new children’s book

Everyone’s talented in something, right? But how come some people are so much more talented than others?

Like Mt. Lebanon’s Stacy Innerst, who is a super artist, illustrator, author, musician and father of three.

If you’re a longtime Pittsburgher, you’ll know Innerst’s work from the Pittsburgh Press and later the Post-Gazette, where he continues to freelance. He has illustrated many full-length features such as Bill Steigerwald’s recent Travels

Above: Chloe Griffin gerts some advice from artist Stacey Innerst at Mt. Lebanon Library’s denim painting party. Innerst collaborated with author Tony Johnston on the children’s book Levi Strauss Gets a Bright Idea.

Without Charlie, which deconstructed John Steinbeck’s tale of a low-budget back roads tour of America, and Mackenzie Carpenter’s 2010 report on a University of Pittsburgh study on how to deal with grief.

But Innerst’s most popular regular PG offering may be the Sunday “Caption Contest,” where readers are challenged to come up with a caption for one of his zany illustrations. There are first, second and third place winners; Innerst serves as one of the judges. He says he has no specific caption in mind when he draws the whimsical cartoons: “It’s basically stream of consciousness.”

Despite the levity Innerst delivers along with our Sunday morning coffee, he is a serious (and award-winning) artist and writer. Born in California, he grew up in what he describes as an “an extremely serious, intellectual, philosophical family with a sense of humor. His father was a writer, his mother an English teacher. His twin brother is a theologian;  another brother is a poet, and his sister is an artist.

Educated at the University of New Mexico in art and art history, he considers himself to be “a fine arts painter doing illustration.” Over the past decade he has specialized in illustrating children’s books: M is for Music, The Worm Family, Lincoln Tells a Joke, and, most recently, Levi Strauss Gets a Bright Idea, released in September by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Why children’s books? “I always read to my own kids every night,” Innerst recalls. “But I was hypercritical of the books. I thought, ‘I could have done that, definitely.’ And newspapers are transitory. I wanted to do something that would last.”

So he took a chance while visiting his grandmother in San Diego and showed his portfolio to editor Jeannette Larson at Harcourt. Larson liked his work and has guided him wisely ever since, along with his children, Stuart, 24; Olivia, 21; and Jake, 16, a junior at Mt. Lebanon High School.

Levi Strauss Gets a Bright Idea, is a historical picture book for young readers about how Levi Strauss kept the gold miners clothed. Written by Tony Johnston, the picture book is “a fairly fabricated story of a pair of pants,” according to its subtitle. It was a Junior Literary Guild Selection and a Publishers Weekly “Best Book 2011.”

Innerst himself was wearing a comfy pair of Levis when interviewed. Though he sometimes works in digital art, he prefers to actually draw or paint, particularly for his children’s books. Levi jeans, with their indigo denim and gold stitching, inspired the primary colors for the paintings that appear in the book’s approximately 20 illustrations.

While conceptualizing how to bring Levi Strauss to life, Innerst got a bright idea of his own. Why not actually do the acrylic paintings on denim? His editor liked the idea, which proved effective but challenging. “It is hard to paint on denim because it is so absorbent and rough,” Innerst explains.

Some children found this out on their own at a Mt. Lebanon Library workshop Innerst conducted in February. The children listened to the book, then painted their own impressions of Levi Strauss and the miners who embraced denim pants. Innerst has done several similar events in cooperation with the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum.

Oh, and about those other talents. Innerst, of Lakemont Drive, is a drummer who plays in several bands including Grievous Angels (alternative country), Tumblers (all original music), The Crop Dusters (a cover band) and occasionally Mon Gumbo (Zydeco). He probably also excels at cooking and ballroom dancing, rides bareback and could beat you at poker. But we ran out of time.

Maybe Innerst will chronicle one of his other talents, when he finishes the project he’s currently working on—illustrating a biography for young readers of The Beatles’ younger years, authored by his frequent writing partner Kathleen Krull. It should be released in spring 2013.

Innerst’s books are available at Mt. Lebanon Public Library—that’s where he got all those books he read to his kids. They’re also available at bookstores and online.