David Ezra Stein on Beaky Barnes: Egg On The Loose | Interview
Every day for lunch health and safety inspector Cobb has a fried egg sandwich. One day, the egg slides out from between the two pieces of bread and plops on the ground. He will need a replacement egg. He visits the local cafe, where the chef informs him he is all out of eggs…in fact, the whole town is out of eggs! Luckily, an inventor and a large chicken have just come to the cafe for lunch, and the chicken lays an egg. But this chicken’s not giving up her egg to be turned into a sandwich! A madcap, three-way chase ensues as everyone seems to be after huge hen Beaky Barnes and her precious egg.
That’s the premise of Beaky Barnes: Egg On The Loose, the debut graphic novel from David Ezra Stein, the Caldecott honor-winning children’s book author responsible for Dinosaur Kisses, My Own Dog and, perhaps most famously, Interrupting Chicken.
We spoke with Stein about what it was like moving from picture books to comics, and what makes chickens interesting characters.
What prompted you to make a graphic novel at this point in your career?
Stein: Like many artists, I emulate the things I love in my work. For me that is a ton of picture books, but also old movies, commercials, comic strips, radio shows, TV animated series, graphic novels. Things like the Disney Afternoon, Garfield, Tintin, Seinfeld, Calvin and Hobbes, Abbott and Costello, daytime TV commercials, Batman: The Animated Series, Buster Keaton, Groucho Marx, Mad Magazine and on and on. All things I love from my own childhood.
Making my own graphic novel allowed me to stretch my wings and to pay homage to so many more things that don’t quite fit into picture books—ideas with a certain irreverence that need an older kid who has some perspective to appreciate. That, and it’s fun to try a new format and reach out to a new audience. I have the kind of brain that’s always seeking novel challenges and I certainly found them here! As well as plenty of fun wing stretching.
Did you find the graphic novel format challenging in any ways, or was it a lot like making a picture book, only longer?
Stein: As I alluded to above, yes, it was very challenging in some ways. The sheer amount of art necessary for a graphic is about in this case four times as many pages, with about four to eight panels on each page. That amounts to approximately 500 to 800 individual little paintings. I approached the art as I would a picture book, and soon found that my methods became pretty grueling over the span of such a large work. I really did enjoy the inking and painting, though.
The layout took way longer than a picture book would usually take. I wanted to make the panels the right sizes, and make sure each page of panels looked good as a whole. I used the panels to help tell the story—for example, a circular one for an intimate moment or moment of closure.
The writing was also painstaking, weaving everyone’s storylines together. But, I was able to work in a way native to how I work in my sketchbooks. In other words, I was able to doodle action and dialogue at the same time, as I do for many of my books, and then from that create a storyboard of the entire work. To be brief, I think in comics anyway, so in this case that worked really well.
From your perspective, are there a lot of similarities between children’s picture books and comics, in terms of format?
Stein: There are some. There is a cinematic aspect to picture books that comics share. And nowadays, the lines between the two formats are blurring in lots of interesting ways. Both have visual beats that tell a story, often with the visuals carrying a lot of the weight. But in a picture book, you don’t show as much sequential action. The beats are usually spaced further apart. That said, Beaky Barnes is something of a hybrid in format—the book is substantial and has a hard cover like a picture book, but is bursting with comics on the inside!
Readers will notice that, like one of your best-known books, Beaky Barnes also stars a chicken. What makes chickens attractive protagonists to you?
Stein: Ah, yes! I’ve been getting this question a lot. I think Beaky is a long lost cousin to the little red chicken of my Interrupting Chicken books. While she is the smartest in the town, she hardly speaks, only clucking, really. And I found that so fun to play with. The little red chicken talks a lot! So they are kind of opposites in a way.
Chickens are fascinating to me; we (some of us) eat them, they are so vocal and funny. There’s something human about them—maybe from their proximity to us humans in such a significant role. They are both commonplace and majestic, unpredictable and mundane. Vegetarian but carnivorous. They have dinosaur ancestry but are domesticated. I think there’s a graduate paper in here somewhere!
Did you have an ideal reader in mind while making the book?
Stein: My son Sam was about eight or nine when I began this Beaky Barnes project. He was the biggest cheerleader of the project from jump. He read the dummy layouts without my asking him to. He even wrote a book report on the unfinished book in fourth grade! I dedicated the book to him.
Have you received feedback from any young readers yet? Have you been pleased with the reception so far?
Stein: A kid-written review I read lately said she hoped for a sequel! I have gotten some of the best reviews of my career on this book. That feels so wonderful—to be welcomed to a new form, genre and audience with such warmth.
Do you have plans for future graphic novels, either starring Beaky Barnes or other characters?
Stein: Funny you should ask—there is a sequel to Beaky due out this fall: Beaky Barnes and the Devious Duck! I hope you will nab a copy when it’s on the loose!
Filed under: Interviews
About J. Caleb Mozzocco
J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.
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