The Austin illustrator draws on his inner child and gets serious about what kids find funny.
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The world of author and illustrator Keith Graves is a strange one, where monsters’ brains spill out onto the floor and children are abducted by aliens. But that doesn’t put off his young readers. In a time when most children’s literature shies away from anything vaguely dark, the 42-year-old Graves seems to be giving kids what they really want—absurd tales underlined by a twisted, sometimes ghoulish sense of humor. In September Scholastic Press brought out his third book, Uncle Blubbafink’s Seriously Ridiculous Stories. Next fall Graves will leap from print to film with two animated television series, Young McDonald and Scouts, and an animated movie based on his book Pet Boy is currently under development. Meanwhile, on November 17 and 18 he’ll be hanging out in Austin at the Texas Book Festival—in the Children’s Tent.
When you’re writing or illustrating, do you envision the typical kid who will see your work? Oh, that’s definitely me. It’s just me. My work really is a self-indulgence.
What do you think makes kids laugh? The yuck factor. That’s what my kids laugh at more than anything else probably.
Are there any subjects that you avoid because some parents might cringe? No, I try not to think about the kids or the parents when I’m doing the books. If I start thinking like that, it just gets all wrong. After it’s done I think, “Well . . .” Like Pet Boy [about a young pet collector who neglects his menagerie and is kidnapped by an alien and sold to an alien pet store]. It’s probably a little scary for children younger than four or five.
When I read Pet Boy to my eight-year-old, she did ask, “Where are his parents?” Then the alien returns him, and the alien is kind of a nice guy, but it’s, like, hmmm . . . I know. It might be a little hard-core. But it’s one of those stories like Hansel and Gretel, where those things happen. As a kid, that appealed to me. Once I hit a certain age, the fear factor added a good buzz to the experience. A little of the macabre adds the spice that attracts you and makes you tense.
I think the tendency is to avoid that now. Pretty much so. Everything is very, very cautious, which I think is a shame. It’s like having a helmet for everything. A helmet for climbing a tree—I can see the logic, but still, you just can’t be that controlling.