Jonathan: Welcome to Kidorable Parenting’s interview with Mike Venezia, author, and illustrator of over 100 biographies for children. I’m Jonathan Domsky, blogger, parenting coach and co-founder of Kidorable. Mike’s books have been a special companion to our family for years. We’ve read many dozens of his books about the world’s greatest artists, scientists, composers, and the U.S. presidents. In addition to being kid-sized stories about interesting and important people, they are full of pictures, cartoons, and jokes that Kubla and I love. Mike, tell me a little bit about who you are, what you do, and what you’re passionate about.
Mike: Well, I guess I’m a person who is super enthusiastic about the arts, like, all of them and I believe art/creativity is an important subject, probably as important as math, science, history. When schools are open to the idea of the importance of exposing kids to creativity, their students will become even better mathematicians, inventors, and scientists, and writers, and builders, and plumbers, and store owners, whatever they do because they’ll have a creative feeling about what they do.
And I know without art and creativity, my life would have been pretty lackluster. Art helped me get through school. I was pretty good at it and it led to a degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a great art-based career as an art director. So, eventually, it led to writing and illustrating my books. And again, I think when a child can think creatively, anything they pursue will be more successful and unexpected and even more fun. So, that’s kind of where I stand and a little bit about my feelings about doing the book series.
Jonathan: When most parents think about a career in art, they think about going to a museum and seeing paintings or sculptures or something like that. But you said you were an art director. Can you tell me a little bit about that—what was your career as an art director like? What did you do?
Mike: Well, when I got out of school at the Art Institute of Chicago, there weren’t many jobs or careers available for being a great sculptor, or painter, or designer, but there was one area that I thought was pretty neat, and that was advertising. And I actually went to work in the paste up room of Leo Burnett Company which was the largest Chicago agency at the time. And I thought, “Well, this is not a bad deal for me because it gives me an opportunity.” And as I went along, I discovered that I could come up with ideas, present them, draw out ads, layouts for ads or do storyboards. And it was just kind of what I was always good at, was like my pictures, cartoony pictures help the words and the ideas get across, and the words that were written kind of help the pictures.
And that career, you make TV commercials in it, you make print ads. A vast amount of them are pretty not that great, but every once in a while, and you can see things on TV all the time that’s like, “Wow, that commercial really was funny and it got the point across, and the acting was great,” and everything just came together or comes together. And those are very rare. And it’s what kept me going is to try to do things that would get that kind of attention and also be able to sell a product.
So, in a career as an art director, or a writer, or in filming, or video director, or film director, or music person, all these things are part of advertising. And it goes on and on because there’s people on sets who make film and commercials, who do lighting, and they make things look beautiful. There’s people who find locations, there’s people who build sets, that whole area. There must be 50 different job careers just in that alone. The other part is in print ads.
You do a layout and then you have to bring it to reality, and that allowed me over the years to work with some really great photographers and get to meet them all over the country in New York, in LA, and in Chicago. Chicago had a number of really good photographers. So, that’s a whole other area as well. So, a career in art, I think there’s tons of things, you just don’t think of them all the time. And one of the sad parts is most… I’m sorry. I should say many parents just think art classes are nice, your child brings home a drawing and you put it on the refrigerator, and then you take it down in a week. But it’s the beginning of something that’s much more important.
And I had a story that just kind of wrapped everything up for me. My wife and I were at a coffee place and the barista guy was going back to college the second year, and he knew, because we had discussed art, what I did and he said, “You know, I was gonna take art history this year, but my dad said, ‘I’m not wasting my money on that.'” I said, “Wow.” I said, “Maybe tell your dad that art history is the history of the world and maybe you can get him to change his mind because it’s so important.” It is the history of the world, the earliest recorded history of the world, and it’s very important, and I think all aspects of art and creativity are.
Jonathan: Mike, what’s something that you wish you had more courage or imagination to do when you were younger?
Mike: Well, in school, I wish I had not been so afraid of looking foolish to my peers or screwing up in class, because that kept me from getting out there and asking questions in class and basically learning. Also, paying more attention in class, because I was a terrible daydreamer and goof off to some extent. And a good day for me in grade school, and this is the message I would really not put out there too much. But in grade school, a good day I would make a cartoon about something a teacher might have said, that I could put a twist on it and pass it around, unknown to the teacher, and get muffled laughs, and if that happened, it made my day a very successful day for me. And I was just fortunate enough to be able to parlay that kind of thing into a career. But yeah, I wish I had been more like joining in, like, “Hey, I know the…” Studying and saying call on me and discussing things with the teacher.
Jonathan: What do you do to give children that you love the courage and imagination to seize possibilities within themselves in the world?
Mike: Well, I know with my own kids and then a lot of children I’ve taught to in different schools and my children’s friends while they were growing up, it was either my wife, Janine, and I always encouraged our kids. We push them at the right time. We believed in their goals no matter what they were. My son at the young age of six or seven had seen on TV, we had a videotape of Star Wars, and he flipped out over it and he actually watched it a number of times and did a storyboard on a roll of butcher’s paper. And he started from the beginning and he rolled that thing all the way across the room until he finished the storyboard of Star Wars. And we thought, “Wow, that’s great.” We encourage them. We thought was great. And he did go into film. He’s actually a video and film director now in Los Angeles. So, he had that kind of encouragement. It wasn’t like, “Oh, don’t waste your time on that.” It was like, “This is really a neat thing, so continue it.”
And in my daughter, she was an art major and she is now… She’s the director of a medi spa and she’s going for her masters at DePaul at the same time. But I think her creative background helped her to do this because when you deal with beauty and people’s faces and fashion type things, you’re much better at it if you have an idea of what art and beauty and creativity is. And we had some of the great experiences of our life with her. She went to Florence for two years, two summers, to study art history, then we joined her on the second year and she became our guide and introduced us to the people she knew, and her professor got us into the Uffizi Gallery before it opens so that he could take his class through it. It was just a wonderful connection with creativity in the arts and I know it helped her in coming up with a career.
And throughout our kids growing up, we always read stories. I mean, I think a lot of parents do. We made a lot of them up. I’d have my own characters and stuff and I would try to continue a story for days and days and days. We watched films, we watched art-type films, even Fellini films when they were younger. And, you know, not all of them but they just sat there fascinated. So, I remember watching “La Strada” and they didn’t move and they were probably seven and nine, and then, of course, the classic kids’ films too, but it was always something that would be great fun to discuss and maybe re-watch. So, again, we’ve always tried to introduce them to interesting things and history and film and art. And I think that’s a very important thing.
Jonathan: Mike, describe something in your family life that you consciously made more fun, easy, meaningful, or joyous.
Mike: Well, that could be tied directly to my books and why I started doing them. When my kids were starting to read, I thought I would have loved when I was growing up to have books that I could read in grade school about great artists because my family was very supportive of the arts, as I mentioned, and they used to have prints of great artwork hanging up all over the house. Rembrandts and Monets and Renoirs. I looked at those and wanted to paint them. So, it would happen. First of all, when I started writing my books, there was some pushback from the publishers like, “Hey, artists, a lot of them have very questionable lifestyles. How are you gonna handle this?” But I didn’t care because I knew from Disney children’s advertising what’s taboo, how to move around certain things.
But when I saw pieces of art hanging up, there was nothing at the time for children to learn about them. All they had was huge history books or biographies. There was nothing for kids, really. So, it’s a time when my children were in school, they didn’t have an art teacher in our local school, and moms would come in, and they would be…and they had some training by people from the Art Institute, who would say or give you a kind of a hint in how to do things. They would bring in big prints of famous paintings and talk about them. So, my wife did that. And I thought, “Well, maybe I could help out. I could do some drawings that might help kids understand Picasso or whatever.”
And that started me thinking about, “Well, maybe I could just do a book or books about these people.” Because again, at the time, there was nothing out there for children. They would have to… My wife would get things from the National Gallery of Art, 16-millimeter film, and these big huge films would be shipped in and they had lost color, and they were very boring, and they were talking to adults. And there’s got to be a better way than this because nobody would get interested in art if this was what was going on when you were a child. So, I think, to me, that helped make our family more joyous and fun. And I would always ask my kids questions and opinions about the cartoons and ask their friends and make sure that they got the joke and stuff like that.
Jonathan: What’s something about your current family life that you wish was more fun, easy, meaningful or joyous?
Mike: Well, I wished… And now my kids are all grown up. But I wish that my children weren’t so busy or living far away. We always love getting together but with a son in Los Angeles and a daughter and son-in-law working and going to school, it’s very difficult to get together as often as we would like. So, we managed whatever time we can, we managed to get all of us together on vacations and we’re actually going to get together in about 10 days for a California beach trip. And we’ve done this before. It’s just good have everybody get together and stuff and that’s one of the things I wished we could change.
Jonathan: Yeah. Mike, what was something that you treasure from your childhood that you’ve tried to recreate with your own children?
Mike: Okay. I would say one thing would be going to work with my dad was an incredible adventure. And he and my uncles owned a large wrecking demolition company, and it gave me a chance to see how things, how buildings were made and how they were unmade. And some of those buildings were famous architectural buildings like the Garrick Theater in the Loop. It was a Louis Sullivan building. And I was able to explore abandoned floors and the theater part and wander around out of the way of harm, of course. And I kind of learned about or wondered about architecture.
The Louis Sullivan building, he’s a very decorative kind of guy, and so the interiors, as well as the exteriors, were just incredibly decorated with terracotta, heads of the famous theater and music people from the past. And the interior was like a beautiful web of different kinds of design work and the plaster, gold, guilt, painted and all that kind of thing. So, it helped me appreciate the art of architecture which was one of the other branches of art that I love.
And so, for my own kids, I thought, “I will try my best to get them to see what I do.” So, I would, any chance I had, when they were out of school for whatever reason, I’ll take them to work and have them help me color storyboards and go around in on jobs, very often, I would go to California to film commercials. And if it was during spring break, for instance, everybody would come out, my wife and kids would come out and I would take one of them on one day to a commercial shoot and then the next day I would take the other one.
And so we would spend… You’d spend 12 hours or more on a set and I could answer their questions and they could get an idea of what I was up to. And I think it made for a very good growing up experience. So, that was one thing. First, my dad’s job and seeing how all that stuff and what you could learn from the adult world, in the adult world, and then making that as available as I possibly could to my own children. I know it’s not always easy to do that in certain careers or workplaces, but if at all possible, I think it’s a good thing to get your children introduced to.
Jonathan: Yeah. Mike, what’s the best thing about being a parent?
Mike: So, let’s see. Well, the joy of seeing your kids develop and become successful in life. Early on, I love being able to do things with them. One of the benefits I always thought was kids give you an excuse to do things you may have forgotten about from your own childhood or things you never did, like, go to Disneyland and go to different school sporting events and go to crazy kid pizza places and WWF Mega Matches and vacations in the Hudson Dells. And all these things we were like, “Wow.” I might have not have done that if we had not had children.” But now it’s like, “Let’s do everything and experience these crazy things again or things that you might not have done.”
And, of course, sharing the big events in life, the college experiences, the graduations, the weddings. And I mentioned earlier, my daughter going to Florence for a couple of summers and having her so proud to be able to take us around and speak fairly good Italian and introduce us to her friends and teachers. I mean, it’s just… They just open up such a wonderful world for us and I’ll never forget all those great things while they were growing up.
Jonathan: Wonderful. Tell me about your current project or something else you think I should know about your work.
Mike: Well, right now I’m waiting to see if my publisher, Scholastic, would like more new revised editions of my books. About four years ago, four or five years ago, I started revising my artists and composer series. Some of them were done as early as 1988 and they’re still selling and popular, but they wanted to get kind of a new thing going here. Revised edition, new content. And that meant you have to change things. So, we added three pages in the front and have new material and three in the back of the book. And I re-did cover illustrations and sometimes interior illustrations. So, about 35 titles so far. And one of the things I really enjoy doing with adding more is the…it’s called important places in the subjects like important places in Picasso’s life.
And this gives me an opportunity to show maps of different countries in Europe, towns, sometimes I’ll include the entire world, like Gauguin traveled all over the place, and even lived in Peru for a while and went to the different islands and back to Paris. And so I did the whole entire complete total world for him. And then I put as many fun icons as I can in the things like sea monsters in the ocean, and things that were of the time, like first cars in France and chugging along, or depending on what period of history we were talking about. So, it’s a great way to, I think, to get to know more about the artists where you are as a child because I always have a little thing of the world and then I show where the big map is located and having fun putting in the little icons.
I do fewer school presentations these days but I am available to do video classroom visits and I’m thinking of maybe doing that more. I’ve done a couple of them. They seem to work out real well because I don’t have to travel somewhere. Sometimes the schools have to line things up maybe a year in advance and put them on their schedule and make sure it’s okay with all the other teachers and stuff and they’ll ask me, “Well, how’s next February?” And I have no idea and it’s like I don’t wanna disappoint people, I don’t know where I’m going to be in the country. So, something like a video talk seems like a perfect thing because I can even do that if we’re on vacation, I can talk to kids. But I do have a couple of art studios. We live part of the year in Arizona and half of the year in Illinois at this time. So, I have my office all set up and I can show kids things I’m working on and how I do things.
Jonathan: Mike, where can we find out more about you and your work?
Mike: Well, go to my website. It’s mikevenezia.com. And right now, I’m updating it, so everything should be in there, all information should be in there in the next few weeks because I did have a couple of recent new edition books come out that aren’t shown yet. I do want to put a little thing up making video visits more prominent and available. And that would probably be the best place to go at this time.
Jonathan: Well, Mike, this has been such a treat. I’m grateful for your time, your wisdom and the example that you shared with me and our listeners.
Mike: Well, I’m glad to do it. It was a pleasure and thank you for the great questions. It made it easy.
In two weeks I’ll give a free Kidorable Umbrella to whoever leaves my favorite comment and shares this interview on the social media platform of their choice. By the way, when we read Mike’s books, each time we’re sure to read About the Author on the back cover—Mike always includes a joke—it’s Kubla’s favorite part of each book.