Just because you have three eyes and are covered in green fur doesn’t mean you don’t like candy as much as the next kid. It doesn’t mean that you can’t get scared, too. These are simple truths that most grown-ups have either forgotten or just don’t understand. Henderson County children’s book writer and illustrator David Sheldon gets it.
A graduate of Rhode Island School of Design and the University of Maryland’s MFA program, Sheldon is a fine artist whose abstract paintings and sculptures have been shown in New York and Washington, DC galleries. But his work is probably better known these days at preschool story time at the library. His first kids’ book Monster Halloween (published under his middle name Quentin) came out from HarperFestival in 2006, featuring the aforementioned three-eyed, green-fur-covered friendly monster, along with his friends. Since then he’s published two biographies for kids and is at work on several other projects that blend his sense of what’s fun for kids with his interest in history and the natural world.
Getting inside the head of a kid is easier said than done. Many adults try to be overly earnest, didactic or just plain dull. But Sheldon has a knack for finding just what it is that makes kids tick, makes them laugh and makes them want to know more. “I still think like a kid,” he says. “I’m still basically a kid myself.”
Monsters have been a lifelong fascination for Sheldon—when he was growing up, the wall of his bedroom was covered with his drawings of them. But the inspiration for his other books sometimes comes like a bolt from the blue. Reading about an auction of the first T-Rex skeleton prompted him to research who had unearthed the first one, and reminded him of the time in his own childhood when he had discovered a bone in a creek. He took it to the nearby Smithsonian Museum to find out if it maybe, possibly, could be a dinosaur bone and can still recall the thrill of going behind the scenes, seeing hundreds of bones laid out and imagining the amazing creatures they’d come from. While his bone turned out to be from a far less exotic animal—a cow—he never forgot what it felt like to be on the brink of a big discovery. That memory, paired with his findings about the first T-Rex led to his first picture book biography: Barnum Brown: Dinosaur Hunter. There’s a Jurassic Park-type element as Brown imagines what the T-Rex really looked like: in pictures, it looks as though the dinosaurs are actually looming over the explorer’s head. The book is nonfiction, but it has all the elements of a great story, and Sheldon’s captivating illustrations make it come alive.
A trip to the New York Aquarium at Coney Island sparked Sheldon’s next picture book biography, Into the Deep: The Life of Naturalist and Explorer William Beebe. His imaginative illustrations evoke Beebe’s Jules Verne-like adventures at the bottom of the sea in the bathysphere, and his Indiana-Jones style exploits in other parts of the world. Giant squid and pythons: what’s not to like? Such fascinating subject matter is the key to keeping reluctant readers—especially boys—engaged.
Like most artists, Sheldon worked a variety of jobs to make a living so that he could continue to make art, from helping install an iconic piece at CIA headquarters to working with an art dispatching company, transferring priceless works of art from museum to museum. He packed a taxidermied dog from the Perry expedition for the National Geographic Society and escorted one of the world’s rarest Vermeer’s from Kennedy Airport to Washington, DC. All along, he was working not only on his painting and sculpture, but on his children’s illustrations, particularly the monsters. While he got a number of jobs illustrating other people’s kids’ books, such as bible stories and early readers, he wasn’t having any luck selling his own book ideas. “You have to have a tough hide,” he says. But following one editor’s advice (“Don’t take no for an answer”), he persisted and eventually landed the contract for Monster Halloween.
Keeping it simple, Sheldon says, is one of the keys to success in kids’ books. Take a familiar topic and put a new twist on it. He’s currently at work on a book about the first zoo, developed by Queen Hatshepsut, Egypt’s only female pharaoh. It’s a “warmer” story, he says, and he spends more time developing the character of Hatshepsut and a jealous rival. But he hasn’t abandoned that element of danger and mystery: there’s a rather ferocious-looking tiger on the cover.