Pete Oswald is the Greatest, Happiest Children’s Illustrator You’ve Never Heard Of
"I still pinch myself. I'm getting to do something that I love and that I started doing as a child and I think that's really special and I'm very fortunate."
Pete Oswald has animated and illustrated some of your kid’s favorite movies and books. Angry Birds? Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs? ParaNorman? Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends? He’s got his fingers — and paints — on all of them and more coming out all the time. His latest book, The Bad Seed, which he illustrated with author Jory John, was on Amazon’s list of the Best Children’s Books of 2017 (and for good reason, it’s excellent). Which is all to say that Oswald’s ever-expanding body of work makes him one of the most influential artists working on children’s books and movies. It’s for the best. Oswald has been training for this gig his whole life.
Raised by an art teacher, who tutored both him and other children in the family basement, Oswald grew up loving to draw. It’s part of who he is and part of the glue that holds his family together, which is why he’s already teaching his two sons to scribble. But it’s not just about the joy of creation for Oswald. You don’t get to work on LEGO movies just because you enjoy making art. It’s about excellence and, even more than that, producing work that is worthy of a young, imaginative audience.
Oswald spoke to Fatherly about his process and what he demands of himself.
What makes a narrative for kids appealing to you as an illustrator or animator? Are there things that you look for or is it just a big sense of, “Yeah, I can draw that”?
I usually tend to like stories that don’t try to teach something. With “The Bad Seed,” Jory John and I were trying to tell a story about a seed that has this traumatic event in his life and decides he wants to make a change. What I love about him is that he doesn’t necessarily make a total change: He’s human, like all of us. He still does bad things. He still talks on his phone during the movies. He still sometimes forgets to wash his hands. But, in the end, he wants to become a good seed.
From the inception, it was more about, let’s tell a story about an interesting character, and then the lesson might just come from that. Instead of starting with let’s teach kids about this. I think it’s better to tell a story about an interesting character and then see what happens on that journey.
Since you are the visual guru, what do you think makes a visually compelling story for children?
There are tons of children’s books out there. The really successful ones are the ones that pair imagery and words together where they complement each other. They’re not being redundant. The words aren’t saying one thing and then the illustration is saying the exact same thing. The illustrations that I respond to are things that aren’t necessarily in the text. You’re drawing something that isn’t being said in the text, so that the two work together.
Do your kids understand that you’re behind some Oscar-nominated work or their favorite books?
They get it a little bit. I’ll go to their schools, and I’ll read the books, and we’ll talk about what an illustrator and writer does. But it’s also probably, “Don’t all dads do that?” Growing up, I know I thought all parents did whatever my parents did. But I think they enjoy it because I love it. I want to pass that down to them: following what makes you happy. I’ve seen people fail at things they don’t even love doing. If you can fail at that, it might as well be something that you love.
I grew up loving to draw, and it was a natural thing to came to me, but it’s something that I have to work at. It’s like going to the gym. You have to keep up your creative thoughts and your drawing skills.
It is something that I’m constantly working at. That’s one part about this that I love. I could never be the best. I’ll always work toward getting better, and growing, and having better creative thoughts and becoming a better draftsman. I’m never like, ‘I made it, I’m at the pinnacle, I’m done!’ It’s a constant work and love.
I didn’t know you were a dad! That must have changed your work tremendously.
I have two boys. They’re four and six years old. They’re very opinionated and they have great ideas. After I had kids, it made me look at my work differently. I thought about some of the decisions that I wouldn’t have thought about before having kids, like about how to tell a story.
One of my favorite things to do with the boys is we draw all the time. We’ll get paper out and stuff, and I’ll say, “Let’s tell a story together.” They’ll each come up with one part of the story. For example, one of my sons wanted to draw a dragon and one of them wanted to draw a cheetah. The oldest one was like, “Let’s draw a dragon cheetah. Let’s combine them.” I was like, “That’s a brilliant idea. I would have never thought about that. Let’s imagine this fantastical creature.” I love that type of spontaneity you don’t get all the time when you’re dealing with adults.
You must see the parallel between your mother drawing with you from a very young age and now you’re doing it with your own sons.
Yes, for sure. They don’t have to be artists. When they grow up, they can be whatever they want to be. But I want to instill in them that it’s good to use that creative side of your brain and express that, because everybody has it. It doesn’t matter if you’re an artist or not.
I’m a big advocate of expressing yourself in a visual form. It’s one of the ways I express my emotions. Kids just naturally pick up crayons and pencils and they’ll draw. It may not look like anything, but they’re using a different part of their brain, and expressing a different part of their thoughts than I think they would just talking or playing or being on the iPad.
What’s the best part about sharing your work with your kids?
I have a lot of great projects and movies and films, but the “Bad Seed” has just been a really great book. I think because of my son’s ages right now, they really enjoyed it, and I feel like I’ve really connected with them and their friends.
I still pinch myself. I’m getting to do something that I love and that I started doing as a child and I think that’s really special and I’m very fortunate.