Four Questions for Peter Brown

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It’s been seven years since Peter Brown has both written and illustrated a picture book (My Teacher Is a Monster! (No, I Am Not.)). Now he’s back with Fred Gets Dressed, in which a small boy scampers around his house au naturel and ends up in his parents’ bedroom, where he’s captivated by, and then caught in, his mother’s makeup and clothes. We spoke with the Caldecott Honor artist about his exuberant protagonist and the story’s resolution, why pink predominates in his pages, and what he thinks the response to Fred will be. “I’m sort of bracing myself for some negative pushback—maybe,” he says. “It’s possible people won’t approve of a boy putting on makeup and dressing up in his Mom’s clothes. But so far the reaction has been pretty amazing. Everybody knows a Fred.” Brown will celebrate the launch of Fred Gets Dressed with a week-long virtual tour. From May 3 to May 7, he will share the story with indie bookstores through public events and select school visits. For information on how to attend, click here.

You've said that Fred Gets Dressed is based on an experience you had as a kid when you were playing with your mom’s makeup. Can you talk more about that memory and why you felt like now was the time to tell that story?

The story was inspired by something that happened when I was about five years old. I was a curious kid, loved art since I could pick up a crayon, and I’d look at my Mom putting on makeup and think, “My Mom is putting paint on her face.” She found me one day with her makeup smudged across my cheek, and her reaction was so sweet and loving. She just smiled, cleaned me up, and showed me how to put on makeup. That memory stuck with me—at the time, of course, I didn’t think much about it, but later I realized it was really an amazing bit of parenting on her part.

I think the world is in a dark place right now, and there’s something about the sweetness and tenderness of this moment that I just wanted to share with people. There’s not a whole lot of tension in the story—we’re just watching a wonderful thing happen. But there’s no denying I’m touching on a subject that’s pretty relevant right now to some kids and parents, with kids thinking about who they’re becoming and making decisions about their identity that they didn’t feel free to make in the past. It just felt like a good time to share this story with everybody.

In the original draft, Dad’s closet was even more boring because my Dad’s closet was boring. My editor, Alvina Ling, said, let’s not be so much of a stick in the mud where Dad’s clothes are concerned. But I remember that, as a little boy, my Mom’s closet was an explosion of materials and colors—I would just run my hand through the clothes. Kids are so sensory oriented, so interested in bright colors and patterns, and they’re just naturally going to be more attracted to Mom’s side of the closet than Dad’s side of the closet. I wanted this story to normalize kids’ curiosity.

How did you tailor your drawing style to the story?

I often grapple with whether I have a signature style. In stories past I’ve painted the illustrations, or I’ve done pencil drawings with some digital, or ink and watercolor. I mix up my technique depending on the project.

Fred Gets Dressed is the first book I’ve ever illustrated completely digitally. This story felt a little more personal, so I wanted to try something new—to dive into digital art and make it completely on my computer. I knew I wanted there to be lots of texture and color, and I wanted it to feel tactile, have a softness to it, a texture to it, a warmth to it.

I chose a limited palette because the thing about digital art is you can do anything and it can be overwhelming—the possibilities are so vast I had to set up parameters for myself: by limiting my palette, I didn’t have to worry about every color of the rainbow. Then it was a matter of which colors I wanted to use. My favorite color is pink, and I usually use it as an accent color in my illustrations. I thought, “Why not just use it more prominently, and make it the main feature of the palette?” Pink pairs nicely with green, so that got me to olive green, and then I figured I needed black and white. That’s how I got to the four-color palette for this book.

But as you can see it’s a big range: we did a lot of color correction with the printer, so the art has a lot of purples, grays, greens, and pinks—when you overlap those colors, there’s an amazing variety you can create. It’s bright and colorful. And even though I know this is not a typical boy book, I’ve never liked the idea that blue is for boys and pink is for girls in our culture. I thought there’s no way this is going to be a “blue boy’s book”—that nudged me in the other direction. Why not make a boy book where pink is the dominant color?

I knew I was touching on a subject that some people aren’t going to be as comfortable with, so I wanted the art to be welcoming, beautiful, and funny to pull readers in. I want this book to be for everybody. I used every tool at my disposal—the color palette, the drawing style, the humor—to get people to let their guard down and to pull them into a situation that they weren’t expecting. It was all hands on deck. I put a lot of thought into everything to make sure the story wins people over.

What were the, let’s say, opportunities and challenges of drawing a protagonist who spends the first third of the book naked?

You’ve got to be careful when you’ve got a naked child in a book. I wanted it to feel lighthearted and familiar—I think parents are familiar with their kids getting out of the bathtub and running around the house naked. One of the main reasons I made the decisions I did was for the comedy of it. I really wanted readers to have fun with this story. It’s touching on a subject that may be a little political, possibly, and I wanted to counteract it with good silliness and comedy. I thought, why not—it’s about a boy getting dressed so it makes sense that he would start off undressed.

It’s funny when you think of where we are, culturally. Maurice Sendak made In the Night Kitchen in 1970, and you see Max’s private parts and it’s considered a classic. I didn’t want to go there—I didn’t think it was proper for this book. But it does raise the question of whether we’re moving forward or backward as culture, because it seems more things are off limits than ever before.

There are a lot of boy buns in the book and at one point I asked my publisher if I could have Fred’s buns on the cover and they said no to that—I guess there are limits to the number of buns people could tolerate. It was actually a good call, because the energy he shows on the cover now is more fun and interesting. I’m glad they it shot down because it got us a better solution, which is how the process is supposed to work.

What’s next for you? Are we going to see more of Fred—story-wise, that is?

I’m doing a lot. I’m writing chapter books, picture books, I’m working on a screenplay. I’ve got various projects in various stages of development so I’m kind of nervous talking about it.

Aaron Reynolds and I are teaming up for a third Creepy Book. I’m working on the very early stages on another Wild Robot chapter book—that will take a long time.

I think Fred is a one-off book. The story is told in present tense—it’s the only story I’ve told in present tense—and it’s got an open ending: we don’t know if this is the one time Fred dresses up in his Mom’s clothes or not. One reason I don’t want to make a follow-up is that I’d have to answer whether he does it again, and I didn’t want to answer that question. I wanted to leave that open for readers. I think it’s important for readers to think about it for themselves.

Fred Gets Dressed by Peter Brown. Little, Brown, $18.99 May 4 ISBN 978-0-316-20064-6

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