J. Otto Seibold Biography (1960-)
J. Otto Seibold is the coauthor and illustrator of the offbeat, campy, wacky "Mr. Lunch" books. Mr. Lunch Takes a Plane Ride, Seibold's first collaboration with his wife, Vivian Walsh, is based on the exploits of their real-life Jack Russell terrier. The off-the-wall storyline is combined with Seibold's computer-generated artwork—with amazing results, according to reviewers. "Controlled zaniness . . . makes Mr. Lunch's journey a trip worth taking," a Publishers Weekly contributor noted. The illustrations create a "retro-hip, 1950s look that will appeal to all ages," Bill Ott, writing in Booklist, concluded. And the title character secured Mr. Lunch Takes a Plane Ride a Cuffies Award for the most memorable character in a lead role. Mr. Lunch is in fact taking on a life of his own, already creating a mini-merchandising boom in Japan with Mr. Lunch toothbrush holders and other juvenile paraphernalia.
"I was a little bit surprised at the reception to Mr. Lunch," Seibold once said in an interview with SATA. "When I was creating the character I was very conscious of the antecedents, of other white dogs with black noses, Snoopy being the main competition. I knew I had to give Mr. Lunch a persona that was uniquely his. Which was easy, because I drew him from life. I mean, the real Mr. Lunch is a pro—he is a bird hunter to his very toes. It's what he does; it's his reason for being."
A similar analogy might be drawn for Seibold himself—he is a pro, and illustration is his driving force. Largely self-taught, Seibold has carved out an illustration style that calls for the unexpected: shadows fall in the oddest patterns and the planes are flat and onedimensional. "I'm not sure where the style came from," Seibold once told SATA. "It's not even a developed style yet; it's still growing, but it just comes from somewhere inside. I don't really think about being different when I sit down to do illustration. In fact, illustration was about the last thing in the world I thought I would ever do."
Seibold's early life hardly pointed the way to such a career. Born in Oakland, he grew up in Martinez, California, a town notable mainly for the many refineries around it. The oldest in a family of two other brothers and one sister, Seibold is a first generation American. His father, a machinist, immigrated from Germany in the mid-1950s, and his mother came from Rumania at about the same time. German was the common language, and was spoken in the Seibold home until young Seibold started kindergarten. Regarding his parents, Seibold once mused, "I'm not exactly sure why either of them came here. Family history isn't one of the Seibold strong points. Our family tree looks like a stump." He and his younger brother were fast friends through childhood, playing together and creating imaginary scenarios. "I used to play in big dirt holes when I was a kid," Seibold once said. "At first I built them myself, but then the state was putting in a freeway near our home, and after they'd knock off in the evening, my brother and I would go sit in the dirt." The Seibold household was a hard-working one, with a father who put in sixteen-hour days and a mother who worked in a candy factory. "You might say Martinez was a working class town at the time I was growing up," Seibold once recalled. "That's my background. Education wasn't something prized; it was gravy. In fact, I don't remember a single kids' book being an influence on me. But I could always draw well. That came easy for me. There was this time I drew a red-winged blackbird in class and got a special commendation for it, in front of the class. That was memorable."
With the divorce of his parents when he was eight, Seibold and his closest brother stayed with their father, while the two younger children went to live with their mother. From that time on, Seibold was on his own much of the time. "My dad was a very hard-working German. He ran his own machine shop and we really didn't see much of him except on Saturdays when we helped him clean the shop." Seibold and his brother learned to keep themselves entertained with "full-time imaginative play." Television did figure in, though not overwhelmingly. "There was one show that we would never miss," he once recalled. "It was about this super hero called Ultra Man, and I remember being fascinated by him." Schoolwork suffered for the lack of management; Seibold's one focus was his drawing. "I never took a formal studio art class, but there was a time around the fifth and sixth grades when I sort of taught myself. Some friends and I spent all our time in school drawing dragsters and choppers. The real coup de grace with the motorcycle was if you could get the arc of the brake cables just right. That was my real art training."
By the seventh grade, Seibold had stopped going to school almost entirely, spending most of his days in an abandoned tomato processing plant instead. "So I flunked," Seibold once said. But at the same time, he was learning about the hard facts of life, working part-time at Burger King through high school and helping out at his father's machine shop. "I unconsciously familiarized myself with the whole world of drafting while hanging around my dad's shop. He worked to plans, and it just seemed like a normal part of life to me." One class Seibold did enjoy in high school was drafting. "I was good at it, a good drawer and quick. But I had no conception about the future or what I wanted to be when I grew up. I thought I might work in one of those photo automats you see in parking lots. When I graduated from high school I tried a local community college for a while, but it didn't work out. So I quit and went to work."
Work for Seibold at this time was freelance drafting, using skills he had developed since he was a child. For a time, Seibold worked near Martinez in the refineries and even for an architectural firm, drawing everything from electrical instrument diagrams to house designs. "I was good enough that I was given more and more responsibility, and in a way that was like quick-sand. I knew I didn't want to be a forty-year-old drafter." A change of direction came with a new job at the research and development branch of Clorox, where Seibold, though still a freelancer, was more a part of the complete process of design and implementation. "I was designing labs pretty much on my own there," he once told SATA, "with only a bit of engineer oversight. It was a lot more interesting to me, but still I knew there was something else I wanted to do."
One advantage of the job was access to computers and some of the earliest design and graphics programs. "I'd never been a computer nerd," Seibold once said, "but suddenly I got caught up in the process. I used to stay after work teaching myself various programs, becoming familiar with the graphic potential of computers." When he was not using CAD (computer-aided design), Seibold was busy with another new passion: playing drums in a rock band called Love Circus. "I played every weekend in San Francisco from about 1981 to 1984. We did all originals and had a great time. And it was around this time also that I learned another amazing thing: you could make a living doing illustrations. I'd never even considered that before."
Seibold was ready for a major change. Quitting his job at Clorox, he put his money together and determined to travel around the world and learn about art and illustration. "I took a sketch pad along with me and was ready to do some kind of amazing sketch-documented journey. But at the end of a year I had eight crappy sketches. I had a good time, though." Back in the United States, Seibold got pragmatic once again, studying illustration manuals, putting together a portfolio of his own work, and beginning to call magazine art directors. He started to get work, at first simple front-of-the-book illustrations for local magazines and weekly newspapers, but increasingly he was doing more editorial illustration for magazines such as San Francisco's Focus. He branched out, doing corporate work, and began to be in demand.
"Soon my dream job of working two days per week had become a seven-day-a-week nightmare," he once told SATA. During this time, Seibold also attended San Francisco State College and met Vivian Walsh, whom he would later marry. The two traveled together extensively, and by 1990 they were ready to make the move to New York. "I was doing well before New York," Seibold once explained, "but I always wanted to live in that city. If the whole country is a station wagon, then New York is the steering wheel. It was great for a time. I got illustration work and we could go to see music and museums. We had a fourth-floor walk up on 22nd and Park, and my studio was only a couple of blocks from home with a window that perfectly framed the Empire State Building."
By this time, Seibold had begun to incorporate computer graphics into his illustrations, and that, combined with his iconoclastic sense of humor, led to the development of a style uniquely his. "I started playing with computer graphics because I have absolutely no patience, and would ruin any painting I ever did because I couldn't wait for the colors to dry. I was always tinkering with the painting and ruining it. With computer art you can tinker all you want and not worry about ruining your original object. It is its own medium, not oil painting, and I use the tools within it to create art that is computer art, not an attempt at fine art painting on the computer."
Once again, however, success in illustration had its price, and corporate assignments began to take up a bigger and bigger part of the work day. "I began to look around for other ways to make a living with my illustrations and discovered that, hey, you can make a living illustrating kids' books. It was a revelation like the one I got when I first learned you could make a living doing any kind of illustrating." The imminent arrival of his first child helped him to make the decision to go with a children's picture book. But first came the question of what the book was to be about. "We had a dog at the time that we called Mr. Lunch because of the way he used to love to chase the birds in the park. He seemed pretty good at it, too, and that seemed like a fun thing to write about—a professional bird-chasing dog. So we sat down to put some ideas together and pitched it to Viking, who liked the idea and bought it. One great thing about writing from life is you don't get writing blocks. Whenever we would come to a narrative block, we'd just look at Mr. Lunch to see what he was doing at the time."
The result was Mr. Lunch Takes a Plane Ride, finished just two weeks before the birth of Seibold's daughter, Theodora. In the story, Mr. Lunch is such an inveterate bird-chaser that he is invited to demonstrate his technique on television, but the airlines do not know about his budding celebrity status. So he must fly in the baggage compartment with Ambrose, the bird he is going to chase on the show. Bored en route, Mr. Lunch decides to examine the contents of some suitcases, repacking them somewhat haphazardly. When he arrives at the studio he sees the same suitcases, and realizes they must belong to other guests on the show. His slip-shod re-packing creates some embarrassing mix-ups.
The deadpan humor of the writing is set off by the frenetic, space-filled illustrations that recall Constructionist art and collage. A plethora of figures, vehicles, labels, objects, and signs fills each panel in muted tones of rust, gray, black, and slate blue. (A perfectionist, Seibold was on hand in Wisconsin where the book was being printed in order to oversee the color mix on the line.) Mr. Lunch himself is a mere outline with black nose, eyes, and ears. "I intentionally left the central character empty," Seibold once explained to SATA. "Almost like a space that the viewer can inhabit. Mr. Lunch doesn't have a color and has no dialogue. We only hear about what he says. This again was intentional, leaving a hole in the middle of the composition from which the reader can explore the action."
This is "not just another dog story," according to School Library Journal critic Liza Bliss. Seibold and Walsh create a "nutty language that children will understand perfectly." "Mr. Lunch is just plain silly fun," Bill Ott similarly noted in his Booklist review, and a Publishers Weekly critic called the book "offbeat and utterly original." The critics were not the only ones to appreciate Mr. Lunch. The book sold well, and there were offers to turn Mr. Lunch into a soft and cuddly merchandising gimmick. But by this time, Seibold and Walsh were already working on their second "Mr. Lunch" book.
"The national debt was in the news then," Seibold once recalled. "Like it has been for the past few years. And we decided we wanted to do a book on the ethics of borrowing and returning. So we had Mr. Lunch borrow a canoe, except it wasn't as simple as we thought it would be. First, he borrows it from an elephant, and then, as part of the ethics of borrowing, he needs to return it in as good or better shape than he received it." This results in another antic adventure, Mr. Lunch Borrows a Canoe, in which the canine bird-chaser, having borrowed the canoe, is so frightened by a bear on his maiden voyage that he ends up paddling all the way across the ocean to Venice, Italy, and to the bird-chasers' paradise of St. Marks Square. Emptying the square of its pigeons, Mr. Lunch is awarded the Golden Outboard Motor by a grateful citizenry, and with this he makes his way home. The canoe, however, has been damaged in the voyage, and Mr. Lunch, true to the ethics of borrowing, repairs the craft, indeed renovates it, so that the elephant receives a lovely gondola-canoe in return. Claudia Cooper, writing in School Library Journal, characterized the illustrations as "filled with action and detail," and a Publishers Weekly reviewer described the book as "sophisticated yet frankly silly," with a "quirky charm." Selected as a Pick of the Lists by the American Booksellers Association, Mr. Lunch Borrows a Canoe firmly established the main character as another cartoon dog to be reckoned with.
Shortly after publication, Seibold and his family moved back to California, settling in San Francisco. Once again, a race ensued between the birth of a child and that of a new book; Amelia won. The book, Monkey Business, is a departure from the "Mr. Lunch" stories. "No dogs this time," Seibold once told SATA. "And it is told from the point of view of a girl. And there is more fantasy in this one and more of an emotional connection for kids." Seibold thought the characters in Monkey Business will have lasting qualities, as does Mr. Lunch, whose third title is Free Lunch.
Since Free Lunch was published, Seibold and Walsh have collaborated on several stand-alone books with other original characters. Olive, the small dog who stars in Olive, the Other Reindeer, may be the most successful of these. When carolers sing about "all of the other reindeer," Olive hears "Olive, the other reindeer" and takes the bus to the North Pole to join Santa and his team in delivering their Christmas presents. Santa is not sure if the little dog can help him, but he gives her a chance and she proves quite useful. The art is in Seibold's usual style, "the 1950s meeting the 1990s and then being shaken up, with all sorts of images and shapes that blitz the eye," as Ilene Cooper described it in Booklist.
Penguin Dreams "proves that high-tech illustration need not be chilly (even if the subject does live on an iceberg)," wrote a Publishers Weekly contributor. This surreal book takes readers inside the head of Chongo Chingi, a penguin who lives in the zoo but dreams one night of flying high above the Earth, and even through outer space, before his alarm clock wakes him up. Written by Walsh and illustrated by Seibold, Gluey: A Snail Tale is similarly "strange but intriguing," commented a Kirkus Reviews critic. Gluey is a carpenter snail who lives in and repairs an otherwise empty house—otherwise empty, that is, until the rabbit Celerina moves in. Since Gluey is so small, Celerina does not see him and assumes that the seemingly spontaneous repairs of the house are magical. When she does notice Gluey, she flings him out in disgust. But eventually Celerina realizes her mistake and allows him to return. "Seibold's images . . . are tongue-in-cheek charming," thought a Publishers Weekly reviewer, while the Kirkus Reviews critic commented that "sudden creativity of composition and design keep the offbeat pictures interesting."
"I love the mix of work I have now," Seibold once commented. "The work on the children's books is terrifically rewarding—although I have to admit that my own kids are immune to the humor by now. And the illustrating work pays the bills. I can now say no to work that I don't want to do or have no interest in, and the books have brought in a whole new sort of clientele for me. In the end, it's the quality of life that counts."
It is also quality that Seibold strives for in his art. "It might look terrifically simple once it's done, but then that's the beauty of it. That it doesn't look labored. What I'm really trying to do with my children's books is create stories and images that in ten years' time will still have meaning, will age gracefully. Everybody is so visually literate these days that it is difficult to stay on top of movements and not end up looking like somebody else by pure accident." Seibold is a student of modern art, and claims as influences Soviet Constructionism, the Italian Futurists, and the New York Abstract scene of the 1950s. "And there is one illustrator whose work I love. Miroslow Sasek did a lot of work in the 1960s with his 'This Is . . .' series that profiled cities of the world. Now, that would be a great job, traveling and sketching all those great cities."
For now, however, Seibold is content with his own achievements—the books he has thus far created. "Your name is on it," he once told SATA. "It's your statement. I'm saying that visually this is me, my act of freedom. So I take great pride and care in the books. With each book I strive to make something that is the best I can do at the time. And each of the books has small messages—about borrowing, about being true to your nature. But connecting them all is the idea of a sort of serendipity in life. Events take place and there's not much we can do to alter that fact. But you do what you can do in a given set of circumstances. You remain as inventive as possible even in a bad situation, and sometimes that very sense of inventiveness might lead to a solution, might create a whole new set of circumstances. Kids these days have to be very inventive. The world has been incredibly sped up since I was a kid. Now is the age of the fax and the modem. That's where kids are living today."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Seibold, J. Otto, and Vivian Walsh, Olive, the Other Reindeer, Chronicle Books (San Francisco, CA), 1997.
Seibold, J. Otto, autobiographical essay in Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 22, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Booklist, September 1, 1993, Bill Ott, review of Mr. Lunch Takes a Plane Ride, p. 71; September 1, 1996, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Free Lunch, p. 145; October 15, 1997, Ilene Cooper, review of Olive, the Other Reindeer, p. 417; February 15, 1998, Ilene Cooper, review of Going to the Getty: A Book about the Getty Center in Los Angeles, p. 1006; September 15, 1999, John Peters, review of Penguin Dreams, p. 270.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, January, 1994, p. 167.
Children's Book Review Service, winter, 1994, p. 65.
Horn Book Guide, spring, 1994, p. 54; September, 2000, review of The Pig in the Spigot, p. 592.
Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 2002, review of Gluey: A Snail Tale, p. 1322; September 15, 2003, review of Alice in Pop-Up Wonderland, p. 1182.
Newsweek, November 22, 1993, p. 56.
Publishers Weekly, June 28, 1993, review of Mr. Lunch Takes a Plane Ride, pp. 75-76; November 1, 1993, p. 49; February 21, 1994, p. 23; August 29, 1994, review of Mr. Lunch Borrows a Canoe, p. 79; October 9, 1995, review of Monkey Business, pp. 84-85; September 2, 1996, review of Free Lunch, p. 129; October 6, 1997, review of Olive, the Other Reindeer, p. 54; September 20, 1999, review of Penguin Dreams, p. 86; September 2, 2002, review of Gluey, p. 74; September 22, 2003, review of Alice in Pop-Up Wonderland, p. 101; September 29, 2003, Joy Bean, review of Alice in Pop-Up Wonderland, p. 25.
School Library Journal, September, 1993, Liza Bliss, review of Mr. Lunch Takes a Plane Ride, p. 218; December, 1994, Claudia Cooper, review of Mr. Lunch Borrows a Canoe, p. 81; January, 1996, Heide Piehler, review of Monkey Business, pp. 95-96; November, 1996, Lauralyn Perrson, review of Free Lunch, pp. 92-93; January, 2000, Marlene Gawron, review of Penguin Dreams, pp. 110-111; December, 2000, Susan Scheps, review of The Pig in the Spigot, p. 137; December, 2002, Judith Constantinides, review of Gluey, p. 112; January, 2004, Joy Fleishhacker, review of Alice in Pop-Up Wonderland, p. 106.
J. Otto Seibold Home Page, http://www.jotto.com/(February 14, 2004).
Seibold, J. Otto, telephone interview with J. Sydney Jones for Something about the Author, March 11, 1995.*
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Paul Anthony Samuelson (1915– ) Biography to Bessie Smith (1895–1937) BiographyJ. Otto Seibold (1960-) Biography - Personal, Addresses, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Work in Progress, Sidelights