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Mr. Tiger Goes Wild: Author Peter Brown’s 2014 BGHB PB Award Speech

brown_mr tiger goes wildFirst, I have to thank my editor, Alvina Ling, who has become a great friend of mine. She lives two blocks away from me, so that’s pretty sweet. We get to go for the occasional cocktail on the company. It’s a totally legitimate business expense.

Alvina gives me lots of room to fall flat on my face, and I do, every time. Every book is an emotional roller coaster, and she lets me find my bearings. Then she’s there to pick me up off the ground when I need her help, which is often.

People ask me, “How did you get your first book deal?” wanting to hear me tell some horrible story of trials and tribulations. And I’m like, Oh, I was at this cocktail party ten years ago and I bumped into these young ladies. I started chatting them up, and one of them turned out to be a designer, and another was a publicist, and another an editor. I started talking about this book idea I had, and the editor gave me her card, and she’s edited every book I’ve ever written. I was so lucky that night not only to meet people in the publishing business but also to meet an amazing editor who worked at an amazing publisher. That was a big night for me.

Now, let me tell you a little bit about this book. We are all animals, even though we don’t feel like it. Human beings are animals; we know this, and yet most of us feel totally separate from the animal world. I don’t think children feel totally separate from the animal world. The younger they are, the less kids look at animals as being some other thing. Little kids crawling around on the floor with their dogs and their cats are just hanging out with their friends. I think kids have an interesting appreciation for animals that, unfortunately, the rest of us lose over the years. If a kid grows up in the countryside, as I did, I think they have an even greater appreciation and connection with animals, with wildness, with wildlife.

I grew up in New Jersey. Contrary to popular belief, there’s actually really beautiful countryside in New Jersey. I grew up near the Delaware River, where there are rolling hills and forests and farmland. I spent my youth in the woods, climbing trees, getting muddy, occasionally bringing home little animals from the woods. I would bring them home and be like, Why can’t I have a turtle? Why can’t I have a pet frog or a squirrel? I don’t see why I shouldn’t have a pet monkey. This, to me, makes perfect sense. My connection with the natural world translated to a love of animal characters as well. I loved animal book characters; I loved cartoon characters. Disney films were huge for me. I still love all of those things.

And so I’ve always been fascinated with the relationship between humans and wildlife, and wildness and wilderness. That inspired an earlier book of mine, Children Make Terrible Pets, where we see an animal and a person interacting in a really strange way. Instead of a kid bringing home a wild animal as a pet, as I used to do, it’s a wild animal who brings home a kid to be her pet.

I’m also interested in transformation, in metamorphosis. When I was a kid and saw butterflies come out of cocoons, it blew my mind — and it still does. Tadpoles turning into frogs: that is insane. My interest in transformation is one reason why I made The Curious Garden, about a boy tending to wildflowers growing in a gray, dreary city. We see, over the course of that book, a city transforming before our eyes.

I decided that I wanted to combine my two real passions, my love of wildness and wildlife and my love of transformation, into one story. I wanted to follow an anthropomorphic animal character — a character who does people things, wears clothes, rides bikes — as he gets in touch with the animal that he really is, a strange getting-to-know his true self. I wanted the arc of this story to be as extreme as possible. It had to start off with a character who’s super-proper, maybe an Edwardian-era character, and then the animal character had to become the opposite of that, which would be super-wild, maybe a tiger in a jungle. I thought that would be a pretty cool transformation to watch happen before our eyes: the least wild thing in the world turning into the most wild thing in the world, and the step-by-step progression of that transformation. That was the idea that started this book.

I started looking at some of my favorite books featuring animal characters. I went back to my favorites from childhood, like Frog and Toad. I love those stories now and I loved them when I was a kid, but when I was a kid I had some problems with them because I knew for a fact that frogs do not ride bicycles. I knew because I would pick them up out of the stream by my house. I knew that toads do not wear newsboy caps. And I wondered, do Frog and Toad eat sandwiches, or do they eat flies? They probably eat fly sandwiches.

But you see where I’m going with this. The Berenstain Bears always confused me because they don’t hibernate in winter. How can you be a bear and not hibernate? It feels pretty fundamental. When you’re a kid, bears equal hibernation. That is the thing. So to have a bear character who doesn’t hibernate was really confusing to me.

The animal character that confused me the most — and still does to this day — is Babar, the elephant.

As most of you probably know, the story starts off with Babar out in the wild with his mom. His mom gets shot by a hunter — which is awesome and crazy to have happen in a picture book, but that was another time — so the hunter brings the baby elephant into the city. And then Babar goes off on his own. He’s a wild elephant walking on four legs through this city. That’s super-cool. He walks right on into a department store. Amazing. He hops on the elevator, goes to the top floor — I’m totally into this — turn the page, and suddenly, he’s walking on two legs and wearing a suit.

One page turn, and he goes from four legs, naked, to two legs, clothed. In a single page turn. When I was a kid, I would look at the edge of the page. Is there some secret message on the edge? Because I need an explanation of what the heck just happened. But there was no explanation. I wanted to show that. That’s the story I wanted to tell, because — that page turn? That’s the whole story!

That was one of the inspirations for Mr. Tiger Goes Wild. I wanted to show the transformation that happened in a single page turn, spread out over, say, forty pages. I went back and looked at a lot of the classic books and Disney movies I loved as a kid. I started looking at the artists behind those Disney movies — people like Mary Blair and Gustaf Tenggren and Bill Peet, who did really amazing work for Disney films but who also did amazing picture books. Those artists led me to other mid-century illustrators such as Eyvind Earle, Alice and Martin Provensen, and Leonard Weisgard. A lot of them had crossover between animation and picture books, and they were exploring anthropomorphism with their characters.

Disney’s Robin Hood is a good example; he’s a fox, and most of the time he acts like a person. And then all of a sudden something’ll happen and he’ll snap his jaws. You see that fox that’s in there. So I watched these movies and I started going, Yeah, that’s cool. I’m gonna try that out, too, with my character. Suddenly I had inspiration for my characters, I had inspiration for my story, and I also had inspiration for visuals. All of those books are so beautiful; the design is impeccable. All of this started swirling together in my imagination, and I got down to business on this visual story.

I ended up with a story about a very proper tiger who is living in a very proper world and is bored with it. He decides to rebel against the monotony of his life and gets in touch with his inner wildness. He gets in touch with the tiger that was there all along underneath the suit and the top hat and the bow tie.

And along the way, he takes off all of his clothes.

Perhaps my proudest achievement is that I managed to put a nude centerfold in a picture book. It’s true. It was serendipity, because I didn’t mean for it to be the centerfold, but it totally is. I remember saying to Alvina, “Whoa…did you realize that it’s the centerfold where the character is first spread out across two pages, buck naked?” That, clearly, was meant to be.

Mr. Tiger Goes Wild is really about a character becoming his true self, which is pretty poignant stuff. The story is dripping with metaphors and meaning, but honestly I wasn’t thinking about any of that when I was working on the story. To me, it was just a thought experiment. I was thinking to myself, How can I tell a story with this huge character arc, where a character goes from as un-wild as possible to the wildest thing in the jungle? And I guess it turned out pretty well, because here I am accepting a Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for it.

For more on the 2014 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, click on the tag BGHB14.

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Comments

  1. I enjoyed his speech very much. It is clear that he has insight into the worldview of children…
    “But you see where I’m going with this. The Berenstain Bears always confused me because they don’t hibernate in winter. How can you be a bear and not hibernate?”

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