Marc Remus is an award-winning children’s book author, illustrator, and painter. His work has been featured on TV, the radio, and in many newspapers. He is the author of eight young adult and middle grade fantasy books that won 18 book awards and have been translated into many languages. His latest work, The Chocolate Clouds, won the gold medal for the 9-12 age group at the 2021 Wishing Shelf Book Awards. Find him online at www.marcremus.com.
Could you give us a short overview of The Chocolate Clouds?
The Chocolate Clouds is a whimsical story for children ages 7-14, teaching them the value of a healthy lifestyle without preaching. Packed into an action-driven story with 150 illustrations, created by myself over two years, the plot follows the main character Henry and his cat Tiger.
They live in Sugarland where everybody is overweight, because there’s no food other than sweets. For decades, delicious Chocolate Clouds soared above Choco-Locoville, the hometown of ten-year-old Henry. They would melt in the intense summer sun and chocolate would drip from the sky. Henry’s family collected the drops and made a fortune, building a candy empire that controlled Sugarland’s food supply.
One morning, Henry wakes up to the shocking news that the Chocolate Clouds have disappeared. With the family’s empire in jeopardy and Sugarland at risk of starvation, Henry now ventures beyond the scary Monster Mountains and embarks on a wild journey.
Along the way, he befriends magical creatures, learns about healthy food choices, and discovers that the Chocolate Clouds didn’t just disappear but were actually stolen. Now he must visit the creepy Barebone Island, where monsters are said to live…
What motivated you to write it?
Wrong diet, bad nutrition, and obesity have become widespread problems in the world. These issues start at a very early age and continue into adult life. Many people never solve their health problems later in life. Therefore, I believe it’s important to teach children from the very beginning the difference between healthy and unhealthy eating habits.
Having been surrounded by family and friends with weight problems, I always wanted to write a story that teaches kids the value of a healthy diet and exercise without preaching to them and telling them what to do.
The final push to write this story came from my friend Sandy in Cincinnati, Ohio. She was already overweight when we met as teenagers. After high school, we lost contact, but with the impact of the digital age, we were able to reconnect years later. I was shocked by what had happened to her. She had gained so much weight after high school that she had not been able to walk for years or keep a job. She reached a point that the doctors told her she would not live much longer. This changed her entire mindset, and she adjusted her diet. Years later, she had lost so much weight that she could walk again and start a job.
After that, we talked frequently about the dangers of kids overeating and consuming unhealthy food. Sandy was excited to see how The Chocolate Clouds developed into a completed book. She couldn’t wait to hold it in her hands. Unfortunately, five months before it was published, she passed away from cancer. It shook my world, and I will miss her terribly.
Sandy always wished her children would not make the same mistake she made. With this book I hope her children and all the kids in the world will learn something from The Chocolate Clouds.
Tell us a little about Sugarland and the world around it. What do you think is important when choosing a setting?
The book takes place in the world of Foodtopia. There are four kingdoms in this land: Veggington, Fruitopolis, Barebone Island, and Sugarland. As the names suggest, each kingdom grows certain types of food. Veggington focuses on vegetables, Fruitopolis on fruits, Barebone Island on dairy products and meat, and Sugarland on sweets. The kingdoms were isolated from each other for many years after a war had separated them initially.
Since the separation, each place has lived on only one type of food. Therefore, people in Sugarland have nothing else to eat but sweets today. This results in an overweight population which is unable to make changes, until Henry discovers the other kingdoms.
The setting for a fantasy story is very important. If world-building is not working, the entire story falls apart. The setting needs to be plausible within its own logic. Even though chocolate clouds seem to be unrealistic in our world, they make sense in a world like Foodtopia. However, to make it sound plausible, you have to build up a world around them that explains why they exist. Only then will the reader believe it.
The book is beautifully illustrated—all your own work. How do you see the role of illustrations in children’s literature?
Illustrations in children’s literature have become more important over time, especially for older kids. The picture book field has always heavily relied on illustrations, mainly because kids between the ages of one and five can’t read.
Middle grade and young adult books are a very different story. It used to be uncommon to illustrate these types of books because they were geared toward an audience that is able to read. Pictures were considered unnecessary and were often viewed as “childish.” Some middle grade children and most young adults didn’t want to be considered as such. This is one of the reasons why young adult books still don’t have illustrations.
However, over time, cartoons made it into the adult world and with them the appreciation of illustrations grew. Today, even adults enjoy reading illustrated books. Still, we don’t see as many illustrations in children’s books for ages 8 and up. I believe that this is due to the fact that illustrations cost a lot. Publishers, and even fewer self-publishers, can’t afford to pay thousands to have a book fully illustrated.
The Chocolate Clouds has about 150 drawings from tiny icons to double-page spreads. If I wasn’t a painter/illustrator by profession, I would never have been able to afford such a project. This book was only possible because it was a love project, but it will probably never be a profitable product, considering how many years I have put into it.
Nevertheless, illustrations make a story come alive. They can complement the story and allow the writer to leave out some of the descriptions that would need to be included in a book without illustrations.
How has your background influenced your writing? To what extent does your own life influence your writing?
Having grown up close to the town where the Brothers Grimm were born, I was always surrounded by fairy tales and fantasy stories. As a kid I used to create fantasy creatures out of papier mâché and build little houses from cardboard. Later, when I had learned how to draw well, I created new fantasy worlds on paper.
My family travelled a lot when I was a child, and I believe this helped me gather many different impressions from all over the world. This way, I’m able to draw ideas from more sources than other writers can. Up to this day, I’m still benefiting from my travels. When I create a new place for a fantasy story, I mix the images in my mind from over one thousand cities on six continents that I have visited. This way, I can come up with a new world easily.
Can you take us through the process of writing a book? What do you do first?
My writing process is very structured. First, I come up with an idea. Very often it’s just one sentence or a book title. From that, I start building a story in my mind. Once the beginning, middle, and the end are clear, I start writing a detailed outline. This outline grows over time as I keep adding details. When the outline is completed, I usually have written up to 50 pages. Then, I start writing the story. This goes very fast as I don’t have to think about the overall plot anymore. It’s more about the details then.
After that, I’m just doing “decorations,” as I call it. This means I have to edit my rough draft. This step is now about picking the right length of sentences, choosing the appropriate words and language, and making sure I’m using a vocabulary that kids understand and enjoy.
Once the manuscript is completed, it goes to my editor and on to the copyeditor. Then, I start the illustrations.
What is the most challenging part of writing a book?
Each step in creating a book has its challenges. Coming up with an idea, creating a plot, and writing a storyline, is something that every author does, and this is what we do. There are challenges and ups and downs along the way, but it is an enjoyable process.
However, these challenges don’t compare to what follows. What I find most difficult is everything that a self-published author needs to do on top of writing the book. Most traditionally published authors never encounter these challenges and have no clue how much publishers are doing to get the final book on the shelves.
I do everything myself, including writing the book, finding the best editors, designing the graphics for the cover, doing the layout for the paperback, hardcover and ebook, proofreading the entire layout, creating front- and back matter, and completing the final publication. I even design the foreign language versions of the books, do the marketing and sales. All this should be the job of a publishing house with many employees, and this is why I find this the greatest challenge because it is on top of what an author usually does.
Where do the illustrations fit into the process? Does the process of writing the book give you ideas for images, or vice versa?
The illustrations should support the story and not vice versa. That’s why the illustrations always come after the story. The manuscript has to be completed and edited before starting the illustrations. You can’t adjust the text to the illustrations just because you suddenly want to draw something that was not mentioned in the story. It would mess up the entire plot and you would have to edit the whole manuscript again. Therefore, I always make sure the story is clean and ready for publication.
However, when I write the story, I have images in my mind. So I write what I see in my head. Therefore, it’s not so difficult for me to illustrate the book afterward, because while writing the story I see the images already.
What other books and authors have inspired you?
I really enjoy the creativity of Roald Dahl. I think he had a very creative mind, and I find his work inspiring. I also enjoy old fairy tales, and I love Alice in Wonderland.
Which of your books are you most proud of?
I think that most authors are proud of their current work because every writer grows over time. As for me, I’m proud of each book I’ve written for a different reason: The Chocolate Clouds is my first fully illustrated middle-grade book. The Language Thieves was my first young adult book. Magora – The Gallery of Wonders and the five follow-up books in the series Magora were not only my debut, but I also won 15 book awards with this series.