Simply 7 with Marla Frazee–“The Farmer and the Circus”

Today I’m SO excited to share with you one of my picture book heroes: Marla Frazee!

I’ve been a fan of Marla Frazee’s work LONG before “Boss Baby” came out (and became a TV show).  Her illustration style was one I always gravitated towards in the book store and her writing always hit home with me.  I can’t remember which of her books I fell in love with first (I have many of them on my bookshelf), but “The Farmer and the Clown” blew my mind and heart.

It’s a wordless picture book with a grumpy old farmer who ends up helping out a little baby clown who falls off a passing circus train.  They bond in unexpected ways and it’s amazing.  I’ve re-read this book many times.  One year, not too long ago, at one of the LA SCBWI conferences, I got to hear her speak at an Illustration Intensive and luckily also got her to sign a copy of “The Farmer and the Clown.”  It’s now one of my prized possessions.  Marla really knows her stuff and I would gladly listen to her teaching any day (and have as I’ve attended SCBWI webinars with her in other regions many times).  To say I’m a fan is to put it mildly.  So it was with my heart in my throat that I approached her and asked her if she’d be willing to do an interview about her latest picture book (a beautiful end to a TRILOGY of the farmer books!) and I was overjoyed when she said yes.

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Greg Preston Photography

Marla Frazee was awarded a Caldecott Honor for All the World and A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever and the Boston Globe Horn Book Award for Picture Book for The Farmer and the Clown. She is the author-illustrator of Roller CoasterWalk On!Santa Claus the World’s Number One Toy ExpertThe Boss Baby, and Boot & Shoe, as well as the illustrator of many other books including The Seven Silly EatersStars, the NYT bestselling Clementine series, and God Got a Dog. Marla has three grown sons, a Little Free Library in her front yard, and a studio in her back yard under an avocado tree.  You can learn more about her at her website.

Farmer-Circus COVERI only recently found out that there was a sequel to “The Farmer and the Clown” released fall 2020 called “The Farmer and the Monkey.”  Today is the book birthday for the final book in the series, “The Farmer and the Circus.”  I cannot begin to describe how beautiful this ending is to the series.  It’s the perfect cherry on top of a sundae.  If the first book was a scoop of chocolate ice cream, it would be perfect all by itself.  But then she added another scoop of ice cream with the second book and finished it off with the perfect trimmings in the third book.  If you read the first book, you must track down these two and give them a read.  I don’t want to give away too much, but suffice it to say that the baby clown and the monkey and the farmer bond further in this last book.  It once again blew my mind and took my breath away.  Did I mention that ALL three of these books are wordless?  They’re incredible!

Welcome Marla!

Me: I can’t imagine anyone isn’t familiar with your work, but can you tell us a little bit about your artistic journey?  When did you start drawing and/or painting?  How did that lead to where you are now as an illustrator of this book?

Screen Shot 2021-04-04 at 4.36.09 PMMarla: Hi, Jena! Thank you for interviewing me on your Simply 7 blog. I’m really excited to be here.

Like most kids, I started drawing as soon as I could hold a crayon. Unlike most kids, I knew what I wanted to do from the time I was 4 or 5 years old and that was to write and illustrate children’s books. Of course it took a while for that to actually happen. There were a few detours! A standardized career test I took in high school said I should consider poultry farming. (But why?) While I was at my local community college, I thought that being an archaeologist or anthropologist would be cool. But luckily I realized that more than anything else I still wanted to write and illustrate children’s books. It took a long time, as it often does, to actually get published. So while I pursued publication, I did all kinds of commercial illustration projects to stay afloat—advertising, toys and games, educational and mass-market publishing, etc. Whatever I could get. And then finally, after many years, my first book was published. Then five years after that, my second. My third book was THE SEVEN SILLY EATERS, and I felt I was on my way.

Me: I saw you talk about your illustration process for your new book a little bit in a SCBWI webinar and was fascinated.  It’s a very different approach.  Can you talk about that process a little bit?  Are you mainly a traditional artist, a digital artist, or a combination of both?

Marla:  I work traditionally (paper, pencils, erasers, paint, coffee). I always do a ton of thumbnail sketches. Sometimes for months. When I feel as if I’ve figured out the pagination and structure of the story, I move on to rough sketch dummies. I make these pretty small and move up in size as I get closer to knowing what each page will look like. When I’m feeling good about the rough dummy, I work on a full-scale sketch dummy. And when that works, I do the finishes—in order, from the first page to the last. (I’m a Capricorn.)

The finishes in “The Farmer Books” took longer to execute than any of my other books, though I’m never speedy. Each piece began with black Verithin Prismacolor pencil and I slowly covered the entire paper with the drawing itself and texture. Then I stretched the drawing by soaking it in the bathtub and stapling it to wood.  This makes the pencil indelible and keeps the paper from wrinkling when I apply paint (in this case many layers of gouache). It was a laborious process, but also meditative! I find it to be very relaxing.

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Me: This story is such a unique one and a trilogy now too!  I fell madly in love with the characters in the first book (“The Farmer and the Clown”).  I wasn’t sure there was room to expand the story, but you did with “The Farmer and the Monkey.”  I’m astonished that you were able to do it yet again with this third book.  Each story is complete on its own, but what an amazing set.  What gave you the idea for a grumpy old farmer as a main character in a picture book?  That’s a bit of rule breaker!  Why focus on these themes of home and heart?  Are they important to you?

Marla: First of all, thank you for complimenting the books each on their own and as a set. My goal about expanding this story into a trilogy was that each book would stand alone, but taken together, would have a larger narrative arc.

Way back in 2012, I was tossing around ideas about clowns. And I don’t even like clowns. But I couldn’t stop thinking about them. After having spent a month or so with ideas that weren’t going anywhere, two disparate characters popped into my head. I was riding my bike at the time, and they were so clear and real to me, I came to a dead stop in the road. In my mind, I saw a tall, grumpy-looking farmer holding the hand of a smiling baby clown, both of them walking. I was like, “Well, hello. Who are you guys?” I had to figure out why these two characters were together.

The beginning of the story came to me pretty quickly. The farmer working in his field, a circus train goes by, something falls off the back, farmer goes to investigate, finds out it’s a baby clown who is all by himself, and the train’s gone. At that point it was all in my head and I knew I needed to get it down on paper before I lost it completely.

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I rented a mountain cabin for the weekend and packed up my then-puppy named Toaster (who needed puppy stuff), a few days of groceries, and some art supplies. I promised myself I would come back home with a rough dummy. I’d never done this before and I haven’t done it since. But it worked. I returned and showed it to my long-time editor Allyn Johnston, VP and Publisher of Beach Lane Books. She flipped through it a few times. Then she looked up at me and said, “It’s weird. I’m in!”

To be honest, I didn’t know I was focusing on the theme of home and heart until the book was almost finished. I also didn’t know that I was about to go through a divorce after having been married for 31 years. I think making up stories is a similar process to what happens when we dream. Our dreams—and our stories—can help get us to the next place, before we even know we’re going there.

Me: You have been an author-illustrator before, but (correct me if I’m wrong) this is your first wordless trilogy (and I cannot believe how brilliant they are!).  Why wordless for these?  Why only illustrations to tell such beautiful stories?

Marla: Thank you, Jena! And yes, these are the only wordless books I’ve made. I didn’t set out to do a wordless book when I was trying to figure out the story in that mountain cabin. But as I worked I realized it was about two characters who look one way on the outside but feel a different way on the inside. The farmer looks grouchy and even mean, but he is actually very kind and nurturing. The clown looks happy with his painted-on smile, but he is sad and scared. Our first impressions are often wrong, and it seemed to me that the way to communicate that was to show it, not say it. That’s why I decided to leave words out of it.

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Me: Beautifully said.  I haven’t seen anything quite like these stories before.  Did you pitch all three stories to Beach Lane Books at once?  Or did they evolve over time?

Was this story idea always a trilogy? 

Marla: Four years after the first book came out, I went through another breakup. Not another divorce, thank god, but a significant breakup nonetheless. And I couldn’t sleep. I’ve had bouts of insomnia all my life, but this was a whole other level. Since the images in THE FARMER AND THE CLOWN soothed me during the stressful time of my divorce, I went back into the story during those long sleepless nights. I would lie awake wondering about what happened to the characters (which was a whole lot better than thinking about my real life).

I asked myself questions and tried to answer them. What did the farmer do when he saw that a monkey had followed him home? Did he let him in? And then what!? And what did the farm animals do? And what happened when the baby clown was reunited with the other clowns? Had he changed after his time with the farmer? And had the farmer changed too?

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Soon I had more of a story to tell—and I was sleeping again. I called Allyn and asked her if she was open to the idea of publishing two more picture books and making it a trilogy. If she wasn’t, that would be that. She said yes, thank god. Now I had to make it work. So I cleared my schedule for the next two years and got down to business. I felt I needed to sketch both the second and third books at the same time to know if the trilogy idea could work. And then, when we felt it was working, I did the paintings of both books all the way through to the end.

Circling back to your question about whether matters of home and heart are important to me, the answer is yes, undoubtedly. In fact, I created these books to tell myself the love story I needed. One of happenstance, connection, caring, and acceptance. And one that defies expectation and traditions. I hope this story shows that families come together in all kinds of surprising ways. And I hope it resonates with both conventional and unconventional families, and with adopted, step, and foster children, in particular.

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Me: I love that.  What is one thing that surprised you in creating and/or illustrating this story? Or these stories plural (since they are a trilogy)?

Marla: Let’s be singular! The biggest surprise about this story was that I really thought it was finished after the first book. But when it became clear it wasn’t, I could see that all the threads I needed to pull through to the end were already there.

Me: Any advice for other aspiring picture book writers and/or illustrators?

Marla:  Join the SCBWI. Protect your creativity however you have to. Make work that is unique to you. Don’t be a perfectionist. Just keep working!

Great advice.  Thank you again Marla for stopping by!

Dear readers, if you haven’t yet read any of the books in this series, you must track them down and read them.  They’re stunning in both their wordless simplicity (that shows SO much) and the great amount of heart hidden within the pages of each book.  These are stories that simply must not be missed.

6 thoughts on “Simply 7 with Marla Frazee–“The Farmer and the Circus”

  1. Thank you Jena for this interview and thank you Marla for opening up your book and your heart for us. I have been a fan of Marla’s storytelling and illustrations since Mrs. Biddlebox and I really appreciated hearing about her process here. Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

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