New York City-based Lego artist Sean Kenney has crafted countless replicas of architectural structures, vehicles, portraits, animals, and company logos – all using the diminutive plastic bricks. In 2009, he began sharing his expertise with children, in the instructional book Cool Cars and Trucks, published by Henry Holt imprint Christy Ottaviano Books. Four Lego-themed books followed, and next month the author branches out with a new series that shows kids how to build various structures using of the same limited supply of bricks. Due September 10 from Holt/Ottaviano is Cool Creations in 35 Pieces, which offers instructions for making animals, spaceships, robots, and more. A Square Fish paperback omnibus of Kenney’s first three titles – Totally Cool Creations: Cool Cars and Trucks, Cool Robots, and Cool City – will be released the same day.
Ottaviano’s two sons, now 10 and almost 13, were in part responsible for launching Kenney’s publishing career. The editorial director recalled how Vincent and Francis at eight and five years old were “totally consumed” by Lego, and loved building the kits, making their own creations, and perusing the seasonal catalogues that arrived in the mail. “These catalogues would get read hundreds of times before the next season’s catalogue arrived,” said Ottaviano. “They were dog-eared, marked up with pen, and love-worn. I always found it frustrating that I couldn’t find any books on Lego that provided details about the building process, like how to make a cool spaceship, or the tricks involved in adding curves to a building.”
One day, before she set out on one of her frequent expeditions with her boys to view the extensive Lego section in Manhattan’s FAO Schwarz toy store, she Googled “Lego NYC” in hopes, she said, “that another option to our FAO visit would present itself.” Sean Kenney’s Web site came up in Ottaviano’s search. “I was terribly impressed with Sean’s site,” she said. “It was clear that he was not only a gifted Lego designer and artist, but that he could relate to kids.”
Ottaviano’s editorial instincts kicked into gear, and several days later, when she was home with the flu, she gave Kenney a call. “We had a great conversation, despite my coughing, and started planning the books from that first talk,” she recalled. “Sean did a very detailed sketch mock-up of the first book. He was adept at choosing the right tone and language for the text, and very much understood the interaction between text and art, and could articulate his ideas in visual form, especially when offering instructions in a step-by-step, pictorial way. His vision of what the books should look like, along with their purpose, were very much in sync with my own.”
From Artist to Author
A self-described “professional kid” who “never grew out of loving Lego,” Kenney became a designer and builder after working in the computer technology field. “I rode that whole ‘dot com’ thing in the late 1990s and early 2000s,” he said. “And after 10 years sitting in an office, I decided to merge my Lego hobby with my skills in computer technology. I began building models and sharing stuff online with friends and fans, and people kept stumbling across my Web site and asking me to make things for them – from Fortune 500 firms to grandmothers. Before long the calls got closer together and the projects became larger – some using half a million bricks.”
Kenney was more than happy to – ahem – snap to it and move into books after receiving Ottaviano’s call. “I’d wanted to write a book for a long time, and had been noodling about different ideas, but not in any cohesive way,” he said. “When Christy contacted me, I realized this was an excellent opportunity to finally do it, and so we began the series.” It was a smart decision: together Kenney’s books have sold more than 145,000 copies since 2009.
Spreading the Message
Well before his book deal, in 2003, Kenney launched MOCpages.com, short for My Own Creation. “The idea was to create a community to give folks a place to share their Lego creations and be inspired by each other,” he said. And now, he added, the books and the Web site complement one another. “I go on the site and I’ll see cars kids are creating that were inspired by my book – but kids have really made them their own. It’s fascinating to see the range of ideas – and it’s tricky to address that range in a short book.”
His new work, Cool Creations in 35 Pieces, which has a 50,000-copy first printing, was perhaps his most challenging book to date, given that the projects are limited to so few bricks. “Trying to simplify the models since it’s such a tiny palette of parts is kind of like a poet writing something using only half the alphabet,” he said. “I pushed myself to do a lot of different – and silly – things.” The models in the book that follows in fall 2014, Cool Creations in 100 Pieces, are “much more involved and detailed, and look less abstract since there are more bricks involved. With 100 instead of 35 pieces, the whole game changes.”
Kenney will embark on his first full-fledged author tour on September 9, visiting 16 cities in two weeks. At bookstore events promoting his earlier books, the author has marveled at the wide variety of models that his fans devise on their own. “Kids often bring in their own creations, and the fun thing is that, though they essentially are using the same Lego pieces that I’ve used for all my books, I’ve never seen the same creation twice. It’s amazing to see kids so excited and proud of what they make.”
Cool Creations in 35 Pieces by Sean Kenney. Holt/Ottaviano, $12.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-8050-9692-7
Totally Cool Creations: Cool Cars and Trucks, Cool Robots, and Cool City by Sean Kenney. Holt/Square Fish, $19.99 paper Sept. ISBN 978-1-250-03110-5