Dan Yaccarino’s fans know him as an award-winning children’s picture book author and illustrator and the creator of two animated TV series:Oswald and Willa’s Wild Life. Yaccarino’s distinctive art has been displayed in Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo, and Rome. He’s visited the White House and his picture book Every Friday made the 2007New York Times list of Ten Best Illustrated Children’s Books. In spite of his international recognition, he insists he’s not much different now than he was as a kid. “What I do now, I did as a kid,” he says. He used to make Super 8 movies, write scripts and record them on a tape recorder, and write and draw comic books. “I was lucky enough to grow up in a family where that was encouraged.”
Yaccarino studied art at the Parson’s School of Design in New York City, but never considered illustrating children’s books. “[They] weren’t on the radar,” he says. He amassed a large portfolio of editorial illustrations for publications such as Business Week,The New York Times and New York Magazine, and for corporate clients such as Target and Gardenburger. In a chance meeting with a children’s book editor, the editor asked to see his portfolio and then asked if he had any stories. He didn’t—or at least, he hadn’t intentionally written a picture book, but like any good salesman, he said, “Yes!”
Following that encounter, Yaccarino immediately started work on Big Brother, Mike, published in 1993. The story about two brothers, “was taken directly from my childhood,” he says. Family road trips in the station wagon made their appearance in Go Go America, although as an aside Yaccarino adds, “We had a groovy VW bus later on!” All the Way to America: The Story of My Big Italian Family and A Little Shovel will be released in 2011, but has been floating around in Yaccarino’s head for 20 years. His father had a trowel in the garage that he used for shoveling rock salt. Prior to that, his grandfather used the shovel in his Italian market for dried beans and macaroni. “When I moved to my first apartment in New York, I took the shovel,” Yaccarino says, and it sat on a shelf in his studio. “I wrote the story when my wife wanted to use the shovel for gardening.” Suddenly the idea crystallized and Yaccarino knew how the story unfolded.
Yaccarino works in his New York City studio overlooking the Hudson River surrounded by old toys. “I love mid-century art,” he says, and he is especially fond of the art in Little Golden Books circa 1950. “I gravitate toward that style. It’s so pleasing…so clean and so well done.” But he’s quick to add, “I don’t wear a fedora and sock garters!” Yaccarino usually paints with gouache (opaque watercolors) on water color paper, a medium he describes as “temperamental.” If he makes a mistake, he has to begin again. The extra effort is worth it, though, because of the intensity of the colors. Sometimes Yaccarino experiments with other media: Go Go America included digital illustrations and The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau required stencils and an airbrush to produce a psychedelic layered effect.
Lawn to Lawn, Yaccarino’s newest book, rolled around in his head for five to ten years. “I grew up in the suburbs,” he says, and lawn ornaments were plentiful. “I always thought about them as characters.” About two and a half years ago, he actually drew the characters in his sketchbook. “Once I wrote them down, the whole story came out.” At a 2009 Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference, Yaccarino told the audience he still has all of his sketchbooks from 1975.
Oswald the blue octopus was a character for a book series that Yaccarino planned to pitch to his editor. “A preschool Sienfeld,” he says. Before he could make his pitch, a friend introduced him to a producer at Nickelodeon who asked if he had any ideas for a television show. He didn’t—or at least, he hadn’t intentionally written a script (sound familiar?), but like any good salesman, he said, “Yes!” and pitched his Oswald idea. The show is recommended by Parent’s Choice and was chosen by Time as one of the top six shows to watch on cable.
Willa’s Wild Life airs on NBC and features the strong-willed protagonist from Yaccarino’s book, An Octopus Followed Me Home. Yaccarino is both the creator and the producer of this show, applying what he learned on the Oswald series. He describes Willa as a young Lucy Ricardo from I Love Lucy who “finds herself in comic predicaments that only seem to escalate as she fumbles through solutions.”
As a public speaker, Yaccarino likes to leave his audience with the idea that adulthood doesn’t have to be a boring grind. “I figured out a way to do what I love and make it my career,” Yaccarino says. “I’m the luckiest guy in the world!’