An Itty-Bitty Kitty-Corn Interview with Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham
Yesterday, author Bethany Hegedus asked on Twitter, “name your funniest female writers. PB to YA and illustrators too.” We all have our favorites, but if I could pick the two I’d most like to veg out in front of the television with, binging bad programming and making raucous off-color commentary, that award might have to go to Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham. Their partnership these last few years has been something to behold. I mean, think about the great children’s literary partnerships of the past. This is one for the ages. And, as luck would have it, I got to ask them questions about their latest book.
The book, by the way is big. It is pink. It is simultaneously fluffy AND glittery. It is, in fact,
Awww, yeah. That’s some cute kitty action going on there. Only don’t get fooled by its big old eyes. This kitty is more than cute. Time for me to ask the hard questions that no one else out there has the guts to ask . . . sorta.
Betsy Bird: So this is something new. Forgive me if I am wrong, but while you’ve done early chapter books and graphic novels with each other, this is the first picture book you have coming out together. Tis true? I’m not sure if I should be asking why you’ve created this now or why it didn’t happen before. I leave it to you! Where did this book come from?
Shannon Hale: This is our first picture book together, and in fact is my first published picture book—period. Uyen is the pro at this and I’m actively learning from her. Talk about a masterclass! This woman has written and illustrated some of my favorite picture books and illustrated over 120 others. Tis mindbogglingly true. But this book didn’t happen in the traditional way perhaps. LeUyen and I are co-creators of this book in every sense. I marvel at how we’re now creating together three different book series in three different formats, and in all three, the creation process is entirely different. With Princess in Black, Dean and I write the text then Uyen creates the illustrations—no art notes from us, almost no conversation about it whatsoever. With the Friends series, I write the script, and being a graphic novel, I describe what’s happening in every panel, so the script Uyen sees is 10x as long as the text the reader reads. We’re also having loads of conversations outside the script. And now this happy picture book, which we created side-by-side!
LeUyen Pham: The story began on our tour for Best Friends. We were working in a coffee shop between school visits and started talking about picture books, what our kids liked, and literally came up with the story and characters while working next to each other. We never intended to make this picture book. We were playing a game with each other, challenging each other to come up with something insanely wonderful—too wonderful to ever really work. But we both couldn’t stop. We fell in love with the characters and the idea. And somehow, eventually, we really did make it work! I was sketching on my iPad, Shannon was typing up ideas, I’d pitch a line and she’d write it down and add another. It was spontaneous creation! And because it was a game, there was no pressure, no wondering about what editors or booksellers or Sales or anyone would want. It was two best friends, both two-decades deep in their book careers, playing a game to come up with a story.
BB: Now I’ve seen you do cats before but this kitty is of a particularly adorable breed. She looks like nothing so much as the feline version of the hungry bunny horde from the Princess in Black tales. It has to be fun going full out with the cute. Were you given any directives on precisely HOW cute to go?
LP: I love cats—I have a cat—but I’d always resisted doing a book about an adorable kitty. I knew what publishers might want, and I thought I could do it, but it just felt egregious. But with this book, because it didn’t feel real, it was just a game, I pulled out all the stops. I just set out to draw the most adorable fluffy kitty we’d ever seen.
SH: It was so fun. I was like, “Fuzzier! She must be fuzzier!” And Uyen would add the fuzz. We showed it to some hip teenage boys in Toronto and they voted she should definitely be pink. For the unicorn, we wanted him to have lush, long, 1980s hair. Go big! But again, there were no directives. This book was our joint creation. After that book tour, we got together as often as possible to work side-by-side again—on other book trips, and once Uyen came and stayed with me in Utah. And even when we were in separate states both working on fine-tuning it, we were constantly sharing back and forth.
BB: So I’m seeing a fluffy, pinky, fuzzy-wuzzy picture book that looks like pure cute siphoned down to its most essential elements. Then I read the story and I get the distinct impression that there is a LOT more going on under all that fur. There is, dare I say it, a bit of a serious message getting discussed here. Care to talk about it a bit?
SH: We could have the most adorable fluffy kitten ever, we could have the most poster-worthy magnificent unicorn, but why would we without a story that really mattered? When we were pitching ideas, we were thinking about what our kids currently loved: cats and unicorns. Then the next thought was “an adorable kitty who wants to be a unicorn.” Then we add a unicorn to the mix. How would Kitty feel when she saw him? How would Unicorn react? This type of story is painfully delicate. Just a tad too much sentimentality and it slips out of your fingers. It’s an insanely thin tightrope to walk. But once we cracked it, at that point, for me, it stopped being a game. At the point where I began to read the text with the sketches to my kids and niblings and others, and I couldn’t keep from breaking down tearfully EVERY SINGLE TIME—at that point, I just thought, I want this to be in the world now. Somehow we’ve done something really special.
LP: And I was really reluctant to take it out of the game stage. It was special because it was just between us, this thing we created in our bubble. I was afraid to open that door and let in all the voices. But eventually we decided to just float it by our agents, Holly and Jodi. I never could have anticipated their reaction. It was so huge, so positive, it took my breath. This story meant more than what it just meant to us.
BB: I’m keen on the use of white space in this book. It’s necessary to highlight shadows and the occasional pink tinge when the kitty is getting particularly agitated. What was your thought process going into the book? Did you ever try to do backgrounds to go with the story or did you know from the start how to frame these characters?
LP: From the beginning this story was about the characters: a desperately hopeful kitty, a gecko and parakeet functioning as our Greek chorus, and that perfect unicorn. Keeping the white space allowed us to focus just on those characters. And they’re already so colorful, they fill up the space all on their own. And there are a couple of spreads where their shadows take up the whole space. That would get lost with too much background chatter.
SH: This is me poking my nose into gush. GUSH GUSH GUSH LEUYEN PHAM IS A FREAKIN’ GENIUS I’M SO LUCKY TO GET TO WORK WITH HER AND I LOVE EVERYTHING THAT SHE DOES!!!
BB: Of course Frimplepants from Princess in Black with his own on again, off again horn sounds like a clear predecessor to this story. Were he to meet these kittycorns, how would he react?
SH: The key to Princess in Black for me has always been: you can be both. You don’t have to choose. She’s a princess and a hero. She doesn’t have to disparage one side of herself to embrace the other. Frimplepants is a peace-loving unicorn. He’s also a monster-fighting pony. He loves being both! Too often I see adults trying to label kids, to tell them which peg they fit into—you get one spot and that’s it! It’s well-meaning but so, so limiting. I think Frimplepants would have no trouble seeing the kitty-corns as they see themselves, in all their beautiful complexity.
LP: Oh yeah, Frimplepants would definitely be a kindred spirit. There would be an awesome unicorn playdate.
BB: And of course, what are you working on next together? Can you say?
SH: We have the third and final book in our Friends series coming out end of August, FRIENDS FOREVER, and the next installment in THE PRINCESS IN BLACK series this fall. And we’re working on books 2 and 3 of KITTY-CORN. And we’re talking about other stuff…honestly, I will do any and every book with Uyen that she wants to do with me.
LP: There is literally nothing this woman writes that I don’t want immediately to illustrate. I know that I can’t, of course – her imagination is wide and endless and would be the death of me should I attempt to illustrate everything she writes. But I’m certainly trying! What I love the most about Shannon, though, is how much she makes the best of me come out. I am really just trying to keep up with her, to make my art equal to her writing. And whenever we’re together, the ideas just start sparking between us in a way that I can never do as well alone. So if we get to tour in person for FRIENDS FOREVER, well, look out!
Awww. Friends making books about friends. Dang. Upon reflection, I should have asked them who was the kitty in their relationship and who was the unicorn. Ah well. Next time. Because with LeUyen and Shannon there will always BE a next time.
Many thanks to Shannon and LeUyen for answering my questions and to Mary Marolla and the folks at Abrams for arranging this interview. Itty-Bitty Kitty-Corn is on shelves everywhere as of today so go get yourself (yes, for YOU) a copy today.
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