Today I’m thrilled to welcome Brandon Reese to the blog. Brandon is the author and illustrator of several picture books, including, most recently, CAVE DADA (Chronicle Books, 2020)—a classic bedtime story with a Stone Age twist.
When Baba asks for his favorite book, his weary father resists. But Baba’s not having it.
We begin to understand Dada’s reluctance when we see that Baba’s books are gigantic stone blocks—and Baba wants the biggest one. Although Dada tries to appease him with other forms of entertainment and smaller books, nothing else will do. Does Dada deliver? I’ll leave that for you to find out. But here’s a hint from the cozy penultimate spread:
CAVE DADA is sweet, funny and totally relatable. PW called it a “giggly readaloud,” and Kirkus said “Reese’s soft-edged cartoons are masterful.” (As usual, leave a comment below for a chance to win a signed copy.)
And with that, let’s meet Brandon!
LA: Cave Dada may be a Neanderthal (is that the right term?), but all parents can relate to his exhaustion and desire to appease the adorable tyrant demanding a book at bedtime. Can you tell us a little of the back story?
BR: I wrote CAVE DADA’s Dada as being a Neanderthal, but I am no Paleolithic expert! I don’t think parent/child bedtime rituals have changed much since then. Parent has had a long day and just wants to go to sleep. Child has other plans! When my son was Baba’s age (he’s now 16) he LOVED reading with me at bedtime. Books were memorized and when he saw a book was about to end, he would already be at the bookshelf pulling out another selection. I’d pray for an easy read… but of course he’d pick something like CAPS FOR SALE. (Something about that story just feels interminable to me!) So, I think CAVE DADA was inspired by that and just being worn out all the time. Being an engaged dad is exhausting. That time in my life is my most precious. Have you ever seen the film A.I.? It’s sort of a retelling of the Pinocchio story. An android boy wants to become a real boy and spend just one more day with his mommy. My wife and I always talk about: If you could have one day with our son as a toddler, what would you do? Story time with CAPS FOR SALE. Definitely.
LA: One of my favorite illustrations is the scene in which Baba rejects all of Dada’s offerings. Did you consider any other calm-inducing objects/actions?
BR: Thanks! That sequence wasn’t part of my first draft. I needed to slow down the pacing and thought it would be a fun scene to show Dada bargaining with Baba. If I remember correctly, those were the only objects/actions I came up with. I knew I wanted four on that page. The rocking chair, blanket, and stuffy came quickly. Eventually the ‘rattle’ snake came to me and it was the final addition. Here’s the dummy I recorded before the book was under contract. You’ll see the spread isn’t in there:
LA: Anything you particularly struggled with in creating the book? By the way, I love the “invention of fire” subplot. Can you tell us about that too?
BR: I struggled with the look of the book… how was I going to render it? My previous book, OOTHAR THE BLUE was entirely digital. Everything had a hard outline. I wanted to go more organic with CAVE DADA. I did some tests and ultimately decided on hand-drawing the line work with colored pencil and shading. I love all the wonderful Kyle brushes in Photoshop, but there are nuances to actual pencil on paper that, in my opinion, can’t be replicated yet. I then scanned the drawings in and colored the book digitally with a few areas painted traditionally in gouache.
The invention of fire sequence was also a latecomer. I knew fire would play a role in the story, but the invention/discovery came later. It all sort of came to me while acting the story out in my head. If Dada is pushing a large stone across a stone surface, couldn’t that accidentally create a spark? And what if there were some dry sticks in the vicinity? Voila!
LA: Who and/or what inspires you as an artist? And can you tell us a bit about your process?
BR: I’m inspired by many things. Films, books, comics, music. I love going to a used book store or antique shop and taking it all in. Going to a coffee shop, listening to music on my phone while sketching is my favorite. Of course, all that’s not happening much lately with the pandemic. So, I’ve had to just set up shop here at the house. It’s not the same and like many others, I’m sure, my creativity has suffered.
As far as my creative process goes, it centers mostly in my sketchbook. I try to keep it close, so when an idea or image pops it my head, I can jot it down. I’ll continue to explore it.
If I’ve sketched an interesting character, I’ll start asking myself questions. Who is this? Where are they from? What do they want? etc. That sort of gets a narrative going.
Once I have some notes that I think has possibilities, I’ll start typing up a story. I’ll then print out the story, fold it up, and keep it in my sketchbook. I work in tandem with both text and sketchbook until I have manuscript. Here’s a screenshot of my first typed-up notes for CAVE DADA, titled CAVE BABY FIRST BOOK at the time:
LA: You’ve done album covers and lots of other commercial illustration work. How did you find your way to picture books? And how did you connect with our wonderful agent, Jennifer Mattson?
BR: I started out as a graphic designer. Graphic design can be exciting and creative but, picture book illustration was my goal. The company I designed for had several magazines they published and I started getting illustration work from them. Slowly, I built up an illustration portfolio—eventually illustrating for magazines like Highlights, Cricket, and Nickelodeon. I then linked up with several children’s music bands, doing all their albums, t-shirts, and posters. That led to me working with The Okee Dokee Brothers. I think I’ve illustrated and designed 7 of their albums. 5 have been nominated for Grammys and they won Best Children’s Album for Can You Canoe? in 2012. Because of their success they got a 2-book deal with Sterling Publishing. And since I’d already been working with The Okee Dokee Brothers, I was tapped to illustrate the books.
During this, I was represented by an agent I was very unhappy with. Communication was scant. Promises were broken and I was just spinning my wheels. The Okee Dokee Brothers’ were agented by Jennifer Mattson. I quizzed them about her and they gave her a glowing review. And as luck would have it, Jennifer was faculty at the next SCBWI Carolinas Conference I was about to attend. We met and I liked her straight away. When I finally cut ties with my first agent, Jennifer was at the top of my list. It took a few nail-biting months, but I eventually signed a contract of representation with her!
LA: I know your agent situation was particularly egregious, but I’ve heard lots of other troubling stories over the years. Given your experience, what advice do you have for those looking for an agent?
BR: When on your agent hunt, it’s prudent to reach out to a few of your potential agent’s current clients. Ask them about their experience with said agent. First off, would they recommend their agent. How are communications? Is the agent an editorial agent? Do they get your voice? Do they have a game plan for your career? Have they sold a manuscript of yours?
Take it from me… Do your homework! I know how eager you are to be represented, but there are bad agents out there. I had one, and it sucks. Look for red flags and trust your gut. If something feels off, it probably is.
LA: Excellent advice. So . . . CAVE DADA was published last March. 😕 Have you tried anything new or different to help get the word out during a pandemic?
BR: Oof. 2020. What can I say that hasn’t already been shouted? Certainly not the best time for a book to release. I’ve had to cancel school visits, book signings, etc…all the fun victory lap stuff. A few months ago, I had the idea of creating little CAVE DADA comics on my instagram in the attempt to reach new readers. I average about one strip a week. They are simple 4-panel gag cartoons that will add up to a full story. I don’t know if they are helping with sales, but at least they are keeping me busy with a project!
LA: You’ve got a companion book arriving this spring. Can you tell us about it?
BR: Yes! CAVE DADA PICKY EATER comes out this April. It’s another adventure in parenting with Dada and Baba. Not only is Baba picky with his books, he’s also a finicky eater. Baba wants an egg for breakfast and ONLY an egg will do!
When Chronicle bought CAVE DADA they offered me a 2-book deal. I wrote the second book later. I had a few ideas for a sequel, but I had nothing sketched up or written down yet. It’s a bit of scary situation to be in. What if I can’t think of something clever? You feel the pressure! Thankfully, the ideas came. I think I sent 3 or 4 different treatments. My fabulous editor, Ariel Richardson really liked the idea of tackling picky eating so we eventually settled on Picky Eater.
LA: Anything else in the works?
I have a picture book about a bat a a bird out on submission now. Fingers and feathers crossed! And I’m in the middle of a graphic novel re-write.
Good luck with the submissions! And thanks so much for visiting, Brandon!
For the chance to win a signed copy of CAVE DADA, leave a comment below by February 20th.
Thanks for reading!