. What might they be thinking? What’s going on with this glance or this raised eyebrow? Whatever the answer is, the overall story won’t change but the reader feels invested. Seeking out these moments makes all the difference.
I would struggle to answer this question myself since there are so many memorable lines and spreads, but I can at least think of my top 1-2. Sloth’s realization/epiphany is up there but the ending probably...takes the cake (couldn’t help myself). What’s your favorite line and spread of the book and why?
My favourite line has to be the last one in the book. You think it’s all over and then those words land with a thud. It’s simultaneously funny, dark and disgusting.
My favourite spread is a tie. The ants will always be my favourite, conceptually. Just trying to make those tiny slices is going to cause you a world of torment.
I also love the unicorn spread. Mostly because everyone is a little wrong in some way. Sloth doesn’t realise Unicorn is actually a horse. Horse thinks unicorns have their horns on their backs. And the fly thinks he’s looking at a camel.
As an English teacher, I especially appreciate this picture book because it’s an absolute literary feast. Yes, on the surface, it’s a silly story about two characters who find a cake, but, when you take a closer look, there’s tons more! We have cause and effect, irony, foreshadowing (omg the candle!), character-driven conflict, themes on sharing, right and wrong, selfishness, justice, and all sorts of sweet goodies in between. All things considered, what’s the ultimate message you hope lands the most in your readers? What should we take away?
I like stories that are open for interpretation, without a supreme ‘message’ as such. So it’s great to see you’ve identified a range of themes in my book.
I think a broad takeaway is peer pressure, influencing and knowing when to challenge your friends. Lemur knows he wants all of the cake from the very beginning. But Sloth genuinely considers inviting their friends to share it. The trouble is, she accepts Lemur’s arguments and doesn’t challenge them. It all comes down to asking questions and not being afraid to do what’s right, no matter what your friends think.
Thank you for this super fun book and for sharing such wonderful thoughts, Jonathan! Super looking forward to your next book!
And thank YOU for reading, kidlit fam! To reward you for stumbling upon this cozy corner of the internet, Clarion Books has donated a copy of, OH LOOK, A CAKE! for one lucky winner. See details below to toss your name in the digital hat!
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About Jonathan Mckee
Jonathan McKee is an author and award-winning graphic artist.
His awards include the D&AD Yellow Pencil for animation, the International Society of Typographic Designers Award and he was a finalist in the AOI World Illustration Awards.
During his career, Jonathan has worked on a range of projects for the likes of Disney, Microsoft and the BBC. His distinctive work has also been exhibited at venues like the Sydney Opera House, Somerset House London, the British Film Institute, Tokyo Advertising Museum and on London Underground.
His first book, 'OH LOOK, A CAKE!' comes out in May 2021. For any book-related enquiries, please contact Lindsay Auld at Writers House. Originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, Jonathan now works in London.
For any literary or book illustration enquiries, contact: Lindsay Auld at Writers House
For everything else, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Brian is the author of this blog. And also this sentence. He was born in a grocery store, but that's not important. What's more important than Brian's fateful entrance into this twisted and wonderful world, in the cereal aisle of a local grocery store, is the fact that Brian has a book coming out. You've probably never heard him mention this book before. You've probably never seen the silly tweets from the perspective of his fictional monster, Dennis. It's called THE BOOK OF RULES. It's about trying not to get eaten. Brian was almost eaten once. At the grocery store where he was born. There he was just lounging in a produce bin of various tubers, constructed from reclaimed barn wood when someone took him for a sweet potato. When the the intrusive stranger attempted to put Brian in his plastic grocery sack, Brian made his presence known with a bloodcurdling scream the way that infants are known to do when they fear they will be consumed as a vegetable. He was not a sweet potato and was not about to become fries or whatever it is that one does with a sweet potato back in 1988. The stranger recoiled and grabbed a neighboring tuber. Talk about dodging a bullet. One can never be too careful in a grocery store. Or a cat cafe for that matter. One minute you might be dunking your scone in a cozy, hot mug of London Fog and the next minute you might be dunking a cat. You don't want to dunk a cat into a cozy, hot mug of anything (cat cafe baristas don't take kindly to the dunking of cats). They have a zero cat-dunking policy at the cat cafe. Thems the rules, friend. Thems the rules...the hidden emoji code is a cat. Well done, reader. Well done.
Bio Prompts provided by Katherine Gehrlein:
Location: The grocery store
Occupation: Barista at a cat cafe
***Brian's task was to incorporate or use these words at some point during the pretend bio***