What I Wanted to Be When I Grew Up by John Patrick Green
Hippopotamister, the graphic novel I’m in the midst of illustrating, stars a hippopotamus who leaves his home at the zoo, following his friend the red panda, and together they integrate themselves into human society by getting jobs at a variety of establishments. Working on this story, drawing Hippo and Red Panda wearing little hats and uniforms associated with different jobs, has made me reflect on what I wanted to be when I grew up. The honest truth is, I pretty much always knew what I wanted to do for a living.
Paula Poundstone had a comedy bit about why adults are always asking kids what they want to be when they grow up, and the punchline is “because they’re looking for ideas.” I actually didn’t get asked the question that much when I was little. I had a talent for drawing very early in my childhood, so instead of asking me what I want to be, people basically told me what I’d be. “That kid’s gonna be an artist.” For a little kid, an “artist” is kind of an abstract (ha ha) concept, in terms of a job or a career. Children learn about fireman and police officers and doctors and teachers, and it’s easy for them to grasp what that job is and how they contribute to society. They are easy to identify by their uniforms: firemen by their hats, police by their badges, doctors by their lab coats, and teachers by the apple and ruler they are always carrying at all times (this is a true fact; my mom is a teacher and she always has both apples and rulers).
Artists, of course, DO have uniforms, as all kids are taught: they wear berets and smocks and will never be too far from an easel and paintbrushes. I was never into berets and smocks, but I did like to draw, so I didn’t object to the notion of being an artist. For me, though, drawing was just a part of who I was. I couldn’t answer “what do you want to be” with “an artist” when I already viewed myself as an artist. A specific career in art wasn’t even a part of the equation at the time. So what DID I want to be, other than an artist? That’s easy. An ASTRONAUT.
I wanted to go to SPACE! I grew up with Star Wars, Close Encounters, E.T. — I wanted to go up into outer space and hang out with aliens. I remember that in fourth grade, I had a class assignment where we students had to write an essay — it was either about a historical figure we admired, or a job we wanted, one or the other. The important part was that we had to read our essay out loud in from of the class dressed up as that person/job. I was Neil Armstrong. My mom spray painted my puffy winter jumpsuit silver and made a space helmet out of paper mache. I SO wanted to be an astronaut, it was awesome.
But while I frequently got told I would definitely, absolutely, without any doubt, 100 percent be an artist, I just about equally got told with as much certainty that I would NOT be as astronaut. I grew up a very sick child, who had severe asthma and allergies. Doctors suggested putting me in a bubble. “4F,” my military dad and grandfather would call me. I missed 90 days of school one year. If you total up all my absences between first and twelfth grades, I probably missed a full two years of education.
So an astronaut I would never be. Well, never say never, I guess. THERE’S ALWAYS HOPE. And if the day comes that I do get to go to outer space, at this point I’m just going to end up drawing comics while I’m there anyway. And my current job of making comics is one that I’m very happy with.
My uncle once told me, when kids are asked “What do you want to be when you grow up,” they always jump to a career, instead of saying something like “I want to be happy.” Perhaps that train of thought is too philosophical for a young child. Once while I was working at Disney this question was asked to a focus group of kids and one responded “I want to be an Eskimo!” I’m not sure how one would start down that career path, but I know that now I’m pretty happy as an artist, even if I’m not wearing a beret and smock on a daily basis.
Since I couldn’t go off to outer space, my career path was pretty clear ever since I was a young child. But for most kids, that’s not the case – and it’s not the case for Hippo, either. Luckily, he gets to try a lot of jobs (maybe even go to space himself!) before settling down in a career. I hope the kids who read this book see the possibilities for their lives in the same way – heading towards a future that’s not predetermined solely by their health, their talents at a young age, or their current incarnation as a hippopotamus.
Hippopotamister by John Patrick Green
In Stores Spring 2016
Tired of living in the rundown city zoo, Hippo and his friend Red Panda leave and get jobs in the human world, where Hippo must become Hippopotamister to get by. Hippo excels at each job, but Red Panda keeps getting them fired. Longing for his home, Hippo goes back to the zoo and discovers he can return the place to its former glory using his newfound skills. But can he do it without his friend Red Panda?
John Patrick Green grew up on Long Island and on comic books, and has been making his own since middle school. He is the illustrator and co-creator of the graphic novel TEEN BOAT!, with writer Dave Roman. John lives in Brooklyn with zero cats and way too many LEGOs.