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