Today, Mark Teague’s quirky, slightly off-kilter artwork is known to millions of young fans of such books as “How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night?,” the “Poppleton” beginning readers, and “Dear: Mrs. LaRue: Lettons from Obedience School.” But Mark became a children’s book creator almost by accident. I recently had a delightful hour-long telephone interview with Mark about the trajectory of his career. Here’s the story that resulted from that interview:
When Mark Teague graduated in 1985 with a degree in history from the University of California, Santa Cruz, he had no idea what he wanted to do next.
So he decided to set off across the country to visit one of his brothers in New York City. Teague, who had always loved to create art as a hobby, brought a sketch book with him and filled it with drawings of people and things he saw on his journey.
It was that sketch book, and his brother’s connections, that helped Teague soon land his first job, as a display assistant at a Barnes & Noble store in the center of Manhattan. Little did Teague know that the job would put him on the path of a career as a best-selling picture book author and illustrator, whose bright and cheerfully off-kilter artwork has become instantly recognizable.
“That job was sort of my formal art training, and kind of my re-initiation back into the world of children’s books,” Teague said. “It was a golden age of children’s books, with great people like Chris Van Allsburg, William Joyce and Leo and Diane Dillon creating books.”
Inspired by the picture books that he saw at work, Teague decided to try his hand at creating one himself. As a child, Teague had spent hours writing and illustrating his own picture books, but never thought he could make it his life’s work.
“It was just something that didn’t seem like a career,” he said with a laugh. “I always assumed that I would grow up and get a real job.”
With contacts from his Barnes & Noble job, Teague was able to meet in 1987 with Jean Feiwel, then a top editor at Scholastic, and show her the manuscript for a picture book he called “The Trouble With the Johnsons.” Feiwel liked the book and purchased it; it was published in 1989.
The book received good reviews, with Publishers Weekly stating that "Teague's unique perspective is utilized magnificently both in words and pictures to produce a noteworthy first book."
Since then, Teague has published more than two dozen books. Some of them he has both written and illustrated, like his best-selling picture book “Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letter’s From Obedience School.”
The newest book he has both written and illustrated is “The Three Little Pigs and the Somewhat Bad Wolf” (Scholastic, $16.99, ages 4-8), a hilariously fractured version of the original tale published this spring. In writing the book, Teague said he drew from the “goofy things” he said when re-telling the story as a bedtime tale to his two daughters.
Teague also has illustrated many books written by other writers, such as the “Poppleton” beginning readers written by Newbery Medalist Cynthia Rylant.
In fact, Teague’s biggest-selling volumes are the books in the “How Do Dinosaurs” series written by Jane Yolen. The books, which show enormous dinosaurs acting like tantrum-prone toddlers in “How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight?” and “How Do Dinosuars Clean Their Rooms?,” have sold millions of copies, and spawned a separate line of board books for babies and toddlers.
“I think dinosaurs are sort of universally appealing to kids. They’re creatures so outlandishly big and powerful – kind of what kids are not at that point and what they may daydream about,” Teague said.
As he looks over his career, Teague, 50, still can’t believe the relative ease with which he established himself as a picture book creator.
“It was such a crazy set of circumstances,” he said. “Doors just kept swinging open and I just kept walking through. I was so naïve that I didn’t even realize the breaks I was getting.”
Of course, there also was a great deal of hard work involved along the way. While Teague says that Scholastic published “The Trouble With the Johnsons” “pretty much how I made it,” he adds that “there was a pretty significant learning process after that.”
In “The Trouble with the Johnsons,” Teague established the artistic style that has now become his signature, using brilliantly colored acrylics and curved lines to capture the energy and humor of a quirky cast of characters.
“I always feel that children’s books should be supremely energetic, and to me, a lot of energy drains out of a straight line,” Teague says. “There’s not a lot of empty space in my books – I try to fill up the pages, to crank up the energy as much as possible.”
The books are particularly beloved by young dinosaur enthusiasts because of Teague’s careful research and meticulous rendering of different types of dinosaurs; the types of dinosaurs and their scientific names are included in little illustrations on the books’ endpapers
Interestingly, Teague learned to do that kind of research after young readers complained about the dinosaurs he included in his first book “The Trouble With the Johnsons.”
“These readers told me that ‘Those don’t really look like dinosaurs,’” he laughed. “It was a really good lesson. Kids can be downright scholarly about dinosaurs at an early age and so I try to honor that and do my research.”
While Teague mostly focuses on picture books, he has written and illustrated a science fiction novel for kids, “The Doom Machine,” which was published in 2009. Now he’s working on a graphic novel for young adults.
“It’s a little different and darker than what I usually do,” Teague said. “But I’m always trying to keep from falling into ruts or too many familiar grooves.”
Overall, Teague says, “my whole career has turned out to be a happy surprise for me.”