I’m really excited today! Besides looking forward to his new book, Kenny and the Book of Beasts, which came out yesterday from Simon & Schuster, I’m also a huge fan of all of his previous work! Please help me welcome New York Times bestselling and Caldecott Honor–winning author Tony DiTerlizzi
JR: Hi Tony, thanks for joining us today.
TD: Thank you for having me. I love talking middle grade books. This was the age where I became an avid reader.
JR: First off, I love everything about this book! As soon as I hear dragons and witches, I’m already invested. For those who don’t know, what can you tell us about the book and where the idea for the story came from?
TD: This story picks up some years after the events of Kenny & the Dragon and it’s about how life changes affect our hero, Kenny Rabbit—especially his friendship with his best pal in the world, Grahame the dragon. Kenny is coping with new additions to his family, friends moving away, new friends joining his circle, old friends returning…he grows up a lot in this book.
I had a wisp of an idea for this book when I finished Kenny & the Dragon. But I put any notion of a sequel on hold because I really wasn’t sure how successful Kenny would be. To my delight, it became a bestseller and is celebrated in many one-book-one-school programs. I still receive mail asking if I could write more adventures. So here we are.
Like its predecessor, Kenny and the Book of Beasts is inspired by a classic story that I cherished as a young reader. I was a fan of Edith Nesbit, in particular a collection of short stories titled The Book of Dragons. In it, there is The Book of Beasts, a tale about a magic bestiary. Since a bestiary played an important role in the first book, I was excited for an excuse to explore the history of these medieval tomes further and weave them into the lore of Kenny’s world.
JR: This is a sequel to Kenny and the Dragon, which came out in 2012. What made you decide to revisit those characters now?
TD: I used to think that when I finished a book, and it went off to press, my characters were no longer mine. They were now out in the world, never to return. But that is not the case. Kenny and his friends, along with every other character I’ve imagined, live here in the studio and I think of them often.
I decided to revisit Kenny and company a couple of years back when my daughter, Sophia, began 6th grade. At the parent-teacher conference, her teacher described how middle school can be tough for many students because they are coping with so much change in their lives: new school, new friends, new feelings, etc. This aligned with my ideas of what this sequel could be about. It was then that I knew I had the emotional story and the arc for Kenny. Simply put, this would be a book about change.
JR: Many of your books involve magical places and creatures. What is it about those elements that fascinate you and lend themselves to fun stories?
TD: I’ve always been drawn to imaginative stories. For me, the best of these use a fantastical setting to convey real-world themes. Fantasy gave me freedom to question and discuss these complex themes with friends, teachers and my parents. So, when I read The Phantom Tollbooth, Watership Down or The Hobbit in middle school, I wasn’t just processing the “fun” elements of the story, I was thinking of the deeper meanings as well and wondering how those paralleled with experiences in my own life.
JR: Reading through your resume makes my jaw drop. You’ve been involved in so many high-profile franchises, starting with one of my son’s favorite things, Dungeons and Dragons. Btw, I love it too, and D&D was perhaps one of my favorite cartoons as a kid. How did you get involved with that, as well as Magic the Gathering afterwards?
TD: Back in 1992, I was an art school graduate with big dreams of being a children’s book author and illustrator…but I was unable to procure work with any of the publishers. At the encouragement of my friends, I submitted samples to TSR, the original publisher of Dungeons & Dragons. After several submissions, I was hired as a freelance illustrator and continued to work with TSR throughout the 1990s. It was a dream come true for me—you see, I’d been a gamer since I first rolled a twenty-sided dice back in middle school.
What I didn’t realize then was that working with TSR would have a tremendous impact on my creation of children’s books later on. Illustrating for D&D wasn’t just about drawing monsters and wizards: it was about conflict, characters, setting, architecture and artifacts. It was a master class on worldbuilding. Magic the Gathering came later but continued this education. To this day, I draw upon those experiences when I worked on both these games. They’ve been incredibly influential on my books.
JR: One of your best-known works, The Spiderwick Chronicles, is another favorite of mine. Where did that idea come from?
TD: Over the summer in 1982, I filled a 3-ring binder with a homemade field guide to dragons, trolls and other monsters using markers and notebook paper. Brought about by my obsession with Dungeons & Dragons, Brian Froud and Alan Lee’s book, Faeries, and my collection of pocket field guides, this fantastic field guide—made when I was just 13—served as the inspiration for the Spiderwick.
Of course, the story was expanded and developed with my good friend, and incredible writer, Holly Black. She and I shared an unusual working relationship in that we not only plotted the stories together, but she also had input on what I drew as well. In the end, we used all our talents to tell the best story we could. Fortunately for us, the world loved Spiderwick just as much as we did.
JR: I read in other interviews that you believe in there is something more to these stories than fiction, and I’m with you on that, but have you had any experiences to make you feel that way?
TD: The more I learn, the less I know. And I realize there was a time when mankind, as a whole, was more attuned to the rhythm and balance of the natural world. Nature was viewed with respect and awe. I feel that when I hike in the woods near my home. On these walks, I hear strange noises in the whisper of pines, catch a fragrant whiff on a hot summer breeze, or glimpse something tiny flit by out of the corner of my eye, and I wonder: what are my limited, archaic senses not showing me? Maybe there is more to our world than meets the eye.
JR: You got to be an Executive Producer on the movie version of that. I’ve seen it so many times, and just love the way it was done. How was that experience, and how much involvement did you have?
TD: To see so many talented people working toward this singular vision, based on a concept that I’d created as a kid, was surreal. When I say talented, that crew was one of the best. Kathleen Kennedy produced the film. She brought in quite a few folks from Steven Spielberg’s team as well as Phil Tippet AND Industrial Light and Magic for the effects. It was nuts!
Holly and I consulted on the various incarnations of the script and I was able to offer feedback here and there with the visuals. Making a film is a tremendous effort, taking years to complete. In that process you, as the creator of the source material, have to be willing to give up control and let the filmmakers do what they do best. In the end, you hope that the final product retains the spirit of the books while entertaining the audience. And the Spiderwick film did just that.
JR: Was it surreal to see your characters brought to life?
TD: Very. The cast was top notch and the digital creatures were just awesome. It’s a strange feeling to see them all cavorting on the screen, made into Happy Meal toys, video game characters and so on. It almost seems like it’s happening to someone else and I’ve got an all-access pass.
JR: It would’ve been impossible to incorporate everything from the books into one movie, but were you satisfied with the translation?
TD: Yes. As I said, all one could hope for is that that retain the spirit of the stories in the adaptation. You don’t want a slavish copy of the books. Films and books are structured differently and experienced in different ways. The translation of prose to script is an art unto itself. We had a dedicated team who worked diligently to bring our books to life.
JR:Is there anything that didn’t get in that you wish would’ve?
TD: Holly and I had both hoped that the scene with the elves as well as the dwarves would have made it, but the production budget was ballooning with every effects-laden scene so the filmmakers had to pare down the scope of the movie. Maybe we’ll get to see those moments in another adaptation one day…
JR: Out of your other stories, which one would you most love to also see get made into a movie?
TD: Quite a few of my books are currently in development with film and television studios. We’ll see what comes of it…
JR: You actually got to work on a Star Wars book! SO jealous about that one! Did Lucasfilm have much involvement with that, or were you left alone to do your interpretation of the source material?
TD: Crazy, right? The team at Lucasfilm knew I was a HUGE Star Wars fan. They asked if I could create a storybook based on the original film trilogy using the concept art of the late Ralph McQuarrie. This was an honor for me because, not only had I grown up on Star Wars, but I had copied McQuarrie’s drawings as a kid.
I flew out to the Lucasfilm archive and familiarized myself with the breadth of Ralph’s work. It was an incredible moment to see his paintings in person. In creating the book, there were challenges, to be sure, but it was more like solving a puzzle; fitting the pictures with words to create the feeling of the films. I used onomatopoeia throughout to recreate the sounds of Star Wars that we all seem to do when we play with the toys. It was certainly a memorable experience for me.
JR: I’m sure it was. You mostly grew up in South Florida, which is where I live now. And side-note to that, if you ever come back down for a visit, I’m officially inviting you out for lunch! But did living in this area inspire or influence any of your stories?
TD: Lunch sounds good. I miss eating authentic Cuban food when I was in art school down in Fort Lauderdale.
I loved growing up in Jupiter, Florida. I was a Boy Scout who enjoyed camping, hiking, collecting insects, fishing, snorkeling. It was a blessed childhood. That proximity to nature had a profound effect on my developing artistic ability. Even now, I often reminisce of my adventures in that wild nature for inspiration. And you can see its influence in books like The Search for WondLa and Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You. We even set the Spiderwick sequel, Beyond the Spiderwick Chronicles, in South Florida.
JR: You currently live in Massachusetts, which is pretty much the setting to Spiderwick Chronicles. What about that area makes for good stories?
TD: A lot of stories are inspired by New England and we certainly have a wealth of authors in Amherst, Massachusetts. I did work on the Spiderwick books here (we moved from New York City in 2002) and the changing of the seasons, especially autumn, are evident in those stories.
I would say that is part of the appeal in living here. The seasonal changes are quite dramatic and awe-inspiring. Both of the Kenny books were created in Amherst. You can see my local landscape—the hills, the trees, the farms—in the drawings I rendered of Kenny’s world.
JR: Your wife, Angela DiTerlizzi, is also an author. That’s some creative household. Is there much collaboration between the two of you with ideas?
TD: Ang and I share everything. She’s been with me from the beginning of my journey as an author and illustrator and understands how important it is for me to get my books just right. She has a great eye for color and design, not to mention the fact that she’s a terrific writer, so we bounce ideas off of one another all the time. For instance, in Kenny and the Book of Beasts, I wanted Grahame to recite a poem that he’d written. And I wanted it to hark back to the old poems of A. A. Milne. I roughed out the gist of what I’d hoped for and handed it over to her. What she did with my scribbled out words was amazing. I teared up when I read it. She’s so gifted. I’m a lucky guy.
JR: How much pressure is there on your daughter to follow in the family business?
TD: None at all. I am the product of parents who encouraged me to be who I wanted to be. Ang and I would only want Sophia to chase her own dreams, not ours.
JR: What’s your writing process like?
TD: It often starts with a doodle of the protagonist. I begin there because I have to fully understand and care about the main character. Otherwise, how can I expect a reader to feel for them?
I continue exploring the physical traits of the character through sketching. I add notes in the margins about personality and possible challenges that they may deal with. This stage may sound similar to the process of creating a player-character for D&D.
Once I begin to grasp how the character is going to change from the start of the story to the end, I put away the sketchbook and start plotting. As the story begins to take shape and themes start to become apparent, I return to those initial sketches. At this stage, the words begin to inform how the character appears, and so I revise the drawings. They become more refined.
This process goes back and forth over many months, sometimes years, as I figure out what the story is actually about. Once the manuscript is written and edited, I switch into “illustrator mode” and approach the project as if another author wrote it. I do this to keep critical of the text. Along the way there are trusted readers who give me notes on the writing and fellow artists who offer suggestions on the illustrations. I try to make it as perfect as I can before I send it off to the publisher.
JR: What’s your favorite book from childhood?
TD: There are many. Where the Wild Things Are, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The House at Pooh Corner, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, comic books, Calvin and Hobbes…
JR: Calvin and Hobbes is my favorite as well! I read that your favorite show as a kid was The Muppet Show. So, who was your favorite character and why? And if it was someone other than Kermit or Fozzie, really explain why!
TD: I loved the mayhem and madness of that show. I loved that the cast looked like stuffed animals but spoke like adults. I loved how they tortured their guest stars. Mostly, I loved the imagination and ambition of Jim Henson and his team. I miss that in television today.
Fozzie was particularly inspiring to me. I just felt for him and his well-meaning, but terrible jokes. I used his necktie on the titular character, Ted, from my second picture book. It was my homage to my deep Muppet love.
JR: What was your favorite childhood movie?
TD: Star Wars, The Dark Crystal, Time Bandits, Disney animated films. Anything with swords, dragons, spaceships and laser beams.
JR: Sounds like we would’ve gotten along fine. Loved all of those. Something people would be surprised to learn about you?
TD: I don’t know if I’ve any personal surprises left to share. It’s all pretty much out there on my website and social media. I’m just a big old nerd who tells stories for a living.
JR: What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve received and is there any advice you can give to writers looking to break in?
TD: I’m sure there is plenty of great writing advice out there. Instead, I’d like to pivot to aspiring artists. I was asked by a friend to give advice to a young artist in high school. Here is what 50-something-year-old Tony would say to daydreamy-teenage Tony:
Don’t stop drawing. It’s a talent that takes years to refine.
Listen to what people say, even if you don’t agree with them. Teachers, friends and family usually offer advice from the heart and their experience.
Copy every artist you love. If you want to learn how they did it, you have to be them.
Being afraid is okay. But pushing yourself leads to realizing what you’re capable of.
Failure is part of success. I never get it right the first time, EVER. There are times I never quite figure it out, but I take what I learned and apply it to the next drawing.
Success isn’t money and it isn’t fame. It’s a feeling of accomplishment and creating something that didn’t exist before.
Satisfy yourself first. If you love what you do, others will too.
…and, of course, good luck!
JR: That is all great advice. How can people follow you on social media?
Kenny and the Book of Beasts:
JR: Tony, I’d like to again thank you for joining us today!
Everyone, please make sure to go out and get a copy of, Kenny and the book of Beasts!
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