Michael Hall’s latest children’s picture book, Red, A Crayon’s Story, is about a sweet red crayon who is, in his heart, blue. Everyone tries to make him conform to his “Red” label, but his true talent is drawing blue jeans, skies, and dolphins. He’s really blue! The Minneapolis-based graphic designer and author of five other children’s books, including My Heart is a Zoo and the upcoming (very meta) Frankencrayon, out in January, sat down to answer our questions.
Your latest book sends a pretty powerful message about identity and expectations. What inspired it?
I try not to start with some sort of message or subject or theme, any of that stuff. I start with something that’s either visually interesting to me or interesting in some other way, and then I see what I think it might want to be about. When I started doing children’s books, I knew I wanted to do crayons, because I love crayons ... And as I wrote it, I started to notice that it was sort of about me. Because I’m dyslexic, and a lot of the things that I said in the story, like he’s got a depressed heart or whatever, is stuff that I had a lot of when I was a kid, and I don’t think people recognized that I was not going to be the great reader that my father was. He’s one of those people who would just swallow a book in five minutes. So it was hard being me and sort of struggling with reading.
Have your daughters’ experiences informed your stories at all?
My book Perfect Square is about a square that gets torn apart and cut into pieces and all sorts of things happen to it, and it always manages to make itself into something beautiful. I wrote that for my daughter Hannah, long before I thought I was going to do any of this stuff, just as a gift. She was 13 years old and had been diagnosed with type I diabetes. But I wasn’t thinking about that, I wanted to make a little book for her for Christmas. She had given me this poem about a frog trying to catch a fly, so I thought I would make a story for her about a frog and a fly, and the frog was just like a square with two holes and little legs, and it kept changing itself to entice the fly. Then I got rid of the fly because it didn’t work, and then I got rid of the frog, so then I just had a square ... I realized it really was about her, it was about her diabetes, because she just handled it in a way that made it easier for everybody. It didn’t occur to me until the end of the process that it was as much a tribute to her as a gift. It’s about accepting chaos and accepting craziness and making beautiful things out of it.
What led you to start writing children’s books?
I had been thinking about it for a long time, and as a designer I would take a logo and find different variations of it, and then I’d write a story in which the variations were the pictures in the story ... I started thinking I should do these for myself, and that sort of started the process. But even before that I was making little books for my daughters. I did one for my daughter Alice, and she knew three words: cat, gap, and bus. So I made this book that was different variations of those three words with pictures that made them make sense, so she could read her first book.
What advice would you give to aspiring children’s book authors or illustrators?
Don’t lose track of the work itself. You need to do something that’s your own; you need to find what you need to say or show. For 30 years I’ve been developing a visual approach to things as a designer, so I had a strong sense of what I think I have to offer.
Have you gotten much feedback about your books?
I have, and my first two books wound up being good for crafts ... Today, all of a sudden, somebody tweeted me and said, “Did you realize that your book [Red] was selling out on Amazon?” And I was delighted. And then someone else later today sent the Momastery post, and I thought: That’s so nice! ... Right off the bat, we thought the transgender angle was an aspect to the book, but we wanted it to be broader. I don’t think that kids, unless they have a transgender issue, would think of that, but they would find something else that they were familiar with [to identify with].