“When I’m drawing pictures for children in picture books, I know they’re going to get stuff that maybe they don’t have the actual vocabulary to articulate, but they will take in the story on a really deep level.” Zibby talks with Marla Frazee, the author, and illustrator for favorites like Boss Baby and The Farmer and the Circus, about how she always knew she wanted to work with picture books. Marla also shares how adult emotions like heartbreak have inspired her children’s books and the advice she tries to pass on to all of the artists who take her illustration class.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Marla. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Marla Frazee: Thank you, Zibby. It’s so good to be here. Thank you for having me. I’m excited.

Zibby: It’s a pleasure. As I’ve told you, I know this has taken several tries to connect, but my kids, throughout the years, have loved the things that you’ve worked on, and especially the Clementine series and all those illustrations. I read the Clementine series with my older daughter and my younger daughter, mostly read it to her. Such a huge fan. I have so much respect. Boss Baby, oh, my gosh, you’ve done the coolest stuff. Thanks for coming on.

Marla: Thank you.

Zibby: Your latest book series, The Farmer and the Monkey, The Farmer and the Circus, The Farmer and the Clown. This is the most recent, correct, Farmer and the Clown?

Marla: No, that came out in 2014.

Zibby: Okay, so I’m messing it all up already.

Marla: That’s okay. Four years later, I decided to tell the rest of the story. When The Farmer and the Clown came out, to me, it was a singular book. I had no intention of doing two more books.

Zibby: Then what happened? Wait, go back. Tell me about doing The Farmer and the Clown to begin with. What inspired this book? Then how did you end up revisiting it?

Marla: The funny thing was I went to a clown performance at my son’s high school. I have three sons. Maybe the youngest was still in high school. I’m not quite sure that makes sense. He wasn’t in the clown show. I just went to this performance. I knew some of the kids. It was really evocative. They had kind of adopted their own persona for a clown character and then pantomimed to music, whatever their story was. It had a silent film aspect. I was really intrigued. I was thinking about clowns after that. I don’t really even like clowns. I kept thinking, I want to do a clown book. All the ideas I had just didn’t go anywhere. Then one day, I was riding my bike on a beach. I was on a beach vacation with my family. I just stopped and thought, oh, my god. I just saw the two characters. There’s a kind of stern, Amish-looking farmer holding the hand of this little baby clown. They were together. I thought, why? Why are they together? I have to figure out why. I started to spin out what became the beginning of the story. The farmer’s in his field. A circus train goes by. Something falls off the back. He goes to investigate. It’s a baby clown in his field. I had to get it down on paper. That’s how it started. When I told the story of The Farmer and the Clown and I started to draw it, I realized that because it was about two characters who look one way but are actually a different way — we kind of assume they’re one way. We assume the farmer’s sort of a grumpy, grouchy farmer. The clown is smiling, so we assume it’s a little, happy character. In reality, they’re both very different. The farmer’s actually very kind and nurturing. The clown is not happy. When the makeup comes off, he’s lost and scared. I decided to tell it in a wordless way because I didn’t want to tell the viewer what was happening. I wanted to show them, much as it is when we’re out in the world and we have a first impression and then we realize we were wrong about that. That’s how it became wordless. That’s the beginning of what has now become a trilogy.

Zibby: Then what made you come back to it? Why these two? image of a monkey?

Marla: I’ve had insomnia off and on my whole life. I remember when I was in fifth grade, I think that’s when it really started. I wasn’t sleeping because I was just anxious about fifth-grade things, which were a big deal. We always have things that are big deals. It was a big deal. In 2018, I was going through a significant breakup. I was heartbroken. I didn’t sleep for a long time, like really seriously didn’t sleep. I felt like I was losing my mind. I was trying everything. I talked to anybody I met. Have you ever had insomnia? Then they would give me an idea, that I could try whatever. I tried all kinds of things. The thing that I remembered is that when I worked on The Farmer and the Clown, I was, at that time, from 2013 and ’14 when I was working on it, going through a divorce. During those days of lawyers and mediation stuff, I would come home from all that, it was so stressful, and I would do the art for that book. It would kind of calm me down. I thought, instead of trying to think about my life and all the stuff that was going on, I’ll just think about the landscape of the farmer. I’m going to go back into that story and just spin out what happened to the little clown when he returned to his clown troupe. He had to have changed.

What happened to the farmer when he returned home? What happened when he realized the monkey had followed him home? All the threads that were there, I just started to spin out in my mind. I had this story I wanted to tell. As I was going through this breakup, I reimagined a love story. It was a love story in three parts. It was a love story I could control. I needed to tell it. I called my editor, Allyn Johnston of Beach Lane Books. She published the first one. I said, “I have a question for you. You might not want to do this, but what if we did two more books?” She was like, “Okay.” I cleared the deck and did the two books in a row. Here they are. I’m really proud of them. It was a very personal story to tell, and not easy because there are three books that go in order. There’s a beginning and a middle and an end. I wanted each of those books to stand on their own. Then I also wanted there to be a larger narrative arc with the three books so that the end felt like a finale. I also wanted to make sure, as I did the work, that I wasn’t adding something extraneous. I was just pulling on the threads that were already there in the first book. I was real proud when I finished. I’m real excited about it and happy with it.

Zibby: The real question is, did you then fall asleep? Did it help the insomnia at all?

Marla: We’ve had a pandemic. Yes and no. Yes, it got better. I think you have to train your body back into sleep. There’s a book I read during that time, Insomnia by Marina Benjamin. Do you know that book?

Zibby: Mm-mm. (negative)

Marla: It’s a beautiful book. That really helped me. She just explores insomnia from a place of not being a negative thing, but actually a place that can be a creative space to be in.

Zibby: Have you read Samantha Harvey’s? It’s called A Night of Sleepless Unease.

Marla: No, but I’m writing this down.

Zibby: You should read that. It’s almost like poetry at times. She could not sleep for a long time. She felt like she was going crazy. That was part of what she ended up writing about, was this examination of the not sleeping.

Marla: That’s a very similar premise to Insomnia. I’m going to get that book. That’s great.

Zibby: It was good. Or listen to my podcast with her.

Marla: I’ll do that too.

Zibby: Insomnia’s no joke. I went through periods of that. I’m always afraid it’s going to come back. Every night, I’m like, I hope not. I remember I would call my grandmother. I would be like, “I can’t sleep. I’m having such trouble sleeping.” She’s like, “So? You’ll be tired.”

Marla: That’s a good way to look at it.

Zibby: That always made me feel better because it’s like, okay, you’re right. What’s the worst that’s going to happen? I’m going to have a terrible day tomorrow. All right, well, I’ve had terrible days before. I’ll get through them. For me, it was so much the anxiety that was keeping my brain going.

Marla: I started to grade myself. In the morning, I’d be like, I failed. That was an F. Then other nights, it’d be like, well, it was a D+, that’s better, or C-. When I got into the B range, I thought, good for me. This is great. I’m not an A+ sleeper. I don’t expect to be. That’s okay.

Zibby: The way people’s minds work, it’s so interesting. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have these books sitting here. Your creativity, maybe that’s just part of the makeup of it. There are pros and cons, right?

Marla: That’s a good way to look at it too. As a result, I have this project that consumed me for six years. I feel like all my books are really personal to me. They come out of periods of my life that I wouldn’t have been to do them at any other time of my life. They just are very organic to whatever I’m going through. These books, more than most of my books, they feel almost like dreams I’ve had that are now manifested as a physical object, which is weird. It’s a weird feeling. That’s my relationship to these books.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Think about all the people who can’t — like me. I can’t draw for anything. To be able to have the craziness of your own dream suddenly be out of your head and to finally be able to put it to bed, if you will, that’s great. It’s like, okay, boom, now I can sleep again. Not to totally pry, but what happened with the heartache piece of it? Did you get over that? Did you find new happiness? Are you okay?

Marla: I am okay. I’m in a new relationship that became part of my life while I was working on the finishes to the second and third book, which was interesting because the story I was telling myself was to heal myself. Long story, I needed to get on with things. Then there were these echoes in which I was as surprised as the characters in the book, myself personally. One of the things I wanted to do with these books — I focus on the audience of children who may not know how to read yet. That’s my audience. They’re really so visually literate. They can read pictures better than people who do read words because that’s how they get their information, and so they take all the time they need to soak in the pictures. They see everything. They follow stories well beyond their capacity to read the meaning from words. When I’m drawing pictures for children in picture books, I know they’re going to get stuff that maybe they don’t have the actual vocabulary to articulate, but they will take in the story on a really deep level. What I wanted to do with these books is kind of show how people fall in love, how grown-ups fall in love, to children because it really impacts their lives, especially if they’re stepkids or adopted kids. Families get formed in all kinds of ways. All of a sudden, they have this life because people have fallen in love with each other and form families. I really wanted to show that. How does that happen?

I feel like one of the ways that I think it happens in the most positive sense is that we are just, if we’re open to experiences and if we’re sometimes — just because of random connections and serendipitous occurrences, these things happen. You follow it. Then in retrospect, it makes total sense. Oh, of course, these two met and maybe fell in love with each other and formed this life together. When it’s happening, it’s maybe because of all these other extraneous things that are going on. When the farmer, who lives alone and was probably totally fine doing so, finds this clown in his field and he decides and knows he’s the one that needs to care for this lost clown, and does, he’s taking himself out of himself and doing what needs to be done. When he returns the clown to the train and the clown troupe, the clown parent who I’m going to call she, but who knows, she is so grateful, obviously, and relieved to have her baby back and sees this farmer who helped that happen. It’s not like that was obvious in the first book, but when you think about it, what that connection was — then the little clown goes off in the third book, and he’s no longer a clown. He’s sort of a farmer now. He wants to play-act what he saw the farmer doing. When she then sees him again, that connection’s already been made before they even knew it through the conduit of this child. I just wanted to manifest that in some way that a child could access.

Zibby: Sorry, my dog is snoring under my chair. Do you hear that? Can you hear it?

Marla: Aw, my dog’s here, not snoring.

Zibby: I was like, oh, my gosh, my microphone’s going to pick this up. I keep trying to nudge her awake. Anyway, that’s a beautiful way to tell a love story, and so unique and amazing. How did you get into this whole line of work to begin with? How do you decide when you’re going to do a book all on your own versus collaborate and do illustrations? How did that all happen to you?

Marla: I’ve always wanted to do it. Really, since as far back as I can remember, I wanted to write and illustrate children’s books because I fell in love with children’s books as a little kid. I was really lucky because I grew up in a house with books. My mom had been an elementary school teacher and went back to it after we went to elementary school. We had her teaching stuff. Among that stuff was a book that I loved, The Carrot Seed. We had access to the public library in town. My mom would take us. I would look at books there. Our elementary school had a library. A lot of elementary schools no longer do. The ones that do are so fortunate. I just loved books. I wanted to do it. I loved drawing. I loved reading. That was what I always said I wanted to do. Then I went to ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, majored in advertising illustration, then focused it more on illustration. Even though I really wanted to do children’s books, there weren’t, at that time, classes on it. There wasn’t that much going on in Southern California having to do with publishing.

I did get out of school and had a portfolio that I just kept sending to publishing houses and hoping to get published. At that time for many years, I was getting a lot of commercial work in advertising and textbook illustration and editorial stuff, but I could not break into publishing. That took a while. That took a long time. Then when I finally did, I was published as an illustrator. Did a number of books before I actually wrote and illustrated. Then when that first started to take hold, I was really grateful about that. It’s a whole different process to write and illustrate your own work and to illustrate somebody else’s manuscript. Then I would kind of alternate. That was the rhythm I got into for a while. I would illustrate somebody else’s manuscript. Then I would be cooking up something that I could do of my own. Now it’s not as organized, but that’s sort of what I try and do.

Zibby: Then was it just the coolest thing when Boss Baby became — what was that like for you?

Marla: Unbelievable. When the book came out, before the book was actually published — I think it was at the Bologna Book Fair. It was almost published. Somebody from DreamWorks, a development person, saw it and wanted to option it. I heard about that before the book was out. I was like, great, that’s fantastic news, but I didn’t really think it was going to become a movie. They optioned it for a feature-length film. I thought, what would that even be? What would it even look like? It’s a thirty-two-page picture book. I just didn’t expect it, which was probably a good attitude to have about it. I thought, if it happens, that would be amazing, but it probably won’t happen. Then it kept moving through the process. Six, seven years later, it was a film. It was just so fun. I live in Pasadena. DreamWorks is in Burbank, or Glendale. I don’t know. It’s twenty, fifteen minutes away from me. They would invite me occasionally to the studio to see where they were with the process of making it. It was always so fun and exciting to get a peek into what that was. I’ve always loved animation. My first job out of school was to work at Disney for a second. I worked there for a second. Then I left to freelance. I know how much I love animation, but I don’t know anything, really, about it. I know the creativity that goes into it. I’m just in awe of a lot of aspects of it. Meeting the people that were working on it and seeing the passion that they had for what they were doing, it was fun. It was so fun. I had a great time.

Zibby: That’s amazing. How great. I used to work in Pasadena, by the way. I worked there for a year and a half or something like that.

Marla: Oh, yeah?

Zibby: At Idealab. Did you ever hear of that company? It was on West Union Street or something.

Marla: I did.

Zibby: This is twenty years ago, more than twenty years. This is embarrassing. Yeah, more than twenty years ago.

Marla: Was it a design firm?

Zibby: It was an internet incubator. We launched all these internet businesses. It was really fun at the time. It was a big deal when it was there. Then it kind of disappeared. Although, I have to say, I did go back recently with my husband. It still is there. It’s in a different form. I took him inside. I was like, “Hey, I used to work here. Is Pat, the office manager, still here?” They’re all like, “Who are you?” Don’t you remember me from 1999? It’s like an episode of Back to the Future or something. They didn’t let me in. I was like, “Just peek around the corner.” My husband’s like, “What are you doing?” I was like, “That’s my desk over there.” It was ridiculous. So when you decided what Clementine should look like, just because I love that series so much, tell me about that process. Did she just pop into your head? How do you design a whole new person who people will relate to? By the way, why is that not a movie or a series or something? It should be, right?

Marla: Yeah, it would be a great series or something. Sara Pennypacker who wrote the Clementine books — they’re so funny.

Zibby: They’re so funny.

Marla: They’re so funny. Before I saw that manuscript, I had been saying to people who were sending me manuscripts to potentially illustrate as picture books, “You know what I’m looking for? I would like to illustrate a chapter book much like the Beverly Cleary books. I loved those books. I would love to try my hand at that.” At the time, there weren’t that many chapter books that were illustrated being done. People would say repeatedly to me, “Well, yeah, those books were great, but we’re not really doing those anymore.” My agent is Sara Pennypacker’s agent, Steve Malk. He sent me this twenty-five-page manuscript that Sara had written that was sort of the beginnings of Clementine. It wasn’t the full first chapter book. It was her character. It was her voice. It was the situation. I read it. I was like, “I’m in. I want to do this so badly.” Then it became seven books over the course of, I don’t know, it was at least seven years, maybe more. I have three boys. At the time, most of their friends that would play in our yard and in our house were boys. I kind of needed a girl of the age of Clementine that I could hang out with. One of my friends’ daughters, Kate, was my Clementine model. I would go hang out with her and take pictures of stuff in her room and just listen to her talk about her friends.

Then I did a lot of exploratory drawing in which Clementine — I was trying to figure out how to draw her, what she would look like, how realistic, how cartooned. It wasn’t until I drew her waiting to see the principal in the corridor outside of the principal’s office, how Clementine would wait to see the principal — she’s all squirmy in the chair. Actually, the chair’s like a jungle gym, the way she sprawled all over that chair. It was at that moment, it was like, I get you. I see who you are now. This is my way into this character. Then I knew how to draw her. She kind of became herself in drawing that sequence. Sometimes it’s time. I think it’s often time. Most of the time when I start a book, like any first draft, all the first sketches, they’re surface. They’re sometimes stereotypical. They’re just generic. I have to really deepen it. That usually, for me, takes time. It’s just, I have to have more time in. It’s like peeling back an onion. What am I try to get at here? Then when I finally find it, the hope is that it was just sort of a discovery. It was already there. I just need to investigate it further. I’m not the fastest illustrator. In fact, I’m not. I allow myself to have that time because I feel like the book is going to benefit from that.

Zibby: So it’s a good thing you don’t sleep. It all works out. You need that time.

Marla: That’s right.

Zibby: What advice would you have to aspiring authors or illustrators?

Marla: I teach, and so I’m often giving what you might call advice. One of the things I’ve done over the last many years, maybe five, six years, is — a lot of my students are illustrators. They come to me as illustrators drawing people. Some of them don’t. Some of them have been writers or they’re just lawyers or whatever they might have been doing in their life. They enter my class or workshops without a drawing background. I’ve been encouraging all of the students to stay in drawing a lot, as long as possible. I thought about it a lot. We all drew when we were children. People who grew up to draw for a living maybe liked it more and felt more at home in the process of drawing, but we all drew. When we can access that place again, our child self sitting there just being lost in the process of drawing, things happen. Things can bubble up. I encourage my students to find that place. Especially if they’ve been working as a working illustrator, you kind of lose that because there are all these shoulds about, I should be more this way. I should try this. I should get out of my comfort zone. Actually, when we get into your comfort zone, that place, and you’re relaxed, some pretty amazing things happen, the bubbling up of those drawings or stories, whatever it is that you’re thinking about. What you love to doodle or process or the thing you love to draw, that’s a good place to start. I encourage that a lot. I think it’s also just meditative and good for us, a place where we might be able to take a break from the world at large.

Zibby: Aw, I love that. Marla, it was so nice to talk to you. Thank you so much for coming on this podcast. Thanks for sharing the fact that these books were sort of inspired by your divorce and love life. Who knew? I never would’ve thought. All of your contributions, I love it. As a mom who devours picture books and chapter books and has been reading for so long, your name has been a through line for me as my kids have gone — my older ones are almost fourteen. Thank you for everything.

Marla: Thank you, Zibby. It was a pleasure. Thank you.

Zibby: Have a great day. Thank you.

Marla: You too. Thanks for being patient. It was great to talk to you. Thanks so much.

Zibby: Bye.

Marla: Bye.



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