Meet the Author: Tim Hamilton

Welcome to Elephant Notes . . . our periodic take on some of the ideas, issues, and news impacting parents, children, and reading. This week, an interview with the author of Is That a Cat, Tim Hamilton.

Our December author of the month, Tim Hamilton, is a children’s author, cartoonist, and comic books creator. He both adapted the text and created the illustrations for the highly acclaimed, authorized graphic novel adaption of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”. The brilliance of his book, “Is That A Cat”, is that children HAVE to turn the page to see if what’s on the next page is a cat or not. The creative and highly stylized illustrations complement the fun and unique story to truly capture the imagination of young readers. These are the kinds of books we love at Elephant Books!

As a cartoonist you have done work from some very large publications – The New Yorker, The New York Times, Marvel, DC Comics, Dow Jones, and ABC Television to name a few, but you’ve also written several children’s books. How does your cartoon work influence your book writing ? 

I don’t know that it does. Those are two different brain muscles. Creating “gags” for cartoons is mostly an unending job if I keep my mind on it. I see something or hear something and I think, “That’s weird, interesting or funny!” I jot ideas like that down and hopefully make them into gag cartoons.

Creating a picture book is more sitting down and creating a story. A beginning, a middle with some conflict and an end. Once I have a story, fitting it into the given number of pages you have in a picture book is the hard part! Once I do get a story down I put it away for a few days at least so I can read it with fresh eyes and see if it’s actually any good. Gag cartoons are similar in that I may look at the gags I jotted down a few days ago and notice that they are actually terrible!

How did you become a children’s book writer?

Ha! I’m not sure! I have always worked in the arts; I even worked in a pharmaceutical advertising agency at one time. That job involved art and design but it was NOT a job for me! When Nickelodeon Magazine was still around I created short comics for them under the tutelage of then Editor Chris Duffy, and learned how to condense and edit my story down to two pages for the middle grade readers. I really enjoyed writing stories and always have. So, in the meantime I created picture book pitches (dummy books) and showed them around to lukewarm rejections. How I got it in front of people at Holiday House is mostly a “right place, right time” type of situation. Ted Lewin was one of my teachers and he and his wife Betsy took a look at my pitch. They suggested I show it to Grace Maccarone at Holiday House. That pitch became the children’s book But!

Since you both write and illustrate—what comes first as you create a book?

Depends. Usually it comes from a place of play and having fun with an idea. I could be doodling some ideas and suddenly I’m drawing a little comic that I think maybe could become a book. Or I realize that idea is best for something else. Sometimes an idea pops into my head and I have to sketch it out and see if it’s actually a strong story. The important part about ideas (for me at least) is to let ideas go where they want to go. After I draw or write an idea all over some scrap paper, I take a look and see if there is anything of merit in what I did. I try not to censor or second-guess when I’m having fun and creating. Many times there is nothing there to use for a book or a cartoon gag, but I had to get it out of my head so that I could move on to better ideas!

In Is That A Cat you use great optical tricks to engage the reader—was there an inspiration behind that storyline?

I should have a great story for this, right?! I have to admit I don’t remember the spark for that idea. I think somebody was talking about making kids want to turn the page and see what happens next in picture books. So I started doodling ideas about objects that look similar but are different and it then evolved into the book you see where you HAVE to turn the page to see if that is a cat? I remember had many versions of different things or animals that look like other things before settling on the characters in the book.

Who were your favorite authors or books when you were a child?

Depends what year. I think my first favorite author was Charles Schulz even though I was too young to realize who was writing and drawing Snoopy! As a child I got a hold of those old paperback books from the sixties that collected a year of Peanuts strips. I remember sitting and reading that whole thing in one sitting. In grade school a favorite was Charlotte’s Web along with Where the Wild Things Are. Not long after that I saw my older sister reading a book called The Hobbit, which I had to know more about! She read a lot of that to me as I was in 5th grade I think? I was hooked on The Hobbit, though!! As a young teen I still read all the comics in the Sunday paper but had also discovered Spider-Man and super hero comics and read a good number of those! Junior High is the first I remember liking particular authors. I read Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and sought out Douglas Adams. I also discovered a big book of Ray Bradbury short stories in the library and started seeking him out along with Arthur C. Clark.

Did you love to read as a child and what would you most recommend to parents who want to develop a love of reading in their children?

When I had books to look though, I loved reading them. I loved good stories, which is an obvious statement. What I mean by that is that I knew we were getting these short books to read in 7th grade that were mandated as part of a course. I guess those books did their job, but they were pretty silly and weak plot wise! But yes, whether it was comics I bought or books we were assigned in school (they assigned good books too!) I enjoyed reading.

Thus, I would recommend exposing kids to as many types of book as you possibly can at the library or at home. When we were assigned books to read in school I was excited, but noticed many other kids groaned in dread. I don’t have a solution for that, but would hope parents and teachers approach reading a book as enjoyment. I mean, if a student loves cars and working on engines, it seems obvious he or she may like to read a book about a famous race driver or the history of how a particular car was created. Curiosity is still what leads me to many books I read. Also, if parents (or older siblings) read books to their kids I think they will want to start reading those books themselves. I had to do that to see how The Hobbit ended!

 When you look around at the current state of kids and reading, what are the biggest challenges or opportunities you think there are to address?

My challenges as an author? It does seem that picture books are a hard sell. They are expensive and, unless a child LOVES it, they are going to get tired of it rather quickly. The new market that seems to be big is graphic novels for middle grade and young adults. They are bit more work and harder to pitch, but parents and kids get a bigger bang for their buck with a longer story that often has sequels! Look at how many Captain Underpants book there are!

If you mean challenges to address for kids? I don’t know if it’s a problem, I know kids use computers, but I see kids reading screens and phones all the time. I think many of them would rather be watching some funny You tube channel than reading a book. Technology is changing so fast. The challenge is keeping up with all the effects it will have on our children and us.

What is the best thing about being a cartoonist and children’s author?

If kids learn and or are inspired by anything I do, that would be the best thing obviously! So I hope I’ve affected some kids somewhere in a positive way! Working in the arts is pretty much what I’ve always done and I like to think it has a positive purpose out there beyond just making a buck. It doesn’t matter what you do with your life as long as you do something you enjoy!

Any chance you are working on a new book?

I have several book pitches floating around the publishing world at the moment while I do other work. So…yes and no!? I’m always working on a new book, but there is no book in production at the moment sadly. Sorry!

Tim, thanks for spending time with us and sharing your experiences! Fingers crossed on the next book as we’ve loved reading “Is That a Cat”.

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