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5 Questions With... Sara Varon (ROBOT DREAMS, BAKE SALE)

by Sara Varon
 | Apr 13, 2012
Sara Varon is a comic book artist, illustrator, and printmaker, currently living in Brooklyn, New York. Her books include CHICKEN AND CAT, CHICKEN AND CAT CLEAN UP, ROBOT DREAMS, and BAKE SALE. Her forthcoming graphic novel, ODD DUCK, is a collaboration with the writer Cecil Castellucci. It’s due out in Spring 2013.

You’ve written comics with words (BAKE SALE) and without (ROBOT DREAMS). What are the unique challenges of communicating your story to the reader in each format?

I like to draw pictures of characters quietly going about their business and I like drawing diagrams. Writing is not my strong suit, so my instinct is to tell a story without dialogue. BAKE SALE was a challenge and an experiment, since it was my first book with dialogue. But I couldn''t have drawn it without dialogue—there was too much information that I could not impart through drawings alone, simply because it was too specific.

You’ve said that you didn’t start thinking of being an artist as a career path until you were about 20. What made that realization click?

After high school, I studied biology at a liberal arts college for a year, and the only classes I regularly attended were the art classes. After dropping out, I finally realized that maybe I should consider art school and eventually I found my way to the Art Institute in Chicago.

There was no preparation there for life after art school, and the school had really discouraged commercial art, so I didn''t know you could have a job drawing pictures. It sounds kind of dumb, but I just didn''t know anyone who did it, and I never thought about who drew pictures in newspapers or ad campaigns.

Then one day, in my mid-20s, I was at the book store looking at magazines and I stumbled across the Communication Arts Illustration Annual. It totally blew my mind. I thought, “Wow! That''s a job?! That''s what I want to do!”

What sorts of books or comics were you most excited to read as a child?

When I was very small I remember especially liking anything by Richard Scarry. I also liked the Frog and Toad books by Arnold Lobel, A BARGAIN FOR FRANCES by Russell Hoban, the George and Martha books by James Marshall, and LYLE, LYLE, CROCODILE by Bernard Waber.

The only comic books I read were Donald Duck. I pretty much exclusively liked things with animal characters.

Were there any teachers who particularly encouraged or nurtured your artistic and literary talents?

I don''t remember any teachers standing out, but my mom always enrolled me in art classes when I was small. And she would find little drawing contests for me to enter, like on the backs of cereal boxes and things, which I occasionally won.

One time, my brother and I drew pictures at a Marshall Field''s department store about what we wanted to be when we grew up (I drew a zookeeper and he drew a baseball player.) I won the contest and got a gift certificate, which I promptly squandered on stuffed animals. (I was maybe five at the time.)

And I won a Green Giant pocket watch once when I was about seven (it must have been a contest on the back of a box of frozen vegetables or something). It was a really cool watch—it had a green suede leaf attached to it, but I don''t remember what I drew to win it.

There were a few others, but those seemed like the best prizes to me as a kid. I think my mom was trying to keep me busy and it was something I liked to do.

I stopped doing art stuff in high school (though I was always a notebook doodler) ’cause I thought it wasn''t cool. But then my senior year I switched schools and was required to take an art class to graduate. My teacher was really amazing and encouraging and got me back into making art.

Your story BAKE SALE was inspired by a desire to travel to Turkey. What other characters or stories have been inspired by your surroundings or places you’ve travelled?

All of my books are inspired by my surroundings in some way. CHICKEN AND CAT was inspired by my then-neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which happened to be particularly gray.

CHICKEN AND CAT CLEAN UP was also set where I lived at the time. The neighborhood they live in is pretty much identical to Ridgewood, and the neighborhood they work in is the neighborhood I work in. When they turn in the rat-thief, they turn him into the 10th precinct, which is on W. 20th Street in Manhattan, close to their job, but also close to my job.

And in BAKE SALE I just went around the city drawing places I like to go or that I passed by regularly. My studio at the time was near Madison Square Garden, which makes a few appearances in the book, and I am also a patron of the bath house they frequent and the restaurant they go to.

It''s hard to make things up completely out of one''s head. It helps me to take photos of places and then I can base the story and pictures on the photos.

© 2013 International Reading Association. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.

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