Art and Risk by Dev Petty
In June of this year, I have a book coming out and I have NO idea what’s going to happen.
I’m newish at this author stuff, but I hear from a great many sources that a writer never really knows what’s going to happen with a book release- whether people will like the book, whether it will sell, whether children will laugh at the parts you thought they’d laugh at…or maybe people will just laugh and point when they see you coming…who knows?
But in this case, I really don’t know.
That’s because this book, Claymates, is the product of a series of risks, yo bets (if you’re a dice player), and what ifs. It is the result of me telling my inner critic, counselor, angel dressed in white to “BE QUIET!” for a little minute, whilst I get something onto paper before those doubting ninnies dilute my neato idea.
That neato idea was inspired by my pal Lauren Eldridge. She’s a brilliant photographic illustrator who uses a variety of media to tell stories. She showed me some of her fun clay characters and stories, one in particular with eyes who would talk to her while she was doing other work, and I thought- well, heck that’s cool! Clay can be almost anything, moment to moment! Since I’d been a 3d artist in film, it felt pretty natural to think about characters as something elastic, fluid, flexible, and dimensional. I was inspired. I took notes and made scribbles and something started to come into my head. But it was difficult. The idea coming into my head was different, and a little hard to explain…even to her.
But I tried. I called her in Wisconsin (I’m in California and, fun fact: we’ve never met after all these years!) and rifled through my notes and scribbles. What if you had characters, made of clay, who could become anything at all? Where the reality of their ability to change wasn’t something you had to apologize for or explain, but rather something that the entire story was predicated on. A story based on art and the ability to change. A story which would honor my 1970s upbringing- born of the weird Sesame Street bits I didn’t quite understand as a kid, but couldn’t stop watching.
Lauren liked the idea and we decided to go for it. That was a pretty heavy dose of risk right there. We’d basically just met and had no real sense of how we would work collaboratively. We worked together on a fully-illustrated picture book dummy because there wasn’t a treatment or proposal on Earth that would explain what we were after if we didn’t just show it, soup to nuts. It was a lot of work! Some for me, more for Lauren. Talk about risk, she found a way to create two characters on a desktop in her home, to bring them to life complete with expressions and emotion and her own fingerprints. We chatted daily, about mechanics and possibilities and impossibilities, of which there were few. I guess I figured if I could make the characters into ANYTHING, then I really could write ANYTHING. As the book evolved, so did we- as friends and collaborators. I helped with some art, she helped with some words. Through it, a special friendship was born- a few special friendships…Between Lauren and I, between the Grey ball and the Brown ball of clay, between art and risk.
Let me be clear, every single time a writer or artist puts their paint, pixels, words or ideas out there, they are taking a risk. Every time. I’m choosing to write about this particular moment because of the sheer number of times during the writing and creation of it that I had to push aside doubts and trust my gut. Sure, it’s a picture book. It’s a book with pictures. But the characters are continually changing and their reason for being there never explicitly stated. It’s as much about the media as the message. People are used to picture books and have expectations and this one is, er…different. Most of all, it feels risky for me because it’s really ME. It’s kind of how I talk and think and a really distilled version of what I find funny so it’s self-revealing in a way I can’t take back or hide from. If Piet Hein was right and “Art is the solving of problems that cannot be expressed until they are solved” then this is art, pure and simple.
The progeny of art and risk? For me, this book called CLAYMATES. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers acquired and it will be out in June. Our amazing editor, Deirdre Jones, took a risk too in buying it, as did the agent, Danielle Smith, who represented us. In fact, along the way many friends and readers, artists, former FX pals, our extraordinary agents Jen Rofé and Lori Kilkelly, stepped up to read, contribute, cheer us on and keep us honoring our risks and our funky vision. We are ever grateful to them all.
I have NO IDEA WHAT WILL HAPPEN in June. And get this! I haven’t lost a second of sleep wondering if anyone will like it or buy it. That’s because we writers and artists need to do the unthinkable, especially in these uncertain times when we’re worried about the realities of being honest and creative, and ourselves- We writers need to trust our guts and be willing to take risks. The simple truth is, even the most conventional book may not be sold or purchased or liked, so you might as well go out swinging, right? It’s a beautiful thing to be uncomfortable and it’s a beautiful thing to break the rules. And heck, sometimes you just have to rock your own boat!
So, my friends, whatever happens with this particular idea- this particular book, please go dig up that idea you deemed too weird or unpublishable, strange, inacessible, or disruptive. It may be the one that helps you sleep at night. And let me leave you with the words I tell my two young daughters every day, as they leave the house…
“Be bold, be brave, be funky”.
Now go…don’t speak…GO!
< Dev Petty used to work in movies but now writes picture books, which are like smaller, paper movies when you think about it. She grew up and lives in the San Francisco Bay area which she thinks is the best place ever. She is the author of I Don’t Want to be a Frog and other picture books, but is most proud of her stellar skills at word jumbles and sandwich making.
> Lauren Eldridge had to take a break from sculpting blocks of cheese into cats and unicorns to write this bio. Lauren studied landscape architecture in college and later earned her graduate degree in teaching. She now builds city streets and house dragons in her basement in Madison, Wisconsin. Claymates is her debut picture book.