NPR had it right. Aaron Becker’s books, gorgeous tales of adventure, make you want to be a kid again. And his perspective as an artist and father make you want to add layers to raising your kids, too. Recently, Aaron joined me for a Zoobean Expert on Air conversation, in which I learned a great deal about his work, experience, and perspective on creativity and parenting. Humble and driven, Aaron has so many pearls of wisdom to share. Here are five things you may not know about this Caldecott honor winner, and hopefully inspire you in your own creative or parenting endeavors (or both)! You can watch the whole conversation here:
1. Initially, he intended for Journey to have words, and to be his one and only book.
While Aaron did have a vision for a picture book years in advance, he did not realize it would be wordless. He drafted the book as a series of small sketches and when he went to add the words he realized it didn’t need them. He surprised himself, “It’s done. I don’t think I need [words].” One of Aaron’s inspirations is Chris Van Allsburg, and he particularly loves how Van Allsburg’s images tell a story themselves, apart from the text. He saw that his images were working in this way, and reports that, “I did write the text for Journey as an experiment. Is it better with words? Can I come up with some words that will make it sing?” He ended up sticking with wordless and used his text for portions of the book’s trailer instead.
And when I asked Aaron whether he always had a vision for writing a trilogy, he said absolutely not. Just getting Journey onto book shelves was a delight for him. “Oh that’s it,” he thought, “it’s done!” But after some time passed, he realized that the dream of having a published book didn’t have to stop at just one book. “The worlds I created had a lot more possibilities in them and I realized there was more story I could tell. But I did want to keep the story finite rather than open-ended, so I planned a trilogy rather than an ongoing series.”
2. He had no formal art classes as a kid, but his mom did build him a work station.
Aaron shared with me that his own journey to becoming an artist, “was a circuitous route. I didn’t get any training in the arts when I was younger…. I was just going to go to college. Get a 4 year degree. A lot if it was lack of exposure to people who were working in the arts. And also this sense that you won’t be be making any money and you can’t support yourself in the arts.” He was always a doodler, and his friends recognized that he could really draw. But Aaron’s own perspective on his future remained more conventional for many years.
While he may not have taken formal art classes, Aaron shared that his mom did encourage him to experiment. “My mom built me this table. Like a workbench. It was mine. It wasn’t like a handholding parenting style. It was like, let me set the stage for you. Here are some supplies. Here is a hammer. I’m not going to show you how to use the damn thing. I had to be inventive. I had to figure it out.” Sounds like she built him a maker space before they were called maker spaces.
Aaron continued to be inventive and figure it out when creating Journey and Quest. As he noted, he had to teach himself how to do watercolor paint in order to do Journey. It was a long and hard process, but eventually he learned. Later in our conversation, Aaron referenced the importance of introducing things to our kids early (like mixing turpentine with paint), so they’re not scary later. I suspect that philosophy comes in part from his own experience figuring things out in his work area as a kid.
3. He is living in Spain at the moment.
Granada, to be exact. Aaron told me that he decided to carpe diem while his daughter, 4, is still young. It’s not all easy, especially since Aaron doesn’t speak Spanish, but there are some unexpected perks. He shared that he has to entertain his daughter for so long that it’s helping him to come up with ideas for new books, even a book series. They are acclimating to Spanish life and culture, an experience Aaron wanted for himself and his family. As he noted, “next year my daughter will start Kindergarten, and we’ll start with the routine again.” But for now, he is soaking up the southern Spanish sun and enjoying this adventure with his family.
4. He throws out his drawings. Lots and lots and lots of them.
I asked Aaron if receiving a Caldecott honor made him feel pressure for his current and future work. Aaron created Quest before Journey won a Caldecott honor, but when the second book came out, he did feel the pressures of expectation. But now, with that weight of expectation on his shoulders for his third book in the series, Return, Aaron says, “I put pressure on myself to make the most beautiful book I can make. I feel like I have something to prove. I am throwing out paintings more than usual. I really want to get it right.” When we chatted after our formal interview, Aaron let me know that he is throwing out more paintings than ever before. But the good news is that he is excited, and thinks Return will “be a beautiful end to the series.”
5. He believes we all should be storytellers.
Typically when I ask an interviewee if they have anything else to add, the answer is brief. But Aaron had something on his mind that he wanted to share about the importance and power of storytelling. Aaron recounted a recent conversation with a friend, “As parents we have given up our powers as storytellers to these large media companies. We’re letting our kids grow up on stories that we’re not even choosing for them. Companies are choosing for them. You sort of get the same story regurgitated again and again. That’s a fine story, but it’s a little limiting.”
What can we do about this? Start telling our kids stories. Aaron suggests making them really interactive, asking kids for a place, a problem the character encounters, and more, to hold the child’s interest. As he said, “That’s good for everybody. For the whole world if we can [tell stories] a bit more.”