A Conversation About Crabtree, a New Picture Book That is Mostly
BY BRIAN McMULLEN, JON NICHOLS and TUCKER NICHOLS
McSweeney’s McMullens has just published Crabtree, a picture book by Jon & Tucker Nichols. The book has been praised by comedian and father Patton Oswalt (“Highly recommended.”); kids’ book legend Maira Kalman (“This book is fantastic in every way.”); and a four-year-old reviewer named Raif, who astutely observes that Crabtree “is mostly a book that you just look at, but you can look at it a lot.”
Crabtree follows a disorganized collector named Alfred Crabtree on an epic house-wide quest to find his missing false teeth. Spoiler alert: Alfred finds his teeth in the end. (Getting there is all the fun.) Crabtree is among the great books I’ve had the chance to work on in my 12-year career as an editor and designer. If you have a child, or know someone who has access to a child—or even if you live in a child-free bubble and just like good art—check it out.
Following is a recent conversation I shared with Jon & Tucker Nichols, who are brothers from Northern California. Crabtree is their first book for children.
BRIAN McMULLEN: Here is my first memory of this project: One day a couple of years ago—just after we’d launched the McSweeney’s McMullens kids’ book department—the two of you came to the McSweeney’s office with burritos in hand.
JON NICHOLS: That was a really fun meeting.
BRIAN: We sat down, unwrapped the burritos, and you took turns explaining the basic idea that grew into Crabtree. You wanted to make a picture book about a non-fancy person giving a grand tour through his non-fancy house—as if he were the world’s greatest collector, and as if his home were the world’s greatest museum. I liked that idea a lot.
JON: What I remember most about the start of the project is that Tucker and I needed to figure out how to integrate our two drawing styles. Tucker generally likes to draw immobile objects. I, on the other hand, tend to mostly draw immobile people.
TUCKER NICHOLS: Our father worked in book manufacturing and he’d bring home stacks of blank clothbound books. Jon used to fill them up with rows and rows of portraits. A pirate, a fireman, a space-guy, a peanut with a mustache, an old lady, etc. They made a big impression on me.
JON: From the beginning, we wanted to make a book full of objects. Something richly visual that readers could delve into many times—like what you get from Richard Scarry or Maira Kalman. And we really liked the idea of making the objects themselves a kind of portrait of their owner, Alfred Crabtree.
TUCKER: Yeah, for this book everything was backwards from how I think a picture book is normally made. We knew we wanted to show a lot of stuff, and we knew we wanted some people in there too. What kind of stuff? What kind of people? Then we figured out a story that would support all of that, and we figured out how to integrate the stuff and the people.
BRIAN: You guys are brothers, and this book feels brothery. It’s hard to tell where each guy’s contributions stop and start. You both drew it, and you both wrote it, and every object on every page feels infused with shared enthusiasm.
JON: The process was deeply brothery, yes. The book is a kind of distorted map of the Nichols family genome. The two of us share a childhood history with a bunch of the objects in the book. Alfred Crabtree’s spoon is the spoon Tucker and I ate Count Chocula with when we were kids. Alfred’s CB radio is the same one we bewildered random truckers with. Those are some of the dogs from our neighborhood. Tucker and I also have virtually the same handwriting when we go all-caps, as we are both wont to do. And we both favor line drawings with minimal detail.
BRIAN: How did you guys even begin this collaboration? Did you both wake up one morning, pick up your phones, call each other at the same time, and simultaneously leave each other a message that you’d like to work on a picture book together? To me, that feels like a likely scenario.
TUCKER: We had a very brief conversation about what the book might be, and then immediately went to Kabuki Baths in San Francisco’s Japantown. Working out the structure of a book while being naked in a steam room wasn’t such a big deal. But there is no talking allowed there, and that presented the first of many challenges for the book. We communicated with facial gestures and left notes for each other in the bathroom to flesh out the idea. When we left, we felt very clean but also had a lot of unspoken ideas we wanted to share.
JON: We also had a lot of warm soggy lists.
BRIAN: Is Alfred Crabtree based on a real person?
JON: Alfred feels pretty real to me. He wears sweaters like our dad did and he accumulates stuff like our mom does. He’s definitely got a bunch of our Old Yankee befuddlement. But he’s made up. We had a step-grandfather who shared some of his more arcane interests.
TUCKER: In a very real way, Crabtree’s relationship to his stuff mirrors our own. Our mom’s an antiques dealer. If she didn’t collect such beautiful, weird things and tag them for resale, she would be considered a hoarder. And when you grow up with so much cool stuff in the house, you develop an odd relationship to beautiful objects. We don’t see this book as a moral tale, but I think Crabtree looking through all of his belongings has given us a new way to think about our own relationships to all the stuff in our lives. How do we attach meaning to things? Why do we keep things? Like it or not, I feel somewhat defined by my possessions.
BRIAN: Where did the name come from?
JON: Crabtree is the name of an outcropping of land we’re fond of on a small island off the coast of Maine. Alfred just kind of worked. He was Augustus for a bit. I don’t know if we ever talked it out too hard, but I always liked Crabtree as a name for the book on account of how it was a name that slammed two things together—crab and tree—that aren’t particularly compatible.
BRIAN: I was going to ask you which objects in the book are Alfred Crabtree’s favorites, but my hunch is that every one of them is his very favorite. What are a few of your favorite things in the book?
JON: I am especially happy with Alfred’s collection of broken things. I collect broken things, too.
TUCKER: Alfred has a box labeled “WIG” that I enjoyed picturing last time I looked at the book. I’m thinking this wig is probably not that different from Alfred’s real hair, but maybe with a bit more body.
BRIAN: You’ve been making things together since you were born. What are some things—art things, or otherwise—that you made together as kids?
JON: I had a half-decade on Tucker, so for a time he collaborated with me as the only potential audience member who didn’t know how my dime-store magic tricks were done. Mostly we made games, often with these big sticky osage oranges from a tree at our house. They look like green brains. We have a much-beloved older brother who was good at the great parenting trick of motivating action by saying "I’ll time you.” That figured into early games a lot.
TUCKER: Yeah, there seemed to be a lot of games and scenarios that involved one of my older brothers getting me to dress up exclusively for their amusement. I remember Jon dressing me in a pile of clothes and hats from the winter-coat closet and sending me into my parents’ cocktail party with a tray of crackers.
JON: You really pulled that look off, by the way. Not sure I ever mentioned that.
TUCKER: With siblings, when you’re a kid, it’s less like collaboration and more like one person exerting experimental influence over the other. Thankfully that’s mostly gone now.
JON: We discovered, eventually, that it’s nice to manufacture situations where Tucker can draw while I play music. Tucker has developed a remarkably portable practice for such an accomplished artist, so he can grab some pens and paper and I can throw a banjo ukulele in a gigbag and we can find an interesting corner anywhere.
TUCKER: The music-and-drawing thing is so pleasant. It seems kind of dreamlike sometimes. I love the ephemeral nature of playing music, but I’m not a musician. But when Jon plays music in my studio it’s as if I’m playing the pencil.
BRIAN: Did I ever show you guys these boxers my brother Scott and I drew when I was 9 and he was 11? We were both so in love with the Nintendo game Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! that we decided to dream up our own sequel.
JON: That is every kind of awesome. Once, for a performance I made in my early twenties, I had Tucker dress up in a tuxedo and a mask of Vladimir Lenin and directed him to juggle fruit in a highway median.
TUCKER: I remember thinking, “This must be really important.”
BRIAN: The three of us talked quite a bit, early on, about wanting to achieve a certain kind of color on the printed page. We didn’t want the color to look computery, but we did want to be able to use computers to keep fiddling with the colors as the book developed. Jon, what was that book you brought in early on with the colors you liked? It was a book about an alligator, I think. Possibly illustrated by the great Richard Hefter.
JON: Hefter’s One White Crocodile Smile is an all-time favorite. All his books are tremendous. His colors tend more toward Peter Max—wild and super-saturated—than what we wanted for Crabtree, but there’s a certain pre-digital flatness that was right.
TUCKER: Yeah, color was a big concern of mine, and in the end we collectively invented a rather involved book-creation process. First, we drew and labeled a ton of Alfred’s objects. These first drawings were black-and-white line art. Then we tried to figure out what category these groups of objects represented—“TOOLS & UTENSILS,” for example, or “YELLOW,” or “TEETH.” Second, Brian scanned and then laid out each group of line drawings as a two-page spread.
JON: Then we added like twenty more things for Brian to squeeze in later.
TUCKER: Then, Brian printed the spreads in light-tinted lines. We treated these printouts like coloring-book pages, filling each shape using a brush and black sumi ink. I would leave these black-painted fills in a tube taped to the outside of my studio out in the Marin Headlands, and Brian would drive up in the middle of the foggy night and retrieve them. One time, in a crosswalk in the Marina, I handed over a tube of drawings to someone from McSweeney’s I had never met. The project suddenly felt very important and dangerous.
JON: America, the hipster literati is spying on you.
BRIAN: Back at McSweeney’s HQ, I’d scan Tucker’s black-ink fills, digitally pair them with the original line art, and begin to assign colors and add any supplementary fills with the help of an assistant named Alicia Greenleaf, who was critical to making this production process work.
ALL THREE: Hooray for Alicia!
TUCKER: And then Jon and I would mess it all up by adding more drawings, and asking Brian to move things around, and recolor things. Simultaneously, we were all tweaking the captions and the story of Alfred’s quest to find his lost teeth.
BRIAN: At some early point, we decided to label each individual object in the book with a typeset caption.
JON: And then we’d just repeat all of these steps until one day, the book was finally done.
TUCKER: The result of this process is a book consisting of entirely hand-made marks. But we had the flexibility to tweak colors at the click of a button, and we could change the placement of individual objects with a few swipes of the touchpad. For someone like me who doesn’t like to spend more than a few minutes on anything I draw, this process couldn’t have been more absurd. But I’m so happy with the outcome, and I only had to do part of the work, so it was totally worth it.
BRIAN: The writing and the artwork and the design were always all in flux at the same time, the whole way through, in a way that would give some people an aneurysm. But the mess of the process—and the space we were all able to allow for the mess—is part of what makes the book special. Could we have arrived where we did in some other way? Maybe. But the way we did it is the way we did it, and I love the way we did it, and I love the book. It’s like the process itself was Crabtree-esque. When I read this book, I strongly identify with Alfred. Do you?
JON: The process was crazy. I completely identify with Alfred. Also, it should be said that it was pretty much you, Brian, who made this process. We don’t know a damned thing about making a book for kids. And instead of saying "Give me a manuscript in eight months and I’ll edit it and stick it all together,” you kept kicking the osage oranges back and forth with us. It was a very fun way to make something.
BRIAN: You’ve both called Crabtree a book that is “mostly for children.” What are some of the books you love that also match that description?
JON: Joëlle Jolivet’s object books. Arnold Lobel’s stories. Anything by Steig. Everything you guys have put out at McMullens. But I also like reading field guides and visual dictionaries with my daughter.
TUCKER: Also, books by James Marshall, Tomi Ungerer, and the Pinkwaters. I like kids’ books that celebrate the fact that the real world doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to kids, so anything can happen.
JON: One thing we talked a lot about as we worked on this—all three of us—has been the experience of reading books to our young kids.
BRIAN: That’s right. All of us are dads who read books to our very own actual children on a daily basis. It’s great. Almost every morning, my sons wake me up by crawling into my bed and slapping a book onto my hip or chest or head. “Dad, can you read this?” My two-year-old has learned to hand me my glasses while he asks me this question.
TUCKER: One of my favorite things about being a parent is when you realize you’re doing something that is perceived to be parenting but actually feels a lot more like goofing around or taking a break from everything else in your life. I like reading books with my daughter way more than I thought I would.
JON: It’s the best—snuggling up and engaging with a book. Except when you’re reading a book for the sixtieth time that already delivered up all of its mysteries in the first sitting.
BRIAN: If you’re going to read a book aloud to your child sixty times, you’d like to be able to experience it differently each time.
JON: Right. Reading with my daughter is like taking a walk with her. There are things that interest me, things that interest her, and things that interest us both. If the book’s story involves mice driving a pencil-shaped car, we can maybe pause for a minute to talk about the kind of engine a pencil car might have. My hope is that, with Crabtree, we’ve made a book that gives parents that kind of reading opportunity: a book with plenty of stuff for everyone to talk about, and wonder about.
TUCKER: I get really tired of the same thing over and over too. One exception is my original copy of I Am a Bunny by Richard Scarry. I would still read that book twice a day if our daughter would let me.
BRIAN: Crabtree includes a dust jacket that unfolds into a large two-sided poster. The hidden side of the poster—which you can see only if you remove the jacket from the book and unfold it—is a gigantic drawing labeled “I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THIS THING IS.” Alfred doesn’t know what this thing is, but do you guys? What is it?
JON: “NO IDEA” means no idea.
TUCKER: Please don’t ask us about that again.
JON: It looks edible to me. I wouldn’t be surprised if the thing was edible.
BRIAN: Have you done a count of the total number of objects in the book? I haven’t. Perhaps we should turn that into a contest—right here, right now. Here goes: First reader to send us an accurate count of the total number of objects in the book (not counting the objects on the cover or the jacket) gets a free Crabtree tote bag. Email AlfredCrabtree@aol.com with the answer.
JON: I am reminded of the old buddhist koan: How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?
BRIAN: My sons and I read Crabtree last night with the specific goal of counting up the number of Alfred’s belongings that we also own. The magic number is 101.
TUCKER: I like that idea—finding your Crabtree Quotient. The number of Alfred’s belongings that overlap with your own. I think we are more like Alfred than we might realize.
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