Wertz lives in Haddon Hill with his husband, but his mother worked at the Kaiser Center downtown, which made Oakland "a gentle introduction to big-city living," he said.
“I was really inspired by M. Sasek,” said Wertz, a reference to Czech author and illustrator Miroslav Sasek, whose "This Is" series introduced children to cities and countries in a bold, flat color style. While Sasek illustrated a book for San Francisco, he never got around to Oakland.
“I just thought it would be really good to riff on that, starting out with my hometown,” said Wertz. “Well, this is not my hometown exactly,” he said, catching himself. “But I still kind of feel that Oakland is an unsung gem of the Bay Area. It’s becoming discovered, but there’s a lot to still discover.”
While reading the book aloud at East Oakland’s Acorn Woodland Elementary, Wertz was delighted that readers recognized and rediscovered their city within his pages.
“Illustrations can be windows,” said Wertz, “or portals. They transport you. And that’s my hope for ABC Oakland.”
Writing the book was a process of discovery, said Wertz, because he wanted to be faithful to the city's history.
For "O is for Ohlone," he and his editor reached out to members of the Ohlone community to get their input. “We didn’t want to just throw it in there,” he said. “We wanted to get it correct.”
“The only challenge was that we couldn’t include all the pieces,” said Wertz. Chapel of the Chimes is just one landmark Wertz admires but was forced to leave out. “That kind of thing you can’t tell a little kid to go do,” he said. “There’s just no good way to talk to kids about ashes.”
While Wertz’s style of stencil and screen-printed design is similar to Sasek’s, it also owes a lot to 1960s music culture. “I grew up on Peter Max,” said Wertz, referencing the psychedelic illustrator closely associated with the Summer of Love.
For "ABC Oakland," Wertz approximated the feel of cut stencil and screen print colors by layering effects in Photoshop. “I love flat color and flat shape design, and I tend to think in triangles, circles, and squares—and kids' books lend themselves to that,” said Wertz.
Wertz teaches drawing at Oakland’s California College of the Arts, where he serves as assistant chair of the illustration department. He hopes "ABC Oakland" will be just the first in a series.
“I want to do San Francisco, New York, Paris and make it less of a niche thing,” he said. “I want to encourage kids to travel and see other places."
The day before our interview, Wertz performed at Laurel Book Store on Broadway with his band Special Ghosts, followed by a short drawing session where kids could make their own illustrated book. "It would be really cool to get kids to carry these around,” he said.
Wertz would like to do anything he can do to get people out and exploring the city. “Oakland is just incredibly charming."
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