Why did I write Clever Jack Takes the Cake? Mostly for fun, but also because I wanted to try my hand at writing a fairy tale. I do that a lot as a writer—challenge myself to try new things—and tackling a fairy tale was definitely a new thing. So how to begin?
I knew I wanted my story to have a classical feel, incorporating such wonderfully delicious fairy-tale elements as four-and-twenty blackbirds, enchanted forests, and hairy trolls. On the other hand, I wanted it to be totally original, a story like no other. I began writing, and within a few weeks had a tale. But let me tell you a curious truth about writers—they are the stories they write, the fictions they spin. And when I read back what I had written, I realized I had created a fairy tale about . . . me. Weird, but true! The story is filled with my favorite things—journeys and birthdays and cake. The princess, taking after my son Scott, is allergic to strawberries. And Jack? Just like me, he good-naturedly follows life’s road, gathering experiences he can spin into tales.
Spinning experiences into tales is what I did with The Fabled Fifth Graders of Aesop Elementary School, too. I visit lots of school, and there’s nothing I like better than talking with kids, watching them in the lunchroom or on the playground, reading their essays and stories, listening to them tell jokes. And all the while I’m doing these things, I’m thinking about how I can use them in a book. Let me give you an example. A few years ago, I was visiting a school in Tennessee when a fifth-grade boy came up to me and said, “Look what I can do.” He stuck out his tongue, crossed his eyes and wiggled his ears – first the left one, and then the right one. I was impressed—but I hadn’t seen anything yet! Within seconds, the rest of the fifth graders surround me. Everyone, it seemed, had some special body trick to show me—double-jointed fingers and toes, eyelids that folded, lips that could be pulled up over noses, knuckles that cracked to the tune of “Yankee Doodle.” It was absurd and wonderful, and I knew I had to write about it. The result? Chapter five titled, “Hyper . . . Um . . . Hypermob . . . Um . . . Weird Body Tricks.”
"I resurrected my stature as a serious artist in the first grade. I drew caricatures. Mostly of my teacher who found them, and found them most unflattering. My classmates, however, thought they were brilliant. I had gained their respect. I had become 'the class artist'. Through my school years my projects began to improve in merit. I moved onto stage sets, snowflakes for holiday windows, and posters for the walls. I remember being very impressed with the artwork of Charles Schulz. I thought of the Peanuts characters as close friends, I liked their subtle humor. I managed to do a very good rendition of Schulz's work. And I enjoyed that more than anything I had done before. I also read a great deal and had an interest in writing. At one point I was selected to be part of a creative writing class in a different school system, an experience that freed my creativity in a way I hadn't known before.
"At home, sadly, I was not encouraged to pursue art as a profession. So I didn't take seriously the notion of being an artist until late into my senior year in high school. When it became clear that I had no clear direction to go in, I felt like I was adrift. I couldn't find anyplace where I fit. It was at that time I found a person who changed the course of my life, my art teacher. I enrolled in her art class. She took a special interest in me and my work. I think she saw that I had the talent but lacked the confidence and drive, and support, to apply to art schools. She encouraged me to apply to the school she had once taught in, and began to help me pull together a portfolio.
"I knew from the first day of art school that there was no other choice for me. This was it, a place where I fit. I had the good fortune of having many fine teachers, some of whom were working in the field of children's book publishing. In a way, there was never a question in my mind of what to do in the field of art. There was never a defining moment when I said, I want to be a children's book artist. I just was.I've illustrated over fifty books for children at the time of this writing, two of which I also wrote. I can still say that there is never a question of what I should do. This is what I do, and it comes very naturally to me. Not that I don't struggle with it or that it doesn't present a challenge, or that I can't continue to grow as an artist. Because I do, and it does, and I can. But what doesn't exist is a question of my purpose. Aside from watching my children grow, creating books for children is the most gratifying and worthwhile thing I can do."
G. Brian Karas was born in Milford, Connecticut. After graduating from Paier School of Art with highest honors, he worked s a greeting card artist at Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, Missouri. After three years he moved to New York and began freelancing as a commercial illustrator. His first illustrated book was published in 1983 (Home On The Bayou which won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor) and he has since illustrated more than fifty books for children. His first book as author-illustrator received a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor in 1997. Saving Sweetness by Diane Stanley was a Capitol Choices Noteworthy Book for Children in 1996, received a Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books Blue Ribbon in 1996, and was a School Library Journal Best Book of 1996. Like Butter On Pancakes by Jonathan London was a School Library Journal Best Book of 1995. On The Trail With Miss Pace by Sharon Phillips Denslow was a Smithsonian Magazine Notable Children's Book of 1995. In 1995, I Know An Old Lady received a Parent's Choice Honor and was a 1996 Booklist Editors' Choice.
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