TWO of my favorite picture book creators collaborated on a book and I get to share it with you today!
Dev Petty writes picture books that make you laugh a lot and think a little, sometimes the reverse. She is the author of I DON’T WANT TO BE A FROG, CLAYMATES, DON’T EAT BEES (Life Lessons from Chip the Dog), HOW OLD IS MR. TORTOISE? and many others.
She used to work in film effects as a painter and you can see her work in dozens of film, TV, and game projects including The Matrix Trilogy. Picture books are different, but have a lot of similarities- Dev says they’re sort of like little, paper movies and she is grateful to be creative and discover new ways to tell stories.
Dev is a Berkeley native and lives just blocks from where she grew up. She lives with her husband, daughters, dogs, cat, and a snake named “Boots.” You can learn more about her at her website.
HOW OLD IS MR. TORTOISE? is a hilarious picture book about a problematic birthday party. Mr. Tortoise is excited to celebrate his birthday because he gets to eat cake (and who doesn’t love that?). BUT when his friends ask him how old he is, he has NO idea. His friends offer many suggestions on how to determine his age, but none of them are truly helpful. They obsess because they want to know how many candles to put on the cake. The solution to this problem is both funny and sweet, with a little scientific detective work and a little math skill thrown in. The icing on the cake (see what I did there) are Ruth Chan’s hilarious illustrations. TWO queens of picture book comedy join together to create a funny picture book that is well worth reading.
Me: You excel at writing hilarious picture books. What gave you the idea for a tortoise’s birthday where no one can tell how old he is (including Mr. Tortoise himself)?
Dev: Well, I read about a tortoise named Jonathan who’s 190 and lives on an island in the South Atlantic. There are pictures of him as a younger tortoise and his keepers are wearing knickers and it’s plainly very old-fashioned-y. So of course Jonathan got me thinking. But I also was thinking about how, at fifty years old, I know what day my birthday is but at this point am struggling to remember how old I am. I guess that’s a good sign that I’m not too concerned about it!
I also knew I wanted a story where many characters were working together to solve a problem, though not in the most coherent way. I think it’s so funny how sometimes a problem takes on a life of its own. Mr. Tortoise, of course, couldn’t care less how old he is, but once his friends start trying to solve the mystery, they just can’t stop. They MUST know. I feel like before google and iPhones, we would have a dinner conversation and argue over this or that and have to live with disagreeing. Now, we can just look up the answer and the lively discussion ends. It’s become harder to NOT know the answer to questions.
Me: I have to agree! Several of your books also contain educational info in a very subtle way. In this book, Mr. Tortoise doesn’t know his age and readers have to use some detective skills along with his friends to figure it out. It’s a bit like finding an old picture in your attic and wondering how old it is. You introduce readers here to history and using observational skills. Do you intentionally include educational matter? Is that something you set out to do or is it just a perk of your story’s plot?
Dev: I like including educational matter, but only in a really natural way. It’s likely because I tend to just be more interested in animals and nature than I am with human stuff. Math, biology, history- these are all things just sort of wound throughout nature so I’m happy if I can tap into it in a way that isn’t too fussy. I like the counting/math element in this book because it’s geared for the youngest readers and whether they can figure it out or not, they’ll get a sense of how to approach solving a problem and the fun of doing so.
Me: Exactly! I love how each character has a different suggestion to figure out Mr. Tortoise’s age. They sound just like children! Do you work with lots of young kids? How do you get that authentic child’s voice in your stories?
Dev: Honestly, probably because I’m just pretty immature. But it really comes from what I love about kids and what so often cracks me up about them- their reasoning is based on their personal experience, their sense of how things work in the world, their sense of how things could work. Kids are fabulous at extrapolating and generalizing their own experiences and doing it with so much confidence. I guess that’s what I was trying to channel with those characters and their absurd guesses.
Me: I love the illustrations by Ruth Chan. There are so many different and unique animal characters here. Did you have art notes explaining what animals were also included in the story with Mr. Tortoise? Or did she come up with them on her own.
Dev: I think a few were specified because they had names and lines and a role to play in the whole thing. But Ruth added so much with other animals and creating this kind of ensemble cast. It really feels like the entire zoo is in on solving the problem. I love that because it reminds me of how a certain issue can take over a whole playground at recess and suddenly everyone is in on it.
Me: LOL! That is so true. Ruth Chan excels at funny illustrations. Were there any illustration surprises for you? What was your favorite illustration?
Dev: Ruth is just brilliant. She’s so funny herself and creates so much action and liveliness on the page. I love that she did this in graphic novel format because it’s a perfect fit for the story and the characters. I think I was most surprised by just the range of expressions that she gave to Mr. Tortoise. I’m not sure how expressive tortoises really are, but she was able to do it with a ton of charm and subtlety but lots of variety too. I was also so delighted by how the illustrations develop throughout the whole book. Similar to what I was saying about how all the animals got in on solving the problem. There’s an acceleration to it. I think kids will want to join in on the urgency to solve the problem (or to have cake!). My favorite illustration? Probably the one with the photograph of Mr. Tortoise in the 70s with mutton chops. I put that in as an art note and never thought it would actually make it to the page. I’m delighted.
Me: I love that picture too. What is one thing that surprised you about writing this story?
Dev: What a good question! I suppose just that it came together in such a charming way without being fatiguing to read. It was a tricky bit of writing. I knew I wanted a bunch of characters working together, but having so many characters and all in dialogue can make for something sort of cluttered. But I feel like it ended up working and makes for a fun read aloud. I can’t wait to do school visits and have everyone sing happy birthday at the end!
Me: Any advice for other new picture book writers?
Dev: I tend to give two pieces of advice for new writers. One is to write A LOT. It takes time to find your voice, your point of view, and you can’t really find that from just revising the same few stories over and over. Write three, five, ten, fifteen stories and then see where you’re at.
The other advice is to really focus on the idea. I do a lot more thinking than I do writing. I will mull an idea over for months sometimes before I ever type a word. I see many writers who get an idea and run to open the laptop to begin, but it’s really important both to play conceptually with the idea so that you get more depth in your story, and to experiment with point of view, voice, tense, and structure. I always ask myself, “what is the most interesting way I can tell THIS story?”
That is great advice. Thank you for stopping by my blog Dev.
But wait, dear readers! There’s more! I’ve also interviewed the illustrator.
Ruth Chan spent much of her Canadian childhood tobogganing, her teenage years in Hong Kong and China, another portion of time studying art and education at Wellesley College and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and a decade working with youth and families in schools, after school and summer programs in underserved communities in Boston, DC, and NYC. She nows spends her time creating children’s picture books, drawing comics, and freelance illustrating. Ruth lives in Brooklyn, NY. You can learn more about her at her website.
Me: Can you share about your artistic journey? When did you start creating art?
Ruth: I’d always loved drawing and painting growing up. In fact, I distinctly remember one summer my brother and I mass produced dozens of paintings and went door-to-door to try to sell them, convinced they were masterpieces. I think my parents were the only ones who bought any.
But ever since then I’ve always been engaged in art in some way. I was a High School Art kid, majored in photography in education in college, and did my Masters in Arts in Education where we talked about how to make the arts accessible to anyone and everyone. It took a few years until I became a “full-time artist” myself, but now that I’m here, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else!
Me: You have had several books published as either an illustrator of others’ work or an author illustrator now. How did you get into the work of illustrating picture books? Can you tell us a little bit about your journey to illustrating this book?
Ruth: After college and grad school, I went on to teach for a few years at arts-based schools before moving onto managing youth development programs in underserved communities. I was constantly surrounded by picture books, even though I wasn’t making much art.
Then in 2012, a number of really difficult things happened at the same time and I found myself alone, jobless, and, quite honestly, depressed. I remember sitting down in the mornings and drawing because I didn’t really know what else to do, and then— as things sometimes unfold— that aimlessness led to more illustrations, which led to taking a few SVA continuing classes, and then to attending an SCBWI conference.
I’d always loved picture books because they seamlessly encompass some of the most beautiful things in life: A good story, beautiful language, incredible art, humor, wit, tenderness, and truths. I’d amassed a huge collection of them over the years, but never allowed myself to really consider making them. While I doodled here and there, I had no formal illustration background, and, in my mind, there was no way I’d make it in such a competitive industry. But the SCBWI conference really motivated me to give it a shot.
I worked hard on my illustration and writing and attended another SCBWI Conference with a whole new portfolio. The portfolio ended up receiving a Runner-Up award at the Portfolio Showcase, and within six months, I had signed with an agent, and had a two-book deal.
Since then I’ve been working on picture books but have also started creating comics, including a middle-grade graphic novel.
Me: Oh my goodness. That’s so inspiring! I feel this in everything I’m doing myself right now. What does your illustration process look like? Is it a blend of traditional media and digital?
Ruth: Yes, my illustration process tends to be a mix of both traditional and digital. My first few books were all made with watercolor and ink, and I’d use Photoshop to tweak a few things like colors (because I am terrible at deciding on colors!) Recently—and especially during the pandemic when I couldn’t access my studio—I started mixing it up more. In HOW OLD IS MR. TORTOISE?, I made all the line work by hand using brown ink, scanned those paintings in, and colored the paintings digitally on my iPad using Procreate. I used to be a little resistant to “going digital” but now I see it’s just another tool like a paintbrush or pencil.
Me: I love that! And I loved the variety of characters you put in this book. Were they described in the text? Were there art notes? How did you know what animals to make each character?
Ruth: The characters are some of my favorites I’ve ever created! The author, Dev Petty, had some of the animals indicated in the art notes like the cockatoo and the leopard, and I had a blast choosing the others, like the walrus and aardvark. I’m a sucker for weird animals and I loved the idea of this book being about a random assortment of animals all being friends and coming together to celebrate Mr. Tortoise.
Me: I loved the inclusion of the walrus! What is one thing that surprised you in illustrating “How Old is Mr. Tortoise”?
Ruth: I think the thing that surprised me was how well using sequential panels like a comic or graphic novel worked for this manuscript. The book is all speech with no narration, so it made sense to show as many fun character interactions as possible.
Me: I really love this style for the book. It’s perfect! What was your favorite part of this book? Is there a favorite scene you drew? What made you say “yes” to illustrating this particular book?
Ruth: I have two favorite scenes in this book. The first is when the animals are trying to do the math to calculate how old Mr. Tortoise is. There is a pause where they all look very confounded, and this is basically me on a daily basis any time I am required to do any type of math. The second scene is the big birthday cake scene where all the friends are gathered around and sing Happy Birthday to Mr. Tortoise in the glow of the birthday candles. I love how clearly his friends love him, and the scene makes me very nostalgic about the joy of friendship, family, and a birthday celebration.
Upon reading Dev’s manuscript for the first time, I knew I would say Yes to illustrating this book. I loved the humor and warmth in it, but more than anything, I loved how unique each character’s voice was and I was excited by the idea of bringing them to life. I will say, the one challenge of this book was the actual math! Our editor, Courtney Code, had to break down some of the math for me to make sure the illustrations were consistent with it, and I will be forever grateful that she is better at math than I am.
Me: Any advice for other new picture book writers and/or illustrators?
Ruth: 1) Find a group and/or community of fellow children’s book authors and illustrators. They’ll be your support as you navigate the ins and outs of this career. I was lucky to connect with a few illustrators who were starting out the same time I was, like Tim Miller and Misa Saburi, and it’s been so fun to be able to see how much we’ve learned and grown since the days where we felt like we were chickens running around with our heads chopped off. I was also lucky to connect with illustrators who had a few years under their belt and they’ve given me lots of great advice over the years.
2) Get yourself out there! Go to book events, go to industry events, join SCBWI, get in that Twitter conversation. Making books is a lonely business and I’ve found that those social opportunities are much needed (plus there’s always lots to learn).
3) We all feel like imposters, no matter how many books we’ve made. It’s just part of the journey!
Wow. That is great advice too. Thank you so much for stopping by my blog today Ruth.
Dear readers, this wonderful picture book is released TODAY. Join me in celebrating this book’s birthday by tracking down a copy to read. I really don’t think you’ll regret it.