When I came across Toad on the Road: A Cautionary Tale in a bookstore over a year ago, I knew that my autistic twins would love it—and they did, as well as its recently released sequel Toad on the Road: Mama and Me.
I have since become something of a Stephen Shaskan evangelist. He's a special author and illustrator, one of the few who instinctually gets kids like mine and writes and draws books that they instantly love. I was honored to have a chance to talk to him earlier this summer.
Find out more about Stephen Shaskan at www.stephenshaskan.com.
Thank you so much for making the time to talk to me.
Absolutely. I had a chance to read your reviews and I think it’s a cool thing that you have your kids in your reviews.
Oh, thanks! My blog is really all about what works for my kids. Autistic kids are individuals, but there are some generalizations in terms of what works and what doesn't that I hope others are able to learn from.
I was a preschool teacher for about 12 years. And I was also a personal care attendant for a boy with autism and Down syndrome. When I’m writing, I’m writing for those kids. Those were the kids whose attention I most wanted to keep when I was a teacher.
Attention is critical. My son Luke particularly struggles with that. In fact, I first zeroed in on your published works because Toad on the Road was the first book I'd ever read him that grabbed his attention on the first read. So, explain yourself! What are you doing differently?
Oh, wow. That’s a big question.
Ha! Well, I’m not asking you to explain yourself as an artist. But what are some things that you are consciously doing?
I’m definitely using language in a fun way. I love using rhyme and onomatopoeia to get kids engaged with books.
I also have a music background. I've played in bands, and whenever I go out and do storytimes, I bring a guitar and sing as well. I bring song-writing into what I do, because music is something that children relate to.
Structurally, there’s repetition. But humor is important. "A bear on a bike" is funny, and then "a croc in a car"! It keeps getting funnier and funnier. I like to build on humor.
My first published book was A Dog is a Dog, and it’s about a dog in a costume—
Oh, I’m familiar with it.
Ha! Ok. So that one keeps building on the initial joke. It gets sillier and sillier as the costumes pile on.
I also really love print-awareness. I use big print to try to make kids aware of the written word; to try to develop literacy. And I think it works. Parents will send me videos of very young kids reading A Dog is a Dog or Toad on a Road, and I think print awareness and repetition is good for developing that skill.
Also, those two particular books—this doesn’t always happen for me—they both came out really quick. They went through editing, lots of editing, but what you see in the book is pretty close to the initial poetry I wrote. I think that also captures the humor of that inspiring moment, and maybe kids sense that.
For my son Luke it’s the specific kind of humor: physical comedy. He likes nothing better than vehicles crashing. So that SKID! SCREECH! BAM! page you repeat in the first Toad on the Road book, well, Luke will stand on his bed as I’m reading it, and then jump into his bean bag chair for the BAM!. He loves it. He thinks it’s the best thing in the world.
Aw, that’s great. It’s funny too, with that book I had a funny argument with my editor—and I love my editor for these books—but the argument was about whether that page—SKID! SCREECH! BAM!—was too violent. And I said, “You know these are just words on a page, right?”
Right, there’s no bloody, mangled croc in a car. And everyone’s fine. You can see everyone’s fine!
Children’s book publishing can be really funny. They are very concerned about teeth, too. Like shark teeth.
Why is that?
They think shark teeth are really scary. And I just think about "Finding Nemo" and don’t get it, but also, I think sharks should have sharp teeth, right?
That’s so funny to me. My son Luke is obsessed with the Jurassic Park movies. We took him to see "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom" and he loved it. If he can watch an 'indoraptor' bite a man’s arm off, he can handle Toad on the Road.
Ha! It’s funny for me too because I got into creating picture books while I was working as a preschool teacher. My wife is a writer and she got me working on my art for kids. But when I first started, everything I was doing was super intentional. I was trying to bring in everything I was learning from experience as an early childhood educator. I was dealing with a lot of kids fears and I understood that books were a safe place for working through that. So it was interesting to see the disconnect between what I was learning and children’s publishing. I’ve come up with lots of ideas for books that I know kids would love, but they’d never get published.
I had this one idea for a monster hospital. When I was a teacher, whenever the kids played doctor with me they’d always have me be the patient. And they’d say things like, “Oh, we’re going to cut your arm off. We’re going to shoot you up with poison.” I’d get like, 25 shots. Because you know, when kids go to the doctor, they’re afraid. They’re afraid that the doctor’s going to give them shots, or other horrible things, so that’s how they play. And that’s a perfect example of a book many preschool teachers might want for their kids, but it’s never going to get published.
I’d buy it!
Shifting to Max Speed, in both that book as well as Toad on the Road you have these funny exclamations. “Vamoose! Skedaddle!” or “Great Gadzooks!” is that a signature of yours?
Maybe some day in the future, some scholar will look back and say, “Well, obviously he, (fill in the blank)."
Max Speed was the first book I worked on with my agent Theresa, and I knew I had the right agent because she looked at that manuscript and said, “This is a lot of fun. But you know what you need to do? You need to sit down and watch all the old Batman and Robin cartoons and think about how you are writing this.”
And I thought, oh my God, what great advice.
So “Great Gadzooks!” is like that “Holy (whatever) Batman!” line. And when I read the story aloud, and I get to the line “Had Max met his match?” it comes out of my mouth sounding a lot like “The dynamic duo are out of time!”
[Pauses.] I think “Vamoose” might come from old Bugs Bunny cartoons, actually.
That makes tons of sense. Whatever the origin is, I love this tic of yours. It’s not like you say “Great Gadzooks!” or “Vamoose Skedaddle!” as a one-off, which would be incomprehensible for a child. When you use these more unusual expressions, you always repeat them over and over. So you really learn what these phrases mean in context. It's great for expanding exposure to interesting vocabulary and because of when you employ it, specifically it seems to help with commenting, which is such a useful thing to build the word bank for. Vocab building is one of the things I like best about picture books over, say, early readers.
The other thing I love about Max Speed is that it's a great example of the type of book (almost its own genre) where a child plays with their toys in an imaginative way. These books always start in the kid's room or playroom or backyard, and then you go off on some adventure. Very much like the opening sequences for the Toy Story movies. There are a few other books in this vein that I recommend to people: With Any Lucky I’ll Drive a Truck and Night Light. From my perspective, as a parent of autistic kids, these kind of books work so beautifully for pretend play modeling. Is that what you had in mind with Max Speed?
It’s absolutely about modeling pretend play.
The book is actually dedicated to my grandmother. I grew up living with my grandmother, and my parents as well. She always really supported pretend play.
And as a teacher, I loved nothing more than watching kids play pretend. That’s actually where the idea behind The Three Triceratops Tuff came from, and I dedicated that book to the childcare center that I worked at. It was based on three of my kids playing the “The Three Billy Goats Gruff," but with dinosaur toys.
Oh, wow. I love that!
We had been reading the story and suddenly they were playing it. In 4-year-old fashion, everyone was a different kind of dinosaur, there was still a troll and a bridge. So I worked on refining it a bit until it made... a bit more sense.
I really like it because it’s still connected enough to the original “Three Billy Goats Gruff” story. It’s such a foundational story, and some kids just need more practice with it. The way you wrote it, it is a fun parody that still supports kids who need practice with the story structure of the fable.
That’s another thing of mine coming from the preschool background. “Three Billy Goats Gruff” was always kind of a weird story. I think I liked it as a kid, and one of the reasons I think I liked it is that I’m the youngest of three. It’s a really bizarre story. It’s basically a story about a bully and a little guy saying “my bigger brother is going to beat you up!” and I think that’s a good thing. And the original is so violent it’s crazy. The billy goat pokes the trolls eye out through its ears?
That sounds right. My son Harry is getting into fairy tales lately. We’ve been doing a lot of Hansel and Gretel and, man, it’s dark!
With “The Three Triceratops Tuff” the T-Rex gets knocked into the volcano, and of course the kids all know what happens when you fall into a volcano, but the publisher is suggesting, “Can we have the T-Rex poke its head out of the volcano at the end so we know he’s all right?”
He’s not all right! He fell into a volcano!
And that’s like a horror movie, isn’t it? When you think Freddy’s dead and then that hand pops up? You don’t want the bad guy coming back! You want him “never seen or heard from again.”
I have a question about “A Dog is a Dog." We already talked a bit about it earlier. Was the idea for that book about encouraging dress up?
That’s definitely a part of it. And it’s shown up on a couple of Halloween lists, which I love. I love dressing up as a part of pretend play.
I came up with it on a plane ride. I had the line, “A dog is a dog” and thought, ok, when is a dog not a dog? So I wrote, “Unless it’s a cat!” And then I built something out of that absurd idea with a nesting doll kind of structure.
We are big squid fans here. That’s our favorite costume.
Yes! And I tried to do something here that you used to see a lot of in old cartoons. It’s a kind of visual critical thinking tool that kids don’t see a lot of anymore. Cartoons are much more narrative now, but they used to be less linear and play with the animation more.
What I'm getting is that, for instance, you used to be able to paint a tunnel on the side of the wall and then go through it. So in “Dog is a Dog,” yeah, a moose couldn’t fit into that costume, probably, but it can—because I can draw it.
I once had a kid ask—and this was a dead serious question—“Well, how could the moose stay under water so long?”
He was really thinking about. He was buying it up to that point.
Sure. Everything else makes sense, that’s where it falls apart. Ha!
So I told him, “Because I made it so. I drew it that way. I’m an artist. That’s my power—I can make anything happen!” And picture books do that for kids.
Tell me about your artistic style. I’ve read that you pencil, scan, and then digitally color your art. I’m really grateful for your thick lines and solid color blocks. My visually sensitive kid can really focus on your work.
I use a screen print. I really like flat color, bold color, thick lines, like you said. There’s an intentionality to it because I've read to hundreds upon hundreds of kids, usually in large groups. And I know that when you read to a group the visuals must be very clear so all the kids can see.
I love art that doesn’t do necessarily do that, and there’s plenty of it. But sometimes even I don’t know what’s going on in art like that. So a lot of my work is very similar to animation style where the characters are separate from the background and they aren’t necessarily even drawn the same way. It makes the characters pop out. The backgrounds are just backgrounds.
I think it’s a great choice for many kids with autism too. My visually hypersensitive son Luke can’t tolerate looking at busy art. He won’t do it. I think it hurts his eyes, actually. So it’s nice when I can find books that work on a lot of levels, with crisp, non-noisy cartoony art.
As a kid, I also think I loved cartoon-style art because it made me think, maybe in a few years I could do that too. Super realistic art made me feel disconnected.
On that note, what children’s books from your own childhood and children's books being published today do you love and recommend?
Nowadays, one of my favorite authors is Jan Thomas. A Birthday for Cow! Is Everyone Ready for Fun? The Rhyming Duck Bunnies. These are all hysterical books, and I think your kids and readrs would love them! Jan Thomas can do no wrong. She is to me, for picture books, what Sandra Boynton is to board books.