Jarrett and Jerome Pumphrey Talk with Roger

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Norton Young Readers

Brothers Jarrett and Jerome Pumphrey collaborated on a picture book text back when they were teenagers (see below); their sophomore effort, The Old Truck, finds them in charge of both text and pictures for a story about a girl, a truck, a farm, and a dream.

Roger Sutton: So who does what here?

Jarrett: We each take both roles, as writer and illustrator. We’ve been working together for a long time, and we found a way to collaborate in this seamless way. Usually we start with a manuscript. We come up with the story together, write the words together, work out the illustrations together. Jerome usually acts as art director and guides the direction of the book in that sense.

RS: Was your story basically finished before you started work on the art?

Jerome: Yes, but we really concentrate on the story that we’re telling as a whole. The words alone don’t tell the story, and the images alone wouldn’t either. This book began with the idea. After that, we focused on the manuscript, to work out the language we wanted to use. We had some descriptions of what we thought the images would be and which of the images we thought should exist without words. At that point we had enough to do detailed sketches to go with the text. Together, we worked our way through the text and through the pictures and the adjustments that we thought should be made. And then we sat down to make the stamps to match the sketches.

RS: Tell me about making the handmade stamps.

Jarrett: It’s a pretty labor-intensive process. We draw each image on foam material and cut it out using an X-acto knife. We paste the image to foam core board, then make prints and scan those prints into the computer. We composite and color the image digitally.

RS: What does the actual physical existence of these stamps do for an otherwise digital process?

Jerome: Working with the stamps gives the book a handcrafted quality that, for me, is more pleasing to look at. The amount of work it takes to make the images look exactly the way you want — that’s also an amount of care you might not get when you take ten seconds to trace something on a pad digitally. I think it translates visually.

RS: How did you hit upon the idea of the stamps in the first place?

Jerome: Part of the inspiration came from looking at books we consider timeless, books that we read when we were kids and that we still have. Even though they didn’t necessarily use stamps, the work of those mid-century illustrators had texture. It was trial and error — we tried different things, but in the end, stamps had that similar look.

RS: It certainly looks like a picture book put together by experts, for which you should be congratulated. Even things like the page-turns are so smart in this book. Was that something you thought about, or are you just naturally gifted?

Jarrett: Well, thank you very much. We did think about it quite a bit. How long did we spend on this before we actually sent it out? It was probably a good year, honestly. And then our editor, Simon [Boughton] at Norton, helped us with some finishing touches that took the book to a whole new level. But it was just careful thought and planning out that ultimately got us where we ended up.

RS: Some years ago, the two of you wrote a text for a picture book [Creepy Things Are Scaring Me! in 2003], and this is your first book since then. What have you been up to?

Jarrett: We were both much younger then — teenagers, in fact. I had these wild dreams that I’d get published and become a big-time writer and support myself writing picture books. That first book happened, and I’m super proud of it. But then I realized, Okay, I’ve got to get a real day job. I went out into the work world, got busy doing other things, building companies and so forth. And Jerome also pursued his own career goals. Only within the last five years or so were we able to get back to this original passion that we had for telling stories and making art.

RS: Can you tell me the motif or the theme or the line that started things off again? What was the initial thing? Was it a truck?

Jerome: The first spark was me driving to visit Jarrett, from Houston to Austin. You pass a lot of Texas. You pass a lot of mid-century farms that look like the illustrations in the book. You also see this common sight of trucks left out in the fields. That in itself is so intriguing — how did they get there? What might be the story of the family who owns that vehicle? A lot of time may have passed, but that truck is still right there.

RS: Why did you decide on a girl protagonist?

Jarrett: As we thought about the family, we thought about our own family. The sorts of stories we’d heard growing up and the examples we had. I’m not sure there was any specific moment when we said definitively, the main character has to be this or that. But it made sense, based on our mom and our aunts and grandparents — our grandmothers, specifically — it seemed like the family that lived on this farm would have a daughter.

Jerome: I’d just had a daughter, the first female in our family in fifty years. We went a whole generation with no daughters, and that was really on our minds when we were coming up with our main character. That’s the cool thing about this collaboration — I can bring what I’m going through into the story, and Jarrett brings what he’s going through.

RS: You both have children, right?

Jarrett: I have two boys, and Jerome has a daughter and a son.

RS: How has your thinking about picture books changed, from back when you were teenagers and writing your first book to now as parents? What do you know about books now you didn’t know then?

Jerome: That’s a really good question. Now, as a parent and a consumer, I’m very aware of the messages that are in books. I sometimes find it hard to read some of the old fairy tales. I question: Is this the best story, is this the best message for my daughter to have? She loves books with a villain — she loves Grimm’s fairy tales.

RS: Bloodthirsty little tyke, huh?

Jerome: Yeah. But now there are so many other choices you can make in terms of what’s out there to be read. It’s an important decision a parent is making when they choose which books to buy and share with their kids. Books really do help form that child. When buying books, and also now as a creator, I am more thoughtful in terms of storytelling. I feel like telling a story that I would want to share with my kids, something that can be meaningful.

Jarrett: I’ll chime in here also. I’ve lived so much more life now than when I was a teenager. For me, having kids of my own and reading stories to them and seeing how they react to different types of stories — they can handle so much. They have their ideas and their own feelings about things. I think my views way back when were more superficial. Now, I’m looking for stories with some depth, stories that will allow my kids to form their own opinions, give them something to think about. I want them to have stories that are going to stick with them, resonate with them. That’s the biggest change for me.

RS: But your story is never preachy, which is wonderful.

Jarrett: That was important to us. In the books we love, we’re allowed the space to come to certain conclusions on our own. We wanted that for those who would read our book, too.

RS: Did you have a conscious sense, as creators, of how revolutionary a book about a little black girl in a rural environment is?

Jerome: We knew we hadn’t seen anything like what we were making, but it felt very natural to us, very familiar, something we’ve known all our lives. We hadn’t seen it in a book, though, so we knew it was special in that sense.

RS: Michelle H. Martin wrote a Horn Book article about how black kids are almost always shown in urban situations. Her whole thing, as a former Girl Scout, is to get all kids outside more often. Your book really made me think of her plea for a widening spectrum of what’s depicted as possible for a black child in a book.

Jarrett: I wholeheartedly agree with that line of thinking. We didn’t grow up in the inner city. We lived on places like farms and in the suburbs. Telling those stories is absolutely essential, because it adds some dimension to the lives that black kids live. Black kids are not just in cities. They live everywhere. I’m glad we could contribute to that.

RS: There are so many different ways into this book for any kid. What you say about leaving a lot of space, which I notice you also do in the pictures — which I think is very smart — allows so many kids in. Kids who love trucks. Kids who love chickens. Little black girls who want to see themselves. Whatever it might be, you can find a way into this story.

Jarrett: I’m glad you note that. While we did make the book representative of us and our kids and family, we think it is a universal story that could apply to any kid. That farm family could be anyone. Anyone can find a way into this book, we hope, and find something in it that has some meaning for them.

RS: Do you miss life on the farm?

Jerome: I live north of Austin, so I see cows when I bring my daughter to school in the morning. We definitely like the outdoors. What about you, Jarrett?

Jarrett: Yeah, I love the outdoors. It’s one of the biggest reasons I moved to Austin from Houston. The wide-open space of Austin, the rolling hills. I try to get outside as much as I can. And my kids love the outdoors — my boys, I can’t keep them in the house! Where we live there are lots of creeks and rivers. I love fishing, and I’m trying to get my boys into it. They love to be outside with me, usually throwing rocks and sticks in the water, scaring all the fish. That’s fishing for them.

RS: What do you think you’ll do next?

Jerome: Our next project is already in the works. We just finished the final art, and Simon has that in hand.

Jarrett: We couldn’t be happier. We’ve really grown to appreciate everything that he’s done for us. He has such a light touch. He gives us space to create and tell the stories we want to tell. He’s so smart.

Jerome: He asks all the right questions.

Jarrett: All the right questions. It’s really great.

Sponsored by
Norton Young Readers

Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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