Yes, that Weird Al. Seriously! The Saga Begins! I'm Fat! All the great songs! And now a children's book. I picked it up at the local copy shop where Hargis had copies for sale. Cool, I thought. I like Weird Al, and what a lark that a guy from my po-dunk (nobody get hurt feelings. You have to admit anywhere that's more than 2 hours from the nearest airport is po-dunk.) town has brushed greatness.
He's done more than brush it. He's illustrated it. Probably with colored pencil is what it looks like. And it's great stuff!
So, I asked Wes (can I call you Wes?) to tell me about the book (though I've read it to my kids more than a dozen times. They love it.)
JG: Tell me about the book.
WH: "It's basically about Billy, a highly enthusiastic kid who can't wait for show and tell so he can tell the class about all the things he's been thinking about for his future career. He high-jacks the class. He's going to get everything off his chest that he wants to say, regardless of how much it annoys his teacher, Mrs. Krupp, the other main character."
JG: What was the process like?
WH: There was a long process to get the relationship right between Billy and Mrs. Krupp. There were a lot of different incarnations of Mrs. Krupp. It took a while to get where we finally landed, which was modeling her after Aunt Bea from "The Andy Griffith Show." It took several months to figure out how Billy was going to look. Initially he was a bit goofier, with big eyes and goofy teeth. He had to be crazy but not too crazy. Mrs. Krupp had to be warm, but still show a little bit of frustration.
WH: Right. Usually once the author's work is handed off and fine-tuned, it's up to the editors and the illustrator at that point. I had the option to work with the author, but I didn't. I had the benefit of looking at the text before knowing who the author was. I, like a lot of people in my age group, love this guy. They wanted me to take a look at it from my perspective. I just loved it. You can't look at this text without thinking as an illustrator how you'd juggle it. Things like Twinkies Au Gratin and Toast on a Stick, I tried to include them all. There was so much funny stuff in there, I couldn't get them all.
JG: Did you meet him? Publicity tours, etc.?
WH: Just once. We exchanged a few emails, but he's so down to earth. He has a daughter. The emails were all just family chit chat. That's one thing the people at Harper Collins were amazed about. He was so down to earth and mellow. Not at all what you'd expect from a world phenomenon.
A lot of people ask me what it's like to work on a celebrity book, but this isn't your average celebrity book. Al is first and foremost a writer. His parody song lyrics are so tight. This is a book by a talented writer who happens to be doing his first children's book.
He did a concert in Phoenix, where we met him for the first time. It's said you can take someone of any age to one of his concerts. He has the most amazing fans they're so devoted to him. There's this story about him I heard a long time ago. He was offered a lot of money many years ago to do a beer commercial. He turned it down because he worried about how that might effect some of his younger fans.
He lets people feel comfortable with that nerdy part of yourself. Now our culture has moved in a direction where nerds are cool. Al is the world's most renowned nerd. Someone like me who was a little nerdy from the get-go can feel good about it.
JG: What was tough about the project?
WH: It was my first time drawing children. Primarily I'm a cartoonist for Wick newspapers. This was new, drawing Billy, plus a whole cafeteria full of children's faces, and keeping track of them all. That was a challenge.
JG: Are there any "real" people in your illustrations?
WH: My two boys pop in and out of some of the characters, especially Billy. Oh, and my brother is the basketball player with the stinky armpit. His number was 34, just like the illustration. He was, and still is, a great ball player.
JG: Is this your first children's book?
WH: I did a book called Jackson and Bud's Bumpy Ride. It was a really good experience for me. It's a story about a guy, Horatio Jackson, who took a car across the U.S. in the early 1900s on a $50 bet. There was a PBS special on it. It's a cool story. I'm not a particularly accurate illustrator, so they took a risk choosing me, someone more of a cartoony artist. It was a great way to learn and get ready for some other projects.
JG: What do you think it is that makes this book click?
WH: Al's magic. There's this really sweet moment where Billy starts telling Mrs. Krupp about his grandfather. Then there's a page where Billy is sitting on his grandfather's lap, and he becomes more than just this funny kid, and turns into a kid we can really sympathize with. It's a sweet moment when Billy gives Mrs. Krupp a picture. Al accomplishes this transition so gracefully. It's the magic.
JG: What's up next?
WH: I have a project in the works for another children's book. I'll still keep my cartooning job to pay the light bill between illustrating projects. I draw for papers in Las Vegas and Tucson. I love doing that.
JG: Thanks a bunch for talking with me! I've never actually visited with an illustrator before. It's the great unknown to me.
Seriously, folks. I ask you. How cool is that? Now run out and get yourself a copy of this fun book! Your kids will really enjoy it!
And to finish with candy, I must say, there's a cherry pie sitting in my kitchen waiting to be eaten. Or et, as the book I just finished reading would say (a Zane Grey.) I can't stop thinking about what Twinkies au gratin must taste like. How fantastic could that be? Cheese and sugar go surprisingly well together. Cannolis, anyone?