While at the Wizard World Austin Comic Con recently, I had a chance to chat with independent children’s book author, Donn Eric Paige.  His book Augusta Moon Dreams in Black and White is a fun, imaginative journey through a little girl’s mind as she dreams her way through the night.  We discussed the book, it’s genesis, and what goes into writing a book for children.
JASON HOWARD:  What was the inspiration for the character of Augusta Moon?

DONN ERIC PAIGE:  Augusta Moon was inspired by my son, Andrew Stone’s, music (http://andrewstone.bandcamp.com/). Besides being an incredibly gifted musician, Andrew’s unfettered lyrics are infused with dreamlike imagery.  He also doodles very simple “Star People” which became a sort of calling card for him. He would hand-paint them on t-shirts and sell them along with his CDs at his gigs.

It was from his music and images that Augusta Moon was born.  I began to ponder a little character riding a blueberry moonbeam to the stars.  At first, the character’s name was “Cutesy Button.”  But that did not sit well. Once I dropped Cutesy, the name “Augusta Moon” came to mind.  That’s the way it usually is with my characters: their names come to me quickly, then, soon after, their likenesses. It did not take long for me to draw Augusta with her pyramid like hair, sporting her polka dot bow.

Now, I did not wake up one morning saying, “Gee, I think I’ll write a children’s book.”  Writing a children’s book was nowhere on my radar.  You should know I came to Art late in life, although I had some gift for it very early on. But I never did anything with it until I was in my late forties.  Not being a trained artist I have always felt compelled when it comes to the creative process. I dive in arms flailing. I suppose it’s because I do not know what I’m doing when I start, and therefore, I usually learn as I go along.  Augusta Moon was no exception.  So, as is my way, I had a character, I had an idea, and I plunged ahead.

JH:  How would you describe what Augusta Moon Dreams in Black and White  is about?

DEP:  In my book, little Augusta Moon has nightmares full of howling hound dogs, hungry lions and tigers, skeletons in graveyards, moaning monkey ghosts, crying alley cats, evil-eyed vultures, screaming mummies, and even laser-blasting Martians. All the while Augusta and her teddy bear tremble in wide-eyed terror quivering under the blanket.

But then, all of a sudden, a remarkable thing happens. The Sun comes up.  And with the risen Sun all her nightmares flee away.  Poof, just like that!

Kids love it. They know that the scary characters in the book are somewhat silly, and are not to be taken too seriously.  But they are spooky enough to sympathize with poor hapless Augusta and her trembling Teddy Bear.

JH:  Did Augusta Moon have it’s genesis as a book first?

DEP:  Black and White is the second Augusta Moon story. The first Augusta Moon story has yet to be printed.

As I mentioned before, Augusta Moon was born from the words “She rides a blueberry moonbeam.” I started with that line and created the first Augusta Moon story, Augusta Moon And Her Dreamy Dreams. That story sees Augusta riding that blueberry moonbeam straight to the stars. In Dreamy Dreams she floats down river in one of her star lantern coats. She goes to Mars to buy Jupiter Ice Cream. Those are just a sampling of the dreams found there.

Well, I had completed the artwork for Dreamy Dreams and it was sitting around gathering dust.  Then, one day my wife, Sara, who was an elementary music teacher at Mililani ‘Ike Elementary School in Hawaii told me that she wasn’t looking forward to the upcoming school year because she just did not know how to fulfill the new Standards for her music class which now compelled her to include “literature” in her music class.

I casually stuck my thumb toward my doodle room and said, “Well, I have that children’s story you could use.”  She shrugged her shoulders and said, “Why not?”  So, she took the story to school and began to use it to help her with her music lessons.  Well, it was a smash. I decided to send it off to agents and publishers.  All I got back from them was chirping crickets.

In the meantime, I went up to help Sara by teaching art in her class, as per the Standards, by teaching the kids how to draw Augusta Moon.  Another smash hit!  The Semester ended and I was already pondering another Augusta Moon story.  I had the first line, “When Augusta Moon dreams in black and white hound dogs howl at the moon tonight.”

JH:  The black and white imagery really adds a lot of depth to the overall feel of the book and sets it apart from many other books for children.  What inspired you to go that route rather than full color?

DEP:  You know, I have been told that; that the book is rather singular–it sticks out.  Perhaps, there is a bit of one-upsmanship involved in it.  I admit I am like that.  Having not had any response to the first book by the powers that be, I got a bit of a chip on my shoulder.  “Oh, yeah? What about this?”  Childish perhaps, but whatever fuels the flame, right? So I really worked at creating a unique looking book.  The first story was very imaginative, I thought. Very cool. This Black and White one was going to grab you by the throat and not let you go!  You were either going to love it or hate it, but you can’t ignore it.

JH:  How important is it to foster a love of reading in children at an early age?  Do you feel that we’ve gotten away from that a bit?

DEP:  Of course it is important, but I wonder where we are headed. Doesn’t it seem as though the Art of Parenting is lost, if not completely dead?  Perhaps a way of pushing back is to take a tangible book and read it to your child.

I confess that I have been dragging my feet when it comes to digitizing Augusta Moon. Eventually I will get there, but in the meantime I can’t tell you the thrill it is to see the looks on the faces of the people who read my book for the first time.  We see this at the Comic Cons. There is always that illuminated smile that breaks across the face, followed by, “That’s cute!” And then, “How much is this?”

And, when I teach kids how to draw Augusta Moon, even though they have never heard of her before, they get so into it. They are making something, creating something.  If, as a complete stranger can have an impact on a child in such a way, how much more a loving parent dong it day by day?

JH:  I was first introduced to your book at the recent Wizard World Comic Con in Austin, TX and the response was overwhelmingly great.  Why do you think that your book resonates so well with an audience like that?

DEP:  Augusta Moon Dreams In Black And White does have  a comic book look and feel to it.  That might have something to do with it.  Behind that though, back in the 60s I was a big fan of Marvel comics. Spiderman, Iron Man, The Fantastic Four, Sergeant Fury and His Howling Commandos, The Avengers, the X-Men, I loved all that stuff.

Later as my sons grew up, I found comic books once again as they started to get into it. I was grooving on the whole Valiant line until it went south.  I had a thing for Magnus Robot Fighter. Fighting robots bare-handed; how cool is that?

We are doing Comic Cons now because, quite frankly, we tried to get our book into our local children’s boutiques and book stores but have received a chilly reception. However, local comic book stores like Augusta. Austin Book and Comics carries a few Augusta Moons and Dragon’s Lair Comics has done really well with our book and t-shirts.  So from there we ended up at the Comic Cons.

Another reason why we do so well is because it is a book well done. The artwork, as you mentioned earlier is unique to children’s books, and Comic Book people appreciate that.  When it comes to self-publishing you must sometimes be prepared to not only think, but do business outside the box.  A children’s book flourishing in comic book stores?  Not the road often travelled, but I’ll take it.

JH:  When writing literature for children, do you tend to start with a visual concept and let that inform the writing, or is it the other way around?  Or, do they both go hand in hand together?

DEP:  In the case of Augusta Moon, because it was a story in rhyme, the images must fit into the rhyming sequence. So, I have to come up with the images in rhyme first. However, during the creative process it is not a rigid dichotomy between words and images. Everything must be wrestled together, and that is the challenge.

JH:  When you sit down to write, are you more interested in working out a plot, or do you start with the characters and let it build from there?

DEP:  In the case of Black and White, I did not have a plot at all. I just had ideas for a series of spooky-kooky dreams. Well, now that you bring it up I did have a plot, but I had to abandon it early on. I had forgotten about that.

If you look closely at the howling hound dogs and the lions and tigers in the first spooky dream you will see that they are stuffed animals. My original thought was to have her stuffed animals and the various toys in her room haunt her dreams; a good idea, but too distracting; for what I wanted to achieve a bit too pretentious. Too clever for its own good.

I abandoned that and kept drawing the spooky dreams. At one point I needed a resolution, which I had not foreseen. That’s when the simple “Sun” idea struck me. And it appears to be effective. A simple solution to a complex problem.

JH:  What are some of the initial challenges and rewards when self-publishing a book?

DEP:  Of course, there is always the monetary challenge to self-publishing, which has been one of our greater challenges.  Our son, Jonathan, who is a graduate student at Arizona State had to come to our aid when we went to press.  The book would not exist without his help.  So you will always have that unless you are a person of means.

The second greatest challenge for me was designing the book. It is one thing to write the words and draw the pictures it is quite another thing to actually design it.  And because we had Augusta Moon Dreams In Black And White printed on a bona fide Heidelberg printing press–it is not digitally printed–it fell to me to have it press-ready. I had spent nearly twenty years of my life running a printing press so I knew how meticulous I needed to be with the set-up.

I had always hoped that a major publishing company would publish the book and that they would do the book design.  Now, it was all up to me.  This is the part of self-publishing proved to be the most difficult; I did not have the chops for it at all. But it fell to me and I just had to do it. So now when asked, “Did you write this and do the art?” I answer, “I did everything but print it.”

But the reward is I have in my hand a thing that I created. And it is a thing that others like so much they want to buy it.

Another challenge is marketing. Having not been able to generate, thus far, much of an online presence; and not finding a home in local bookstores (of which there are very few) and kid’s boutiques (of which there are many); we are now moving in an entirely unprecedented direction for a kid’s book: Comic Book Fandom. (Of which, fortunately, they are legion.)

We are selling the books one at a time; signing and personalizing each one as we go along. Although monetarily i is slow going the reward is tremendous. To witness first-hand the enthusiastic response to Augusta Moon on a one-on-one basis is a real thrill.

JH:  Are there aspirations to take Augusta Moon to any other mediums (film, tv, etc…)?

DEP:  Yes. I have a concept for an animated series.  Also, I have an idea about sleep ware line for kids, along with a complete outfitting of a kid’s bedroom. I have created a little video; a remix of the Dreamy Dreams story that is on youtube and at my place on Vimeo.  It’s called Augusta Moon and her Dreamy Dreams: REMIX (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-G5Mw2Qt9KI).  It’s a fun little thing. And I am at work as we speak on a Black and White REMIX featuring the music of Andrew Stone.   But as a one man operation things grind slowly. Hopefully, as we pick up speed I might be able to enlist the aid of talented true believers to help fulfill these ideas.

JH:  What other projects should our readers be on the lookout for, past and future?

DEP:  I am glad you ask.  I am very, very proud of my bumblebeegazette.com.  Although I have not worked on it in quite a while, it is a place where I pulled out all the stops.  The Bumble Bee Gazette is a newspaper that tells its stories in a series of comic strips. You click on a headline and up pops the stories.  It is set during the 1930s in a rural town called Bumble Bee, USA. However, it never gained ground. I maybe have an average of about 125 unique visitors a month.

I preside there under the pseudonym, Lee Roy King. I am Editor-In-Chief.  It is not so easy to describe–the best I can do is that it is American rustic humor and satire with a healthy mix of Buck Rogers-like Sci-fi. If you think that Augusta Moon is unique, you might want to check Bumble Bee out.  It is very different.

I have taken my rural characters to the Moon and Mars, and they have even solved a Hollywood Murder Mystery out there in LaLaLand.  I poured everything into that site and did not think that I could possibly squeeze out another ounce of creative anything as that sort of ran aground. Fortunately, I had a few drops left.

But right now I am preoccupied with Augusta Moon. We hopefully will see Augusta Moon And Her Dreamy Dreams in print soon.  I will be looking to self-publish that as well.

Also,  I am tinkering with a novel call The Chalkers.  It  is a fantastic story of young earthlings that possess a remarkable ability using a simple piece of chalk, and how they stir up intergalactic tension as they ply their craft.

I also have been whittling away at a Western that deals with the idea of the wrath of God.

JH:  What advice would you give to someone who wants to write a children’s book?

DEP:  The best thing to do is to start the process. If you have only a hunch, start with that and let it work its self out as you move along.  If you have a developed story then put it on paper.

Allow your imagination to guide you. Think of all the books that clutter a children’s section at a bookstore. Then consider the ones that have stood the test of time. More than likely they don’t really “teach” anything. They are imaginative expressions. Remember, weren’t those the books you loved as a kid?  Why do you think that now kids need to be “taught something?”

JH:  Where can readers go to get a copy of Augusta Moon?

DEP:  Right now I am doing this the old-fashioned way. I have not digitized Augusta Moon Dreams In Black And White.  Neither have I put it on Amazon.  I want to personalize as many books as I can before the train leaves the station and I have to go mass market.  So, your readers can contact me at dep@augustamoon.com. And I will let them know how to obtain an autographed, personalized copy.  If you live near Austin, TX you can find a copy either at Dragon’s Lair Comic or Austin Book and Comic.

Interview by Jason Howard, Influx Lead Writer