Tim Fite: Encouraging Kids to Ask Questions

Tim Fite is a musician, singer-songwriter and multimedia artist who considers himself a pebble in the shoe of iniquity. He makes large-scale, compositionally complex, allegorical, black-and-white drawings that occasionally have a musical or performative component in his debut picture book, A Bucket of Questions (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, March 7, 2023), which encourages children's curiosity.

You have been writing music for years, what motivated you to try your hand at a children's picture book?      

Bedtime stories, storytime in school, ghost stories around the campfire, all these things have trained us to stop, look and listen when a picture book is presented. Because of this, I have always included picture bookish elements in my music show to refocus the attention of the audience. Happy concert goers are similar to children in many ways--exuberant, easily distracted, deeply emotional and unpredictable. It seemed like, with some small adjustments, the types of stories I use in my music show could make a fantastic children's picture book. It also helped to have the encouragement and expertise of my fairy book mothers [art director] Lizzy Bromley and [editor] Julia McCarthy.

Why "questions" and how did you choose which questions to include?

The simple answer is that I love questions and I wanted to make a fun book that would encourage kids to ask more questions.

The longer answer starts with the fact that questions are a HUGE part of every kid's life. Everywhere they turn there is something new to ask about. Everyone they meet asks them questions. There are tests and quizzes and parents and teachers all trying to ask the "right" questions. All seeking "correct" answers. During this cacophony of questions, there is always a stress attached to getting or providing one specific/expected answer. I wanted to make a book about questions where the answers are joyfully unexpected and inconsequential.

I chose questions that I would have asked as a kid, and kind of still ask as an adult. I wanted to create a blend of silly questions and serious ones to show that there really is no hierarchy of questions--each and every one is priceless!

Are there any you wish you could have included but didn't have room for?

"Given the time/space anomalies of a hybrid digital/analog awareness, in the scope of before, during and after, is there a quantifiable now or just a loop of befores, durings and afters repeating and repeating and repeating until now is no longer the actual moment of now, but rather a stored memory of now as it used to be, forever dressed up in the costume of nowness, turning over and over in an infinite twist of woulda, coulda and shoulda as those options relate to self-actualization, planned obsolescence, artificial intelligence, corporate profits, spiritual disenfranchisement, existential hors d'oeuvres and the ontological paradox of a symbiotic human consciousness?"

We were torn about not including this one, because it market tested really well, but in the end, we decided to go with "What are hot dogs actually made of?"

How did creating art for a picture book compare to the large installations you've worked on in the past?

Drawing is exciting for me, no matter where or how. It is my way of confronting unanswerable questions--each line, each form, each texture is an answer that begs for more questions. I think this is why the drawing in my installations gets insanely complicated. When questions meet the limitlessness of imagination, I have unlimited marks to make.

Creating art for the picture book was conceptually similar--questions (almost) answered by drawings. But I needed to be more aware of the specific limitations set forth by creating an interactive object (a book) instead of an immersive one (an installation). Pagination, illustration and participation were the three main constraints that changed the way I approached the artwork. I was not just drawing for the sake of limitless drawing, I was drawing to entertain, explain and surprise. I had to be much more deliberate and delicate. I had to focus on the art being a reason to turn the page.

Did you have a favorite illustration in the book? Or one that challenged you more than the others?

"What is at the bottom of the Ocean?" was really fun to draw. There is so much to see and so many little details to find. I really got a kick out of drawing the diamond fish and the mermaid BBQ. I also really enjoyed having characters from earlier questions turn up in later questions.

It is hard to choose, but my favorite drawing in the book may be the cool grandma with giant sunglasses.

The drawings that challenged me the most were the answers to the first question: "What kind of questions come out of a bucket?" I think there are at least five different versions of those answers. Sometimes it is the simpler drawings that take the most time to get right.

You once said that everything you do is "an effort to exorcise demons, even if it's happy demons." What demons did A Bucket of Questions exorcise for you?

I think the main demon that Bucket of Questions got rid of was the Lonely Demon. The Lonely Demon is happiest when it works alone. It is relentlessly singular in its thinking, stinking, giggling and jiggling. The lonely demon does not want any help. It does not want any feedback. It does not share. It does not care. All it wants is to be left alone--in blissful solitude singing a lonely song and drawing a lonely drawing.

The Lonely Demon had to be exorcised when I was making Bucket of Questions, because it turns out that publishing a children's book is very much a group effort! I think it was liberating in a certain way to let go of the Lonely Demon and invite others into the creative process. In the end, I got a book that I would never have been able to make while possessed by the Lonely Demon.

Was this a one-and-done experience, check it off the bucket list, or do you have more literary plans?

I am not much of a planner, but I would love to continue making picture books. I feel like Bucket of Questions is just the sneeze before the avalanche. --Jen Forbus

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