Illustrator Bob Staake Strikes Gold With Latest Kids' Book

By: Tim Wood

CHATHAM – Revising is second nature to author/illustrator Bob Staake. The illustrations in each of his children's books go through many versions, as his thick files attest.

But his latest book is different. Folders holding the various iterations of the drawings and manuscript for “The Book of Gold” were so thick he had to put them in a separate box. Ten years in the making, the book's manuscript went through nearly two dozen versions. He created 32 variations of the cover alone.

“I'm pretty relentless,” said Staake, a Chatham resident also known for his New Yorker covers and Washington Post illustrations. “I'm like a dog with a bone when it comes to a book. I have to get it right.”

“The Book of Gold” tells the story of Isaac Gutenberg, a young boy who just isn't interested in much. His parents take him to the New York Public Library, but still can't spark any interest. Finally, a woman in an antique shop tells him about “The Book of Gold,” a legendary tome said to hold the answers to every question ever asked and that turns to solid gold when opened.

That sets Isaac on a life-long quest to find the mythical book, which requires that he read every book he can get his hands on and leads to the realization of the value of reading.

The book is crammed with the detail typical of one of Staake's children's books, in both street and interior scenes, but there's also a high level of verisimilitude. The renderings of the New York Library and its iconic lions – whom Staake discovered, through his research, are named Patience and Fortitude, which fits nicely with the book's themes – are painstakingly accurate, as are the street scenes, which stretch through time from 1935 to the present. He even researched historic trolley lines in New York City to make sure he showed them in the right locations. In a scene that takes place in India, all of the signs are in Bengali – and had to be translated to make sure they actually said what he wanted them to say.

The initial pages, which take place when Isaac is a boy, are colored in sepia to reflect the era. As Isaac searches for The Book of Gold, color gradually seeps into the drawings, all done in Staake's characteristic style. His original vision was to have the color hit all at once á la “The Wizard of Oz.” His publisher suggested the transition be slower, and builds to a logical crescendo at the end. Because he works digitally, Staake was able to make the transition by adjusting the opacity of each drawing.

“I wanted it to slowly bleed out,” he said. “You see the transition but you're not aware of it.”

The manuscript also went through many changes. Staake said he originally referred to the woman in the antique shop as a “gypsy,” but the publisher insisted he change it. While he argued that in the context of 1935 the word would have been appropriate, he ultimately consented to “the old shopkeeper” instead. When he goes to India, Isaac visits Calcutta; Staake successfully fought to keep the city's old name and not change it to the current “Kolkata.”

More significantly, Staake was torn between two versions of the story – one in which Isaac finds “The Book of Gold,” and one in which he doesn't. The version his editor at Schwarts and Wade books argued for, and the version he ultimately went with, “gives hope,” Staake said.

“I wanted kids to be reading the book and realize what they held in their hands was 'The Book of Gold,'” he said.

The book also contains Staake's usually plethora of “Easter eggs,” small details that reward the attentive reader. Underneath the dust jacket, for instance, is a completely different cover that gives the book an antique appearance. A drawing in which an older Isaac walks past the Queensboro Bridge is an homage to a scene from the Woody Allen film “Manhattan.”

For the prolific Staake, who can write and/or draw up to half a dozen books a year, “The Book of Gold” had an unusually long gestation. He had the idea a decade ago, and Schwartz and Wade agreed to publish it after putting out his successful “Bluebird.” It took a lot of time because it was a book he wanted to get right, down to the best paper stock. But he also wanted kids to learn not just to appreciate books but to have fun with them, to not be afraid to fall into the “wormhole” that is a good book. That teaches that the journey can be more fulfilling than the destination.

“It's the path we take along the way in our quest that offers the most surprises,” he said. That sentiment is conveyed in the dedication: “For every librarian who, through Patience and Fortitude, guides a child to discover their own book of gold.”

Released just last week, “The Book of Gold” has already garnered plaudits from various review publications, including The American Booksellers Association, which wrote that “No one has done such an excellent job of capturing the feeling of discovery and the wonder of reading as Bob Staake has in 'The Book of Gold.'” The book will also be included in the Museum of Illustration at the Society of Illustrators Original Art exhibit Nov. 1 through Dec. 23 in New York City.

Never one to rest on his laurels, Staake has three more books coming out soon, all of which he illustrated but did not write: “I love Cats,” “Trucks Galore,” and his own take on the Margaret Wise Brown Little Golden Books classic “The Steamroller.” He is writing and illustrating “Can You See Me?” which will be published under a Dr. Seuss imprint, and follows children's book guidelines written by Theodore Geisel himself. Staake continues to do weekly illustrations for the Washington Post Style section and is a regular contributor to MAD Magazine. His latest New Yorker cover was July's “Hell Train;” his Barack Obama inauguration cover remains the magazine's best-selling cover ever.

Staake says his best work, including his New Yorker Covers and books like “The Book of Gold,” require that the reader connect the dots or complete a story. Telling the whole story “just doesn't work for me,” he said.

“The process of creating a story for children should really be a democratic one. There should be enough breathing space in the pages to allow for multiple interpretations.”