Alumnus Q&A: Children’s author Dan ’90 and Jo Ann Kairys
Mother and son illustrator and author duo Jo Ann Kairys and Dan Kairys ’90 forged a successful career together creating the children’s books “Sunbelievable”and “I Want Cake!”. “Sunbelievable,” published in 2011, won five top national book awards for storytelling and illustration. “I Want Cake!”, published in 2016, won two. Known for their quirky storylines and unique digital-collage style illustrations, these stories have captured kids’ imaginations. The author, Dan Kairys, currently practices as a surgeon in Florida. His mother, Jo Ann Kairys, lives in New Jersey and illustrates the books.
Could you give us a quick introduction to these children’s books?
DK: The kids in these books are mostly two girls, typical kids from Miami, based on my own children. I don’t think there’s anything super unique about their experiences, even at the multicultural level. But the thing about the characteristics that seems more universal to me, and maybe more of what their books are about, is their connections as sisters — interpersonal connections in the middle of this multicultural environment.
You’re a surgeon, and your mother is a former faculty member at the Geisel School of Medicine — how did the idea of writing children’s books come about?
DK: The whole series has been a brainchild of my mother. I’ve written the stories, five so far. The language is very simple — she did all the real work.
JK: I was inspired by a story that Dan had written many, many years ago. It was called “Round,” a short story about children who started searching for an item, and as they searched, they traveled around the earth. The end of the story, they return to their starting place — hence, the title.
Could you give us some insight on how the illustrations were put together?
JK: The art style is one that I developed using Photoshop. I took photographs of the characters, and I blend them into backgrounds that are completely digital. It’s an interesting composite to see a real individual on a background that’s completely made up. That’s pretty much the arts style — it’s digital, it’s very unique, it uses photographs and combines them together.
What was the inspiration behind these unique types of storytelling and illustrations?
DK: Well the stories that I’ve written are simple stories — stories about my kids and my life. I grew up in Hanover, and I was never really exposed to different cultures and languages as a kid. My kids have a Haitian mother, and they live among Cubans, and they hear Creole and Spanish. The characters [in the stories] speak different languages, and the stories about their lives turn out to be very multicultural.
JK: [The illustrations] complement the whimsical nature of the stories. I’ve never had formal training [as an illustrator], so I had to learn about composition, lighting, shadows. As I got better and better I got more confident, and the book won awards for this style of illustrations — they’ve been called “magical,” “stunning” and “breakthrough.”
How long is the process of writing and illustrating one of these books?
JK: Because I was learning [Photoshop], the first book took me almost a year. I did the second book in a little less than two years, but when I got the proofs back, I started all over again because I had become technically better and more skillful. Dan’s stories were so good, I really felt that I had to match them.
How has working on this project influenced your relationship to each other?
DK: I was happy to be engaged and give her good stories to pursue this project. We wanted to stay close — she lives out in Jersey and I don’t see her that often. These stories based on [my children’s] lives, and were a way to get closer to them.
JK: Well, Dan — he’s always been an avid, avid reader. He has a natural ability to tell stories. As a parent, I watched that and think that it’s such a beautiful, wonderful quality of a person — [the quality of being] interested in the world. Overall, I think [this project] has really brought [Dan and I] together. When a parent and a child share something, and create something that uses native talents and abilities, which is what we each have done. It’s wonderful.
What are your interests beyond storytelling?
DK: I’m a surgeon in central Florida. I live in a primarily agricultural, labor town. It’s the best thing to be able to take care of people. People are generally very appreciative, thankful, kind. I have a great time; I just love it. In this town, I’m the only surgeon here. There are limitations to what I can do by myself, but I just take care of people, and it’s a great time.
What is the most rewarding and most challenging about publishing a children’s book?
DK: I’m just really happy that the books are like an album of the family. The pictures [used for the illustrations] were taken over a period of time. The most difficult has been sometimes been the editing and the particulars on the story, but it has worked out well.
How would you measure the success of these stories?
DK: I would say that they’re successful to me if they speak to me. If I can read it even after I’ve seen it a thousand times, if it still captures to me the connections [between the two characters], I can still see that it’s successful.
Any potential future projects?
DK: Well, don’t we all. If I ever have time, maybe. I think I would write about, now, stories about the families here that have been here forever, the migrant families.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.