Like most children, James Horvath’s sons went through a certain phase.
“When they were younger, they were construction crazy,” the Morro Bay author and illustrator recalled. “You couldn’t drive by a job site without having to pull over and hang on the fence and watch the big diggers dig.”
After reading countless picture books about bulldozers, backhoes and forklifts, Horvath decided to write one of his own. His book “Dig, Dogs, Dig: A Construction Tail,” about canine construction workers, was published April 30 by Harper Collins Children’s Imprint.
Horvath, who moved to the Central Coast in 2007, traces his love of art to his childhood in South Amherst, Ohio.
“Growing up, I always really enjoyed art and illustration but I really didn’t have a clue what to do with that interest,” said Horvath, a self-described comic-book junkie with a love of Saturday morning cartoons.
Following high school graduation, he said, he “loaded up everything I had into a little Datsun and drove across the country to California,” where he spent four years working in the construction industry before joining the U.S. Navy. A three-year nursing stint at a naval hospital in Bethesda, Md., led to other jobs, including a gig as a bicycle messenger in Washington, D.C.
“It wasn’t until I was exposed to computers and the rapidly developing field of commercial digital art that I saw the possibility of a career in art,” recalled Horvath, who encountered his first Apple computer around 1990 as a student at Northern Virginia Community College in Sterling, Va. “That lit a fire under me.”
Over the years, Horvath has worked as a graphic designer and illustrator for dozens of companies including Google, Nestlé, Reader’s Digest, Sprint, Tyco and Toshiba International. His fun, colorful illustrations have graced advertisements, book covers and children’s games.
Still, despite his success as the head of Jamestoons Studios, Horvath still dreamed of writing and illustrating his own children’s book. He estimates that he’s written — and shelved — half a dozen stories since 1994.
“It took me 20 years to write something I actually liked,” he joked.
Once the author settled on the idea for “Dig, Dogs, Dig,” however, “The thing practically wrote itself,” Horvath said. “There was something that felt right about it. The story worked. The characters were good.”
“Dig, Dogs, Dig” follows top dog Duke and his fellow pooches as they build a new park. But what happens when these industrious dogs find something buried in the ground?
Horvath said he wrote the 40-page book, intended for ages 4 to 8, from a dad’s perspective.
“I had this great image of fathers sitting down with their kids” and reading to them, he said, so he tried to include details that parents can point out to their children. For instance, hidden on every page, there’s a little black-and-white cat named Jinx.
“As a designer, you learn the art of visual language,” explained Horvath, whose visual influences include Josh “Shag” Agle, Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel and Hanna-Barbera Productions, the animation house behind “The Flintstones,” “The Jetsons” and “The Yogi Bear Show.” “That’s really what illustration is all about.”
He found a publisher for “Dig, Dogs, Dig” almost immediately — while attending the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators summer conference in Los Angeles in August 2011. Four days later after he sent out a draft version, Horvath got a call from HarperCollins.
“It was a ridiculous shot in the dark, (but) I guess I’m the exception that proves the rule,” said the author, who’s been asked to write two other picture books for HarperCollins. “Build, Dogs, Build: A Tall Tail” and “Work, Dogs, Work: A Long Tail” will be released about nine months apart.
Horvath said he’s excited about writing more books for younger readers. Possible subjects include a monkey with a banjo and the friendship between a frog and a fly.
“I’m finally moving away from doing work for other people to working for myself,” he said. “With the books that I’m doing now, I’m the client. I’m the director.”