When Kevin O'Malley was in the first grade, back in the 1960s, the children's books everyone seemed to be reading were "Dick and Jane" and "The Little Prince" — fare he thought so bland, he recalls, that he wondered whether they had been written specifically to drive him away.
Then he happened on a story "about a boy in a wolf suit chasing a dog with a fork" — Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are" — and had an epiphany.
"I'd never seen a boy behaving like that — acting like a real boy! — in any book," says the 54-year-old, his eyes wide. "I thought, 'I want to make things like that.' "
Almost half a century later, O'Malley, an illustrator and children's author from Towson, has never deviated from his life's plan.
O'Malley's latest book — "The Perfect Dog," a 32-pager aimed at early readers — is the 75th of his quarter-century career.
It's the simple but surprising tale of a girl trying to choose just the right canine companion, and in some ways it's as off-the-wall as earlier O'Malley titles such as "Once Upon a Cool Motorcycle Dude"(2005)and "Gimme Cracked Corn and I Will Share"(2007).
The first, a winner of several local awards, is about a princess, her ponies, a giant and a "dude" who arrives on a Harley to save the day; the second, a New York Times best-seller, concerns a chicken who dreams of buried treasure and sets out to find it.
"The Perfect Dog," set for release this month, follows a strategy O'Malley long ago made his own: taking on new and unfamiliar storytelling elements, tossing them like salad ingredients, and seeing what happens.
The lead character is O'Malley's first female protagonist, and he walks her through a succession of prospective pooches, from an Afghan to a Saint Bernard, before she makes up her mind.
He does this in part because he's as curious about the species as she is.
"I do like dogs — my wife has a schnauzer-poodle mix — but it has always amazed me how people fuss over them," O'Malley says during a meeting at one of his favorite haunts, Grand Cru restaurant in Belvedere Square. "It's like their dogs are their children! I wanted to explore this attitude that gives them so much joy."
Critics say he's on the scent, in part because of drawings so lively they all but roll over and speak.
"The dogs are the true stars of this book, each with an immediately evident personality, even though they're all lovable," one critic writes in Kirkus Reviews.
"If you don't have joy in the things you do," O'Malley says with a shrug, "why do them?"
A 1983 Maryland Institute College of Art graduate who lives in Rodgers Forge with his wife, Dara, O'Malley — graying, curly-haired and seemingly always smiling — has had an impressive run in a field known for uncertainty.
In children's literature, it's the smallest minority who make it big — the occasional Mo Willems ("The Pigeon Wants a Puppy" and other books), Dav Pilkey (the "Captain Underpants" series) or Beverly Cleary (the Ramona Quimby books, among others) — while the rest scramble to make a living.
The paychecks are sporadic and rarely generous, Even more challenging: the need for ideas never ends.
O'Malley's friends say he has the qualities to make it work: passion for his craft, determination to spare, and a surplus of get-up-and-go.
"He's incredibly enthusiastic about what he does," says Charlie Vascallero.
The local sportswriter helped O'Malley create a recent children's book on baseball, "At the Ballpark: A Fan's Companion", now available online.
"I'll be with Kevin on a train, at the ballpark, in a bar, and I can't keep his attention; he's always looking around, talking to people and making sketches," he says. "A straitjacket wouldn't stop him."
"At the Ballpark: A Fan's Companion" is a 64-page volume designed not only to introduce young would-be fans to America's greatest game, but also to answer any questions that might arise as they watch it.
He was one of six children in a squabbling, storytelling Irish-American family in suburban Lansdowne, Pa. His father was a physician, his mother an artist who made quilts. Siblings grew up to become a pharmaceutical executive, an attorney, a civil engineer.
But in grade school, O'Malley had an allergy to reading and couldn't sit still.
For the reading problem, teachers sent him to the library whenever they could (a strategy he considered punishment).
That's where he ran across Sendak and other authors who wrote stories for children that were transgressive for their time — Roald Dahl, William Steig, even Werner Holzwarth, creator of a book translated from the German called "The Story of the Little Mole Who Went in Search of Whodunit", the cheerful tale of a garden mole who sets out to learn which of his animal friends excreted on his head.
"Kids like to be scared. They like to be grossed out," O'Malley says. "I've always thought children's authors should respect that by showing that side of life."
For the attention problem, teachers had an even nuttier solution — letting him stand beside his desk in class and sketch all he wanted.
It was so much fun, O'Malley says, and kept him so focused, that he knew by age 9 he wanted to write children's books. His parents, Jeff and Nora, encouraged him. And even when he had to live on odd jobs for seven years after graduating from MICA, he stayed with his passion. He saw his first book published in 1991.
Serving as author-illustrator in some books, just the artist in others, O'Malley has averaged about three titles a year, working with national publishing houses such as Simon and Schuster and Random House while developing a reputation for irreverent whimsy.
That first book updated the folk song "Froggy Went A-Courtin'" by turning the main character into a 1930s-style gangster.
He has titillated kids in the years since with such cheeky fare as "Leo Cockroach, Toy Tester" and "Mount Olympus Basketball", in which the Greek gods square off against mortals in hoops.
About half his works have stayed in print.
It's enough to make the author a VIP at places such as the Children's Bookstore in Roland Park, where owner JoAnn Fruchtman keeps a shelf dedicated to O'Malley's work. She says it's extremely popular with customers young and old.
"He's very talented. His drawings are so naturally whimsical. But he also excels at more complex, sophisticated material," she says.
O'Malley supplements his income by making frequent appearances at schools, serving up a show in which he helps children rewrite fairy tales in real time, sketching and telling jokes as he goes.
He speaks of the drawbacks of his chosen field, from the constant demand for ideas to the pressure of raising a family on a sometimes less-than-predictable income.
O'Malley and Dara, a jewelry designer, have two sons, Connor and Noah, both in their 20s, and the need to "buy them a brand-new pair of shoes" has always been a driving force.
But the draw of creativity remains strong. O'Malley is already thinking of a book on the process of producing books, several others on sports, and one more in his "Captain Raptor" series.
And last week, when the first copies of "The Perfect Dog" arrived from Crown Books, he says, he felt like a kid again — or, at least, like a man who remembers full well the magic of being young.
"When I'm working, I'm always dreaming of making that connection with parents and their children again, of helping them experience the magic of reading," he says. "Those books mean I have one more chance."