All is quiet in the forest as the Great Star rises in the distance, and two little musicians, Strum and Drum, wake up from a deep slumber and set out to make the most joyous music they can! But as Strum strums his guitar and Drum drums her drum on their way to the North, some mysterious obstacles fill their paths...
Pick by Eric Fan, Night Lunch:
STRUM & DRUM: A MERRY LITTLE QUEST
By Jashar Awan
Published by Tundra Books (October 4, 2022)
Thanks for stopping by again, Jashar! Let's start out in the way these interviews always start: Can you tell me the origin story behind Strum & Drum?
JA: "Sure! I was hanging ornaments on the Christmas tree a few years ago and I noticed how each branch looked like it could be its own little tree. I thought, 'This could be a forest.' As the tree filled with ornaments, it quickly became an enchanted forest in my mind. I already had the names Strum and Drum from a project that I had set aside and decided to attach them to this idea.
Early sketches of Strum & Drum:
Around that time, I found a copy of The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau by Jon Agee at a book sale. It’s all about a painter whose paintings are so lifelike, they actually come to life! The story had a sense of surrealism that I hadn’t seen outside of Chris Van Allsburg’s books, but it was drawn in a linear cartoony style that was nothing like the realism of Van Allsburg’s work. It got me thinking about style and how it’s used. I thought, 'Wouldn’t it be fun for a children’s book to change styles at a pivotal moment in the story?'"
Early sketches and an interior spread from Strum & Drum:
I had all of these thoughts and influences brewing in my head for a few years before I finally started writing the story. Recently, I was looking back through my sketchbook and I couldn’t get over how much development went into the book. There was a moment when Strum and Drum were anthropomorphic instruments and another when Strum was an angel with a harp and Drum was the Little Drummer Boy. It was a good reminder that it takes time for creative work to get to where it’s going. It’s always tempting to look at the final book and say, 'Of course—that’s how that story goes and that's how the characters look.' But that’s not true at all—there are so many decisions made and roads not taken along the way."
Interior spreads from Strum & Drum:
Strum & Drum has a very modern fairy tale quality to it, and reminds me of Tom Gauld's The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess. For those who love Strum & Drum, can you recommend a few other titles that you think they might also enjoy?
"Chirri & Chirra: The Snowy Day by Kaya Doi was a big influence on Strum & Drum (so much so that I used the same book dimensions!). There’s a whole series of Chirri & Chirra books. They usually involve the characters going on a bike ride and ending up in a whimsical fantasy world filled with beautifully illustrated details. Chirri & Chirra: The Snowy Day was the first one I read and it's my favorite of the series—it’s just so cozy and inviting!
Phoebe Wahl’s Little Witch Hazel is another book that I’d describe as cozy and inviting! Wahl builds a fantasy world where chores and colds still exist but so do toads who want to take you rafting with them. (Also, I’m kinda a sucker for tiny doors on the sides of trees.)
I’ve mentioned to you before that I’m a big fan of the illustrator Júlia Sardà. She just made her authorial debut with The Queen in the Cave. This book is overwhelmingly gorgeous! It tells the story of a girl who leads her younger sisters on a journey where they see many fantastic and strange things.
And, finally, if you enjoyed Strum & Drum, you might also like The Three Billy Goats Gruff by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen. It is a retelling of a classic fairy tale that feels modern due to the sensibilities of its creators—Barnett’s way with words, Klassen’s visual pacing, and their shared sense of humor. They make it look easy!"
What are some of your favorite holiday books? "It almost goes without saying The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg is a favorite holiday book of mine. Its imagery is so memorable and I love the bittersweet note at the end about how the sound of the sleigh bell gets fainter every year. It’s a book with nostalgia built into it.
My family's favorite nostalgic Christmas read is Clement Moore’s Twas the Night Before Christmas. We have an old paperback copy illustrated by the great Golden Age illustrator Jessie Willcox Smith. My wife and I read and reread this our son so many times, he could recite large portions of it by the age of 2! (I included a nod to the opening line of Moore’s text in Strum & Drum—a sleepy mouse can be seen marching in Strum and Drum’s merry band!)
The Sweet Smell of Christmas is another favorite in my household. It’s written by Patricia Scarry and illustrated by J.P. Miller. It’s a scratch-and-sniff book so you really get to experience the smells of the holiday along with Little Bear and his family as they prepare for and celebrate Christmas.
My studio mate Lala Watkins just released an adorable board book called Little Santa’s Workshop! It’s a rhyming behind-the-scenes look at the North Pole as preparations are made for Christmas Eve. Lala’s art always makes me smile—it is so joyful and bold!
One non-book recommendation—I realize that The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats isn’t a holiday book but check out its animated adaptation on Prime Video. This cartoon sets the story at Christmastime and is wonderfully inclusive in a way that I imagine Keats would have liked. It really captures the feeling of Brooklyn in winter."
You've spent years illustrating for the New Yorker. I'm curious whether any picture book illustrators inspired your work there? "I’ve always been a big fan of William Steig! When I was little, I was inspired by Gorky Rises to make potions in the kitchen sink. Steig was a New Yorker illustrator, too. Like Steig, my editorial work was very linear (although I reinvented myself stylistically when I switched to picture books)."
What would be on your list of 100 best picture books of all time? "Most of the books I’ve already mentioned would probably find their way onto my list! They’d be joining books like—
"Madeline’s Rescue by Ludwig Bemelmans I am a Bunny by Ole Risom and Richard Scarry Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson Corduroy by Don Freeman Strega Nona by Tomie dePaola Doctor De Soto by William Steig Nutshell Library by Maurice Sendak Anatole by Eve Titus and Paul Galdone
The Lion and The Stoat by Paul O. Zelinsky
Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson The Way Home in the Night by Akiko Miyakoshi The Bad Mood and the Stick by Lemony Snicket and Matthew Forsythe Mary Wears What She Wants by Keith Negley Mile End Kids Stories by Isabelle Arsenault Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak would take the top spot for sure. I love the way he's able to transport us to another world and back again before supper even starts to get cold."
Ozzie and Prince Zebedee are the best of friends. They do everything together, but things change when Prince Zebedee accuses Ozzie of cheating and Ozzie swallows up Prince Zebedee in one big GULP!
Pick by Mags DeRoma, To Make:
OZZIE & PRINCE ZEBEDEE
By Gela Kalaitzidis
Publisher: Flamingo Books (October 11, 2022)
Thanks for coming onboard, Gela! Let's start off the way these interviews always start: Can you tell me the origin story behind Ozzie & Prince Zebedee? GK: "First, thank you for having me. I’ve been looking forward to talking picture books with you. The origin story behind Ozzie & Prince Zebedee probably comes from my fascination with studying my three kids’ mysterious sibling behavior. I’m an only child, so to see them bickering and fighting and then so easily switch to joy and love is a completely foreign behavior to me. It's a lot of them in the book. This story is also a result of a script I wrote many years ago. In that version, Ozzie and Prince Zebedee were just side characters. When I rewrote the script my critique group helped me see that the heart of the story was in the arguing prince and dragon. From there the script grew to what it is today."
A great critique group is pure gold! It looks like you've found yourself a phenomenal one. What I've been struck by ever since I heard your book's title is the name Zebedee, which is a name in the Bible. I'm curious whether you meant to give a religious connotation to the book. Or is there another story behind the name? "I never intended for the book to have a religious connotation but in hindsight, I think the message of repentance and forgiveness might come from my Catholic upbringing. In the early version of the script, Zebedee was only referred to as 'the prince' but when he became one of the main characters, I needed to find a name. At that time my daughter had a friend in kindergarten whose brother was named Zebedee. I'd never heard the name before but it had a beautiful exotic sound to it. (Maybe, I should also mention that Ozzie's original name was Ozymandias after Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem.)"
Images from Ozzie & Prince Zebedee (above and below):
"And when dragons are mad, sometimes they make bad choices." What a phenomenal line! Are there any other memorable lines that have popped out at you? "Thank you! I have to give credit to my agent Deborah Warren who helped me develop that line. It originally had a different setup. This was a hard question. First I could only think of beautiful quotes from Winnie-the-Pooh but then I thought of this line from The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren that is so familiar to most Swedes: '…Sometimes you have to do things that are dangerous, because otherwise you're not a man, just a piece of dirt.' Unfortunately, it’s poorly translated from its original. The line is not exclusively referring to doing dangerous things, but rather things you might not dare to do (which is a big difference in my opinion!) and if you don’t do them, you’re not 'dirt.' You’re more like a messy little 'muck.' The original line has both a grandness to it and is very child relatable."
For those who love Ozzie & Prince Zebedee, can you recommend one or two other titles that you think they might also enjoy? "For fans of dragon books, I would recommend East Dragon, West Dragon by Robyn Eversole and Scott Campbell, or if it’s anger and emotions with a funny twist that appeals to you, I would recommend Leave Me Alone! by Vera Brosgol."
Gobble-up stories are certainly a (fun) genre in and of itself. Are there other titles where characters get eaten that you love? "I love the idea of gobble-up stories as a genre in itself. What a fun question. The most peculiar gobble-up book must be The Wuggly Ump by Edward Gorey which I read over and over as a child. I’m a big Edward Gorey fan.
I also like Hungry Jim by Laurel Snyder Illustrated by Chuck Groenink.
What forthcoming books are you most looking to get your hands on?
"I can’t wait to read Ode to a Bad Day by my friend Chelsea Lin Wallace and illustrated by Hyewon Yum. I’ve seen this script in an early stage and know it’ll be a hilarious read.
As an artist, I’m looking forward to Shaun Tan’s Creature book. Since I’m blown away by Beatrice Alemagna’s beautiful art, I’m curious about You Can't Kill Snow White, especially since it’s released as a picture book for adults. That’s an interesting genre."
What would be on your list of 100 best picture books of all time? "Many of my favorites have already been mentioned on your blog. Sam & Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen is brilliant. Same with Klassen’s This is Not My Hat. I love Beekle by Dan Santat and you’ve even hosted Sergio Ruzzier himself. All his books would be on my list.
Here are some others that come to mind:
Who's Got the Apple? by Jan Lööf – One of the most iconic children’s books in Sweden.
There's a Nightmare in My Closet by Mercer Mayer – Read this over and over with my kids.
Julia's House for Lost Creatures by Ben Hatke – Because I love creatures.
Professional Crocodile by Giovanna Oboli and Mariachiara di Giorgio – Beautiful Art
When Owen's Mom Breathed Fire by Pija Lindenbaum – Because I love mama dragons with ponytails.
Ralph Tells a Story by Abby Hanlon – So relatable for any storyteller.
Every year, gusts of wind blow colorful autumn leaves to the ground. Some leaves make a crunch under foot, and others are so beautiful they deserve to be saved.
Pick by Mags DeRoma, To Make:
IF YOU FIND A LEAF
By Aimée Sicuro
Publisher: Random House Studio (July 12, 2022)
Can you tell me the origin story behind If You Find a Leaf?
AS: "In 2015, I started making these collages with leaves that I found for the online project Inktober. Every year I looked forward to finding fall leaves and seeing what I could make with each different shape and colorful leaf I found.
In the fall of 2019 Rachael Cole, who is an author, artist, and art director at Random House reached out to me and asked me if I had ever thought about creating a story around these collages. It seemed unbelievable to be able to make a book out of the personal work that I loved creating."
Aimée Sicuro's early sketches for If You Find a Leaf:
What a great origin story! And what a phenomenal collection of leaves you have in your end pages! Did you collect every single one yourself? Where did you find them? There must be some fun stories behind them. "Yes, I did find all of the leaves in the book. Because I made this book during the darker days of the pandemic, I spent a lot of early mornings on a walk or run just to clear my head. I found a lot of leaves on those solo walks all around Brooklyn. My kids also helped me collect leaves when we went to Prospect Park and anytime we were out for a walk. My daughter came home from Pre-K last fall with a backpack full of leaves that she collected on their class nature walk. She explained to her teachers that she needed to collect them for me so I could make a book out of leaves. This made me laugh and wonder what her teacher must have imagined I was doing. It definitely became a family affair."
Interior spreads of If You Find a Leaf:
I love how you included your glycerin bath technique as backmatter. How did you come across this technique? "Originally when I was doing these drawings as a fun personal project, I would glue the leaf to the page, and inevitably it would become brown and brittle. I started experimenting with modge podge and leaf pressing techniques until I found the glycerin bath recipe online. This was the best solution for keeping the leaves soft, dimensional, and colorful. For the art in the book, I photographed the leaves when they were fresh to get the most vibrant version of the leaf. But it's helpful to preserve them for framed original art and to make crafts with kids throughout the year. For school visits, I've been collecting and preserving leaves for a collage activity I do with the students. This prevents the leaves from drying out and crumbling off the art that they've made."
For those who love If You Find a Leaf, can you recommend a few other titles that you think they might also enjoy?
"Lawrence in the Fall by Matthew Farina and Doug Salati. There are so many reasons to love this book. Farina captures the range of emotions so perfectly and the bond between Lawrence and his father is felt throughout the text. You can feel the texture of the beautiful illustrations on every page and the soft muted colors give this book a warm inviting feeling. The perspective and the details on every page are wonderful.
Leaf Man by Lois Ehlert. The collage style is a wonderfully tactile imaginative journey of the man made of real leaves and is a book that I could read over and over with my kids.
Leaves by David Ezra Stein. The fluid linear illustration style in this book has a whimsical joyful feeling. The lovable bear tries to understand why the leaves are falling from the tree and if the trees need his help. It's a great way to talk about the seasons with kids and why leaves fall in Autumn."
What are some other fall picture books you love?
"Sweep by Louise Greig and Júlia Sardà
Storm by Sam Usher
Yellow Time by Lauren Stringer"
What would be on your list of 100 best picture books of all time?
"The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
Miss Nelson is Missing! by Harry Allard and James Marshall
Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst and Ray Cruz
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin, Jr. and Eric Carle
Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard and Juana Martinez-Neal
If You Come to Earth by Sophie Blackall"
What forthcoming picture books are you most looking forward to reading?
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Beatrice Alemagna
Fireworks by Matthew Burgess and Cátia Chien
Tap! Tap! Tap! by Hervé Tullet
You Rule by Rilla Alexander"