Drew Daywalt is the author of the New York Times-bestselling children’s book The Day the Crayons Quit, a humorous epistolary odyssey of a 4-year-old boy who finds that his box of crayons have walked out on him for various reasons. Red is pissed he has to work holiday overtime on Christmas and Valentine’s Day; Orange and Yellow aren’t speaking to each other because they both think they’re the right color of the sun; Black is done with just outlining things.
“I didn’t want to do ‘The Fluffy Puppy Learns to Hold hands!’ or ‘Kitty Gets a Box to Play In!’ There’s a place for that for the little ones–some kids need that stuff. But I’m too dark and sarcastic,” Daywalt says. “And I thought, ‘What about a bunch of crayons bitching a kid out?’ My crayons are going to give this kid hell.”
Sound a little twisted for a children’s book author? His Twitter bio provides more insight into his off-kilter sensibilities: “I grew up in a haunted house, reading Dr. Seuss.” Which might explain why, besides penning enormously popular children’s books, Daywalt also writes and directs horror films. That’s right, the author who’s become a literary darling among librarians and parents alike is also a slasher fanatic. “I want to be Willy Wonka,” Daywalt says. “He has a really fun spirited side but also a dark, justice-giver side.”
Born in Hudson, Ohio as the youngest of six, Daywalt’s childhood home was once a stagecoach stop during the Civil War, as well as a stop on the Underground Railroad. It stood empty for 60 years, becoming the stuff of neighborhood urban legends. When the Daywalts moved in, Drew was often left in the care of his older brothers, who would stay up late watching horror shows and cult classics like Tarantula or Creature From the Black Lagoon. Fast-forward to college at Emerson University, where Daywalt double majored in children’s literature and screenwriting, and his dichotomous interests begin to solidify into a career as a script doctor and writer in Hollywood, working for a range of studios and directors and clients including Disney, Universal, Jerry Bruckheimer, and Ridley Scott.
“I’ve always had this sort of duality of doing fun things over here that are really innocent, and then I’m writing a [Quentin] Tarantino heist comedy that’s Hard-R,” Daywalt says.
His two passions, children’s literature and horror films, are entirely discrete at first blush. But seen through Daywalt’s lens, they actually complement each other and provide a sort of symbiosis of creative inspiration. Fast Company spoke with Daywalt about how his dichotomous passions come from a common place.
When did you start making horror shorts?
Around 2008 when the writers’ strike happened, all my stuff was getting stuck in development and I thought, I’m going to try my hand at horror because I always loved it as a kid. I put up a video called Bedfellows. Back when MySpace was relevant, MySpaceTV took it and we had 2 million hits the first night, 4 million hits in the first week, and I think worldwide across all the different platforms we’re at like over 20 million hits now. I would call my production team when we all weren’t working on something and be like, “Do you guys want to come over? I’ll buy pizza and beer and let’s make something scary.” We got addicted to making these super-shorts.
Where does The Day the Crayons Quit come in?
Smack in the middle of me becoming Mr. Horror Guy, this book I had written several years prior and forgotten about was picked up by Philomel and published. So that’s sort of the birth of my official Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde status.
Wait, you forgot about The Day the Crayons Quit?
A little over 10 years ago, I was about to have my first daughter and I wanted something to give my children. I had a movie come out that didn’t do as well as I’d hoped and I was like, “Forget Hollywood–I’m done.” I decided to write something for children since I had the training and I hadn’t done much with it. I sat down and wrote my first picture-book manuscript, which was The Day the Crayons Quit. I found an agent pretty quickly and he said, “I’m going to try and sell this thing. Don’t call me every day and ask if it’s sold. I’ll call you when it sells.” Six years passed and I had given up on it and I went back to screenwriting.
Your agent didn’t call during this six-year period?!
Once or twice! He called and said, “Hey, I sold your book!” And I was like, “Are you even still my agent?!” And he says, “Yeah, I’m your damn agent and I just sold your book to Philomel and Oliver Jeffers is illustrating!”
How did you approach writing The Day the Crayons Quit?
I learned a lot from my days at Disney and Universal. One of the things I realized we were getting away with in children’s animation that picture books weren’t getting away with is irony and sarcasm and a deeper sense of wit. For instance, if you look at the dialogue in the movies Toy Story or Madagascar, it’s very different than most dialogue in picture books and yet it’s aimed at almost the same age group. And I thought, “I’m going to elevate what I’m sending out to a level that entertains Mom and Dad and is going to make the kids laugh.”
Kids have a wonderfully dark side. Sort of reverse engineering myself, I look back at Dr. Seuss, Roald Dahl, and the social issues and the interesting bad-behavior side of human nature.
So what’s the creative intersection of horror and children’s books?
The two sides of the coin are hope and fear. The most hope you’ll have is to go back to your 5-year-old self: “I could be a fireman! I could be an astronaut! I could dig a hole to the center to middle of the Earth and see what that lava is like!”–that’s 5-year-old thinking. You think it could happen because you have your magical thinking. And I think, conversely, the worst fears I’ve had were probably when I was 5 because I was equally convinced that my parents were in their bedroom as there was some strange man in my closet who’s going to hurt me.
It’s so weird because when you’re 4 or 5, your fears are just as real as reality. So whether I’m doing horror or children’s lit, I’m pulling for the same place which is true to my inner 4-or- 5-year old.
Universal Pictures just acquired film rights to The Day the Crayons Quit. Any plans on taking your horror shorts to the big screen?
I have a feature film I wrote, directed, and produced called The Passengers. We’re in post right now with it and I should have a cut to take to market early next year. It’s super scary! It’s about a young couple, a trucker and his wife, who are hauling a bunch of antiques across country after the loss of their son and there’s a bunch of toys in the back from the ‘50s that are haunted. So it’s essentially a haunted house on wheels.
As far as the short films, they were really fun but we all got very busy. So what we’re going to try and do is at least one for Halloween every year.
Creativity involves process, practice, passion, and play. What do each of those mean for you?
Process: I lock myself in my studio with snacks (I’m a big fan of cran-raisins) and green tea. Normally, I come up with a concept first. “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” “What if…” I always ask the question “What if?” And then I try to find the character that’s going to have the most problems in that scenario because it builds the conflict and gives me something to really work from. So it’s a really funny or scary concept to put the least prepared character in there.
Practice: One of the things I’ve learned is don’t doubt your own voice–that’s the hardest thing for me. I will doubt my own voice and take bad advice because I’m a people pleaser. I’ll take to heart bad advice sometimes to make everyone happy and then afterwards I’ve regretted it. I need to scrutinize the notes I get more carefully before applying them.
Passion: As an escapist, I love to just get lost in someone else’s world. And I equally love creating a world that someone else can get lost in.
Play: Teaching my children that they can create their own reality–that’s the most fun I have. I want my kids to know that reality is subjective and from what I’ve learned in my life, pick one that you enjoy.