February 11, 2015

Dan Santat’s imaginary friend gets the ultimate acknowledgement

Interview by
It's so nice to be acknowledged, and there's no better nod than the 2015 Caldecott Medal. We contacted Santat in the whirlwind of his win.
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The sweet, crowned star of Dan Santat’s picture book, The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend, is a hero like no other—because he almost doesn’t exist! Beekle’s an imaginary friend with no child to imagine him, and so he leaves his fantastic island, full of other strange creatures like him, in search of a friend.

What was the first thing that went through your head when you found out you had won the Caldecott?
I never won the top prize for any artistic award in my life. When the phone rang, I had a good idea who was calling, considering the fact that no one else would be calling at 4:30am, and I thought, at best, I would have earned an Honor. When they had told me I had won the actual medal I just broke down into tears. It was a dream come true. A dream I never thought I would ever achieve.

“Creating content for a younger audience feels like I’m playing. I don’t ever have to take myself too seriously or worry about maintaining a cool, hip image. It’s just raw honesty.”

Who was the one person you couldn’t wait to tell about the award?
The first person I called was my agent, Jodi Reamer, who really has become one of my closest friends, which I treasure, because I don’t know if many people can say that about their relationship with their agents. It’s very Jerry Maguire, I know. She has been my guide, transitioning me from illustrator to author/illustrator, and I’ve trusted her with my career advice. It’s sort of creepy because everything seems to be going exactly according to her plan. Anyway, I called her twice right after the committee called, and she didn’t pick up. Then I texted her, and I still heard nothing. Her loss. I then shared my news with my editor, Connie Hsu, who was a major piece of the puzzle to the success of this book. Months ago she had joked that if Beekle ever won a major award, she would get a tattoo of Beekle. The first thing I texted her was, “Time for you to get a tattoo.”

Do you have a favorite past Caldecott winner?
Respectfully, I couldn’t name any one past winner, because almost all of them have been inspirations to me. I will say that Brian Floca was a personal favorite because he’s a friend of mine and I knew how long it took for him to get the book done. When your friends win you feel like you won in a way, too, you know?

What’s the best part of writing books for a younger audience?
Creating content for a younger audience feels like I’m playing. I don’t ever have to take myself too seriously or worry about maintaining a cool, hip image. It’s just raw honesty. The whole community is also overall just really friendly, from the children to librarians and teachers, as well as the other authors and illustrators in the business.

What kind of reaction have you gotten from your readers about this book?
I’ve heard some parents and librarians tell me that they cried when they read the book. There are other adults who just think it’s just an ordinary story and don’t see anything special about it. I’ll sometimes read a review where someone comments that Beekle just goes to a playground and meets a kid and that’s that. I can tell when someone completely misses the symbolism of the story.

I’ve heard nothing but positive things from children. Many parents have sent me numerous images of handcrafted Beekle dolls that they made for their kids, which I think is adorable. Around Halloween there were a few Beekle Halloween outfits, as well as Beekle Jack-O-Lanterns, and now I see images of Beekle snowmen being made out on the East coast. It feels great to know that a character you created has touched so many.

Have you read or listened to past Caldecott acceptance speeches? Are you excited (or worried!) about your own speech?
Erin Stead did a wonderfully honest speech. I had the pleasure of meeting her and her husband for a quick bite to eat the day before the actual banquet, and I remember her telling me that she was extremely nervous about the whole thing. I listened to Jon Klassen’s speech online but was unable to attend. He and I have known each other for years and so it was great to hear a friend accept the award. Brian Floca was the first time I saw a good friend accept the award in person, and I had a permanent smile on my face that evening.

I’ve done plenty of speeches to large audiences in the past so I’m not too worried about this one. I think I have a pretty good sense of humor, and the book was deeply personal to me, so I think people should expect some laughs and some tears. It’s pretty easy for me to be open and honest with folks, and I think people can relate to you from their own experiences in life and feel a connection.

What’s next for you?
Well, first I’m going to try to relax more that I have in previous years. I say “try” because I know I’m just a workaholic by nature. In terms of book projects I’m finishing up my next picture book with Little, Brown called Are We There Yet?  I’m working on my next graphic novel, The Aquanaut, with Arthur Levine Books (Scholastic). Dav Pilkey and I are finishing up two brand spanking new books for our Ricky Ricotta’s Mighty Robot series (also with Scholastic), and I’m working on a YA graphic novel memoir of how I went from studying biology to pursuing a career in art.

Lastly, I’m illustrating some great picture book manuscripts that have been written by Gennifer Choldenko, Tom Angleberger and a few others that I can’t name just yet. We’ll see how much I actually get done. Previous Caldecott-winning friends have told me that my life will be too busy to get any real serious book work done. That remains to be seen.

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