Wade Bradford creates new worlds.
An English professor at Moorpark College by day, Bradford moonlights as a playwright and childrens’ book author with more than 35 published plays and five books to his name.
Bradford always loved writing and, in his teens and early 20s, tried his hand at writing and selling screenplays. He was introduced to writing stage plays when a friend introduced him to a theater company that was looking for material for children to perform.
“It was so much fun and when you write something that is to be performed, you see an immediate reaction from the audience, so if you’ve written a comedy and they’re laughing and clapping at the end of each scene, you know you’ve done a good job,” Bradford said. “That was really the start of me writing plays and writing primarily for children. I tried writing epic novels and grown up kind of stuff, but the older I got the more affinity I had for children’s literature. Even though I read Stephen King and Shakesepare, some of my favorite reading experiences have been children’s literature and I’m hoping to return that favor and connect with readers aged four to 14 and spread that same kind of joy.”
In 2007, Bradford attended a writers’ conference looking for inspiration. He knew he wanted to branch out and expand beyond writing plays and though he had some rough drafts for novels, he was unsure what genre to pursue. After attending workshops and speaking with other professional writers, Bradford felt drawn to picture books and decided to try his hand at that.
Bradford wrote several books before he was published. An editor at a book conference which Bradford read at liked what she heard. The editor invited Bradford to send her samples of his work and eventually his first book, “Why Do I Have to Make My Bed?”, was published in 2011.
Bradford said that a common theme that runs through his books and plays, from his early work to his current projects, is a celebration of imagination and playfulness. A lot of his children’s fiction is inspired by the simplicity of books like Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.”
“One distinct thing that’s happened with the last couple of books is that even though they’re children’s books, there’s a grown up character that needs to let go and embrace silliness a little bit,” he said. “I grew up watching ‘The Muppets’ and ‘Sesame Street’ and I was always fond of characters like Grover who would drive the grown-ups crazy, so I like that message that you don’t have to take things so seriously and you can enjoy life.”
In May, Bradford was nominated for the Arkansas Diamond Primary Book Award for his children’s book “There’s a Dinosaur on the 13th Floor,” which follows musician Mr. Snore as he attempts to find a quiet room to sleep in at the unusual Sharemore Hotel. The award, which was established in 1998, is given to books nominated by a committee of teachers and librarians, and voted on by students from kindergarten to third grade who have read at least three of the nominated works.
The Arkansas news station THV 11 contacted Bradford to speak to him about his nomination. Bradford was expecting the interview to be a routine question and answer session that the station was going to do with all the finalists, but he was surprised to learn that his book was chosen as the winner.
“The video is a lot of me repeating ‘oh, wow’ for a minute because I was genuinely surprised and delighted that the children chose my book,” he said. “It’s an award that I’m really grateful for because as nice as it is to be awarded by critics and grown-ups, that’s not who you’re writing for. It’s a wonderful affirmation.”
Bradford credits much of the win and the book’s success to the illustrator, Kevin Hawkes. As is common in the publishing industry, Bradford and Hawkes did not know each other before working on “Dinosaur” and were paired by an editor. Rather than having one consistent style, Hawkes said that his approach to illustration is very story-based, where he determines the art style of the book depending on the material he is given.
Hawkes, who has illustrated approximately 60 books, said that when he first read the story, he loved how the story moved from floor to floor of the hotel and with each turn of the page, readers discovered what surprises were to come as Mr. Snore ascended the hotel.
“Wade wrote ‘There’s A Dinosaur on the 13th Floor’ in a very dramatic and beautiful way and to me it needed this style of a clean, flatter color with the focus on the characters and their movement through this amazing hotel,” Hawkes said. “I wanted to keep those colors flatter and simpler because in a setting like that lots of colors can be distracting with wallpaper and carpeting and extravagant hotel scenes. I really wanted to keep these wonderful characters he created to be the priority.”
While Bradford created the world, story and characters of the book, Hawkes had a lot of creative freedom as well. For example, Mr. Snore’s occupation as a professional musician was not included in Bradford’s manuscript, but was invented by Hawkes when he drew the main character with a violin case.
Hawkes and Bradford also collaborated on the sequel book “There’s a Dodo on the Wedding Cake,” which is set to be released in September, in which Hawkes’ addition of the violin plays a larger part in the story.
“I was hoping he would write another book with Mr. Snore in it and I learned a lot more about the character and I was able to show him in a different light,” Hawkes said. “Wade is a playwright and I think he thinks about it like a stage with story, characters and movement. What I like about him is he focuses on the characters, you know who the main characters are and they interact well with everyone else.”
While his focus mainly lies with the creating content for children, Bradford also creates more adult content for community theater. Some of this work has been in collaboration with actor and writer Christopher Flowers.
The two met while acting in a production of Patrick Barlow’s play adaptation of “The 39 Steps” at the Canyon Theater Guild in 2014 and also appeared together in “Bullshot Crummond” in 2016. They worked well together and became friends, and at the suggestion of the director of both of those plays, Bradford and Flowers created the Big Sandwich Theater Company, so named because their content is, according to Flowers, “full of hammy actors and lots of cheese served up on a plate.”
Though Bradford had previously collaborated with others, his partnership with Flowers is the first that has led to a published and produced play. Their first production, “Change the Station” was performed at The MAIN in 2016, and after that success Bradford and Flowers challenged themselves to write five total plays together. Their second play “All Inclusive” was performed in 2019. The duo completed another play, “Sugar and Spies,” during quarantine and are currently writing another with the working title of “Monk Business.”
“We found a real lack of full-length comedic plays so that’s where our focus is,” Flowers said. “We’re losing that area of theater because people want to see the musicals and big production stuff. I’d love to create an anthology of our plays and two is not enough while 10 is a lot, and five was doable.”
Bradford described his partner’s writing style as more “sophisticated” and “grounded in realism,” while Flowers said he’s relied upon Bradford’s vivid imagination. If, as Bradford put it, he is the one providing the clay, Flowers is the one who sculpts it into a recognizable piece of art.
“Wade’s writing has a big flashy sense of wonder and imagination, and my stuff is more soft and witty,” Flowers said. “Wade’s ideas are unique and he has a way of thinking of things that would not normally fit in a given situation, blending the imaginary with reality, and then makes me figure out how to do it. [Our partnership] has caused me to take a lot more risks in writing with things that I would never have considered because I didn’t think about things the way he does. What makes our work special is writing adult plays like you would study in a history of theater course, but putting a children’s book spin on them.”
In addition to preventing any of his new plays from being produced, quarantine has also changed the way Bradford approaches his work. He branched out and tried his hand at other mediums like chapter books and graphic novels and even experimented with creating card games, but he doesn’t know whether he will publish the games he created.
“Normally if I hit page 90 I will push through to the end, I don’t care if it sucks,” Bradford said. “I’ve been moving away from my usual mediums and I tried to write a middle grade novel. I got to page 90 and I wasn’t happy with it, so I said I’m going to stop and give myself permission to work on the things I want to work on. I don’t know if that will lead to anything but it’s been fun being a beginner.”
While some literary snobs may pooh-pooh the merits of picture books, Bradford sees them as a unique form of creative expression. As he understood it, many older readers feel that illustrations “take away the ability to act as an imaginary director” and form their own interpretation of characters and settings, but doesn’t feel that makes them any less valuable reading material.
“When you’re learning to read, it can be frustrating and intimidating to have these words in front of you that you can’t quite make sense of,” Bradford said. “At the same time most young readers have no problem looking at an image of a cat in a hat doing silly things, and even before they read any of Dr. Seuss’ words they know exactly what is going on. For younger readers, the picture book is the doorway to understanding. Older readers still love the combination of the visual and the literary.”
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