• Steven Heller

The Secret Life Of Signs

Stephen Savage has been birthing children’s books as quick as a bunny. And they are good ones too. Here are a couple of my favorites. They are simple constructs but not simplistic. His recent Sign Off imagines what might happen if average road signs come alive. I asked him about the conceit and his venture into signs for kids.

What’s the genesis of SIGN OFF?

In 2014, a utility crew was digging up the street near my apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn and I noticed their orange “men at work” sign with the picture of the round-headed guy digging a hole. I’d seen this sign hundreds of times, maybe even thousands, throughout my life but on this day it occurred to me: “this guy’s working hard. He’s probably ready to jump off of his sign, put down his shovel and take a break”. Then I began imagining a whole series of adventures for this character. I did a little research and was surprised to find very few stories featuring road sign characters. I also realized that I could make them gender neutral and open up new possibilities that way.

Why did you make SIGN OFF a wordless book?

Originally, the book wasn’t supposed to be wordless. I had already authored two well-regarded wordless books, Where’s Walrus? (2011) and a sequel, Where’s Walrus? And Penguin? (2014), and I figured I’d retire from wordless books. I’d gone as far as I can go with this specialized format.

Then this idea for a road sign book came along and I assumed I would tell the story with words. I wrote a traditional male hero’s tale about the construction man I had noticed near my apartment. In the story, he repairs a bridge at night once the “real” construction men go home. But the story seemed clunky and overwrought. I abandoned the project.

Then in 2015, I travelled to Washington D.C. to participate on a wordless book panel at Politics and Prose bookstore. The panel was moderated by Beach Lane Publisher Allyn Johnston. Allyn made me laugh with her opening remarks: “I’m not even sure I like wordless books”. Afterwards, she asked asked me what I was working on and I told her about Construction Man and the struggles I was having with the story and she suggested I try it as a wordless book. This suggestion surprised me given her earlier remarks! But that simple suggestion breathed new life into the project and opened up all kinds of possibilities. No longer was I hamstrung by words and plot anymore. I could tell the story in a dreamier, more poetic way.

This approach really suited the signs, who communicate with us wordlessly. And it allowed the sign characters to become gender fluid or non-binary, which means that kids (and parents!) can identify with them in many more ways. I added a disabled character to move it even further away from the typical hero plot line.

Do you prefer telling stories with “pictures only”.

I like both kinds of stories. It’s what’s best for the type of story you’re trying to tell. I’ve discovered you need a simple, impressionistic story for a wordless book. Journeys work awfully nicely because they’re so visual (case in point, SIGN OFF). But yeah, I do love the genre. They’re less like novels and plays and more like ballet and mime. People probably think wordless books are less engaging than stories with words. But I think the opposite is true. In SIGN OFF, the story isn’t being told to you. You, the reader, are actively telling the story yourself— connecting the dots and finding your own path through the story. You are IN the story and are PART of the story.

What interests you about the road sign characters?

They are the proverbial “small fry”– everyday characters who “fly under the radar” yet do amazing things when we’re not looking. And as a fan of modernist, minimalist design– I love the look of them.