How To Become An LA Kids Book Author/Illustrator (With The Help Of A Swamp Kid)
PEOPLE CHASE EVERY KIND OF CAREER IN LOS ANGELES, FROM SERVER TO CELEBRITY, SO WE'RE FIGURING OUT HOW THEY GOT THOSE L.A. GIGS.
Kirk Scroggs made his name in the middle-grade book world (that means books for 8- to 12-year-olds) with series including Snoop Troop, Tales of a Sixth-Grade Muppet, and Wiley & Grampa's Creature Features. The L.A. illustrator/artist's latest project puts a new spin on DC Comics' Swamp Thing with a brand new character, Swamp Kid.
The Secret Spiral of Swamp Kid is a humorous take on making it through eighth grade — when you've got the plant person affliction of Swamp Thing.
"He's the ultimate outcast. He's got green skin, moss for hair, face tendrils; he's got a giant tree trunk arm," Scroggs said.
The book is designed as a spiral notebook, taking you into a kid's brain to see his experiences with all the drama that a middle schooler would put around his life (especially if he was part mutant plant life).
Here's how Scroggs got here.
STEP 1: LISTEN TO YOUR HEART'S DESIRES
He knew he wanted to do something creative ever since kindergarten. The new book's style is different than what Scroggs usually does.
"It's pretty much the style I used when I was sitting through class in kindergarten through college, just doodling and sketching and mainly drawing monsters when I should have been paying attention," Scroggs said.
He made sure that the whole thing looked like something a kid could actually make with the tools they'd have available — pencils, pens, or markers. Given his own background doodling all through school, Scroggs said it meant going back to his roots. (Plant pun not intended.)
Scroggs went to film school at the University of Texas at Austin, where he put his love for creatures into making monster movies. That's the same kind of story he now tells in his books.
"These stories play out as monster movies in my head anyway," Scroggs said, "so I've pretty much just been making monster movies all my life."
STEP 2: DRAW — A LOT
His advice to artists coming up is to "draw, draw, draw — practice."
Scroggs knew early on that creating monsters was his favorite thing. But even while using Swamp Thing as a basis, or playing with other genre tropes, Scroggs said that he always wants to do something that hasn't been seen before. He said that's the most important thing in getting noticed as an artist.
When he was in college, Scroggs would draw T-shirt designs — that was the first time he was paid to do art. But that doesn't mean that he was an overnight success.
"I spent years frustrated that I couldn't draw a perfect, fully detailed superhero like Jim Lee, or a perfect decaying zombie like Bernie Wrightson — then one day I realized that my scrappy, imperfect style is my style," Scroggs said. "So I've been scrappy and imperfect ever since, and, fortunately, kids have really embraced it."
STEP 3: LEARN TO WRITE
While he both writes and draws his books, Scroggs always considers himself an illustrator first, writer second.
"For me, the text is more difficult than the drawings, so that's always a challenge," Scroggs said. "I'm just more of a visual person, so I like the goo, and the monsters, and the creepy stuff."
That's why he calls himself an illustrator/author, rather than an author/illustrator. But he uses his art to ultimately put together his stories.
"I just sit on the floor or the bed with an actual notebook, or just spread out some scrap paper, just do some rough doodles, and scribbles, and kind of lay it out as I go," Scroggs said.
Then he moves into creating the work digitally — increasingly common among modern artists — and goes forward from there.
STEP 4: GET AN AGENT
Scroggs was working toward working in film at first, but that shifted once he decided to make his first book.
"Something about writing a kids' book was more appealing, because you're pretty much producing your own little mini-movie," Scroggs said. "You're writing it, you're in total control, and in you're in charge of the final result without a 200-million-dollar budget — it's great."
Scroggs didn't mess around once he knew he wanted to do a book.
"I went straight for just trying to get an agent," he said.
Agents asked for a four-page sample of art and text for his Wiley & Grampa's Creature Features series. He eventually got signed, and the first book came out in 2006.
"You need help navigating this world," Scroggs said, and landing that agent let him do that.
And while Scroggs ended up in L.A., he said that you can get representation anywhere. Most agents are based in New York, but they take clients from all over.
STEP 5: FIND YOUR AUDIENCE
The thing that makes Scroggs the right fit for the books he does, he said, is that he still thinks like the kids he writes for.
"I really kind of have the brain of an eighth grader," Scroggs said. "I've always tried to just write from that perspective, instead of writing to kids."
That means embracing silliness and that deep love of monsters in all his projects.
"I think it really sounds like something a kid would write, like it sprung from their imaginations," he said.
STEP 6: BE READY TO WEATHER THE UPS AND DOWNS
Working in the world of kids' books isn't always easy.
"It's a difficult profession," Scroggs said. "It kind of comes and goes."
His own career hasn't been without disappointments. He'd still love to do more with some of the previous projects he's worked on — particularly the Muppets, who he had the chance to work with in his Tales of Sixth-Grade Muppet series.
You also need to be ready to take work where you can get it. Being an illustrator/author in L.A. isn't really any different than being one somewhere else, according to Scroggs — unless you're trying to get into TV or film. One option for local artists is to try getting into animation, he said.
STEP 7: SEIZE THE NEXT BIG OPPORTUNITY
Scroggs had always wanted to make a comic book, so Swamp Kid is his chance to get at that while still doing what he's best known for.
"It was a lot of fun to tackle comic book action — even though this is diary fiction, it also has elements of actual comic books: big monster showdowns, and all that stuff," he said.
DC sent a list of characters they wanted a new kids book take on, and monster-loving Scroggs jumped on the idea of doing something with Swamp Thing.
To get the gig, he submitted a four-to-five-page fake book with a fake cover, going as far as scanning an actual spiral notebook to give the feel of what the final product would look like.
Scroggs went back to old school Swamp Thing comics, inspired by legendary horror artist and the character's co-creator, Bernie Wrightson. Like other books that Scroggs has done, he wanted to combine funny stuff with the ghoulish, creepy, "gooey grossness" of Swamp Thing.
Swamp Kid marks Scroggs' first actual graphic novel. It's still a mixture of text and pictures, but it includes some traditionally comic-booky page designs, as well as the whole thing being an object that also exists in the universe of the story.
"I've just been really encouraged in the last couple years how graphic novels have been embraced by teachers, school librarians," Scroggs said. "It used to be kind of a dirty word, 'graphic novel,' but now everyone's realizing that it's a great way to suck kids in and get them into reading."
STEP 8: GET YOUR HERO'S ENDORSEMENT
The front of Secret Spiral of Swamp Kid features a big endorsement: Dav Pilkey, creator of the uber-popular Captain Underpants books. Pilkey calls Scroggs one of his favorite author/illustrators, while Scroggs says the same for Pilkey.
"I love Dav Pilkey — he's a hero of mine," Scroggs said.
Scroggs' favorite all-time author/illustrator is Shel Silverstein of Where the Sidewalk Ends/all of our childhoods' fame — it's an influence you can see in Scroggs' own work.
"I appreciated that he did his own doodles, and they looked like scrappy little doodles — they didn't look like professional illustrations, but they were just brilliant," he said.
STEP 9: ALWAYS REMEMBER TO BE CREATIVE
Ultimately, Scroggs said that the most important thing in all of your work is to be creative.
"Do something that we haven't read before or seen before," he said. "Especially right now when we're dealing with everything's a sequel, and a remake, and a reboot — [do] interesting spins on things."
You can pick up The Secret Spiral of Swamp Kid, his latest example of being creative, now.
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