An almost-the-holidays treat: A conversation between author Mylisa Larson & illustrator Taia Morley about their new Christmas book. READ and ENJOY!

It’s mid-November! That means I get to feature a holiday book I’ve been looking forward to–Mylisa Larsen and Taia Morley’s Ho Ho Homework (HarperCollins).

This one’s bright and festive, and it wasn’t created in the usual way. So I thought it would be fun to just let the author and illustrator tell you how this delightful collaboration came to be. Take it away, ladies!

Mylisa-This book started in kind of a funny way. Do you remember?

Taia-Yes! When my oldest daughter was in 7th grade, she came home from school one winter day and told me she had the coolest substitute teacher–a professional Santa Claus who went by the name of Mr. Clausen. Despite their middle school cynicism, all the kids in her class were charmed.

 Mylisa-The whole idea made me laugh because, at the time, I was volunteering in a kindergarten class full of children who told me wild stories every single time I came in and could not be dissuaded when I suggested that maybe the rumor of the week might not be entirely fact-based. (“Uh huh, Mrs. Larsen. Tara’s brother said so.”) The picture in my head of what might happen if that sub walked into this excitable kindergarten instead of middle school was delicious.

Ho Ho Homework -early color study

Taia-The premise for a children’s book was too good to let go. Mylisa and I resonate in so many ways and because she’s the one with the writing chops, it was a great project to work on together.

Mylisa-But it took us a really long time! Because what Taia is tactfully not mentioning is that when we started working on this book, Taia already had several picture books under her belt but I was only beginning to write in that genre. It took me awhile to figure out what picture books did and how to write them. So, we had a lot of fun laughing over the project but my first drafts were. . . .bad. That’s the only way to put it.

In fact, we put the project away for awhile. Years. We’d talk about it every once in a while. We’d fiddle with it. We each worked on other things, each published other books. But I loved the sketches Taia had made while we were working. I kept them on my computer. I’d look at them and sigh every once in a while.

Ho Ho Homework -rough sketches

Mylisa-And then one summer, my family was in Minnesota for vacation and we stopped by Taia’s house to visit. Taia and I ended up down in her studio and we pulled this story back out. And after I got over the fact that the writing was sooo bad and that we had showed this to people–people who might remember us–we looked it over and said, “Ok, but this is a funny idea. And it has a couple of good lines.” We got analytical and started working in earnest on this book that been in a drawer for ten years.

Taia-After we picked ourselves off the floor from laughing at our first draft, we knew we had to SIMPLIFY. Good picture books have an economy of both words and images. Our first go was over-thought and we didn’t trust our readers to be able to appreciate a more nuanced storyline.

In our first draft, we had an ending that was not reflective of a holiday gift that can be appreciated by everyone. Once we figured out an ending that was in keeping with the genuine gift giving holiday spirit, the story came to life. 

Ho Ho Homework final interior art

Mylisa–Collaboration is really a different process than when you’re off on your own, doing your thing. Or at least, I found it quite different. There are some things that are hard and some things that are awesome.

Taia-The great part about collaboration is having someone to bounce ideas off of. A good collaborator diminishes the amount of wheel spinning time. Ideally, you bring out the best in each other. What can get a little difficult is speaking two different languages. I think in pictures, and if the words don’t suggest a clear image to me, I might struggle.

Mylisa-And I come at things most often through how something hits my ears. So we can have this weird period of time at the beginning of working on a book where we’re both circling around an idea but neither of us can quite understand what the other is trying to do. If we keep going back and forth though, there will be an “Ohhhhhhhhhh” moment. And if we can get to that point, things get really fun because having each of us fly in from a different direction can make the whole experience richer than what either of us could have come up with on our own.

Taia-You put that perfectly Mylis.

Mylisa-There is also way more laughing when we’re working together. And funny emails back and forth. We don’t always agree. There’s some friendly duking it out. But our rule is that if both names are going to be on the cover, both of us have to be ok with what ends up in the book. So I have to make my case for things that I want and Taia has to make her case for the things she wants.

Then once we sell the book, the collaboration gets bigger. In the case of Ho Ho Homework, the lovely Tamar Mays helped buff and polish the text and make things that were only clear to me, clearer for everyone. (Thanks, Tamar.) And meanwhile, Taia is over doing her own form of editing on the art side.

Taia-The illustrator has to wait for an almost final text version to be completed and for the book designer (the very talented Erica DeChavez) to page out the book. A great designer like Erica can bring out the best in an illustrator. She does an initial design layout and then patiently works with my rustic sketches. With her practiced eye, she suggests illustration edits that improve my sketch thoughts. It is like adding a little bit of vanilla to hot chocolate, improves the final product! She also keeps the entire project on track.  You know you’ve hit your stride when the characters come to life and you feel like the book is guiding the illustration. 

Mylisa-I love picture books where there are things for the kid to read in the pictures while the adult is reading the words out loud and you do not disappoint in that category. You had a lot of fun with this. What ended up being your favorite spread?

Taia-Hard to say which one is my favorite. I do like the one where the kids are making paper chains with Mr. Clausen. The chaos is fun and not far off from the reality of classroom art projects in elementary school.

Ho Ho Homework final interior art

 Mylisa-I love that one too. There’s also a creative mishap with a cardigan on another page that makes me laugh.

Taia-A nice touch in HoHo Homework are the instructions at the end of the book for making a paper snowflake wish, just like the homework Mr. Clausen assigns the class. It’s a fun activity which celebrates the winter season in an all-inclusive way.

Ho Ho Homework final interior art

Mylisa-And then in the spirit of Jack’s wish, which ends up being something everyone can share, kids and families can share their wishes for their families, classrooms or the world on social media and tag it #SnowflakeWish. We’re hoping everyone has fun with the book and then has even more fun spending time together after the book. Downloadable templates and lots of fun ideas are at bit.ly/HoHoKit


Jill: THANK YOU, Mylisa and Taia. This was awesome, and I know we’re all looking forward to getting our hands on a copy of Ho Ho Homework and playing around with snowflakes! Ho ho ho!

Explanation for the recent snafu that killed our auto email program: Tammi posted a FANTASTIC interview with editor/author Frances Gilbert (go read it here if you missed it!), but an overzealous spam filter kicked us off the earth because they deemed the book title, which was included in the post header, X-rated…Go, Girls, Go! Not even kidding. We’re trying to be more careful now, which is why I feared putting this adorable Christmas book’s title in my header. Who knows what they’d do with that?! Fingers crossed here!

28 Comments:

  1. What a terrific premise. It was fun to see how you collaborated over the YEARS! Congrats!

  2. Where was this guy when I was in elementary school?! GREAT story idea –can’t wait to read it!

  3. Glad you persevered, this looks like a wonderful holiday story!! Congratulations, Taia and Mylisa!

  4. Such a cute story and perfect for Christmas! Congrats!

  5. Avatar
    Lynne Marie Pisano

    What a fun and clever idea. Good luck to you!

  6. Can’t wait to own this one. I love Christmas books and this art is phenomenal!!!

  7. Such a clever story premise! I’ll be putting this one on my Christmas list!!

  8. This sounds like such a fun story idea! Congrats on sticking with it over the years and finally giving it life. Happy holidays! 🙂

  9. I was a teacher many years before getting published and still sub in between author “work”. This is a great concept and illustrations are darling. Kudos!

  10. Great interview-I love the book idea and how you made it even better!

  11. I really enjoyed your story of perseverance of this story. Looks so cute and fun

  12. Looove this idea so much! Glad you kept at it. Congrats!

  13. Those class pets in shock at the substitute just crack me up! Clever details like that make me fall in love with picture books over and over. So glad you had plenty of time to let this simmer and steep into perfection!

    And that spam filter – wow! So glad I can find new posts from PBB in many formats and won’t miss a beat!

  14. Thanks Mylisa and Taia, for the great interview! It was no interesting to read about your process. Your combined creative energy is contagious. All the best!

  15. I love the idea of how this book was developed. It looks like a fun read. This made me reflect on my days as a substitute teacher and how my son looked like he wanted to cry when I ended up in his 8th-grade homeroom class.

    I’m looking forward to reading this book. Kudos ladies for sticking it out and birthing this book for so many to enjoy.

  16. I love this whole project for two big reasons. One, because I love both Taia and Mylisa! They are talented, creative women who have always reached out to me and my family in loving ways. Two, because that is how my mother taught me to make snowflakes and my mom was a bit of a snowflake snob when it came to cutting out snowflakes. Now I know why–because that is how Santa cuts his snowflakes!

    I am so excited to get a copy (or three) of this book!

  17. This post is like a warm fuzzy. What a darling book!

  18. I love holiday books and this one looks so much fun. I especially like craft ideas at the end.

  19. This is going to become a classroom favorite! Thanks for sharing your collaboration and development of this terrific idea.

  20. Fabuloso! Haven’t yet met Taia, but while reading Mylisa’s bits I can hear her voice & intonation. Love that. May Mr. Clausen & the kids brighten many a life.

  21. LOVE this! Can’t wait to read your book. So much fun! I’ve been a teacher of kindergarten and a sub in many grade levels. Pretty accurate chaos! But the Claus factor is just perfect to create a great holiday read. Congratulations!

  22. I love the concept and the illustrations.
    I think classroom teachers will love this book!
    I cant’ wait to get a copy!

  23. A delightful story of collaboration in a profession that seems to have very little until someone purchases your story, then the collaboration begins, or seems to. Thank you for sharing your process.

  24. Fun post. Love the collaboration and the idea of a snowflake wish. I will look for this book.

  25. Wonderful! I love the cardigan mishap!!

  26. What a wonderful story of collaboration. Will be watching for HO HO HOMEWORK.

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