Dallas Clayton knows how to dream big.
He began his career as an artist selling homemade zines of poetry and collage on the streets of L.A. But after becoming a father, he wanted to make something just for his son. So, he wrote and illustrated a book about dreaming big dreams and called it An Awesome Book!. When it was finished, he thought the book actually did turn out pretty awesome, and decided to send it out to some publishers. After receiving nothing but rejections, he put it online for free, and waited to see what would happen.
Before long, he had more orders than he could keep up with. People wrote from around the world requesting copies. Celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, Sarah Jessica Parker and Justin Timberlake hyped An Awesome Book on their blogs and in interviews. It even made a prominent appearance in the Casey Affleck/Joaquin Phoenix film I’m Still Here.
After the success of An Awesome Book!, Clayton created The Awesome World Foundation to support childhood literacy and keep giving away his books for free. Amazon published his second book, An Awesome Book of Thanks!, under their AmazonEncore imprint. And now, he has book deals with both Harper Collins and Candlewick Press, who put out his recently released collection of poetry, Make Magic! Do Good!. Clayton’s books with—their smart and silly rhyme schemes and wonderfully quirky illustrations—have earned comparisons to the work of his heroes Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein. And Google recently featured him and his son in a popular ad campaign for their Chrome web browser, bringing even higher levels of exposure.
Now, The Awesome World Foundation sends Clayton all over the world to read, paint murals, sing songs and have a rowdy and mischievous good time with the kids who love his books. PopMatters caught up with him, via email, just after he completed a short tour of the western U.S., for a discussion that touched on his self-made success story, his son’s role in his creative process and the importance of making kid’s books that connect on multiple levels.
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How’s the tour going? It looks like a lot of fun from the pictures on your website.
I just got back. It was a short jaunt but we made the most of it—tons of schools, tons of readings, lots of murals, lots of kids. I love touring, it really centers me.
Why is it so important to you to connect with people directly in this way?
Ultimately, I love people. I love sharing ideas and being around people. So, first and foremost it’s an excuse for me to get out of L.A. and see the world. Since my main audience is kids and parents it’s always great to see their faces and hear what they have to say. Also, the way I tour is so weird and the type of books I make have such a broad reach that when I’m on the road I feel like I’m doing something that hasn’t been done before, at least not in this way. That’s always a great feeling, when you know you’re onto something totally new.
Do you have any favorite memories from your time on the road?
This time out, there were a lot of huge audiences. I’m really into reading to entire schools at once now, so maybe it’ll be 1,000 kids in one room all going crazy. That’s really great. I read at a high school in Utah that had some great questions and a lot of kids that reminded me of myself at that age. It’s cool being able to read to a kindergarten and high school from the same book and have two totally unique and equally inspiring reactions.
Before writing kids books, you built a following selling your zines on the streets of L.A. Do you think those early experiences inspired you to take a more DIY approach to publishing an An Awesome Book!?
I didn’t want them to, that’s for sure. I initially approached An Awesome Book! as the first non-DIY thing I’d ever done. I assumed I would send it off to publishers, they’d print it and that would be the end of it. But after I got turned down, I got frustrated with waiting around so I just made it myself. In that sense, having a DIY pedigree certainly paid off. If you came up printing things yourself, making your own t-shirts, booking shows, touring in a van—there’s an affinity for those things that most people might not have. Those things to me never seem like work, they seem like the purest essence of being creative.
You got a lot of exposure from the Google ad, and I wonder how it feels to you to go from doing this completely on your own to working with these huge companies like Google and Amazon?
It’s funny because I make things for kids but obviously those things get filtered through adults first. So, I get emails and calls from really surprising places, like being on Google’s radar or Amazon or Starbucks or Apple or whatever celebrity. It’s always such a nice surprise to know that what I’m doing has such a broad reach. Like all of a sudden, Google is a fan of me, of this book I made in my bedroom? So rad!
After all of your success, what inspired you to create The Awesome World Foundation and give your books away for free?
It just made sense. At the time I was the author, illustrator, publisher, and distributor which meant I could do whatever I wanted with the books. I knew I wanted to tour and it just made sense to give away books at schools and hospitals and libraries and places along the way. It all happened so organically that after the first tour I knew I just wanted to be able to do that all the time.
I’d like to talk a bit about your journey as an artist. I read that An Awesome Book! was your first experience working in a visual medium. Are you entirely self-taught?
I guess so. I didn’t have anyone who could illustrate for me so I figured I’d just draw things myself. Luckily a kids audience is much more forgiving so I’m able to rely a lot on style and fun and not so much on technical know-how. But, I’m glad that I’ve taken on the task of illustrating. It’s one less step between me and a completed product and now it’s a huge portion of what I do.
The idea for An Awesome Book! came from a dream your kid had. Do you involve him a lot in your creative process?
100%. My son’s not only a perfect source of endless inspiration but also a really great sounding board for ideas and a really magical brain to sit back and observe. When I can, I bring him to school readings and on tour with me. He’s in on the entire process, and has been watching the entire thing from day one. I feel like it’s important, no matter what your job is to keep your kids as involved as possible. I have so many friends who to this day don’t really know what their parents do for a living because their folks always kept work separate. I think that creates a huge divide, and that’s not the type of energy I’m trying to foster.
I have a one year old daughter, and I feel like she teaches me everyday to slow down and really see the world as the wonderful, mysterious and sometimes scary place that it is. Is that feeling something that you’re trying to capture in your work?
Always. At its root, what I do is poetry, and poetry is all about observation. It’s about taking the essence of something and rolling it out for everyone to look at, to spend a few extra seconds with. Anyone who’s a parent knows kids love to spend a few extra seconds (minutes, hours) with just about anything. The more familiar we become with our surroundings the easier it is to take things for granted, but it’s the job of the artist or the poet to slow down and examine those familiar objects, or familiar moments and turn them into art to allow everyone a bit of reflection and in doing so perhaps allow us all to recapture a bit of that fleeting childlike wonderment.
As a parent, I really appreciate a kids book that makes me laugh and keeps me engaged. Is it important to you to make something that kids will love, but that anyone can get something out of?
Yes. Crucial. It’s a question that comes up often, but I like to approach things thematically. Stories with big themes told in small ways. Dreams, Love, Thankfulness, Magic—these are all ideas that anyone anywhere in the world can relate to regardless of age or race or social status. I believe in the things I write and I think they are important and it makes me happy to be able to share them. The bigger the message, the broader its scope, the better I feel. I want to try to reach everyone, not just kids, not just Americans, everyone.
Your books are a lot of fun, but there are some pretty serious ideas in there as well. Can you talk about this balance between fun and humor and the deeper messages in your work?
Like I said, it’s all about themes. Some are happy, some are sad, some are silly, but all are coming from a real place. As a parent it’s always cool to see what parts of a story, or a film, or a song a kid relates to versus what I relate to as an adult. Maybe the kid likes the drawing, or the bass line, or the hilarious joke and the parent likes the philosophy or the lighting, or the lyrics—you never know, but the more layers I can add to a piece the better off I feel. The more people that can take something away from what I do, the more stoked I am.
- An Awesome Book! Digital version