SVA’s Stephen Savage Puts An Imaginative Twist On A Classic Nursery Rhyme With ‘Jack B. Ninja’

Savage illustrates the tale of a young ninja in action.

May 11, 2018 by Rodrigo Perez
Jack B. Ninja, Children's Book, Stephen Savage
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Child ninjas, an inaugural covert mission in Japan, and a charming riff on a classic nursery rhyme, the upcoming children’s book Jack B. Ninja by illustrator and author Stephen Savage is a delightful contemporary hit in the making. A BFA Illustration faculty member since 2001 and SVA alumnus (MFA 1996 Illustration as Visual Essay), Savage is bit of a hero in many households, even if sometimes the parents aren’t always aware. He’s created and shaped such award-winning children’s books as Where’s Walrus, Fathers Are Coming Home (written by Margaret Wise Brown), Little Tug and Supertruck, a board book that this author’s son is particularly fanatical about. Penned by Lauren Thompson and illustrated by Savage, the Polar Bear Night is a New York Times best seller.

Savage is the recipient of a New York Times Best Illustrated Book award, a Sendak Fellowship, an ILA Primary Fiction Award, and a Geisel Honor award; and his illustrations have appeared in the Times, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal and other publications. His latest book is a play on Jack Be Nimble – “Jack B. Ninja! Jack, be quick! Jack, jump over the bamboo stick!”

Savage’s books and illustrations have a warm, intimate and inviting quality to them, and simplicity of the artwork is the key to the childlike genius found inside. Every Savage book, even as they vary slightly in recommended reading ages, understands that it must stand up to multiple viewings and have the hook of a great protagonist. “Like a good movie, the audience needs to fall in love with the characters,” he said. Jack B. Ninja is a simple story about a young ninja who embarks on his first mission to find a stolen treasure chest, but like all the books, it’s endlessly endearing.

Illustrated by Savage and written by Bitty Bot author Tim McCanna (an actor, musician, musical theatre writer, graphic designer), reviews of Jack B. Ninja are already glowing. Publisher’s Weekly describes it as “a fast-moving read-aloud adventure just right for a quiet break between ninja practice sessions”; Kirkus Reviews says the book “will have young fans requesting repeat visits”; and even an audio book is on the way.

Jack B. Ninja is available in June via Orchard Books. We had a quick chat with Savage, who gave appropriately, simple, sage words of advice about understanding your audience and the unique world of creating books for children.

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What was the inspiration behind Jack B. Ninja?
I found plenty of inspiration in Tim McCanna’s text. It felt like a big adventure. I also relied on all of my usual sources of illustration inspiration: travel posters, luggage and fruit crate labels, matchbook cover art, mid-century Mad Men era advertising, art in general.

When did you start illustrating and writing children’s books and why?
My first book was the 2004 bestselling book Polar Bear Night, written by Lauren Thompson. I had graduated from the SVA MFA Illustration program in 1996 and had been working as an editorial illustrator for the eight years that followed. I wanted to branch out and kid’s books seemed like a good fit.

What’s the biggest challenge of making a book like Jack B. Ninja?
Ninja books are everywhere these days, so I wanted our version to feel fresh and surprising. This required that I work and re-work the images over and over again (despite the fact that they seem so simple and effortless).

What, in your mind, makes a good children’s book?
Like a movie, a kid’s book needs to be able to stand up to many, many, many readings/viewings. And also like a good movie, the audience needs to fall in love with the characters.

Do you have any advice for anyone trying to break into this field?
1. Read a bunch of books to kids and get into their mindset. Ultimately, your artwork must contain characters and worlds that appeal to kids. 2. Research the field. Learn all you can about the nuts and bolts of the business.

Do you have a favorite children’s book and why?
Harold and the Purple Crayon is a masterpiece. It’s more than just a kid’s book. Adults love it, too. It defies categorization.

Recommended for readers aged 4 through 8, Jack B. Ninja is available through Orchard Books on June 26, 2018. For more, visit Stephen Savage’s official website and learn more about the BFA Illustration program here .

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