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At 51, David Shannon stays in touch with his inner child

Los Angeles Times

There will be no peeking. No snitching. No playing with the Christmas ornaments.

There will be no opening presents early. No staying up late waiting for Santa. And definitely no peeing of one's name in the snow.

No, it isn't fair. That's just the way it is for a kid.

'Tis the season for temptation.

It's these off-limits holiday enticements that are the focal point of "It's Christmas, David!" (Blue Sky Press), the new picture book from Los Angeles-area author and illustrator David Shannon, who paints this festive time from a child's point of view, with an impish spirit and in full-color detail.

"Christmas is when you get in the most trouble and you get told 'no' the most. There's all this excitement that you have to be patient for," said Shannon, who, many years ago, was the David at the center of "It's Christmas, David!" and the other "David" books he's penned over the last dozen years on subjects as varied as potty training and getting ready for school.

Now 51, Shannon bears little resemblance to the pointy-toothed, pug-faced troublemaker at the center of his much-loved series, geared for preschoolers to those in early grades. About the only thing he has in common with the 5-year-old version of himself is a happy-go-lucky sensibility and a love for stories and drawing.

Shannon's "David" books were born from a stapled-together, eight-page book he drew at that age, which his mother kept and later showed him as an adult. Shannon now keeps that comic in a cardboard mailing envelope marked simply, "David orig. book," which he stores in the office of the Burbank home he shares with his wife Heidi and their 12-year-old daughter, Emma.

Inside this primitive tome of pen-and-ink drawings on recycled yellow paper are pictures of David being spanked with knives and standing on a chair reaching for a box of Cocoa Krispies. The only text is "no" and "David" — the only two words Shannon knew how to spell at the time, he said. The boy is drawn much like Shannon draws him today: in an art naive style with a round head and angled eyebrows.

Today's "David" books are just far more detailed. There's still just one sentence per page — usually a rebuke from a parent or teacher — but the paintings are bright and filled with gleeful chaos that hints of impending crisis. A Christmas tree that is about to fall over. A stool that's teetering on two legs. A snowball careening toward a window.

A dog that's taking it all in.

Fergus, the West Highland Terrier that makes a cameo in each "David" book, is also real. On a warm Monday afternoon at Shannon's country chic home, he was dozing on a dog bed just outside the kitchen where his master was indulging an interviewer's questions. A painting of Fergus with the words "I not hungry" hung on a nearby wall.

Born in Washington, D.C., and schooled at Pasadena's Art Center College of Design, Shannon got his start as an editorial illustrator, drawing "dark, concept-oriented" political pieces for news publications, such as the New York Times. It was only when one of those illustrations was spotted by an editor at Scholastic and Shannon was asked to illustrate a collection of children's folk tales that he moved into book publishing.

"The first few children's books I illustrated were fairly serious. They wouldn't be what you'd describe as funny books," Shannon said, noting that his style two decades ago was more realistic, less colorful and less playful than what he's known for today.

It wasn't until an editor asked Shannon to try writing a book himself and, in 1998, when his mother showed him his original David book, that "my books have gotten more toward humor and my palette has gotten brighter and my drawing has changed," he said.

His characters are " just so human," said Maureen Palacios, owner of Once Upon a Time bookstore in Montrose, where "It's Christmas, David!" is currently her bestselling holiday title. "His pictures and his situations are just true to life. David is a naughty little boy, but the mother or the father figure at the end loves him unconditionally even though their hair is probably gray from all his little adventures. Parents and kids alike really enjoy his humor because it's so universal."

Considering Shannon "sort of started doing children's books by accident," he said, it's been quite a lucky venture. The first book he illustrated and also wrote, "How Georgie Radbourn Saved Baseball," was named a best illustrated children's book of 1994 by the New York Times Book Review. "No, David!," the first in his "David" series, published in 1998, was a Caldecott Honor winner and a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year. Collectively, Shannon has more than 17 million books in print.

With "It's Christmas, David!," Shannon parallels the experience of his young protagonist.

"Where David is, somewhere around 5, is when Christmas is gigantic," he said. "It's the biggest 'yes' of the year when it finally comes. That's the other side of being told no: The 'yes' that comes after it."

susan.carpenter@latimes.com

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