Daniel Salmieri
Daniel Salmieri

Secret Pizza Party! (or How to Write the Best Kids' Book)

Daniel Salmieri
Daniel Salmieri

Daniel Salmieri

Secret Pizza Party is one of the most popular books in my house, and certainly THE most popular book involving crafty raccoons trying to get their paws on deliciously cheesy slices. If you don't have the book, and you know a kid who loves reading, I can't endorse it enough. (Their previous book Dragons Love Tacos is also very high on our list.) This week, author Adam Rubin was kind enough to answer some of my questions, while illustrator Dan Salmieri sent over some early sketches. If you're interested in what it's like to be a children's author, how to avoid creative fatigue, or if you just want to hear about the day-to-day of some truly wonderful minds, this interview should help. 

***

ADAM RUBIN: I feel so lucky to make my living as an author. I spent ten years busting my butt in the creative department of various ad agencies and I only just quit my day job five months ago. Since then, my life has changed completely. I get invited to visit schools and book stores all around the country. It's so crazy. The other day, I walked out on stage in front of 600 kids who knew my work by heart. They were screaming out lines from the book and just generally going insane. It's hard to believe that words I peck out on a laptop in my apartment wind up swirling around the brains of hilarious little kids and creating these really beautiful family bonding moments for people I've never met. It's surreal. Writing can be such an isolating exercise. It's a revelation to meet fans in person and see how the books have become this incredible shared experience.

Daniel Salmieri

I don't often feel like a celebrity but when I randomly bumped into NYC pizza expert Scott Weiner at Pizza Suprema, he had a very emotional reaction. "Oh my god! Oh my god! Secret Pizza Party!!!" he screamed. The whole restaurant stopped to stare, wondering who the hell I was. Needless to say, Scott is a passionate guy. I had gotten him a copy of Secret Pizza Party through a mutual friend and he was nice enough to share the book with his fans on Twitter. I've found that food love creates a strong bond for people. Scott and I had never met before that day but he hugged me like a brother and it made me so happy. It's a fun way to connect. We get emails from restaurants saying how they keep our books out on the counter. My buddy even spotted Dragons Love Tacos at a taco stand in Japan! Dan and I recently sent a copy to the Fat Jew (@thefatjewish). He's been posting a lot about the need to create a taco emoji and we fully support his campaign. 

I never planned to become a children's author. I had a good career as an ad creative. I was working ten hours a day, flying around the country, cramming for pitch meetings, staying late into the night, spending weeks away on production. It was exciting but it could be frustrating I probably only produced one project a year that I was actually proud of. Flash back nine years and I'm sitting at my desk at Leo Burnett in Chicago writing story boards for a Happy Meal commercial. I get an email from my college friend Corey introducing me to a talented young illustrator he knew from high school. Dan and I exchanged portfolios and we hit it off immediately. He wanted to draw picture books and I wanted to work with him so I wrote a story called Those Darn Squirrels and sent it over. Dan had already been hired for a scholastic project based on the strength of his student work and that opened some doors for meetings with other publishers. He brought my manuscript, along with some  great sketches he had made, into a meeting with an editor at Clarion and they offered to buy the book. Not the typical story of breaking into the book business. When Those Darn Squirrels came out, the response was tremendous. We got all these starred reviews and won a Borders Original Voices award. Since then we've done five other books. I was building my advertising career the whole time, writing the stories at night. It was a really satisfying and fun creative outlet but I never imagined it could become my full-time job. Then, when Dragons Love Tacos came out, it was a huge hit. After 52 weeks on the best-seller list, our publisher offered us a multi-book deal and I decided it was time to leave my office life behind.

The protagonist of Secret Pizza Party is a raccoon because it seemed like the perfect combination of cute and cunning. They are adorably fuzzy with big fluffy tails but they also have that bandit mask and those grabby little hands. I wanted an animal that the reader could root for but that the other characters in the book might not like as much. Maybe all raccoons are similarly misunderstood rascals.

For some kids, Dan and I have become unofficial experts on what foods animals like. We often get asked if Dragons like pizza or nachos or strawberry cupcakes. Another common question is whether I personally enjoy spicy salsa. The answer is yes. In fact, the spicier the better. I recently had some habanero salsa that was so hot it made me sweat. Good stuff.

Daniel Salmieri

For me the creative process is more of a mindset than a timeframe. I try to stay curious and playful in general and it helps me to discover new ways of looking at things. I'll experiment with something fun that might seem totally purposeless at the time or indulge some random boondoggle on a whim. Inspiration seems to occur more naturally that way. Something will pop into my head that I find appealing and I write it down then forget about it. I like to have multiple projects going on at once. When I get tired of one, I move on to another or dive into my notebook to see what kind of random crap is written in there. When I go back to an idea without consciously thinking about it for a while, I feel refreshed and invigorated to develop it more. Sometimes I find that I have a whole bunch of new stuff to add that was ruminating in the back of my mind somehow. That said, sometimes I'm on deadline. I find a combination of early rising, strong coffee and walking breaks helps me get the best writing done with the minimal amount of consternation.

My favorite books from childhood are Strega Nona by Tomie dePaola and The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer. Modern classics I love are The Stinky Cheese Man by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith and The Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers. I find a lot of inspiration in pop-up books like ABC3D by Marion Bataille, Bruno Munari's work for children, and a lot of obscure European picture books I get sent by friends. Growing up I used to love reading the Klutz Book of Kids Shenanigans, Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side.

Daniel Salmieri

A lot of parents tell me they like our books because the tone is different from a lot of the other stuff they read. I've heard it described as "conspiratorial" and I like that. It's like the older brother who lets you in on a secret but doesn't actually know what he's talking about. The narrator often plays a part in the story and is kind of in cahoots with the reader. There are lots of different people reading picture books: kids, parents, aunts, uncles, older siblings, younger siblings, teachers, booksellers, librarians, celebrities, airplane pilots and popcorn scientists. It's actually a much wider audience than you might expect. I try not to get distracted by what who will like. When I write, I write something I will like. Something that makes me laugh. Dan is often my first reader and if he laughs at a draft, I know I'm onto something. We really try to do something interesting with each project. It takes a lot of time and effort to create a picture book and we know there are people out there who will be forced to read them six thousand times. We aspire to make something that's great. Not just "great for kids."

My pizza consumption has definitely increased since moving to New York. No offense to Chicago but deep dish is just lasagna in disguise. The last really good pizza party I attended was actually thrown by Scott Weiner and the guys from The New York Pizza Project at the City Reliquary in Brookyln. There was even a guy dressed in a giant pizza costume.

My favorite pizzeria is actually in St. Louis. Don't freak out. There are tons of delicious pizzas in New York but this little spot in Missouri has a special place in my heart. It's called La Pizza and I worked as a delivery guy there while I was in school at Wash U down the street. It's run by some guys from the east coast and the pies and calzones are all expertly made with quality ingredients. You'll find a lot of homesick New Yorkers there with smiles on their faces.

Daniel Salmieri

One of my favorite things is when people throw parties based on the stories. They'll dress up as the characters and make special cakes or build life size replicas of illustrations from the book. It makes me so happy. There are some really creative and talented parents out there.

Our next book is called Robo-Sauce and it comes out October 20th. It's the story of a magic potion that turns squishy little humans into giant awesome robots. Eventually, everything in the story gets turned into robots. There's even a secret shiny metal dust jacket that folds out from inside and turns the whole book into a robot. Spoiler alert. The responses so far have been super exciting. Our publisher really took a chance on making something that's never been done before. The production/design process has been intense but I'm so happy with how everything turned out. There's all this crazy neon ink and Dan really outdid himself with the illustrations. It's ridiculous and surprising and I'm probably overhyping it now so I'm gonna stop.

To get your hands on Dragons Love Tacos, Secret Pizza Party, or any of Adam and Dan's other books, be sure to click here.


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Marvel Entertainment
10 Facts About Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian
Marvel Entertainment
Marvel Entertainment

Nearly every sword-wielding fantasy hero from the 20th century owes a tip of their horned helmet to Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. Set in the fictional Hyborian Age, after the destruction of Atlantis but before our general recorded history, Conan's stories have depicted him as everything from a cunning thief to a noble king and all types of scoundrel in between. But beneath that blood-soaked sword and shield is a character that struck a nerve with generations of fantasy fans, spawning adaptations in comics, video games, movies, TV shows, and cartoons in the eight decades since he first appeared in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales. So thank Crom, because here are 10 facts about Conan the Barbarian.

1. THE FIRST OFFICIAL CONAN STORY WAS A KULL REWRITE.

Conan wasn’t the only barbarian on Robert E. Howard’s resume. In 1929, the writer created Kull the Conqueror, a more “introspective” brand of savage that gained enough interest to eventually find his way onto the big screen in 1997. The two characters share more than just a common creator and a general disdain for shirts, though: the first Conan story to get published, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” was actually a rewrite of an earlier rejected Kull tale titled “By This Axe I Rule!” For this new take on the plot, Howard introduced supernatural elements and more action. The end result was more suited to what Weird Tales wanted, and it became the foundation for future Conan tales.

2. BUT A “PROTO-CONAN” STORY PRECEDED IT.

A few months before Conan made his debut in Weird Tales, Howard wrote a story called "People of the Dark" for Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror about a man named John O’Brien who seemed to relive his past life as a brutish, black-haired warrior named … Conan of the reavers. Reave is a word from Old English meaning to raid or plunder, which is obviously in the same ballpark as barbarian. And in the story, there is also a reference to Crom, the fictional god of the Hyborian age that later became a staple of the Conan mythology. This isn't the barbarian as we know him, and it's certainly not an official Conan tale, but the early ideas were there.

3. ROBERT E. HOWARD NEVER INTENDED TO WRITE THESE STORIES IN ORDER.

Howard was meticulous in his world-building for Conan, which was highlighted by his 8600-word history on the Hyborian Age the character lived in. But the one area the creator had no interest in was linearity. Conan’s first story depicted him already as a king; subsequent stories, though, would shift back and forth, chronicling his early days as both a thief and a youthful adventurer.

There’s good reason for that, as Howard himself once explained: “In writing these yarns I've always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That's why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.”

4. THERE ARE NUMEROUS CONNECTIONS TO THE H.P. LOVECRAFT MYTHOS.

For fans of the pulp magazines of the early 20th century, one of the only names bigger than Robert E. Howard was H.P. Lovecraft. The two weren’t competitors, though—rather, they were close friends and correspondents. They’d often mail each other drafts of their stories, discuss the themes of their work, and generally talk shop. And as Lovecraft’s own mythology was growing, it seems like their work began to bleed together.

In “The Phoenix on the Sword,” Howard made reference to “vast shadowy outlines of the Nameless Old Ones,” which could be seen as a reference to the ancient, godlike “Old Ones” from the Lovecraft mythos. In the book The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, editor Patrice Louinet even wrote that Howard’s earlier draft for the story name-dropped Lovecraft’s actual Old Ones, most notably Cthulhu.

In Lovecraft’s “The Shadow of Time,” he describes a character named Crom-Ya as a “Cimmerian chieftain,” which is a reference to Conan's homeland and god. These examples just scratch the surface of names, places, and concepts that the duo’s work share. Whether you want to read it all as a fun homage or an early attempt at a shared universe is up to you.

5. SEVERAL OF HOWARD’S STORIES WERE REWRITTEN AS CONAN STORIES POSTHUMOUSLY.

Howard was only 30 when he died, so there aren’t as many completed Conan stories out in the world as you’d imagine—and there are even less that were finished and officially printed. Despite that, the character’s popularity has only grown since the 1930s, and publishers looked for a way to print more of Howard’s Conan decades after his death. Over the years, writers and editors have gone back into Howard’s manuscripts for unfinished tales to doctor up and rewrite for publication, like "The Snout in the Dark," which was a fragment that was reworked by writers Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp. There were also times when Howard’s non-Conan drafts were repurposed as Conan stories by publishers, including all of the stories in 1955's Tales of Conan collection from Gnome Press.

6. FRANK FRAZETTA’S CONAN PAINTINGS REGULARLY SELL FOR SEVEN FIGURES.

Chances are, the image of Conan you have in your head right now owes a lot to artist Frank Frazetta: His version of the famous barbarian—complete with rippling muscles, pulsating veins, and copious amounts of sword swinging—would come to define the character for generations. But the look that people most associate with Conan didn’t come about until the character’s stories were reprinted decades after Robert E. Howard’s death.

“In 1966, Lancer Books published new paperbacks of Robert E. Howard's Conan series and hired my grandfather to do the cover art,” Sara Frazetta, Frazetta's granddaughter owner and operator of Frazetta Girls, tells Mental Floss. You could argue that Frazetta’s powerful covers were what drew most people to Conan during the '60s and '70s, and in recent years the collector’s market seems to validate that opinion. In 2012, the original painting for his Lancer version of Conan the Conqueror sold at auction for $1,000,000. Later, his Conan the Destroyer went for $1.5 million.

Still, despite all of Frazetta’s accomplishments, his granddaughter said there was one thing he always wanted: “His only regret was that he wished Robert E. Howard was alive so he could have seen what he did with his character.”

7. CONAN’S FIRST MARVEL COMIC WAS ALMOST CANCELED AFTER SEVEN ISSUES.

The cover to Marvel's Conan the Barbarian #21
Marvel Entertainment

Conan’s origins as a pulp magazine hero made him a natural fit for the medium’s logical evolution: the comic book. And in 1970, the character got his first high-profile comic launch when Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian hit shelves, courtesy of writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith.

Though now it’s hailed as one of the company’s highlights from the ‘70s, the book was nearly canceled after a mere seven issues. The problem is that while the debut issue sold well, each of the next six dropped in sales, leading Marvel’s then editor-in-chief, Stan Lee, to pull the book from production after the seventh issue hit stands.

Thomas pled his case, and Lee agreed to give Conan one last shot. But this time instead of the book coming out every month, it would be every two months. The plan worked, and soon sales were again on the rise and the book would stay in publication until 1993, again as a monthly. This success gave way to the Savage Sword of Conan, an oversized black-and-white spinoff magazine from Marvel that was aimed at adult audiences. It, too, was met with immense success, lasting from 1974 to 1995.

8. OLIVER STONE WROTE A FOUR-HOUR, POST-APOCALYPTIC CONAN MOVIE.

John Milius’s 1982 Conan movie is a classic of the sword and sorcery genre, but its original script from Oliver Stone didn’t resemble the final product at all. In fact, it barely resembled anything related to Conan. Stone’s Conan would have been set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, where the barbarian would do battle against a host of mutant pigs, insects, and hyenas. Not only that, but it would have also been just one part of a 12-film saga that would be modeled on the release schedule of the James Bond series.

The original producers were set to move ahead with Stone’s script with Stone co-directing alongside an up-and-coming special effects expert named Ridley Scott, but they were turned down by all of their prospects. With no co-director and a movie that would likely be too ambitious to ever actually get finished, they sold the rights to producer Dino De Laurentiis, who helped bring in Milius.

9. BARACK OBAMA IS A FAN (AND WAS TURNED INTO A BARBARIAN HIMSELF).

When President Barack Obama sent out a mass email in 2015 to the members of Organizing for Action, he was looking to get people to offer up stories about how they got involved within their community—their origin stories, if you will. In this mass email, the former Commander-in-Chief detailed his own origin, with a shout out to a certain barbarian:

“I grew up loving comic books. Back in the day, I was pretty into Conan the Barbarian and Spiderman.

Anyone who reads comics can tell you, every main character has an origin story—the fateful and usually unexpected sequence of events that made them who they are.”

This bit of trivia was first made public in 2008 in a Daily Telegraph article on 50 facts about the president. That led to Devil’s Due Publishing immortalizing the POTUS in the 2009 comic series Barack the Barbarian, which had him decked out in his signature loincloth doing battle against everyone from Sarah Palin to Dick Cheney.

10. J.R.R. TOLKIEN WAS ALSO A CONAN DEVOTEE.

The father of 20th century fantasy may always be J.R.R. Tolkien, but Howard is a close second in many fans' eyes. Though Tolkien’s work has found its way into more scholarly literary circles, Howard’s can sometimes get categorized as low-brow. Quality recognizes quality, however, and during a conversation with Tolkien, writer L. Sprague de Camp—who himself edited and touched-up numerous Conan stories—said The Lord of the Rings author admitted that he “rather liked” Howard’s Conan stories during a conversation with him. He didn’t expand upon it, nor was de Camp sure which Conan tale he actually read (though it was likely “Shadows in the Moonlight”), but the seal of approval from Tolkien himself goes a long way toward validation.

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iStock
Why a Readily Available Used Paperback Is Selling for Thousands of Dollars on Amazon
iStock
iStock

At first glance, getting ahold of a copy of One Snowy Knight, a historical romance novel by Deborah MacGillivray, isn't hard at all. You can get the book, which originally came out in 2009, for a few bucks on Amazon. And yet according to one seller, a used copy of the book is worth more than $2600. Why? As The New York Times reports, this price disparity has more to do with the marketing techniques of Amazon's third-party sellers than it does the market value of the book.

As of June 5, a copy of One Snowy Knight was listed by a third-party seller on Amazon for $2630.52. By the time the Times wrote about it on July 15, the price had jumped to $2800. That listing has since disappeared, but a seller called Supersonic Truck still has used copy available for $1558.33 (plus shipping!). And it's not even a rare book—it was reprinted in July.

The Times found similar listings for secondhand books that cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars more than their market price. Those retailers might not even have the book on hand—but if someone is crazy enough to pay $1500 for a mass-market paperback that sells for only a few dollars elsewhere, that retailer can make a killing by simply snapping it up from somewhere else and passing it on to the chump who placed an order with them.

Not all the prices for used books on Amazon are so exorbitant, but many still defy conventional economic wisdom, offering used copies of books that are cheaper to buy new. You can get a new copy of the latest edition of One Snowy Knight for $16.99 from Amazon with Prime shipping, but there are third-party sellers asking $24 to $28 for used copies. If you're not careful, how much you pay can just depend on which listing you click first, thinking that there's not much difference in the price of used books. In the case of One Snowy Knight, there are different listings for different editions of the book, so you might not realize that there's a cheaper version available elsewhere on the site.

An Amazon product listing offers a mass-market paperback book for $1558.33.
Screenshot, Amazon

Even looking at reviews might not help you find the best listing for your money. People tend to buy products with the most reviews, rather than the best reviews, according to recent research, but the site is notorious for retailers gaming the system with fraudulent reviews to attract more buyers and make their way up the Amazon rankings. (There are now several services that will help you suss out whether the reviews on a product you're looking at are legitimate.)

For more on how Amazon's marketplace works—and why its listings can sometimes be misleading—we recommend listening to this episode of the podcast Reply All, which has a fascinating dive into the site's third-party seller system.

[h/t The New York Times]

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