Guy Porfirio has illustrated over 18 picture books. Grandpa’s Little One was #3 on the New York Times Best Selling Children’s Books, and Junk Man’s Daughter was featured in the Bank Street College of Education’s Best Children’s Books of the Year list in 2007. His latest release is Jump.
Bonnie Ferrante: Welcome, Guy. Is your newest book, Jump, the first one that you have also authored? It’s about a cactus, correct? Could you tell us how you came to choose this character and a little about the story?
Guy Porfirio: Yes, I have illustrated many picture books, but “Jump!” is my first as Author/Illustrator.
The story for Jump originally came to me while visiting relatives in Tucson Arizona when I was 12 years old. Having grown up in Chicago, the idea of cactus was as foreign to me as thin crust pizza. Be that as it may, I was willing to accept both ideas with an open mind. That is, until we took a family hike through the desert where my aunt turned to me and said, “Watch out for the jumping cactus.” What? At that point I was ready to be airlifted out. I remember thinking, I didn’t sign up for this. No one told me that there would be deadly cactus parts flying through the air. Whose idea was this anyway? The worst a plant could do in Chicago is give me poison ivy. Let’s go home, I’ll take my chances.
Years later, and now living in Tucson, I decided to take a walk through the desert to mull over several story ideas I had been considering. I made it back to my studio unscathed — but not alone. A small cholla, aka, jumping cactus, had somehow stuck to my shoe and followed me home. My aunt’s words came flooding back. It occurred to me as I studied the stowaway, perhaps jumping cactus is just misunderstood. Everyone knows nothing ever happens in the desert. What if jumping cacti are just plain bored? What if they just want a change of scenery? What if they just need a vacation once and a while? …Light bulb! New story idea!
I named the main character Barb for obvious reasons. Barb is a clever cactus with a great sense of adventure and plenty of spine. All she wants is an adventure. But, in the desert, nothing ever happens, and nothing every changes. Barb sees an opportunity. She holds her breath, takes the leap of a lifetime, and never looks back… until she realizes that having a great adventure is not that great if there is no one to share it with. Which is when things really get interesting.
Ferrante: That’s hilarious. Tell us a little about your writing process from the perspective of an illustrator.
Porfirio: Through my years of illustrating books I’ve trained myself to look for the less obvious – to put an unexpected spin on things. Whatever the most interesting aspect of a character or a scene may be, it’s even better when it comes from a surprising point of view. When I see a thing, or have a thought that strikes me in a funny way (and just about everything does – just ask my family), I sort of come up with a quick back-story complete with dialog snippets and voices to go along with them. If they crack me up, I’ll share them with my wife. I figure if I can make her laugh I just may have something.
Then, I start making lists. I write down everything I can think of that pertains to the character, its situation, its goal, why it can’t reach its goal, and how it reaches its goal anyway — you know the drill. Then, I start sketching scenes. When I get stuck sketching, I switch to writing. When I get stuck writing, I switch back to sketching. If all else fails, I take a long walk.
Ferrante: Grandpa’s Little One, written by Billy Crystal and illustrated by you, was #3 on the New York Times Best Selling Children’s Books, a phenomenal accomplishment. Did you collaborate?
Porfirio: Collaborating with Billy Crystal was quite an amazing experience. Billy was very easy to work with. I learned a lot about the creative process though our collaboration. We communicated through emails and phone conversations. I’d send him sketches and we’d discuss them over the phone, batting new ideas around till the story was working just right. I was able to meet Billy in Phoenix while he was doing his 700 Sundays show tour. I’m proud to say that I actually made him laugh a couple of times through the process, a true badge of honor.
Ferrante: You have illustrated several books for Harper Collins but you have worked for other publishers as well. How does this come about?
Porfirio: I’ve had publishers call me seemingly out-of-the-blue, or as a result of my agent’s work, or, having one of my promotional post cards come across their desk at just the right moment. The trick is to get your work out where it can be seen. Maintain a website, send out promotional materials, be on social media. Just keep putting out your best work on a regular basis and people will notice.
Ferrante: Good advice. Do you set aside time to free draw daily?
Porfirio: Always, no matter what I’m working on. It’s very important to make deadlines, but it’s also important to keep the creative river flowing. I think there is a real need to keep a sense of wonder and possibility while working on anything creative. The obvious answers to concept and composition will always be at the shallow end of the creative ocean. You’ve got to swim out a ways to get the good stuff. Sketching and drawing unrelated pieces helps the process along. Being creative feeds on being creative.
Ferrante: You illustrated Junk Man’s Daughter, released in 2007 and written by Sonia Levitin. It was chosen as one of Bank Street College of Education’s Best Children’s Books of the Year. Could you tell us about the book and this award?
Porfirio: Junk Man’s Daughter is the story of Hanna and her family emigrating from Germany, because, as Papa explained, “In America, there are streets of gold!” Papa couldn’t find work in America, and the family’s hopes and dreams vanished. Until Hanna saw something winking out of the snow, which turned out to be bottle caps, milk bottles, soda bottles, bent nails, and tin cans — the beginnings of a thriving junk business.
Both sets of my grandparents lived similar stories to this. Understanding and identifying with this project came pretty easy for me. I worked hard to imbue the artwork with a sense of era and hardship. The book has done very well.
The Bank Street College of Education’s Best Children’s Books of the year includes more than 600 titles chosen by the Children’s Book Committee as the best of the best published in any given year. Committee members consider literary quality and excellence of presentation as well as the potential emotional impact of the books on young readers. Other criteria include credibility of characterization and plot, authenticity of time and place, age suitability, positive treatment of ethnic and religious differences, and the absence of stereotypes.
Ferrante: Which book was the most challenging to illustrate?
Porfirio: Actually, my first book dummy was the most challenging book project I’ve ever worked on, period! I had such a hard time getting used to working within the 32 page, 16 spread format. Planning the scenes. Deciding what to illustrate and what to leave out. How to introduce characters, how to lead the viewer’s eye. I actually tried to give the project back at one point. Thank goodness I was working with an editor who understood what I was going through more than I understood storytelling. My editor listened to me, then said, “I know you’ll get this, and once you do, you’ll never forget it.” And I never have.
Ferrante: Wonderful. Which book did you have the most fun illustrating?
Porfirio: Well, first of all, I’ve enjoyed every book I’ve illustrated, but Jump! tops them all. Having complete creative control over story and imagery is a dream come true!
Ferrante: I can see that and it’s probably good that it wasn’t your first book as well. What advice would you give a beginning illustrator that you wish someone had told you?
Porfirio: I wish someone had told me not to spend time comparing my artwork to artists’ work I admire. Other than being spurred on and inspired artistically, comparing one’s artwork to that of another artist’s work is a complete waste of time. Don’t ever suppress your own uniqueness by trying to be like someone else.
Ferrante: As Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” Is there anything else you would like to share?
Porfirio: I’d just like to say how important to have fun while you’re working. Having fun doing something keeps the creative sparks flying. If I’m not having fun, I find a way to make it fun. Sometimes it’s just a matter of changing focus. But, if all else fails, I opt for a diversion: A walk, a movie, lunch, or, a good night’s sleep.
Ferrante: If you could bring back any deceased superstar for one final performance in their respective fields, whom would you choose?
Porfirio: That’s easy! N.C. Wyeth, just so I could watch him paint one more cover from start to finish.
Ferrante: Cool. In your opinion, what is the most beautiful man-made object in the world?
Porfirio: I think the X-Wing Starfighter from StarWars comes pretty close to perfection. But, if I have to choose from earthbound man-made tangible objects I’d have to go with the 2016 Jaguar F-Type V6. I’m not really a car guy, but I think I could get the hang of it with one of those parked in my driveway.
Ferrante: I’ll bet you could. If your name were given as the description for any one word in the dictionary, behind what word would people find your name?
Ferrante: Apt choice. Thank you for sharing your funny and fascinating stories with us today.
The book Barb was reviewed on this blog on February 24, 2017.
Note: the three random questions are from “Chat Pack – Fun Questions to Spark Conversations”.