Monthly Archives: April 2016

Country Jamboree: Can You Canoe? GIVE AWAY!

When I was teaching first grade, we opened every day with three things:

  1. The Pledge of Allegiance
  2. A Morning Message
  3. A song

It amazed me how many books were turned into songs, and each week, our class would have a new song. On Monday, first graders were just listening along, but by Friday, they almost knew the words by heart.

Then, the song book was in their hands so they could quietly sing along and follow along with the lyrics to practice their fluency.

Can You Canoe? by the Okee Dokee Brothers, is a book that is filled with not one song, but twelve! Coupled with fantastic illustrations by Brandon Reese, these boot stomping’ tunes are sure to please a crowd of children.

They’re the “country jamboree” music you might expect from the Okee Dokee brothers, with simple lyrics that engage and excite young children about adventure.

With songs like, Mr. and Mrs. Sippy, Campin’ Tent, and The Bullfrog Opera, you can’t go wrong. I’m ready to plug the soundtrack into my headphones and head out on a  camping adventure.

Did I mention the book comes with a 12 song CD?

Children, adults, and all alike will not be able to resist belting their voices and tappin’ their toes to these jams and tunes.


This great new book, from Sterling, is available May 17, 2016!

GIVEAWAY- Visit my twitter site at @dylanteut, or comment on this post, to be entered into a drawing to win a copy of CAN YOU CANOE, compliments of Sterling! Giveaway ends midnight on Thursday, May 5.

Happy Singing! Happy Adventuring!


Gryphons, Explorers, Monkey Barbers, and Santa: A Busy Year for Cale Atkinson!

Hey Cale! Thanks for joining me here to talk about your upcoming 2016 titles!

Thanks for having me over Dylan! I love what you’ve done with the place. How about I put the kettle on, make some tea, and try not to ramble too much.

Tell us a little bit about the title that came out just a while ago that you illustrated, If I Had a Gryphon.

‘If I had a Gryphon’ is a super fun book written by the awesomely talented Vikki Vansickle! It follows a girl named Sam, as she imagines how fun (or not fun) it would be to have different mythological creatures as pets, instead of her boring Hamster. The instant I read the manuscript I knew I had to illustrate this book and gripped onto it like a Hippogriff! In many ways it was really a dream project for myself. I mean what’s not to love about getting to draw all sorts of fantastic beasts in a fun silly way! Krakens, Unicorns and Sasquatches, oh my! I couldn’t be more proud of how it turned out.61sCaN30xfL.jpg

Tell us a little bit more about Explorers of the Wild, which will hit shelves very soon!

Explorers of the Wild is the 2nd book I wrote (following To the Sea) and ohhhhhh my gosh am I EXCITED about it! The story follows a boy and a bear who both LOVE exploring, adventuring, and discovering all the amazing things around the outdoors. They are prepared for anything and everything, well everything, except discovering each other. While the story is about getting outside and exploring, there is a underlining theme of openness and realizing that no matter how different you look on the outside, you may easily be the exact same on the inside.


I really wanted to create full lush illustrations for this story to try and capture the feel of being in the outdoors, including all sorts of little hidden creatures to discover throughout! Be sure to hunt out the snails!



Explorers of the Wild comes out April 26 through Disney Hyperion and I really can’t wait for everyone to see it! I hope it urges readers to go out and explore the wild, as well as be a little more open to others, no matter how different they look.

And then you also have a summer title, Maxwell the Monkey Barber coming in a few months. What’s that about?

Yes! Maxwell is my 3rd written book, though the idea for the story has been floating around my head for a long time! Maxwell the Monkey Barber follows a monkey named Maxwell, who is a barber. (Didn’t see that coming did you!) Ok aside from what you probably already guessed, the book is a rhyming format story. It takes place at Maxwell’s Barbershop, where he effortlessly gives all the hairy and overgrown jungle beasts stylish trims and chops. Each animal leaves Maxwell’s shop feeling great, excited to show off their new look. Everything is going smooth, that is until Elephant slumps into the shop. With no hairs on his head, Elephant is feeling left out, he wishes he could look as stylish as all the other animals. What is Maxwell to do?!


Maxwell the Monkey Barber if full of all sorts of animals, bright jungle backgrounds, and of course, lots of HAIR! It’s a light, fun tale, but still takes the time to make sure everyone leaves the shop feeling great!

Maxwell comes out August 15 through Owl kids!

2016 is a busy year for you, as this fall, another title you illustrated, The Day Santa Stopped Believing in Harold, will be released! How about that title?

Haha yes non-stop books this year! I hope everyone doesn’t get sick of me! O_O The Day Santa Stopped Believing in Harold is my 2nd book working with Tundra books (the first being Gryphon). Get yourselves ready for one grumpy and pouty Santa! Up at the North Pole the big man in the red suit can’t shake one thought running through his mind, What if Harold isn’t real? All the evidence is piling up, and Santa can’t ignore it any longer, he just didn’t believe in Harold anymore. No matter what Mrs. Clause, the elves, or reindeer say, Santa wasn’t having it! He needed to find out, is Harold real?! Meanwhile way down south, Harold was unable to shake his own thought, what if Santa isn’t real?


I had a blast illustrating Maureen Fergus’ wonderful story and love her new fun take on the Christmas theme! I hope everyone enjoys joining Santa as he investigates, questions and journeys to find Harold!



The Day Santa Stopped Believing in Harold comes out October 11th through Tundra Books.

What do you use to illustrate your books? Can you tell us about your process?

Absolutely! How are you doing on tea? Here, let me get that kettle back on.

All my final artwork for books is done digitally on the computer using the program Photoshop. I own a screen called a Wacom Cintiq which allows me to draw and paint directly on top of the screen. I do some early sketching and planning on paper, but once I get into really sketching out the pages and coloring, it’s all on the computer.

A quick run down of my process for illustrating would be:

1) Read the manuscript of the book
2) Look up and research any reference I may need (like if it’s a book about cars, I’ll look up photos of cars, or if It’s a book about dogs, I’ll look up a bunch of photos of dogs.)
3) Sketch out some ideas on how the main characters could look and start thinking about the style of the book.
4) Sketch out the whole book in tiny little rough drawings called ‘thumbnails’.
5) Do the same thing as above but with colors to figure out the main mood and colors that will work to tell the story. These would be called ‘color thumbnails’ or a ‘color script’.
6) Using those really rough and messy thumbnail drawings as a guide, I’ll sketch out each one of the book’s pages on the computer.
7) Once all the sketches are done and good to go, I’ll start painting and coloring all the pages on the computer.
8) Celebrate finishing the book with a victory dance and a tasty cookie or other treat of equal deliciousness.


Have you always been into writing and illustrating?

I actually really have, pretty much ever since I can remember I’ve been drawing and writing in various forms. In elementary school I was writing, drawing and even selling my own comics to classmates (though I don’t know if they were the best deal!) Soon after that I was working on my own picture book ideas, comic strips, movies, cartoons, you name it! I think I’ve just always been in love with storytelling, being able to come up with ideas, create them (in one form or another) and then share them!

What’s the most exciting part of your job?

There are many exciting things about my job! Being able to tell my own stories is amazing. Being able to work with awesome writers and help bring their stories to life through my art is also amazing! Then being able to share those stories with the world and see that others connect with them is CRAZY AMAZING!

What inspires your creativity?

Inspiration is a tricky beast, sometimes it just comes to you eazy peezy, and other times you really have to search for it, which can feel as hard as spotting a Unicorn eating a taco. I personally get inspired from all sorts of things! Things that happen in my life, from small every day things, to super big once-in-a-lifetime things.  Things that I love to do, like travelling to different parts of the world, always fill me with inspiration. Things I see, such as movies, books, people, and animals. Inspiration really can lurk around every corner!


What is one thing that readers don’t know about you, that only you could tell us?

Hmmm well I’ve always been a big animal lover and grew up in a house always full of pets, including many dogs, cats, hamsters, rats, hedgehogs, fish, budgies, parrots, and even an iguana that grew to be a couple feet in size!

If you weren’t writing and illustrating books, what do you think you’d be doing?

I think I’d still be telling stories in some way or another, maybe telling them in cartoons, comic strips or movies. Otherwise I will always fancy the idea of being an archeologist like Indiana Jones, discovering ancient artifacts and going on wild adventures!

What can readers expect from you in the future?

MORE BOOKS! I’m working hard to get more stories out of my head and hopefully into reader’s hands! 🙂 I think I’m more excited than anyone else to find out what’s next!

Anything else you’d like to share with readers of this blog?

Thanks so much to all of you for reading my books! You all make me so happy! *u*

I also want to remind anyone out there, if you have a passion or a dream, go after it! Go try stuff, go make stuff, and don’t be afraid of not being good at it, just have fun doing it!

Thanks for interview Dylan!

Double the Fun with New “Dog” Books from Random House

When I went to the animal shelter to pick out a cat a few years ago, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. It was really a spur of the moment decision to get a cat. When I got there,  it only took a few moments before I knew which cat was the one I wanted.

In Kevin O’Malley’s new title, The Perfect Dog, the main character announces to the readers that her parents are allowing her to get a new dog.


She’s excited, but isn’t quite sure what a perfect dog would be.

She thinks it should be big…. bigger… biggest! Maybe not this big.

And it should be small… smaller…. smallest! Maybe not this small.

Through the use of superlatives the girl imagines different shapes, sizes, styles of dogs, but she never really comes to the conclusion about what exactly “perfect” means.

That is, until she’s at the animal shelter surrounded by dogs. In a special ending, the girl finds her perfect companion.

You’ll want to add this book to your classroom collection for when you’re teaching superlatives- this book’s full of them!

In another title from Schwartz and Wade (Random House), Andrea Zuill tells the story of a dog named Homer who wants to be more like a wolf.


So when Homer sees an ad for Wolf Camp, he jumps at the opportunity


Like any camper would, homer hops on the bus and takes off. Homer and the other campers get the opportunity to mark, howl, and track like real wolves would. It is here where readers will see great humor in these poor pooches trying to be like wolves.

And if that doesn’t raise a little laughter, the letter Homer sends to his “people” is sure to riot some giggles. With each passing day, the dogs get a little bit better at being wolves, and were awarded Honorary Wolf status.

The hilarious illustrations and animal antics throughout this title are sure to spread laughter and smiles among readers.

Look for these two new titles from Random House in May 2016.

T-Rex, Toenails, and Tiny Toads- Interview with Jill Esbaum

Hi Jill! Thanks for joining me here to talk about a few of your 2016 titles!

My pleasure, Dylan!

Tell us a little bit about Teeny Tiny Toady.

First of all, I want to give a shout out to illustrator Keika Yamaguchi. The way she brought Teeny’s verdant world to life still makes my jaw drop. And her toady characters are so unique and comical.


The story:  Teeny and her mama are out for a walk together when someone snatches Mama and drops her into a bucket. Ack! Teeny knows she’s too little and weak to rescue Mama, so she races home to enlist the help of her seven big, strong brothers. They quickly take over the entire operation, ignoring Teeny’s hesitant suggestions in favor of their own harebrained schemes. Eventually they, too, fall into the bucket, and there’s nobody left to rescue the entire family – except one teeny. tiny. toady. The book got a starred review from Kirkus, whose reviewer finished with:  “A triumphant reaffirmation of the truth that large hearts can beat in small chests, told in playful verse that gallops along with nary a stumble.” Pretty sure I won’t get tired of reading that.

Tell us a little bit more about If A T. Rex Crashes Your Birthday Party.

If a T. rex crashed your birthday party, would you know what to expect? Hints:  He makes a bouncy castle super fun, except …10 inch toenails. He stinks at swinging at a piñata (those little arms, you know). And pin the tail on the dino? That drives him WILD. But by the end of the day, you may be surprised that… sorry, no spoilers. The book comes out in August, but is available for preorder now.


Youre from Iowa, like me! Whats your favorite thing about living in the great state of Iowa?

There are many, many places I love to visit, but my roots are firmly embedded on this eastern Iowa farm, where I look out in all directions to see green, rolling fields (and trees. I need trees). I wouldn’t trade the serenity of that (or my covered back deck) for anything. I know it wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but wide open spaces feed my soul. That said, I am thankful to live only 20 minutes from civilization and shopping.  😉 

Have you always been into writing?

I was as a kid, but then I forgot about it for almost 30 years. Besides, books weren’t written by normal people, right? It was reading to my own kiddos that rekindled my passion for storycrafting. Man, was my imagination rusty!

What was your first book? Did you ever imagine when it was published that youd be where you are now?

My first book was Stink Soup (FSG, 2004), illustrated by Roger Roth. After a first book is accepted, all you want is to sell another – confirmation that the first wasn’t a fluke. No way could I predict I’d be sitting here in 2016 with nearly 35 books published or in the pipeline.


Whats the coolest part of your job?

Hmm. I think the coolest part of my job is recognizing and chasing down the wisp of an idea, pulling it from deep in my noggin before it disappears. Then, if I’m diligent about developing it and lucky, seeing it finished as the gorgeous, fully-illustrated art form that is a picture book. Lots of work, but so worth it.

Huh. I’ve just realized that I describe this process in Teeny Tiny Toady, when she has to come up with a plan for saving her family:  “Teeny shivered as the wind picked up and blew across the pond./As she watched it flutter lily pads and everything beyond,/an idea fluttered deep inside her warty little head/till she chased it round and pinned it down./‘I’ve got it!’ Teeny said.”

Teeny is me, apparently. Minus the warty head.

What is one thing that readers dont know about you, that only you could tell us?

I didn’t drink coffee until a year and a half ago, when a friend who owns a coffee shop talked me into trying a latte. I was immediately hooked. On lattes. I still can’t drink actual, hard-core coffee. I blow through a lot of French Vanilla creamer.

If you werent writing books, what do you think youd be doing?

Working in a school in some capacity. I’d have to be around kids. That’s why I love school visits so much. Talking with 200 kids in a gym or 20 kids in a classroom gives me a charge like nothing else.   


What can readers expect from you in the future?

More picture books and nonfiction, and I’m working on a middle grade novel that I’ve put off for too long. Here’s a scoop:  I’ve recently learned that my next picture book with Dial, How To Grow a Dinosaur, will be illustrated by Mike Boldt (I Dont Want To Be a Frog, etc.). Woo-hoo!

Anything else youd like to share with readers of this blog?

If, like me, you’re addicted to picture books, don’t miss my group blog, Picture Book Builders, at

Christopher Silas Neal Interview

Hello, Chris, thank you for joining me for an interview to talk about your upcoming book, Everyone.

Tell us a little bit about Everyone.

Everyone is about a boy alone with his thoughts who, through a metaphorical journey, experiences a full spectrum of emotions. It’s about feelings, or more to the point how the world reflects and responds to our expression of emotion.


Where did you get the idea for such a special book?

It began with an illustration I did for the Op-ed section of the New York Times. The essay was about a young boy whose parents were deported and the aftermath of that separation. For the illustration, I drew a boy with tears that morph into two birds taking flight. I really enjoyed that image—the sadness of it all—and later, just for fun, made a short animation based on the same image. A boy cries and his tears morph into a bird that flies into the clouds. It begins to rain or rather the clouds begin to cry and the boy’s frown turns to a smile. I titled it, When You Cry You Are Not Alone. When I met with my agent Stephen Barr for the first time, he was more interested in this short animation than my other picture book ideas. A year and 53 revisions later, Candlewick bought my rough draft of Everyone. Then we tweaked the story even more. I first tried a version where I spelled out each metaphor in the text. My editor and I slowly paired it down until only a few lyrical phrases were left. The pictures and metaphors  are much more mysterious paired with such sparse text and I think it makes for a more unique story. There are plenty of picture books about feelings that directly address tantrums and bad moods in a straight forward fashion. Those books are great, but I wanted to do something different. I listened to and read a lot of lyrics (lots of John Lennon) while working on the book so it’s no surprise that the sparse text almost reads like a song.



What illustration style/medium do you typically use for your books?

All of my illustrations are made in layers like a print. With acrylic, gouache, and pencil I make various shapes and line drawings. I scan those doodles and layer them in Photoshop where I add color. For Everyone, I decided to work in a limited palette and the book is printed using only three spot colors. Most picture books are printed in CMYK—Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black are printed as miniscule dots, which mix together to form millions of different colors. With Everyone the inks were mixed beforehand (spot colors) and printed one color at a time, almost like a screen print. So the art has to work with only those three colors. There are fun things you can play with like the overprinting—where the colors overlap it makes a secondary tone or color.

Do you prefer writing and illustrating your own books, or do you prefer illustrating other people’s books as well?

I really enjoy both ways equally. Writing is really new to me and I have so much to learn which is both exciting and terrifying. The great thing about working with an author is that I am in awe of their craft and as a team we can do things I wouldn’t be able to do on my own. Though I should stress that typically there isn’t too much back and forth between an author and the artist. After the manuscript is finished, I respond with my art and the editor and art director act as a conduit through which all communication must travel. In most cases this is certainly the best way to get things done though it would be a fun experiment to make a book with a writer in a more organic way, where we are writing and drawing in tandem—building the book page by page.


What’s it been like to work with Kate Messner? I understand there’s a new title in the works with her?

She is such a great partner and because she’s a former teacher, she is very organized and detailed. For our books Over and Under the Snow and Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt, she made a chart with the time of day and seasons and what animals and plants would be present during that time, and how they would be behave. I learn so much working on these books and her thoughtful notes help me to layer the environments with visual facts. There’s room to go deeper if the reader wants to. We are an interesting pair because she writes science in a way that is poetic and I make pictures that rely on expression and texture more so than realism. Despite that, we manage to inject a lot of science into our books. I’m putting finishing touches on our latest project, Over and Under the Pond. I’ve had so much fun making the art and can’t wait for it to come out. In the meantime, we’re brainstorming a few other ideas for nature-based books.


What is one thing that readers don’t know about you, that only you could tell us?

I’m an only child and much of my childhood was spent alone in my room making drawings, making music, designing video games, and writing plots for movies. In that way, my book Everyone is some what autobiographical in that it’s about the cerebral journey we take when left alone with our thoughts. I had plenty of time as a kid to let my emotions and imagination run wild.

If you weren’t writing and illustrating books, what do you think you’d be doing?

I’m a former drummer and at one point pursued music as a profession. Had I not started making art, I might of actually stuck with it. Besides that, I’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker.

What can readers expect from you in the future?

I’m writing a book now about a very curious and hungry cat and have a few exciting projects ahead including a picture book with author Barbara Rosenstock about Frank Lloyd Wright.

Anything else you’d like to share with readers of this blog?

Thank you so much for reading this interview and taking the time to get to know me a little better. I hope you enjoy Everyone!

Thank you, Chris, for joining me here!

EVERYONE. Copyright © 2016 by Christopher Silas Neal. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Denise, Ducks, and Getting Dressed: An Interview with Denise Fleming

Hello, Denise, thank you for joining me for an interview today, and for a look at your 2016 titles, Michael and Maggie Get Dressed, and 5 Little Ducks
Pleased to talk with you Dylan.
Tell us a little bit about Michael and Maggie.

Maggie and Michael get dressed was inspired by my kitten, Abigail, and our friend’s dog, Maggie.



 Abigail was given to me on my fourth birthday by my paternal grandparents. 

She was was a patient, sweet, adorable chocolate point Siamese kitten. 
I would dress her up in my baby doll’s clothes and wheel her around the neighborhood in my baby doll buggy. She was my constant companion and best friend. She slept curled up with me every night. She kept me safe. Children have special relationships with animals. 
Our friends adopted a Jack Russell terrier. They dressed her up for Halloween.
This brought to mind Abigail and the baby clothes. 
From that came Maggie and Michael get dressed.  
First it was just about the silliness of Michael dressing up Maggie to avoid getting dressed himself. Then I decided to add the color concept. 
Children have ongoing conversations with animals, as do many adults, so the text is in dialogue.
Here is a picture of the real Maggie dressed as Glinda the good witch. 
And yes, her dress and headdress are covered with Swarovski crystals – only the best for Miss Margaret. 
Tell us a little bit more about 5 Little Ducks.
I always  liked the 5 Little Ducks Rhyme. One day I thought – what if I expand it to include the days of the week and take the ducks new places and they stay with family friends?


How is your version of 5 Little Ducks different than traditional versions we may know?

In my version I include the days of the week, new places, sleepovers, and Papa who is overseeing the ducks. Papa is a bit of a worrier,  you can see him hiding and watching over the ducks as they experience their first bit of freedom. 
Also, the little ducks model themselves on their friends. 
Basically, it is about experiencing new things and family.
9781481424226.in05_e22f3.jpgWhich book have you written has been the most difficult to illustrate? Why?
I had a difficult time designing and deciding how I wanted Where Once There Was A Wood to look. I think it was difficult because it was a true story about a piece of land behind where I live and I felt very strongly about the loss of this wild space.
Some of my favorite art is in this book. 
You’re experimenting with new illustration styles. Tell me about that. 
I have been pulp painting (paper making process) for over 25 years. I still enjoy the process, but it is quite physical and recently I have had a difficult time finding stencil material. 
I felt it was time for a change. Time to reinvent myself. 
All along I have been working in different media – tin, wire, fiber and clay. 
Right now I am experimenting with printing and collage to use in book illustration. 
I am enjoying myself immensely.
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What is one thing that readers don’t know about you, that only you could tell us?
Gosh, I am pretty much an open book. Don’t know if I have any secrets. Hmmmmm.
If you weren’t writing and illustrating books, what do you think you’d be doing?
Well, it would have to be art related as I don’t know how to do anything else.
But, if I had an unlimited supply of cash I would like to buy a huge piece of land with woods and a creek and create the most fabulous preschool with art, books, music, cooking, dancing, animals, staffed with amazing teachers I have met on my travels. It would be free of charge to children who have had little or no exposure to the wonderful things in life and the beauty of nature. A place where children could embrace learning and living. 
What can readers expect from you in the future?
Books, books and more books. Picture books, concept books, and storybooks.
Also experimenting with some young, simple graphic novel type books. 
And hopefully some original board books. 
Anything else you’d like to share with readers of this blog?
This is always the most difficult question. 
I guess, share the books you love over and over. 
Always be on the lookout for new books you love. 
Don’t worry if they didn’t win an award. 
Experiment with different ways to present a book. 
Involve the children.
Act out the story. Dance to the story. Draw the story. 
 Thank you, Denise, for joining me today!

A Big Year for Susan Hood: Interview and Sneak Peeks

Author Susan Hood drops by my blog today for an interview and much great news to share! My questions are in bold; Susan’s answers are in blue. Enjoy!

Hello, Susan, thanks for joining me today to talk about your 2016 books and more. 2016 is a big year for you! You’ve already had Leaps and Bounce published, and I understand that we still can look forward to Ada’s Violin, Mission: Back to School, and The Fix-It Man.

Hi, Dylan! Thanks for having me and yes, it’s a busy year ahead!

Tell us a little bit about Leaps and Bounce.

shood 1.jpg

Leaps and Bounce is my second collaboration with the amazingly talented and prolific Matthew Cordell. We published Rooting for You in 2014, about a seed who is afraid to grow; afraid to leave his cozy home in the ground. Leaps and Bounce is a companion book all about frog metamorphosis and celebrating the changes that come with growth.


Both books sprouted from my own experiences. First of all, my husband and I have a big vegetable garden and weeding gives you a lot of time to dig deep.


Attack of the butternut squash (and BTW, our garden has never again looked this neat!)

In my professional life, I was a little like that cozy seed in Rooting for You. I had a long-time job I loved as a children’s magazine editor.  I was in charge of children’s content and I got to work with the likes of Ian Falconer, Jack Prelutsky, Chris Raschka, Jon Scieszka, Maurice Sendak, Lane Smith, Rosemary Wells, Jane Yolen & Heidi Stemple, Dan Yaccarino, and so many other children’s book authors who did original stories for us. Dream job, right?


Then in 2009, the whole magazine division was laid-off. The only upside was good severance pay. I had always wanted to try writing picture books, so I told myself it was now or never.

No doubt about it: it was scary! But with a little encouragement from my SCBWI writers’ group, I signed on with a wonderful agent and published three picture books in 2012. Now I can’t imagine ever going back. That feeling led to Leaps and Bounce (informed by raising tadpoles with my two daughters). It’s a nod to taking a leap and enjoying the surprising changes along the way.


Tell us a little bit more about Ada’s Violin.


  Ada’s Violin is my first nonfiction picture book, coming from Simon and Schuster on May 3. It’s the true story of children living on a landfill in Paraguay who formed the Recycled Orchestra, playing instruments made from recycled trash. You may have seen them profiled on 60 Minutes or in the trailer for the Landfill Harmonic documentary movie that went viral on social media.

It all started when a man named Favio Chávez came to the landfill as an environmental engineer. He couldn’t bear to see the children playing in the trash and polluted water, so he decided to offer music lessons. He had five instruments to share, but 10 kids showed up. And there was a bigger problem. It wasn’t safe to be seen with an expensive instrument in a town where a violin is worth more than a house. Chávez hit upon the genius idea to create musical instruments from the trash: flutes from drain pipes, cellos from oil drums, and violins from baking sheets. He taught the kids to play Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart, AND a few other things—discipline, dedication to an art, respect for themselves and for each other. In the stinking, sweltering slum they called home, he gave them something to be proud of.


Photo courtesy of

Today, the orchestra is touring the world; they recently played for the Pope! Funds earned from their concerts go back to their town of Cateura, where they are building new homes and lifting up the entire community.

I interviewed Conductor Favio Chávez for the book as well as the orchestra’s first violinist, young Ada Ríos. The illustrations in the book are gorgeous mixed-media collages by gifted artist Sally Wern Comport; they perfectly mirror the recycled instruments and the world of the landfill.

violin 1.jpg

violin 2.jpg

A Spanish edition comes out simultaneously on May 3.

violin 3.jpg

Tell us a little bit more about Mission: Back to School.

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This book is a sequel to Mission: New Baby, illustrated in watercolor by the marvelous Mary Lundquist. I just love her little kids and all the funny details she adds to each scene. Both books are written as top-secret guidebooks or instruction manuals for “special ops agents” tackling new “missions,” such as welcoming a new sibling or starting a new year at school.

With New Baby, I wanted to take the spotlight off the new arrival and shine it on the older sibs. I wanted big brothers and sisters to see how smart they are, how much they can teach the “new recruit.” That thought had been floating around in my head for years, but the “special agent” angle came to me after seeing a spy exhibit at the Discovery Museum in New York.

When my editor asked for a sequel, I wrote Mission: Back to School, with “top-secret info” designed to make kids feel smart and self-confident at school because they know what to expect.  

b2s.jpgWork in progress by Mary Lundquist

I had a lot of fun fooling around with spy lingo, like “decoding,” “going undercover,” and meeting the chief “intelligence officer.”


Tell us a little bit more about The Fix-It Man.

 fix it.png    

The Fix-It Man is about Joshua James, a little boy with a yellow hard-hat, a duct tape belt, and a tool box, who loves to tackle problems head- on.

“When things conk out or crash or crack, 
he tinkers till they’re back on track.”

He can repair a toy car wreck or glue the petals back on the flowers, but it takes his little sister’s help to invent and reinvent a Rube Goldberg machine to rid the house of stinky diapers.

This book was a new experience for me because it was a true collaboration with the inventive, funny, and super dedicated Arree Chung, of Ninja fame. With the blessing of our editor and art director, Arree and I had many long-distance phone calls and emails back and forth as we brainstormed the Rube Goldberg contraptions that fill the book’s pages.


Endpapers are blueprints for the Rube Goldberg contraptions that appear in the book


We invented and reinvented together and went back and forth, rewriting and reillustrating as we developed better and better ideas. In the end, we have a book we are both very proud of!



Do any of your books have a special meaning/story behind them you would like to share?

All of my books have a little piece of my heart in them. Writing Ada’s Violin was especially daunting at first. I’d never written a nonfiction picture book. I don’t speak Spanish; Ada Ríos and Favio Chávez don’t speak English. I wasn’t even sure they had access to a phone or a computer. But I was dying to tell their story in their own words, rather than a story based on news reports. With luck and the help of many others including my extremely patient editor, I found the orchestra’s contact information, hired a translator, and waited for a window when the musicians weren’t in Holland or Japan or Columbia on tour. Disaster struck in the middle of our interviews; the river that runs through their town of Cateura flooded, displacing hundreds of families. Ada’s family was safe, but she and Favio obviously had many more pressing concerns, helping their friends. The magnitude of their problems and the heart, courage, and resourcefulness they use to face them was truly humbling. Getting to know these people—Ada, her parents, Favio—changed me forever and made me take a hard look at all we take for granted. I feel so much gratitude to them for that!

What is one thing that readers don’t know about you, that only you could tell us?

How about three things?

I was the youngest child in my hometown with a library card.

I’ve had lunch with Big Bird. And his wife.

I’ve sailed the ocean blue from Tortola to Bermuda and back to CT in a 38’ sailboat. Three days out, we lost the engine, navigation, and lights. Somehow we managed to find Bermuda sailing by the stars and a hand-held sextant!

If you weren’t writing books, what do you think you’d be doing?

I can’t imagine not writing for kids. So if I couldn’t write books, I’d be trying to write kids’ poetry, magazine articles, songs, plays, apps, TV shows, or films.

What can readers expect from you in the future?

Double Take is a new rhyming picture book illustrated by Jay Fleck, coming from Candlewick in spring 2017. My editor calls it a “topsy-turvy fun house” about opposites. It starts simply and then veers off into relative words, perspective, and point of view, with a dollop of yin and yang for good measure. And it stars the most adorable elephant ever!

In fall 2017, I will publish my very first middle grade novel called Lifeboat 12 with Simon and Schuster. It’s based on a little-known true WWII story that follows six young boys (ages 9 – 13), who survived a major naval disaster in September 1940.

I discovered the story in the childhood letters of my British mother-in-law who was evacuated to Canada during the Blitz (thankfully on a different ship).


All the people, dates, and events in the book are factual, but I decided to fictionalize the story to tell it from a survivor’s point of view. (My sailing experience allows me to imagine drifting alone on the ocean all too clearly!)

 I also traveled to London last summer to do research in the National Archives, the British Library, and the National Maritime Museum. There I spent time reading formerly top-secret government files and tracking down survivors to interview. So Mission: Middle Grade Novel is underway!

Anything else you’d like to share with readers of this blog?

I wish I could draw, but I can’t! I do like to fool around with cut paper and collage though.


Thank you, Susan, for joining me today!

And thank you, Dylan, for everything you do to connect kids and books!

Visit Susan at 

Interview with Ben Clanton

I am a big fan of Mr. Ben Clanton and his books, so I was thrilled when he agreed to stop by my blog and answer a few questions! My questions are in bold and Ben’s answers are in blue. Enjoy!

Hey Ben! Thanks for joining me here to talk about your upcoming 2016 titles!

My pleasure! Thanks for asking!


Tell us a little bit about It Came in the Mail.

It Came in the Mail is about a boy named Liam (which spelled backwards is . . . yep, I’m a clever one ;)) who desperately wants to get something in the mail. His mailbox delivers. Liam gets oodles of mail . . . snail mail, junk mail, whale mail, pickles, a dragon, and much more. It is a “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sort of story where things get a wee bit out of hand. Liam soon finds himself buried in a mountain of mail and wondering what to do with it all. Fortunately, Liam comes up with a clever and fun solution . . . that might involve sending mail.


The story is inspired by my own love for sending and receiving mail. Ever since I was very little I’ve enjoyed checking the mailbox. Most days I only get junk mail and bills, but I always feel a great amount of anticipation and excitement when it comes time to check the mail. I’ll confess that there have even been times when I’ve checked the mail twice (or more) in a day hoping that the mailman returned with something he forgot. There is something magic about it all to me. There is always that possibility that something truly stupendous or extraordinary will show up. It could be something that will change your day for the better, or it could be something so remarkable that it changes your life.



These thoughts about extraordinary mail were circling about my head one day when I was doodling in my sketchbook. I ended up sketching a dragon’s head poking out of a rural style mailbox. Undoubtedly How Droofus the Dragon Lost His Head by Bill Peet (one of my childhood favorites) played a part in this image coming about. I was taken with the absurdity of it. I wrote a story about an unsuspecting kid who gets a dragon in the mail and all the problems that come about when a dragon pops into your life. You’d think owning a dragon would be loads of fun because you get to fly and go on adventures, but of course feeding that dragon could be tricky and cleaning up after one, well, dragon dung is not pleasant. Princesses, wizards, gold, and magic books were all involved in that early version of It Came in the Mail, which was lots of fun, but it was more of a story about having a dragon as a pet than about mail. I wanted the story to be more about mail. 20 gazillion drafts later and several years after that sketch of a dragon in a mailbox . . . It Came in the Mail is at last a book.




Tell us a little bit more about Narwhal and Jelly!

Narwhal is a happy-go-lucky narwhal (I’m pretty sure Narwhal doesn’t even know how to frown). Jelly is a no-nonsense jellyfish. The two might not seem like they’d have a lot in common, but it turns out that they make really great friends. The format for their first book Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea is a bit hard to define, as it is somewhat atypical, but I suppose calling it a graphic novel works. I personally think of it as a cartoon book or perhaps it is a ‘Clantoon’ book (couldn’t help myself). It is 64 pages and has three stories in it.


The first story ‘Narwhal is REALly Awesome’ is about how Jelly and Narwhal become friends. Both of them think they are imagining the other because Jelly has never seen a Narwhal before and Narwhal has never seen a jellyfish. In the end, they both end up deciding that the other is an imaginary friend. The second story is about Narwhal and Jelly forming their own pod of awesomeness with their ocean friends. And in the third story Narwhal and Jelly read the best book ever — even though it doesn’t have any words . . . or pictures.



Unknown-2.jpegLike It Came in the Mail the Narwhal and Jelly books have long been in the works and have gone through innumerable permutations. I first came up with them while standing in line for ice cream (a not uncommon event for me). Perhaps it was because of the waffle cones or maybe the rainbow colored crosswalk nearby had something to do with it, but a story about a narwhal and his missing tusk-tooth-horn-thing came to mind. Soon other stories featuring this narwhal and a jellyfish joined the first swimming around my head. I came up with storyboards and a mock-up for three Narwhal and Jelly picture books within a week. The trouble is that the picture book format didn’t really work for the stories. When viewed individually they seemed slight, but when viewed as a whole . . . well, the whole was greater than the sum of the parts.


What a book would look like with multiple Narwhal and Jelly stories took a couple years for me to figure out and then there was the difficulty of pitching the unusual format. I am so very grateful to Tara Walker and Tundra Books for seeing my vision and giving it a chance.


I whaley love Narwhal and Jelly . . . I feel a stronger connection with these characters than any of my characters so far and that is saying something. Hopefully the first couple books (the second is tentatively titled Super Narwhal and Jelly Jolt) will do well enough that I can bring the heaps of other adventures and stories featuring this duo to the surface.

What do you use to illustrate your books? Can you tell us about your process?

I am a self-taught illustrator and I find that my illustration process is continually changing and developing. I generally do line and watercolor illustrations. Sometimes for my linework I use ink (a dip pen recently) and often I use pencils (6B or a black or sepia colored pencil). For paper I use Strathmore Aquarius II watercolor paper, but have even used elephant-poo paper before.

I generally render my art traditionally and assemble/collage it digitally in Adobe Photoshop. I like for the human hand to be visible in my work, and sometimes (often!) I struggle against my inner perfectionist to maintain and/or add some ‘beautiful messiness’ to the work. I like using Photoshop to put everything together because it allows me a lot of flexibility to alter things and move illustrations about.



My favorite part of the illustration process is the very beginning stages when I am first coming up with the story. I will draw a character time after time in my sketchbook to get a feeling for who they are and how to draw them. It is super tough in my opinion to draw a character consistently, but also have them come to life and be varied and real. I think achieving this (a constant struggle for me) is similar to becoming good at a sport or instrument . . . it is all about practice.

I am in my element when it comes to the next stage of putting a dummy book together. I absolutely adore storyboarding. So much fun! I don’t always go about it the same way. Each book is its own experience, but often I use a blank book (which I get from They are 28 page long blank books so not exactly the right pagination (most PBs are 32 pages), but good for my first go at a story. I dive right in. I will go to a coffee shop or a park and sit down and do the full dummy in one sitting. Of course, it is only draft one, but by the time I go to do this the story has usually been swimming around my head for long enough that the bones are pretty well developed. Sometimes I just use copy paper at this point and draw small pictures of my vision for each page. Either way I’d gladly spend all day making these quick mock-ups. I probably could go on and on about it so I’ll stop myself there.

Have you always been into writing and illustrating?

As a kid I loved drawing. I especially liked to draw my own cartoon characters and caricatures of famous basketball players. I wasn’t really into writing and wasn’t a huge fan of reading (unless the book had ooldes of pictures). And sadly I actually stopped drawing all that much too when I got into middle school and high school. It was in college while volunteering at a nearby elementary school that I truly discovered my love for books and for writing and illustrating. I started carrying around a sketchbook everywhere. At first, I actually mostly just wrote stories. I was slow to delve into drawing and not hugely confident about it. Still working on that! 😉


What’s the most exciting part of your job?

I think I made my love for storyboarding pretty clear, but the most exciting part for me is (probably doesn’t come as a huge surprise) receiving letters from kids who have read my books. I love getting those letters and drawings. And I also find doing school visits to be exciting. It is a really uplifting and fun experience. Getting to draw with the kids and see their stories is amazing. I love it when they take my characters and make them their own. It is also a huge confidence booster to hear ‘you’re such an amazing drawer . . . how did you get so good at drawing pictures?’ . . . always an all around great experience.

I am tempted to say meeting authors and illustrators I admire is also one of the most exciting parts of my job, but it all too often ends up being a mortifying experience. I get really excited and end up star struck and typically make a fool of myself.

What inspires your creativity?

Foremost seeing the creativity and ingenuity of others. The drawings and stories kids send me for sure, but also if I read a really clever or endearing book. Random things also spark my creativity, but alone time in my mind often gets the best results . . . ice cream lines, walks with my dog, and sitting with my sketchbook in a park are all things I do that often get the creative juices flowing. Sometimes pressure will inspire creativity for me. Tight deadlines can be good . . . often not for the book I’m working on but for generating new ideas for new books. Drawing a story on the spot for kids or what I think of as ‘jazz drawing’ or ‘improv drawing’ also gets great results.



Unknown-4.jpegWhat is one thing that readers don’t know about you, that only you could tell us?

I often make sound effects when drawing all alone and make up little songs about what I am drawing (they aren’t very good . . . and, no, I will not sing one for you).


If you weren’t writing and illustrating books, what do you think you’d be doing?

Well, I’ve always wanted to be a professional basketball player, but I rather doubt that is what I would realistically be doing if I weren’t making books. I also for a long time wanted to be an astrophysicist, but I doubt that is what I’d be doing either. Maybe I’d be a librarian? I think that would be brilliant! Or maybe I’d be a movie director. I obviously don’t have small dreams. What the hay . . . let’s go with . . . I’d probably be ruling the universe, so be thankful I make books instead.

What can readers expect from you in the future?

Lots more stories in the works! I recently finished illustrating WE ARE THE DINOSAURS by Laurie Berkner and I will be illustrating at least one more of her songs. I am currently working on a sequel or a companion book to REX WRECKS IT! called BOO WHO? and the second Narwhal and Jelly book. I also have a picture book series in the works with Simon & Schuster about a mutant potato called Rot. In addition I’ve got stories in the works about such things as spiders, alligators, attack llamas, time-traveling salesmen, dark things, ice cream, and pink pandas. Also, a coloring book!






Anything else you’d like to share with readers of this blog?

Sure! Some of my favorite picture books of this year so far are A Hungry Lion, or A Dwindling Assortment of Animals by Lucy Ruth Cummins, Quackers by Liz Wong, and A Beginner’s Guide to Bear Spotting by Michelle Robinson and David Roberts. Also, Fox and the Jumping Contest by Corey Tabor (which comes out in October) is completely brilliant. Oh, and Peddles by Elizabeth Rose Stanton is adorable. Those are a few titles that come to mind right away. And . . . I would like to be able to turn into either a dragon or panda at will.

My First Highlights Experience

We still have tomorrow morning to go, but I just want to take a moment to say what an amazing experience I’ve had at The Highlights Foundation the past few days! The moment I was having flight delays, Jo took care of things and made sure I still had someone lined up to pick me up from the airport… then the poor driver had to wait 5 hours for me at the airport, but he was so cheerful and kind when he drove me out to camp. The atmosphere is so peaceful and relaxing. The food is delicious and gourmet. I came here seeking to learn more about process/techniques to bring back to share with my children’s lit class, and to make connections and network for Plum Creek. I have surprised myself with how much I have enjoyed making art and learning from Denise Fleming and Ashley Wolff. In fact, I intend to buy a few supplies and make some art as a hobby- It’s been so relaxing. And then Judy Schachner joined us and brought even more insight about her technique and process. A little intimidating to make art alongside Lauren Castillo, but I have learned a lot by watching her work too. And the after dinner chats have been invigorating. Thanks all for such a wonderful few days. If you ever have a chance to make it here for a workshop, I recommend it!