I’ve mentioned this before, but my daughter has always been obsessed with the book Don’t Push The Button. If you’re not familiar, the book is about Larry and a button. Larry warns us right out of the gate that we’re not allowed to push the button. Eventually the temptation is too great, so he asks the reader to push the button, which has some unintended consequences. From there, the rest of the book is fun mix of slapping, pushing and shaking.
A book that’s fun for kids and their parents
From the moment my daughter was able to obey the book’s primary command to “push the button,” she was hooked. Me too, if I’m being honest. Don’t Push The Button is a perfect example of why children’s books exist. This book is an experience that’s meant to be shared by parents and their children. For children, the book is a silly set of commands with surprising outcomes. For the parent…well, the illustrations and phrasing practically beg you to over-embellish Larry’s character as you read. Here, let’s try an experiment. Read this out loud:
See? It’s impossible to not plead along with Larry. The combination of his pose and the incredible use of the word “musn’t” can turn any parent into an Oscar-worthy actor. All credit for this thespian training goes to the book’s author and illustrator Bill Cotter.
Books this interesting always have interesting backstories. I wanted to know more, so I reached out to Bill and asked if he would let me interview him about his inspiration and process. He was amazing! I love his perspective on children’s literature, and I think you will too.
Here’s our interview in its entirety:
A chat with Bill Cotter
Bill, thank you so much for letting me ask you some questions. I guess right out of the gate, I’m curious as to when you got the inspiration to develop books for children? Did you pursue anything else first?
I’m extremely happy with the home that I’ve found in the illustration world, but if I’m being honest making work for a young audience wasn’t my original plan. While I was a student I envisioned myself doing more “serious” or “grown up” work. My dream was to get paid to do a New Yorker cover, create cover art for a band’s new album, maybe do concept art for video games or storyboarding for the movies, things like that. But my focus shifted after I took my first internship at a magazine.
My two obsessions have always been art and music. After I graduated college and moved to New York, I got the idea that the place where those two things converged would be the art department of Rolling Stone Magazine. The first week I was in town I walked to their headquarters in Rockefeller Plaza and stood in the lobby until security called up to their office. Surprisingly, they let me in the door and I convinced them to take me on. For six months I learned the ins and outs of every visual component to the magazine, but most importantly I learned that editorial/magazine illustration wasn’t for me.
Getting hired to do the illustration for that issue’s album review was one of those “grown up” holy grail kind of illustration gigs that I wished for, but while working in the art department it was a little disheartening to see just how unimportant that little piece of art was to the operation of the overall magazine, and I could see that the opportunities for editorial illustration work were shrinking (Rolling Stone literally shrunk while I was an intern, trading in their classic large format for a more economical smaller format).
My internship ended, and I decided to whole-heartedly pursue a career in children’s books where I figured there would be a way better chance of me making a living. The only problem was that I’d never really spent a lot of time with kids and therefore had no clue of how to write for them. My roommate was working in the office of a children’s art and music school in Tribeca. He was able to get me hired and suddenly my days were filled with finger painting and singing “Wheels on the Bus.”
Wow, what a shift. It must have been interesting to go from the fast-paced magazine world to the land of nursery rhymes and coloring. Was it there you got the inspiration for Don’t Push The Button? Can you tell us the story?
A huge part of my job as a teacher was reading books to my students. I would come across so many amazing books that I admired, but I’d also read just as many that convinced me I could make something just as good or better. It was truly amazing research. I essentially had a daily focus group of 10-15 kids in my target demographic showing me in real time what kinds of books kids that age responded to. I learned what kept their attention and, probably more importantly, what bored them to death. From what I observed, kids seemed to respond to two things; interactivity and a funny main character talking directly to the reader. I sketched out Don’t Push the Button while sitting on my couch watching the 2012 Olympics, sent the sketches to my agent who then pitched it to several publishers. Sourcebooks was our first “yes” and we were off to the races. I was still teaching while I was developing Button, so I was able to bring in drafts of the book to my students and tweak words, pictures, and story structure based on their reactions. Just a little over a year after I’d made the initial sketches I was holding my first book.
Although I’m extremely proud of my books, I always feel like I shouldn’t take all the credit. I think of myself as part of this a long continuum of creators where new ideas are built on the previous ones. The way I view art is basically the same way I view science; someone makes a discovery and then other scientists expand on that discovery and keep propelling us forward. Art and culture work in the exact same way. As long as their ego doesn’t get in the way, most artists will admit that they stand on the shoulders of giants and are usually just doing their best impression of their heroes. While reading to my young students my heroes quickly became Herve Tullét for his interactive brilliance, Mo Willems for his hilarious dialogue, and Dr Seuss for his surreal magic. Most of what I make is just me trying to live up to these great artists. Inevitably you fall short of your heroes and end up a slight mutation of what you were aiming to be. But it’s in those shortcomings that your personal style is found. Then that new visual voice that you’ve put into the world will be admired by younger artists coming up and the whole process starts over again; beautifully tumbling forward while carving the culture of the future.
Very well put! Along those same lines, it must be hard to even live up to yourself and past success. At home, we also have the Don’t Push The Button: A Christmas Adventure and you have a few others in the series. How challenging is it to develop a new angle and keep the idea fresh?
It’s kind of a fun challenge to be honest. I’ve always enjoyed creating art with some limitations or guidelines, which I think is why I gravitated toward illustration and commercial art. Sitting in front of a blank canvas with no direction is harder for me than to make something with a few guidelines. For any job you have constraints, and it’s fun to see just how creative you can be within those boundaries. For example, a standard illustration job is the NYtimes OpEd. No matter what you do it has to be black and white and a very small specific size, but illustrators for years have been able to create wonderful work within those seemingly tight parameters. My guidelines in children’s books always include strict size requirements for the printer, certain colors, character design continuity, etc.. I just think of a holiday theme as just a few more boundaries to work within.
At first I was admittedly reluctant to make a holiday version of my book, (see: that Christmas song in Love Actually) but I’ve since found out that there can be a huge advantage to harnessing the excitement around a holiday and fusing that with your character/brand. It’s not as artistically fulfilling as creating something totally new, but when I hear kids laughing at my books, I realize that it doesn’t really matter. The bottom line for my books is to get very young kids to have a positive association with reading so that they go on to read more advanced works.
Thanks so much to Bill for his amazing interview! I loved getting the inside scoop on everything that went into our favorite book.
If you’re looking for a new way to connect with your child, I highly recommend the Don’t Push The Button series. You’ll have just as much fun as your child – I promise!
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