This summer has been FULL of family, travel, work, and general busy-ness. Whew! What a whirlwind! BUT today I finally get to tell you all about one of my favorite picture books that came out this summer: “Unicorn Day!”
Why is it a favorite? Last year, I had a student OBSESSED with unicorns. It was all she cared about in her little chaotic life as she dealt with heartbreaking trauma after trauma. And this book came a bit early (as an F&G) to aid in the celebration of the actual Unicorn Day (April 9th in case you didn’t know). To see the ecstatic joy on her little face as we got to read this book ON that day was priceless. Kids are what make this journey worth it for all of us, right?
Author Diana Murray has visited my blog several times over the years. Not only is she talented at what she does (rhymer extraordinaire!), but she is kind and hard working too. This is her 9th picture book published to date (and I expect to see MANY more from her in the years to come as well). She has also published many poems for Highlights and other children’s magazines, as well as an easy reader “Pizza Pig.” You can learn more about her at her website.
“Unicorn Day” is not only a cute story, but it’s also illustrated by the incredible Luke Flowers who will also be joining us for an interview today. It’s a story for all unicorn lovers everywhere. Kids love unicorns and my school librarian says there is NOT enough books on the topic for kids to check out. This book is a GREAT addition to the unicorn subject. It allows for the celebration and inclusion of ALL unicorns and unicorn-wanna-be’s like my student. BUT I don’t want to spoil too much. You’ll have to read it yourself to find the hidden gems in this one!
Welcome back to my blog Diana!
Me: I have a student this year who is CRAZY about unicorns. “Unicorn Day” is a book for every unicorn lover out there (including her). Are you a fan of unicorns yourself? Or are your kids into unicorns?
Diana: Yes, I loved unicorns, especially in my teens. I was interested in medieval times, magic, and all types of fantasy. My daughters both loved unicorns when they were younger, as many girls do. They used to play a game where a unicorn got together with a bunch of ponies and horses and shared her magical abilities with them. That was one of the things that gave me the idea for this story.
Me: “Unicorn Day” has a great premise: unicorns having fun until they discover an imposter in their midst. (My students pegged the “fake” unicorn right away when I read this story to them.) Do you feel like an imposter unicorn? Or think you might know someone who feels like an imposter? Where did the imposter unicorn idea come from?
Diana: I’m impressed that they spotted him right away. I’ve had adults tell me they didn’t notice until the end. Luke actually made it a lot more subtle than I thought it would be. I think that kind of adds to the fun because you have to look carefully. It’s humorous to describe the horse as an “imposter”, but in truth, that’s not really what he is. “Imposter” has a negative connotation to it. The horse is just super excited about Unicorn Day and wants to experience the awesomeness of being a unicorn and to celebrate all they stand for. He assumes they will kick him out when they find out his horn is pretend, but unicorns are all about kindness, friendship, and joy, so of course they accept him.
Me: This simple plot line opened the door for the illustrator, Luke Flowers, to create all sorts of unicorn friends. Were you surprised by some of those inclusions? If so, which one is your favorite? (I can’t tell if the uni-panda or the uni-yeti is my favorite!)
Diana: Definitely! I had no idea. In my illustration note, I just wrote “kids and other creatures join in”. In my head, I was actually imagining regular forest animals. I had no idea there would be a yeti in this book!!! And I absolutely love it!
Me: At the base of this story are the concepts “be true to yourself, no matter what” and of course “have fun.” Are these important themes to you? Are they messages you want children to believe in?
Diana: Some of the messages I hope people will take away from this story are: 1-It’s fun to make new friends, especially when it surprises you; 2-Kindness is a kind of magic that can save the day; 3-Positivity is contagious; 4-Every unicorn, real or pretend, is completely unique and proud to be so; and 5-Uniqueness and variety are beautiful!
Me: I love that! Unicorns are a hot trend right now. Writers are constantly told to not write to trends, so I have to ask, were you asked to write a unicorn book? Or did you just luck out and get a unicorn story idea in the publishing door before it was too late?
Diana: No, nobody twisted my arm to write a unicorn story. Haha! And no, I wasn’t just hopping on a trend. I originally wanted to write a story about a dolphin party. After swimming with dolphins in Orlando, I couldn’t stop thinking about how magical they seemed. They had this energy about them, like they were the unicorns of the sea. When I started figuring out the story, I decided, why not just go with actual unicorns? I like writing about magical characters because it forces the story to an extreme, which makes it more interesting. I think unicorns are popular because they embody fabulousness and positive energy and yet, also have tons of potential for humor. I’m not sure it will ever be too late to write about unicorns. It’s just finding a unique angle that can be difficult. That’s also true for truck stories, and pirate stories, and any number of popular kidlit topics.
Me: That’s so true! And now I want to see a Dolphin-Unicorns-of-the-Sea book! This is another wonderful example from you of how a rhyming picture book should be done. At the end of April, there was some online drama with Lin-Manuel Miranda tweeting about rhyming picture books, stating that they were all terrible. You are one of the queens of rhyming picture books. Although he has since apologized and acknowledged that not ALL rhyming picture books are bad, did you have any thoughts to share on that whole debacle?
Diana: I don’t get upset about things like that. I know that rhyming picture books get a bad rap. All of kidlit gets a bad rap! I’m used to it and I know it was just a hasty judgement on his part that didn’t have much meaning. I thought it was very nice of him to apologize. I actually think musicals have some negative stereotypes associated with them, as well. People often think they’re old-fashioned and cloying and downright annoying (hey, that rhymes!). But of course it would be ridiculous to say, “all musicals are garbage”. There’s good, there’s bad, and in between, there’s a whole lot of personal opinion.
Me: I completely agree. What was your favorite unicorn (fake or real) introduced by Luke Flowers in the illustrations of this story?
Diana: I adore the goth unicorn! My 14-yo daughter is goth and I think it looks like her in unicorn form. I’m also in love with the yeti. In general, the variety of creatures Luke introduced was such a wonderful surprise!
Again, I agree! I loved the variety of “unicorns” included in this book. There was SO much creativity on Luke’s part. Without further ado, let’s talk with Luke about his work!
Luke Flowers is an illustrator who has done a great variety of things over the last few years. From Golden books to Gallery Shows to his latest picture book project about Mr. Rogers, his variety of work is full of color and joy. He has also been lucky enough to illustrate some of his (and mine!) childhood favorites (like the MUPPETS you guys!). You can learn more about him at his website.
Welcome to my blog Luke!
Me: What was your artistic journey? When did you start drawing?
Luke: In 2nd grade I clearly remember wanting to be an artist, at that time it was more an idea of being creative. Whether that was animation, comics or books. I just knew I loved the storytelling aspect of being an artist and creating worlds and characters to fill those stories with. I’m thankful that since then I’ve had the support of family, friends and teachers to encourage me to pursue that dream.
The endless creativity that filled my childhood years was a huge source of inspiration. The imaginative characters of Jim Henson, the magical worlds of Walt Disney’s films and parks, and all the wacky cartoons, toys, video games and films that came out of the ‘80s & ’90s. All of that was rocket fuel for me growing up. Though it was a stack of Shel Silverstein books that had the longest lasting impact on what shaped where I truly wanted to end up on that journey – being an author and illustrator that could bring a whimsical approach to storytelling. I loved the odd and lively illustrations that Shel so perfectly paired with his hilariously clever poems. THAT was the kind of creativity that spoke deepest to my spirit and where I find the most comfortable place for my own creativity as a children’s book author and illustrator still today.
A quick overview of the stepping stones on that path:
- 2000 Graduated from Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design (Golden, CO) BFA w/ a focus on illustration.
- 2000-2010 Worked as lead designer/illustrator for Young Life (worldwide youth ministry organization) in their creative services department.
- 2010 Launched Luke Flowers Creative to pursue my own freelance career (at that time I was mostly doing editorial illustration and art for bands – album covers, gig posters, etc).
- 2012 Turned my focus on children’s book illustration and began building my portfolio to reflect that.
- 2013 Illustrated my first (self published) children’s book “Miracle Miles” by Brian Hunt.
- 2015 Illustrated my first published children’s book with Random House Kids (No Way … WAY! Fun Facts – Smithsonian book series).
- 2016 I had my first author/illustrator series published with Scholastic “Moby Shinobi” (which has sold over 1 million copies across the 5 book series)
- 2019 I had my first children’s book on the New York Times best-seller list (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood) the poetry of Mister Rogers with Quirk Books.
Since 2013 I’ve illustrated 56 books (6 of those as author/illustrator)
In 2014 I also started to pursue work with various galleries doing pop culture tributes. My first gallery show was with Bottleneck Gallery in NY for a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 30th Anniversary show for Nickelodeon. Since then I’ve been part of over 36 shows (mostly with Gallery1998 in LA).
Me: Wow! That’s quite a journey! 13 years after graduating from art school you illustrated your first children’s book. That’s amazing! That shows a lot of patience and fortitude (and inspires me to no end!). What does your illustration process look like? Do you use traditional media or digital?
Luke: I work exclusively with Photoshop. My process is nothing out of the ordinary. Basically start with rough sketches (sometimes in a sketchbook or iPad), then move to Photoshop for the final artwork. Another big part of my process is research. I have a huge collection of vintage children’s books in my library (my favorites being a large collection of Little Golden Books). I usually start there to get inspiration for colors, shapes, brush techniques. Then I just start exploring technique and colors as I develop the characters. I have a collection of digital brushes that I normally use for all my work. I often add a few new ones in here and there, but mostly I have a set that really feels comfortable to the look I’m going for. My process is basically, blocking in shapes, adding brush textures and then finishing with line work details.
Me: Was your very first foray into illustrating kids books the “Mobi Shinobi” series which you also wrote? What draws you to illustrating kids’ books?
Luke: My first foray into illustrating children’s books started with 3 books that friends of mine were self publishing. The first (2013) was “Miracle Miles” by Brian Hunt, the 2nd (2014) was “The Golden Feather” by JJ Heller and the 3rd was “Jon-Lorond Saves the Day” by Hanna Rasco. Those helped get me illustrations for my portfolio to begin promoting and connecting with art directors, editors and publishers.
My lifelong love of storytelling is truly what has always drawn me to illustrating kid’s books. Trying to capture that same joy and humor that I loved in children’s books as a kid, those are the type of projects I pursue, and the types of books I write myself.
Me: Aww! I love that. You had the opportunity to work with Golden Books and one of your most recently released picture books was about Fred Rogers. What incredible opportunities! Can you talk a little bit about those experiences?
Luke: BOTH of those have been experiences that were deeply inspiring. Since Little Golden Books have always been a big part of the inspiration on my journey. One of the first children’s books I remember falling in love with was “The Monster at the End of this Book” (with Grover). The illustrations of the Little Golden Books have always been the type of style I was drawn to and wanted to capture with my own work. The charm, colors, and energy of the brush work. Plus so many of my favorite illustrators have done Little Golden Books so that was also a big draw to those.
So when I was asked to illustrated the “Rusty Rivets” series for Nickelodeon that was a milestone marker on the creative journey. I illustrated 4 books in that series. It was fun because at that time my kids were into watching the show and we had the toys from that series. So it was extra special to be creating art for something that my kids were also really excited about. Since then I’ve also illustrated “The Tale of Paul Bunyan” (coming January 14, 2020) and I’ve got another in the works with them coming later in 2020.
Working on “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” the poetry of Fred Rogers with Quirk Books and the Fred Rogers Production team was an absolute dream come true. I grew up absolutely loving the show and the characters that filled the neighborhood of make believe. It was really interesting because it was right after the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” came out, and I left the theatre so inspired by hearing even more of his journey. I told my wife “I would love to be part of celebrating his legacy” in someway with a project. And a few months later Quirk Books reached out to me to illustrate a book of his poetry. I nearly fell out of my chair when that invitation came in.
I was actually in a really tough place creatively, feeling burned out and struggling with depression. It was during that process of working on the Mister Rogers book that I was listening to his music (I have a collection of his records from my childhood and that I’ve collected over the years) plus I had a collection of his audio books (biography and his series of books of his quote and life insights). I also had the episodes playing in the background as I worked. So my days were flooded with the messages and lessons from Fred’s journey. It had a HUGE impact on my entire life. It really lifted me out of that valley I was in, and I found such deep inspiration in bringing his poems to life.
Then to see how the book was embraced by fans of Fred Rogers, booksellers, librarians, and readers of all ages it was beyond all expectations for the book. Having reached the New York Times best-seller list shortly after the release and remaining on the list for 10 weeks was a dream come true! It’s funny but I had just turned 40 when the book was released, and my wife had asked me what achievements would I hope to reach in the next 10 years of work. I said “A book on the New York Times best-seller list” was one of the top dreams I’d love to achieve. A few weeks later it happened! One of my favorite parts of being part of this book was a book tour around Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. It was deeply inspiring to not only be in Fred’s neighborhood to share the book at bookstores and schools in the area, but also to have the opportunity to visit the museums, archives and memorials for Fred in that area. It truly brought the book to life for me in a whole new way.
I’m excited that we have some more projects on the horizon with the Fred Rogers Production team!
Me: I just saw the trailer yesterday for the movie “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” with Tom Hanks. It looks to be just as inspirational as your book and your experience. Mr. Rogers really did speak into so many of our lives. Now that you’re becoming a seasoned illustrator, what is one thing that surprised you in illustrating “Unicorn Day”?
Luke: That’s a great question. One of my favorite challenges was trying to be subtle with the horse character in the midst of the unicorn crew. Trying to make him stand out in funny ways but not reveal too much and show that he is NOT what he seems. It’s been so fun to see kids reading it and pointing out all the silly things that this character is doing in the scenes and then realizing later that the reason he was not able to quite do things right. I love those moments where a child connects parts of a story with a sub-story element or something that has been hidden. Those were the types of things I loved finding or realizing in books when I was a kid too.
Me: Me too! Any advice for other new picture book illustrators?
Luke: Joining the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCWBI) was a BIG help in understanding the industry, finding great resources, and most of all connecting with the community of authors and illustrators around the country. Going to the conference in New York when I was first starting out back in 2015, was a key moment in making connections with publishers because they have a portfolio review time, and art directors and editors attend from various publishers. So it was a great way to get bigger exposure than just sending out postcards or mailers to publishers.
It was actually through that first trip that I got the “Moby Shinobi” connection with Scholastic. The art director picked up a postcard during the portfolio review because they were looking for someone to write and illustrate a book about ninjas and I happened to have an image of a little spy kid that they felt connected to the vision they had for a ninja series.
So sometimes a plane ticket is better than a postcard. Investing in that time to connect or grow your network is a key part of the journey. I always try to make it out once a year to visit with the publishers I’m working with and even try to visit new publishers I want to try and work with.
One last bit of advice is to reach out to the illustrators and authors that inspire you. Don’t be afraid to connect via social media or e-mail. The connections and advice I found when I was first starting out by just e-mailing a few of my favorite illustrators was pivotal in so many ways. Those are still friends today that I find great inspiration and advice from in the highs and lows of the journey.
Me: That is SO true. The connections I’ve made with friends and mentors along the way have been invaluable to me. I’m glad to hear you say that too! There are many incredible characters that you got to reveal and introduce in “Unicorn Day.” What was one of your favorites?
Luke: Though I did love illustrating the entire crew of unicorns. One of my favorites was the lil’ baby unicorn. It was fun because that was the one that my 2 daughters’ love most and so if he had that “awwwww” factor from both of them on each page I knew it was working. One of my favorite scenes was the cupcake rain picture (I love both the baby unicorn and the horse character’s interactions on that page.)
I love it! Thank you so much Diana and Luke for stopping by my blog. What a treat to get your insight into “Unicorn Day” and your work in general. Dear readers, if you haven’t had a chance yet to read this book, don’t waste another minute! It’s well worth the read.
And if you’re looking for some fun activities to do with the book for NEXT Unicorn day, check this out:
Finally, it’s time to announce the winner of the pencil shoes: John Smith! Congrats! I’m sure your mom will love them. (Be looking for them in the mail soon!) =D