Denys Cazet grew up in Oakland amidst a large French family where big dinners were the norm and stories were told and retold, each version more elaborate than the last. In elementary school, he remembers surrounding himself with picture books at the library, reading each one in turn. Later, when Cazet became a teacher, he welcomed his students to school with a story of his own creation that continued every day, and ended on the last day of school. Stories were a way of life for Cazet. “I guess it was sort of in me to write books,” he says.
Early in his career, Cazet submitted a few picture book manuscripts illustrated with line drawings to an editor at the now-defunct Bradbury Press. The Duck With Squeaky Feet(Bradbury, 1980) was published with Cazet’s original pen and ink illustrations, but the editor wanted full color illustrations for his next book, Mud Baths for Everyone(Bradbury, 1981). At the time, this frightened Cazet because although he knew he could draw, he wasn’t confident about his painting. His mentor, an accomplished illustrator, promised to help. Soon Cazet received a huge box. Inside were (besides buckets of packing peanuts) an elementary watercolor paint box and the following instructions: 1) Pick up brush. 2) Dip brush in water. 3) Dip brush in paint. 4) Apply paint to picture. The advice seemed to do the trick, because Cazet continues to illustrate in full color with an occasional nod to pen and ink, like the illustrations in Sunday (Bradbury, 1988) andMinnie & Moo and the Seven Wonders of the World (Atheneum, 2003).
Cazet works from a studio on his walnut farm on the outskirts of Napa Valley where many of the traits of his boisterous, funny, idiosyncratic relatives resurface in his characters. While Minnie and Moo are the stars of several books, Cazet’s favorite is Elvis the Rooster, who lives on the same farm as Minnie and Moo. “Elvis is a crank and an egocentric jerk who doesn’t have a clue about how he’s affecting others,” says Cazet. “I feel like there’s an awful lot of Elvis in some people, including myself.”
Cazet’s past experiences also play an important role in his fiction. The plot for Frosted Glass (Bradbury, 1987) was taken directly from his childhood. In the book, Gregory is assigned to draw a still life, but his vase morphs into a rocket ship, and the flowers become plumes of burning rocket fuel. In Great-uncle Felix (Orchard, 1988), Cazet remembers a favorite great-uncle. The house in the book is Cazet’s uncle’s house and the lake around which the characters walk is Lake Merritt in Oakland.
According to Cazet, book ideas spring from just about everywhere. Never Spit On Your Shoes (Orchard, 1990) is a direct quote from a student in Mrs. Cazet’s first grade class. “My wife allows the kids to work at making up the school rules. One kid said, ‘Never spit on your shoes,’ and no one laughed. They were all very quiet and serious, and my wife wrote it on the board.” Halloween Pie, one of Cazet’s current projects, came from a real estate ad in the Napa Register in which an old farm, formerly owned by bakers, was listed for $1. Cazet asked himself, “What if they sell the farm and the bakers’ ghosts still live in it?”, and his ghost story was born.
In another new project, Cazet returns to Grandpa Spanielson (owner of a luxurious moustache like Cazet’s) and his grandson, Barney, characters from Saturday (Bradbury, 1985) and Sunday (Bradbury, 1988). Barney has the chicken pox, so Grandpa tells his special anti-itch chicken pox stories. Modeled after Scheherezade’s Arabian Nights, The Chicken Pox Stories series begins in 2005 with The Octopus.
Cazet’s storytelling success can be attributed to his ability to listen carefully to conversations so that he can not only feel what the speaker is saying, but feel, hear, and see the reactions of the listeners. He then uses this information to capture the essence of his characters and their situations. According to Cazet, “Good fiction is a great lie and a great lie always begins with the truth.”