Day in the City

Day in the City

Monday night, we drove to New York. We had a busy day of meetings planned for Tuesday (with the titans of publishing!) and decided we’d probably better get to the city early enough to get a good night’s sleep.

We drove the turnpike feeling slightly adrift. Fortunately, the helpful signage helped us find ourselves again.


In time we came to the most majestic of all possible tunnels.


If you’ve never driven through the Holland Tunnel, then you’ve never driven through the Holland Tunnel.

We slept. Long and hard. We woke. We had breakfast in blissful, stylish, child-free silence.


We watched as our friend David’s cat battled invisible demons.


Robbi declared my ear hair situation unfit for viewing by the titans of publishing. It hurt a little, but these are the sacrifices one must be willing to make.


Feeling dashing and rested and sufficiently plucked, we headed out into the big world.


As we traveled north on foot, we learned important lessons about life.


Our destination was the Flatiron Building. Google was our guide.


Because she is an equal-opportunity groomer, Robbi stopped at CVS to buy some band-aids. So that her heels would not be gushing blood when we walked into our 11:00 meeting. The titans have standards about ruptured blisters, too, apparently. So much I did not know. Robbi is full of timeless wisdom.


New York boasts the sorts of buildings we don’t have in Chestertown. We craned our necks in admiration.


Our collective pulses quickened as we approached the fabled Flatiron, most elegant of all New York City architecture.


We were fifteen minutes early. We debated. I wanted to check in with the doorman 10 minutes early. Robbi preferred five. We compromised at 7. In the mean time, Robbi fed a squirrel, which is likely forbidden, but she was feeling bold.


We left the squirrel still hungry and headed across the street. We spent a moment admiring…


…and posing…


In the course of which we burned through the two compromise minutes and arrived at the doorman exactly five minutes early. I’m pretty sure it was part of Robbi’s plan all along.

We took the elevator to the eighth floor.


We joined a sub-group of titans responsible for trade marketing, publicity, advertising and promotion, and digital marketing. They provided an exciting array of NYC-quality donuts.


Our deep-fried enthusiasm threatened to derail all rational proceedings, but somehow we refocused on the matter at hand, which was selling Babies Ruin Everything. Even though the book doesn’t officially hit the bookstands for another nine months, they are already busy at work

Thank you to Kathryn, Molly, Emily, and Caitlin for coming up with an incredible, comprehensive, creative, robust, excellent plan to sell the pants off of our book. We can’t wait to see you wield your mighty titan powers on our behalf.

After donuts and marketing, we headed downstairs to the Imprint suite, home of our fearless publisher Erin Stein, editor of Babies Ruin Everything, and titan extraordinaire.

We were there for several reasons, not the least of which was to finally meet Natalie Sousa, Imprint’s brand new creative director. We knew from checking out Natalie’s portfolio that she is talented and experienced, but would we like her? Would she have helpful, insightful things to say about our work? Would she like us?

Like nervous 13-year olds we approached her office. And…


…if the Flatiron were a pod, Robbi and Natalie would be its resident peas. How I wish I’d taken photos of them hugging.

So…first hurtle cleared. We like Natalie. We really really like her. But what about her ideas?

We headed into the conference room and got to work. The work at hand was looking at the sketched out storyboard of a brand new children’s picture book we’re doing with Imprint. A very different sort of book than Babies Ruin Everything, this book is about exploring the world and taking a long, careful look at the things around you.

I cannot tell you what it’s called because we don’t yet know, exactly.

And I cannot show you any of the drawings up close because they are still top secret. The book has not yet been officially announced. That will happen in December. But for you, dear reader, here is a glimpse into the inner sanctum of how picture books get made. Various titans assemble with the likes of Robbi and me, and we talk, talk, talk about words and pictures and that delightful space where they collide and interact and make powerful alchemy.


After 90 thrilling minutes talking about the new book, Erin pulled out the latest proofs of Babies Ruin Everything and shared them with us and our dear, smart, amazing agent Meredith Kaffel Simonoff. Erin has continued to improve the files – adjusting colors and identifying the tiny imperfections that result from tiny bits of dust and other gunk that can get on the printing plate. These are called “hickeys,” and they must be summarily removed.

The final proofs are gorgeous. The hickeys are gone. The book is now being printed. And it’s not our responsibility.


Erin had warned us that she had a surprise in store for us, and it was a good one. Ours is the very first book cover to grace the wall of the 8th story conference room. Here’s the view out the window.


And here’s the view of the wall.


After building up a powerful appetite with all that book talk, we headed to lunch at a Japanese restaurant. It was delicious. Inexplicably, I did not take photos of my food.

After lunch, we walked with Meredith to the offices of DeFiore and Company where we talked a little more shop. (There are still more book projects swirling in the ether).

We felt honored to have an out-facing presence on her bookshelf in the company of all the other incredible writers and illustrators she represents.


We bid Meredith farewell and headed underground. Our next destination was uptown.


Upon arriving at 51st and Lexington Avenue, we came back above ground…


…though we were still deep in the canyonlands.


We walked a few blocks to the offices of Family Circle magazine.


Where we met Suzanne Rust, the person who wrote the family profile that appeared in last July’s issue.

And spent some time with old pal Lisa Kelsey, Family Circle’s design director.


We talked books. We talked photography. We talked art. It was so nice.

The day was getting late, and so we headed back underground.


When we emerged, the light was starting to get late-day beautiful.


It was 5:00. We braced for the worst, but blazed through the aforementioned Holland Tunnel with little resistance.

We bid farewell to New York. It was gorgeous as the light fell.


We stopped along the Turnpike for the kind of top-end cuisine that can only be found at this little mom and pop joint called Sbarro.


Back down in Delaware, an accidental camera setting let me see my favorite bridge in whole new way.


It was the fitting end to a remarkable day. We were tired but incredibly excited about what lies ahead.

As it turns out, the titans of book and magazine publishing are actually pretty nice and approachable.

At least the ones we we’ve been lucky enough to know.

How to Make a Children’s Book

How to Make a Children’s Book

This is a long story, but I’ll try to make it short. Or at least entertaining.

Way back in 2003, Robbi and I made our first book together. Kind of accidentally. She needed some words to illustrate for her grad school application, and so I showed her some of my strange little stories.


Robbi illustrated my words. A book emerged. We had a ton of fun.

Screen Shot 2015-09-06 at 12.59.35 PM


And so we decided that making books together was the thing we wanted to do one day. When we grew up.

But it wasn’t quite time yet. First, Robbi got her MFA.

Screen Shot 2015-09-06 at 12.59.56 PM


Then we got jobs at a design firm and learned about branding and page layout and publishing and production schedules and printing and the other things you need to know in order to run a small publishing company.

Screen Shot 2015-09-06 at 1.00.04 PM



We did that for a few years, but then we got sad, realizing that we were spending all of our best energy making stuff for other people.

Screen Shot 2015-09-06 at 1.00.15 PM

And so we quit our jobs, moved into our barn, and started making books for ourselves. Over the years, we’ve made a LOT of books (65 and counting).


And we’ve sent them out to anyone who seems to be interested.


One of our early titles was After Everafter. It’s a mix-and-match book that lets the reader recombine parts of ten illustrated stories to make 10,000 separate permutations.


Another of our early efforts was Babies Ruin Everything,  a satirical book about an older sibling’s frustrations upon the arrival of the new baby. It doubled as a birth announcement for our son Kato.

Screen Shot 2015-09-06 at 12.21.47 PM

One day back in 2008, I think, we were at a book fair in NYC. It looked a little like this.


We didn’t even know it at the time, but a guy from Disney came by our table and bought a copy of After Everafter.


About a year later, he shared it with an editor who worked for a major publishing company.


As it turns out, SHE was looking for someone to make a mix and match book about super heroes. She called and introduced herself to us.


Erin, who is very nice, asked us if we’d like to write and illustrate a book about the Super Hero Squad series (which is a little kid version of the Marvel Super Heroes). We said yes, of course. It was a huge opportunity to get our foot in the door.


The Super Hero Squad Flips Out did not turn us into overnight sensations, but it did let Erin know that we knew what we were doing, worked very hard, and always met our deadlines. When the super hero dust settled, Erin was interested in doing another book with us.

We had shared our self-published stuff with Erin, and she thought that Babies Ruin Everything might make an excellent children’s book—with major revisions and entirely new illustrations, of course.

The Idiots’Books version of Babies Ruin Everything was written as a satirical piece for adults, and so some aspects of the original material was not exactly children’s book fare.

The terrifying moment when bloodthirsty spiders threaten the baby for example.

Screen Shot 2015-09-06 at 12.22.18 PM


And that heartwarming passage when the baby pees all over himself. Actually, the baby pees all over himself on pretty much every page of this book.


Screen Shot 2015-09-06 at 12.22.26 PM


Or that moving episode during which our protagonist fantasizes about riding on a pony as it poops on the head of her sworn enemy, Nancy.

Screen Shot 2015-09-06 at 12.22.42 PM



Needless to say, some tweaks were needed to make it appropriate for the children’s picture book market, and so Erin and I set to work in revising the manuscript.

Erin_M2_collaborating_BREWhile Erin and I worked on the words, Robbi sketched and painted and developed the characters.

A spunky little girl…


…her menace of a baby brother…


…and the girl’s trusty sidekick, best friend, and totem animal, Leonard the Hamster.

Screen Shot 2014-03-24 at 2.25.08 PM

Robbi also created one full scene—just to give a sense of how the characters might look when placed in a colored layout.


Months passed. (Things happen not terribly quickly in the trade publishing world.). One day, we got a call from our agent, Meredith.


Erin had made an offer on Babies Ruin Everything! In fact, it was to be the very first picture book published by her brand-new imprint at the Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. And in case you are wondering, the imprint’s name is…wait for it…Imprint!

Screen Shot 2015-09-05 at 10.15.52 AM

We did a lot of leaping and hollering. This was the “big break” one dreams of, and we had been dreaming of it for a long, long time. We spent a few minutes pinching ourselves…

Photo on 2013-08-19 at 16.12

…but then it was time to get to work. And so we did.

There was more revising to do, and so I did it.

Screen Shot 2015-09-05 at 10.18.51 AM

But most of the work that remained was Robbi’s, and so she rolled up her sleeves and got down to business.

Screen Shot 2015-09-05 at 10.19.02 AM

Her first job was refining the characters, in particular the protagonist. One of the great things that happens when you illustrate a book with a publishing company instead of with your husband in in your living room is that you have access to people with great experience and great ideas. Our editor Erin and our art director Patti Ann thought it might be worth exploring what would happen if the girl’s eyes were simplified from the version in our pitch.


They suggested that Robbi model the eyes of our Babies Ruin Everything protagonist after those of the main character in our independently published children’s book My Henderson Robot. Here’s how her eyes looked.

Screen Shot 2015-09-05 at 11.33.03 AM

And here’s what Robbi came up with for the new version of Babies Ruin Everything heroine.


Simpler, sweeter, more expressive. More Robbi. We loved it. Once the girl was in hand, Robbi did more studies of the baby.


And trusty sidekick Leonard.


The next step was seeing what these characters would actually be doing as they made their way through the story. Instead of starting at the beginning and figuring the book out a page at a time, Robbi sketched out the entire thing by creating thumbnails. This is the illustrator’s version of creating an outline before sitting down to write a paper.


The thumbnails allowed Erin and Patti Ann to get a sense of the visual pacing of the book and whether there was a good balance of fully developed scenes and simple illustrated spots. There was a bit of back and forth at this stage, but once Erin and Robbi were both happy, Robbi started creating more fully fleshed out sketches on her computer—still not final art, but a clearer sense of how the actual pages and spreads would look.

Here are a few examples.

The girl’s bedroom.


The baby being hoisted over mom’s shoulder.


Girl and baby scribbling not very carefully in the corner.


Once the entire book was sketched out like this, Erin and Patti Ann took another close look and made more suggestions for refinements before Robbi took the huge next step of developing the final artwork.

First, she took out her pen and ink and brushes and painted all the final line work for the characters, using her light table so that she could use the sketches as a guide.


Once the lines were inked, Robbi stopped briefly to set up a photogenic tableau and admire her handiwork. Admiring is an often overlooked, but utterly indispensable, moment in the creation of any book.

Screen Shot 2015-09-05 at 11.40.42 AM

Then it was time for the painting.

Screen Shot 2015-09-05 at 11.41.04 AM

Painting, from what I can gather, is immensely gratifying.

Screen Shot 2015-09-05 at 11.40.55 AM

It’s the moment when the characters escape from one flat, monochromatic plane of being.

Screen Shot 2015-09-05 at 11.41.25 AM

And leap suddenly into another.

Screen Shot 2015-09-05 at 11.41.34 AM

Suddenly, they are utterly alive and unleashed, for better or for worse.

Screen Shot 2015-09-05 at 11.41.45 AM

When the painting was done, Robbi placed the inked and painted characters in the layout and built fully rendered scenes around them, using cutouts of sampled of watercolor washes like pieces of collage, adding shadows to create texture and depth. It’s a long and technically complicated process, but the end results are pretty satisfying.

Here’s what the three scenes I showed you in sketch form look like as finals.





Apples and oranges. Day and night.

Once the insides of the book were done, the tricky and essential process of creating the perfect cover.

In this process we were aided by the talents of the book’s designer, Liz Casal. Liz’s lineup of gorgeous cover designs speaks for itself, and so we knew we were in very good hands. But no matter the talents of those at the table, the process of testing and exploring and lamenting and weeping and finally rejoicing on the way to finding the perfect cover is a long one. But a hugely important one. As it turns out, people really DO judge books by their covers, which is why there are people who specialize in knowing what works and what does not when it comes to covers. Fortunately, the team at Macmillan really knows what they are doing. And so I am happy to share with you, for the first time, the actual, real-live cover of Babies Ruin Everything.


We are over the moon about this cover. We love everything about it, from the general concept to the helpless and offended look on Leonard’s face to our wonky handwritten names.

Just the other day our appreciation for the cover rose to yet another level, because just the other day our proofs arrived.


The proofs are the actual artwork printed on the actual paper stock with the actual finishing techniques. In the case of our cover, all that delicious red ink will be covered with a varnish, which is laid down in a subsequent run through the press after all of the images are in place. The varnish creates a deligthful gleam, and a texture that you can deliciously appreciate by running your finger across the page. Those scribbles literally rise up from the stark white.


We got seriously geeked out. Not only is the quality of printing head and tails above anything we can manage in-house, but such techniques as varnishing are just beyond our scope as DYI publishers. Another first with this book: the dust jacket. Here it is in full, stretched-out glory. The front flap (on the right) introduces the characters and teases the story. The back flap (on the left) has our bios and author’s photo, or author’s illustration, as the case may be.


But that was just the cover. The interiors were equally stunning. The kids joined us in perusing the proofs. They have been hearing about Babies Ruin Everything for so long and were excited to finally have a look.

Apparently, they like it. All except August, who (as the closest thing we have to a baby in this family) was insistent on living up to his role and ruining the shot.


Every day brings us closer to the release date, but that date is still not even sort of close. Trade books have a long gestation period. The book will hit the shelves on July 21, 2016. Between now and then, the Macmillan sales team will do their best to sell the book to bookstores and create excitement among people who love and promote and review books.

But the cover is just about to be officially unveiled, and so we figured it was high time to bring you up to date.

Until then, our protagonist waits not quite patiently on the magnet board above my desk, biding her time.


I want to take a moment to give a shout out to the core of our Babies Ruin Everything team. Although so many others have contributed to this book’s long gestation (thanks to Jesse Post, Nicole Otto, Patti Ann Harris, Mary Kate Gaudet, and Liz Casal, and Bridget Watson Payne among others), we want to give particular thanks to our incredible agent Meredith Kaffel Simonof (red dress), whose smarts and savvy and expert stewardship helped make this project a reality, and to our visionary editor Erin Stein (far right), who took the leap of faith to give us this opportunity and feeds us donuts and makes our ideas so much better.


We have always loved the Flatiron Building, long before we had any idea that it housed the Macmillian offices and long before we knew that we and Macmillan would one day be in cahoots. But these days, we feel even more attached to the place, and so grateful to have a creative home there, in the eighth floor conference room—where tiny seeds of ideas grow into full-grown books and reckless dreams become reality.


Since you can’t yet go out and buy eleven copies of Babies Ruin Everything, perhaps you’ll do the next best thing and like the Babies Ruin Everything Facebook page, which is launching today. We’ll use it to keep you up to date on the milestones yet to come, including the book’s release next summer.

And that’s all. Just an ordinary post for a Tuesday morning. Thanks for coming along for the ride.

Full Circle

Full Circle

Not long ago, we spent the day with a photographer from LA and photo stylist from New York. They were in town to snap photos of our tiny tribe for a feature in Family Circle Magazine.

Some weeks have passed since then, but we were vaguely aware that the issue with our family’s story would be coming out this summer. It being June, Robbi thought to have a look at the magazine rack while we were shopping yesterday (a kind of miracle, frankly).

And look what she found!


There we were in the table of contents. Which kept us from the desperate scramble to thumb through every page attempting to find ourselves (a quest we have not yet completed in 40 years of trying).


The children were excited. Or was it horrified? I couldn’t quite tell.


Kato immediately proclaimed that his appearance fee was going to double.


August made an esoteric comment about the surprising quality of the printing.


We bought a few copies and brought them home, where we exhausted ourselves trying to get a decent selfie with both of us and the magazine. We gave up, eventually. Here is the least conspicuous failure. If only Ari (the Family Circle photographer) had been on hand to document the moment.


Here is the online version, which includes the entire interview.

And here is the print version, with an embarrassing pull-quote about my lack of taste in music (that I fully admit to having said) and more photos of hard-hitting family action. 

Family_Circle_1 Family_Circle_2

For those of you who are desperate to buy a copy for archival preservation and/or framing (thanks, Mom!), here’s the cover to look for.


It seems only fitting that it features a truly gratuitous strawberry shortcake, which is, if you are not aware, one of our many family traditions.


Thank you, Family Circle, for giving our family this opportunity. That’s you, Lisa Kelsey and Suzanne Rust! And you Tina Anderson and Ari Michelson!

Not only was this incredibly fun, but it gave us an excellent excuse to clean our damn house. And to get a few new shirts. Maybe you guys could come around every six months or so to keep us in line?

Or at least threaten to?

Smaller Than Life

Smaller Than Life

Ever since joining forces with Macmillan, we have felt an even greater fondness for the Flatiron Building. It had always been one of our favorite New York City landmarks, but now it is a second home of sorts. And so, when I found myself in the Lego Store with the kids yesterday afternoon, I simply could not resist the allure of the tiny Lego Flatiron. It was if it had been placed there for the express purpose of emptying my wallet.


I can try to justify the purchase in a number of ways. For example, included is a colorful brochure that outlines the building’s history. If I am to write books for Macmillan, it is critical that I know the history of the Flatiron, from construction to present day, right?


Or, I could argue that the purchase was made entirely worthwhile by the fact that the tiny Lego Flatiron came with a Lego brick separator. Why the dozens of other Lego sets I have acquired throughout my life did not come with a brick separator is a puzzle to me. Of course I had to buy the tiny Flatiorn. Of course I did.


But none of these explanations is quite accurate, I think. The reason I purchased the tiny Lego Flatiron boils down to one simple thing.

To enjoy my building experience.


And how could I not? The prospect of 471 deliberately interlocking pieces lured me to the flat table instead of to my bed, where I would otherwise have been in the post-children hours of Sunday night. I was too excited.


As was my co-conspirator, she who shares my emerging fondness for the actual, non-tiny Flatiron. As construction began, she was the designated “presser together of small plastic bricks.”


I was the “holder of instruction manual” and “supplier of bricks needed for subsequent step.”


As with any building, our tiny Lego Flatiron required a sturdy foundation.


But unlike the actual Flatiron, which took more than an hour to erect, our tiny version creeped quickly upward.


At a critical moment, we were directed to turn one of the seemingly parallel outer walls inward. The Flatiron is triangular, after all.


At another moment—and perhaps I should spare my co-conspirator the embarrassment of reporting on this detail, but will not for the sake of hard-hitting journalistic integrity—Robbi installed some of the tiny windows sideways and was forced to use the Lego brick separator to pry them loose.


You might think she would have leapt at the opportunity, and yet…


The windows adjusted and the side panel complete, we started enhancing the tiny Flatiron central core with its grand facade.


Whoever designed this set had to make difficult decisions, distilling fine detail down into gestures that suggest the feeling the building evokes. Which is majesty and style. I love the design of the molding around the top of the building, the way it curves gently outward like a subtle crown.


Once the Fifth Avenue side of the building was complete, we started working on the back (which runs up against East 22nd Street).


And then the Broadway side.


The final step was the roof. Look how ingeniously it fits into the little couplings inside. I loved Lego then and I love it just as much today. I love how it keeps evolving as I do.


Many thanks to the co-conspirator.


And thanks to the tiny Flatiron, for giving me reason to break through the decades-long hiatus from buying Legos for myself. We have yet to decide where it will live, but know that it will be a place of highest honor.


Thanks also to the actual Flatiron, which has recently invited us to come inside.


Here is the 8th-floor conference room, where we recently met with our editor Erin and our agent Meredith to discuss books present and future.


In the box were ridiculously large and delicious donuts (one of which was glazed with hibiscus-flavored frosting, lower left).


Out the window…


Was the whole wide world.


While the kids caught up on the latest direct-to-DVD classics…


…we joined forces with book-wise friends in the pointy conference room.


After our meeting, Erin showed us her office, which is kind of like a wonderland


Alden tried to pose for the photo below. She really, really tried, but there was just too much to look at.


How can a seven-year-old book enthusiast be expected to stand and mug when such bounty was on hand?


Including, in case you missed it, down there in the corner, a few titles our most loyal readers might find familiar.


Erin’s tour included a magical book of the pop-up variety. (In the doorway is Erin’s excellent assistant Nicole, who has already saved our butts on several occasions.)


Beyond big donuts and a sojourn in the pointy conference room, Erin saved the best surprise for last. A trip to the 19th floor to visit the Flatiron’s only balcony.

It was like standing on the prow of the Titanic, were the Titanic to be anchored in the middle of Manhattan. Here, the view was even grander. Whether looking out…


…or up.


The kids have no idea how lucky they are to have had the chance to stand in that spot.


And frankly, as hard as we try, neither do we. We try as hard as we can to keep a firm grasp on the enormity of our good fortune, to be grateful at every moment for the wild turns of this ever-unpredictable journey in books and making stuff together.

But then stuff like this happens.

It is good that our Barn is but two stories tall. The view from the 19th floor of the Flatiron is the sort of thing that should only be sampled in tiny bites, and only every once in a while.