Tim has the awesome opportunity to interview author Drew Daywalt–of The Day The Crayons Quit fame–who will be a featured presenter at the 2017 Art Ed Now Online Conference. What most people don’t know, however, is that Drew is a successful writer, producer, and director who has found a lot of success with horror films. In a wide-ranging and entertaining conversation, Tim asks Drew about the connection between horror films and children’s literature (9:00), they discuss the creative process (12:00), and Drew shares what we can expect from him in the near future (18:00). Full episode transcript below.
Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz. About three years ago, my daughter came home from school one day just so excited about this book she had read in art class. Did she remember what she actually did in art class? No, of course not, but man did she remember that book. It was The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt and it made quite the impression on her. In fact, she still remembers it to this day, still loves the book. At the time she came home talking about it, I didn’t know anything about the book, but I decided I needed to look into it.
We bought a copy for the house, and let me tell you, it is amazing. Very cool for kids and pretty entertaining for adults, as far as children’s books go. There’s a lot of subtle humor and it’s a great story by an amazing writer. The illustrations by Oliver Jeffers are pretty spectacular, as well. It’s an awesome addition to the art room library. I know there are just so many art teachers across the country who use the book in their rooms for humor, for lessons, and for inspiration.
The reason I’m telling you this story and all about this book is because I have the awesome opportunity to interview Drew Daywalt on the show today. He is, of course, the author of The Day the Crayons Quit, but what you probably don’t know is, he actually has an entire Hollywood career outside of children’s literature. He’s worked as a screenwriter, a director, and a producer. He especially has found a niche making horror films, which is pretty incredible. How would you go from horror films to children’s literature and be incredibly successful at both? It took me quite a while to wrap my head around that concept and I definitely want to see what Drew has to say about that transition.
I, of course, have a lot to ask him about, but first I need to tell you that this whole opportunity, this interview, came about because Drew is going to be one of the featured presenters at the 2017 Art Ed Now Winter Online Conference. The conference is happening February 18th and there is still time for you to sign up. Go check out Art Ed Now and see what it’s all about. At the end of the episode, I will have a discount code for Art Ed Radio listeners.
I think right now it’s time to get to Drew, so let’s go ahead and bring him on the show. All right. I am here with Drew Daywalt. Drew, thanks for joining me today. How are you?
Drew: I’m good. How are you?
Tim: I’m doing really well. I’m excited to talk to you. I just kind of wanted to jump in here. I know a lot of people are teachers, in particular, who are listening to this, know you as a children’s book author, but they don’t know about your work as a screen writer, a producer, a director. You’ve especially had a lot of success with horror films, which I find kind of fascinating. I want to ask you about that. What interests you so much about creating horror films and how did you get your start there?
Drew: It’s funny. It all goes back to being about six years old. I grew up in Hudson, Ohio in the town haunted house. I was the youngest of six. My older brothers would always let me stay up way too late on Friday nights, drink Mountain Dew, watch horror movies. I was always getting into their comic books, because they were always reading Heavy Metal and Creepy and Tales from the Crypt. One of my big delights as a kid was to sneak into their collection of comic books and stuff. Also, at the time, this is going back to the mid 70s, almost into the early 80s. They were reading Tolkien and lot of that, so I had that as one side of my experiences. Growing up in a haunted house watching horror movies with my older brothers and getting into their stash of horror magazines and comic books.
On the other side of the coin, mom would come home from work and read me Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak and Roald Dahl. I was constantly being inundated by other worlds, world building. In 1977, I saw Star Wars, which made me go, “Wait a minute. This is fascinating.” A lot of what I do, whether it’s either horror or children’s lit, comes from that period in my life. I’ve traced it all back, because, believe me, I’ve asked that question too.
When you’re that age, one the one side, Santa Claus is real, and the tooth fairy is real, and the Easter Bunny is real, and the world is full of magic and wonder and optimism. You can be anything when you grow up. You could be the Incredible Hulk. You could fly. You could do all these great things. Then, on the other side of the coin, the Bogeyman is real, the guy in your closet is going to come get you when mom and dad leave at night, that guy’s real. Every horror movie you watch is a documentary when you’re seven. It’s really two sides of the same coin of being that age. I’ve found that my greatest creativity is when I tap into that part of my childhood.
Tim: That’s awesome. That’s a really, really cool story. I love hearing about all those influences. If we can dive into the horror movies just a little bit more, you always seem to create these short films that are really intense, really suspenseful. My question is: Why does that specific format of quick story telling appeal to you? On a related note: Do you think that type of format played a little bit of a role in the success of your YouTube channel? It seems like those types of films are almost custom made for an internet audience.
Drew: It’s funny you say that, because they actually were custom made for an internet audience. I started doing those in 2008. At the time, things like Creepy Pasta hadn’t hit the mainstream yet. They weren’t there. At the time, there was fearnet.com, but there wasn’t a lot going on in horror on the internet. I thought, I bet if I had the time and a little bit of a crew and a budget, I could probably do something scary in two to three minutes. At the time, no one had done it, so everybody thought we were crazy, me and my team. I grabbed the people that I would normally shoot commercials, music videos, features and TV shows with. I grabbed my team on weekends when we weren’t working and we would shoot these little shorts.
The first one came about when I made a $100 bet with a friend on the East Coast. He said, “Look. Horror needs time. You need 90 minutes to build suspense and scare somebody. You’re not going to be able to do it on the internet. Horror is not ever going to be native to the digital world.” I said, “I don’t think you’re right,” because at the time, there was comedy, obviously. SNL. Monty Python. Kids in the Hall. The State. There was all these, like, sketch comedy shows on TV. Then, on the internet there was Funny or Die, but no one had done anything really scary yet.
I thought, “You know, I think we can scare people in two minutes if it’s the right thing that’s built to be a two minute scare.” We did a thing called … The first show we did was called Bedfellows. I think it’s like a minute and 45 seconds. The whole point of it was to, in the same way that a comedy sketch has two or three big laughs and then you’re out. We wanted to have one big scare and then get out. At the time, this was back when MySpace was relevant, believe it or not, we posted it on MySpace. In 24 hours we had two million hits.
Drew: The guys at MySpace actually called us and said, “Why didn’t you tell us you had a following?” We were like, “We didn’t have a following. Now we have a following.”
Tim: This is our following.
Drew: We just found them today, by the way. Thank you. Yeah. We just sort of were at the right place at the right time. We created 40 of these short films. It got to the point where, initially, we were like, “Let’s do this to create a director’s reel so that I can do horror features.” Then, it became about: Wait a minute. These are actually self … These are just great on their own. I don’t know that I want to do a feature anymore. I think these are great. What was started off as a calling card became the end game for us. We just really enjoyed making these super short, super tight, scary little videos.
Tim: That kind of seems like a strange transition. You talked a little bit earlier about living in both worlds. How did you make that shift going from making horror films to children’s literature, books about crayons? How did you become interested in that? Where did that original idea for The Day the Crayons Quit come from?
Drew: It all stems back to childhood, like I was saying. I went to college at Emerson College in Boston. I was a creative writing major. My concentrations were in screenwriting and children’s literature, because at the time, my big plan was: If I really know children’s literature and the history of fairy tales and storytelling for kids in a meaningful and deep way, and I also learn screenwriting, I can go and work with Disney. That was my goal, was to get out here and work with Disney and Warner Brothers and write children’s animation for TV and for film.
Ultimately, I did do that. I did work at Disney at Universal, writing cartoons for kids. Along the way, I was also getting jobs with Quentin Tarantino’s company, A Band Apart, and Jerry Bruckheimer, and Tony and Ridley Scott, Scott Free. I was writing these sort of action films. I was fixing a lot of dialog for movies. What happened was, I was going back and taking the advice of a teacher in college, who said … He actually recommended that I not even go to Hollywood. He’s like, “You have a knack for children’s literature. I think you should just go right to that, and go to New York.” I was like, “No, Jack. I want to go to Hollywood. I don’t want to be Dr. Seuss.” I literally said that to him. I want to be Quentin Tarantino when I grow up. I don’t want to be Dr. Seuss.” He was like, “Well, that’s too bad, because you’re not Tarantino, you’re Dr. Seuss.”
It took a while to get back to that. Really, I had a good run. I had a movie that didn’t do as well as I’d hoped in 2002. It was one of those, throw your hat in the dirt, kick the ground and quit Hollywood again. I thought, “I’m going to go write that book that Jack told me write.” I was sitting at my desk one night and I saw it. I didn’t have kids yet. I have kids now. I wrote this in 2003 before I had kids. There was a box of crayons on my desk. I was a 33 year old man with … How did I? It’s like, crayons are so ubiquitous that when you find a box of them, or you find a crayon, you don’t even know how you got it, when you bought it, or how it got there. There’s just crayons in our life.
Drew: They, apparently, are just born in drawers. I thought, “I want to tell a story about crayons because I like it. Grandma likes crayons. Mom and Dad like crayons. Teachers like crayons. Kids like crayons. My dog likes crayons.”
Tim: With some of the insight you have with children’s lit, what works for that, what was your original expectation for The Day the Crayons Quit? Did you know that you had something special on your hands? Did you think that it was going to have some of the success that it did?
Drew: That’s a really cool question, because I’m a self loathing artist. Everything I write, when I think of it, it’s brilliant and it’s the greatest thing ever. I’ve got my hands on the most perfect piece of art ever to grace the world. Then, by the time I’m done with it, it sucks. I hate myself, and I’ve quit four times. I never know. There’s a part of me that, when I’m doing it, I love it. Then, by the time I’m done, I kind of hate everything I do.
Drew: I’m like, “Oh well. I guess I blew this one, too.” You know?
Drew: I’m not objective enough to even say. I actually turn to my wife at times like that. I’m like, “Is this any good, or am I doing it again?”
Tim: You have the sequel published with The Day the Crayons Came Home. Was there any hesitation about doing a second book? The self loathing may play into that a little bit, but sometimes when you have something that is so successful or so special like that, you run the risk of the second part not living up to the original. Can you talk a little bit about the process of putting together the second book and how much those types of thoughts crossed your mind and played into the idea?
Drew: You already know the answer to this question. I spent a year hating myself, because I was terrified. Oliver, my illustrator, and I went round and round about: How are we going to do this? I told my publisher at the time. I was like, “You know, that’s as good as it gets, by the way. Everything now is downhill. I hope it’s okay if I don’t make you any money for the rest of my life.” Oliver and I … My publisher called and wanted a sequel. I was like, “I didn’t think of a sequel.” This was supposed to be a one off. I never thought … Of course, being a self loathing artist, I was like, “I didn’t expect it to get this far, let alone a sequel.” He was bummed out. The publisher was bummed out, because they love sequels and money.
He’s like, “If you think of anything, call me.” Literally, just a few weeks after that phone call, in my robe, had my coffee, it was morning. I’m walking across my living room floor, which has beige carpet on it. I come up to a pile of dog barf. I was like, “Oh God, Sam. What did you eat?” Seriously, crayons? I’m looking at it, and my wife comes in and she’s like, “What’s going on?” I’m like, “Sam ate crayons again and he barfed them on the rug.” She’s like, “I’ll get the cleaner.” I’m like, “No. No. Wait. That’s it. That’s brilliant.” I’m like, “That’s my next book.” If the other crayons are ticked off about how they’re being used, how mad is that guy? He was like broken in half and slimy. I couldn’t tell if he was burnt sienna or beige. She’s like, “Great. All right. If it’s so brilliant, you clean it up,” and then she walked away. I called my publisher and was like, “I think I’ve got the sequel if you’re willing to take a risk with me on some dog barf.”
Tim: Did they have a good reaction to that? Was he all about that?
Drew: Yeah. Apparently, the first book was so well received that I could do a second book about dog barf.
Tim: At that point, they’ll just take anything. Right?
Drew: Yeah. We spent a year on it. Oliver and I were terrified. We thought, “What have we done?” We had a good thing and we ruined it. When you do a sequel … I come from movies, so that’s kind of the language I speak. I was like, “I hope this is Empire Strikes Back and not like Ghostbusters Two.”
Tim: I think it was pretty well received. You ended up all right there.
Drew: Thank God.
Tim: Your books are literally in art rooms all over the country. Teachers use them for inspiration, for lessons, for projects. It’s one of the most popular books out there for art teachers. When you think about thousands of teachers, and literally hundreds of thousands of kids reading your books and doing art related to your books, what is the message that you would want them to take away? What lessons do you think we can learn from your books?
Drew: It’s funny, because I avoid lesson telling like the plague. If I ever try to teach my own kids a lesson, they’re like, “Uh, it’s broccoli. I hate this. I want cotton candy.” Kids have a natural aversion to learning sometimes, especially when you’re really forcing it in. The lessons came organically for me on both of these books. I never set out to say, “This is a book about da da da.”
The second book, I did have something in there that I did plant. It was fascinating. I was doing a book store reading for The Day the Crayons Came Home and we get to the last page where Duncan built … The crayons are all so weird and melted and screwed up that they don’t fit in the box anymore. Duncan builds a new crayon box. I put my own personal metaphors in there. I had a little girl at the end of this reading. She’s like six or seven. She goes, “I have a question, Mr. Daywalt.” I was like, “Okay,” and she goes, “Does that box at the end of the book represent the human heart?” I was like, “Uh, uh. What? Did your mom and dad say that to you?” The mom and dad are sitting there shaking their head no. She’s just that kid.
Actually, that’s kind of exactly what I was talking about. I said, “The human heart can expand to accept everyone if you let it.” Not to get lesson-y or maudlin. I want kids to walk away with something positive in their hearts and also entertain them with dog barf.
Tim: It’s a balancing act. You need both.
Drew: Yeah. The sugar is the dog barf, and then the medicine is teach them something about the human heart, the human condition.
Tim: I like it. Just one last question for you before I let you go. What are you working on now or what’s next for you? What do you really want to do in the future, as far as projects go?
Drew: I got a really cool phone call last summer from Lucasfilm Publishing. I’m not allowed to talk about it, exactly, but I’m doing a picture book on the subject of, it rhymes with smarsh-mores. It’s a picture about one of the smarsh-mores characters.
Drew: It’s kind of bucket list for me, because I’m a super Star Wars nerd.
Tim: That would be really cool.
Drew: Thanks. I also have, next up in April, is a book called Rock, Paper, Scissors. It’s an epic tale of where the myth comes from and, sort of, a super hero origin story about how rock, paper, and scissors met and who they were before they knew each other.
Tim: Nice. That sounds really cool. We will be on the lookout for Rock, Paper, Scissors for sure, and the yet to be titled book that we can’t talk about at all.
Tim: We’ll be on the lookout for both of those. Thank you, Drew, very much for joining me today. It’s been great talking to you. We really appreciate you coming on.
Drew: Awesome. Thanks for having me, appreciate it.
Tim: I hope you enjoyed that one. It was a really entertaining interview. Drew has a great personality and a great story to tell. Like I said, if you want to hear more from him, make sure you check out our winter conference. As I mentioned at the beginning of the show, Drew will be one of our featured presenters at the 2017 Art Ed Now Winter Online Conference. The conference is happening February 18th and you can check it all out at artednow.com.
As Andrew has mentioned in the last couple episodes, we have a special discount code for Art Ed Radio listeners. Just enter the code LISTENERSSAVE20 at checkout. That’s LISTENERSSAVE20. Two Zero. You will save 20% off the registration price.
That’s going to be it for this episode. I hope you enjoyed the discussion as much as I did, and I hope you check out Drew’s books, The Day the Crayons Quit, The Day the Crayons Came Home, plus, Rock, Paper, Scissors, which sounds like it’s going to be pretty good when it comes out in the near future. They are great books for you, for your kids, or for your art room. Definitely, for some entertainment, and even if Drew isn’t big on teaching lessons through his writing, those lessons are undoubtedly present and your kids will take something from the stories that these books tell. You, yourself, will probably be able to find some inspiration in there, as well.
Art Ed Radio is produced by the Art of Education, with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. New episodes are released every Tuesday. You can find all of our archives at artedradio.com. Then, once you binge listen to all those, sign up for our email list or feel free to shoot us a message at firstname.lastname@example.org. We love hearing from you, good, bad, and otherwise. We are always happy to start a discussion. Thanks for listening and we will see you next week.