It’s Writer 2 Writer Wednesday and today it’s all about Gene Barretta, the author and illustrator of Now & Ben: The Modern Inventions of Benjamin Franklin and Neo Leo: The Ageless Ideas of Leonardo da Vinci. He is also author and illustrator of Dear Deer, which was a Notable Children’s Book in the Language Arts and listed on the Parenting Magazine Mom-Tested Books of the Year List.
His latest book is: Timeless Thomas : How Thomas Edison Changed Our Lives. (Christy Ottaviano Books, Henry Holt Books for Young Readers July 17, 2012)
Gene and I spoke toward the end of 2012 and I learned that his journey toward becoming an award-winning children’s book author and illustrator took several twists and turns before he ended up on a very famous street. Home to Big Bird. Elmo? Ring a bell? But more on that later.
Some, like Gene’s mother, say that his artistic pursuits began with a drawing of a big purple pig alongside his crib when he was three. When he was a bit older, he teamed up with his young brother, Billy, for more creative endeavors that sometimes took the form of crazy antics. Growing up, the pair often filmed Super 8mm dramas, attempted daredevil stunts, and created puppets and comic books together.
Flash forward to college and beyond. Gene graduated from New York University film school, moved to the west coast, worked in the film and music industries, and played in a band.
“It’s odd, I never really thought about (illustration) as a career possibility until I exhausted everything else,” he explains. “There’s a consistency there, though—storytelling.”
In 1997, Gene said he moved back to the east coast and decided the distance from Los Angeles didn’t make it practical to work full-time in the film industry anymore. Although Gene continues to do illustration work, including character designs for The Jim Henson Company, which usually gives him the chance to reunite with his brother Bill, who is a puppeteer, writer, director, and producer for The Muppets.
“When I first moved back east, Kevin Clash (the creator of Elmo) introduced me to the producer of Sesame Street,” he said. “I ended up animating, writing, and scoring five short films for them.”
In-house networking led Gene to illustrate books for Between the Lions.
“Through that show, I started to meet more people in publishing,” he said.
After many years illustrating mass-market, novelty, and picture books for other authors, Gene began writing as well.
“I just knew I wanted to go beyond illustrating. Take it the next step of telling a story,” he said.
In 2006, Now & Ben: The Modern Inventions of Benjamin Franklin, became Gene’s first book as an author illustrator. Five more followed. At some point, Gene said he asked himself why he didn’t consider writing and illustrating full-time before.
“It suits my lifestyle. I’m more of a homebody. I work from home now. It was a natural progression, though, and all focused, really, on storytelling.”
When Gene is not spending seven days a week painting in his home studio, or writing at the library or a coffee shop, he does school visits, which sometime include a visit from Ben Franklin.
“I love doing school visits,” he said. “It’s an excuse to get out of the studio and get paid to talk to kids about what I do. I spend so much time alone when I work, so the assemblies give me a sense of what the kids are responding to. What they’re interested in. It’s the moment when I get to see how all that hard work I’ve done in isolation is being received.”
Some schools, Gene said, fill the walls with drawings based on his books, and at one school, the music teacher wrote and performed a song base on Now & Ben.
“It’s a lot of fun. They treat you like a rock star,” he said.
You can find out more about Gene Barretta at: www.genebarretta.com