An Interview With Author and Illustrator Cale Atkinson
The countdown to Halloween has begun in earnest - and it’s honestly my favorite time of year. Fall is a special time for several reasons. A little relief from the summer heat certainly doesn’t hurt, but of course it’s mostly the celebration of all-things spooky that really puts October over the top for me.
It’s no secret how much I love spooky stories. In our house, our Christmas books get put away with the Christmas decorations every January. But I’d never dare part with our Halloween books for an entire year like that. They always stay right on our shelf within close reach where they belong.
Last year we added a very special book to that Halloween collection when author and illustrator Cale Atkinson released a picture book called Sir Simon: Super Scarer. It instantly became a family favorite, and we wrote a special feature about why we love it so much. It’s a very funny book about a professional scarer - a ghost named Sir Simon. He meets a human boy named Chester during his latest haunting assignment, and this is a story about the growth of their friendship.
As a bonus for fans of horror movies, Atkinson included more than 50 Easter eggs that reference classic scary movies hidden in the illustrations. The detail of the artwork is immensely impressive - and the passion for this project is plain to see. It’s a very special picture book indeed.
To celebrate the impending Halloween season, and the much-deserved reemergence of Sir Simon on library and store shelves everywhere, Cale Atkinson has graciously agreed to take part in an interview with us about this amazing passion project of his.
We had a chance to talk about his inspirations and his creative process, and whether he’s a Garfield’s Halloween Adventure or a It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown kind of guy. You know, the important stuff.
Happy October, everyone! I hope you all enjoy the interview - and make sure to read to the end for a VERY exciting announcement about the future of Sir Simon!
First of all, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions for us about your book, Sir Simon: Super Scarer, Cale. My kids and I really love it.
My pleasure! I am so happy that you and your kids enjoy being haunted by the ghostest with the mostest!
For all the kids out there, like my own son, who say they want to be authors and illustrators when they grow up - could you tell us about your beginnings in the book creation business. Was this something you knew you wanted to do from a young age, and how’d you get started? Do you have any tips?
Ever since I was very young I’ve loved drawing and telling stories through art. While I always knew I wanted to draw and tell stories, I never limited it to just books, trying my hand at comic strips and comics as well. I was always creating and trying new things, while at the same time always reading and taking in new inspiration. For kids out there today I would say the main thing to do is just draw lots of pictures and write lots of stories. Have fun and don’t get too caught up in trying to make something perfect. I’ve never been taught how to draw or write, I just loved doing it, and slowly got better and better over time. So get drawing! Get writing!
Friendship and adventure seem to be common themes in your stories. What is it about those topics that inspires you?
I do love a good friendship story! I think there are a lot of aspects that appeal to me. I love how powerful a friendship can be, and how much it can change a character’s world. I also like how it gives you an opportunity to bring two characters from very different worlds together.
Sir Simon: Super Scarer is one of the best picture books we’ve read in a long time. Give us the history of your journey with Sir Simon. Based on the love shown in the details, we think it really feels like a passion project. How long has this ghost been kicking around in your head and how long have you been wanting to make this book?
Aw that means so much to hear! I have wanted to tell a ghost story for a long time, though never knew exactly what form it would take. I’ve always loved hearing ghost stories and myths, though when earnestly thinking about it, it all seemed quite boring. To think that your afterlife consists of standing around an attic all day and night stomping around? Boring! Wandering aimlessly in a forest? Staring out a window? Flickering lights? Creaking stairs? All pretty boring stuff to do every day. Slowly but surely my opinion of ghosts started taking its shape into the story of a ghost who’s not a fan of doing his ghostly duties.
Sir Simon was published by Tundra Books. It seems to us like they are consistently publishing some pretty amazing kids books. What’s their big secret? What’s it like working with them and getting a new project off the ground? Can you describe how that process looked with Sir Simon?
Tundra truly is a gem in the publishing world! I couldn't be happier publishing with them and being part of their amazing lists.
I think, aside from having a roster of über-talented editors, art directors and designers, they also aren’t afraid to take risks in the types of books they publish. In regards to Simon, he was actually part of a two book deal that was signed, with the first book being Where Oliver Fits. At the time Simon was mostly a paragraph pitch with a bunch of concept art. Having heard that books centered towards a specific holiday/time of year can be hard to sell, I was over the moon when Tundra decided to take my little ghost story on. Much of the actual process was me writing and then going back and forth with my editor Sam. Sam and I see pretty eye to eye, so having her input on Simon really brought the story to life, as well as made me to push it to its full potential. Like any story, there were certainly changes and rewrites along the way, and lots of nail biting as I tried to bring Simon to life… er. Afterlife.
Simon’s a pretty goofy ghost, but there’s a really touching and serious moment in the story where Simon sees photos of people who seem to be Chester’s parents. He realizes how much Chester has been moved around, just like him. What made you decide to include that subtle detail and backstory for Chester in particular?
Generally in all my stories, even the ones that are on the sillier side, I try to bring in some heart or depth when possible. With Simon, I felt this was a spot that could both connect Simon to Chester in an honest way, as well as add some depth into both characters. It can be a hard balance in picture books, fitting in character moments like those, without them feeling disingenuous or “slapped on”, so I tried keeping it more subtle and brief.
What’s the scoop? His full name is Sir Simon Spookington, Esq. Was Simon knighted when he was alive or what?
Unless Simon ever lets us know, some things may remain a mystery!
You’ve said that there are more than fifty secret references, or Easter eggs, to classic scary movies in Sir Simon. I have to admit, when I learned this, I found this book even more endearing than before. Where did that idea come from? Are you a big fan of horror?
I grew up watching all types of scary movies and do have a love of the classics. As I began to work on the art for Sir Simon I knew I was going to include a couple things (such as his rug be the same pattern as The Shining), but soon I figured why not include all sorts of things, since I had to fill in the background scenes regardless. It wasn’t long before it became a fun separate game for myself, trying to think of all the movies I love, and what, if anything, I could subtly sneak in. Above all else, I wanted to ensure that I never put things that distracted from the story itself, and had no impact on one’s enjoyment of the story, whether they like scary movies or not.
Can you tell us more about the process and timeline you went through actually hiding those Easter eggs? How did you ever decide exactly which movies and references to include, and how did you choose how to hide them in your art?
As mentioned above, I began brainstorming what easter eggs to include as I was sketching and painting the art of the book. A lot of the easter eggs came quite naturally, since there are many areas in the book where I needed to fill a detail, and making it a nod to a movie helped take care of it. I’d say the trickiest part was trying to figure out what detail from a movie to include, and how to keep them subtle enough that your casual reader won’t notice them.
What’s your favorite scary movie out of all the ones you reference in Sir Simon?
That’s way too tough to answer! I love them allllllll!
What’s next for you? Do you have anything else coming down the line to announce?
My latest written picture book Unicorns 101 just released earlier this September and I’m excited to say there will be a sequel next year titled Monsters 101! Get ready to learn all the facts of your favorite monsters, from zombies to werewolves. Who knows, maybe there’ll even be a Simon appearance!
What an exciting tease! Is there really more Sir Simon in our future?
Well if there is one thing to say about ghosts, it’s that they are always bound to reappear! You’ll be happy to know that Simon and Chester will be returning in a new adventure set to be published once again by Tundra! This book will be in the format of a young graphic novel, so be prepared for panels and panels of ghostly mischief.
(How exciting is that! I can barely contain my squeals of delight. I really can’t wait to go back into the Sir Simon universe with the kids. Now let’s go straight to the bonus questions rapid-fire.)
What is your favorite kids book of all time?
I can’t say I have a favorite, as there are so many I love. In later years I will say that Oliver Jeffers work really inspired me and helped show me how you can write with your own voice.
What is your favorite board game?
Though more of a card game, I am always ready for a game of crib!
What is your favorite movie?
Another impossible question to answer! I believe my brain would implode in trying to come up with an answer.
Garfield’s Halloween Adventure or It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown?
Dang, this is another hard one! Garfield’s quest for “candy, candy, candy” or Linus’ quest for the infamous great pumpkin?
I *think* if I HAD to choose, I would go with Charlie Brown, as it sticks in my head a bit more, though both are top notch October viewing.
Where’s the best place for people to follow you and your future projects?
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today. And thank you also for doing what you do, and bringing some happiness into all of our lives.
Thank you so much for the interview and giving my stories a read!
Has your family discovered the awesomeness of Sir Simon: Super Scarer yet? Are you as excited as we are about a Sir Simon graphic novel? What’s your favorite Cale Atkinson book? Let us know in the comments!