Children’s book illustrator, author Jeff Mack gives a lesson in perseverance

  • Author Illustrator Jeff Mack takes requests from enthusiastic students at the Erving Elementary School about what to add next to his drawing of a gorilla from his book 'Look'. February 13, 2018. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz—

  • Enthusiastic preschool students at the Erving Elementary School ask questions of author Jeff Mack. February 13, 2018. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz—

  • Author Illustrator Jeff Mack takes questions from enthusiastic students at the Erving Elementary School. February 13, 2018. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz—

Recorder Staff
Tuesday, February 13, 2018

ERVING — Third-, fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders excitedly streamed into the Erving Elementary School gymnasium armed with clipboards and drawing paper to learn from Jeff Mack, children’s author and illustrator, how to pursue a hobby or career in writing and drawing.

According to Librarian Jane Urban, the school tries to have “someone special” speak to students at least once a year. On Tuesday, the entire school got to hear from Mack, a western Massachusetts resident. Younger students attended the talk earlier in the morning, and the older students came closer to lunchtime.

Mack’s presentation in Erving was in conjunction with four other schools in the area, allowing them to share the expense of inviting a well-known author and illustrator like Mack.

“It’s important (for students) to see working artists,” Urban said.

Students sat on the floor, chatting among themselves while Mack readied his presentation on the projector. A large drawing easel sat to the side.

The smiling author introduced himself to the attentive crowd.

“(I’ve done) books from cute little bunny books for kids who don’t know how to read yet, to vampire bunny books ... to comic books,” he said.

Influenced by comic books

Comic books have always had a special place in Mack’s life. As a child, he didn’t just read them; he illustrated and wrote them.

He told the audience that his early comic books always involved his parents and four siblings. Those weren’t the only characters that showed up in his comic books, though.

“The other thing that was in my stories?” he said. “Monsters. I love monsters. And the stories went kind of the same way. I always got into a fight with my (siblings) and my parents would always take their side. And the stories would always end the exact same way, with the monster eating my family.”

The audience erupted with laughter.

“It was a good way to address sibling rivalry,” he said.

He also went on to talk about his second-grade teacher, Mrs. Costello, who always supported his talents.

Mrs. Costello would come up with interesting projects, but one of Mack’s favorite was a Halloween short story. Of course, Mack wanted to put a monster in his story and make it a comic book.

Mack wrote a story about a skeleton who wanted to attend school, but had a hard time fitting in because he was so different. Children made fun of him all the time, but thankfully he had one friend who stood up for him: a monster. At the end of the story, the monster eats the bullies and the skeleton lives happily ever after.

Mrs. Costello loved the story so much she hung it up on her wall. Fellow classmates started asking him to turn their short stories into comic books, and this led him to start illustrating more of his own stories, too.

Life as an artist

“The first thing I need to tell you is I did not always draw like this,” Mack said, motioning to his art on the projector. “This took years and years to figure out how to do this.”

To prove his point, he showed a picture of a drawing he did in kindergarten, which looked similar to any kindergartner’s rendition of a stick figure.

The audience giggled.

Mack explained that he had to keep drawing to improve. He draws something every day to keep his skills fresh.

Then, he showed a much better drawing he did in first grade. After first grade, he was influenced by “Clash of the Titans.”

“I was so scared of Medusa when I saw this movie,” he said. “I could not fall asleep at night.”

Mack conquered his fear of the snake-haired lady by staying up and drawing pictures of her.

“The more pictures of her I drew, the less afraid I became,” he said.

By the time he got to seventh grade, he began painting murals. He showed students a picture of him standing with an impressive dinosaur mural painted by himself.

“Whoa,” echoed throughout the gymnasium.

Following middle and high school, he took drawing and painting classes in college. Once he was done with college, his murals took on an incredibly realistic quality. He showed this progress, and the audience became even more excited.

According to Mack, he learned to paint realistically by copying paintings done in the 1800s. This way, he was able to learn the artist’s techniques and see how they mixed colors and laid paint on the canvas.

Beginnings as an author

Around this time, he began thinking of stories he wanted to write. He came up with a story about a grouchy grandmother whose grandson plays a prank on her by taking her to a diner that sells food like “bears and beans” and “toucan tacos.” After he was done, he took it to a publisher in New York City.

“What do you think they said?” he asked the youths.

“Yes!” they shouted.

Mack smiled.

“No,” he said. “They said ‘no.’ They thought this grouchy grandmother character was too scary for kids.”

He admitted that this made him upset and he cried “just a little,” but that didn’t break his spirit.

“You know what I didn’t do?” he asked the children. “I didn’t give up on this. I really wanted to make my own book.”

While this was frustrating for him, he looks at the struggles with a positive outlook. He was able to create a portfolio of all of his drawings to show to potential publishers. Finally, he landed his first illustration gig for a book called “The Icky, Sticky Chameleon.”

Then, he illustrated “Rub A Dub Sub,” which led to a few sequels. His “first big break” came when he was asked to illustrate the “Bunnicula and Friends” series.

After this, he started to write and illustrate his own story about a polar bear. This was a good chance for him to explain the concept of writer’s block to the students. He had to set the book down for a year and come back to it before he was able to rewrite it adequately.

It ended up being published as his first authored and illustrated book, “Hush Little Polar Bear,” which follows the adventures of a baby polar bear. At the end, it turns out that the book is a dream of a little girl who imagines she’s on an adventure with her stuffed bear.

“Finally, ‘Hush Little Polar Bear’ was the first book I got to write and illustrate,” he said. “It took years. It finally came true. It was the best day of my life when I finally made this thing.”

Artist techniques

Mack showed students a sped-up video of him painting a picture of a dog so they could see his steps for creating art. He paints fast, saying that he “just wants to have fun” and isn’t too worried about mistakes.

“If I make mistakes, they can turn out cool,” he said.

He also shows how he uses a Wacom Cintiq tablet to draw some of his characters. He makes a sketch on paper, then scans it into his computer. Then, he can trace over his original sketch with his electronic tablet pen, and fill in color digitally.

“It’s a really good tool for making cartoon-style pictures,” he said.

At the end of the presentation, he suggested that he lead students in drawing one of his famous characters, Clueless McGee. He went to his easel with a black marker, and the children picked up their clipboards and drawing paper.

“It’s actually easy to do if you do it one step at a time,” he said. “If your drawing comes out different (than mine), that’s totally cool. That’s what’s important about being an artist.”

Mack’s drawing started out with a small Pac-Man shape for Clueless McGee’s head, then he led the students in drawing the rest of the character, step by step.

The audience attentively listened to Mack’s instructions. Their heads tilted downward as they carefully crafted their very own McGees.

“You guys have to remember, I’m not trying to make a masterpiece here,” Mack said, explaining that McGee is a character that is created by a young boy, so the drawings aren’t supposed to be realistic or perfect.

“When he draws, he doesn’t count fingers,” he said, adding a flurry of six or seven fingers on the end of McGee’s arm.

Students followed suit, adding their own amount of fingers.

“I added 10!” exclaimed a boy to his friend in the crowd.

The body was done, but Clueless McGee was not dressed yet. Mack took suggestions from the audience for his wardrobe.

Per request, Mack illustrated a baggy T-shirt and jeans onto his character. He gently reminded students that they could take their own creative liberty and add whichever clothes they wanted to their own masterpieces.

By the end of Mack’s demonstration, Clueless McGee had a cowboy hat, sneakers, a mustache, a full beard, sunglasses and a handful of cash. Underneath the drawing were some extra characters suggested by the audience: a pig, a cat and a dog.

“This is a totally unique Clueless,” he said. “I’ve never drawn anything like this before.”

Mack asked the audience to hold up the clipboard with their own drawings, which they did proudly.

“This is the audience I make these books for,” he said.

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