Horstman Hears a Who

Or did Lisa Horstman's inner voice tell her, "Stop-motion puppets + digital artwork = new kind of kids book. Do it!"

Like so many of us, designer/book creator Lisa Horstman has things on her mind, issues she frets about, little problems she needs to solve.

But her concerns are a little different than the average. "I may need to re-do the father," she says, cradling a pale, soft 12-inch figurine wearing only makeshift trousers and tortoise-shell glasses fashioned from guitar picks. "His proportions are closer to a real primate, since I started on him first for this book—it's about a close-knit monkey family. But I think I'd be happier if he had more human proportions." Horstman tugs at a piece of her cloud of light brown hair, sets the figurine back in its box, taps a finger on the drafting table in her work-at-home studio. "I'll figure it out."

Probably. She has already fretted and tugged and tapped and pondered her way through more or less creating a new children's book medium with Squawking Matilda, a picture book released in April about a young girl who must tend a high-needs chicken for a while. The eye-poppingly bright, colorful pages feature hand-crafted stop-motion-style puppets and digital artwork. "I've always been interested in stop-motion animation—you know, like Rudolph—and the puppets fascinated me," says Horstman. "I didn't want to have to craft entire sets, however, so I decided to illustrate the backgrounds and photograph the puppets separately. After that it was a process of experimenting—it's all a hodgepodge."

Did any mechanical or scientific education help Horstman create her first stop-motion puppet/digital-art kids' book, which is perhaps the first such among all kids' books? "Pish," she says dismissively. "I often study how graphic novels are put together, as well as cinematography and editing in movies. I just read and experiment and try again."

First arriving in Knoxville in 1988 to work as a designer on Whittle Communications' Travel Life magazine, Horstman won the Dr. Seuss Picture Book Award for her first children's book, Fast Friends, in 1994, along with a publishing contract from Random House. She left Whittle that same year and has since worked a stint as art director for Metro Pulse (between 1995 and 2002), published several picture books for the National Park Service, and designed part-time for the Great Smoky Mountain Association (1999 to present).

Squawking Matilda marks her first return to a mainstream publisher since Fast Friends, and it's entirely self-funded. The material costs weren't that bad, Horstman says, even though one ready-out-of-the-box armature skeleton costs more than $100, but she's got a lot of time invested, at least a couple of years. "I was keeping track of hours and had to stop, it was so depressing," she says.

Landing a contract with a traditional publishing house, albeit a small one, means she's also beaten impressive odds. "Even a small publisher probably sees a few thousand book proposals a year, and they don't publish more than 40," notes Andrea Cascardi, a former editor at Random House and Horstman's agent for the past three years.

At the same time, budget cuts industrywide have cut some of the resources for promoting books. "Celebrity books do also take attention away from newcomers to the field," says Cascardi, "which is why it's important for every author today to be a savvy self-promoter."

Horstman's books for the Park Service worked very differently, including The Great Smoky Mountain Salamander Ball, a love song to the park's diversity told in Seuss-like rhyme, and The Troublesome Cub in the Great Smoky Mountains, a "true story of a bear cub who fell asleep in a dumpster and was inadvertently picked up by a garbage truck." These books are sold through the park visitor centers and stay in print for years, very different than Squawking Matilda, which has Horstman sweating out bookstore and online sales, and royalties. Total book sales in the book industry are projected to dip 0.5 percent in 2009, to $35.04 billion, according to the Publishers Weekly/IPR Book Sales Index, though kids' trade paperbacks are projected to grow .1 percent this year.

"On the one hand I feel proud I get published at all," Horstman says. "On the other, you see things ebb and flow. I have no idea, I really don't, how well the book will sell. I just try to stay positive. I would be disappointed if the sales weren't good. I have a lot of my own heart in this book. It is my favorite of anything I've ever had published. But I could understand with the current economy."

Another boon: "If it doesn't succeed, I'll lose some of the time I invested, but I can still pay my KUB bill. And I've got other things to do. I'll continue to do books with the Park Service if they'll have me," she says, and sniffs audibly in a parody of crying, followed by a hearty laugh.

Her publisher intends to keep Squawking Matilda in print as long as possible, says Robin Benjamin, the senior editor who handles the title at Marshall Cavendish. "Both the posable puppets and the more traditional artwork are very striking and creative, and the book has a really sweet message underneath. It appeals to kids and adults, which you want a book to do, because the adult is reading along with the kids, many, many times."

Squawking is the kind of book that could continue to build an audience for a few years, says Benjamin, partly because a small publisher like Cavendish keeps issuing hardcovers while waiting to see if the book receives any awards, particularly the coveted state and kid-voted variety. "Awards can come out later, even a year or two later, and we want to be able to keep the hardback copy in print long enough to benefit from those. And this title will probably go into paperback. We're proud of it, and it's received nice reviews."

Horstman has two books in the works, and they're likely to come up against an even tougher market, says Cascardi. "The books being published now have been in the pipeline for a year or more, but publishers have cut a lot of editors in the past six months, so we'll be seeing the effects on the number of books published in the next two or three years."

Horstman isn't waiting around in the interim. She's working away in her studio, a shabby-chic madeover bedroom in a vintage brick cottage in Fountain City bursting with an artful arrangements of artifacts—a grouping of porcelain hands, a subway-size poster of one of her favorite movies, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, a corporate navy-blue Whittle Communications coaster with gold embossing, a Curious George metal tin, and a paper fan from Yee-Haw, to name a few. She thinks and designs here, on a Mac with a screensaver of two orange cats, breaking sometimes to relax on a striped divan.

Half of her working week is telecommuting for the Great Smoky Mountains Association, helping design Smokies Life magazine, field guides, and a junior ranger fiction series, all from home. "She's surprisingly even-tempered for an artist, and she's the fastest designer I know, too," says Steve Kemp, the association's interpretive products and services director, who's worked with Horstman from afar since the late '90s. "She can capture a child's imagination and also has the range to work on the adult-level publications. She jokes around, yeah, pretty constantly. She's got that dry sense of humor."

That she does. A few hours in Horstman's company (or a few minutes on her blog) and the amusing comments start issuing forth.

"We all waddle down the road like the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel" is her caption on a photo of people walking across Interstate 40 the day before the road is open to cars.

On the topic of felting: "The needles are very sharp and have small barbs near the tips. Accidently stabbing yourself in the finger with one is not fun, but it sure wakes you up."

Reminded that the goofy Lutheran Church-produced Davey and Goliath kids' television series was a forerunner to her book style, Horstman immediately launches into a "doh doh doh" patois in a voice that's sounds just like the dopey series dog. "What're we gonna do now, Da-ei-vey...?"

Even ordinary copywriting bits turn into fun with words on Horstman's watch. Her blog, for example, is called "Oh, My Lard," and includes a link to "my fancypants illustration website."

She can be a little self-deprecating like that. It may have something to do with being the youngest of five children raised on a farm in Ohio, 10 years between herself and the eldest. "It is your older sister's job to make fun of you," she says cheerfully.

The nearest "city" was Lima, Ohio ("pronounced like Lima beans"), but Horstman took a bus to school in one of the area's many German immigrant offspring hamlets, graduating in a class of 60. "I know all about chickens running around with their heads cut off, though I was too young to ever have to be the one to do it," Horstman recalls. "I remember mom plucking them. And milking cows. My brother did it, and he hated it, but I was too little."

Horstman marvels at her parents, who still live on a farm. "My mom was very arty, but she was the wife of a farmer, with five kids, so she had to be practical," she says. "She always encouraged us to draw, and my dad was a big reader, just like I am."

In 1977, when Horstman was 13, she got really thin and was thirsty all the time. "We found out I had Type 1 diabetes, and I had to stay in the hospital for a week," she says. "I worried my parents a lot over the years with that because of course when you're a teenager you think you're invincible. It's hard to adjust to the lifestyle changes, and my family has the world's worst sweet tooth.

"The diabetes also made me realize in high school that if I was going to pursue a creative career, it would be in something stable, like graphic arts. I couldn't really rely on selling works at a gallery. That's really young to have to be thinking about those things. But my dad, his father had a farming accident during the Depression and he had to drop out of school in the eighth grade to help out, even though farming was not what he wanted to do. Now that's a real tough choice to make; it's humbling to consider."

Farm life, or at least the animals, seem to figure prominently in Horstman's recent work. "My one sister is always looking for things from our childhood in my books," she says. "In Fast Friends, there is a picture of a cow sitting on the couch all slouchy eating popcorn and watching television. My sister told me, ‘That looks like mom.'

"‘That's like mom???'

"‘Just her expression,' my sister said. And I can kind of see that. But I hadn't noticed it. Sometimes I guess these things just work themselves into my books. Other times I put them in there blatantly."

A good example: the cat in Squawking Matilda. As in Cat, named after Holly Golightly's pet in Breakfast at Tiffany's, another favorite Horstman flick. "Cat is modeled after my dear departed gray tabby, Dave," she explains on her blog. "If you look closely at his left ear, you'll see the bite taken out of it by his mama when he was trapped in a drainpipe and she tried to pull him out by his ear."

Because she always scoffed at the idea of a cat and said she'd name it Dave if she ever got one, Dave was named after Dave Whittle, a film and video editor at Jupiter Entertainment who is Horstman's "favorite person."

They met at Bowling Green State University, where both had work at the local PBS affiliate. They've lived together 15 years, but aren't married. "We're taking it slow," Horstman deadpans.

The two have never considered having children, either, says Horstman. "I'll just leave that to the people who are good at it. I do remember what it's like to be a child, probably more than a lot of people."

She finds humor in the idea she might need to be a parent to create works for children. "You don't read a mystery expecting the author to be a convicted murderer," she says. And she does enjoy time spent with other people's offspring, like a boy she met in a local classroom when she was promoting Fast Friends. "We were in an ordinary school, and he was the only country kid—kind of round, wearing overalls, the freckles, the whole thing. I read the book and was talking about growing up, and he raised his hand to say, ‘H'aint it great to live on a farm!'

"He was so sweet, and so funny. Fifteen years later, I still remember keeping a straight face. ‘You will not laugh out loud. You will not laugh out loud.'"

Horstman can relate to Dr. Seuss—Theodore Geisel—who was also childless. "He used to say, ‘You make 'em, I'll entertain 'em.' I like that."