I will do my best to make the rest of this article professional, but I have to digress to fangirl mode for a moment. I’ve totally developed a literary crush on Jeff Mack. Now that’s out of the way, we can move on…
I work as a high school librarian, so prior to choosing Jeff Mack as an interview subject, I wasn’t very familiar with his work. I had seen some of his books before, mostly in passing, but I had never had the chance to really read any of his work or use his material with a class. I brushed up on my subject a bit; did some googling, Internet stalking, all the usual stuff and found out that this Jeff Mack guy seemed pretty interesting. Despite some nerves, I was definitely looking forward to interviewing him. After creeping about a bit (are you sensing a pattern here?), and waiting for a break in his signing, I approached Jeff. He was very affable and immediately put me at ease. I had a few questions prepared, but they didn’t sound as clever out loud as they had in my head. Luckily, I was able to have a decent, unscripted conversation with Jeff and still manage to take some notes.
Apparently it all started with a snake and a hot dog bun. Yup, you heard that right. That was the first book illustration idea pitched to Jeff. Thankfully, it never came to fruition and Jeff has come a long way since that particular request. The first book Jeff illustrated was The Icky, Sticky Chameleon written by Dawn Bentley. Going back even farther than that, Jeff hails from Upstate New York and has been into robots and monsters for as long as he can remember. Of course, I pulled the Library card, forcing Jeff to plumb the depths of his memory for some early library recollections or stories. He came up with a great tale about his weekly trips to the library with his Grandmother, and the memory of a particular book. That book was On Beyond Zebra by Dr. Seuss. He recalls how Dr. Seuss created his own alphabet and bizarre creatures. Being very into monsters, young Jeff definitely identified with this book.
Another early influence was Mr. Cole, a middle school Art teacher. To this day, Jeff finds drawing a little easier than writing. Although drawing is a super-simplified term for the art that Jeff creates. One of his earliest books, Hush Little Polar Bear was done with acrylics, creating a lush texture and a dreamlike quality. Look! is an amazing book in which a gorilla and a boy battle old tech (books) with new tech (TV) and was illustrated using pencil and watercolors. The images were then scanned in along with book covers and interior pages to create a collage-style effect. In his newest book, Who Wants a Hug? the illustrations were created using digital artwork to create a silly, slapstick quality. Never one to be defined by a single art form, Jeff also writes and illustrates the Clueless McGee series for middle-grade readers. If you had not had the chance to examine the various art styles and forms employed by Jeff, I encourage you to take a visual tour through his works. You can’t help but to be impressed.
Jeff currently lives in Western Massachusetts and in between his art and writing, he takes the time to conduct school visits. His favorite age groups to visit are 2nd and 3rd grades. They are a great sounding board, and give unvarnished critiques of his work and ideas. If the kids don’t laugh at a story or idea, he knows not to use it. Sometimes, he even gets some ideas from the students. These visits are a great way to keep Jeff connected to his target audience, and get invaluable feedback. I love the idea that some of these students sitting there listening to Jeff could be inspired and grow up to illustrate and write books of their own. This may seem like a shameless plug, but if I were an elementary school librarian, I would love to have Jeff come and visit my students. I’m hoping he branches out soon into Young Adult and then I can justify a school visit of my own!
Any inconsistencies or errors in reporting are 100% my own fault. I interviewed Jeff casually in between signings, resulting in slightly haphazard notes. Speaking of notes, back to those clever interview questions I had prepared. I asked Jeff Mack what his favorite or most-used app was. Part of me was hoping that he would say Trivia Crack and we would immediately become opponents (and best friends). But alas, it was not to be. Jeff uses the Notes app the most; coincidence that I was using the Notes app as we spoke? There may be a chance for us to be best friends after all!
Rebekah Tierney is the librarian at Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester, Massachusetts.