Mark Pett was skeptical when a fellow cartoonist suggested he try writing a story using only illustrations.
That fellow cartoonist wasn't just any old illustrator. It was Mark Tatulli, award-winning creator of the internationally syndicated "Lio," a "pantomime" comic strip drawn without words.
Pett took the challenge, albeit gradually. Settling into the small artist's studio in the basement of an Avenues home he shares with his wife and two daughters in Salt Lake City, Pett sketched out a multitude of "warm-up" illustrations until he felt confident enough to embark on a story told through actions, but no text.
It wasn't as if Pett were a stranger to children's books or comics. He created two syndicated strips of his own, "Mr. Lowe" and "Lucky Cow." Working with New York City-based writer Gary Rubinstein, Pett co-authored and illustrated the 2011 book The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes. But even Pett was surprised at how Tatulli's challenge transformed his creative process.
"So many comics and stories tend to become talking heads over time," Pett said. "Your characters talk, but nothing really happens and you lose a large part of what story is. Without words, you have to show what happens rather than write it."
In the process, Pett rediscovered Aristotle's famous maxim that "character is action." He also produced a children's book that generated bids from at least three publishers before it was finally sold to Simon & Schuster.
Rendered in muted, vintage-toned tan and red, The Boy and the Airplane uses a spare 40 pages to tell the story of a child's joy upon receiving a toy airplane, his frustration when it lands by mistake on a rooftop, the measures he takes to retrieve it and the long wait until he at last gets it back. The book compacts the passage of a lifetime, and imparts lessons of wisdom and patience, by reminding adult readers of the thrills of childhood even as it prepares children for the journey toward their own maturity.
Pett resorts to words only in the book's dedication to his wife, and in letters that also reveal the story's parable, inscribed at the end: "For Tiffany, who was worth the wait."
There were times, Pett said, when he felt tempted to use words here and there. In the end, the story prevailed without them.
"I ended up never needing them," he said. "The chances are greater the story might be misunderstood or misinterpreted, but that's what happens when you send a story out into the world. It's no longer yours, and people get to see in it what they want."
Rubinstein, with whom Pett co-wrote The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes, said the first drafts reminded him of Shel Silverstein's fable-like books, The Missing Piece and The Giving Tree.
"It works from the idea that simple images say a lot," said Rubinstein, a high-school math teacher in New York City. "I think [Pett's book] will appeal to people all over the world."
Simple, though, does not mean the book was produced without effort. Pett said he drew painstaking, realistic "warm-up" sketches to make his drawing style limber, loose and natural enough for the finished book.
"It's much like a golfer trains," he said. "There are years of work and preparation before making that crucial putt that lasts only seconds."
His only challenge now, as he embarks on a nationwide tour to promote the book, is how he might conduct the traditional "reading" book fans have grown accustomed to.
"I'm looking forward to kids who might want to help me tell the story as they see the pictures," Pett said. "I love the fact that a pre-reader can read this book as well as any adult. At the same time, I welcome any suggestions anyone might have about how to read a wordless book."
Mark Pett presents 'The Boy and the Airplane'
When • April 2, 6:30 p.m.; May 18, 11 a.m., for Children's Book Week.
Where • Both events at The King's English, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City.
Info • Free. Call 801-484-9100 or visit http://www.kingsenglish.com for more information. The Boy and the Airplane
By Mark Pett
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers