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Out to Lunch | Illustrator J. Otto Seibold brings beloved characters to CJM show.

Children's book illustrator J. Otto Seibold found fame with his Mr. Lunch books. Inspired by Dexter Lunch, his real-life pooch, the first Mr. Lunch saga came to life after Seibold took a cross-country plane ride with the dog. The resulting book debuted as Mr. Lunch Takes A Plane Ride. Not to be shown up, Seibold's other dog became the template for the neo-classic Olive, the Other Reindeer. Raised in Martinez, Seibold is largely self-taught. After high school and drafting classes, he worked in Clorox's Pleasanton office and designed and illustrated the company's Christmas calendar—his first solo effort. And we're all the better for it. Seibold (and former wife Vivian Walsh, who wrote the stories) has delighted scores since. A Seibold retrospective is up at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco this month.

Paul Kilduff: Your children's books were the first designed using computer illustration software. How did that come about?

J. Otto Seibold: The Mr. Lunch books, which are the subject of the show, were created using the software called Adobe Illustrator. I still use an antique version of Illustrator, which I think was made in mid-'90s or something.

PK: Wow.

JOS: The versions after this they're making to be web-friendly and business-friendly. I didn't need that, so I just keep it simple.

PK: Really?

JOS: Yeah, I send my art to designers and stuff, and they're like, "This is like an old quill pen." It's such an old program. They have to find the program to run it.

PK: So Mr. Lunch is completely digital?

JOS: Yeah, it was created on a Macintosh back in New York City in 1992 and it came out in 1993. I was doing commercial illustration on a computer, and I was getting a lot of work. And I actually started hating the whole routine of just hyping stuff for money with my art and wanted to get into something better. I thought children's books are kind of pure. So I just stopped doing commercial illustrations. I mean, I would do jobs here and there that were good ones; I could pick and choose, but it wasn't just to pay rent and eat.

PK: This phenomenon seems to have passed, but there was a time when it seemed like every celebrity had a children's book out. Even Jay Leno wrote one. What was up with that?

JOS: Yeah, in the '90s there was a monster fad of celebrities who were writing children's books. I remember I would go to the bookstore, because my book would come out, and I'd see them in the store. It was fun just to look at it and be like, "Ahhh, it's legitimate and real!" And then I'd look at the competition in the children's section, and it would be Jay Leno and Jamie Lee Curtis. So what I would do is I'd go to like Barnes & Noble and I'd pick my books off the shelf and drop my book on the top of each celebrity book. And then I'd be on my way.

PK: Do you recommend that for fledgling authors?

JOS: People often ask me how to get into it [children's book publishing], and I tell them what I used to do. I lived in New York City right by a huge Barnes & Noble with this great children's section. I would make a mock [of my book]—I actually sewed some pages together with cardboard and made a cover, and I would put it in my bag and go down to Barnes & Noble and put my book on the shelf where all the new releases were and walk across the room and look at it and think if it was good enough. Should it be there or not? Then I would go home and fine tune it and upgrade my mock-up. When it was published, it actually looked like the last version I made.

PK: Obviously, the book business is in trouble—how are you holding up?

JOS: I have three pretty much grown children. Both my older girls are off to college and doing fantastic, but yeah, I've been legitimately "artist-broke" for many years, because there's just no more money in people buying books. I refuse to do iPad stuff for young children. I'm not gonna create anything that's an app basically.

PK: Why?

JOS: The reason I don't do apps is that when I do a book, it's actually a tool for communicating. Ideally the idea behind the children's book is that there's somebody who can't read the story, and then there's somebody who sits with them and decodes it while they look at the pictures. That's communication. That creates a little space between child and adult or whoever. It's sacred. A device of any kind that's just handed to a child, that's isolatory and it becomes solitary. I mean, my son loves video games, and I get it. It's just a way to be distracted. But a small child? There's just too much good stuff in the world to just stare at a piece of glass.

PK: Declining book sales? Is that why you opened up The Sloth Shop, the bookstore featuring your books inside the Telegraph Beer Garden in Oakland?

JOS: Yeah, I have all my old books there for people to read. People bring their kids up and enjoy looking through the stuff. It's sort of an art enterprise space there.

PK: What about a Mr. Lunch animated TV show?

JOS: I actually had a contract from Sony somewhere in the late '90s or 2000. They sent me the contract, and it was sitting on my desk, and I kept thinking about how when I asked them to show me examples of what the writing would be like, everything I saw was shockingly bad, and so I just didn't sign the contract.

PK: If you had complete creative control, would you interested in an animated Mr. Lunch series?

JOS: No, even less than complete creative control. If I collaborate with somebody who I actually think is smarter and has a better take than I do, that's my favorite collaboration.

PK: So we'll keep the door open for the possibility?

JOS: Yeah, for the readers of The Monthly.

PK: Readers who have Hollywood connections, J. Otto is still interested in the video angle, OK? Call me. You allude to Curious George on the Mr. Lunch website. How much of an influence was that little monkey?

JOS: There is a blatant Curious George homage/rip-off page.

PK: You're ripping Curious George off ?

JOS: It's a purposeful rip-off. Yeah. Definitely. If you go through all the books I've done, I've included Where's Waldo, Hello Kitty, Madeline—anything that was an icon. I never drew Barney. I just don't even want to get into that.

PK: We're all grateful for that.

 

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Photo by Gabriela Laz.

J. Otto Seibold Vital Stats

Age: 54

Birthplace: Oakland

Astrological Sign: Capricorn

Book on Nightstand: The Sot-weed Factor.

Website: JottoDotCom.com

Contemporary Jewish Museum: TheCJM.org