Jonathan Miller started writing children’s books because he wanted to illustrate them.
So in 2008, inspired by an ex-girlfriend’s dog, Sammy, Miller created The Adventures of Sammy the Wonder Dachshund. In the series, Sammy explores Charleston, outer space, and goes on safari, but the real selling point, as Miller intended, is the art.
The author and illustrator’s artistic process starts with a sketch. But unlike typical pen and ink or watercolor illustrations, Miller puts his sketches under carbon paper, traces them, then cuts away the excess. Then he’ll pare away more detail or paste detail on — for example, a lightning bolt on a sneaker. Using card stock, layering, and X-ACTO knives, the end product is a more dimensional illustration.
“It creates depth, a cool effect for the kids,” Miller says. “Children grow up learning art through tearing up pieces of paper and gluing it all down, so it’s something they relate well to.”
In Sammy‘s pages, the 34-year-old Miller is also sure to throw in retro nods — an old Nintendo, a floppy disk, or acid washed jeans — for the parent who’s having to read the book over and over.
“I want parents who are around my age to like the book just as much, if not more, than the kids,” he says. “I went and saw the movie WALL-E, and I thought that movie worked for someone who’s 99 years old and someone who’s one year old. That’s what I think about the whole time I’m making a book. Is a kid who’s two going to be focused on the pictures? Will a 10 year old think the story is cool and the characters are funny? Is a parent going to think, ‘This is neat, I don’t mind reading this’?”
Each illustration takes 30 to 40 hours to finish. Think of it like a really tedious and precise collage.
Miller started working this way when he did a rendering of the Cistern in 2007. Aside from his books’ illustrations, the author also takes commissions. For instance, he was hired to create a portrait of Jeremiah Bacon, executive chef at The Macintosh and Oak, in his cut-out style.
For his most recent book, Miller crowd-sourced Sammy’s adventure. “I gave the kids an option: ‘Do y’all want to see Sammy going back in time and running around with dinosaurs, or do y’all want to see Sammy’s family history and see dachshunds who have done a lot of cool things?'” he says. “The kids wanted the history book.”
The fourth book in the Sammy series, The History of Wonder Dachshunds, spans caveman times to the present day. In the middle, Miller shows dachshunds who have contributed to society throughout history, like making scientific discoveries. He says his goal was to make the book like a family album.
But it’s not all writing and pasting paper for the self-published author — he’s also a traveling speaker. Miller travels the state visiting five to eight elementary schools a week introducing young readers to Sammy. “I talk to kids about writing, the writing process, brainstorming, how I got into this, and how I make the art. Then I read them a story and answer questions, and we organically talk about how many times I had to rewrite my story, about how much work goes into making books,” he says.
The one thing missing from the class visits is an actual dachshund. “I need to eventually get my own Sammy, because right now I’m using prop Sammies,” he confesses.
Although Miller was very artistic throughout middle and high school, he left art behind in college for what he thought was a more practical career: business. Thanks to Sammy the Wonder Dachshund, he’s found a way to combine the two.
The Adventures of Sammy the Wonder Dachshund series is sold at Blue Bicycle Books, Wonder Works, and Sugar Snap Pea.