The Pumphrey Brothers on THE OLD TRUCK, Indie Bookstores, and What’s Next
Each fall before the holiday season, we spend a lot of time as a staff talking about our very favorite books of the year—the can’t-miss future classics that we know will make for a perfect gift. Sometimes it can be tough to remember all the books that came out over the calendar year. But sometimes, we’ll read something in January or February and just know it will come up in those year-end conversations. That’s what happened with a debut picture book called The Old Truck, by Texas-born brothers Jarrett and Jerome Pumphrey. It came out on January 7, and we haven’t stopped loving it since. It’s a beautiful story about perseverance and the passage of time, with striking retro design and unique, stamped illustrations. If you haven’t already read it, we highly recommend picking it up.
Check out our exclusive Q&A with the Pumphrey brothers below, then circle August 4 on your calendar. That’s the day when Jarrett and Jerome are helping us close out our Camp Blue Willow summer author series on Facebook Live! They’ll read The Old Truck and share a fun activity with viewers. We hope you’ll tune in!
First of all, we love The Old Truck and its wonderful message. What made you choose a truck as your symbol of perseverance?
Jarrett: Thanks so much! Well, one—and maybe it’s just the Texas in us—we love trucks. Old trucks, especially. (Who doesn’t love an old truck?) And two: there’s just something about them—the roads they’ve traveled, the loads they’ve hauled, the family they’ve carried from generation to generation. It all speaks well to enduring the relentless passage of time. The lifetime of an old truck can equal several lifetimes of the people around it. They can persevere through life and death. If cared for, they can last forever and work as hard as they ever did. We think that’s a pretty great symbol of perseverance.
The truck is a reliable constant on the farm. Is there anything in your lives that has played the role of the truck?
Jarrett: The closest thing I’ve experienced to that in my life was this old koala cookie jar I used to have. It was originally my mom’s. She got it back in the ’80s (though it looked like it came from the ’70s). It was cute in an ugly sort of way. For some reason, she kept it long past when it would have been fashionable (if it ever was). Then for some other reason, I took it when I moved out. I moved around a lot and always made sure that koala was packed snug with me. When I moved in with my wife, it was one of the first things I unpacked to proudly display on our kitchen counter. My wife didn’t much care for it. I think she thought it looked at her funny. It probably did. It looked at a lot of things funny: my parents starting a family; me and my brothers sneaking the best oatmeal cookies ever; my mom making her world-famous gumbo every year; me moving to LA just long enough to know there’s no other place but Texas for me; me moving back to Texas; me starting my own family. Sadly, when we moved from Houston to Austin, the koala somehow didn’t make the trip. I would never blame my wife, of course, so instead I’ll blame the movers. I just hope it found its way to someone else’s kitchen where it can watch over them like it watched over me.
Jerome: One thing that comes to mind (and I actually thought of this when we were working out the story) is our childhood home in Missouri City, TX. My parents had it for over 35 years. Just as the young girl in our book explores seas, skies and space with the truck, we visited many imaginary worlds in and around the house growing up. As my brothers and I grew older, we all moved away, but returning to the house for holidays would bring back memories and evoke emotions similar to what our main character felt regarding the truck. Our dad sold the house a little while ago, but I was able to take a lot of the furniture and now it’s in my house and my kids are making memories with it.
You’ve mentioned that you grew up with strong women as some of your role models. Can you share a little more about that? Did any of their qualities inspire your main character?
Jarrett: There was this thread of grit and perseverance that ran back through generations of the women in our family. We only got to meet the women as far back as our great-grandmothers, but word is it ran back way farther than that. One of our great-grandmothers on our mom’s side could have passed for white, but proud as she was, she’d walk clear across town—past numerous white-only facilities—to use the colored ones. Another great-grandmother saved up the money she earned picking cotton so she could buy her own farm in Louisiana. Both our grandmothers worked at the US Post Office in the segregated South. They faced and overcame racial and gender discrimination. And then there’s our mom. She was determined to have a large family and a career. She got the four boys she’d always wanted and, working with our dad, built one of the most successful cosmetic dental practices in the country. We were raised by these incredible women to firmly believe that if you dream big, work hard, and persist through the challenges, nearly anything is possible. We hope our main character represents that spirit.
You designed more than 250 stamps for this book. Can you share a little bit about your artistic process and collaboration? Also, do you still have all the stamps?
Jerome: On every book project, it starts with story. We work together to get the story just right, understanding that some parts will be told with words and others with pictures. Once we have that nailed down, we more precisely work out what will be in each picture, being very thoughtful as to the visual storytelling we have in mind. As we’re doing this, we each give input or share ideas, looking for opportunities to enrich the story until we’re satisfied with it. The product of that work is a pretty polished dummy book that we’ll be able to use as the basis for final artwork.
When it’s time for final artwork, we use a mix of traditional and digital media. We start by taking the sketches from the dummy book and breaking them down to make individual stamps. The cool part of this is that we’ve got two sets of hands so we can both make stamps or split up the tasks to make a pretty tedious process more efficient. Once we have prints from the stamps, we scan them into a computer, composite them together, and add color.
Jarrett: And we keep all the stamps we make. Actually, we just upgraded our storage system from cardboard boxes to fancy flat files.
We know you've been making things together for a long time. Do you still have any of your childhood collaborations?
Jarrett: We do. One of our earliest collabs was a superhero we created named Wonder Willis. He had a flat top, wore shades and lots of purple and gold, and he hailed from planet Woopton. I wrote the stories and Jerome drew the pictures. I still have pages and pages of stories I’d written out in the tiniest longhand you can imagine—I guess I was trying to save paper?—but unfortunately, Jerome’s drawings didn’t make it.
Jerome: I do still have our earliest attempts at picture books, though. They’re all pretty cringy and won’t ever see the light of day. Just picture the sort of stories a couple of ’90s teenagers would think up and you’ll understand why.
We’re so excited for The Old Boat! Can you share a little about what’s next for you?
Jerome: Thank you! We’re excited about The Old Boat too. We’re currently working on the final art for our third picture book with Norton. All we can say for now is that it’s set in a bayou, and it’s not about an old vehicle. It’s something different, and we’re equally excited about it.
You were both very early supporters of the #SaveIndieBookstores movement. Thank you for that! Can you talk a bit about what bookstores mean to you?
Jarrett: I used to run a business that served other businesses directly and their customers indirectly. Without the support of the businesses we served, we couldn’t reach the communities we ultimately wanted to impact. It was challenging. Our success depended largely on the success of businesses we didn’t control. We eventually figured out that the best way to approach it was to just help them succeed, even if it meant them not using our products with every one of their customers. A successful partner could share its success down the road, but a failing one never would.
As an author, I see it the same way with independent bookstores. Successful local bookstores help foster and build their communities, they share great books and spread the joy of reading with the people I want to reach, people who appreciate and value good books. These bookstores may not be sharing my books now, but if they fail, they won’t be able to share them later. Wow—that sounds super self-serving. I don’t mean for it to. What I mean is that I see the relationship between author and bookstore as a symbiotic one. If independent bookstores win, we authors win. Especially us new authors. Who’s gonna handpick our books to give to readers who didn’t even know they were looking for them? Who’s gonna help them look past the top-10 books everyone always buys? It won’t be an algorithm. It’ll be a real person. An indie bookseller.
And there’s another side to this for me. I’m not just an author—I’m also a reader. I’m a part of the communities being served by the bookstores I love. I get the great book recommendations. I get the great conversations and the shared and varied perspectives. I get enlightenment and community for myself and my family. That’s why I buy all my books from indie bookstores and why I’ll support them however I can, both as an author and a reader.
Jerome: Jarrett really captured my sentiment on it. The experience you get from shopping at independent bookstores is very special.
A young girl turns her imagination into action in this beautifully crafted and intricately designed debut picture book.
When is an old truck something more? On a small, bustling farm, a resilient and steadfast pickup works tirelessly alongside the family that lives there, and becomes a part of the dreams and ambitions of the family’s young daughter.
A Washington Post Best Children's Book of 2021
A New York Public Library Best Book of 2021
The creators of The Old Truck set sail with an old boat and an evocative, intricately crafted exploration of home and family.
Off a small island,
an old boat sets sail
and a young boy