By LINDA G. RASTELLI
Veteran illustrator and author Elise Primavera, creator of the best-selling Auntie Claus picture book series, was giving readings in local schools when she hit upon some startling information about her market.
Id be doing a charcoal sketch, and theyd shout out, Have a skeleton! The wolfman! A gravestone with RIP! says the Red Bank resident. Then, Put [in] an old tree, with a noose hanging off it, with a dead guy, and a hand coming out of the ground, dripping blood.
Primavera knew she was onto something.
How can you ignore that? she says. This is what I keep hearing ghosts, monsters, blood and guts.
Thats what they want, she says with a mischievous laugh. Theres a need for this. Not enough nooses with dead guys.
Her ad hoc focus groups spawned a series of hybrid chapter books/graphic novels about the adventures of a pair of young slackers named Fred and Anthony. The first two installments will be published in June by Hyperion, with a third in October.
Primavera recounts the premise of the series in one frenzied breath: All these boys want to do is watch horror movies and eat Pez and Chex mix, but the trouble is, they have this horrible, hideous history project due making the Alamo out of popsicle sticks so they get this bright idea of paying others to do it for them but they need some dough first. So they try writing childrens books because J.K. Rowling is richer than the Queen of England, but immediately get writers block. People in town wont hire them so they go to the outskirts of town, where they discover a haunted house and fall through the floor into the netherworld.
It took her three weeks to flesh out the Byzantine plot. Its crazy, she says. The whole book is like that.
The second book was to have featured obsessive-compulsive disorder, but the publisher didnt think that was funny. So Primavera invented her own disorder and titled the book, Fred & Anthony Meet the Demented Super De-germ-o Zombie.
At the outset of her career, she aspired to do fashion illustration. Of all crazy things, she remembers. Then I decided I really wanted to do childrens books.
Auntie Claus came out of a desire to do a Christmas book. My uncle plays Santa Claus every year, and I wanted to create a character like him, she says. In the book, the characters decorate their house all year long and everyone thinks theyre just eccentric, but it turns out that Auntie Claus is Santa Clauss sister.
The first book, published in 1999, was a New York Times best seller; a review (free archive) in that paper called it a color-drenched pastiche of a Yuletide tale.” Saks Fifth Avenue used it in its Christmas window display. In 2004, the series won Primavera an invitation by the White House to illustrate its Christmas brochure.
Having established herself in New York, Primavera returned to Red Bank in 1997, and a year later bought and renovated a house close to the Navesink River on Hubbard Park. Her home, which she shares with her wire-haired dachshund, Lulu, is warm, yet pristine, and accented with blues and yellows. The studio in which she works is painted bright white, and features two-story windows.
Shell begin her third Auntie Claus next January. The process involves practice-sketching each scene in charcoal first, then creating the pastel drawing. Primavera has several of these sets hanging in her studio.
Coming up with ideas is easy, says Primavera. She typically gets the story down first. As Im writing it, Im thinking about how Ill illustrate it, she says. Doing the drawings takes the most time trying to coordinate the text and art, to get the pacing right, make the jokes and everything work together.
Her edgy, humorous side comes out in the Fred & Anthony books, done in black-and-white watercolor outlined in magic marker, as opposed to pastels.
I know what they like, she says of her readers, who are mainly under 12 years old.
One thing they dont like, she says, is to be read to in large groups. They wont sit still for it, she says. Reading is better one-on-one or in a very little group.
She prefers to read in independent bookstores such as River Road Books because they are better organized.
Despite the acclaim for Auntie Claus, Fred & Anthony seem to hit closer to home for Primavera. She has many horrible, embarrassing childhood memories and says she never liked school. She finds the darker, blood-and-guts stuff easier to do.
Its really me, she says.