In New Boston illustrator Marty Kelley’s experience, if a book features fart jokes or underpants in some way, there’s a good chance kids will like it.
But of course, a compelling story is most important, which was the underlying factor for participating in his latest illustration project, Santa’s Underwear, released in August by Sleeping Bear Press.
The children’s book, written by Marty Rhodes Figley, is a hero’s quest starring Santa Claus as he ventures to find his favorite long, red wooly undies in time for the big night. He needs a Christmas miracle.
“It’s Santa and underwear — how could you go wrong?” Kelley said during a recent phone interview. “But seriously, underpants are funny. It has universal appeal. … [Marty] just made it a fun story. It’s lively, it’s short, but it keeps moving right along, and it keeps readers engaged.”
He created the illustrations the summer of 2015 with a brown colored pencil and Christmas palette of watercolor paints. Santa looks as you’d expect him to, with a round belly and wooly beard. When he’s not on the job, he wears pink boxers with green polka dots and a blue North Pole University T-shirt.
“You can’t stray too far when you’re doing something classic like Santa. There was lots of precedent set before this, so I had to stick with that,” Kelley said.
Kelley’s favorite part of the process was adding the story’s elves, which aren’t in the text but add playfulness and whimsy to the book’s scenes; they try on Santa’s boots, use up his hair product and pose in the mirror with him as he flexes his muscles.
The artist got his first taste of kids’ reactions when he visited the Nashua Public Library during the city’s annual holiday stroll, where he read Santa’s Underwear and played kids’ music with his friend Steve Blunt. They laughed at all the right parts.
“With my own projects, I will usually use the school visits to test the books. I’ll share them and make sure the kids are reacting the way I hope they will,” Kelley said. “But this time, there were no surprises.”
Kelley talks about the new book at a couple other events this December — the first is Saturday, Dec. 10, at the Toadstool Bookshop in Milford, and the next is Saturday, Dec. 17, at the Newington Barnes & Noble.
The events happen at the end of a “crazy busy” year for Kelley. In addition to Santa’s Underwear, he wrote and illustrated Albert’s Almost Amazing Adventure, which was released in March and won the Readers’ Choice Award for children’s literature at the New Hampshire Literary Awards.
This summer, he finished writing and illustrating stories that are part of a chapter book series, Molly Mac, which Picture Window Books will release in early 2017, and in April, Sterling Children’s Books will release Almost Everybody Farts, whose cover features a unicorn farting rainbows.
Kelley keeps busy because it’s necessary to stay afloat as a children’s book illustrator; between writing, drawing and bookstore events, he visits between 50 and 75 New Hampshire schools each year to talk about his books and the writing process.
Kelley has had a variety of jobs throughout his career; he’s been a second-grade teacher, baker, cartoonist, newspaper art director, heavy metal band drummer and balloon delivery guy, but he likes this one best.
“Like anything that’s freelance work, you have to stay motivated and disciplined to do the work. I work at home, and it would be very easy to sit on the couch and do nothing. But all day, I’m in my studio. I make my own hours, but it’s not unusual for me to be working on a painting until 9 or 10 p.m.,” he said. “There’s no magic to it. It’s a job. But it’s a job that I really enjoy.”