Thacher Hurd. Photo: Susan Sandoe
Thacher Hurd. Photo: Susan Sandoe

Earlier this year, Berkeley’s Creston Books re-released famed illustrator Thacher Hurd’s Pea Patch Jig, a picture book featuring a feisty mouse who gets in all sorts of trouble exploring Farmer Clem’s garden.

The picture book, originally published 20 years ago, is aimed at children aged three to six years’ old, and was inspired by a song, Pea Patch Jig, written by singer-songwriter John Hartford.

Berkeleyside caught up with Hurd, who lives in Berkeley and who has written and illustrated more than 25 books for children, to ask him about the reissue. We also spoke to Marissa Moss, the founder of Creston Books.

How long does it take to do each illustration for a book? What comes first: the words or the pictures? Can you work on more than one book at a time?

I don’t know how long it takes to do each illustration. They’re all different. Usually about a week per picture, but if it’s going well, four days. Plus time to mull it over and fiddle with it, which may happen weeks later.

Yes, I do work on more than one book at a time. They’re all at different stages, all the way back to little ideas in the way back of my mind.

How did growing up in a house where your mother was a children’s book writer and your father was a picture-book illustrator influence your decision to write and draw picture books? (Hurd’s father, Clement Hurd, was the famed illustrator of Goodnight, Moon and his mother Edith, wrote children’s books. The couple collaborated on more than 50 books.) Was there ever a time that you rebelled and said you didn’t want to enter the family profession? What changed?

I loved growing up in a creative home. I would sit in my father’s studio and watch him work, see how he created pictures, what kind of thought went into making a book. I was so happy there, he always seemed calm and deliberate about making art.

My parents never pushed me to do books, and I went through a few stages before I ended up there. It wasn’t until I was about 26 that I started to take children’s books seriously. I had gone to art school as a fine-arts painting major, and during the whole four years I never thought of illustrating books. That came a few years after, when I realized that painting landscapes or still lifes or big abstract canvases wasn’t really for me.

When I discovered that I wanted to tell stories with pictures, then I really got interested in books, and all the things that I had learned from being around my parents could start to come out. Then I had to find my own voice, and create books that were my own and not related to my parents’ work. That was the big breakthrough for me creatively, when I started doing books like Mystery on the Docks and Mama Don’t Allow.

pea patch jig2

What gave you the idea for Baby Mouse? Is she someone you know?

I don’t remember where the idea for Baby Mouse came from. I think that she was always childlike adventure and mischief personified. The idea of a baby in diapers who is always exploring and getting into fixes sparked me right away. She is innocent enough to be guilt-free, and at the same time full of comic possibilities.

The story in ‘The Pea Patch Jig’ is part adventure, part comedy, part story about family love. For you, which came first?

I don’t think of stories that way, it doesn’t really interest me to categorize them. For me the book flowed out of the basic emotions of the situation: the joy of summer and green growing things, the desire of a child to explore their world, the chance for danger in a tiny garden, the cosiness of a family together, celebrating. So all those elements are there, but in my mind they come from a deeper, more unified sense of the emotion in the idea.

The paintings of the mice and their world are fresh and lively. How do you get that kind of vibrancy, that energy into your pictures?

It’s kind of a high-wire act to keep the pictures alive and vibrant and not overwork them. You have to swoop into the act of painting at high speed and high energy, and as soon as you feel the energy dissipating, let it go. I have a slightly different sense of color from other people, and like to find colors that vibrate together and sort of egg each other on. I get bored really easily, colorwise, and have an almost physical reaction to color. Some colors depress, some open up my heart.

You’ve lived in Berkeley a long time. How does being in the Bay Area flavor your work?

Hmmmm. That’s a tough one. I seem to write about imaginary places that bear no relation to the Bay Area: a Louisiana-like swamp in Mama Don’t Allow, A New York-like museum in Art Dog, A Vermont-like garden in The Pea Patch Jig. The only book that really seems like it’s from the Bay Area is Mystery on the Docks. Definitely about the San Francisco waterfront. The Bay Area is such a creative place to be, so open, sunny, full of energy. I love that energy and aliveness.

Are you working on anything new for children’s books?

That’s between me and my computer. I am superstitious about discussing new projects. You never know where they’ll go.

Berkeleyside asked Marissa Moss, the author and illustrator of the ‘Amelia’s Notebook’ series, why Creston decided to re-issue one of Hurd’s books and whether Creston will publish any others.

I read The Pea Patch Jig to my own sons and it’s one of their favorite books. They — and I — love Baby Mouse’s spirit of fun and adventure, and the loving family that allows her the freedom to explore, even when she’s not exactly well-behaved.

When I approached Thacher about doing a book with Creston, he said he didn’t have anything new (yet), but he was happy to have his out-of-books reissued. I didn’t know the Baby Mouse books had fallen out of print and we were eager to bring her back with this one. I’m not sure yet about the others, since Thacher still had all the original art from Pea Patch for us to rescan. The colors in this edition are much brighter and richer than the original printing since the technology now is so much better. We’d love to do more books with Thacher, old and new, but there aren’t any definite plans yet.

Marissa Moss says goodbye to Amelia, a character that has delighted readers for 20 years (05.18.15)
Authors use Kickstarter to begin new publishing company (08.06.12)

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...