Dual Interview Special: Adam Rubin and Daniel Salmieri Dish Dirt on the Dragons Love Tacos 10-Year Anniversary!
It was almost precisely ten years ago. We even know the date:
June 14th, 2012.
Do you know where you were then? I had to wrack my brain a little. Then I realized that I have a blog that’s existed almost 20 years. On June 14, 2012 I was doing my Top 100 Picture Books Poll countdown and we’d just gotten to the Ferdinand post. How was I to know that on the very day that post aired, a future classic was released to the world? The name of the book was Dragons Love Tacos and right now, at this very moment, 4.4 million copies have been in print.
Actually, and I don’t usually do this, I want to reprint a little bit from the press release about this anniversary for you, because I’m just so impressed with the links they pulled here. Listen to this:
“DRAGONS LOVE TACOS has many admirers in famous places. George Clooney, America Ferrera, Amanda Kloots, Laura Prepon, Tamera Mowry-Housley, Matt Olson, Noah Centineo, and J. Kenji Lopez-Alt are all big fans of this amazing book. Suffice it to say that pretty much everyone with a child in their lives has read to those kids about making sure not to include spicy salsa on their dragon’s tacos at some point in that child’s life.”
That’s sort of the dream of every picture book author, right? That your book will explode on the market and you’ll be on the lips of everyone in the world.
And so, it is my very great pride and pleasure to announce that today I’ll be chatting with both of the creators of the celebratory book in question. Because, as I often say, I had a lotta questions . . .
Betsy Bird: Adam! This is so exciting. I’m just so delighted to grill you today on this 10 year anniversary, you don’t even know. Let’s get down to brass tacks right from the start. First and foremost, considering just how much of your life has revolved around this book over the years, does 10 years feel like an accurate amount of time that it’s been out? Does it feel less than that? Does it feel more like 20 years? How on earth do you gauge the time?
Adam Rubin: It’s funny you say that. Parents of persistent six-year-olds are often surprised to learn that they’ve read Dragons Love Tacos more times than I have. I’m incredibly proud to have written it, but it’s not something I think about on a daily basis (though, I do have the original painting of the last page hanging above my desk). Luckily, the success of this one book has not been all encompassing. It’s not like being stuck in a tornado. It’s more like having a beautiful kite tied to my wrist. Every so often I feel a tug and look up in amazement to see it’s still flying so high.
As far as how long ago June 2012 feels now… Time is slippery. I’ve lived in three places, gotten married and written eight other books since then, so I guess it had to be at least ten years ago. But let me try to remember a little more clearly. I had just moved back to NYC from Chicago so that event sticks out in my mind as more momentous than the release of the book. There was no big fanfare or national book tour. Actually, I just dug through some old Facebook posts and found a photo of the small launch event we had at Books of Wonder. That was really fun. I think it was the first time Dan and I ever did a presentation together.
I had a day job at that time and was traveling a ton for work. Dan had other illustration projects and after we drank too much tequila at a taco spot after the reading, we just moved on to other stuff the next day. Then a few weeks later, Dragons Love Tacos became our first New York Times best seller. That was a thrill. We were ecstatic. It was a really big deal for both of us. But we never expected the book to become as popular as it has. The momentum built slowly.
BB: I love that photo. I can picture precisely where you were sitting. So, Dan! This is a treat. Let’s get your perspective here. I think the last time I saw you in person you were in the midst of pouring a great big bowl full of Robo-Sauce on someone’s head. Which is to say, it’s been a while. Now you find yourself at the ten year mark of a book that is, to put it mildly, a worldwide phenomenon. How are you approaching this most auspicious event? And could you have ever imagined the book would hit the heights that it did?
Dan Salmieri: Hi Betsy, nice to hear from you!
Adam and I will go out for tacos to celebrate.
And no, I definitely would have never imagined this book would have the longevity and reach that it did.
BB: While I have you, let’s talk illustration. When creating the pictures for Dragons Love Tacos, did you do anything in particular when you worked on that art? You were a bit of an old hand with picture books by that point so did it feel like an assignment you were familiar with or was it different in some way?
DS: I had illustrated a few but not too many books at that point and I think I was kinda in a groove when I started on Dragons. I was just coming off illustrating one or another of the Squirrels books and I remember wanting the Dragons art to be tighter and bolder.
I drew so many dragons in all different styles until I landed on how they looked. Then I gave the black and white sketches to friends. One dragon per friend and asked them to tell me what color it should be.
BB: Lucky friends. Adam, let’s get back to you. Every picture book author sets out to write a contemporary classic but only a miniscule smidgen of them manage it. You, sir, are one of the smidgen. And as such, I’m going to have to ask you some smidgen-related questions. For example, there had to have been a point when you figured Dragons was doing better than your average picture book on the market. What was your first indication that things were getting bigger than you might have initially envisioned?
AR: Two years after the book came out the Times ran a little call out at the top of the best sellers list. It featured photos of three books: A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin, Dragonfly in Amber (from the Outlander series) by Diana Gabaldon, and Dragons Love Tacos. They don’t even normally include the list of best selling children’s books in the print edition so to see a photo of our book at the top of the whole section was really surprising.
Even still, I don’t think I realized just how big the thing had gotten until they sent me out on tour for the second book in 2017. I went to ten different cities, did two-dozen events and met thousands of kids who knew the book by heart. Parents would come up to me with dog-eared copies and tell the sweetest stories about how much joy the book had brought their families. It made my heart so full.
But if I had to boil it down to a single moment, it would probably be the first time I came face to face with the seven-foot Dragons Love Tacos mascot costume. That was surreal.
BB: Well, I can’t help but follow that up with an impossible question: Why? Why was Dragons the book that just caught fire in the way that it did? What is it about the book that just connects so thoroughly with kids and adults? A certain je ne sais quoi? Can you tell us its secret after all these years?
AR: For a while I thought it was the dragons. Dragons were very trendy back in 2012. Then when Game of Thrones faded to the background I thought, maybe it’s the tacos. Everyone likes tacos. They come in endless varieties and they are easy to make at home. But now, after a long slog of global depression and isolation, I think it might actually be the love part that people latch onto most.
We all have things that we love, even from a young age. So that part is probably universally relatable from the youngest child to the oldest grandma. But there are plenty of other picture books about love, unconditional love, even blind optimism. Maybe the difference is that in this book, love has unintended consequences. The message is not that love is bad, only that sometimes, despite our best intentions, the house burns down. Scary stuff happens everyday. The only way not to cry is to laugh. I think Dragons Love Tacos has helped a lot of parents subtly introduce that idea to their kids. A two page-spread of a fiery inferno could be terrifying. But not when you’re laughing. Laughter is the absence of fear.
BB: That may be the most insightful encapsulation of the sustained appeal of this book I’ve heard to date. You’d think you wrote it or something.
Dan, let’s turn back to you. I think folks sometimes forget that Dragons Love Tacos was not, by any means, your first book with Adam. That honor would, I believe, go to Those Darn Squirrels! Still, you two have been a constant duo since that time, even as recently as The Ice Cream Machine. I actually don’t know the answer to this, but how did you two start making books together?
DS: I grew up with this guy Corey Mintz. He and I were close through middle and high school (still are) and Corey went to college in St Louis where he met a guy named Adam Rubin. Corey showed Adam the portfolio I was working on my senior year, and Adam sat down and wrote Those Darn Squirrels (I’m not entirely sure if he was sitting or not to be perfectly honest but I assume he was). I thought the story was great so I did some sample art for it and took it around with me along with my general portfolio to publishers when I graduated. I ended up getting a book with Scholastic, and then a little while later, Clarion liked Those Darn Squirrels and they picked it up. It was still a couple years later when the book was already published before Adam and I met in person. He was visiting NYC (he was in Chicago at the time) and Corey and I met him at a diner in Brooklyn. He gifted me a taxidermied squirrel.
BB: Story checks out. That’s sort of his own fan response to you. Let’s play off of that. Adam, you’ve undoubtedly seen people get pretty creative with the ways in which they’ve celebrated this book. What were some of your favorite fan responses/letters/interactions?
AR: It’s pretty adorable when people send me photos of Dragons Love Tacos themed birthday parties. They make dragon costumes and decorations, taco-shaped cakes and invitations. It’s an odd privilege to be connected to these intimate moments in the lives of strangers. This thing that Dan and I made ten years ago has had a positive impact on so many people. Not everyone, of course (but I can’t help giggling at the grumps who feel like the rest of the world has gone insane). The response, overall, has been overwhelmingly kind. I did a Reddit AMA recently and not one person had a mean thing to say. On Reddit. That’s some kind of miracle.
BB: Well, and it seems like you’re always pushing to try something new and different. There was the wholly interactive Robo-Sauce (my personal favorite), the bilingual El Chupacabras, High Five (which might be the most physically amusing to do with a room full of preschoolers), and your most recent middle grade foray The Ice Cream Machine. Seems to me you have something against phoning it in and being boring. What’s up with that? It feels almost like a personal challenge you’ve set for yourself.
AR: Gosh, that’s very kind of you to say but I don’t know… I’ve always found creative satisfaction in following my eclectic fascinations. So I guess the personal challenge is to give myself permission to trust my own sensibilities despite the increase in attention and stakes for each successive project. But I can tell you from experience that when I fight to make something strange that seems beautiful or funny or magical to me, and then it goes off into the world and someone else feels the same way, it creates a powerful connection.
For example, The Ice Cream Machine ends with an invitation for the reader to share a story of their own. Well, I have a stack of envelopes stuffed with handwritten responses sitting here in front of me and reading through them is such a great thrill. My stories inspired a bunch of kids to write stories and now, their stories are inspiring me as I work to write more stories. It’s created this beautiful loop of mutual excitement. It’s such a lovely thing.
I have some notoriety now. I have a chance to make an impact on a lot of young people. Maybe I can be the guy who gives kids the confidence to indulge their imagination—to make stuff that’s creative or funny or unapologetically weird. So I’ve got to keep pushing past expectations to reach that level of surprise and wonder where it feels like anything is possible.
BB: A “beautiful loop of mutual excitement.” I like that a lot. Dan, so much of what I love about your style is how natural your art feels in the context of each book. You’ve illustrated picture books for other people beside Adam, but have only done one book yourself. The lovely Bear and Wolf came out with Enchanted Lion Books in 2018 and I know many of us have wondered if you’d write and illustrate another book. I also know that it can take a lot out of a person to do both roles. Do you have any plans for another title that is entirely your own in the future?
DS: Thanks so much for that. Yeah it’s a totally different thing writing and illustrating. It’s definitely more pressure to be the only name on it. But it’s also more freedom and more personal which is nice.
I am finishing up my second written and illustrated book called Before, Now. It will be published under a new imprint of Penguin called Rocky Pond Books. It will be out in spring 2023 on Rocky Pond’s first list.
BB: I love sneak peeks. I guess my final logical follow-up for both of you is, what are you working on next? And that includes the work you do in the adult sphere as well.
AR: I’m currently editing a biannual arts journal called Tangram. It’s celebration of awe-inspiring expression across all creative disciplines. We feature the work of mathematicians, sculptors, artisans, technologists, and everyone in between. Plus, there are some secret puzzles hidden in there that may or may not lead to a real-life treasure hunt.
I’ve got a few new book projects in the works, too. One is a picture book with an artist I’ve long admired and the other is an adventure series that’s unlike anything I’ve done before. It really is a privilege to get to make things up for a living. Thank you to everyone reading this for their support over the years. And thanks to you Betsy for being such a wonderful champion of children’s literature.
DS: Finishing the art for Before, Now; finishing art for Adam’s Human Kaboom; drawing things; doing some editorial illustration; and thinking of new story ideas.
Thanks so much for the interview Betsy!
BB: Aww. You guys are awesome. Thanks for talking with me about ALL of this!
Normally this would be the point in the interview where I’d say when a featured book is coming out but we’re about a decade late for that little tidbit of news. Instead I’ll profusely thank both Adam and Dan for answering my questions and Tessa Meischeid and the folks at Penguin Young Readers Group for putting this together.
And remember, keep eating those tacos!
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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