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5 Questions With… Dana Sullivan (OZZIE AND THE ART CONTEST)

by Dana Sullivan
September 20, 2013

Dana Sullivan was the Creative Director at Costco Wholesale for 16 years until he realized he wasn’t being all that creative, so he quit to become a full-time writer and illustrator of children’s books. He teaches illustration classes, is a volunteer cartoonist at 826 Seattle and is the Assistant Regional Advisor for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators of Western Washington. Dana is married to the lovely Vicki and still misses the real Ozzie, an incredibly stubborn and wonderful Australian Blue Heeler named Max, who continues to inspire.

Your new picture book, OZZIE AND THE ART CONTEST, had some real-life inspiration. Can you tell us about that?

A few years ago I submitted an entry to create a coloring book for kids on how to prepare for a disaster—earthquake, flooding, that sort of thing. I worked really hard on it and spent a few days coming up with characters and songs and a storyboard. I had a lot of fun and remember thinking, “Man, I was BORN to do this project! I’m going to get it for sure.” 

When I didn’t get it, I was super disappointed and also surprised at how much anger I felt. I mean, I was SUPPOSED to win, right? Lots of authors turn their own experiences into stories, so that’s what I did. It was a good way to turn my anger and disappointment into something fun. I just used a little blue dog named Ozzie instead of myself.

In OZZIE AND THE ART CONTEST, Ozzie is so driven to win that he doesn’t follow the instructions properly and ends up losing first place, which crushes him. What message do you hope young readers will take away from this?

We all make mistakes. That’s one of the ways we learn. Kids are learning all the time, so they make a lot of mistakes. Hmm, I guess I’m learning all the time, too. Sometimes, like Ozzie, it’s because I’m not paying attention to all the details. But Ozzie’s picture is still a good one (I happen to think it’s the best one in class) and he had an excellent time making it. Ozzie does all kinds of creative things he doesn’t win first prize for, but he doesn’t do it for an award. He does it because he gets a kick out of it.

One of my favorite things about Ozzie is that once he realizes his mistake, he laughs at himself. I’m still working on that part.

Ozzie’s teacher, Miss Cattywhompus, eventually helps Ozzie understand why he lost, as well as appreciate what he gained. She’s instrumental in repairing Ozzie’s self-confidence. How did the teachers in your life who do the same for you?

I’ve had some great teachers who passed on a sense of wonder and joy about what they were teaching. My 9th Grade English teacher really encouraged my artistic side and put me in charge of the art in our yearbook. I drew cartoons of cave-boys and girls on just about every page and still have that yearbook. Later on in art school, one of my favorite teachers of all time, Mr. Lee, taught me to make sure I was having fun while I worked hard. He’d sing to us, kid with us, tell us long stories with no point, but his attitude about getting the most out of life and the careers we were choosing is what I remember best about him. 

Sometimes we don’t appreciate a teacher or a particular lesson until years later. But when we need the lesson, it seems to almost magically show up.  When I was so disappointed about not getting the disaster coloring book gig, I could hear Mr. Lee asking “Why is it you draw, Mr. Sullivan?”

When you were younger, did you know you would eventually be an author and an artist?

When I was very young, probably in kindergarten, I was told I could be anything I wanted to be. I wanted to be a polar bear. Later, when I started drawing, I wanted to grow up to be Maurice Sendak. It was kind of disappointing when I found out I couldn’t be a polar bear and that Maurice Sendak was already taken. But I knew I wanted to do something related to art and cartooning. Since that was really my heart’s desire, it scared me to death and it took me quite a while to get going. I was a literature major in college and then got a degree in commercial art, so as winding as my path was to becoming an author and artist, I look back and realize I was always heading this way.

How can teachers encourage students who want to pursue this path?

Be cheerleaders. Admire their artwork and their writing or whatever it is they are interested in. Help them with spelling and drawing or science equations or layups (whatever they are), but mostly make them feel good about the work they are doing, just the way it is. One of my best teachers taught me the phrase, “approach each problem without a pencil in your hand,” meaning, don’t give them the answer; ask a question instead. They’ll figure it out. Once they gain confidence, you can get into lessons and finer points, but first they have to love what they are doing and see that you love it too. They might grow up to be teachers themselves, helping other kids learn to read. What job is cooler than that?

© 2013 International Reading Association. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.
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