Will Hillenbrand

On the eve of his 56th children’s book, the Terrace Park author and illustrator draws us a picture of kids’ most important muscle—their imagination—with his magic pencil.

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For Will Hillenbrand, it has always been about the stories. As the son of a College Hill barber and the youngest of four boys, he reveled in listening to the tales passed down by his family. “[My grandmother’s] generation entertained each other not by watching an event on TV, but by sitting on the front porch on a hot summer day,” he recalls. “They would tell stories. They knew story structure like Garrison Keillor does. They always came full circle. You could hear the echoes from the beginning coming in at the end.”

Hillenbrand is nowhere near his own end—this month he publishes Kite Day, his 56th children’s book—but we hear some of the echoes of his beginnings in his homegrown success story. For a guy who never took a legitimate art class until he was a sophomore at Aiken High School, he’s done well. He has won numerous awards for his work, including an American Library Association Notable Book Award for the first picture book he ever illustrated (Traveling to Tondo) and two International Reading Association Children’s Choice Awards for The House That Drac Built and Sam Sunday and the Mystery at the Ocean Beach Hotel. We met up with him at the Blue Marble bookstore in Ft. Thomas to discuss the magic of illustration, how and when he knew getting off his practical career path was the right move, and what children really want in a book these days.

You say that drawing was a way for you, as a child, to “capture the stories” that you heard. What were your big childhood inspirations? When I was very young I noticed that my mom drew, mostly drew when she was on the phone—I didn’t know that was called doodling. At some point I gave her a blank piece of paper and I brought a pencil and I sat in her lap, and my brothers say I demanded that she draw for me. Well I don’t think I demanded; I asked . She could have said, “I don’t draw,” but she didn’t. She just said, “I’ll draw you my home.”

She grew up in Indiana on a farm. She would draw an arc, and then another arc, and she would say, “these are the hills of home.” The she would draw trees and she would say,“these are the woods I walked through when I went to school.” She would draw the creek and birds and clouds in the sky; then she would draw the barn, the house, [and] the barnyard. And I would take that drawing and I would go to the refrigerator and I would put it on the fridge, cause that’s where drawings went. When I gave it to her it was this ordinary, typical blank piece of paper, but her marks made it her home and for me that was magic.

For me, purposeful drawing came when I needed to do a thank-you note. When I was told I could draw a picture and do a thank-you note, that was really an important difference for me. It allowed me to use my natural voice in making pictures. I still do the cards—it has become something of a signature that I do. It builds bridges for communication, for putting a smile on someone’s face.

Another story I love is that you were allowed to draw on the walls of your house! Going into our basement there was no hand railing, so as a child I would touch the wall and it was almost like Aladdin’s lamp, in that the wall began to talk to me. It was quiet in the beginning, but it got louder. It started saying: “Draw on me!” [So] when my mom was away and I wanted to show my brother Pete how to draw a face, I made this very big lopsided portrait—I showed him how to do a face. When my mother came home, Pete said to Mom, “You need to see what Will has drawn.” We had a staircase that turns slightly and I remember just waiting right where I did my drawing. She wore red high heels most of the time and I think I saw her feet first walking down the stairs. When she saw it she said, “What did you do to my wall?” I said, “I drew Pete.” She kind of looked at me and she goes, “Well, it looks just like him.”

Then she says, “but I wish you had done it on a piece of paper cause we could have kept it, ’cause now I have to have you clean it off.” So I got a sponge and she had a sponge and we cleaned the wall off. And just like when we did dishes you have a conversation. She was talking to me and she says, “You know, I don’t want you to draw on this wall again,” and I told her I wouldn’t—I promised. But that wasn’t the end of it, because I thought she was very specific about that wall.

Some time later I went behind the furnace, where there had been a curtain, and I continued to draw. I redrew Pete, and I drew dragons and bears. I would go there whenever I needed a private moment; I would just go there and draw and draw and draw. And so by the time she changed the furnace filter—cause my dad didn’t, she did—she called me back downstairs. She said, “I see you’ve been busy,” and I said “Yes.” She said, “If you promise just to draw on this wall I’ve got something for you.” It sounded like a good deal to me! She gave me more crayons and so I did more drawing down there.

[Later] when my nieces and nephews would play down there, I’d go down and join them. They would notice the wall and I’d say: “You can add to it if you want to.” Or they’d say: “That looks like so-and-so,” [or] “that looks familiar to me,” and I’d say: “That’s your Dad!” Up until 10 years ago, when my mom moved, a lot of the drawings were still there.

Where is that house? It seems like it played a big part in your formation as an artist. I grew up in College Hill on Elkton Place. Last year when the library gave me an award it made me think about this: College Hill was a great place to grow up. I could walk to my dad’s barber shop, the grocery store, the bus line, baseball field, library—we didn’t need to get into a car, except on Sundays to see if it still worked. The library was right next to the baseball diamond and it was air-conditioned, and air-conditioning was brand new. I would stop in the Northern Hills branch and spend a lot of time there—sometimes I was late for my baseball game. I would often find a familiar book or a book that would be out and I would just spend 15 minutes, or I don’t know how long, just looking at a page. It would be a treat to just look at it until I could almost see the marks being made. The library was my art museum, because the picture books were there, whether it was Arnold Lobel or Ezra Jack Keats, Maurice Sendak, Leo Lionni. I mean, that’s where it happened.

When did you start to get serious about studying art? The first art teacher that I had who was trained as an art teacher was in high school, which was very important and significant because in grade school, going to Catholic schools—I don’t have anything negative to say about that, but we did quite a lot of artwork on paper plates. We did it because there wasn’t an art room, and you did it at your desk.

The first art teacher I’d had was Mrs. Hubbard at Aiken High School. She looked like a gypsy! She had earrings that would dangle down and she had mascara on and all the rest. She gave us charcoal and paper and she talked about negative and positive shapes. I thought I died and went to heaven. She was talking about shape and volume and this language was like music to me. Although I always drew, being taught formally was something that I had not had any experience with.

I also went to night school [my junior year] in high school because I could continue to draw. I didn’t have any space at home—I mean, I had the kitchen table, but you know you had to clear it and whatever. So I would just get on my bike and go back over. My art teacher that I had during the day, Mr. Ertel—we still send cards back and forth, I always send a Thanksgiving card to him. He’s 94, lives up in Western Hills, he’s my aesthetic father, really. He taught night school, so I went to night school classes. I usually worked on the things I had worked on in [day] class but I would go further with them. He would have said I was bitten by the bug. I felt so far behind with drawing that I wanted to get as much as I could.

I also began working at WKRC-TV at that point. At first I got paid for driving a mobile billboard, which was pretty much a disaster, a traffic-jam-maker. The board would blow over in a 25-mile-an-hour wind. I also started doing work in the creative department.

You ended up working in advertising. But at some point, while working, you illustrated your first book. What happened there? Were you feeling some sort of pull or call? [Later] when I was at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, we always had some kind of drawing. Through that discipline I became much better. I was going to become a graphic designer—that was my intent. But we had all these other drawing and painting classes. Something grew inside me that I didn’t know was there. I decided to be a graphic design and illustration major—double major, minor in photography. I was very practical-minded. I didn’t know what I was gonna do with the illustration but I knew I could be employed with graphic design. So I used that to buy time. Because the thing that was special and unexpected was the gift of discovering the illustrator inside of me.

While I was working at the advertising agency I was trying to build my children’s book portfolio. Ultimately I worked at the agency for 10 years total, five years full-time and five part-time. During that part-time period I was doing the book work. I [also] took a class at the Ohio State University as my summer vacation, to see if I wanted to do this on a day-to-day basis. We had to write, illustrate, and bind a fable in three weeks. I did it in two weeks and I was so worthless when I came back to the agency they said, take another week’s vacation. That was a stepping stone. It was shortly after that I started doing [book] jackets and then I took a trip to New York City. At that point you could take your portfolio and show it to an editor or an art director—that’s just not possible today. And on that particular trip, in 1989, I ended up getting my first chapter book to illustrate which was Awfully Short for the Fourth Grade by Elvira Woodruff.

That’s impressive—pretty much unheard of in today’s publishing world! Yeah, I was very excited to be invited to do that first book. And probably clicked my heels together and screamed when I got outside. That wasn’t noticed at all in New York!

You started out as just an illustrator but over time you started writing your own books as well. Is it challenging to be both the author and illustrator? Writing for me, from childhood on—I was not a good student and being able to write was not something that I thought would be available to me. Being able to create picture worlds, that was a strength. For me images will always come first. That’s the same thing C.S. Lewis would have said.

Every time I think about a book it feels a bit like climbing Mt. Everest. Every time you have to kind of have a strategy and a plan—it’s a great undertaking. You have to build plateaus. You can’t do it all at once. It’s done through planning and play and imagination, and “what if,” and “let’s just let the characters evolve and grow and ‘become’ ”—they will tell you who they are. It’s a lot like going down a path in the fog. You’re going to a destination, and eventually that house or whatever will take its shape and you will see it.

A big part of being published today is going on school visits. What do you tell children when you visit? I draw for them before I do a presentation and I’ll start drawing something very simple like a line. And I’ll say: “Artists make marks. This is a line, but an artist would call it a ‘mark.’ One mark alone isn’t complete but if I add more this will take a shape. But before I go any further I’m going to let you know I’m going to leave a mark on you today, a mark that you might be able to remember for a long time.”

One of the things I like to be able to leave with children is a “magic pencil.” Children will sometimes readily be able to say “You’re the artist in the class, you’re the writer in the class, you’re the smartest in the class, you’re the athlete in the class.” And oftentimes they’re saying that you are it and I am not.

What I want to say is: “I have a magic weapon and it’s a magic pencil.” So where’s the magic? “If I give it to you would it work for you the way it works for me?” Well some think yes and some say no. But the idea is, there’s no magic in the pencil—there’s magic in each one of us. And that’s where it all begins. No one has seen the world the way you have; a pencil and the way you use it will allow me to see. You can’t see my imagination but I can show you what I see in my imagination by using my pencil.

You introduced readers this spring to your characters Bear and Mole in the book Spring is Here, which you both wrote and illustrated. There’s another story with similar characters—Bear in Love—due out this fall. How did the idea for that series come about? When [my son] Ian was 2 and a half, 3 years old, he used to pretend he was a mole [because] he read The Mole Family’s Christmas. One particular day he woke me up by tunneling under the covers. I was semi-awake. And he tweaked my toe like Jeremy Fisher got his toe tweaked by a beetle. And of course, being a “Mole” alarm clock, it doesn’t have a snooze button—you’re up! Later, we went to the playground. On the way home he said, “tell me a story.” I said, “Well, we can put one on cassette.” No, he didn’t want that. He was doing what I would do with my mom, which is saying, “Make one up!” I said, “Actually, I don’t know that many stories but I do know one about a mole.” And his ears just perked up so much. I said, “He has a really good friend, which is a bear.” For me it’s often easier to pitch a story, instead of being able to tell about a human, to do the animal, I’m just kind of drawn to that. Of course the event was exactly what we did, which was about the sleepy bear not waking up and the mole trying everything to be able to wake him up. And finally they could wake up and be able to have their day. That was it.

Your latest book, Kite Day, is coming out this spring. What’s it about and what was your inspiration? In this case, it goes back a generation cause it goes back with my father and myself flying a kite. We would go to Winton Woods. I remember being lifted off the ground by a very strong wind. But we lost a kite—it was very high up. In the story it’ll show you where it could have gone, [and] you’ll have a surprise ending. When I flew kites with Ian we never lost them but I remember just the thrill; flying is a fanciful, kind of magical thing.

You’ve written and/or illustrated almost 60 books. Which stick out in your mind as personal favorites? Whatever one I’m reading, or have just read to a child, or whatever I’ve [just] done is my favorite book. Every book has its own journey to it. There’s special parts about each one.

Writers complain about getting writer’s block. Is there such a thing as “illustrator’s block?” There is. A child might ask me, “Do you get frustrated?” And I’d say, “Yeah, join the crowd!” But don’t let it stop you—just ask yourself: “Do I need to turn what I’ve been doing sideways or upside down so I can get a new perspective on it? Or maybe I need to approach it differently instead of trying to ram it down like you’re knocking down a castle door.” Maybe there’s another way that you can do it. And maybe that’s what you were intended to do. It’s having many tools in your toolbox so that when frustration happens you don’t always go after the problem with a hammer if it’s a screw—it’s not gonna be the right tool.

You need to have strategies, you need to be persistent, you need to be regular. The myth is “I only work under inspiration.” That’s a farce. That inspiration could come down so white hot that, if you’re not prepared for it properly, it’ll do what a lightning bolt typically does, which is destroy instead of channel, and you won’t have any positive result from it.

[But if] you go to the same place [every day] and you create the kind of same routines that allow you to be present for those moments of inspiration, then you’re familiar enough that you can prepare yourself for the energy of inspiration. Inspiration comes in many different shapes but if it’s a lightning bolt, “preparation” means you’d better have a good catcher’s mitt or a key at the end of the kite string to gather that energy.

Where do you like to work? I’m most comfortable in my studio; if I’m doing very specific work, if I’m doing fine art work, it really has to be in the studio. If I’m generating ideas it can be practically anywhere. That’s why I keep a journal with me, because what happens is, you get an impulse. You have an idea. You think: “I’m gonna record it.” By the time you put it down, it somewhat resembles the idea that you had in your head, but it seldom is a copy of what you had in your head. If it were a monologue, it’d be finished. But because it’s a journal, it’s a dialogue. So that means you see what you’ve created and now you ingest it and you reshape it and you bring it back out. And then it’s a conversation. So I kind of keep it [my journal] at my side. It’s a security blanket but it really works. It’s my secret weapon.

Do you have a favorite medium? If I were on a desert island, I would just go back to my pencil and paper. It would just be that simple. To me there’s such a wonderfully tactile sensation with pencil and paper. Part of that is not to forget the simple pleasure of the pencil across a piece of paper, and feeling a little bit of scratchiness. A violinist or a cellist could maybe say [it’s like] the feeling of the vibration on their arm.

After that, there isn’t a media I haven’t enjoyed. I’ll be Will Rogers, right? I haven’t met a media I didn’t like! I like ’em all. I end up using different ones at different points.

Like in Spring is Here, you used a paper bag to create the texture of the bear’s pajamas. He’s been sleeping in these pajamas for three months. I just took a piece of paper, crumpled it up, scanned it in, [and] that becomes his crumpled pajamas.

What do you think children really want and need in a book? In the very basest term: A good story well told. To me it would still go back to being able to say: “So what did Ezra Jack Keats do that did that right? What did Arnold Lobel do that did that right?” Certain books are classics, so what are the things about them that are classic? They’re themes. In The Snowy Day, it’s being able to see snowflakes. It’s [about] changing the world overnight, and participating in it, and wanting to hold on to some certain point of it—the snowball that melts in your pocket.

Children’s picture books should be read again and again and again. If a person buys a book, reads it one time—one and done—that’s the worst money they’ll ever spend. When a child is reading a book that they really love, they don’t look like they’re animated but it’s the best exercise in the world for the imagination. And we need imaginations to be developed as much as any muscle. Because imagination will help individuals solve their own problems and society’s problems. If we don’t develop that muscle deeply, we’ll be in trouble.

A version of this story was originally published in the February 2012 issue.
Photograph by Ryan Kurtz
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