The Colorful, Comical World of Children’s Author and Illustrator Marty Kelley

by Pamme Boutselis

Marty Kelley is the author and illustrator of seven children’s picture books, including “Fall Is Not Easy,” “The Rules, “Summer Stinks,” “Winter Woes,” “Spring Goes Squish!” “The Messiest Desk” and “Twelve Terrible Things.” He is also the illustrator of three children’s books, “Crustacean Vacation,” “Before We Met You” and “Joe and the Frog.” Kelley’s new release, and first chapter book, “Fame, Fortune, and the Bran Muffins of Doom” debuted this fall.

A former second grade teacher, Kelley has been a baker, a cartoonist, a newspaper art director, a balloon delivery guy, an animator and the drummer in a heavy metal band. His latest gig as a writer and illustrator is one he plans to hold onto because as he says, “There are few other jobs where being able to paint a perfect booger-bubble is an actual job requirement.” Kelley is a popular artist-in-residence, regularly visiting schools for classroom and teacher workshops, presentations and multi-day artist-in-residence sessions. Visit his website to learn more about his books and author/illustrator appearances.

Author and illustrator Marty Kelley

How did you find a publisher for your first book, “Fall Is Not Easy”?
I got lucky pretty quickly with that one. I had written a simple, rhyming book about a tree whose leaves didn’t look right in the fall. I went searching for a publisher in the “Children’s Writers and Illustrator’s Market.” After just one rejection, I found a publisher looking for “rhyming books with quirky, off-beat humor.” They bought it right away. I do feel the need to point out that “Fall Is Not Easy” was not the first book I tried to get published. I had collected file folders full of rejections before I got an acceptance. The industry is ferociously competitive and is only getting more so.

Was the process simpler with subsequent books with that same publisher?
It was, but only with that publisher. They were a very small publishing company and I was eventually able to basically take over the entire design process for the books I did with them. It was fun to be able to have nearly total control over the look of the books I did with them. Now, however, it’s like starting over when I approach any new publishing company. Having an agent helps and having a publishing history helps, but selling each new book is like applying for a brand-new job: scary; exciting, frustrating and if you’re lucky, rewarding.

How has your experience as an elementary school teacher helped you in creating your author visit and writer-in-residence programs?
Kids are strange and delightful little creatures and you really have to know how to interact with them. It’s not enough to simply be a good writer or illustrator. You have to be able to really work with kids. Being a classroom teacher gave me invaluable insight about how to structure my presentations and workshops. My teaching experience also gave me a big head start by virtue of the fact that I know how to talk to kids; not at them or worse still, above them or down to them. I keep my presentations fast, fun and engaging so kids don’t even know they’re learning. I’m sneaky like that.

What comes first for you, characters or storyline?
Each book is an entirely different process and each one comes to me in a different way. Sometimes the story idea comes first, sometimes the characters; rarely, but occasionally, a story develops out of an interesting idea for a title. Many times, one project starts off with a bang, but winds up failing spectacularly, only to be reborn in some entirely new way, inspired by the previous failure. I’m a huge advocate of failure. I do it often and I do it well. As long as I learn from that failure, it’s okay.

When you’re writing and illustrating a new book, what challenges you the most?
I generally find the preliminary illustration to be the most challenging; deciding what the book is going to look like. Will it be goofy or realistic? What medium will I work in? What style or look will best complement the text? I work in a wide variety of styles from very realistic to wildly cartoonish and matching up the pictures and the words is definitely my biggest challenge.

What do you enjoy the most?
Those six-figure advances. The rocket-powered limos to every school visit. The hordes of screaming groupies. At least, I’m sure they’d be my favorite things if I ever got any of them. Honestly, I really enjoy the fact that I have a job I absolutely love. There are frustrating parts, just as with any job, but I genuinely love what I do and I know a lot of people who aren’t that lucky. I don’t know any rich authors, but for the most part, we’re a pretty happy bunch of people. Probably because we rarely get out of our pajamas.

What led to writing a chapter book?
My old pal, failure. I wrote and illustrated a picture book about a boy named Albert who was trying to tell his friends about his really, really boring vacation. They all leave before he can unveil the one really exciting thing about his vacation. The chapter book has absolutely nothing to do with that book at all. The editor I sent it to (who is now my agent) thought the story was better suited to a chapter book for 8-10 year olds. Being a stubborn, pig-headed sort of guy, I didn’t agree. I took the basic idea of the main character and gave him some friends and started writing stories about them. The chapter book that was finally published, “Fame, Fortune, and the Bran Muffins of Doom,” was the third chapter book I wrote about the kids. It took me that long to develop the characters to the point that they could function realistically in a story and to come up with a story strong enough to last for 150 pages.

How important is it for writers to self-market?
More important than oxygen. Unless you’re J.K. Rowling or someone, publishers are very unwilling to spend any money to market your books. They only spend money on the authors that already make money which, to my thinking, is counter-productive. I spend many hundreds of dollars each year promoting my school visits and my books. I print and mail postcards, posters, design and maintain websites for the books, write and record songs and make videos. I even taught myself how to make a video game for the new chapter book.

It’s fun, but sometimes, it seems to take as much time as the writing the books. My brother is fond of telling me that I spend more time talking about what I do than actually doing what I do. The sad part is that he’s totally correct.

What are some of the benefits of what you do that you hadn’t anticipated?
Being interviewed in prestigious magazines.

What’s one thing you know now about writing that you wish you knew when you started?
I knew it then, and I know it even more now, but I still struggle with how slow publishing is. My agent once told me that publishing operates on a geological time-scale. Sometimes I think that was an understatement. I get very excited about any new project I start and it’s very difficult to be patient while agents, an editor and art directors all have their way with my work while I have to simply sit by and wait until I can continue working on it. There are generally a couple years between idea and completed book, although at times it seems like a couple centuries.