by Ken and Maddy Dychtwald, Dave and Grace Zabowski, 2008
”Gideon’s life is devoid of drama, a humdrum existence of a little grub who spends each day climbing trees and munching leaves. Then one day, the leaf he is eating falls off the tree — and Gideon experiences the initially heart-stopping, ultimately exhilarating feeling of flight. Terrified at first, Gideon becomes entranced — so much so that even after he reaches the ground, he dreams every night of flying, only to wake up in his familiar bed.
Although earthbound, Gideon determines to do whatever it takes to make his dream a reality. He builds a little house in which to consider his next steps but when the exercise of thinking becomes too exhausting, he drops off to sleep. When he wakes up, he discovers that he has changed. Gideon the grub has grown beautiful, golden wings. He can fly whenever he wants to.
What makes a classic children’s story? It engages the imagination even as it reveals major life lessons. Gideon’s Dream shows that it’s never too late to live your dreams.”
Watch master illustrator Dave Zaboski bringing Gideon to life.
Read the authors’ discussion on the creation of Gideon’s Dream
DAVE: Ken, you’ve previously published 14 other books. Why a children’s book?
KEN: For over 30 years, I have been fascinated with what people will make of their lives if they’re going to live to be 60, 80 or even a hundred. And what I’ve been struck by is the fact that more and more people are choosing to reinvent themselves in adulthood. You know, the mom who goes to law school at 45, the person who comes back from a health problem to run a marathon at 60, the couple that falls in love at 80, the retiree who starts a whole new career after their retirement life stage begins to bore them. At the same time, we were raising our own children and reading them stories each night. I was struck by the fact that stories about lifelong learning and new beginnings just weren’t present in the children’s books that were popular and that we were reading to our kids.
And so Maddy and I had this dream that one day we would put together a book or a series of books that would tell this simple, yet wonderful story, of new beginnings. The project really came together for us when we met the most extraordinary illustrator and artist I’ve ever encountered, Dave Zaboski. Dave has been a senior animator at Disney, and had worked on projects like “The Lion King” and “Aladdin” and “Beauty and the Beast.” As we came together with Dave and also his 7-year-old daughter, Grace, we collectively envisioned and dreamed up what we think was a story for the ages, a story for parents to read to their children, for children to be influenced by and even for kids and grandparents to share together.
DAVE: Maddy, how would you describe the story?
MADDY: Well, it’s really a story about reinvention and new beginnings and having your dreams come true. It’s a story about a little grub caterpillar who slogs through his day just doing the same old, same old until one day he gets stuck on a leaf that starts falling to Earth. And he gets the experience of flying and it’s totally exhilarating to him. It’s something that he wants to have happen more and more. Yet once he falls to Earth he can’t figure out how to make it happen again. But he begins to dream about it and to think about it all the time – daydreaming, dreaming at night. It gets to the point where he feels like he has just got to make this happen. So he goes off into the meadow all by himself and he builds himself a little place to live and he starts trying to figure out how to have his dream come true. And the next thing you know he reinvents himself as a butterfly.
As Ken mentioned, as we were raising our children, one of the things I really noticed was that there were very few stories, none actually, that talked about what it was like to reach a certain point in your life where you felt like you didn’t want to be doing what you were doing anymore and you had a kind of dream but you didn’t really think you knew how to manifest it. And then somehow magically you were able to do that. I think most kids have this feeling that life sort of ends at 35 or 40 or maybe not even an age but once they hit adulthood, that their choices become limited. And I wanted to open the door for my own children and children all over the world so that they could see that you could keep dreaming, you could manifest your dreams at any age, that there was a chance for new beginnings whether you were just a little baby grub or almost a full grown caterpillar on your way to becoming a butterfly.
MADDY: So Dave, how did you create the character of Gideon?
DAVE: Character creation is part science, part experience and part having a 7-year-old girl looking over your shoulder. You know, as an animator at Disney I had a lot of experience with character creation and character design. But really when it comes down to it, it’s “what do the kids like?” And so my daughter, Grace, was so instrumental in this. I did hundreds of drawings of almost Gideon and every single one of them I’d run by Grace and she’d say, “Well no, that’s not quite right, or okay, that’s getting closer.” And then when I’d get something in the ballpark, that would go to Ken and Maddy and we’d all have a look at it and we’d make our changes. But the idea would be to figure out really who is the character that’s going to live this story. You often build a character from the inside out and you figure out how he thinks and who he is and in the process, the character emerges. Like I say, Gideon was created with a little bit of science, a little bit of experience and a lot of input from Grace.
KEN: What do you believe this story is about?
DAVE: To me this is a story about transformation. It’s a story about the idea that inside all of us there’s a dream and that dream is realizable, that dream is fulfillable and you just have to listen to your life. You know, some people have experiences that at first may seem scary but when you look at them maybe your whole life is in that experience. And for me that’s what happened with Gideon. This fall from the tree is sort of this fall into his other life. So to me it’s about this idea that we can transform our lives at any time.
KEN: And how does the story reflect that?
DAVE: We started talking about what were the messages that we wanted to get across in this children’s story, what are the new myths for our time, what are the stories that we want to tell our kids about how they can create and re-create their lives at any point. So what’s a perfect metaphor for this idea that you can start a life and it may not seem like it’s anything extraordinary but if you just dream you can actually create something really magical out of your life. To us the perfect metaphor was, of course, the caterpillar transforming into a butterfly.
DAVE: Maddy, who are you hoping will read this book?
MADDY: I’m hoping everyone will read this book. But I think it’s a perfect book for parents to read to their children, for grandparents to read to their grandchildren, and then really talk about the idea that transformation, new beginnings, can actually happen not just when you’re young but at any age.
KEN: What was it like to create an imaginary character?
MADDY: It was so much fun. For me it was very exciting because, you know, I’m not a great artist like Dave. But I had these images in my mind of who Gideon was and Ken and I were able to communicate that to Dave. Then Dave was actually able to take our ideas, blend them in with Grace’s and come up with images that we really could say, “Yes, that’s Gideon, that’s someone who we feel like we live with.” In fact, we have a painting of Gideon now sitting in our upstairs hallway alongside ones of our kids. He’s kind of become a member of our family.
DAVE: Ken, you’ve done other books and you have some expectations about how they work. What was the most surprising part of creating a kid’s book to you?
KEN: Well, I’ve written a lot of books for grownups and they tend to be very tedious efforts. You can spend many years writing them, there’s maybe a thousand manuscript pages you have to write to put together something that’s really going to be thoughtful and get the job done. One of the challenges of a children’s book is being able to communicate in language and with images in such a way that a 5-year-old or a 7-year-old or frankly an 87-year-old will enjoy it – and appreciate it and the story comes through. Trying to boil down some of the most important thoughts I’ve ever had and turn them into very simple yet powerful language and images was absolutely liberating. When I was a child there were certain books that still stand in my mind, you know, classics, like “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Tortoise and the Hare,” “The Stone Soup Fable,” and “The Ugly Duckling.” These are stories that shape our minds, our thoughts, they may even shape who we become in our lives. And to have the chance to create a potentially classic fable from thin air – there’s nothing I’ve ever done in my life that I could say really has compared to this.
DAVE: Maddy, what about you? What was the most interesting or exciting part of this project for you?
MADDY: Although I work with Age Wave as a writer and public speaker, most of the work I do is off on my own. And that’s what I’m used to. So collaboration was both a challenge for me and also pretty exciting and fun. I had a great time doing it. First, it was so transformational to be able to take a story that I had in my mind and see it on paper, not just the words but the pictures to go along with it. And then when you told us that Grace was helping you figure out what those illustrations ought to look like, that made me feel that this is really something that’s not just for children but by children, for children. And I felt like we were actually communicating in a way that was less adult and more open to new experiences. Although we were clear that we had messages that we wanted to send that were very specific, we also just wanted to have fun with it and be able to communicate with kids on a kind of magical level. I don’t think I would have ever gotten there without collaborating on that. I loved it.
DAVE: That’s great. You know, a lot of times how I would do the character design is I would sit on one end of the couch with a sketchbook and Grace would sit on the other end of the couch, and then I would do a drawing of Gideon and then I would show her and she would look at it and go, “Nah.” And then I’d flip the page and do another drawing and she’d go, “Well, yeah, I don’t know about the glasses,” and then I’d go, “Okay, cool,” and then we’d do this process where I would do drawings and drawings and sometimes several on a page and she would point out what she liked about one and what she didn’t like about another.
MADDY: It was like having a focus group of one.
DAVE: Yes exactly! It became a dance between Grace and I about how to create this character. I also read her the story as it started to emerge just about every night and things would change, some things would be added, some things would be taken out. As Ken mentioned, to do a kid’s book you really have to pare it down to the essentials. And so creating this book is about taking an idea that we’ve spent years thinking about and thousands and tens of thousands of words and then boiling it down into a thousand words. So that process is a really interesting alchemy of distillation.
KEN: What’s it like having worked on a book with your daughter?
DAVE: It was brilliant. You know, I’m at the point where much of my life is committed to my daughter and so much of what I do, I’m doing for her. To be able to collaborate with her on something like this is so exciting and it’s just been a really fun ride.
DAVE: So Ken, what was it like for you to collaborate on this book with three other people, one of whom is your wife?
KEN: Maybe it was a little bit of what Gepetto felt when he was creating Pinocchio. We’re four very different individuals, and we came together to share our skills and our ideas and they fused together, from which emerged this wonderful character — and wonderful story. And so the truth of it is, I mean, the honest truth of it is, I loved it. I almost wished it wouldn’t end.
KEN: Dave, as a dad, what’s your sense of the need for a book like this
DAVE: Well, I’m a storyteller and to me we transfer information to our kids through stories. They can get their education and they can get all of their lessons but how we impart information to our kids is through stories. And so, having a 7-year-old around the house, it’s important what stories she gets that help her become a master in her life of whatever it is that she chooses. So when I look at the stories that are out there, the ones that move me are the ones that have these dimensions to them. And so that’s the story that we really wanted to create. So when Ken and Maddy came to me and said that “we would love to tell a children’s story” and I looked at the kind of work that they did, I was so inspired by the messages that they’re putting out in the world and who they are in the world that this was the kind of project that I wanted to create so I could be proud of what I did to put out into the world. To be able to collaborate with my daughter on this was also just such a blessing and a bonus.
KEN: What does Grace think about the book?
DAVE: Grace is so proud of handing that book off to her friends and her teachers and her grandmother. You know, she’s really excited about seeing it become real because she saw all the drawings on my drawing table. And so now they’re in a book. She’s very excited about it.
I drive her to school every morning. Either my wife will take her to school or the school bus will take her to school. As an artist I, you know, my mornings are more logistics so I really love spending time with my wife and my daughter, so we all drive to school together. And I tell her a story every single day driving to school. And so I think for her to actually be involved in the story and have it more than just a tale told on the way to school but to actually be in the bookstores, I think she’s completely delighted by that.
DAVE: Ken, take me through the steps that it took to get a children’s book into the world. How did this all start?
KEN: For many, many, many years, Maddy and I have thought we ought to do a children’s book one day. And because we felt that there were messages and possibilities about life that we were encountering through our research and our work with adults that we wanted to share with children. And so we tried to get publishers interested and they all told us children’s books, it’s not just about the ideas. It’s really as much about the illustrations. And so we tried to find an illustrator and we looked at different sample work and nothing felt right. And then one magical day a couple of years ago I was in Big Sur, California, and I met a remarkable man who had just finished a book of sketches of this place where we were staying and of the people there. And I saw some of them and they were astoundingly good. And I thought to myself, I’ve just got to meet this artist, without anything in mind. And I went over and introduced myself and struck up what to me felt like an instant warm and loving friendship with Dave Zaboski. And after I looked at his work and saw the sensitivity and playfulness of his drawings I called Maddy and said, “I think we found our artist/illustrator.”
Then we collectively outlined what we thought the big and important elements were of the story and then Dave just kind of rocked our world as he began to craft images and even story lines that we then weighed in on and began to shape together. Then we knew we had a book and we knew we had a story that might be one of the great stories of all time. And we were very fortunate. The people at Harper-Collins Publishers, renowned for their talent with children’s books, took an immediate liking to our project and wanted to put it on a fast track and next thing we knew we had a contract and we were busy bringing the book to life. And, every step along the way we all weighed in on each other, you know, should Gideon have glasses or not, should he be blue or yellow, should he fall off a leaf and bang his head or not bang his head and, we were very fortunate in that regard because we had as our senior editorial director, you know, 7-year-old Grace. She was actually 6 when we started. What a wonderful thing, to not only allow our own children, who are teenagers, to weigh in on the book but to have Grace really have her hand on the rudder and aim us in all the right directions. So everything about the project was as magical as the story I think we’ve tried to tell.
MADDY: I’ve really become enchanted with the idea that we live in a world where there’s so much negatively and our kids get exposed to so many stories that are so ugly. So – actually helping to shape the fables and stories that will shape their lives is something that I think is a very noble undertaking and would love to do more of.
DAVE: The idea that we want to be responsible myth-makers for our kids is a really powerful thought.