An Interview with Caldecott Medal Winner Dan Santat

Reading Time: 9 minutes

It seems that every other book my youngest daughter reads is either drawn by, written by, or drawn and written by Dan Santat. So we were really happy when we learned that he won the 2015 Caldecott Award–the American Library Association’s prestigious award for the most distinguished American picture book for children–for his latest book The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend.

The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary FriendBeekle, which has been optioned by Dreamworks and recently attached to director Jason Reitman, is the story of Beekle, a marshmallowy white blob of cuteness who wears a golden crown and lives his life as a yet-to-be-imagined imaginary friend on an island with other imaginary friends. But Beekle wants to be someone’s friend so badly he can’t wait to be imagined any longer. So he strikes out on his own, journeying across the dangerous monster-filled ocean and into the frightening grayness of the real world to seek out his true friend. It’s a really touching, positive story, and the pages are filled with Santat’s wonderfully detailed artwork.

GeekDad was lucky enough to have Dan take a few moments out of putting Caldecott stickers on all his books to talk to us about his drawing career, what it’s like winning a Caldecott Medal, and being a geeky dad.

Children's book author Dan Santat
Beekle writer/artist Dan Santat takes a road trip with himself. Image courtesy of Dan Santat.

GeekDad: In our house we own a lot of books with your name on them. How long have you been writing and illustrating children’s books?

Dan Santat: Counting from the first year I was published, this is my eleventh year.

GD: Using my daughter’s library as evidence, you’ve contributed to a lot of books in that time. Do you have any idea just how many?

DS: I recently counted and I believe I just published my 60th. But of those I have authored only three–The Guild of Geniuses, Sidekicks, and Beekle.

GD: That’s a lot of books. What was the first one that was published?

DS: The Guild of Geniuses, released in 2004.

GD: How did that come about?

DS: I met my editor at a book conference in 2002. It was the first time I had ever gone to one. I was sitting in the illustrators display showcase and had my art portfolio on a table with a loose dummy version of the book. He came right up to me and asked me if the book had been acquired, I told him “No.” Then we talked things over and a week later I got a contract for a two book deal sent to me via FedEx.

GD: You’ve won awards before, like the Silver Award from the Society of Illustrators for Oh No!: Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World. How much different is winning the Caldecott?

DS: Oh, it’s insanely different. With the Society of Illustrators award you basically grab the attention of everyone in the children’s publishing industry. The Caldecott grabs the attention of what feels like the whole world. I’ve been getting fan mail from the UK, Australia, parts of Asia, Europe, not realizing that people actually knew what the award was. The morning after it had been announced, when I dropped my kids off at their school a bunch of folks were waiting in the lobby to congratulate me. I’ve been invited to a ton of events around the country, and I don’t have time to answer all the emails. (Sorry, folks, I’m trying). I’ve even been given a couple free cups of coffee at coffee bars because they recognized my face from the internet; you know, stuff like that.

GD: Were you surprised when Beekle won?

DS: I had phone calls with my publisher telling me that it had a chance at an award because it was being talked about online through Mock Caldecott events being held by librarians and teachers across the country, but a lot of the hype was surrounding other picture books, too. So I thought, at best, I had a chance at maybe winning a Caldecott Honor award. When I got the call from the committee and they had told me I won the actual medal I was speechless. I just started crying. I never in my life ever imagined this. You don’t even dream about it because it feels arrogant to dream about it, as if you felt like you deserved it in some weird way.

GD: As a reader, once you’re introduced to Beekle, the idea of an imaginary friend that can’t wait to be imagined makes so much sense. Besides an island of imaginary friends, where did Beekle come from?

DS: The name “Beekle” was actually my oldest son’s first word for “bicycle.” My wife thought it was a cute name for a book character and so I kept it in the back of my mind for years. When I finally found the time to write the story I had this idea about an imaginary friend who was already born on an island where imaginary friends were born but had to wait to be imagined. I always thought it was interesting to explore the thoughts of an imaginary friend waiting to meet their friend because, when you look at the whole situation, you realize that they don’t have a choice in the matter. They’re a utility to serve the purpose of a child’s needs. In the original draft Beekle tries to look and act like the other imaginary friends (paint stripes on his body, grow horns, that sort of thing) because he doesn’t like who he is and feels like he’s too weird to be imagined. Eventually my editor and I agreed that type of thinking was more of a teenagers reaction to not fitting in and decided it was better to write a story about the anxieties of making your very first friend. To me, the story is a metaphor about the birth of my son. There’s the initial anxiety of being a first-time father realizing that there is this inevitable destiny of meeting this new person but knowing you’ll love them unconditionally without having ever met. Then the imagination becomes a reality when you finally hold your child in your arms for the first time, and that’s when your imaginary friend gets his name, Beekle.

Dan Santat's Beekle
Beekle gets his name. Image courtesy of Dan Santat.

GD: How long did you work on Beekle before the book was published?

DS: The concept was floating in my head since around 2003 and it was called The Unimaginable. I was busy with other projects for many years and never had the time to just sit and write it until 2012. I’m trying to focus more on my own writing now so that doesn’t happen again.

GD: I read that Beekle was optioned by DreamWorks before it was even printed. And now the word is out that Jason Reitman is set to write and direct the Beekle animated film. How did all that happen?

DS: Well, the funny thing was that the publisher wasn’t going to originally publish Beekle because the story was still too rough to fully comprehend. But when the exec at Dreamworks heard the pitch, he got it immediately and optioned it. And, because of that, the publisher then decided to go ahead with the book. So thanks, Dreamworks! Two years later I end up winning the Caldecott Medal, which helps quite a bit. About a month ago I had lunch with Jason and he had told me about how he had gone into a bookstore in New York with his daughter. They saw the book on the shelf and were both immediately drawn into the story. The girl in the book reminded Jason of his daughter and the story takes place in New York, which is where his daughter lives, so he had a real emotional connection to the story.

GD: What do your two sons think of you winning a Caldecott Medal?

DS: They were happy for me. I mean, they were sincerely happy that I was so happy, but I still don’t think they fully understand the gravity of the situation. Our whole family still says it out loud and we still can’t believe it. Their school devoted a whole week to talk about the Caldecott Medal and they were treated like rock stars, so they loved that, and it helped clarify the situation even more. Honestly, they were more thrilled that I managed to get San Diego Comic Con guest passes for everyone in the family this year. The convention did this weird online “waiting room” thing where you were picked by lottery to get guest passes. Many of my friends ended up getting hosed. It was stressful.

GD: What’s the work day of a successful book illustrator like? Or, in other words, how do you balance work and being a dad?

DS: During the work week I drop my kids off at school by 8:30 AM. I rush home and run two miles, make a cup of coffee, then sit at my desk and plug away at work on my computer until 3:00 PM when it’s time to get my kids. During the work time I’ll eat lunch, answer emails, go into conference calls with my publishers. You know, work stuff. When my kids are home it’s Dad time. I either have to take them to piano lessons or soccer practice or any of the other things they’re interested in. I cook the dinners in the family, I do laundry, walk the dogs, water the garden, and so forth. After my wife and kids go to bed I generally go back to work around 10:00 PM and work until 1:00 AM. I’m often juggling multiple projects at a time so I often break up my day into certain hour blocks devoted to a particular project.

GD: That sounds like a lot of work, but at the same time it sounds pretty great.

DS: I admit, it’s a hectic schedule, but, in the end of it all, it’s all for me. I get to spend time with my family, and I’m not clocking in at some company hoping I don’t get fired on a daily basis.

GD: Okay, so enough about work. What do you get geeky about?

Dan Santat's Coffee Blend
Dan Santat’s Caldecott-ized home roasted coffee. Image courtesy of Dan Santat.

DS: I’m geeky about coffee, so much so that I roast my own coffee and give it out to clients after completing a book project. I’m also geeky about good design. I especially love studying advertising and book covers. The simpler the better, but they also have to have a strong sense of functionality in their design and/or what they communicate. It’s not easy to do, but I find it to be extremely helpful with my own book-making. I’ve been geeky about comics and video games almost my whole life, though adulthood has taken up a good chunk of my time from these things I could possibly be downgraded to a “hobbyist.” Lastly, I’m geeky about TV shows and movies. For TV, I’m currently in love with Game of Thrones, House of Cards, and The Last Man on Earth. For film, there’s Avengers: Age of Ultron and Mad Max: Fury Road. And I’ve been in love with Whiplash and tell everyone I know to go watch it.

GD: There’s a story going around the internet about you drawing a picture of Batman eating a sandwich as an answer on a middle school science test. Did that happen?

DS: It was a college course–Microbial Genetics, to be precise–and, yes, it really happened. There were four questions on the test, and I had absolutely no clue what the answer was to any of them. So I drew Batman eating a sandwich instead. The TA gave me two points for the drawing. I scored two points on the exam. I failed so, so hard.

GD: That’s a great story! Do you have that drawing?

DS: I don’t, but I can draw one for you.

Batman eating a sandwich by Dan Santat
Image: Batman eating a sandwich by Dan Santat. Image courtesy of the artist.

GD: Wow, thanks for that! It’s fantastic! So now that you’ve got a Caldecott Medal and a movie deal behind you, what’s next?

DS: I can’t say too much at the moment, but I can tell you of a few things. I just finished up my next picture book called Are We There Yet?, which tells the story of a kid who goes on a road trip with his parents and ends up getting so bored on the trip that he starts slowing down time until he eventually starts going back in history. It’s scheduled for April 2016, and I’m particularly excited about this book because it experiments with the physical properties of the book in order to read it. I hope folks will view the book as more of an experience than just a story, and I’m pretty thrilled that it’s my follow-up to Beekle. I’m also working on my next graphic novel called The Aquanaut, which is a story about a small group of sea creatures who convert an old deep sea diving suit into a land walking device so that they can explore land in hopes of finding this Sea World-like place thinking it will be this Shangri-La that will keep them safe from the dangers of the sea.

GD: Those sound great! I especially love books that use design to enhance the reading experience. I’ll be keeping an eye out for them.

If you haven’t read any of Santat’s books, you should. He brings an infectious enthusiasm and sense of fun to the books he works on, and each one is a joy to read. Here are a few that my kids have enjoyed.

San Santat: Three Ninja Pigs
The Three Ninja Pigs (with Corey Rosen Schwartz)
Dan Santat: Because I'm Your Dad
Because I’m Your Dad (with Ahmet Zappa)
Dan Santat: The Sasquatch Escape
The Sasquatch Escape (with Suzanne Selfors)

And if you have read any of Santat’s books, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Dan Santat's Beekle
Image: Courtesy Dan Santat.

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