Behind the Scenes with Zonk’s Creator
OAKLAND MAGAZINE – MAY 2008
Man is nothing if not a dreamer. And “Zonk” is nothing if not a dreaming tortoise. The popular children’s book Zonk the Dreaming Tortoise is the creation of Oakland artist David Hoobler, who seems rather like a turtle himself, at times.
Somewhat shy, with a slightly tentative smile and an unpretentious nature, Hoobler shares a studio apartment with his cat and his colorful imagination. His drawing boards are the focal point of his living room, framing an old steam heater that Hoobler admits makes the room too hot.
Hot like the Sonoran Desert—a region with two rainy seasons that provides the inspiration for Hoobler’s character, Zonk. “In 1996 I was living in Arizona and taking a writing course,” he recalls, “and was given five minutes to come up with a story about a funny little character with a funny name.” Putting pen to paper, he created a desert tortoise who liked water so much that he longed to be a sea turtle. A classmate looked at the piece and said, “That would make a great kid’s book.”
Hoobler launched into action, dusting off his set of barely used, dried-up watercolors (every aspiring painter has one). “They were so solid in the tube, I had to cut them out and put them in a dish,” he laughs. With an art degree from Sonoma State University and a talent he says was passed down from the women in his family, Hoobler created his first image of Zonk the Dreaming Tortoise.
Two books and dozens of paintings later, Hoobler is one of the few artists who actually makes a living off his trade. It takes as much marketing savvy as creativity, something which many artists find difficult. And forget sitting back while the big book stores sell your stuff. “It’s not a system for small publishers,” says Hoobler, who calls chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders too much work. “They want two or three books, and a lot of times they want to keep them on consignment, and then you have to track them down.”
As an author and artist, Hoobler prefers to sell his own products on Amazon and through his own Web site, www.zonktheturtle.com. His online store sells not only paintings and books, but also colorful T-shirts and turtle pajamas. He also works the circuit of art fairs and festivals and even school assemblies.
As the years go by and the artist’s life becomes more entwined with that of his characters, friends have noticed some changes in Hoobler. One day, someone even mentioned how much he’d become like Zonk the Dreaming Tortoise. Or had Zonk become more like him? Either way, they were sharing some similar traits.
“Zonk reflects a lot of my own personality,” Hoobler admits. “I’m very much a fantasizer, and I have a hero complex. I want to do things that are impossible.” At the same time, Hoobler gets really embarrassed when friends make fun of him, not unlike Zonk, who hides when he’s feeling humiliated. If it sounds familiar, it may be because this scenario has played out before—in the life of cartoonist Charles Schulz and his sad-sack character, Charlie Brown.
If only Hoobler’s tortoise and sea characters would catch on like the Peanuts gang. Hoobler holds out hope as he works on his book distribution in Baja, a promising market and a place often mentioned in Zonk’s travels. In fact, it’s here on the Baja peninsula that Zonk and his friends are frolicking in the secret lagoon when they encounter resistance from “locals.” With the aid of some bats and a friendly thermal vent, they flee the lagoon on the back of a manta ray. It’s the final adventure in Zonk’s first trilogy, and Hoobler hopes to have it done by this summer. “I go to Baja to draw, paint and get inspiration for my book, and then I come home and write.” Once the story and illustrations are finished, he has the books printed in Singapore.
“It’s 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration,” says Hoobler, quoting Thomas Edison as he opens the window to cool down a building that once served as a traveler’s inn in Oakland. The place is temperamental but has character. Hoobler feels it fits him.
Living life simply, but with richness and adventure, Hoobler is grateful. “I’m almost making a living with my art,” he says, “which is quite an accomplishment. I’m not quite the starving artist.”