As a child, Barney Saltzberg longed to fit in—a theme that pervades his picture books today. He remembers asking his parents for a Sting-Ray bike with a banana seat, but they purchased an Italian folding bike instead. His friends watched the Man from U.N.C.L.E. on TV and sported black shirts, black pants, and black pointy shoes like the characters, Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin. Unfortunately for Saltzberg, his parents were more practical. “My dad owned a shoe store and said round-toed shoe are better for your feet…My mother made me wear a red sweater because it was easy to find me after school. I wanted to wear black like everyone else.”
At Sonoma State University, Saltzberg studied art “mostly because John Lennon studied art. I wanted to play the guitar and draw pictures,” he says. “My [style] was naïve and primitive but they let me slide by.” He first began to appreciate picture books when he happened upon William Steig’s The Amazing Bone in a gift store that sold wine, cheese, and children’s books. “The use of language was so delicious, I wanted to be inside the book,” Saltzberg says. “There was a pull there.”
Saltzberg returned to Los Angeles after graduation to play guitar. His primary career ambition was to become a Beatle, but he says, “disco killed my music career.” Fortunately for his future readers, he lucked into a children’s picture book class at the Otis Art Institute where he wrote his first published book It Must Have Been the Wind (Harper & Row, 1981).
Saltzberg is never at a loss for inspiration. “Being on the planet is inspiring,” he says, “Waking up every day is a source of inspiration.” This is a Great Place for a Hot Dog Standis based on a line his father always used to say while waiting in line at the bank, or attending a wedding or a funeral. “Wherever there was a crowd of people,” says Saltzberg.What to Say to Clara recalls Saltzberg’s struggle to overcome his shyness and dazzle the new girl in his class with the right words to make her like him. And the plot of Crazy Hair Day actually happened at his son’s school and is the only time a story idea came to Saltzberg fully formed from beginning to end.
Cornelius P. Mud, Are You Ready for Bed? was just the opposite. The story started out with a vampire named Count Sheep as the main character. “I developed a whole riff on what that would be,” he says. “If it’s a kid’s book he couldn’t suck blood. He’s going to have to suck mud.” Naturally, Count Sheep had trouble sleeping, and when Saltzberg researched kids’ bedtime rituals he shelved Count Sheep in favor of Cornelius P. Mud. “I use that as an example with kids on how you have to be willing to make a huge left turn,” he says. “You think your story is going one way, but you have to be open to new possibilities.”
Cornelius is Saltzberg’s favorite character. “I like how his brain works,” he says. “If you told Cornelius to take out the garbage, he’d probably bring it to the movies and buy it some popcorn. He’s a literal guy.”
Saltzberg works from his Los Angeles home in a studio that used to be the garage. Various stages of the writing process claim his attention during a single day—creating a new manuscript, illustrating manuscripts under contract, publicity, and school visits. He tells elementary school students that after he gives a new story to his editor he’d like the editor to say, “200%, A+, You’re a genius!,” but he usually receives a gazillion cross-outs and suggestions. “It’s like sending your kid to kindergarten and having him come home in different clothes, with a new hair style, and speaking a new language,” he says. “You know your child is in there somewhere but things have changed.” Saltzberg describes working with his editor as a dialogue. “There’s trust on both sides,” he says. Carrying his analogy further, “The hair might be okay, but the pants have to go.”
Aspiring writers frequently ask Saltzberg for advice on becoming an author or illustrator. “Become a doctor,” he jokes. After the laughter dies down he advises newcomers to the business to leave their egos at home and become familiar with their chosen genre by reading extensively. “Find your voice and create a character we care about,” says the creator of well-loved characters like Cornelius P. Mud, Stanley, and Hip and Hop. Other tips? “I always keep my sense of humor intact at all times,” he says. “And I never give up.”