Interview with Dev Petty, HOW OLD IS MR. TORTOISE?
It’s Mr. Tortoise’s birthday, and he can’t wait to eat cake with his friends. But there’s a hitch! Mr. Tortoise can’t remember how old he is, so his friends don’t know how many candles to put on the cake. And they won’t stop (or slice) until they figure out the mystery.
Max's Boat Pick:
HOW OLD IS MR. TORTOISE?
Written by Dev Petty and illustrated by Ruth Chan
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams (June 21, 2022)
Can you tell me the origin story behind How Old Is Mr. Tortoise?
DP: "I was thinking about how I know exactly when my birthday is but sometimes forget how old I'm turning and I thought that would be a fun setup. I really wanted to capture that weird, collaborative energy friends can get when they are trying to solve a mystery or a problem and just can't let it go. Right about the time I was starting to muse about this idea, I read about an actual tortoise who's very, very old named Jonathan. He's 190 and lives on an island in the South Atlantic. Pictures of him early in his life have people in the back who are wearing knickers and old-fashioned things and I realized how this would be a perfect subject. Together, these things allowed me to make a fun book about friendship and problem solving and has a little STEM mixed in."
You and Ruth Chan! What a phenomenal pairing. What do you think she brought to the book that perhaps originally wasn't there? Were there certain aspects of her illustrations that took you by surprise? "I've admired Ruth's work for a long time and was over the moon when I heard she'd be illustrating this one. She was a perfect fit. I think she was able to use the graphic novel format to organize a story which was kind of a little chaotic (in a good way I hope!). There's a lot of characters and all dialogue and she found a way to make it make sense and give it great pacing. You really feel this whole situation unfolding and different players and ideas at work. I can't believe how great it came out. I guess I was surprised that she could give Mr. Tortoise SO much expression and charm. He just has such a presence and I remember looking through my first peek at it and just marveling at how she brings something unique to him in every page."
You consistently give good advice to aspiring writers, and one piece of advice really stood out to me. "When you read book after book, you get a feel for flow and character. You develop an ear for it and once you have a sense of the rules and the conventions you can start breaking the rules and conventions." You, Dev, are definitely a rule-breaker. Who are some other rule breakers (in the picture book world) that you admire? "That's an interesting question! I think the last fifteen years or so has seen a lot of really creative work happening in picture books, a lot of good rule breaking. I think to some degree that's owing to the fact that there's so much more information out there about what the rules are in the first place, and you surely need to know that before you can break anything! I would certainly say Shaun Tan has found a way to create books that are very unique and engaging and has done
so with different structures and unconventional mechanisms. Dashka Slater amazes me with her ability to tell seemingly traditional stories with a sense of whimsy and weird that sets them apart. In general, I think books that are really successful and memorable are so because at least a bit of rule breaking has happened. I'm all for it."
Your sense of humor! I love it. Who are some other picture book writers that make you laugh? "Thank you! I'm a big Klassen fan. I think This is Not My Hat is kind of perfection. Goodnight Already! by Jory John and Benji Davies is a great read aloud, super funny. I love Daniel and Jill Pinkwater's work. The Two Bad Bears books are so stinkin' funny to me. I also LOVE James Marshall's George and Martha books—they're funny, quirky, unpredictable."
What upcoming picture books are you most looking forward to reading? "Julie Falatko has one coming out, actually with Ruth Chan: Rick the Rock of Room 214. I know it will be wonderful; Julie and Ruth are two of my favorite creators. Ame Dyckman has How Dinosaurs Went Extinct: A Safety Guide coming out next year which looks delightful. She's amazing."
Do you have a favorite bookstore, and why do you love it? "Berkeley is blessed with a bunch of wonderful indie bookstores. I certainly love Mr. Mopps' Children's Books. It's a bookstore just with kids' books and they really know and love children's literature. Also, I grew up going to their toy/bookstore so it's close to my heart. Copperfield's Books in Petaluma is just charming, vast, beautiful and a huge part of the community. I don't love to stray too far from home but am always up for a visit. Moe's Books in Berkeley near the university is amazing. It has a deceptively awesome kid's section and three floors of used books above. You can spend a day there. You asked for a favorite and I gave you three. Oh! I love Powell's in Portland too, because...Powell's."
Do you remember what you loved reading to your kids at age three? At age five? "My writing is certainly born to some degree from what my kids enjoyed when they were young. They liked a wide range but leaned into humor and weirdness to be sure. They loved Elephant & Piggie books by Mo Willems, George and Martha, and anything by Maurice Sendak and the Pinkwaters. They both loved The Big Orange Splot which is one of my favorites, too."
What would be on your list of 100 best picture books of all time? "Oooh. That's such a good question. I always struggle with this but I'll give it a go with a few.
Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen
Dandy by Ame Dyckman and Charles Santoso
Eric by Shaun Tan
Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Death, Duck and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch
This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen
Arm in Arm Remy Charlip
The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson
Amos & Boris by William Steig
The Big Orange Splot by Daniel Pinkwater
A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead and Erin Stead