Trash in the hall! Loud music! Nothing is right with young Eddie's neighbors. Everyone in Peaceable Building is fighting, day in and day out. And they are all blaming Eddie. "Are you the kid who bangs the ball on my wall?" growls Mrs. 4.
How can Eddie help his neighbors get along?
With his signature art style, author/illustrator D. B. Johnson portrays the busy life of tenants in an apartment building. In Eddie he creates an unlikely hero, a child who ingeniously puts everything into perspective for his neighbors with a little help from his talent and a pencil.
D. B. Johnson has long been fascinated with drawing people as animals, which is what inspired the creation of Eddie's Kingdom. For Johnson, "drawing a person as an animal [shows] we all have a common 'unhumanity.' If we see and accept that, then we'll understand ourselves and others better."
D. B. Johnson grew up in New Hampshire in the 1950s. His father, a carpenter and printer, built the family's house on sixty-five acres of field and forest beside a country road. His earliest memories are of picking blueberries and building pine-bough huts in the woods.
He read Walden in college and was fascinated by the way it mixed nature and politics. He took from Thoreau a lifelong interest in peaceful social change, a belief in the power of ideas, and a guide for simple living that made the life of an artist possible.
From a very early age he loved to draw, and, though he studied briefly at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he is primarily a self-taught artist. "I became an illustrator," he has said, "because my art has always been about ideas. I earned my degree in government at Boston University and let my art take care of itself." In the course of his freelance career, he has done editorial cartoons, comic strips, and conceptual illustrations for magazines and newspapers around the country.
D. B. Johnson's first book, Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, was published in 2000 to great acclaim, making the New York Times bestseller list, and was one of the New York Times Ten Best Illustrated Books, a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year, a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, a Booklist Editor's Choice, and the winner of the 2000 Boston GlobeHorn Book Award. He has written three additional books about Henry David Thoreau, all of which have been as well received. His most recent book is Eddie's Kingdom (September 2005), which presents the chaotic life of apartment dwellers and the unlikely hero who brings them all together. In 2001, D. B. Johnson received the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award.
D. B. Johnson and his wife, Linda Michelin, have three grown children and two grandchildren. They still live in New Hampshire, though now in a small town near a conservation area, where he begins each day with a walk in the woods.
A Conversation with D. B. Johnson
What were the inspirations behind Eddie's Kingdom?
For a long time I've been fascinated with drawing people as animals. I don't really understand why. But I can see a furry gray possum where others see a former president. It's just my way to bring everyone to the same level, no matter how important someone thinks he is. Drawing a person as an animal is how I show that we all have a common "unhumanity," a certain "animality" in common. If we can see and accept that, then we'll understand ourselves and others better. Maybe we'll all learn to get along on this small planet we share. (I'm a badger myself, a badger who loves to draw.)
It's the idea that we are all animals that inspired Eddie's Kingdom. Eddie is blamed for all the problems his neighbors cause in the apartment building where he lives: garbage in the hall, loud music, and smoke. He just wants everyone to get along. Since Eddie can draw, he decides to make one big picture of all his neighbors standing side by side. He will draw them so they can all see what they have in common, that they all look and act like animals. Then maybe they can learn to accept one another: the lion can live with the goat, the bear can laugh with the ox, and the wolf will stop growling at Eddie!
Are you Eddie?
I suppose every book I write is to some degree autobiographical. But I didn't live in an apartment building with a bunch of adult animals when I was a kid. On the other hand I had a lot of brothers and a sister, so I know what it's like to be blamed for things you didn't do. And being a middle child in our family, I think I had a natural tendency to want to keep the peace.
And did I mention that we both love to draw?
You've created four very successful books based on the writings of Henry David Thoreau: Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, Henry Builds a Cabin, Henry Climbs a Mountain, and Henry Works. How did it feel to create something so different? Was it a bit scary? Or was it liberating?
It was so much fun to do this book. I think people were wondering if I would ever draw actual people. Of course I do, though apparently Eddie still doesn't.
Because Eddie's story takes place inside and on the roof of a building, I changed my color palette for this book. That took a bit of getting used to. But it also gave me the chance to decorate rooms and create personal spaces that tell a careful reader something about each character Eddie visits. So every book has its own challenges. That's what I like.
For years you were a freelance artist. When did you know you wanted to write and illustrate books for children?
I've always liked telling a story with pictures, whether it was illustrating for a magazine or drawing a comic strip. I read lots of picture books to my kids. One day the idea for Henry Hikes to Fitchburg just flowed out of me. I submitted my manuscript to only one publisher, Houghton Mifflin, and within two weeks heard that it was a go. Though it took nine months to do, that book was more fun than I'd ever had.
What made you decide to pursue this as a career?
When I first began Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, I hadn't intended to make a career of doing picture books. But I loved the complete control I had of everything from writing the story to deciding how and what to illustrate. It wasn't like working for magazines, where I was illustrating someone else's ideas. Henry Hikes allowed me the freedom to work on a project that was totally me. I decided right then to do only the things that I believed in.
What has been the most unexpected aspect of the success of Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, Henry Builds a Cabin, Henry Climbs a Mountain, and Henry Works?
Well, I try not to think about success because it can be pretty distracting. People are suddenly asking me questions about a book I finished two years ago. I get confused. I need to concentrate on the one I'm drawing now.
How do you create your unique illustrations?
From small "thumbnail" sketches I enlarge my drawings to the size they'll be in the book. Then I make an underpainting with thin layers of color and modify it with colored pencil. It takes a week to do each picture.
My process has changed over the years. I used to like realism. But as I got more confident, my work got more expressive. Now I'm playful. I aim for bold, simplified shapes and angles that fracture the image. I think the energy I feel really comes through in the books.
Walden and Thoreau have obviously had a profound influence on your life as an artist and thinker. What other artists and authors do you admire and find inspiring?
I love the early cubist work of Marc Chagall, particularly the paintings he did in Vitebsk. I'm inspired by Grant Wood landscapes and anything by Thomas Hart Benton.
On the writing side, I really admire Howard Zinn. I had him as a professor in college, and his view of history has had a real effect on me.
What are you working on now?
I'm finishing the illustrations for my first collaborative book. It's called Zuzu, and it's written by my wife, Linda Michelin. It's been a great experience working together to create this wonderful character Zuzu. And I especially love it because it's a story that I couldn't have written, so it's expanding my horizon considerably.