John Steven Gurney at Work

“Is it true you have illustrated 100 books?”

“150!,” replied John Steven Gurney. He quickly explained these were series chapter books which entailed a color cover and a handful of interior black and white illustrations. Even so, that’s a lot of books! The A to Z Mysteries, Bailey School Kids, and The Calendar Mysteries series kept him busy in the 1990’s. He often completed a book a month.

This fall semester John has been teaching illustration techniques at Kutztown University. He studied at Pratt, Brooklyn and got his MFA from The Hartford Art School. He shares his years of professional experience with sophomores studying Communication Design.

John Steven Gurney’s best-known book.

Dinosaur Train, published by Harper Collins in 2002, may be his best-known book. Inspired by combining his son’s two obsessions, trains and dinosaurs, the picture book got rave reviews from School Library Journal and Booklist.

from Dinosaur Train © John Steven Gurney

John shared an unusual story. “Dinosaur Train, the T.V. show, produced by Jim Henson is not based on my book,” he said. “Harper Collins advised me that you can’t copyright a title. Still, I got a call from the Jim Henson Co, now part of Disney offering to buy the rights to the title. It ended up that I earned as much from the title negotiation as the book’s original advance.”

Fuzzy Baseball, graphic novel from Papercutz

John is now working on a series for Papercutz, a new publisher devoted exclusively to the hot trend of graphic novels for kids. Fuzzy Baseball is his first graphic novel and it is becoming a series. “I like writing these because Papercutz gives me a lot of freedom.” he said. His technique is a mix of analog and digital. He draws his illustrations in pen and adds light washes by brush to shape the figures. Then he scans the work and digitally adds final colors.

John Steven Gurney at work at Kutztown University

What has he learned from the Fuzzy Baseball project? “Kids today are less knowledgable about baseball than when we were kids.” So in addition to telling a good story, John explains basic baseball concepts to youngsters like the sacrifice fly. He adds more ‘inside baseball’ jokes to appeal to older readers.

Publisher’s Weekly noted, “Gurney’s love of the game is apparent.” School Library Journal wrote, “Panels illustrate where players are as they steal bases and the action speeds up. The overall effect is a very clear picture of the game.” The success of Fuzzy Baseball led to Ninja Baseball Blast and the book he is making now, Fuzzy Baseball #3, will be released in May, 2020.

The Roosevelts, caricatures, by John Steven Gurney

John is also an amazing caricaturist. He honed his skills on the boardwalk at the Jersey Shore. He recently shared that talent by sketching students at the Creative Royale event at Kutztown University.

School visit in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

When he is not at the drawing board, John loves to do school visits. He was in Tennessee this weekend. He has visited 31 states and presented at international schools in Hungary, Poland, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia. To invite him to your school or see many more examples of his artwork, visit his website:

Science Comics & Global Warming for Kids


I was driving in my car and heard a radio interview with Randall Munroe. The author and illustrator of Thing Explainer was speaking on Science Friday. I was stunned when host Ira Flatow said to Munroe, “Before you were a full-time comics artist you were a roboticist at NASA…” YOW!  I thought, “How can I do science comics for kids if NASA engineers are making comics?”

I saw his wonderful book and I calmed down as I realized his bestseller is far different than anything I will ever write. Munroe uses only the most 1000 common English language words to explain science. Cells are called, “tiny bags of water you’re made of.” The Mars Rover is “the Space Car for the Red World.” It is a chill formalist exercise I appreciate, but I am not likely to ever try myself.


Munroe is not the only scientist turned comic book artist, however. I met Maris Wicks at the Miami Book Fair. She is a museum educator at Boston’s New England Aquarium. She was signing copies of her hit informational comic book, Human Body Theater. That book made School Library Journal’s list of 2015 TOP 10 Graphic Novels for Kids.  I have hip friends who used Human Body Theater to teach anatomy to their home-schooled daughter.


Maris Wicks draws in a kid-friendly style. First Second Books sent me a review copy of her new book, Coral Reefs, Cities of the Ocean. It is is quite wonderful. It has a cute Kawaii feel, but still delivers the goods -educational info on the undersea world. When I met Maris in Miami, she was rushing to that airport to draw while she waited in the terminal for her plane back to Boston.


Maris Wicks is quite amazing, she can write, she can draw, and she knows what she is talking about. Plus: she clearly has a professional attitude about deadlines.


Coral Reefs is geared toward middle schoolers, but I read it aloud who to a precocious second-grader who hung on every word. There is one sequence that explains the scientific evidence for global warming. Kids who understand this science will be smarter than several candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. Imagine that.


Maris Wicks has a great attitude despite the challenges our oceans face. She presents the science, yet manages to be upbeat about the future of the oceans. She tells young readers that even if they live far from the ocean they can help to protect their local ecosystem.


First Second is also releasing another volume in the Science Comics series, Dinosaurs, Fossils and Feathers, written by MK Reed, illustrated by Joe Flood. Years ago I loved John Noble Wilford’s 1985 book, The Riddle of the Dinosaur. This new book has the same amazing cast of characters. I’m thinking of the humans, not the dinosaurs: Young fossil hunter Mary Anning; feuding paleontologists Marsh and Cope, and the larger-than-life Baron Nopsca. Who knew a paleontologist was the first person to hijack an airplane?


Joe Flood’s dinosaur illustrations are perfect for the story. His art is detailed, energetic and clearly well-researched.


Near the close of Dinosaurs is a page that channels Winsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur. Reed and Flood, author and illustrator, are pictured with a Brontosaurus. Earlier in the book they had reported the brontosaurus was not a separate dinosaur. But in 2015, just as their book neared its deadline, the scientific community reinstated the creature.

dinosaurs 1.jpg Both Coral Reefs and Dinosaurs have forwards written by Phd’s. No doubt the editors want to assure parents and educators these books are accurate. From a design standpoint, I would have preferred if these text essays came as an afterword. That said, I love the series so far. These two wonderful books should compel more youngsters to maintain their natural curiosity about the world around us.

Not that Nathan Hale, Meet the Cartoonist.

Nathan Hale, no relation. USPS.
Nathan Hale, no relation. USPS.

Nathan Hale is a fitting name for a graphic novelist specializing in historical biographies. I ran into him at the American Library Association convention in San Francisco. I asked if he was named for the hero of the American Revolution. He wrote One Dead Spy, about that hero. “No, I am named for my grandfather,” he said. Grandpa Nathan, born in Star Valley, Wyo, might have been named for the hero, though.

Nathan Hale with Matt Phelan, two masters of the historical graphic novel.
Nathan Hale with Matt Phelan, two masters of the historical graphic novel.

Harriet Tubman bio © Nathan Hale
Harriet Tubman bio © Nathan Hale

Nathan’s latest work, The Underground Abductor, is a bio of Harriet Tubman. He is hoping  rumors that Tubman’s portrait might grace the ten-dollar bill come true, as it will boost sales.

Nathan studied illustration at Cornish College of Art in Seattle. For a time he specialized in natural history illustration. Now his historical graphic novels, published by Abrams, keep him at the drawing board. He has completed 5 in the ongoing series, Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales. Abrams has lesson plans linking his books to middle grade history curriculum.

All art © Nathan Hale
All art © Nathan Hale

Besides his full-time job as an illustrator, Nathan tours the country teaching cartooning to youngsters in his Cartoon Boot Camp. Just prior to the ALA convention he taught a Boot Camp in Santa Rosa California at the Charles Schulz Museum. I just checked their website, looks dreamy. They have an ice rink and a Warm Puppy Cafe. You can watch Charlie Brown specials all day long and meet professional cartoonists. Oddly enough, the Boot Camp experience went south for Nathan, his wife, and eight-year old daughter, Lucy. Nathan was stunned when a thief smashed the windows of their rental car with a sledgehammer and stole their luggage. They got some Peanuts’ T- shirts at the gift shop. Nathan’s wife presented him with a nifty T-shirt she had custom printed, see below.

Nathan Hale's meanest Amazon review  commemorative T-shirt.
Nathan Hale’s meanest 1-star Amazon review commemorative T-shirt.

It should be noted that the Hazardous Tales series has gotten many splendid reviews. Booklist, for example, on Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood, “Students bored to death by textbook descriptions of WWI battle maneuvers should be engaged by this entertaining, educational glimpse at world history.”

School Library Journal praises his recent work as “lively, rigorously researched, visually engaging stories.”

Big Bad Ironclad! © Nathan Hale
Big Bad Ironclad! © Nathan Hale

I asked if he had ever learned something from reader feedback. After some thought, Nathan opened Big Bad Ironclad! to show me the illustrated endpapers. The first edition, 2012, had a mistake on the map; he had incorrectly colored Kansas gray, putting it in the Confederacy. He got a letter from an upset Kansas librarian, then more from school children. He did an apology tour of Kansas schools. “I let the kids yell at me, throw popcorn,” he joked. He took responsibility for the mistake, said he had referenced a map drawn prior to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In January, 1861, Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state. His publisher, Abrams, has first-rate editors who check every sentence for historical accuracy. Nathan, however, never sent the editors the illustrated endpapers to proofread, just the interior pages. The map was fixed for the current edition, pictured below. Let that be a (history) lesson for us all.

1861 Map from big Bad Ironclad! © Nathan Hale
1861 Map from big Bad Ironclad! © Nathan Hale

Nathan writes a blog, Space Station Nathan. He admits to being too busy to keep it updated. He works hard and deserves his success. The blog archives have some nifty stuff. Look for the illustrated guide to inviting Nathan Hale to visit your school.

PYONGYANG on my mind.

details from Pyongyang All art © 2001, Guy Delisle
details from Pyongyang All art © 2001, Guy Delisle

I’ve been to Seoul and Pusan in South Korea, but everything I know about Pyongyang I learned from a comic book. Guy Delisle drew a marvelous book, Pyongyang, a graphic memoir of working there in 2001.


Few Americans ever visit Pyongyang. Delisle is Canadian from Quebec, He was hired by a French studio to direct animations being drawn in North Korea. Odd, how the global race to the bottom in wages means children’s cartoons are made in the least happy country on earth.

prodogiesPyongyang was a critical success. The Globe & Mail (U.K )said: “smart, sharply observed and funny, without downplaying the untold horrors (death camps, starvation) that lurk around every corner.” Canada’s National Post wrote: “Tinged with black humour, Pyongyang offers a perspective no straight-up print journalism could.”

Screenshot from the blog at
Screenshot from the blog at

The book was translated into a dozen languages and optioned for film. Until last week it was going to be a movie starring Steve Carell. I expect it would have been a far more interesting film than The Interview. On December 19, Guy Delisle announced on his blog that he learned Pyongyang, the film, was canceled, collateral damage to the SONY fiasco. Delisle wrote, “What saddens me the most are the reasons that lead to this. One would have imagined that a huge corporation would not bend so easily under the threats of a group of hackers from North Korea. Apparently they hit a sensitive nerve.” Delisle’s full statement in English and French can be found here.

lovemoviesSpeaking of film, part of Pyongyang deals with the movies. Delisle learns that Kim Jong-Il, (father to today’s supreme leader Kim Jong-Un) loved the movies. Believe it or not, Kim Jong-Il’s secret police kidnapped South Korean filmmaker Shin Sang-ok and forced him to make films in Pyongyang.

PYONGYANG-01Get Pyongyang. Buy it, or ask for it at your library. It is a thoughtful book about an unthinkable place. You can read a free excerpt of Pyongyang at the website of Delisle’s Canadian Publisher, Drawn and Quarterly.

Citizen 13660: It happened in the U.S.A



I picked up a sad old book for 50¢ at the Kutztown Library sale. The cover reminded me of Jean Charlot’s art. The pages were yellowed, torn in places, many illustrations were defaced with crude blue pencil marks. Even in this sorry state I found the book quite moving. Citizen 13660 is a graphic documentary by an American woman put in a concentration camp near San Francisco. Citizen 13660 was first published in 1946, before the terms graphic novel or graphic memoir existed.


Miné Okubo was born in Riverside, CA to Japanese parents. A top art student at U.C. Berkeley, she won a prestigious fellowship to study in Europe.  She studied with Leger in Paris, but 1939 was not a good time to live in Europe. When the Nazis took Paris she managed to get home to Berkeley, California with only the clothes on her back.


Okubo got some interesting art jobs for the Roosevelt’s WPA.  She worked with Diego Rivera for a time when he was doing his San Francisco murals. She got her own commission create a mural for a Soldier and Sailor’s Hall in Oakland. Then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. She had to carry special authorization papers to allow her to travel more than 5 miles from her home in Berkeley to Oakland.


Things quickly got worse for the Japanese-Americans. They were rounded up and put in internment camps. Miné and her family and 8,000 others were taken to Tanforan, a camp made from a run-down horse track in San Bruno, just south of San Francisco.


Her text is remarkable for its simplicity. She notes gambling was forbidden, yet they were living in stalls at a race track. She avoids pointing out the irony, letting the reader connect the dots.


The “Japanese American Segregation Centers” were the result of racism. Over 100,000 Japanese-Americans were imprisoned, the majority were U.S citizens. The U.S. was waging war with Germany and Italy, too. German-Americans and Italian-Americans may have suffered wartime discrimination, but they were white Europeans, and so never herded into interment camps like the Japanese.


Her sketches document the daily indignities of six months at Tanforan. Then she and her brother were relocated inland to Topaz, a Japanese Relocation Center in Utah. Topaz was even less pleasant than Tanforan. After two years of confinement she was eventually released. She remained an artist until her death in 2001 in Greenwich Village, NYC.


Miné Okubo wrote  I am often asked, why am I not bitter and could this happen again? I am a realist with a creative mind, interested in people, so my thoughts are constructive. I am not bitter. I hope that things can be learned from this tragic episode, for I believe it could happen again.‎”

The pages of my first edition of Citizen 13660, (Columbia University Press, 1946) are falling apart as I turn them. I may be the last person to read this particular volume. Fortunately, the book has been reissued in paperback by the University of Washington Press. And nearly 200 of Okubo’s internment camp sketches can be found here on the web site of the Japanese American National Museum. Miné Okubo illustrated a life worth remembering.


Andre the Giant is BIG!



I was reading multiple great books: a novel set in Mexico; a literary biography; a history of the U.S invasion of Iraq. Then I opened a padded envelope to find a review copy of Box Brown’s Andre the Giant: Life and Legend. Those other books got thrown out of the ring.

From Andre the Giant © Box Brown
All drawings from from Andre the Giant © Box Brown 2014

Looking at the title and cover art, I expected a quick, fluffy read. This book is much more than that. Andre the Giant is a serious biography that reads like a graphic novel. It is a series of fantastic vignettes from the life of Andre Roussimoff (1946-1993.) Andre’s eventful life is artfully woven from the whole range of human experience, at times funny, poignant, ridiculous, noble, generous, tragic. This gentle giant was, by and large, a wonderful human being, but he also could be a big jerk, especially when he got drunk. Box Brown has done a brilliant job of portraying Andre’s multidimensional life.

Andre the Giant in late 1980's from Wikipedia
Andre the Giant in late 1980’s from Wikipedia

Box Brown says in the book’s frank and philosophical introduction, “The idea of truth in professional wrestling is certainly elastic.” He also explains that as an artist he had to improvise dialog and envision scenes he never witnessed to tell the this “true” story.

From The Princess Bride
From the cult film, The Princess Bride

I was only dimly aware of Box Brown’s work. I knew he was a Philadelphia-based zinester who had some success using Kickstarter to produce Retrofit Comics. His deceptively simple illustration style is perfect here. His line drawings of Andre are spare, with just enough tonality to impart a sense of mass. He artfully designs the pages so that often his drawings of Andre fill individual panels to capacity.


There is a lot aspiring cartoonists can learn from a careful observation of Brown’s style. Consider the two panels above where the narrator’s voice overlays the ring announcer’s speech balloons. I first noticed this multi-track cinematic effect in Daniel Clowes’ work. You don’t see this in the works of a novice.


Brown ends the book with a complete bibliography. He clearly enjoyed his research, reading obscure wrestling magazines and freeze-framing Wrestlemania DVD’s.  For me the story rings true. I never saw Andre wrestle, but I did see Gorrilla Monsoon wrestle Bruno Sanmartino in Asbury Park. And I just watched a midnight showing of The Princess Bride at Kutztown’s Strand Theatre. Sure, he was typecast, but Andre did great as the giant, Fezzig. According to Brown’s book, making The Princess Bride was one of the happiest time in Andre’s life. It shows.

I have been raving about this book since the moment I finished it. My daughter is pleading with me, “Dad, Can you please stop talking about Andre the Giant?” I guess I can’t.

Next post we will have a brief interview with Box Brown. Hope to get him to visit Kutztown next fall. Andre the Giant will be published in May by First Second Books. Ask your local indy bookstore to order you a copy.

UPDATE: Box Brown will share his story of Andre the Giant at Kutztown U, Weds. Sept 17 – 7pm, Sharadin Arts Building Rm 120. Free & Open to the public. He will bring books to sell and sign.

The Man from The Thought Cloud Factory

Detail from an ink drawing at the Toonseum © Theo Ellsworth
Detail from an ink drawing at the Toonseum © Theo Ellsworth

We are all different, but Theo Ellsworth is more different. I met the artist at Pittsburgh’s Toonseum where his enchanting one-man show hangs through April 30. He calls his studio The Thought Cloud Factory. He came to Pittsburgh from his home in Montana to participate in PIX, the Pittsburgh indy press expo. Big Sky country seems like the right place to relocate a Thought Cloud Factory. First I ever heard of him, he was part of the Portland art zine scene. My daughter sent me an early copy of his sold-out collection, Capacity.

Theo Elsworth, photo by Kevin McCloskey
Theo Elsworth, photo by Kevin McCloskey

The bio on the wall at the Toonseum announced: “Theo Ellsworth is a self-taught artist and storyteller living in the mountains of Montana with a witch doctor, their son and a slightly evil cat.” A witch doctor? I asked him if that was true. He said that was a bit of a family joke. –His wife is a certified acupuncturist.

The Imaginary Field Trip, ink on cut wood, © Theo Ellsworth.
The Imaginary Field Trip, ink on cut wood, © Theo Ellsworth.

Theo says he “came to comics through automatic drawing.” I took notes at his PIX presentation. He described his monster drawing project based on a recurring childhood dream of a collapsing house. A young phantom soul, wrapped like a mummy, floats through an attic populated by strange entities. Alas, my notes are more confusing than Theo’s dreams. You’ll have to read the book, The Understanding Monster, Book 1. Book 2 will be out soon.

The Understanding Monster © Theo Ellsworth
The Understanding Monster © Theo Ellsworth

Robert Kirby described The Understanding Monster (Book 1) like so: “Ellsworth’s deep imagination, as well as his idiosyncratic charm, humor, and sincerity are evident in every passage rendered, no matter how far out into the ether it may be. His trippy psychedelic home movies are projected directly from his head without ever forgetting the heart.”                                                                           – The Comics Journal.

Capacity, Collected zines © Theo Ellsworth
Capacity, Collected zines © Theo Ellsworth

Theo’s work is tough to categorize. Neil Gaiman included his drawings in the Best American Comics of 2010, so they must be comics. Some of Theo’s works on paper have outlined panels and speech bubbles. Many have thought balloons. Perhaps his idiosyncratic style belongs in the fine art annex of the big tent of comics.

At the end of Theo’s PIX talk someone in the audience asked him if he practiced astral projection. He repeated the end of the question, ‘astral projection?’ He seemed bemused, gently shook his head -No. Bill Boichel tried to draw him out about his stylistic influences. Theo vaguely referenced nonwestern and outsider art. He said he loves Native American art and recently acquired a real Kachina on a trip to the U.S. Southwest. When asked if he used photo-reference, Theo’s smile neared the border of laughter. No.

Logic Storm, zine, ©2013 Theo Ellsworth
Logic Storm, zine, ©2013 Theo Ellsworth

At one point I overheard him explain, “Logic Storm is denser. I was exploring ideas for The Understanding Monster.” His fans will understand. In the forward to his zine Logic Storm, Theo writes, “Over the course of this exercise, I became aware of a mythological emergency taking place in my subconscious that needed to be tended to with a creative act.” We are lucky to live at a time when a determined individual can publish such an acts of imagination.

Cover Imaginary Homework © Theo Ellsworth 2013
Cover Imaginary Homework © Theo Ellsworth 2013

I bought his 28-page illustrated zine Imaginary Homework. It was originally produced as a text for a workshop he taught in scenic Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State. He’s made it available through his Brooklyn-based publisher, Secret Acres. At just $5 this would make a quirky textbook for a college course on creativity. Below are two panels to give you a sense of this happy project.

From 'Imaginary Homework' © 2103 Theo Ellsworth
From ‘Imaginary Homework’ © 2103 Theo Ellsworth

Incidentally, Theo is pleased with his publisher, Secret Acres. They are “fairly hands-off” as far as editing. In fact, he says, most of their editorial suggestions involve pointing out his spelling mistakes.

From 'Imaginary Homework' © 2103 Theo Ellsworth
From ‘Imaginary Homework’ © 2103 Theo Ellsworth

Finally, I asked Theo Ellsworth if he had any advice for young artists who want to enter the field of comics. “Just get a blank book. Then fill it completely from beginning to end. That’s what I do!”


s a self-taught artist and storyteller living in the mountains of Montana with a witch doctor, their son and a slightly evil cat. – See more at:


s a self-taught artist and storyteller living in the mountains of Montana with a witch doctor, their son and a slightly evil cat. – See more at: