Did you ride the bus to school? What do you remember about it? What did you see? How did you feel as a passenger? These questions were the starting point for my new picture book ONE BOY WATCHING, published this week by Chronicle Books. Riding the bus was an experience that felt both personal and universal - a perfect subject for a story.
I rode Bus Number Four from Kindergarten through 10th grade. From my neighborhood on the edge of a Kansas suburb, the bus took me past fields and farms on country roads to my small-town school. At times, the school bus was a place of commotion and chaos. The long ride was sometimes boring. But it was also an opportunity to watch and reflect on the world outside the window.
As a quiet kid, I was most content looking out at the passing landscape, daydreaming. On cool autumn mornings the windows fogged and dripped with dew, which I wiped away to better see the scenery. Looking, counting, and imagining were ways to pass the time, but they also helped deepen the experience of wonder I felt at seeing the trees, fields, farmhouses, and wildflowers of rural Kansas.
I used my lifelong habit of observation and reflection to create ONE BOY WATCHING. I wrote down my memories, good and bad, of riding the bus to school through the Kansas countryside. The time we got stuck in a muddy ditch and had to get picked up by another bus. All the times a long train made us late for class. The nice seatmates and the not-so-nice ones. The loud teenagers in the back. The ever-changing soundtrack: upbeat 90s pop, sad old country music, moody alternative rock. And outside, the ever-changing Kansas weather, as varied as the music.
In an effort to immerse myself in the experience of a childhood bus ride, I even made a playlist of songs I remember from 107.3 KKRD, Wichita's Top 40 radio.
In planning the illustrations ONE BOY WATCHING, I got to retrace my old bus route with camera and sketchbook in hand. I would pull over next to a field of rusty tractors or a patch of roadside sunflowers and sketch or snap a photo. It must have looked strange to any passing cars. From my sketchbooks, I was able to capture small, realistic touches to deepen the world of the book.
The iconic yellow-orange American school bus was a joy and challenge to draw. The bus itself became a character in the story, bumping down dirt roads and stopping to load and unload. One of the most difficult parts of making ONE BOY WATCHING was correctly drawing all the details of the flat-nosed Blue Bird bus: keeping the proper number of windows on each side, noting the exact placement of lights and mirrors, and matching seats with bus riders from page to page.
I spent a morning at the Mulvane, Kansas bus barn sketching and taking reference photos. I can confirm the vinyl seats still smell the same way they did thirty years ago. And there’s still not quite enough leg room for a tall person.
All the details help create a convincing picture book world, though I did have to create an impossible Escher-esque interior for the scene of all the kids inside the bus. Please don’t try to match up the seats and windows on that one! Still, I think it captures the energy of a full bus as it approaches its destination.
To be a passenger is to be an observer. To be a keen observer is the first step to becoming an artist. I think the long morning rides of reflection helped lead me to my career as an author and illustrator. And they helped pave the way for one book about one boy, watching.
Thanks to all the people who helped make this book possible. My wife Kayla is a tireless supporter of my work and an astute first reader. My twin brother Gavin gave feedback along the way and shared some of his bus memories (though I didn't include him in the book, as I would have had to make it TWO boys watching). My agent Judy Hansen is a great support for my career and sounding board for my far-flung ideas. And my editor Ariel Richardson helped guide the book from its early stages, encouraging my art and writing explorations throughout the process. I hope ONE BOY WATCHING finds its way into the hands and hearts of bus riders past, present, and future.