Orange You Glad I’m Doing This Interview? Carrie Tillotson & Estrela Lourenco Talk Bananas
The problem with the world today is that we don’t have enough picture books about spotlight-hungry bananas written by biostatisticians. Yup. Everything would be jake if we could just get a couple of those on our shelves.
Well now, as luck would have it, one actually is coming out April 12th! How lucky is that? Counting to Bananas tells the classic tale of . . . well . . . let’s have the publisher break it down for you:
When a narrator starts filling this story with fruit, Banana can’t wait to step into the spotlight. The book is called Counting to Bananas, after all. But as more and more fruits (and non-fruits) are added to the story, Banana objects. When will it be time for bananas?!
With laugh-out-loud text from debut author Carrie Tillotson and brought to life by illustrator Estrela Lourenço this is the story of a banana and narrator who have very strong opinions about what should (and should not!) be in this book.
So let’s check off the boxes on Betsy’s List of Picture Books She Likes to See: Is this a funny picture book written and illustrated by women? Check. Is this a counting book and therefore, by extension, a math book for kids? Check.
Time for that interview then:
Betsy Bird: Carrie, I’m delighted to host you and Estrela here today. And naturally, I’m going to gravitate to any book that knows how to be funny. Egomaniacal bananas? You’re singing my song with that. So where did this book originate?
Carrie Tillotson: Haha – egomaniacal bananas! I love that. The idea came from an interaction between my son and his swim instructor several years ago. Every lesson, my son had to perform a starfish float, which is a skill where he lay on his back and floated for ten seconds. The instructor counted “One-two-three, four-five-six, seven-eight-nine, BANANAS!”, and my son would laugh hysterically. One day, the instructor said, “Don’t you love my counting to bananas?” In that moment, I knew a picture book title was born.
BB: They are the world’s most naturally occurring funny fruit. Now Estrela, let’s get your side of the story. How did you first hear about Carrie’s manuscript? What drew you to the project?
Estrela Lourenco: Carrie’s manuscript arrived to my email on an evening I needed it the most: We had just heard about a second Covid Lockdown in Ireland during the evening news so I prepared two homemade chocolate mug cakes to cheer myself and my partner up. When I sat down on the sofa to start stuffing my face with chocolate I received an email from my agent James McGowan about the chance of illustrating for “Counting to Bananas”. I was SO HAPPY – I completely forgot about the lockdown for the rest of the night and the mug cake became a celebration treat!
BB: Excellent. Though, unfortunately, now I am particularly hungry for a chocolate mug cake. Carrie, let’s talk math a bit. It’s very interesting that you use the counting book format as the bones of the story. What are the advantages of playing off of counting titles?
CT: For me the counting aspect was built-in from the start because of the “counting to bananas” phrase from my son’s swim instructor. But having that structure from the get-go was really helpful because it gave me creative limits and boundaries. I’m the kind of writer who feels intimidated by the freedom and infinite options of fiction writing. Having creative limits helps me feel more capable of creating a vision of what I want to do on the page, if that makes sense. Another advantage is that I am a biostatistician by training, so writing a counting book felt pretty natural to me.
BB: I’m so glad you brought up day jobs! That reminds me. Estrela, I’ll admit, I kind of fangirled when I learned that you’ve worked on THE AMAZING WORLD OF GUMBALL (one of my all time favorite wackadoodle shows out there). So many picture book artists get their start in animation. Why have you, personally, made the transition from one form of sequential art to another?
EL: That’s a great question! I have been in the industry for quite a few years now working with very big teams. They are so big that sometimes our work is just a little piece in a huge puzzle of a TV series or animation shorts. When I was an animator my work would usually translate in to a few seconds in the middle of an 11 minute episode, that meant when I watched any episode I worked on with family or friends I would scream at the TV saying “My Shot! I worked on this one! Look! Look!” and hoped they had the time to turn their heads to look at that shot I spent a week working on! Don’t get me wrong, I love that, it was my dream to work like this in the industry but after so long I felt I would like to have more creative input into my work and a voice that can be heard a bit more on its own.
BB: Makes sense. Particularly when you want to do something funny. Carrie, I’m always disappointed when it comes to the ratio of funny books that get published by women vs. men. It’s getting better but there are always improvements to be made. What are some of your funny influences? Ideally, when it comes to children’s books, but honestly I’d just like to know where you like to get your comedy elsewhere too.
CT: This is such a good question, because I’ve never felt like a funny person. I’m definitely funnier on the page than in person, probably because I’m too busy being awkward and unsure of what to say. But I definitely tend to gravitate toward a lot of humor in my media consumption. In terms of picture books, some of my favorite funny creators are Ame Dyckman, Jon Klassen, Sandra Boynton, Mo Willems, Julie Falatko, Chris Haughton, Dev Petty, and Ryan Higgins. As a kid I loved all the silly poems in Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic. I had a friend in Kindergarten that, when we had play dates at each other’s houses, we would sit in a big cozy chair together and read those books. I also loved the children’s musician Raffi (still do!). For some other funny influences, I love sitcoms like Schitt’s Creek, The Good Place, and Kim’s Convenience; all kinds of animated movies and shows, especially Bluey and The Mitchell’s Vs. The Machines; and memoir-ish authors like Jenny Lawson and David Sedaris. I also think my family has a pretty strong silly streak. For my last birthday my sister gave me a framed picture of us three siblings making goofy faces from our childhood, and it cracks me up just to look at it.
BB: Oo. I loved that Mitchell’s movie. Estrela, same question. There’s the funny stuff going on in the book via Carrie’s words, but then you’ve got some of this marvelous visual humor just popping out all over these pages. What makes you laugh? What kind of media do you find particularly hilarious?
EL: I LOVE funny cartoons, it used to be the ones that would glue me to the TV as a kid – I think I take a lot of my reference from those many years watching them. I also love a good session of Stand Up Comedy, I would pay anyone to give me a good hour of belly laughing – I would even prefer it to a music concert (and I love music).
BB: Carrie, did you have a clear picture in your head of how you wanted the book to go? What was your reaction when you first saw Estrela’s art?
CT: I had no idea how I wanted the book to go when I first started! I knew what the title was, and that it was obviously a counting book about a banana, but that was it. I did a free-write session to explore different ideas, and out popped a rhyming fruit book. But when I got to fruits that I couldn’t find a rhyme for, I was like, “Well, now what?” Somehow animals came to mind and I started listing all the fruits I could think of with possible animal rhymes, and the story evolved from there.
When I first saw Estrela’s art, I was in love! She really made Banana and all the fruits and animals come alive on the page. I love her dynamic style, and was just delighted with all of Banana’s lively expressions. And I loved how Estrela brought even more humor to the book in her own style. There’s one illustration I laugh at every time I see it, and it just makes me so happy!
BB: Now Estrela, before I forget, I want to congratulate you. At one point in the book you have to draw 100 of a certain animal (I won’t spoil which one). So I sat down and counted (which you know every last kid who gets this book is going to do). There are definitely 100 in that picture. Did you make sure that every amount for every corresponding number was always correct? Were you ever tempted to cheat?
EL: When I read the script I thought I would not be able to draw so many of these animals and fit them into one spread while making it appealing. But as I left that spread and another one until last I became more and more tempted to draw every single animal and fruit like the text was describing! The other spread I was tempted to cheat was a wave of fruits – for that spread I had to first color code and group the layers in groups of tens so I wouldn’t lose track while I was sketching. I thought I got it all right but my super art director Ellice Lee and the team noticed I was missing one fruit! Ahah! I was so happy they counted, it must had been so hard but I was really thankful they noticed the one missing because now I’m sure it’s correct and those spreads are ready for the little eyes to try and count themselves!
BB: Carrie, that ties into your words. Did anything get changed significantly from your earliest drafts to the final product? Is there anything you cut or changed that you kind of miss?
CT: Initially, Banana was more of a photo-bombing character, with sort of a stage or film or photoshoot theme, and Banana popping onto the pages only to be told to get out of the shot. But some of my critique partners found that layer to be confusing or not necessary. I realized I could eliminate that layer, and focus more on the meta-fiction aspect by having Banana interact more with the narrator.
As for anything that I miss – I originally had a darker ending, which I thought was hilarious. But I’m glad I changed it because the current ending leaves things a lot more open to imagining future possibilities for Banana.
BB: We’ll just save that darker energy for the sequel then, eh? Estrela, the energy in this book is insane. You manage to drive up the frantic nature of each subsequent page turn. It all feels really natural, like you’ve been doing it all your life. Are there any picture books you were emulating with this, or was it entirely out of your own head?
EL: Thank you so much, it means a lot you saying that! I referenced books like “Oi Dog!” written by Kes & Claire Gray and illustrated by Jim Field – the illustrations themselves have so much story going on that is not mentioned in the text and they have a lovely sillouette against the blank backgrounds – just like I tried to emulate in the Banana books! I think I have also learnt a lot about visual storytelling in my job as a Storyboard Artist for animation – I learnt so much about composition, strong posing, story and character expressions which are important tools also used in the picture book making.
BB: All right. That just leaves one last question for the both of you. Finally, what do you have coming out next?
CT: Next up is a second Banana book, B is for Bananas: A Going Bananas Alphabet Book (Flamingo Books, Spring 2023), illustrated by Estrela of course. In this sequel, our opinionated banana returns to disrupt the conventions of a bedtime alphabet book. I can’t wait for readers to get both Banana books in their hands!
EL: I really like this character and I think in the second book its personality comes even more alive. There is a mix of madness and sweetness which made the second book an absolute joy to work on. Drawing our crazy Banana just makes me happy any day!
After that I will have a book coming out called “When an Elephant Hears No” written by Dazzle Ng with a cute little elephant I had so much pleasure to draw!
I would like to proffer serious SERIOUS thanks to both Carrie and Estrela for so patiently answering my questions today. COUNTING TO BANANAS is out everywhere April 12th. Find it where all great books are sold.
Filed under: Interviews
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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