Bestselling author-illustrator Stephen T. Johnson puts young children behind the wheel of a bright yellow taxicab. A cutout key starts the engine, swishing wipers clean the windshield, and a clock on each page introduces the concept of telling time. In all, there are sixteen interactive features in this sturdy hands-on—and highly original—creation that’s both fun and educational. Your little ones will love driving My Little Yellow Taxi again and again!
Q: My Little Yellow Taxi is your third interactive novelty book. After creating so many successful traditional picture books, what made you decide to design books with movable and removable parts? What do you find most rewarding—and most challenging—about novelty books?
A: The choice to use interactivity as a chief component in a children’s book was simply a result of pursuing an idea I had about tools, shapes, and counting. I thought children would be delighted to discover tools—such as a hammer, a saw, and a wrench—that could come out of a book and interact with nails, wood, or bolts. I brought this idea into being with My Little Red Toolbox.
My Little Blue Robot was a completely new experience in interactivity for me. I thought that in addition to incorporating the multiple concepts of counting, colors, and shapes, it would be incredible if kids could actually build a robot at the same time they read the book. Needless to say, this was a challenging engineering task, but I am very proud of how the book works. When fully put together, the robot stands sixteen inches tall; it can roll, move its arms, and—because of a computer chip—even speak! Incidentally, you can also build it inside out!
With My Little Yellow Taxi, I combined engineering aspects from my first two books, such as removable cardboard items, and added pull tabs and more complex internal movable cardboard parts. It was challenging to have more than one element move simultaneously; for example, the page with the headlights and windshield wipers has one pull tab that controls the movements of both car parts.
These books are an exciting adventure for me. They take an enormous amount of time to create from the initial idea to the finished product, but when I watch my kids reading and interacting with these books—and asking for them again and again—I know it was all worth it.
Q: My Little Yellow Taxi includes a clock to introduce the concept of telling time. In your Caldecott Honor-winning picture book Alphabet City, kids learn the alphabet while searching for letters in items that can be found on city streets. What inspires you to create books about these early concepts?
A: Alphabets, numbers, and time are all concepts that everyone can relate to. My books Alphabet City and City by Numbers invite people to find the shapes of letters and numbers in urban environments and to explore the associations and implications of what they discover. In My Little Yellow Taxi, the clock, the street signs, and the shapes of the snacks that you can put into the glove compartment enhance the associative contexts of the book.
Q: Kids who’ve loved your first two interactive books, My Little Red Toolbox and My Little Blue Robot, will enjoy spotting the red toolbox and the blue robot hidden within My Little Yellow Taxi. Many of your books have bonus layers—clocks or letters that are hidden on every page. What is your goal in including extra elements?
A: I like these ideas because they invite readers to move beyond the immediate or literal sense of text and image. With regards to My Little Yellow Taxi, I thought that the robot face from My Little Blue Robot would be perfect for the hood ornament, the hubcaps, and the logo on the side of the cab. The red toolbox found its way onto the floor of the front passenger side, and it activates the picture in a colorful and dynamic way. Some tools also appear inside the glove compartment.
Q: You’ve created several books about cities and things that can be found within them. What is it about the city that appeals to your creative side? Are you a city boy at heart?
A: Well, I am both a city boy and a small town boy at heart. I am now living in the Midwest, where I spent most of my youth; yet I have spent close to half of my life in cities, mostly in New York City but also in Bordeaux and Paris, France. I fully appreciate the richness of city environments. There are many things I love about cities: the variety of buildings, the bridges, the juxtaposition of scale, the changing neighborhoods, and the various colors and textures found on walls, streets, roofs, and the like.
In the front bumper of the taxi, I used a painting of mine of New York City and reworked it so it is reflected in the chrome. All through the book, the surface textures of the taxi relate to a car, but there is also an important emotional component that explores the senses of memory, touch in particular. The difference in texture and feel of a rabbit’s foot on the key chain and the metal push-button on the seat belt or the bright, shiny yellow painted metal of the taxi and rubber of the tires are examples of this concept.
Q: The art in some of your books is very realistic, as in My Little Yellow Taxi and Alphabet City, while in others, such as Robert Burleigh’s Hoops and Goal, you use a more stylized approach. How do you decide which style to use when you illustrate a book?
A: I think creating a children’s picture book is similar to how a movie director envisions a movie—with each book there is a vision. How well one conveys this vision is crucial to fully developing and communicating the story, the concept, etc. So for My Little Yellow Taxi, I chose a hyperrealistic approach that would instantly convey a bright yellow taxi, with all of its photorealistic components highly rendered and easily recognizable. Moreover, many of the inner workings of an automobile are foreign to children, and the taxi provides them an introduction to automobiles. I think that realism helps in this regard.
By contrast, the artwork I created for Hoops was much more impressionistic. I let my charcoal and pastel marks flow in and out of the drawings of the basketball players, which added a sense of movement to this exciting sport. The artwork was built with line and tone over the textured surface of various papers.
Q: Your commercial artwork has been featured on the cover of Time magazine, on the label for Samuel Adams’s Old Fezziwig Ale, and on a few album covers. Do these commercial projects in any way influence the picture books you create for children?
A: Not really. These commissions are typically for a single piece of artwork or a series of pieces that address a very specific subject matter or concept. However, the Old Fezziwig Ale commission was a direct result of my illustration of the Fezziwigs from A Christmas Carol published by Andrews McMeel Publishing in 1993.
Q: Each of your three interactive books features a primary color: a red toolbox, a blue robot, and now, a yellow taxi. Can readers look forward to future novelty books that will use other vibrant colors?
A: I have lots of ideas...
Stephen T. Johnson
My Little Blue Robot
My Little Red Toolbox