interview with Jeremy Tankard, author and illustrator of Grumpy Bird

Interviewed by Cheryl Rainfield

Grumpy Bird
written and illustrated by Jeremy Tankard
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Pub Date: April 2007
ISBN 10: 0439851475, ISBN-13: 978-0439851473

Synopsis: Bird wakes up feeling grumpy–so grumpy he doesn’t want to eat, play, or even fly. “Looks like I’m walking today,” says Bird. He starts walking, and as he does, he passes various animals who join him in his walk. Eventually, their companionship helps him move right out of grumpiness.

Grumpy Bird is a funny, sweet book that will have you immediately recognizing someone–maybe even yourself!–and how it feels to be grumpy. If you haven’t read this book, I suggest you get your hands on a copy! Jeremy’s included some images that show the process of creating the book; it’s neat to see the process.

Jeremy Tankard

Why did you write Grumpy Bird?

[jt] My daughter, who was then three, asked me to do some drawings for her in my sketchbook. She requested “grumpy things”. Specifically she asked me to draw a grumpy bear. I drew a grumpy bear. She asked for a grumpy snake. I drew a grumpy snake (you don’t want to meet a grumpy snake up close). She asked for a grumpy clock. I drew a grumpy clock. Then she asked for a grumpy bird. I drew a grumpy bird going for a walk. He was wearing red sneakers and looked pretty funny. We both started to laugh and an idea was born! What happens when a grumpy bird goes for a walk? To answer this question I had to write the book. We authors ask the big questions. Ha!

What a lovely story! What a great beginning.

Grumpy’s bird’s grumpiness is both funny and familiar (in the way that people get when they’re grumpy). Did you have a particular person in mind when you wrote his character?

[jt] I can’t answer that for fear of repercussions. Actually it’s based on everyone I know. As you say, it’s familiar. We’ve all had one of those days when we just get up on the wrong side of the bed and have a hard time cheering up.

You’re absolutely right! (Laughing)

I love the humor in Grumpy Bird. Did the humor come naturally to you?

[jt] Curiously I don’t consider myself to be very funny. In the case of Grumpy Bird it was one of those rare moments when I found myself entertaining. I looked at that initial picture of a grumpy bird and he just had a character and personality right from that initial drawing. He just looked funny. The humour grew naturally out of a quirky little picture. And really, grumpy is often funny – we’re just not allowed to laugh at people when they’re being grumpy. But we often want to. Don’t we? Or is that just me?

I think a lot of us go there. 🙂

What mediums did you work in to do the illustrations? Do you do most of your work by hand or on the computer?

[jt] Both. It’s a fairly even marriage of traditional art and digital media. I still draw and paint on paper but I “remix” it using Adobe Photoshop. Basically I do all my drawings using ink in my sketchbook. Then I scan them into Adobe Photoshop. They get cleaned up before being exported to Corel Painter where I colour the characters. Then I import the freshly coloured characters into Photoshop where I build the background environments before placing the characters in them. The finished piece is almost like a digital photo collage except I use more drawings than photos in the collaging process.

Wow! That sounds really involved.

colored animals before working in Photoshop
image after it’s been worked on in PhotoShop
image as it appeared in the book

Is there any artist that you draw inspiration from?

[jt] There are a few, and they’re probably not who you’d expect. Chihiro Iwasaki is one of my favourite illustrators. She was amazing and I’ve probably drawn more inspiration from her than from anyone else — at least recently. There’s a poetic simplicity in her sketches that has me completely mesmerized. Jack Kirby, inventor of most of the Marvel Universe of super heroes, is also a favourite. He almost singlehandedly invented the modern super hero comic book. There’s a raw energy in his work that I admire. It’s weird to try and analyze one’s own work. I have moments where there’s a nice balance between thoughtful lyricism of line and explosive energy. I also love Chris Raschka, Marie Louise-Gay, Peter H. Reynolds, Dave McKean, Barron Storrey, James Jean, etc….

You’ve mentioned some great illustrators, there.

What was the hardest thing for you to write in this book? Why?

[jt]The words were the hardest. Despite loving writing most of my life it was unbelievably difficult putting words to such a simple story. In the end I drew a bunch of pictures and fit the words to them. Then I wrote and drew in tandem until it was finished. Then the editing process started. I hadn’t had much experience putting words and pictures together before this. It’s a fine balance knowing what to keep and what to throw away in a picture book. The pictures do most of the actual story-telling and the words fill in the gaps and flesh out the story.

What was the hardest thing for you to illustrate in this book? Why?

[jt] Bird himself was the most difficult to draw consistently. He’s a funny shape. Needless to say I didn’t quite get it right all the time. But there’s a good spontaneity to the drawings so I tried not to worry too much about it. And while he’s grumpy for most of the book it was tough getting just the right expression on his face. Grumpy but not angry. It’s a fine line sometimes.

I think you succeeded. 🙂

If there’s an idea or message you hope your readers take away from your book, what is it?

[jt] Don’t be grumpy? In general I aim to entertain first. I write and draw what I think will be fun and just hope that someone else will like it too. I guess the message in the book is that companionship and a little exercise is the best medicine for a mood. It’s not what I was trying to say, but I think it’s the message that came across in the end. Often I write first and THEN try and figure out exactly what it is that I’ve done. Or more to the point: I write my story and then let my editor figure out what I’ve done and tell me what the message is. I try to function on my intuition most of the time.

What are some of your favourite picture books or children’s books?

[jt] Pretty much anything by Kate DiCamillo, but especially The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane and The Tale of Despereaux. Roald Dahl is wonderful – I’m particularly enamoured of Danny the Champion of the World. The Witches is pretty great too. As for picture books: anything by Chihiro Iwasaki; I love Jon J Muth’s illustrations; Simon James’s Baby Brains books are wonderful; Captain Pugwash by John Ryan; anything illustrated by Stephen Gammell, but I’m especially fond of Monster Mama; I love Doreen Cronin’s books; I could go on, but it would be an incredibly long list. Oh, and I LOVE all of Ed Emberley’s “how to draw books”.

I love that you love so many authors’ and illustrators’ works! Some of them are my favorites, too.

Is there anything you would like to tell readers?

[jt] I didn’t do it! It’s not my fault. Really.

(laughing) Thank you, Jeremy, for an enjoyable and funny interview.

If you haven’t read Grumpy Bird, go read it! It’s wonderful.

About Cheryl Rainfield

I write the books I needed and couldn't find as a teen. I write teen fiction--paranormal fantasy and gritty realistic fiction. I'm the author of SCARS (WestSide Books, 2010) #1 ALA QuickPicks, and Governor General Literary Award Finalist, HUNTED (WestSide Books, Oct 2011), STAINED (Harcourt, 2013), The Last Dragon (HIP Books, Sept 2009), and Walking Both Sides (HIP Books, 2011). I also enjoy drawing, surfing the web, connecting with people I like, doing crafts, and being with my dog.
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6 Responses to interview with Jeremy Tankard, author and illustrator of Grumpy Bird

  1. wow! What an awesome interview Cheryl! A fun Cybils book! 🙂

  2. Cheryl says:

    thanks, Marcie. Yeah, Jeremy was fantastic!

  3. Josh says:

    Thanks Cheryl! Jeremy is coming to visit our school at the end of the month and I’ve been scouring the internet for any previous interviews or discussions about his work. Thankfully I found yours (one of the few), and it’s helped me to craft my background for the kids. Thanks for interviewing him and thank you for posting! 🙂

  4. Cheryl says:

    I’m glad it helped, Josh! I think Jeremy is likely a fantastic presenter. I know that he brings a dummy of one of his picture books with him to show the kids.

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