I’m especially excited today because it’s PUBLICATION DAY for my newest book, Stinkbird Has a Superpower (Putnam), book #1 of a new series featuring animals with superpowers.
As you can see, this one’s illustrated by Bob Shea … still hard not to call him The Bob Shea, because that’s how I reacted when I learned he’d be doing the art for this one. “THE Bob Shea?!!!” Anyway.
The idea for this book came from working on another. About 10 years ago, I wrote four books in a series for National Geographic Kids called Angry Birds Playground. One title in particular, Amazon Rainforest, while extremely interesting to research, made me feel a little depressed. Seemed EVERY animal I researched was either predator or prey. And, ew, quick YouTube searches brought to colorful, gory life those food chain battles. Yeesh.
But then I stumbled upon the hoatzin, nicknamed stinkbird. What’s this? A bird that only eats leaves? A bird that smells so bad other animals leave it in peace? How refreshing! The more I learned about this quirky species, the more I wanted to tell kids about it … especially when I learned of a feature unique to its chicks. Like, unique in all the world!
Since many of you readers are fellow writers, a confession: My first “finished” draft of this manuscript is dated September, 2015. That one wins the prize for my most-rejected manuscript. (Shout out to agent Tricia, who always believed it had something special and stuck with it long after I’d have put it back in the drawer.) In most drafts, the chick wasn’t part of the book until the very end. And the chicks are the ones with the SUPERPOWER! (D’oh.) Anyway, after years of rejections, I took a long, hard look at the manuscript … and suddenly knew what was missing. When I brought the chick front and center, I suddenly had two very different characters (proud Papa and impatient toddler chick) who began playing off each other in all the best ways. WHEW! The very next time it went out, it sold. Revision magic is REAL, people. Also, some books can’t be rushed. Apparently.
Reviewers have been kind:
“This comical picture book about the Amazonian hoatzin swoops in to delight readers with funny facts, and Shea’s smooth and textural digital illustrations and eye for composition effectively creating a child-like stinkbird perspective … Educational narration pairs with bantering dialogue to portray a loving relationship between father and son.” –The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, starred review
“Cheerful and humorous … This book would be a treat for nature-themed story time. A lively glimpse of a weird and wonderful bird.” – Kirkus Reviews
And now, a chat with Bob Shea:
Jill: Welcome, Bob! Obviously, agreeing to illustrate a picture book manuscript is a huge commitment. So … how often do you turn down manuscripts, and what typically makes you say no?
Bob: I don’t get offered many. I mainly work on my own books. Most of what gets offered I turn down. First off, I’m a big self-aggrandizing prima donna and other work is beneath me.
Okay, after I get over myself the decision process is pretty simple. Is the work appropriate for my style? Not everything is, and I know it. Does it fit my schedule? I am usually wrong about this answer. Would I like to draw this? Is my son still in college?
At the end of those questions is my answer.
Jill: Let’s talk color palettes. Is that a long process of thoughtful, pre-drawing deliberation … or does it come about more organically at this stage of your career?
Bob: It’s both really. It’s not completely intuitive but more experience means less experimentation. You don’t make as many mistakes. I still need to play around and find what works together, but I get to the answer more quickly.
After I do a sketch of the main characters, I put them on potential color backgrounds before I commit. That informs how I color the final character. In Stinkbird Has a Superpower, I made the Dad stinkbird mainly orange, and the chick purple. This gave me a range of green and blue colors for the background.
Jill: In Stinkbird, I was a little worried that the setting might be limiting, yet your illustrations are lively and beguiling and funny and never feel the least bit repetitive. Do you do a lot of back-and-forthing with editors/art directors about characterization and POV and layout choices before beginning sketches, or do you pretty much let it rip and then see what they have to say?
Bob: This was a very collaborative process with the editorial staff. I let it rip and then they rip it apart. That’s what that stage is for, black and white sketches to talk about.
I was initially concerned that the setting would be repetitive. Fortunately, the art director was happy with a stylized graphic solution. I’m a graphic designer by training, so turning the rainforest into big abstract shapes was really fun.
Jill: Fun for readers, too. The proud stinkbird dad speaks directly to the reader while keeping up a running banter with his interrupting chick. That could have been confusing but isn’t, thanks to the the color-coded voice bubbles and font choices. How was that approach decided?
Bob: I think we came to this very early on. The back and forth of the dialogue along with the dense setting made it a challenge to keep the speaker clear. If I remember correctly, it was decided right out of the gate.
Jill: I love a good page turn surprise, and you seem of the same mind. So … pagination. Is that a favorite activity, or a hair-pulling frustration?
Bob: Oh, I love it. It’s one of the most effective tools a picture books offers. I look for the dramatic page turn opportunities as I work on a story or read a manuscript.
Jill: Thanks, Bob, for taking the time to chat! YOU have made this book a must-have. In my opinion. 🙂
For all things Bob Shea, visit his website, here.
And if Stinkbird Has a Superpower appeals to you and your littles, know that book #2 in this series, Parrotfish Has a Superpower, is scheduled for Spring, 2024! Note: parrotfish’s superpower is a DOOZY.
GIVEAWAY! Putnam (PRH) is generously allowing THREE giveaway copies of Stinkbird Has a Superpower, so if you’d like a copy of your own, simply leave a comment below. U.S. residents only, please. Winners chosen June 2.
Meanwhile, winners of books featured in my last two posts are: Elise Derstine, who won Suzanne Slade’s Behold the Octopus; and Elizabeth McBride, who won Laura Purdie Salas’ Finding Family. Congratulations!!!