The best children’s books are written from an original point of view. Margaret Wise Brown, author of Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny, not only channeled her strong personality and unique perspective into her work, but also proposed the tenet that children’s literature was designed to “jog [the reader] with the unexpected and comfort him with the familiar.” And so Kate Beaton enters our scene with The Princess and the Pony, her first picture book outside of comics. Best known for Hark! a Vagrant —her compilation and website comprised of historically-detailed cartoons both silly and insightful—Beaton does what she wants to do, avoiding any ideas market-researched to death.
In Princess and the Pony, she takes a beloved character from her comics, informally known as “fat pony,” and gives it a 40-page arena to shine. That authorial strength of character is precisely what makes the book delightful. It is cute. It is weird. It is heart-warming. It is full of farts. It is just what you would expect from Beaton, but not without surprises. Despite a busy book tour, she answered some of our questions over email about the book, the pony, sweaters and princesses.
Paste: With all the many things you do and have done (history comics, Strong Female Characters, autobiography, mystery-solving teens, Canadiana), why do you think people like the pony so much?
Beaton: I think people like all things round and cuddly! Isn’t that why we like babies and decide to keep them even when they are pooping and not letting us sleep? We are conditioned to like the little fat things with big eyes, of the world.
The Princess and the Pony pages 7, 8.
Paste: It’s not even in that many strips and yet, as you have mentioned, it is one of your most requested characters. Do people ask you to draw it at cons? Does anyone have a Fat Pony tattoo?
Beaton: People do ask me to draw it at cons! So that’s good, because I have it down. If anyone has a tattoo they haven’t showed me, but I hope it is not in a sexy place if they do.
Paste: Can you talk a bit about the process of creating a longer narrative like this, as opposed to your usual shorter work?
Beaton: There is just a lot more second guessing and editing. A whole lot more.
Paste: How did you decide a princess was necessary?
Beaton: Even though princesses are marketed to them, there is something very true about a kid being obsessed with princesses—it is their decision. I think that a princess is this young person with the ability to make choices, and she is someone people listen to, take seriously. She can decide what she wants to do, wear, eat, basically she has a lot of power. So I can see why children like them. Every kid would like to be “the boss,” which is what a princess offers.
Paste: How did the story evolve? Or did it just pop into your head fully formed?
Beaton: I did write the initial version in no time! Then it had to make sense, so that took longer.
The Princess and the Pony pages 3, 4.
Paste: How do you feel about sweaters? I would assume that, as someone from the colder climates, you are very pro-sweater, but then your work expresses mixed feelings on the subject.
Beaton: I love sweaters. I love fall, the best season. It’s summer right now and it’s hot out and I’m still wearing long sleeves, but I’m dyin’ here.
Paste: How is writing a book for children different from writing for adults (who like jokes about the Founding Fathers)?
Beaton: They’re just a separate audience, no less smart, but with less experience in the world, so their sense of humor is different than ours. Their references are different, their empathy is different. And yet I find that farts entertain both audiences.
The Princess and the Pony pages 29, 30.
Paste: Why typesetting and not hand lettering? Easier to read? Identifiable as “not comics”?
Beaton: Typesetting seemed proper for a storybook. I would not want anyone to see my comics and think they were for kids. The comics are rather rude sometimes.
Paste: And why not comics? This is very much a standard picture book, with no panels.
Beaton: Again, I wouldn’t want anyone to conflate the two. If a parent knew me only from picture books and bought my comics for their kids, that would be bad news. Comics by their nature are not fully out of the “for kids!” section of many people’s minds yet. When I go to the library, the comics are all in one section, in the teen section. And there is definitely adult material there.
Paste: Why Pinecone [for the name of the princess]?
Beaton: It’s like a floral name princesses often have, like Rose. But pricklier. I also didn’t want to give her a name that anyone actually had.
Paste: Pinecone’s parents mean so well, and they clearly adore their daughter, but they’re not very good at presents, are they? Or do they just want their daughter to have age-appropriate things?
Beaton: They are great parents! They listened to what she wanted, but they filtered the information through their parent brains and didn’t get it quite right, the way that parents do sometimes. A friend recently told me that she had wanted this amazing red bike for her birthday, and she got a pink one with tassels and a basket. Because her parents heard her, and they were happy to give her a bike, but they got it wrong because they saw the pink one and thought “yes that is what she wants, she will love that.” Pinecone’s parents are very supportive; they are cheering her on later in the book.
Paste: Did you want a pony when you were a small child?
Beaton: Actually I wanted a cat! We got one finally and it ran away. Into the woods. But then it came back months later, all beefed up and mean, like Rambo or something. It lived in our shed after that and we fed it but it was very unfriendly. I forget what its original name was but after it came back we called it Goliath. It was a pretty badass cat really.