Book by Book How One Dad Is Making Toddler Books Better

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Off a small side street in Chappaqua, N.Y. sits the home of Matthew Van Fleet, The New York Times best-selling children’s book author and illustrator. In the front corner of the yard, tucked under the branches of a large tree is a fort made of sturdy wood and gnarled branches. Once you get to know Van Fleet you realize this very fort is representative of the man himself. Both have a strong foundation with a healthy dose of whimsy and originality that can turn heads.

Home Office

“Ah, I made that just last year. I should have done it before,” says Van Fleet with a smile, slightly deflecting my tree fort compliment. It seems Van Fleet’s sons, Alex, 16 and Ryan, 11 might be just a wee bit too old for tree forts, or so he says. Having built the fort himself is just one small indicator of the little kid that still lives large in Van Fleet’s sensibility.

Oscar, the family’s pug dog puts in an appearance and shepherds us through the kitchen and living room to Van Fleet’s single room office. On the way I note that dragonfly images pop up everywhere: on the doorknocker, on lamps and in frames. I find out later Van Fleet’s business is called Dragonfly Design, Inc. “I wanted a shape that was fanciful, but not juvenile,” he says.

The office is dominated by a large computer screen, which is set on what looks to be a drafting table. Adjacent to that a dark wooden antique-looking armoire converted into a desk and near the door an aquarium housing an elephant stag beetle, a reminder of the days when he and his boys were obsessed with bugs. Nearby, a red pint-sized student desk that his mom salvaged many years ago alludes to the fact that Van Fleet, like many smart and talented people, is still a curious student.

Van Fleet has worked in the advertising and publishing world for almost 20 years, which might be surprising if you consider that he majored in biology at Syracuse University. Born and raised near Scranton, Pa., Van Fleet has never formally studied art. His interest was piqued, however, in his senior year at college when he started drawing single panel cartoons for the university newspaper. After college he landed his first job as a research technician in a biochemistry lab in New York City. “That job cured me of wanting to pursue bio,” says Van Fleet with an easy laugh.

Convinced that he wanted to be a cartoonist, Van Fleet took night classes in art production while working as a secretary in the art department at Grosset & Dunlap in New York City. “At Grosset I started to learn about book design and production and eventually I started to come up with children’s book ideas,” says Van Fleet.

The Stay-at-Home-Dad

Along the way, Van Fleet met and married Mara, who was a senior children’s book designer at Grosset & Dunlap. The couple settled in the Chappaqua suburbs after being introduced to the town through a fraternity brother’s family.

 

Van Fleet’s first interactive touch and feel book, Fuzzy Yellow Ducklings came out the same year as son Alex was born. It did so well (it has sold more than 1.3 million copies) that Van Fleet opted to stay at home while Mara continued to work outside the home.

Van Fleet eased into the stay-at-home dad life of going to lap time at the library, visiting the park and arranging playdates. He liked that they lived within walking distance to town and claims making the trek there and back with his son in a backpack was the only exercise he got in those days. “It was the easiest way to get around town and it freed my hands,” says Van Fleet.

He found staying home doing mechanicals, graphic design and creating children’s books was easy because “with email and an FTP site you’re in business.” Luckily, his work was well suited to being a stay-at-home dad. “If I had been in another business it wouldn’t have worked as well – getting back to clients would have been hard.”

A second son, Ryan, was born and as the boys entered the school system Van Fleet found himself making visits to his son’s classrooms to talk about drawing and writing. He has also volunteered to give classes at the Young Writers’ Conference, a free event held at Bell Middle School in Chappaqua that introduces children to all aspects of written communication.

And while Van Fleet is profoundly creative he’s also a good businessman. He is sharp, focused and has a good handle on the book market. He’s also incredibly funny!

Toddler Time

It was the classic book Pat the Bunny that got Van Fleet really thinking about the toddler book market. “Look at Pat the Bunny, the concept is minimal and it’s been a best seller since the ’50s,” says Van Fleet. He studied the market and saw the need and room for good children’s concept books. What bothered him was that often children’s interactive books just pull an idea out of nowhere. He wanted the material to make sense. “Take Pat the Bunny, the texture is just thrown in there for effect. There’s a scratch daddy’s beard blob that looks like he has something awful growing on his face, I wanted to change that,” he says. He noticed the same thing with open-the-flap or pop up books. “The flap idea is good, but not if there is no reason to have the flap, many books create random movement just for movement sake,” says Van Fleet.

So Van Fleet created books that offered texture and movement with an educational purpose. These concept books, while still part of the novelty market, introduce children to subject matter such as counting, colors, shapes, opposites, body parts, days of the week, the alphabet and animals. In short, his books are a big step up from the traditional touch and feel book. While they use different novelty techniques (textures, pop ups, flaps, pull tabs) each book is designed to help reinforce basic educational concepts. “If there’s no reason for the novelty then it shouldn’t be there,” he says. “You just can’t slap fur on something.” Van Fleet offers children a fun, hands-on, educational experience that encourages curiosity. He also delights in using visual gags that make adults and children smile. This sense of humor can be seen as a cat knocks over a vase, an elephant sneezes on a buddy or a dog lifts his leg to urinate on a tree.

 

Hands-On

Van Fleet values the hands-on experience perhaps even more so because he is a hands-on creator. He has an analytical approach to his work that might be influenced by his science background. What’s also interesting is that he comes from a family of engineers (his father and grandfather) and his books are, well … engineered. “I do all my own mechanicals to make sure everything will work from a technical standpoint,” says Van Fleet.

His interactive books are made not to break. He knows they are going to get tough treatment so he designs them for the wear and tear. “I use heavy weight board stock to create the mechanics inside the pages, which is an entirely different construction than the flimsy flap book of the ’80s,” he says.

He’s mindful as to the limitations and possibilities of the medium. Technically he knows how to put it together but, as a businessman, he’s also aware that cost is always a factor.

Lately, Van Fleet has collaborated with photographer Brian Stanton, to create the acclaimed books DOG and CAT. Using photography has made him adjust his way of working. When he writes an illustrated book Van Fleet says he generally comes up with a concept first. And while he’s tried that process with the photography books, he says more often than not he finds the book during the process of taking and selecting the photographs.

True to form Van Fleet stays very hands-on during the process. All the photos for DOG were taken in his home using local dogs. “We took a ton of photos and built the book from there,” says Van Fleet. His newest book to be released this August, MOO, was three years in the making. Using animals the book addresses the relationship concept of mommy, daddy and baby. Van Fleet and Stanton combed the area for just the right animals. “We got to know farmer Rick at Muscoot Farm very well,” he says. “We took photos there and others at Stone Barns and Outhouse Orchards.”

What’s Next?

Still working from his home office Van Fleet stays active in his sons’ lives and soccer games. These days he studies art by taking a ceramics class at the New Castle Art Center and continues to develop books for his publisher Simon & Schuster.

His wife Mara, the bestselling creator of the books Mama Loves Me, The Very Mixed-Up Princess and Up the Water Spout and Other Nursery Rhymes among others, now also works from home in an adjacent office. As artists do they offer each other support? Yes. Do they comment on each other’s work? That’s a no.

Mara comes into the office where we are talking. Her kind smile and easy manner make me think that not only is she talented but she must be a great partner. It’s clear that these two have worked out a way of being together 24/7. In a knowing way Van Fleet asks, “Hon, what do you say if I show you my latest idea? And without missing a beat she answers, “Cute, hon.”

He tries to keep his opinions to himself as well. When Mara was working on her new book Three Little Mermaids, which she wrote and illustrated for Simon & Schuster under the Van Fleet Books brand, he admits he made the big mistake of saying that maybe the mermaids looked a little fat. Let’s just say he’s learned his lesson.

When I ask if he’s an easy-going guy Van Fleet blushes and Mara chuckles. “I’m opinionated about stuff,” he says. Inquiries about being a team player meet a similar reaction. “I just hate crazy products,” he says. “I guess

I don’t have the makeup to sustain a career in the corporate world.” Yet he does have what it takes to appear on “The Martha Stewart Show” as he did recently to make Animal Party Blowouts inspired by the zoo animals in his recent book Heads. See the video link to the segment on the Articles & Events link on his website www.VanFleetBooks.com.

Moving On

What’s the future of the standard print book? “The picture book may have seen its day,” says Van Fleet. Everyone knows the standard print market is in jeopardy. It’s a question of pricing. “Many authors are getting into the enhanced ebook,” adds Van Fleet. He says often that means just adding on elements such as playing a game. Van Fleet wonders if it’s effective or really just “a way to add on junk.”

Authors and illustrators he admires, such as Sandra Boynton, are moving into the app world. He’s working on an app for his latest book MOO. “Some apps make sense others don’t,” says Van Fleet. “I want to do an app if it will enhance the book, not just the book laid onto a new format as so many apps are these days.” To Van Fleet there’s no sense in forcing a picture book into an app. “Take the app Angry Birds, it works because it’s so suited to the medium,” he says.

Every change in the marketplace brings new questions. “The Kindle is a huge market. Publishers are fighting over rights to book back lists,” says Van Fleet. “Who owns ebook rights to something published before ebook rights were stipulated in contracts?” That’s a good new question. I’m sure many in the industry wish it came with an easy answer.

Right now, Van Fleet continues to create quality books containing creative objects to manipulate. It’s a delightful way to encourage a youngster’s curiosity about how things work. Of course creating the best book possible is an artistic goal, but it’s also a practical one. Van Fleet explains that to be successful you either have to sell a high volume in reprints or make many books that don’t sell much. “I feel that whatever I produce has to be good enough to stay in print a while, otherwise it’s a waste of my time,” he says. The way things are going it seems entirely possible that years from now Van Fleet’s books will be the new classic in toddler’s books. So move over Pat the Bunny!

Jean Sheff is the editor of Westchester Family and a children’s book enthusiast.


Download free activity pages based on Van Fleet Books eaturing mazes, a mermaidinvitation and coloring pages at http://pages.Simonandschuster.com/vanfleetbooks/downloadables

Updated 2:51 pm, May 30, 2012
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