A conversation with Charles Hobson and Mary Daniel Hobson

Here is a simple recipe for making something magical: mix a series of long car rides and three generations of eminently creative people. You get The Wolf Who Ate the Sky, a beautiful picture book that delights children as well as the young at heart. Based on a story that mixed–media artist Mary Daniel (Danny) Hobson made up with her daughter Anna and illustrated by visual artist Charles Hobson, this is the tale of a wolf who makes good on his promise to eat the next thing he sees, and of the menagerie of animals that endeavors to restore that brave overhanging firmament to its rightful place above our heads. I recently spoke with Charles and Danny about the creative process behind The Wolf—from the human need to tell stories to the challenges of illustrating a story that takes place almost entirely in the dark.

The Wolf Who Ate the Sky

MC: Danny, how did Anna and you create the story for The Wolf Who Ate the Sky?

MDH: My daughter Anna has always loved stories. When she was three and a half years old, we would often pass the time driving to and from preschool with storytelling. Anna would ask for a story, and I would say, “Once upon a time there was a…” She would fill in, “A wolf.” Then I would add, “And this wolf was…” And she would say, “Hungry!”

From there I would start to weave a story, pausing throughout the tale to have her add in details, like which animals the boy ran into. We told many stories this way, but there was something about The Wolf Who Ate the Sky that caught Anna’s imagination. She would ask me to tell it with her again and again. Then she told it to her father, and then to her grandparents. Every time it was told, it changed a little.

During the time that we were telling and retelling the story, my father made a video of Anna sharing a version of the story (which you can see in the book trailer video on YouTube). He was so moved by Anna’s presentation of this story that he asked me to write it down so that he could turn it into a book.

Charles, you’ve created several art books before illustrating The Wolf. How did this experience—making a children’s book, intended for a commercial market—differ from previous projects?

CH: When you say “art books,” you’re referring to the more than thirty limited-edition artist books I’ve done. Frankly, the experience and process is very similar.

A key quality of all the books I’ve done is my attention to sequence and flow. With The Wolf I wanted to create a cadence or rhythm of pacing with the pages. Some pages have only a few words, while others have many more. A few pages have black backgrounds and they punctuate or give rise to the rhythm.

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Also, I want to create a rich connection between word and image in my books. It’s important that the image and the words work together to elevate the reader’s experience and don’t stifle his or her own imagination.

A difficult design challenge was the fact that most of the story takes place in the dark. I didn’t want to have page after page of black backgrounds, so I used exuberantly painted pages as the background of the drawings to signal that there was an unusual atmosphere—a world without the sky, without resorting to gray or black.

What is the importance to you of creating stories?

MDH: For me, creating stories with my daughter Anna was really important because I wanted to honor her curiosity for storytelling and also engage in something creative together. Storytelling is such a universal, almost primal activity. It can make mundane experiences sparkle, it can make tedious times pass more gracefully, and it can inspire a sense of wonder. Each story has a life of its own…it unfolds in unexpected ways and has its own unique rhythm. All of this makes it a very engaging experience, especially with children.

CH: All of my books, whether limited editions or trade editions, are inspired by narrative and the unfolding of a story. For example, tales like the shipwrecks along the northern California coast or of famous couples who met in Paris drove the design of my artist’s books about those subjects. The story that Anna told my wife and me that day three years ago lit me up in the same way as the stories that inspired my artist books. It has a strong pacing with surprises and a “wonder-full ending.” Who could have thought of screwing the sky back into the ceiling of the world, but a three-year-old?

What has it meant to you to create a story as a family?

MDH: It has been such a delight to collaborate with my daughter and my father to create The Wolf Who Ate the Sky. This process has really connected the three of us more deeply. The Wolf Who Ate the Sky is now part of our family legacy. If I were to articulate a dream I have for the book, it is that it would inspire others to co-create stories within their own families and with the children in their lives.

CH: Seeing the creative process working between my daughter and granddaughter has been so enriching to me. It was a gift. In designing the book I felt the way a master jeweler might feel in creating the perfect setting for the most exquisite diamond. It has been an immense pleasure working together with my daughter to find the right track to put the story on. I think we have found closeness and a sense of our individual talents and how they have merged together to create something in collaboration that we both feel extremely proud of.

Danny, as a visual artist, what was it like to branch out to a different kind of artistic expression?

MDH: Overall it was a lot of fun. I really appreciated how collaborative storytelling could be. It was also freeing for me…because I did not see myself as a “professional storyteller.” I was just a mom passing the time with my kids in a creative way. It’s really inspiring for me as an artist to remember that valuable creative work can come from what seems like play.

In the end, storytelling and mixed media photography are very different creative media, yet they are both about communication. One uses words and linear narrative structure. The other combines visual elements (like old maps, needles and thread, photos of the ocean, etc.) to create a poetic message. Doing both is like writing in different languages, and each one is very satisfying.

I think it might be very easy to assume that because a children’s book is shorter than most books for adults, it must be easier to write a children’s book—fewer words to write. Can you talk about the thought and intention it takes to make a whole story arc in just a few words?

MDH: That’s a great question. I feel really lucky, because I did not have to think a lot about the arc of this story. The basic plot came out quick and fast, off the top of my head with Anna’s help. Then we did not write it down for months. It was edited and expanded orally by telling and retelling. For example, the original ending was the sky popping back out and the stars dancing again, etc. In telling it so many times together, a need to protect the sky evolved, and so Anna came up with feeding the wolf oatmeal and screwing the sky back to the ceiling of the world. Then once I wrote the story down, it felt very different. I realized some words needed adjusting to make it work on paper, and so I made some refinements. In the end, there was a lot of care and time put into making this story, and it was also a lot of fun.

CH: In my work as an artist using the book as a creative medium I’ve constantly referred to and have been inspired by children’s books. While they are shorter than adult literature, they remind me how gripping a short poem or short story can be when presented in an imaginative and tactile way. A good children’s book demands by its presence that it be read. I feel that The Wolf Who Ate the Sky is demanding in just that way.

What was the most unexpected thing about making this book—from creating the story in the car to working with Heyday’s production team?

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CH: I’m always looking for a creative breakthrough when I’m working with a story. I approach the process of creating an artist book from a space of trust once I’m committed. That is, I don’t know exactly how it will come, but I trust there is a gift that will come to me that will illuminate the design and the story. In the case of The Wolf, it was finding that crumpling up a drawing of white clouds in a blue sky could perfectly represent the sky in the wolf’s stomach. For me it was the perfect representation of how the sky could both be swallowed and then be rescued by the mouse and her colleagues.

And there was another gift connected to that crumpled paper. When I presented the book to the Heyday staff it did not have a cover design. Because I received such positive energy and feedback in an early meeting I saw I needed to tackle the cover and in a dramatic way. Responding to that, I realized that the crumpled paper sky could be a signature element of the cover and worked up the drawing of the small wolf gulping down the huge sky.

MDH: For me, a few things were unexpected, delightfully so. The first is how well Anna at three and a half years old could tell this story—she really amazed me with her commitment to this story and her capacity to enliven it. The second thing was seeing how my father transformed our story from something that was made of air and talking into something so beautiful and solid as a book with illustrations. Finally, I am still pinching myself that this book has been published by Heyday. It’s really magical.

I think the acquisitions editors out there want to know—is Anna still making stories?

MDH: Anna, who will be seven years old in May, continues to love stories. These days she is reading voraciously. Most often the stories I hear from her are the retelling with great detail the plot of the latest chapter book she has read. Although just yesterday morning, Anna, her younger sister, and I were creating a silly story over breakfast cereal.

If another family story emerges, I believe it will be quite different from The Wolf Who Ate the Sky. This book was initiated by a three-and-a-half-year-old’s enthusiasm and imagination. Anna will never be three and a half years old again. It’s so poignant to have this story published. It comes from a time in Anna’s and my life that can’t be recreated. I am just delighted that we have the chance to share this story with others.

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Anna, now aged six, at her first booksigning.