Oh, What a Knight Owl Interview: Talking With Christopher Denise About Tiny Armored Birds
The other day at my library’s 101 Great Books for Kids Meeting (we start ’em in January, baby) one of my co-workers declared that he’d found the Mel Fell of 2022. He said, and I quote, “It is absolutely beautiful and funny. With a satisfying ending … We do have a lot of books about animals so far (and it’s only February), but this one should definitely be considered one of the very best.”
And he’s not wrong. Though I try to resist the charms of all-animal books, some clearly stand apart from the pack. KNIGHT OWL by Christopher Denise is already one of the best of 2022 (and quite possibly the first serious Caldecott contender I’ve discovered so far). Here’s the plot description:
“A determined Owl builds strength and confidence in this medieval picture book about the real mettle of a hero: wits, humor, and heart.
Since the day he hatched, Owl dreamed of becoming a real knight. He may not be the biggest or the strongest, but his sharp nocturnal instincts can help protect the castle, especially since many knights have recently gone missing. While holding guard during Knight Night Watch, Owl is faced with the ultimate trial—a frightening intruder. It’s a daunting duel by any measure. But what Owl lacks in size, he makes up for in good ideas.
Full of wordplay and optimism, this surprising display of bravery proves that cleverness (and friendship) can rule over brawn.”
I’m not made of stone, people. When given the chance to talk about tiny owls in armor, I tend to jump at it. So I engaged author/illustrator Christopher Denise in a bit of the old back and forth:
Betsy Bird: Mr. Denise! So kind of you to join me. Now every book has an origin story and I simply have to learn what this one is. Where did owl even come from?
Christopher Denise: Hi Betsy, thanks so much for inviting me!
Owl came from the best possible place, a fun evening with my family.
I had been working on another character-driven story that was just not coming together so I took a break. Anika, the girls, and I were all enjoying a fun-filled family pizza night and playing a silly work mash-up game. I mentioned an idea that I had been playing with about an owl that couldn’t sleep, a Night Owl. Our daughter Isabel chimed in and said “Dad, what if the Owl was a Knight”. I was thunderstruck. After dinner, I grabbed my iPad and sketched out this page. The entire story dropped into my lap.
I think that it might be time for another Pizza night.
BB: There’s a bit of Marvin the Martian to him too, which I appreciate.
When evoking illustrations of knights and chivalry, I was getting some distinct impressions of the great illustrators of the past. It felt like you might be harkening back to N.C. Wyeth or maybe even Maxfield Parish. Did you have any artists of the past in mind when you drew scenes like Owl staring at the knights riding by?
CD: Working with artistic influences has always been a big part of my work and in my teaching of illustration. But wow, was my Wyeth fanboy showing? I have long been an admirer of N.C. Wyeth and the entire Brandywine School of Illustration. Maxfield Parish is considered part of that school but his work is so sophisticated that it can be intimidating to incorporate that influence. But I will take the compliment!
There was one influence that might surprise readers. The illustrations for Knight Owl posed an interesting challenge. Most of the book takes place at night. How could I make the illustrations using a color pallet varied enough so that each scene could have the right feeling and not feel too dark? I took that challenge as an opportunity to dive deep into my fascination with Japanese woodblock prints, specifically the work of Hiroshi Yoshida (1876-1950) one of the greatest artists of the shin-hanga style. Yoshida’s work, along with a few nods to Rembrandt and Vermeer, defined the palette for the entire project. The range of blue tones in Yoshida’s work is amazing!
BB: Reading this book and taking into account Owl’s size, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of owl he was. If I had to take a stab in the dark I’d say Screech Owl, but what breed were you thinking? And is that your favorite breed?
CD: That was quite a guess! Owl is a bit of a hybrid between a Western Screech Owl and a Northern Saw-Whet Owl. Before I started Knight Owl I really did not know much about Owls except what I might have learned at our Audubon society’s raptor weekend. By the end of any project, you become a bit of an expert in very specific realms of information. Few of them have ever proven useful in the real world.
BB: Were you ever much into dragons and knights when you were a kid, or did you have different obsessions?
CD: In the early seventies, my family moved to Shannon, Ireland. That brought a few things into play. Access to actual castles and the European toy market. A weekend outing to ruins and travel in England and Germany were a regular occurrence. But the toys! I found this picture online of the exact toy castle that I had. I was into it! At Christmas, I would decorate the Castle by putting lights in the buildings and cotton balls and batting on the walls for snow. Toy dragons were, of course, part of the whole adventure. Hmmm, could there be a book in that?
BB: It is the curse of the successful picture book that should it succeed in telling a good story, someone, somewhere is going to insist that there be a sequel. Would you ever consider a sequel for Owl or is his tale done?
CD: I love Owl and can absolutely see more adventures for him that play into his size and occupation, and it would be so much fun to further develop his character. Right now I am just so excited to see him set off into the world and find young readers.
BB: Beautifully put. Finally, what are you working on next?
CD: Currently, I am finishing the artwork for a lovely book called Willow and Bunny by Anita Rowe Schulte.
I try to start every book project from a place of a novice so that I can stay receptive to what the author is saying with their manuscript. This book required an entirely different approach and I was happy to change it up. When the work is complete, I will be shifting gears again for another book that I am writing and illustrating.
Thanks again for having me. I enjoy the FuseNumber8 blog!
BB: Thanks for joining me!
KNIGHT OWL will be out everywhere March 15th. Many thanks to Christopher Denise for answering my questions (I knew it was a screech owl!) and to Victoria Stapleton for setting this whole thing up.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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