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An Interview with Wombats are Pretty Weird Author-Illustrator Abi Cushman

 

VICKY FANG INTERVIEWS ABI CUSHMAN

AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR OF

WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD

(GREENWILLOW BOOKS; $19.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

Wombats are Pretty Weird cover four wombats

 

 

PUBLISHER SUMMARY:

Wombats might be pretty weird, but they’re pretty awesome, too! Wombats Are Pretty Weird is funny, kid-friendly, and informative, and features sidebars, comic panels, extensive backmatter, and a map. Acclaimed author-illustrator Abi Cushman’s nonfiction debut contains everything anyone could ever possibly want to know about wombats!

 

INTERVIEW:

Vicky Fang: Abi, WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD is such a funny and informative book! I love how you use humorous dialog and illustrations to introduce so much fascinating information about wombats! How did you come up with the idea for this book?

Abi Cushman: Thank you, Vicky! I’ve been obsessed with wombats ever since I studied abroad at the University of Melbourne in Australia in 2001. I learned on a guided hike that wombats are the only animals in the world that have cube-shaped poop. This very odd tidbit of information along with the fact that wombats are adorable quickly made them one of my favorite animals. 

But it didn’t occur to me to write about them in a book until 2018 after I’d written several other fiction picture books. I was thinking about the cube poop fact, and I thought it would be funny to make a little comic where a wombat makes a tower out of its cubes of poop (similar to how a kid would make a tower out of blocks) and then is just really proud of how tall it was. I wasn’t sure at that point if there was enough there for a book, so I did more research, gathered more weird facts about wombats, and gained momentum.

 

VF: I love that scene in the book with the cube poop tower! Hilarious. Could you tell us about your process in writing this book?

AC: I started with a lot of research about wombats. I listened to podcasts, watched videos, and read everything I could about them. Then I compiled the weirdest, most interesting facts. The next step was to see if I could make a joke about each fact. I have pages and pages in my sketchbook of facts plus doodles. I tried to come up with as many jokes as possible, and then and then really hone in on the funniest dialogue, facial expressions, and scenes. 

Once I was satisfied with the jokes, I worked on putting them together in a dummy (a rough mockup of the book) in a way that made sense and that would also build to a final scene with all the wombats together. 

 

Wombats are Pretty Weird Dummy Sample
Wombats are Pretty Weird Dummy Sample

 

 

VF: I love the addition of the snake adding color and commentary throughout the book. What made you decide to include the snake in a book about wombats?

AC: Adding the snake was a way for me to put a stand-in for the audience in the book. He could react and make comments that the reader was thinking when learning about these very weird animals. And this animal character had to be something other than a wombat. After all, the wombats wouldn’t consider themselves weird at all. In their world, it’s strange when poop is round. I chose a snake specifically because I wanted an animal that could technically live in the same area as a wombat, but was vastly different from them. 

 

WAPW burrowing marsupial spread
Interior spread from Wombats are Pretty Weird written and illustrated by Abi Cushman, Greenwillow Books ©2023.

 

VF: Your illustrations do such a wonderful job of balancing humor and information. You’ve written funny books before (SOAKED! and ANIMALS GO VROOM! are so good!), but what was it like writing and illustrating non-fiction for the first time?

AC: Writing and illustrating non-fiction for the first time was a wonderful challenge. For this book, which includes factual information but also talking animals and other silly stuff, it was very important to me that kids didn’t think the facts were made up. One of the things I was very careful about was to ensure the narration was factual and accurate, and then have the wombats and snake react to those facts in the illustrations and speech bubbles. That way there was a clear separation.

For research, I consulted science journals and talked to wombat experts to verify and ensure the way I phrased things was correct. It was pretty wild to me that my work entailed being knee-deep in these dense scientific papers, trying to distill the information and make sense of them, and then using that to make the best poop joke I could.

For the illustrations, I wanted them to be very accessible and fun, but I also wanted them to show a decent resemblance to actual wombats and to clearly convey scientific information where appropriate. So I used a lot of references. I looked at photos of wombats’ feet, watched videos of them moving, and really studied the differences between three species. Then I drew them using hair dryers and wearing party hats.

 

VF: Can you talk about how you approach humor? Do you have any tips for writers who want to write funny books?

AC: The books I find funniest always contain a bit of absurdity. So that’s something I like to play with a lot in my books. For this book with weird animal facts, it was a chance to push the absurdity in the actual facts to a higher level. 

For example, one of the facts in the book is that there are three species of wombats: the southern hairy-nosed wombat, the northern hairy-nosed wombat, and the bare-nosed wombat. And I just thought the names were pretty silly. So I wanted to play with that idea of hairy (or unhairy) noses and push it further into absurdity by having two of them talk about nose hair styling to the annoyance of the bare-nosed wombat. 

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WAPW hairy and bare noses
Interior spread from Wombats are Pretty Weird written and illustrated by Abi Cushman, Greenwillow Books ©2023.

 

 

I think with humor, you have to let yourself be pretty vulnerable. I put everything I think is funny into a story and then show it to people with the full knowledge that a lot of the jokes will absolutely not land. But I have NO IDEA which ones those are. The trick is to put the weirdest, totally out-there jokes into your story and then see how many you can get away with.

 

VF: That’s such great advice, and it has clearly paid off for you. What do you hope young readers take away from this book?

AC: I hope this book will get kids excited about wombats and animals in general. There is so much in the natural world that is bizarre and captivating. Kids have a natural curiosity so I think it’s our job as authors to foster and encourage it. I also hope kids come away with the idea that being weird is a good thing. It’s what makes all of us special and unique. And finally, I just hope kids laugh and find this enjoyable to read. 

 

WAPW multiple joeys
Interior spread from Wombats are Pretty Weird written and illustrated by Abi Cushman, Greenwillow Books ©2023.

 

VF: I love that. I feel like you’ve definitely accomplished those goals with this book and kids are going to love it. So what’s next for you?

AC: I am currently polishing up the next book in the “[Not So] Serious Guide” series. This follow-up to WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD is all about the very strange, very tough FLAMINGO! And I’m happy to report that Joey the snake is back to experience it all with the reader. This book is scheduled to release in the summer of 2024.

I also recently finished illustrating a wonderfully clever book written by Charlotte Offsay called THE QUIET FOREST. This book will be released in March 2024 from Paula Wiseman Books. It’s about a very mischievous mouse who starts a chain of chaos in a formerly quiet forest, and it involves a lot of very disgruntled forest animals. It’s a ton of fun, and I’m really excited about it. This was the first time I illustrated a book I didn’t write, and it was fun to see how Charlotte’s words and my pictures came together.

 

VF: Those both sound fantastic! I look forward to seeing them next year. Thank you so much for sharing your journey for WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD with us. I’ve learned so much from chatting with you and from getting a peek at this hilarious book!

AC: Thanks so much for the interview, Vicky! This was fun. And I’m looking forward to chatting with you again later this summer about your upcoming book, THE BOO CREW NEEDS YOU!

VF: Looking forward to it too! Thank you again for sharing your insights with us today, Abi!

 

BUY THE BOOK:

Click below for a local indie to purchase signed copies (type in the comments how you’d like the book inscribed): https://www.banksquarebooks.com/book/9780063234437

Publisher’s Page: https://www.harpercollins.com/products/wombats-are-pretty-weird-abi-cushman

SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/AbiCushman

IG: https://www.instagram.com/abi.cushman/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AbiCushmanArt

Author/Illustrator Website: https://abicushman.com

 

Author-Illustrator Abi Cushman Photo credit: P.A. Smith

AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR BIO:

Abi Cushman is the author-illustrator of SOAKED! (Viking, 2020), ANIMALS GO VROOM! (Viking, 2021) and WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD (Greenwillow, 2023).

She has also worked as a web designer for over 15 years. She runs two popular websites of her own: My House Rabbit, a pet rabbit care site, and Animal Fact Guide, which was named a “Great Website for Kids” by the American Library Association. Did you know that wombat poop is cube-shaped? You do now! (And no, you’ll never un-know that.)

Abi lives in a small Connecticut beach town with her family. In her spare time, she enjoys running, playing tennis, and eating nachos. (Yes, at the same time.)

She is represented by BookStop Literary Agency and is a proud member of the Soaring 20s, a group of picture book authors and illustrators who debuted in 2020/21.

 

INTERVIEW BIO:

Vicky Fang is a product designer who spent 5 years designing kids’ technology experiences for both Google and Intel, often to inspire and empower kids in coding and technology. She started writing to support the growing need for early coding education, particularly for girls and kids of color. She is the author, and sometimes illustrator, of nineteen new and upcoming books for kids, including the Layla and the Bots series, Invent-a-Pet, I Can Code board books, Friendbots series, and the forthcoming Ava Lin series, Best Buddies series, AlphaBot, and The Boo Crew Needs You!. You can visit Vicky at vickyfang.com.

 

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Kids Picture Books for World Butterfly Day 2021

 

WORLD BUTTERFLY DAY

∼A Roundup∼

 

 

 

 

This year World Butterfly Day is on Sunday, March 14 so we’ve rounded up three picture books
that will help kids learn about these natural beauties, why they matter, and how we can help them since the Monarchs especially risk going extinct.

 

Butterflies Belong Here coverBUTTERFLIES BELONG HERE: A Story of One Idea, Thirty Kids, and a World of Butterflies
Written by Deborah Hopkinson
Illustrated by Meilo So
(Chronicle Books; $18.99, Ages 5-8)

Blending story and facts, Deborah Hopkinson’s engaging 68-page picture book, Butterflies Belong Here: A Story of One Idea, Thirty Kids, and a World of Butterflies, takes us through a school year via girl new to the US. Just as monarch butterflies travel far, so did her family. The girl learns to read through books like her favorite one with a butterfly on the cover.

The text alternates between the girl’s journey from one spring to the next with her school class and that of the monarch butterfly. As seasons pass, she hopes to see a monarch but realizes that she may not. Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed but butterflies have a hard time finding it. “Some people think of milkweed as a useless weed, so they’ve used chemicals to keep it from growing in fields and on farmland. In other places, climate change has been causing droughts that make it difficult for milkweed to grow.”

I can empathize with the girl as she realizes that the “problem is so big, and butterflies are so small.” Though uncomfortable standing in front of her class, the girl gains their support in planting a monarch way station which “needs at least ten plants, with two different kinds of milkweed, and nectar flowers.”

Throughout, Meilo So’s uplifting art enlivens the girl’s growth as she enacts the librarian’s words, “It’s surprising what such a tiny creature can do,” demonstrating the power when we come together as conservationists and activists. Monarch butterflies traverse up to 3,000 miles, from Canada through the US to Mexico. They do not recognize borders, seeking only safe passage to survive from one generation to the next.

Beyond being a heartfelt read, Butterflies Belong Here is a call to action, providing notes in the back matter on how to help by involving your community. This book belongs in your classroom or home, just as these beautiful pollinators belong in our lives.

 

Winged Wonders coverWINGED WONDERS: Solving the Monarch Migration Mystery
Written by Meeg Pincus
Illustrated by Yas Imamura
(Sleeping Bear Press; $17.99, Ages 7-10)

Meeg Pincus’s nonfiction picture book, Winged Wonders: Solving the Monarch Migration Mystery, investigates where these beautiful butterflies travel, sweeping from Canada through North America, then seemingly disappearing. In 1976, through the work of people from all walks of life, the fact that millions of monarchs overwintered in Southern Mexico’s oyamel groves were finally officially documented because of tags placed on the butterflies.

Kids will enjoy how everyone pitched in: Fred the Canadian scientist, Norah a master organizer of collected data, plus thousands of “science teachers, backyard gardeners, and other curious souls.” The search unravels in a series of questions that figure out this fascinating migration. I appreciate that the back matter points out “history depends on who tells the story—Mexican poet and environmentalist Homero Aridjis asks: ‘Did the white scientists really “discover” the wintering sites that people in Southern Mexico knew about for centuries?’”

One of the book’s final questions, “So, who can make a difference for monarchs today?” is answered in Yas Imamura’s evocative art. The concluding “How to Help the Monarchs” section provides the shocking statistic that “habitats for monarchs are declining at a rate of 6,000 acres a day in the United States.” Steps we can do to help include planting pesticide-free milkweed (the only food the caterpillars can eat) and nectar plants for the butterflies, learning and educating others about the need for conservation, and treading more lightly on our planet—“use less plastic, electricity, water, chemicals; eat more plant-based, local foods.”

 

Hello Little One coverHELLO, LITTLE ONE: A Monarch Butterfly Story
Written by Zeena M. Pliska
Illustrated by Fiona Halliday
(Page Street Kids; $17.99, Ages 4-8)    

Zeena Pliska’s picture book, Hello, Little One: A Monarch Butterfly Story, shows the monarch butterfly life cycle through the eyes of a newborn caterpillar surrounded by the color green until Orange (a monarch butterfly) soars into view. A friendship grows with the caterpillar wanting to see and know everything while Orange provides gentle guidance. The expressive art by Fiona Halliday zooms in close, providing detail and personality.

Kids will enjoy this relationship story—barely realizing it’s also educational! While much of the book is uplifting, the truth of a monarch’s short existence is handled delicately, with Orange honestly saying they will not be back. The loss is acknowledged and mourned but the main character goes on, boosted by the remembrance of their time together.

I like the circular nature of the story and how personification makes the text accessible to even the youngest kids. Back matter includes detail about the stages: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and adult (butterfly). Check under the book jacket for a second cover image.

 

Click here to read a review of another wonderful butterfly book.
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Kids’ Nonfiction Picture Book Review – Becoming a Good Creature

BECOMING A GOOD CREATURE

Written by Sy Montgomery

Illustrated by Rebecca Green

(HMH BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-7)

 

BecomingaGoodCreature cvr

 

 

Starred Reviews – Kirkus, School Library Journal

 

Sy Montgomery’s New York Times best-selling memoir, How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals, inspired the picture book, Becoming a Good Creature. Herein she conveys her beliefs that we can—and should—learn from animals. Montgomery’s fundamental messages include “respect others,” “find good teachers,” and “see for yourself.” She encourages us to take a closer look at the world and everything inhabiting it. In doing so, we are bound to “love little lives” and find ways to nurture them because we’re all in this together.

 

GoodCreature int1
Interior spread from Becoming a Good Creature written by Sy Montgomery and illustrated by Rebecca Green, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt BYR ©2020.

 

While naturalist and adventurer Montgomery has led an extraordinary life, traveling the world and living with animals, we don’t have to fly far away to find something worth exploring.

 

GoodCreature int2
Interior spread from Becoming a Good Creature written by Sy Montgomery and illustrated by Rebecca Green, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt BYR ©2020.

 

During the pandemic, my family has discovered and interacted with previously overlooked insects in our garden. Becoming a Good Creature reinforces such behavior. It also shows that women can make their own families and forge their own paths.

 

GoodCreature int3
Interior spread from Becoming a Good Creature written by Sy Montgomery and illustrated by Rebecca Green, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt BYR ©2020.

 

Rebecca Green’s paintings, full of delightful animals, depict Montgomery from girl through woman and showcase how curiosity inspired her positive interactions with animals around the globe. For example, alongside the beautifully poignant illustrations of an octopus, a young Montgomery wonders what could we possibly have in common with them; the answer is playing! This uplifting book stresses the importance of communication and caring—much-needed actions for successful coexistence on our planet.

  • Click here then scroll down the page to learn more about Rebecca Green’s artwork.
  • Read a review of another picture book about animals here.

 

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Extinct: An Illustrated Exploration of Animals That Have Disappeared

EXTINCT:
An Illustrated Exploration
of Animals That Have Disappeared

Written by Lucas Riera
Illustrated by Jack Tite
(Phaidon; $19.95, Ages 7-10)

 

Extinct cover Phaidon

 

Most kids know that dinosaurs aren’t around anymore, but they may be surprised by the animals listed in Lucas Riera’s Extinct: An Illustrated Exploration of Animals That Have Disappeared. This oversized, full-color picture book focuses on 80+ animals extinct from the twentieth century to present day. Animals are arranged in like groups (birds, primates, reptiles, and so forth). Each two-page spread has fascinating stories that lend themselves to repeated reference. In the felines section, “It was Tibbles” tells of a pet cat who killed off an entire population of birds. Tibbles belonged to the lighthouse guard on an island near New Zealand; the Stephens Island wrens, unfamiliar with cats, soon perished.

 

Bears1
Interior spread without text from Extinct: An Illustrated Exploration of Animals That Have Disappeared written by Lucas Riera and illustrated by Jack Tite, Phaidon ©2019.

 

Jack Tite’s gorgeous art is delightful and surprising. For example, the amphibians pages have animals both familiar and unusual, such as the picture of a baby inside a mother frog’s mouth. (Because the gastric brooding frog swallows it eggs, the young frogs emerge when fully formed.) Bears, wolves, pigeons, rhinos—kids will excitedly recognize these animals. The reason many no longer exist is due to human behavior.

I appreciate the “How Can I Help?” section at the end which provides simple things kids can do: thinking about whether they really need that new item and always bringing reusable shopping bags to the store. Adults can read labels to ensure that products don’t contain palm oil (a major cause of deforestation) and avoid buying items made from single-use plastic or ones with non-compostable packaging. Extinct gently encourages environmental stewardship with kid-friendly images and descriptions.

 

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