A Carefully Cultivated Craft

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Dan Santat worked through love and loss with art
By Lynda Lin Grigsby

Dan Santat’s best work as a storyteller comes when he taps into his experiences to fill the pages of children’s books. He pours himself into his work or uses a muse as a spirit animal to draw out emotions, guide the lines of his illustrations and the narrative arc of his stories. 

It is a carefully cultivated craft that Santat, 45, weaves in all his work as a children’s book writer and illustrator. 

His 2014 Caldecott Award-winning book “The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend” is a metaphor about the birth of his oldest son. Similarly, Santat channeled his youngest son’s side-swept hairstyle and impatience to grow up in his 2016 book “Are We There Yet?” And his heartwarming story of how Humpty Dumpty overcomes the trauma of falling off the wall in his 2017 book “After the Fall” is a love letter to wife, who battled anxiety since she was kid. 

For Santat, the time since “After the Fall” has been marked with contradictory presence of writer’s block and productivity. Anyone who knows Santat knows about his prolific work ethic. When not writing his own stories, he collaborates to illustrate children’s books and graphic novels. His expansive body of work — 12 books he authored and illustrated and over 120 picture and chapter books he illustrated in collaboration with other authors — can make anyone in his field shrink in his shadows. 

“It wouldn’t hurt for him to slow every now and then to stop making the rest of us look so lazy,” jokes Minh Lê, a writer and frequent collaborator including on the forthcoming book “The Blur.”

School-age children most likely have a Santat book on their bookshelf with a profile picture of the artist bespectacled behind a shock of eyebrows. The Art Center-educated artist lives by the mantra “Be undeniably good,” a quote from actor Steve Martin. His momentum seemed unstoppable with collaborations with well-loved authors like Mo Willems, Dav Pilkey and Brad Meltzer.

Then the pandemic upended the publishing world. Cue the screeching brakes sound effect. During the lockdown, buying children’s books was not top of mind for consumers, Santat says. But what the pandemic takes away, it gives back in time. The pandemic forced the world to slow down enough for the artist to finish a long-simmering personal project. 

Santat’s forthcoming book “Aquanauts” marks his return to the driver’s seat as his own storyteller. It is some of his most introspective work born out of the depths of the pandemic, an unexpected move from his longtime home and the loss of his dad. 

In March, Scholastic will release “Aquanauts,” a fantastical middle school graphic novel that Santat has been working on for 10 years. The story is about sea creatures that repurpose a diving suit into a land-walking device. 

“It was something that wasn’t originally personal but has now become very personal,” Santat says. 

The “Aquanauts” story also centers on loss and the ripples after someone passes away. He dedicated the book to his father, Adam Udom Santat, who died of liver cancer in April at 78. 

“It’s the only one I can really think of honoring my father,” Santat says. 

It’s almost been six months since his dad’s death, but he says it feels like so long ago. It makes him wonder if it is yet another effect of the pandemic bending the perception of time or if it’s the appropriate time to mourn.

In June, the Santat family moved from their longtime home in Alhambra to San Marino. Yes, the self-proclaimed Fresh Prince of Pasadena, according to the tagline on his Twitter account, is just an alliterative satire. Although both of his teenage sons attend Pasadena’s Waverly School. 

The Fresh Prince of San Marino just hits differently. 

The artist and his family moved to a bigger home to fulfill his dad’s dying wish to care for his mom, Nancy Santat, 76, who has yet to decide if she wants to leave her home in Camarillo. 

Between finishing the book, moving to a new house and settling his dad’s estate, Santat has not had time to feel sad, but the universe has a way of breaking him open in unexpected ways. 

One day, Santat wandered to the backyard of his new house and found the body of a lifeless crow. Crows are among the few animals that show a social response to a dead member. In his yard, crows cawed mournfully and swooped through the air for their fallen friend. Santat inadvertently interrupted their funeral. You could almost hear him shaking his head through the phone.

“That was just like the thing that just triggered me, and I just felt very sad,” he says. “You know, just crying in front of all these birds in the backyard.”

Santat is the son of a doctor groomed to follow in his dad’s footsteps. It was a preordained path he abruptly ended after he earned a degree in microbiology at the University of California, San Diego. He chose art school over dental school. 

At UC San Diego, he met his future wife Leah (Tager) Santat, who knew the artist would never be happy as a dentist.   

“In science classes at UCSD, he would doodle in all of his notes,” says Leah Santat, 46, a lab manager and technician at Cal Tech. “Drawing and telling stories was always his calling.”

A late September Vroman’s Bookstore virtual forum promoted the new book “Bear is a Bear,” illustrated by Santat. Author Jonathan Stutzman called him the Michael Jordan of children’s books. Then, on second thought, knowing that Santat is a Lakers’ fan, Stutzman changed the reference to Magic Johnson.

“I am always in awe of the magic he’s able to create on a page and the fact that he created magic to go along with words I wrote,” says Stutzman, 34.

Santat is also working on a graphic novel memoir about his coming-of-age adventures in Europe in the summer of 1989 before the start of high school. He had his first kiss, tasted beer for the first time, and watched the men’s semifinals at Wimbledon between John McEnroe and Stefan Edberg. 

“It’s just this crazy story about not worrying about the past and just kind of embracing the present,” Santat says. “It’s a book for young Dan from grown up Dan.”

He’s crafting this memoir for his sons, Alek, 15, and Kyle, 12.

“I want them to understand why I am the way I am, because I never really got to know my father that well,” Santat says.

Despite the challenges of the last year and a half, Santat has perspective on his career as a children’s book artist.

“I think about what I do and how fortunate I am to get paid very well to sit in front of computer and draw pictures for kids and not break a sweat. And actually, to do something that I don’t even consider work,” Santat says. “I don’t take that lightly.”

That’s just undeniably good.

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