If there is a common thematic thread running through Peter Brown’s picture books, which include The Curious Garden (Little, Brown), Children Make Terrible Pets (Little, Brown) and Creepy Carrots! (Simon & Schuster), it might be the recurrence of earnest outsiders seeking companionship and understanding in a world that is scary, perplexing, or governed by arbitrary order. In Mr. Tiger Goes Wild (Little, Brown, Sept.), the eponymous feline lives among uncommunicative, bipedal animals dressed in drab Victorian garb. As the emerald-eyed Mr. Tiger shuns convention, trading his top hat and coat for a naked romp through the jungle, Brown conveys an agile message about individuality, exploration – and temperance.
How do you typically begin a new project?
My process is always different, but for Mr. Tiger, I started with an idea about a very proper, anthropomorphic tiger, who lives in a world filled with other proper animals, all of whom are denying the fact that they’re actually wild animals. Mr. Tiger becomes curious about his inner wildness and slowly begins to discover his true nature. Once I had a very basic outline of the story, I began visualizing the characters and settings.
Is Mr. Tiger based on anyone you know?
The book is slightly autobiographical. I think we all wonder what would have happened if we’d made different life choices, and we wonder if it’s too late to make any big changes. Well, in this book we see Mr. Tiger being completely bored with his life, and we watch as he takes action and makes some major changes. You might say Mr. Tiger is having a bit of a mid-life crisis. I haven’t had a midlife crisis – yet – but I can empathize. I hope that kids will appreciate Mr. Tiger’s struggle to control his wildness, and I hope that adults will appreciate his struggle to find his true nature.
Can you name some authors or illustrators who have influenced you?
I watched a lot of old animated Disney films while I was working on Mr. Tiger – movies that explore anthropomorphism and animal characters, like The Jungle Book and Robin Hood. There are little moments in Robin Hood in which Robin Hood, who is a fox in this version, snaps or snarls and shows his inner fox. I loved those moments. Many of the story artists who worked on those films, artists like Mary Blair and Eyvind Earle, have influenced me hugely over the years. I am also very influenced by the work of Martin and Alice Provensen, and Leonard Weisgard. All of those artists used bold, graphic shapes and textures, qualities you’ll find in Mr. Tiger Goes Wild.
The clothing that the animals wear in Mr. Tiger’s world seems rather Victorian. Did you research fashions from that era?
I thought Victorian-era clothing would really make the animals seem proper, so I did study books on fashion from that era. There was a wonderful variety of clothing in Victorian times, but I liked the idea that these animal characters were trying to cover up their true animal selves by wearing the exact same outfits. So we don’t see any of the variety that actually existed in Victorian clothing. Of course, it’s ridiculous to think that an elephant and a rabbit might think they look the same just because they wear the same outfit, and that is exactly my point: they’re all unique characters, and should embrace their uniqueness.
Do you have a favorite scene in the book, or one that was especially problematic?
There’s a spread where Mr. Tiger slowly lowers himself down to the ground, and then we turn the page and he’s standing on all fours for the very first time. It was a real challenge to think of a way to get Mr. Tiger on to all fours in a natural, unforced way. I tried dozens and dozens of terrible ideas before I came up with the simple solution that we see in the finished book.
Was there a moment when you knew that you had Mr. Tiger “just right?”
I never think that I have it just right, but I think I have it better than it was. Thanks to the influential artists I mentioned earlier, I decided to go with a mid-century aesthetic of using simple shapes and patterns in the art, and I wanted to let that sense of simplicity influence my writing as well, so I pared down the text as much as possible. I wanted to get this visual story to the point where every word had a purpose, and every shape had a purpose. I’m not sure if I achieved that goal, but I came pretty close.
There can be a fine line between going a little wild and sometimes going too far. What do you hope readers gain from Mr. Tiger’s example?
When I was a kid I was always bouncing off the walls. Adults would tell me to behave, but I just wanted to play kickball or climb the jungle gym. So I think kids will relate to Mr. Tiger’s inner wildness. Adults may relate to Mr. Tiger in a more intellectual way, by understanding what it’s like to want something more from life.
What about you – do you relate to Mr. Tiger?
My characters always represent different parts of my personality, but Mr. Tiger is the most complete version of me. I’m more Mr. Tiger than I am any of my other characters.
Do you think there’s a chance that we will see more of Mr. Tiger?
I don’t think so. I think that this story wraps up in a nice, tidy way, and I don’t want to diminish it by doing a sequel.
If not Mr. Tiger 2, then what projects do you have coming up next?
I just finished a book about a troublemaking boy who dislikes his teacher so much that he is convinced she is a monster. It’s called My Teacher Is a Monster! No, I Am Not. It will be out next fall from Little, Brown. I think a lot of kids and teachers will relate.
Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown. Little, Brown, $18 Sept. ISBN 978-0-316-20063-9