In second grade Jeff Mack says his teacher “enthusiastically supported” his writing and art projects. She sponsored a Halloween writing contest that he entered with a story about a skeleton at school who tried to fit in despite a series of unfortunate events, such as the food leaking through his bones at lunch. Mack won the contest and still remembers it as a moment of pure encouragement.
The sonogram photograph on his website indicates that he was born with a pen in his hand. Perhaps a bit of a stretch, but he recalls stories that swam through his head as a young child. Since he could draw before he could write, he expressed his story ideas through illustration.
“When I was a kid I had an oddball sense of humor,” Mack says. He made pinball machines out of cardboard boxes with rubber band flippers. He built a robot out of a refrigerator box, working so intensely that his mother had to remind him to eat and sleep. Frequently frustration set in because he could never quite make the final product as good as the prototype in his imagination. “There’s a similar motivation for working on books today,” he says. “They’re complicated and tricky to get to work. When they do it’s a jolt of satisfaction, but it doesn’t last long.” Much like the intensity he brought to his cardboard contraptions, Mack thrives on the challenge of creating a book and solving story problems. Once the problem is solved he is eager to move on to the next challenge.
Mack has written and or illustrated twenty-six books. He began illustrating for other authors, but a dinner party at a friend’s house changed all that. Neil Porter, a founder of Roaring Brook Press and the editor of his own imprint, happened to be a guest at the party. Porter shared with Mack two pet peeves: picture books that rhyme; and illustrations that employ dots for eyes which Porter characterized as less expressive. Mack’s heart sank because not only had he brought a rhyming picture book with him, his sketches used dots for the characters’ eyes. But Mack’s Hush Little Polar Bear won Porter over and in 2008 it became the first book that Mack both authored and illustrated.
“Inspiration comes from different things and different places,” Mack says. The Things I Can Do (Roaring Brook, 2013) grew from a little girl’s attempt to open a heavy door, insisting she didn’t need her father’s help. The story is a five-year-old’s interpretation of a picture book. Using a collage style mixed with crayon, Mack’s illustrations mimic how he drew at the age of five. “I got bubble gum stuck in my scanner when I made that book,” he says with a laugh.
Mack credits the inspiration for Clueless McGee to his girlfriend’s son, Dillon, who shared stories from his fifth grade classroom around the dinner table. Mack writes the illustrated novel as a series of letters from PJ McGee to his absent father. “PJ goes through life constantly missing important messages and rules,” Mack says. “He is so earnest and determined.”
Good News Bad News started on a hot day. Mack, his girlfriend, and Dillon went to a nearby bakery for a cone of soft-serve ice cream, but the ice cream machine was broken. Instead they wound up with the most delicious chocolate cream pie they had ever tasted. They traced the sequence of positive and negative events that led them to their new discovery: bad news—the heat; good news—the bakery with ice cream; bad news—the machine was broken; good news—they found the pie. Later, he auditioned characters in his sketchbook and wound up with a cheerful rabbit who always found the silver lining in a situation and a forlorn mouse determined to focus on the negative. As the story unfolded in Mack’s head, he realized that “events have a neutrality. They take on meaning based on our attitudes.” When rabbit and mouse reverse roles at the end of the book, his readers discover that “friendship is about learning to listen to the other person’s point of view to get along with them a little better.”
A review of Mack’s body of work reveals the many illustration styles he employs. For Mack, the story determines the style. His Hippo and Rabbit easy-readers are told exclusively through dialogue in a simple graphic novel format. The dialogue sets up a fast pace for each story. Mack, therefore, chose a spare illustration style that focuses on the essence of each image rather than images rich with details. “If readers spend too much time looking at the details of the illustrations, they lose the spontaneity of the dialogue,” he says.
The pencil drawings that Mack chose for Clueless McGee mimic the artistic style of a fifth grader illustrating his own letters. Mack admits these illustrations are tricky because they often show the reader important information that the character who’s drawing them doesn’t realize.
Mack produces three or four books each year so he works a full day from his home in Massachusetts, taking breaks at lunch to walk the dog, and in the mid-afternoon when Dillon arrives home from school. Dillon and Mack usually practice music together for a half hour—Dillon on the saxophone and Mack on the trumpet. When Mack visits schools, writing and drawing take a back seat.
With every book he creates Mack strives to recall what entertained him as a kid. “Kids deserve books where the author honestly tried to connect with them rather than pander to them. The best authors have something heartfelt and valuable to say through their own experiences when they were kids.”