He was the first, real, live, professional illustrator I ever met. I was fresh out of college, and I was in awe. In my early working life, he inspired and encouraged me every single time we crossed paths. Years later, not only did he remember me, but he hired me to work for him/with him as I created my very first children's book illustrations. He's had a huge impact on the course of my life. For about three years we daily worked a pencil's throw away from each other. Growing up, little bitty Isaac always referred to him simply as "Sandford," and every time the kids see him they shower him with cut-out paper donuts.
A few years ago he took off for the big city of Chicago, where he now works as both art director and illustrator for Cricket Magazine Group. But he's left lasting impressions here in town... the best children's mural I've ever laid eyes on in the local library, as well as countless impressions on the lives of those who know him.
We've reviewed two of his books in the past: "Monsterlicious" and "Tale of a Tail." As we're closing in on our 100th review, we're honored that he took the time to video chat with us for an interview! (The portrait above is by Gracie.) As I said, John Sandford is one of my favorite people in the world, and I'm proud to count him as mentor, hero, and friend.
Dad: Alright guys, before our interview, let's highlight this book: "The Terrible Hodag and the Animal Catchers."
Gracie (age 10): The story is about some lumberjacks and a big beast called a Hodag.
Lily (age 8): He's a giant hairy creature with the head of an ox, the back of a dinosaur, the tail of an alligator, and the feet of a bear. But he's not evil.
Dad: Then why is he called the "terrible" hodag?
Lily: He's not terrible. But he is big and scary.
Isaac (age 12): He's terrible because he eats all the blueberries.
Gracie: He's only terrible if you are a blueberry bush.
Lily: The lumberjacks are friends with the Hodag.
Isaac: Then these animals catchers come and try to catch the Hodag to put him in the zoo.
Gracie: They come with a butterfly net and a tiny little box, even though the Hodag is bigger than six men. It looks like he's King Kong size. But he's good. He's a nice guy.
Lily: The lumberjacks want the Hodag to stay because he helps them cut down trees. So they try to stop the animal catchers.
Dad: How do you like Mr. Sandford's illustrations?
Gracie: They are awesome - they are so detailed.
Lily: It looks really shadowy. And all the men all have different noses - every single person has a different nose.
Dad: Can you tell what Mr. Sandford made the art with?
Gracie: Pen? Or...
Isaac: It's scratchboard.
Gracie: Scratchboard! That's a good idea...
Dad: Yep - can you see the white lines over top of the black background...
Lily: Scratchboard is where you have a black board, and you scratch it and it turns white.
Dad: So rather than drawing the black, you leave the black behind.
Isaac: That would be hard to make all these pictures.
Dad: Actually, I watched Mr. Sandford while he was working on this book... and I know he didn't use scratchboard. He did it on the computer and mimicked a scratchboard style.
Gracie: So just like imitation blueberry flavoring, this is imitation scratchboard flavoring? Only it's not flavoring.
Dad: And it was hard. I believe he had to get different glasses after working on this book. Staring so close at all the black and white on screen messed with his eyes.
Gracie: The story part is great too. The author did a good job when she described the Hodag. Everyone should read this book. And Mr. Sandford hurt his eyes making this book for you, so the least you can do is read it.
Dad: Thanks for the review guys! Now for our interview with John Sandford!
John Sandford: It's good to see everybody again!
Dad: And good to see you!
John Sandford: High five... (everyone slaps hands to the computer screen) ...now there's finger prints all over everything.
Gracie: We made you more paper donuts! (holding up a handful of cut and colored paper donuts)
John Sandford: You've got donuts for me! Thank you! That was very thoughtful.
Gracie: Do you still have the other paper donuts we made you?
John Sandford: I have some of them. I need more though. I hoard paper donuts.
Lily: We were going to mail you some with a message that said "Don't open until you Skype with us."
John Sandford: I know there was some dispute about how the paper donuts began.
Dad: I don't think there are "disputes." We just don't remember.
John Sandford: I do.
Gracie: How? How!
John Sandford: One Saturday I came over to your place with a box of real donuts. And as a thank-you, you kids managed to make me paper donuts before I left. After that, every time I'd come over, there would be more paper donuts.
Gracie: Ha ha hahhh...
John Sandford: So here I am today, "coming over..."
Gracie: And here are your donuts!
John Sandford: Oh, that's great. Beautiful paper donuts. I can see you guys through the donut holes.
Dad: So who has an interview question for Mr. Sandford?
Lily: How many books have you worked on?
John Sandford: In all there are 65. I was just looking at the list...
Gracie: That's a lot of books.
John Sandford: It goes back a long ways. To 1978. The first book was called "I Love Every People."
Gracie: We have that one here.
Dad: Yep, we pulled out our Mr. Sandford collection.
Isaac: We have a lot of "Mr. Sandford" books.
Dad: We counted 27 at our house... But we don't even have half of your books if you've done 65.
Isaac: What is your favorite book you have worked on?
John Sandford: I like "Tale of a Tail" -- that's one you guys reviewed.
Gracie: Why do you like that one the best?
John Sandford: I like it because I'm in it. I'm the bear. And I had my brother in mind for the fox. And I had a lot of fun with the costumes. I did a lot of research trying to find Hungarian costumes. The embroidery, the decorations on the costumes, were very important to me.
Isaac: That's interesting.
John Sandford: On one of the outfits there is a fish skeleton pattern. It seems like something that would be made up, but I didn't make it up. That was a real pattern.
John Sandford: I continue collecting costume books when I find them. I can't make up anything as fun as what there is in real life or in history.
Lily: Do you usually do researches for your books?
John Sandford: It depends on the book. There are times when you might have a better vision in your head. How would you go about researching "The Hiccupotamus"? Try to find a purple hippo? That's not so easy. He might exist, but it would take a lot of work to find him.
Dad: And you don't want to be close by when he hiccups.
Gracie: What about when you are drawing people? You had us model for a few pictures. Do you always use models?
John Sandford: Not always. Again, it depends on the problem to be solved. I try to use a voice, a way to tell the story, that works with the story.
Gracie: In your magazine, we saw the picture of Isaac swimming with the peanut butter and jelly fish. We also have the original painting hanging up in his room, and it's about 20 times bigger. Why do you paint them so big?
John Sandford: It's easier to put in the detail when you paint big. Then when you shrink it down, people say, "How did all that detail get in there?"
Gracie: You know the big mural you painted in the library by our house?
John Sandford: Oh yeah.
Gracie: How long did it take you to paint that?
John Sandford: I think two or three months... I'm talking about putting the paint down. There was a lot of planning before that. The sketches were 6 inches high by 12 inches long. But the actual painting was 6 FEET high and 12 FEET long - two panels those sizes. 24 feet of animals.
Gracie: I love it.
Dad: It's epic.
John Sandford: Ha ha, thank-you.
Dad: It is legacy and glory all rolled together.
Gracie: How is painting a mural like making a book?
John Sandford: In some ways it is very similar. I was trying to tell a story. And all the compositional things you want to have happen, motion and color, those things were pretty similar. The size is the big difference of course - being ten times bigger.
Lily: What kind of style do you like to use the most in your pictures?
Gracie: You have a lot of different styles.
John Sandford: I love oils. I really enjoy them. But again, it depends on the project. I might be able to get a different kind of effect from watercolors. Although I don't think I use watercolors the way you are supposed to. Some people look and say, "You use your watercolors just like oils..." and that's probably right. Like in "Tale of a Tail"...
Dad: That's not oil? I never would have guessed that was watercolor.
John Sandford: One way of thinking about watercolors is real juicy and free. But I push them as far as I can and get what I want out of them.
Dad: I abuse my colored pencils when I use them too.
John Sandford: I haven't seen anybody use colored pencils like you do. And you've made it into a science.
Dad: I'm just not a painter.
Gracie: But we are!
John Sandford: That's great.
Dad: We have lots of painters in the family here, just not me.
Gracie: We kids all love to paint. We all have our own set of watercolors. Isaac has some oil paints. And I have tons of acrylic paint. Lily has a few tubes of acrylic paint too.
John Sandford: Great!
Gracie: Dad says that when you were working on "The Terrible Hodag," you hurt your eyes and you had to get glasses from looking at all those tiny little lines.
John Sandford: I did. That project took about 9 months, working on the computer in Photoshop. When I started out, I could work 10 or 12 hours a day. But my eyes started to lose focus sooner and sooner every day. My working time got shorter, and it was really frustrating. By the end of the project it was really difficult to go even a couple of hours. So I went to the doctor a couple of months afterward. And they said I had gotten double vision. I was a little bit cross-eyed from staring at the high contrast black and white lines.
Dad: Any chance it was coincidental?
John Sandford: I know it was from that project. I could feel it progressively shredding what vision I had over the months I was working on it. It was kind of scary.
Dad: Big sacrifices for the sake of your art.
John Sandford: We live and learn. Afterward it occurred to me I could have turned the contrast on the screen down so it wasn't just black and white, but grays... that would have been so much easier on my eyes. So simple.
Gracie: We know that you are an artist and that you are an art director. I have a few questions about being an art director. How do you choose which artists to have make the pictures in your magazine.
John Sandford: That's a funny thing. Sometimes you have a subject matter, and you think this guy will be a natural. But sometimes it's very interesting to use a person who is completely different. It can be a wild thing. I can get results that far exceed anything I can dream up. Because I don't want everything to look like "me," ...like my point of view. I hire these people to extend my magazine and make it bigger and better. That's really exciting - they surprise me every time.
Dad: Like opening Christmas presents.
Gracie: Also, do you like being an art director or being an illustrator best?
John Sandford: I like getting my hands dirty and doing the drawings. You guys know what that's like - trying to make a drawing work. Art is work. It's a lot of fun, but it's work too. There's nothing better than drawing a picture... and all of us here are really lucky to be able to do that! Can you guys think of a better job?
Lily: Being an artist is the best job.
John Sandford: Or maybe a chocolate taster.
Gracie: I actually do love to cook.
Isaac: What inspired you to try being an artist in the first place?
John Sandford: When I was a little kid, there wasn't much television. But three of my grandparents were teachers, so we always had a lot of books around the house.
Dad: You didn't get on the internet very much back then...
John Sandford: No, no, ha, that would have been a long distance connection.
Dad: Through space and time...
John Sandford: But there were a few books that I just went nuts about. I can grab one here... This is called "The Boys' King Arthur," and it is illustrated by N.C. Wyeth. And what I liked about it were all these guys in armor, banging around with swords and spears. And I would copy them, but I would have the knights playing football and climbing trees -- stuff that I liked to do. As a little kid, I thought this was just the greatest.
Dad: Well, I think these kids are done interviewing now... they're climbing on me...
John Sandford: I see that!
Dad: What do you guys want to say to Mr. Sandford?
John Sandford: Thank you!
Gracie: It was so good to see you again!
John Sandford: Everyone is getting so tall...
Dad: They are growing up fast.
John Sandford: Look how tall Lily is. She's a little taller than Dad right now.
Lily: That's because I'm sitting on his head.
Thanks for the interview Mr. Sandford! For our fan art this week, we tried out some real scratchboard:
Hodag with a blueberry bush, by Lily
lumberjack, by Gracie
animal catcher, by Isaac
Hodag with a blueberry bush, by Lily
lumberjack, by Gracie
animal catcher, by Isaac
Illustrator: John Sandford
Author: Caroline Arnold
"The Terrible Hodag" published, 2006: Boyds Mills Press
Like it? Here it is