With latest work, U of T grad challenges children's book genre

Michael Gayle, a graduate of the psychology program at U of T Scarborough, took an unconventional approach to his third children's book (photo by Alexa Battler)

With just a few lines of text on a red background, the cover of Michael Gayle’s third children’s book is a far cry from the usual jumble of hues and images competing for a kid’s interest.

Flipping it open reveals other unusual elements in the children’s book genre: pages full of intricate illustrations, extravagant characters and a message left open for interpretation.

“I think there is an idea of what a piece of children’s literature should look and feel like. I’m interested in challenging those definitions in the pursuit of producing something that offers a slightly different experience,” says Gayle, who graduated from the University of Toronto Scarborough in 2021 with a degree in psychology. 

Titled Krumpp’s First Taste, Gayle’s latest work follows a little girl who tries to cheer up the world’s grumpiest curmudgeon by giving him her most beloved snack – crumpets and tea. But the book has no cut-and-dry moral or life lesson. By contrast, Gayle prefers embraces an approach that may seem bold with such a young crowd: Trust your reader.

“Often when I go into bookshops, I feel like at some point in the creative chain someone has underestimated how smart kids are,” says Gayle, who writes under the pen name Magic Mike. “I think it’s much harder to go over their heads then we think.”

Gayle taught himself the basics of digital illustration through online research and English courses he took at U of T Scarborough. But he says developing a unique visual and storytelling style is a largely solitary pursuit. 

His process is guided by a piece of advice that may seem strange for his genre since it comes from Stephen King: Above all, write for yourself.

“It’s hard for me to entertain the idea of making something singularly for the sake of it being publishable. I’m not sure that I would enjoy whatever success, if any, came from something I didn’t genuinely love or believe in,” he explains. “I would feel too disconnected from my work.”

Gayle drew inspiration from a range of artists and mediums to develop the stylized look of Krumpp’s First Taste (submitted photo)

It’s been four years since Gayle published his last children’s book, The Very Unluckily Lucky Quaroo – time he’s spent “consuming” the work of others. He says he passively looks to other artists for inspiration. He likens his process to baking – adding ingredients until he’s created something fresh.  

Within Krumpp’s First Taste are echoes of filmmaker Tim Burton’s darker atmospheres and dialogue style, John Tenniel’s whimsical illustrations in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and filmmaker Wes Anderson’s use of symmetry and detail. Nods to the theatre world are also peppered throughout the book – the cover is designed to emulate a classic Broadway playbill and the book is divided into three acts.

Gayle says he has also discovered ideas by keeping his head up and his mind open. When ideas strike, no matter how fragmented, he records them on his phone using voice or text notes and revisits them later.

“I don't have any tactical advice in terms of whose hand to shake or what type of pen to use,” Gayle says when asked for any tips to share with aspiring writers. “So, I guess my advice, if any, would be to embrace difficulty. It’s hard to make good things. I think it helps also to be ridiculously confident, even when it feels unfounded – and equally self-critical.”

While his degree in psychology isn’t directly applicable to writing for children, Gayle says seeing his university professors dedicate their careers to niches within their field carried its own lesson: “There's a virtue in becoming really good at one thing.”

Gayle will spend February travelling to public schools across the Greater Toronto Area to conduct readings as part of his second book tour. 

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