'Punk Farm' goes Hollywood
Children's book author-artist hits the big time
By Cate McQuaid, Globe Correspondent  |  May 31, 2006

Jarrett J. Krosoczka's first book, ``The Owl Who Thought He Was the Best Flyer," tells the story of an owl who challenged Hermes, the Greek messenger god, to a flying contest.

He wrote it in third grade at Gates Lane Elementary School in Worcester. Inside, he penned ``J.K. Co., copyright 1986," and, of himself, ``he liked making this book."

It was one of many publications the author/illustrator created as a kid. His mother had addiction problems and stepped out of her parenting role, so he was raised by his grandparents. ``I'd come home from school and make my own books," says Krosoczka (pronounced kro-ZAUS-ka ), a lanky, dark-haired fellow with a gentle demeanor and an easy smile.

In April, DreamWorks Animation tapped another of Krosoczka's books, ``Punk Farm" -- more widely read than his third grade effort -- to develop as a feature film. ``Punk Farm," a raucous account of a maverick band of farm animals, was the 28-year-old's sixth published book.

Kevin Messick, who will produce the film for DreamWorks, discovered ``Punk Farm" when he read it to his 5-year-old.

``Jarrett's style and attitude are fun and fresh," Messick says over the phone from Los Angeles. ``The simple story he told in the book was strong enough for me to see as a movie."

The film is in the early stages of development and should take a couple of years to produce. But since its publication last year, ``Punk Farm" has won a slew of awards and critical praise. Like all of Krosoczka's books, it features vivid characterizations: a neurotic hen who plays keyboards, a laid-back pig on lead guitar who was ``born ready."

The illustrations, painted deftly in layers of color, recall the styles of Krosoczka's two heroes: ``Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz and painter John Singer Sargent.

``The content [of his books] is so interestingly who he is," says Mark Lynch , a radio talk show host on WICN in Worcester who taught art at the Worcester Art Museum for several years and mentored Krosoczka. ``A slightly rebellious child in a loving family. Kids who are creative in their own ways."

``This group of farm animals plays . . . a kind of music that represents an attitude," adds Messick . ``Maybe they don't fit in. Maybe people make fun of them. But they still play the music they love."

Krosoczka dedicated his first book, ``Good Night, Monkey Boy," which Knopf, a division of Random House, published in 2001, to his grandparents. ``My Buddy, Slug," due out in September, is about a boy who hurts his vociferous best friend, a giant red slug. It will be dedicated to his mother.

``It's about forgiveness and redemption," Krosoczka says.

Krosoczka's astute attention to the tribulations of childhood, and his understanding of how kids think and what they like, come from a strong self-awareness of himself as a boy, and from summers working at the Hole in the Wall camp in Connecticut , where kids with cancer and HIV/AIDS can forget, for a while, that they're sick.

It's hard to imagine he's changed much over the years: He's boyish, bookish, soft-hearted but keen-headed. And nothing if not persistent.

``My Buddy, Slug" was conceived during his junior year at the Rhode Island School of Design in a children's book course called ``Word and Picture."

``I'd been told I'd get a few years of rejection letters, so I thought, `Why don't I start now?' " Krosoczka recalls. He sent ``Slug" out to a publishing house, and it was duly rejected. So he sent it to another, and another. Ultimately, the book received about 50 rejections.* Its upcoming publication will be particularly sweet.

He also took to sending postcards of his work to publishing-house art directors. In 1999, out of school and living in Somerville, he met children's book author Grace Lin . She told him to reach out to editors, not art directors.

``On a Monday in November, I took 60 cards and mailed them," he says. ``That Thursday, I received an e-mail from Random House. . . . The e-mail said, `I liked what I saw. If you happen to be in New York, I'd like to see your work.' "

He called the editor and told her he happened to be coming to New York the following week. He signed a contract with Random House for ``Goodnight, Monkey Boy," a book inspired by a redheaded scamp at the Hole in the Wall Camp.

Seven years later, Krosoczka has a huge pre teen following and spends several weeks a year on the road doing book tours and visiting elementary schools.

When he's not touring, he lives with roommates in a house in Dorchester that has been rented by several generations of Hole in the Wall camp counselors.

In his office upstairs, Krosoczka has every sketchbook he's ever used, dating to sixth grade. Pasted in one is a ticket to the John Singer Sargent show at the Museum of Fine Arts in 1999 -- ``I was visitor number 29 that day," he points out. In others are early, adolescent prototypes for the ``Punk Farm" pig.

Lynch isn't worried that the success of ``Punk Farm" will go to his former student's head.

``Jarrett and Hollywood," he says, laughing. ``He called me when he found out. . . . He was so excited, but he had no idea where his life would be going.

``He could lose soul," Lynch speculates. ``But if he does, he'll write a book: `Kenny Loses his Soul.' "

* It was actually 15 rejections, but it felt like 50!