I met Stan Yan, a Denver-based writer/illustrator, caricature artist, and instructor, at his booth at San Diego Comic this year. I’m a bit of a zombie-aficionado and could not resist checking out his kids’ picture book – There’s a Zombie in the Basement (Squid Works Kids). We got to talking, and, when I found out he is an SCBWI member, I knew I had to interview him. He went to school at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he got his bachelor’s degree in accounting, but gave up on financial security to become a full-time freelance cartoonist. Stan also teaches summer camps, after-school programs, workshops, and helped to develop a degree program in graphic storytelling as an adjunct faculty member at the Community College of Aurora. His other recent credits include art and colors for Show Devils (Mother Mind Studios) and writing and art for Vincent Price Presents (BlueWater Productions / Storm Comics).
Sarah Parker-Lee: You’ve written and illustrated comics and books with horror themes for adults and older readers, but There’s a Zombie in the Basement is a picture book for kids. How did that come about? Were you worried it might be too scary?
Stan Yan: Even though I spent most of my life doing more adult-oriented comic book work, some of my major inspirations growing up were picture books, including anything Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. While many of my family continued to badger me to do children’s books, I had no interest until my son was almost 4 years old. One day, he wouldn’t come downstairs to my basement studio, and when asked why, he said he was afraid. When asked what he was afraid of, he started pointing at all of my zombie artwork decorating the walls. Over the next hour, I wrote the fast draft version of my rhyming bedtime storybook.
As I worked on the artwork I wanted it to be a bit unsettling at the beginning, not unlike Sendak’s Wild Things. And, it was precisely my fascination with these unsettling Wild Things that kept me checking that book out from the library as a kid. Of course, by the end of the story, they’re no longer scary, which is what I was going for too.
SPL: As a writer and illustrator, you’ve spent a lot of time with “horror” themes, monsters, and the like. Any advice for other kid lit writers/illustrators looking to translate some of these things into spooky stories kids can enjoy?
SY: Show your stuff to kids to get their reactions. For the year before my book was published, I was taking my dummy manuscript around to conventions and other events to let people read cover-to-cover, and I even sat on my porch on Halloween to read my story to trick-or-treaters (thank goodness the weather was nice). I was getting great response, and people were badgering me for months about when they could buy the book. So, I certainly knew I was on the right track.
SPL: You make the convention rounds fairly often, which is how we met at Comic Con this year. To a lot of introverted writers and illustrators, that can feel scarier than facing down a zombie hoard! What’s your best advice for getting out there?
SY: Offer to read your story to families with kids around the age of your target audience. It’s easy with a picture book, since it only takes about 3 minutes, so it’s not a lot of time for a prospect to invest at your booth.
If you’re pathologically bashful, make one-sentence shelf talkers of excerpts of one of your reviews or your elevator pitch, and let them do your selling for you. Even print this on your display banner for better visibility!
Organize your table to make sure browsers feel comfortable picking up your book to read. Don’t be precious with your book, and let them read your book cover-to-cover. If a parent wants to buy it, it’s because they’ve read the whole thing and can envision reading it to their kids over and over.
SPL: Speaking of scary, you gave up a financially viable day job to pursue art and writing full-time. That is a frightening leap for most people! What led you to that decision? Any regrets?
SY: Well, it really wasn’t my choice. I was laid off twice in three years, and I actually enjoyed my job for the most part, but I think it was because I still set aside time to draw three to four hours a night. I finished my first three comic books and first graphic novel while I was a stock broker and started doing the convention circuit to promote my work. I don’t regret a thing. In fact, my previous profession taught me a lot about selling my work as an artist, and taught me a lot about reading and preparing contracts.
SPL: Good community with other kid lit folks is something many professionals tell us is a key to their success. You’re a member of SCBWI in Denver. How has that influenced your work and relationships?
SY: It has changed my life. I mean, first of all, membership gets you this thing called, “The Book,” which is the “how-to” manual for the industry, complete with contact information for publishers and agents – something that’s easily worth thousands of dollars. Secondly, it helped me connect with a local critique group of writer/illustrators who have been my rock in my creative process. Finally, our annual Fall conference has really shaped my creative process and my career roadmap, not to mention helped me meet and become friends with industry heavyweights.
SPL: You’re also facing the “horrors” of self-publishing, which means marketing yourself. How do you keep from being overwhelmed by the social media monsters and the bone-chilling, book-buying wizards who magically fill bookstore and library shelves?
SY: It’s easy to become dismayed looking at the success of other books, but I feel like I’m really only competing with myself. If I can look back and see that my current publication is doing better than my last, that’s a step in the right direction. And, when you’re self-publishing, you’re wearing a lot of (if not all) hats. I always feel like there are things I can do better, and some things that are impossible for me to do on my own. But, I always take these lessons into future projects, and I do hope for some publishing contracts for my future projects to help me with the impossibility of my one-man-marketing juggling act.
SPL: Can you recommend some frighteningly good books for kids, either ones you loved as a child or newer books you’ve run across?
SY: As I had mentioned, I grew up being very fond of Where the Wild Things Are, and the plot line undoubtedly informed the creation of my book. As my son grew up, I found many other great scary books, like The Dark by Lemony Snicket, What Was I Scared Of? by Dr. Seuss, The Widows Broom by Chris Van Allsburg, and I’ve been reading my son the Harry Potter series for a bedtime story for the last year.
SPL: What’s next for you? Any projects or appearances to plug?
SY: My next project is Regret: A Cancer Survivor’s Story, a graphic novel about my best friend’s battle with cancer. Although this isn’t a children’s book, I’m concurrently writing manuscripts for three middle grade to young adult graphic novels that I hope to pitch to some agents before long, some of which borrow characters from There’s a Zombie in the Basement, and all which involve monsters or the paranormal.
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Sarah Parker-Lee is a Los Angeles Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators board member & the Managing Editor of Kite Tales, a book reviewer for Dwarf+Giant, a content creator for non-profits fighting injustice all over the interwebs, & is available to edit your writerly endeavors. She writes YA alt. history, sci-fi, & is the creator of Dogs & Zombies: A Dog’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse. Twitterings: @SarahSoNovel, @DogsAndZombies
Images provided by Stan Yan.