Kids Stuff: Greg Foley

Willoughby & the Lion
is, thank heavens, not another Youtube video featuring killer mammals who maim and maul. It’s a new illustrated children’s book (HarperCollins) from Greg Foley, longtime Creative Director of Visionaire, V Magazine, and VMan. Foley’s no newcomer to picture books, either; see Thank You Bear (2oo7) and its follow-up, Don’t Worry Bear (2008). Open up his most recent, thoughtfully designed book, and witness the embossed gold graphics and loose-limbed illustrations. “[Jean-Jacques] Sempé was an inspiration,” he says, explaining the visual richness of the simple story.

The set up is as follows: Willoughby’s new house feels too small. He’s bored. A golden lion sits outside his window on a rock. The lion will grant him ten wishes, any that he could dream up. (Hint: Willoughby likes dessert.) But the lion would like something in return—after all, don’t wish-granters deserve (at least) one wish of their own? It’s safe to say most of us have been delivered at least one wish this past year (you know, that guy who gave that great speech last night?), but it wouldn’t hurt to get nine more. Here’s a list of Greg’s wishes, and his wise answers to our questions about making books for children:

10. A hit song
9. Asian boy haircut (wait, maybe that’s out of order…)
8. Helmut Lang was at the helm of his brand (I could still get the Cuiron bath gel and deodorant combo)
7. Art Nouveau townhouse in the Zurenborg district of Antwerp, Belgium
6. My best selling book becomes a hit movie!
5. A control word like ‘fooferaw’ (anyone who hears it drops what they’re doing and starts to party)
4. The power to grant flight to any one person at a time (think about it)
3. When I say “Am I right?”, everyone agrees with me
2. To wake up and realize that it was all a dream
1. Ten more wishes [Ed’s note: Cheater!]

FAN ZHONG: What brought you to children’s books?

GREG FOLEY: Way back in 1991, when I graduated from RISD, I was designing men’s sterling jewelry and T-shirts. But neither felt direct enough. So I tried art-directing for the clothing brand Orfi; I helped some friends [Stephen Gan, Cecilia Dean, and James Kaliardos] to start up Visionaire. At a certain point, I realized most of the creative work I’d done—product or promotion—helped shape some kind of visual story. So I started back at square one: I joined a children’s writing workshop. That’s where my first book, Thank You Bear, was conceived.


FZ: And you  teach a class at Parsons called “The Visual Story.”

GF: Yes, with Donald Hearn and Cecilia Dean. We’ve taught the class together for about nine years now! Teaching is the best way to re-learn lessons that life’s taught you.

FZ: When you write children’s books, do you imagine the young Greg Foley as the reader?

GF: Well, this may sound a bit airy-faerie, but it seems to me we never stop being children. Adults can be pretty childish—get a load of the egos some folks have! If you tap into that emotional charge—whatever it is that drives the ego—that’s plenty of fuel for a good story.  

FZ: How did you arrive at the design for Willoughby? I love the embossed gold.

GF: Once, when I was visiting my sister in Bermuda, I got some change and there was a penny with a little pig on it. It struck me that even coins can tell a story in a single picture. And they practically insist that you turn them over—the ultimate page-turner. So it was important that we make it feel as much like a coin as we could afford to.

FZ: What’s next for Willoughby?

GF: When Brenda Bowden, my editor at HarperCollins, took it on, she wanted two books to start. And as I struggled over the past year to finish a draft of the second book, a bunch of other Willoughby stories came out instead, the irony being that none of them were right for a second book, but maybe a third or fourth. Still, it seemed only natural that the book after gold should be silver. With any luck, you’ll see Willoughby and the Moon some time next year.

FZ: And what about Greg Foley, what’s next for you?

I’ve directed a few music videos, to get the hang of directing. But, as any commercial director will tell you, clients can suck. I’m also thinking of developing Willoughby or Thank You Bear into a show. And keep an eye out for the third Bear book, Good Luck Bear. It’s about finding fortune in the unexpected.