I’m allowed to be a fangirl once in a while, I think. Now I don’t often get a chance to interview an author or illustrator from my own youth. Inevitably they’re either dead or no longer working in the field of children’s literature. But you know, there was one artist around when I was a kid that has stayed in my brain. The guy who really introduced me firsthand to the works of C.S. Lewis, Kenneth Grahame, J.M. Barrie . . . basically almost every classic I know today. His name was Michael Hague and to this day the man is still working, still creating, still rocking. Mr. Hague was kind enough to acquiesce to an interview. Fabulous.
Fuse #8: Roughly speaking, how long have you been working in the business? And for that matter, how did you get your start?
Michael Hague: My first book was published in 1975. It was done for Hallmark. It was a pop up book. I was working at Hallmark and was doing illustrations for greeting cards at the time. After the illustrations were completed and sometime before the book was published I left Hallmark Cards and moved to Colorado Springs. When I finally I had a chance to see the finished book I discovered that someone at Hallmark had decided to have an artist draw a thick black line around everything. Apparently, my subtle line and color were not considered suitable for children. It was my first book and my first "book bitch". After graduating from Art Center College of Design in 1972 I sent portfolios to publishers in hopes of becoming a book illustrator. For five years I had not so much as a nibble but accumulated many nasty remarks from editors. My favorite was from an editor at Holt Rhinehart and Winston. The long and the short of it was that my work was too weird for children and that I should consider another profession. " Perhaps", she suggested (and people think I have made this up but I swear it is the truth) "you could learn to be a trucker." My first big break came from Trina Hyman, bless her, and Dilys Evans, who were the art directors for Cricket Magazine. Through their efforts I was given several covers to paint over the next few years. Soon thereafter I received book commissions and my career as an illustrator began.
F8: My primary association with you has to do with the books of yours I read as a child. For a while there every classic book a person could name was illustrated by Michael Hague. My mother actually framed your images from The Wind in the Willows to hang on our bedroom walls. And I maintain to this day that your Wizard of Oz was the best illustrated version ever made. How did you get into the classic illustration biz?
MH: My first major book was The Wind in the Willows, one of my all-time favorite stories. It sort of christened a new age and interest in classic children’s literature. The huge success of the book triggered the years of my illustrating other classics.
The book was initially shopped to all the major publishing houses but was rejected by every one. I was heartbroken. The book was not being turned down because of the illustrations but due to the format. It was to be a large, full-color book that was to be sold for an unheard of price of $17.00 and was to be marketed like an adult book. Most children’s books at that time were a fraction of that price. But then, Dick Seaver, from Holt, Rhinehart and Winston (yes the same publishers who advised me to learn to truck) came to the rescue. They bought the book and did an extensive and creative publicity campaign. To introduce the book at the ABA in Chicago (remember those days?) they threw an elaborate party at the Chicago Art Institute complete with string quartets performing on two floors and it rained the most sumptuous food and drink I had ever seen. People who attended still talk about it to this day. And there I was, a little nobody, the guest of honor. And I thought to myself, wow this is publishing! I wondered if they did this for every book. Well, of course they don’t, and I never had another book party that was on that scale. I am sad to admit that I never will again. The book became wildly successful and is still in print today. For better or worse it stamped me as the illustrator of classic books.
F8: These days your focus has shifted and your working on things like graphic novels. Why the switch?
MH: There are two reasons for delving into graphic novels. One would be the indifference of today’s publishers to my work. And the other is my creative need to do something of my own and expand to new horizons. The graphic novel, In the Small, was a first in many ways for me. It was a true learning experience. It was the first time I explored a different format; it was the first time I had attempted to write a complex story, and it was the first time I painted my illustrations using the computer. To be honest, the book displays all the awkwardness of a novice writer and illustrator. I think the idea was grand but the execution leaves something to be improved upon. I do not have any regrets for any shortcomings in the book and I am proud of certain parts. Everyone falls the first time they stand up. That is how an artist or anyone for that matter, learns and grows. I find it amazing that when I write I write for the fourteen year old that remains at the center of me. I like the same things that I liked as a fourteen year old. Either that is sad or refreshing. All I know is that I want the next book I write to be really cool.
I have just finished a large picture book of the song White Christmas for Harper Collins. Someone who saw the illustrations said that the colors looked like Christmas candy. I am currently working on a Book of Treasured Classics for Chronicle Books. It is a collection of classic stories such as The Gingerbread Man and Jack and the Beanstalk. I have also written a new book about a young King Arthur.
F8: What would you consider your dream illustration job? Which is to say, what is the book you’d just kill to illustrate at some point?
MH: My dream job would be to illustrate The Eye of Newt. It is the Arthur story mentioned above. My agent, Lisa Queen, has the synopsis and sketches now. If I can illustrate that book I would be very happy.
F8: Finally, who were your influences? I’m going to assume Rackham, but that might just be me projecting.
MH: My early influences were Hal Foster and Walt Disney. Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant was the only comic I was officially allowed to read. By officially, I mean Mum approved. I guess Prince Valiant was ok because my mom was British. All other comics were banned. She was certain I would become a juvenile delinquent if I read any of them. Thank God she never found my secret stash of Mad magazines.
In college I discovered the artists of the golden age of illustration: Arthur Rackham, W. Heath Robinson, The Detmold brothers, Heinrich Kley, T R Sullivant, Dulac, Wyeth.
I am still discovering illustrators, both new and old, who dazzle me with their talent.
Thank you so much for this interview.
F8: Well thanks for doing it, Michael! Much obliged and I can’t wait to see what you come up with next.