‘A slightly different experience’: Self-taught author challenging what picture books can look like

Michael Gayle at the UTSC Library beside his third book, Krumpp's First Taste
Michael Gayle, a graduate of the psychology program at U of T Scarborough, takes a new stylistic approach in his third children's book (Photos by Alexa Battler).

Alexa Battler

It’s hard not to judge a book by its cover, but Michael Gayle’s third children’s book makes it easier. 

With just a few lines of text on a red background — the only colour found in the book — the cover is a far cry from the usual jumble of hues and images trying to snag a kid’s interest. Flipping it open reveals pages full of intricate illustrations, extravagant characters and a message left open for interpretation.

“I think there is an idea of what a piece of children’s literature should look and feel like. I’m interested in challenging those definitions in the pursuit of producing something that offers a slightly different experience,” says Gayle, who graduated from U of T Scarborough in 2021 with a degree in psychology. 

A photo of Krumpp's First Taste, the third book by Michael Gayle
Michael Gayle describes his third children's book as a "theatric comedy," with subtle nods to the theatre world throughout.

Titled Krumpp’s First Taste, Gayle’s new story follows a little girl who tries to cheer up the world’s grumpiest curmudgeon by giving him her most beloved snack — crumpets and tea. The book has no cut-and-dry moral or life lesson, as Gayle prefers to embrace a piece of writing advice more daunting when your audience only recently learned their ABCs: trust your reader.

“Often when I go into bookshops, I feel like at some point in the creative chain someone has underestimated how smart kids are,” says Gayle, who writes under the penname Magic Mike. “I think it’s much harder to go over their heads then we think.”

Gayle taught himself the basics of digital illustration through online research and took English courses at U of T Scarborough, but developing a unique visual and storytelling style is a largely solitary pursuit. His process is guided by another piece of advice that may seem strange for his genre, one touted by Stephen King: above all, write for yourself.

“It’s hard for me to entertain the idea of making something singularly for the sake of it being publishable. I’m not sure that I would enjoy whatever success, if any, came from something I didn’t genuinely love or believe in,” he says. “I would feel too disconnected from my work.”

It’s been four years since Gayle published his last children’s book, The Very Unluckily Lucky Quaroo, and when asked what he’s been up to, he says “consuming.” He looks to other artists for inspiration, but passively. Rather than surgically removing elements of their work, it’s more like baking — he adds ingredients until he’s created something fresh.  

Within Krumpp’s First Taste are echoes of Tim Burton’s darker atmospheres and dialogue style, John Tenniel’s whimsical illustrations in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Wes Anderson’s use of symmetry and detail. Peppered throughout are nods to the theatre world — the cover is designed to emulate a classic Broadway playbill and the book is divided into three acts.

A page from Krumpp's First Taste
Gayle drew inspiration from a range of artists and mediums to develop the stylized look in Krumpp’s First Taste (Submitted photo).

Gayle has also found ideas by keeping his head up and his mind open. He’s always thought older people who are ruthlessly honest, much like children can be, are charming, and the book opens with an ode to a man he saw on a bus who inspired the titular character’s design. When ideas strike, no matter how fragmented, he records them on his phone using voice or text notes and revisits them later.

“I don't have any tactical advice in terms of whose hand to shake or what type of pen to use,” Gayle says. “So, I guess my advice, if any, would be to embrace difficulty. It’s hard to make good things. I think it helps also to be ridiculously confident, even when it feels unfounded, and equally self-critical.”

While his degree in psychology isn’t directly applicable to writing for children, seeing his university professors dedicate their careers to niches within their field carried its own lesson: “There's a virtue in becoming really good at one thing.”

Gayle will spend February traveling to public schools across the GTA to conduct readings as part of his second book tour. More information on his projects can be found on his website, Twitter and Instagram.