There is a certain silly chick who goes positively nutso whenever John Manders' name is mentioned. She does a funny little dance and sings a strange song about pirate booty. We do our best to ignore her. Still, she has excellent taste. John Manders' work is definitely worth swooning over. He has illustrated some absolutely hysterical books, including Henry and The BuccaneerBunnies and The Perfect Nest. Welcome aboard, John!
Editors must be sending you manuscripts all the time. How do you choose which ones to illustrate?
I have a pretty simple formula: I check my bank statement, and if there’s less than $50,000 in my account, I accept the manuscript.
Editors send me manuscripts knowing I do funny illustrations---I think they sometimes (okay, often) send me a marginally funny story hoping I can push it up on the laugh-o-meter. Remember, we illustrators wield a lot of power in that regard---the images dictate to a fair degree how you read the story. My crowd (5- to 8-year-olds) generally reads the pictures first, and has the text read to them. Hopefully my pictures telegraph to the reader, ‘This is going to be fun!’
Then, of course, there are the manuscripts that make me laugh out loud, with funny situations and dialogue. These I can hardly wait to illustrate, my fingers itching to draw characters and gags. These stories come along once every couple of years---they’re the reason I’m a picture book illustrator.
Do you have any tips for illustrating funny books?
I feel like an old vaudevillian dispensing advice to an aspiring young comic---
Listen, Kid: start with the character and build sight gags around that character, rather than the other way around. If you’ve designed a character who has some depth, who looks like he has a life outside of your story, then the funny stuff will emerge naturally from your character. If you start with a gag and try to make it fit an underdesigned character, it won’t be believable or funny.
Has being funny ever gotten you into or out of trouble?
The men of the Manders family bear an ancient curse: the irrepressible urge to utter groaners---quips and one-liners---of crushing obviousness. If someone should mention the Isle of Capri, we’ll be sure to sing ‘Was on a pile of debris that I found her…’ If someone talks about ginkgo biloba, like clockwork we’ll say, ‘I used to go to high school with a fellow by that name.’ If someone asks for a tissue, we'll say, 'Tiss you? I hardly know you!' The mystery of this curse is that we think we’re actually being funny.
The hapless women of our tribe are left with little defense but to roll their eyes back into their heads.
What are some of your favorite funny books?
The first funny children’s book I read myself was an A.A. Milne story about a princess. I was probably 7 or 8 years old, and I remember being surprised that something written down could make you laugh.
Favorite funny books: any of the Bertie & Jeeves stories by P.G. Wodehouse, Huckleberry Finn & Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, The Pyrates by George MacDonald Fraser, any story by Damon Runyon, Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (this book has a reputation for being bawdy so don’t read it unless you are over 42 inches tall), Asterix comic books by Goscinny and Uderzo, On Beyond Zebra by Dr Seuss.
If you could live in one of your books, which one would you choose?
Henry & the Buccaneer Bunnies, of course---aboard our dear old barky, the Salty Carrot!
Oh, buccaneer bunnies roam o’er the salt seas Yo ho, nibble yer greens Our booty be cabbage and carrots and peas Wiggle yer ears and nibble yer greens!
Who do you like more, The Marx Brothers or The Three Stooges?
Are you kidding? The Marx Brothers have Margaret Dumont, lines by George S. Kaufman and Morris Ryskind, songs by Bert Kalmar & Harry Ruby---no contest!
My very first art job was with a printer in Manhattan---on Fridays after work the whole crew would assemble at a neighborhood bar which featured a neglected piano. My boss, if you begged him, would open the lid and fire off note-perfect renditions of Chico’s piano solos. What joy!
What was your best Halloween costume?
(jpeg attached) That’s me on the right, the damsel in distress. I built Mrs. Manders’ suit of armor out of cardboard.
What is your Dream Job for a day?
It may be a lame answer, but this is my dream job. I draw funny animals all day, I get to hang around the house with my dog India and parrot Sherman, how much work I do determines how much money I make, I take a nap in the afternoon if I feel like it---I control my destiny, I work in my pajamas, and somebody pays me for it. What’s not to like?
Clown Vs. Mime Deathmatch. Pick your winner.
Clown. There is a significant psychological advantage to be gained by talking pre-match trash in a gravelly Minnesotan wrestler voice. Mimes, of course, eschew verbiage.
Funniest dead person you'd like to meet?
Moses is leading the Hebrews to the Promised Land. They wander around the Sinai Desert for forty years barely surviving, nothing to eat but manna. The Chosen People are disgruntled. One guy says to Moses, “What, there weren’t enough graves in Egypt, you had to bring us here?”
That’s a pretty funny line. Three thousand years later, it still holds up. You can find it in Exodus, which Moses wrote---though he might not have gotten that gag. I guess I’d like to meet the anonymous Hebrew who could deliver a one-liner that stands the test of three millennia. I’d shake his hand and give him a Daniel Webster cigar.