Aparna Varma chats about Champion Chompers, Super Stinkers & Other Poems by Extraordinary Animals (+ Giveaway!)

Well, hello again, PBB readers! And thank you, Jill, for the opportunity to share a new book and visit with Aparna Varma, the terrifically talented illustrator of Champion Chompers, Super Stinkers and Other Poems by Extraordinary Creatures, published this month by Kids Can Press

First, a quick summary: Designed as a guessing game, the book is a collection of 19 mask poems “written by” animal champions who are the best, the most, the tops in various ways. Some superlatives are conventional (e.g., the biggest, tiniest, fastest) and others less so (best engineer, most artistic, strongest bite). After each poem, there’s a page flip revealing the “winner” and a brief profile of the champ.

The first spread introduces the concept:

This is the probably the easiest “guess” in the book, designed to give kids a sense of the format and lead them into the more challenging clues.

This one is a bit tougher:

Which I’m sharing mostly because I love Aparna’s art so much when the “winner” is revealed on the next page:

Here’s what reviewers have said:

“A brimming compendium that inventively mixes facts, poetry, and humor.” Kirkus (starred review)

“Put this multifaceted package on the science shelves, and use it often and variously.” School Library Journal (starred review)

Okay, so that’s the preview. And now, on to our chat! Aparna is a relative newcomer to children’s publishing, but she is busy! After getting a glimpse of her art, I’m sure you can see why. So here she is, all the way from Toronto.

LA: Hello, Aparna! You studied film and animation and started your own stationery design business, Green Bean Studio. How did you wind up illustrating picture books—and, more specifically, this picture book?

AV: I have long admired picture books and have always wanted to tell stories. Even as a kid I remember drawing series of images with short stories that went alongside. Pursuing animation and film seemed like a natural choice. While at university (National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad) I took an illustration elective course. I met a few exchange students who had illustrated books. I remember being fascinated with their process and knew that if, there was ever an opportunity to illustrate books – I would leap at it. I moved to Canada shortly after University and gradually built an illustration portfolio. Green Bean Studio is a business but in its early days, served as a medium to try out different designs, treatments and drawing styles.

Vanessa Esteves, a colleague of mine, kindly introduced me to the editorial director at KCP (Thank you Vanessa!) This book landed in my inbox a few months later. I love drawing animals with fun personalities. It couldn’t have been a more perfect book to say yes to!

LA: This was my first book with Kids Can Press, and I was so impressed with Kathleen Keenan, the book’s editor, and Barb Kelly, its designer. Both are so smart and creative! When Kathleen suggested the guessing game idea, I wasn’t sure it would work for all the animals, but you did such a fantastic job. Was this format challenging as an illustrator? Do you have a favorite animal or spread? 

AV: I love the format! It was challenging to harmonize the look of so many different animals and the various habitats into one cohesive look. Kathleen is an amazing editor and Barb is a fabulous designer. The entire book was all a big team effort. 

The poems have a wonderful rhythm and the page turns needed to echo that pattern. I wanted each clue to serve as anticipation foreshadowing what lay ahead. I enjoyed completing the Spotted Puffer Fish and the Sloth spread. It’s hard to pick a favorite!  Each spread was special in its own unique way, although I must say the Skunk was a challenge – black eyes on black fur. It took much longer than any other animal in the book.

LA: That skunk was tricky all around. Early on in the editorial process, Kathleen suggested adding a “stinkiest” poem. But measuring stinky-ness is complicated! I wound up declaring a tie, with the skunk and Eurasian hoopoe battling it out for the crown (Jill’s hoatzin was another contender).

LA: Tell us about your illustration process. Did you do a lot of research? What media did you use?

AV: Research is my favorite of the process and also the longest. Once I receive the manuscript I begin collecting books/documentaries/create mood boards and anything, really that I can get my hands on to inspire the treatment and look. For this book, I had 19 separate folders (one for each animal) which I continued to update weekly until the book was complete.

Once I have a robust directory to draw from I switch over to dedicated creative time chunks. My husband jokes about my creative hibernation – I head to my desk with a deadline and re-appear a few weeks later! My process looks like:

Manuscript —> Research —> Thumbnails —> Roughs, hand lettering —> Color Keys —>Final Color

For color I use a mix of acrylics, pencils and digital media. I like to use a different approach for each book – this book was colored digitally. I created brushes in Photoshop that mimicked pencil textures and used a lot of layering. 

LA: I love hearing about how artists work. I also like peeking into their workspaces. Can you share a photo or two?

AV: I share a home studio with my husband in Toronto. This is my side of our creative den. I am so grateful to this space – it has helped me complete 6 books so far!

LA: It’s so colorful (and tidy!). So what’s up next for you?

AV: I’m working on completing the finals for my upcoming book Katrina Hyena – written by Sophie Kohn, Fall 2024 (Owlkids) and am mid-way through production on an animated TV Show. 

LA: That sounds wonderful–congratulations! One final question, Aparna. Your dedication reads ‘for the furriest fluffy, Comet.’ Would you like to share more?

AV: My furry best friend, Comet left us last year at the age of 18 (!). The energy in this book is representative of his energy – emotive, innocent and full of life. He was an immense inspiration to me in my life. Comet was truly the furriest fluffy. The book is even more special to me for this reason.

LA: It’s so hard to say goodbye to a beloved companion. Thanks, Comet, for your energy and inspiration. And thanks so much for the visit, Aparna!

For more about Aparna, you can visit her website and follow her @animatedaparna.

As always, thanks for reading!


* * * * * G I V E A W A Y ! ! ! * * * * *

To win a copy of the book, leave a comment below by July 10th. I’ll notify the randomly selected winner by email. Thanks!

Linda Ashman

Linda Ashman is the author of more than 45 picture books, as well as The Nuts and Bolts Guide to Writing Picture Books, a how-to guide for picture book writers. Her books have been included on the ‘best of the year’ lists of The New York Times, Kirkus Reviews, the American Library Association, the Children’s Book Council, and The New York Public Library, among others, and have been translated into many languages.


  1. I love this! And I’m sure my grandkids will too! Will be looking for a copy to take with me when I go visit them next month.

  2. Debra Kempf Shumaker

    This looks amazing and adorable! Congrats to both of you! Kathleen is also the editor of my next book and I love working with her and Kids Can Press!

  3. Brilliant~ so fun and informative!

  4. Susan R. Apps-Bodilly

    Oh my gosh, kids think anything smelly is sooo funny. They will love this book.

  5. Linda, I love the guessing game format for this book. I can’t wait to read it! Thank you, Aparna, for sharing your creative process. The illustrations are amazing! Congratulations to you both!

  6. Congrats on your new book, Linda & Aparna! Kids will love this.

  7. Linda and Aparna, what a wonderful match!!! Congratulations!!! This format, with your pitch perfect rhyme, Linda, and Aparna’s art is so vibrant and FUN. Thank you for the look at her process. I love seeing thumbnails and sketches–it always amazes me how quickly artists capture their subject with just a few deft strokes. I would love to win a copy of this book (why yes, I still purchase PBs just for myself! I never grew up).

  8. This art is absolutely stunning! Going to have to get my hands on a copy, for sure. Thanks for introducing us to Aparna, Linda!

  9. How fun! Thanks for sharing!

  10. This looks like a fun book. This would pair well for story time.

  11. danielle hammelef

    I love this! Rhyming text and science together is an amazing writing challenge. Thank you for the introduction to a fun book to read and learn more about nature.

  12. Wonderful! This looks so filled with fun facts and amazing creatures! Congratulations!

  13. Animals + poetry … this book sounds right up my alley so I can’t wait to read it!

  14. Congratulations on this incredible book! I work with over 700 students who would absolutely devour this book!! So much fun and so much to learn from.

  15. This collection looks fantastic! The illustrations work so well with your poems. Congratulations Linda and Aparna! Thank you for the fascinating look at your collaboration.

  16. Looks like a winner! Putting it on my TBR list–thanks for featuring it.

  17. i LOVE seeing this process! Thank you so much for sharing! 😍🎨

  18. What a creative, entertaining way to teach children about animals. As a docent at our local zoo, I’m looking forward to adding this beautifully illustrated book to our Storytime collection.

  19. Cindy Breedlove

    The poems you shared are wonderful, and the pictures are too. That combination makes a wonderful book!

  20. Loreli E Stochaj

    Who does not love a good animal poem!

  21. Rebecca Gardyn Levington

    Wow, Linda! I’ve always been a huge fan of your work and this new book looks incredible! Aparna’s illustrations are fabulous. Can’t wait to read it! Thanks for this great interview.

  22. I’m so impressed by the engaging guessing game, rhyme, and beautiful illustrations of this book!

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