Friday, May 1, 2015

Ally-Saurus and the First Day of School: an interview with Richard Torrey

The phone rang. “Hello,” said Richard Torrey, whom I only knew as the author-illustrator of the incredibly clever book I had just received and enjoyed with my eight-year-old daughter. I had no notes prepared for my telephone interview, and as it turned out, this seemed to suit Mr. Torrey’s style just fine.

“My daughter and I loved Ally-saurus,” I told Torrey, “We think it is just perfect for a child who is headed for their first day of school.”

“Well,” he replied, “these are trying times…” He explained that the first day of anything, whether it was the first day of school or the first day of camp, was tough for a kid. “You can equate it to that feeling of walking the plank…it’s like entering another universe.”

Ally-saurus is the preferred moniker of a little girl who is just waking up for her first day of school. She and her surroundings are illustrated in dark grey pencil, while her stuffed dinosaurs are lightly colored in pastel, and a dinosaur’s spikes and tail are drawn onto her head and back in pink crayon. Ally-saurus starts off appearing confident, although it soon becomes apparent that she is different from the other kids. By the middle of the book, the other students can be seen wearing their imagined armor of princesses, an astronaut, a lion, a pirate, a butterfly, and a dragon. Embracing their differences, by the end of the day the children are getting along splendidly, and the next day Ally jumps out of bed, excited for her next day’s adventures. 

The idea of Ally originated with his son, who was always the tiniest in his class or sports team. When he was four years old, he stated that he was a giant dog, “and he was very serious”, said Torrey.  That imagined appearance was “like armor…it helped him to get through being the smallest”. Torrey started to experiment with ways to draw a child’s imagination without using words. The character of Ally started as a penciled doodle in Torrey’s “idea book”, with a dinosaur’s tail drawn in crayon to demonstrate the notion that she thought she was a dinosaur. 

I asked Torrey about how he got started in his career as an author-illustrator. He describes his journey as a “series of happy accidents”.  Born in Los Angeles, he originally went to Alleghany College as a pre-med major, which he switched to psychology; he has lived on Long Island ever since he graduated. Richard’s father was the Hockey Hall-of-Famer, Bill Torrey, who managed the Islanders during the years they built the team that would win the Stanley Cup. “Those were very good times…Islander fans are special…it’s an era that is ending,” said Richard.  He is very sad to see the Islanders leaving Long Island. “Long Island kids won’t have a home team.”

Richard never took art classes, but he loved cartooning. For his fourth birthday, his great-grandparents gave him the book The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf. Robert Lawson’s ink drawings of Ferdinand were the early seeds of his career.  He always loved the Peanuts cartoon strip in particular, and part of his inspiration comes from Charles M. Schultz. When he was still in grade school, Richard met Schultz at an Oakland Seals hockey game. Richard decided to show his drawing of a horse to Schultz, who then drew Snoopy on the back of the picture – Richard still has it. 

Torrey worked for the Islanders after college, while constantly drawing in his spare time. When a syndicated cartoonist saw his work, he got what some might call a “lucky break”, although for many years he had to work harder to sell his ideas because of his lack of professional experience. He was learning to be an illustrator as well as a writer while creating Hartland and PETE AND CLETE. At one point he reached a cross-roads as newspapers started to evolve, and editors could not decide whether to put his strip in the comics or sports section. He went to work for Recycled Paper Greetings, where he still does work.  He also did freelance magazine illustrations, until he was discovered by an agent who was looking for drawings for a sample book.

After illustrating other authors’ books for a few years, he decided to write his own. His first dozen or so ideas failed to sell, and his agent advised him to “write what you know”. This naturally brought him to his own world, parenting young children who played sports, and his first books were born. When asked what he would advise young writers/illustrators, Torrey said, “Somebody’s gonna do it, so why not you”…”you have to have skin like a rhinoceros”, but if you love it and believe in your talent, there is no reason to believe that you cannot do what you want to do with that gift. He quoted Richard Bach, who once said, “A professional writer is an amateur who didn't quit”.

Torrey lives on Long Island with his wife and two children. He has been teaching cartooning and manga art at the Art League of Long Island in Dix Hills for over twenty years. He is always looking to try his hand at new things. His latest project was putting together his new website, which he is very proud of. At (don’t forget the e in torrey or you will come across a fashion site) you can view Richard’s illustrations, idea sketches, and information about his published books an even dozen.  His 13th book, My Dog, Bob, will be released in September 2015.

Ally-Saurus and the First Day of School
Written and illustrated by Richard Torrey
Published by Sterling Publishing
Published May 2015
Price $14.95
Ages 3-6
Hardcover/ISBN 978-1-4549-1179-1

*I have also posted this article at The Long Island Motherhood Examiner and The Divine Gift of Motherhood.

On a side-note for Catholic readers, although I didn't ask Richard about his religious views, I love Torrey's attitude toward life, family, and career. There is a terrific word for what he calls "happy accidents" - serendipitous events are blessings that come along when you are not looking for them. When we are open to embrace what life has for us, rather than meticulously planning our lives, we set ourselves up for the receipt of untold joys. Something about our conversation echoed to me the attitude of Odd Thomas, the main character in a series I am reading by the best-selling Catholic thriller writer Dean Koontz. Odd Thomas doesn't believe in over-preparing, because life throws the strangest things at him all the time. He has to trust that he will know what to do when the moment calls for it. In an interview with ETWN, Koontz says that by the end of the eighth book, Saint Odd, the character will have achieved a state of perfect humility.