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Highland Park artist draws Clarence the Cat

Wednesday, November 06, 2002

By Karen MacPherson, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Pittsburgh children's book illustrator John Manders jokes that he was born with a drawing pencil in his hand.

"I'm the luckiest guy in the world, to get to do this all day," says children's book illustrator John Manders, who shares his Highland Park home with two dogs and Sherman, a 14-year-old African grey parrot. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

While that may be a slight exaggeration, it's clear he has spent most of his 45 years creating art of one type or another. He has drawn cartoons, designed stage sets and worked as a graphic artist.

Now, Manders is focused on illustrating children's books. In the past five years, he has illustrated 25 children's books, gathering a sheaf of good reviews along the way. Of his latest book, "Clarence the Copy Cat" (Doubleday, $15.95), School Library Journal commented, "Manders' appealing, full-color illustrations are lively and full of fun."

"I'm the luckiest guy in the world, to get to do this all day," Manders said in a recent telephone interview from his Highland Park home office.

He said he had particular fun doing the illustrations for "Clarence the Copy Cat" because much of the story takes place in a library. He decided to base his illustrations on the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's Oakland branch, one of his favorite places in the city.

"I love that library. I've always felt at home there." It reminds him of the Carnegie Library he frequented as a child growing up in Syracuse, N.Y.

"Clarence the Copy Cat," written by Patricia Lakin, tells the story of a cat who hates violence and refuses to harm another living creature, even a mouse. Clarence's peace-loving nature makes it difficult for him to find a place to live because humans expect him to keep their dwellings mouse-free.

Clarence finally finds a home in the Barnstable Library. Mr. Spanner, one of the librarians, takes a liking to Clarence, keeps him well-fed and allows him to perch on the library's copying machine, hence the nickname "Copy Cat."

Everything is fine until a mouse shows up one day, and Clarence is expected to kill it. Clarence can't do that, but he eventually finds a unique way -- via the copy machine -- of keeping the library mouse-free.

Lakin's story is funny and fast-moving, and Manders' vibrant illustrations fit perfectly. The book is a great showcase for Manders' illustrative style, which combines modern, cartoon-type images with an "old master's" artistic technique.

With this technique, Manders first prepares an "underpainting" of one color as a way of delineating the light and dark areas of his illustration. He then layers on colorful, opaque watercolors to create his final artwork.

Since he doesn't own a cat, Manders based the long-necked, big-eyed Clarence on the alley cats that frequent his neighborhood. But Manders, who is single, does share his home with several other pets: two dogs, Brandon and India, and Sherman, a 14-year-old African grey parrot who sings, whistles, speaks several languages and answers the telephone (once the receiver is picked up, of course). He can even imitate the sound of a garbage truck backing up.

Manders first came to Pittsburgh to attend the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. After graduating in 1979, he moved to New York City and worked as a freelance graphic designer. But, "life in the big city got to be daunting," Manders said, and, in 1990, he moved back to Pittsburgh.

He continued working as a graphic designer and also taught at the Pittsburgh Technical Institute for several years. Despite the long hours, Manders enjoyed teaching and even helped design the curriculum for one course, a history of graphic design. In 1997, Manders founded the Pittsburgh Society of Illustrators and served as its first president.

But he hankered to follow up on a longtime interest in children's book illustration. As a way of getting started, Manders began submitting his work to children's magazines.

"I didn't come out of the box as an expert children's book illustrator," he said. "I had to learn a lot. There's only one way to learn, and that's by doing it. Children's magazines are a wonderful way to do that, giving artists a chance to grow and experiment.... At the same time, editors from children's book publishers are always scanning these magazines, looking for up-and-coming artists."

That's what happened to Manders. An editor at Houghton Mifflin liked his magazine work and offered him a book contract. His first illustrated book, "King Snake," written by Wendy Slotboom, was published in 1997.

Since then, Manders has illustrated two dozen more children's books, including "Dirt Boy," "What You Never Knew About Tubs, Toilets and Showers" and "Quiet Night." Reviewers have called Manders' illustrations "madcap," "hilarious" and "laugh-out-loud funny."

Manders doesn't lack for projects; he's working on illustrations for books coming out later this year. But he's been unable to come up with an acceptable idea for a book he can both write and illustrate.

"I've cranked out reams of absolute garbage," he said. "You'd think that since I do kids' stuff all the time that I could do this. I can't tell you how difficult it is to come up with something that someone hasn't already done many times over. But I'll keep on trying."

Manders will be signing copies of "Clarence the Copy Cat" from 11 a.m. to noon on Saturday at the Barnes & Noble in the Waterworks Mall.

Karen MacPherson can be reached at kmacpherson@nationalpress.com or 1-202-662-7075.

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