Fathers and Sons Making Books Together: An Interview with Joshua and Michael Sampson
Father’s Day! It’s a day! Father’s are involved in some manner. Yes!
Admittedly, I’m posting this a little early, but what better way could there be to celebrate than to speak with a father/son picture book team? Michael Sampson is no doubt familiar to some of you thanks to his work with Bill Martin Jr. on such titles as Chicka Chicka 1,2,3 and Panda Bear, Panda Bear, What Do You See? amongst others. Now, for the first time, he’s doing a very different collaboration. One with his own son, Joshua Sampson. The Pig, the Elephant, and the Wise-Cracking Bird is out in time for the season, so we had a little chat about it.
Betsy Bird: Thanks for coming to talk to me, guys! First and foremost, Michael, everyone likes a good origin story. So where did “The Pig, the Elephant, and the Wise-Cracking Bird” come from? What inspired it?
Michael Sampson: As teachers, both my co-author Bonnie and I know that children who are learning English as a New Language struggle with comprending idioms. We wanted to spin a good tale with an interesting and sweet plot that would use idioms as a key part of the story. We used animals as the characters, and the “wise-cracking” bird to deliver advice to our hero detective, Ogden, page after page. The artist, Josh, made the story even more interesting as he “hides” the missing elephant in every page, as a fun clue to “sharp-eyed” readers.
Betsy Bird: And Josh, at what point were you brought into the process? Was it always sort of assumed that you’d be the illustrator, or was that a bit of a surprise?
Joshua Sampson: I first saw the manuscript near the end of 2021, after the book had been signed with a publisher but before an illustrator had been picked. I really liked the story and characters, so I drew sketches for some pages. My father, Michael, passed my drawings on to the publisher, Brown Books, to see if they would be interested in bringing me on as the illustrator. They liked the direction I was going in, but asked for some more development on the characters and scenery before proceeding. So I made more character studies and a scene as an example — with pen and watercolor — to better show my ideas for the look of the story. Soon after that I was pleasantly surprised, since Brown Books replied that they would like to sign me on as illustrator for the book!
BB: Michael, I’m getting just a hint of the literalism in “Amelia Bedelia” from Ogden Oink here. I suspect, too, that there are teachers out there that might be interested in your work with polysemous words and idioms. Was any of this in your mind as you wrote this?
MS: Yes, we were indeed inspired by Peggy Parish’s “Ameili Bedelia” and Fred Gwynne’s “The Sixteen Hand Horse” as we sought to create a book that teachers and librarians and parents might use to help readers understand figurative language though children’s books.
BB: As I am given to understand it, Josh, you had a somewhat unusual childhood, which is to say you would occasionally mix with some of the greatest children’s book creators when you were just a kid. Can you explain a bit more about this?
JS: It’s true, my summers growing up were far from normal! Since my parents organized and presented in Bill Martin’s Pathways to Literacy Conferences, my longest days of the year were filled with travel, listening in on workshops and watching the best storytellers alive present their masterpieces over and over! Seriously, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen Steven Kellogg draw “The Island of the Skog” (an amazing performance where he would draw the whole book while telling the story grandiosely with his contagious enthusiasm!). As a kid who was already into drawing and sculpting things (especially with all the spare time I had on those teachers’ conferences), it was really inspiring to meet, watch and travel with all these wonderful authors and illustrators like Bill Martin Jr, Eric Carle, Jose Aruego, Floyd Cooper and Ted Rand who created the books I loved.
BB: I’m still stuck on the fact that you got to see Steven Kellogg draw and recite “The Island of the Skog” multiple times! Now I’m not interviewing Bonnie, your co-writer, at this moment, Michael, so I wonder if you could give us a sense of her work and contributions to this book as well?
MS: Bonnie is a nationally known literacy expert in vocabulary and word play. We have done research together on how to help children learn idioms, and we used this manuscript in its early form with college students. Our findings suggest that students understand idioms much better through literature than by studying idioms in isolation of context. It was a joy working with Bonnie on this fun story.
BB: How was working together for the both of you? Would you do it again or have you sworn off any and all dual projects from here on in?
MS: It was a joy working with Josh on this manuscript. Having Josh be an artist for children’s books was suggested by Bill Martin Jr many years ago, as Bill admired Josh’s sketches as we traveled together during summer literacy conferences. Bill’s files are full of Joshua’s art. Josh was perfect for this manuscript, as he painted in the style of our friend Jose Aruego (“Leo the Late Bloomer” and “Whose Mouse Are You?”). We looked at three artist finalists for this book, and Josh was the clear favorite, and we love the way the art turned out —he captures our fun characters perfectly.
Bill Martin Jr. and a young Joshua
JS: I thoroughly enjoyed the process! Literally a dream come true for me.
BB: Finally (and much along the same lines) what are you both working on next?
JS: Haha, well I don’t want to say too much, but we have a book in the works about the wide variety of dragons that exist … or do not!
MS: As Josh mentioned, we are collaborating on a Bill Martin Jr style dragon book that I absolutely love. I am also finishing a draft of a book, “The Boy who Dreamed of Castles,” which is about the “Mad King” Ludwig II and his magical castle in Germany: Nueschwantsein. Walt Disney was inspired by this magnificent building to create a fairytale castle as the centerpiece of Disneyland. But most importantly, I want to tell the story of Ludwig II and how he chose art and architecture over war, making him “The Peace King.”
I want to thank Josh and Michael for taking the time to answer my questions today and to Amy Goppert and the folks at Brown Books Publishing for setting this up. The Pig, the Elephant, and the Wise-Cracking Bird is out on shelves everywhere.
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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