May 6, 2012


Alert- this post is longer than usual. Rather than split it into two posts, just decide for yourself if you want to read it in two sittings. Betcha you'll want to read it straight through!

In last week's post I reviewed Z Is For Moose (Greenwillow Books 2012). Yes, Moose, with a considerable amount of help from you. This week I'm excited to have author Kelly Bingham and illustrator Paul O. Zelinsky join us with some thoughts about an alphabet book that deserves every positive adjective from awesome to zany.

Kelly and Paul, it’s wonderful to have you share your thoughts about the creation of Z IS FOR MOOSE. Its remarkable combination of humor, tension, and personalities will undoubtedly make it a classic. Kelly, your YA novel, Shark Girl, has won many awards and was on the Oprah booklist for kids. Paul, your titles are consistently award winners and included on all-time-best lists. I feel confident Z Is For Moose will be as long-lived and well-loved as your previous titles.

Paul: I hope so. 85% of the credit would go to Kelly Bingham. I’ll accept the other 15.

Kelly, dedications are often selected near the end of the process, but Moose insisted I begin by asking about yours:

“For Sam, who asked for a funny book, and for Benny, because I love you, too.”

So who are these people, and why isn’t Moose included? He insists there would be no story without him!

Kelly: Well, Moose has a point. Which I'm sure he knows. However, there would be no Moose if there were no Sam. Sam is my son, and when he was four, he began to learn the alphabet. I would go to the library and get a few ABC books out for him each week, and we'd read them over and over at night. One or two were funny, but most were pretty straightforward. Like--they'd be all names of flowers, or all names of animals or something. After we had exhausted every last book in the library, Sam asked me if I could please find more funny ones. "I want a funny book," he told me. Sam loved funny books. I looked and looked but to my surprise, there were hardly any funny ABC books to be found. (Keep in mind this was way back when, nine years ago.)

So what does a mom do? I thought, if there are no funny ABC books, then I will write him one. And I did. And I drew the pictures to go with it, and made a little book, and we looked at it together. And Sam liked it!

So, the book is dedicated to Sam, because without him asking for the book, it absolutely would have never been written. I was not a "picture book writer" at the time-- I was working on a novel. It never occurred to me to even try to write a picture book. But I tried for Sam.

As for Benny, well, he is my son, too. Therefore, as any parent knows, I could not leave him out. I mean, really. It would be like leaving Moose out. You just don't do it. And though he was a baby at the time Moose was written, he contributed in his own way by going to sleep early enough at night so that Sam and I could read our ABC books and get tired of them and decide to create our own. So--way to go, Benny! And Sam! I love both of you! EQUALLY.

Paul, Moose wants to thank you for catching his pre-show curtain peek before the title page. It’s clear he can hardly contain himself and he was happy to make an early appearance. In fact, the other alphabet players seemed quite composed. How did you make decisions about so many individual personalities?

Paul: Yes, Moose has to get a quick look at you, the audience, even from behind the endpapers (or sort-of endpapers—I had to put in an extra, simulated, endpaper to make this happen). As to all those characters, there are reasons for the way some appear, and not for others. Basically my attitude is “if you draw them they will come.” But I can be specific about a few. Queen, as some people have noticed, is an homage to Maurice Sendak’s Queen (Victoria) from Hector Protector. Ring has a ruby because it begins with R. The truck, I realized just recently, is based on a toy of my cousins’, which I painted very realistically in watercolor while staying in their house during the summer of 1975. The purplish Ball is a close relative of “Plastic” in Emily Jenkins’ Toys trilogy. It’s not Plastic herself, who is bright red, because Plastic belongs to a different publisher.

Kelly, were Moose and Zebra and their struggle for attention and control inspired by anyone you know?

Well, anyone with a child--particularly more than one child---knows all too well the "what about ME?" syndrome. Maybe even the "Is it MY turn yet?" syndrome. I would say the need for attention and the not-so-subtle undermining of Zebra was inspired by the interaction between my two sons, Sam and Benny. I WOULD say that. But I can't. I would never be forgiven for dragging them into this. They are currently very non-Moose-like and hate to be mentioned. So I guess I'll shrug innocently, and say: "No, I really don't know anyone at all who behaves like Moose. Except Moose, of course. He is one of a kind."
And to even hint that I can relate to Zebra? I would never do that.

Paul, many of the characters were seen in their “everyday” wear, or with personal items, but they assumed more traditional appearance and poses when their turns arrived. How did you decide on their “other lives” when they’re not “working” as alphabet actors?

It’s kind of funny, isn’t it, that they’re wearing clothes until they get onstage? But that’s how it has to be. You wear warm-up clothes in rehearsal. As to the things they’re holding in those lineup scenes, I have to admit to a failure. My plan was to give each character an attribute beginning with its letter. Some letters offered wonderful possibilities, like Ball holding a toy Bear. But others drove me crazy. Queen: Query? Quinine water? Holding a quince wouldn’t do it. I made lists, I searched through a dictionary (much easier with a real, paper dictionary!) and I finally gave up. In the end some of the cast have letter-appropriate items on or with them, some don’t have anything, and some just have whatever came to mind.

Kelly, how close is the final story to the one you started writing? For example, when you wrote your text originally did you include the dialogue bubbles and descriptions of the characters and action, or did that develop later in the process?

Yes, I did!

Actually, the story is pretty much word for word exactly what I wrote on my very first draft. The idea came to me almost fully formed and I could see it plainly in my head. I knew right away what the story would be about, and who the characters were--I knew what Sam would respond to, what he would enjoy reading and looking for. I knew he'd like the idea of a character who broke the boundaries and messed up the entire page and wrecked the text and drew on pictures and spoke freely. Also, I was working in the movie business at the time and had seen more than one scenario where someone got cut from a scene at the last minute because they'd been replaced by someone else. So the Moose and Mouse situation sprang to mind. The rest practically wrote itself!

I wrote the story in one sitting, in dummy form--drawing the pictures, the speech bubbles, etc. And made a small book of it. Later, I decided it might actually make a good "real" book. (When I say "I decided," I mean, my author friends insisted I submit it to a publisher, boosted my confidence in the piece, and basically pushed me into taking that step.) So I transcribed the text, dialogue, and necessary illustration notes into a manuscript, and with the help of my agent, sent it off.

I would like to add that I did not include any drawings when I submitted the story, and though some notes were necessary in order for the editor and artist to visualize what I had in mind, (for example, I had to describe the text being stomped on, and words being crossed out), I did not in any way contribute to the art or design of the book. All the credit for that goes to the extremely talented Paul O. Zelinsky.

It really was a remarkable experience to write this book- it came to me so complete all at once, it sold right away, and there were almost no revisions. I did have to wait a long time for it to be four year-old Sam is now 13. (And sadly, has no memory of this all happening way back when.) But it sure was worth the wait!

Paul, I’ve often heard you speak about using models for your pictures. Did Moose have a hard time posing or did you use stand-ins?

My studio is not tiny, but it’s really not big enough to invite a moose in for portrait studies. So I had to go in other directions. Like a certain amount of moose picture research online, a very nice CD of moose videos shot by friends on a nature trip somewhere in the Northeast, and lots of moose doodling. The moose is such a crazy-looking animal! I especially like male’s furry wattle (I learned it’s called a bell) and the large hump on the shoulder. The essence of moose, though, is its wide, weird, down-curving snout. Trying to extract these bizarre qualities and make a character who’s not off-putting wouldn’t have been as hard if it hadn’t been done so many times already. I went to great lengths not to look at any pictures of Bullwinkle, but images percolate through the culture so much that I don’t think it mattered. I finally stopped worrying whether my Moose would look any different from all the other moose in cartoons, books or movies. He came out how he came out.

Moose also noticed that the dust jack of the book is different from the hard cover in several important ways. Moose doesn’t manage to make an appearance on the front of the hard cover. (He mentioned he likes the dust jacket much better.) What’s behind that difference?

Well, this project was Zebra’s brainchild: a nice, gimmick-free alphabet book. His plans didn’t turn out that well, so I thought the least I could do was to give Zebra the cover (it’s called the “case” in bookmaker jargon) he had in mind. We considered having the title there read “Z is for Zebra” but decided to leave it at “Z is for” and let the picture of Zebra speak for itself. That this image gets covered up by a dust jacket featuring Moose’s shenanigans is in keeping with the rest of the book, don’t you think?

Absolutely! Kelly, Moose also noticed that the back cover finally credits Z is for Zebra, but also for zipper, zero, zoo and zombie. Is another book in Moose’s future?

Hmm...I'm not sure. It wouldn’t take any hoof-twisting to get Moose to agree. He would love to do another one-he's made that painfully clear. Zebra is not sure. We may need to let him recover a bit before we can talk to him more seriously about the idea. Until then, I hope everyone enjoys MOOSE. He loves his readers, so thank you to everyone who has read the book!

Paul, Moose wants me to ask about a book trailer. He feels his performance more than deserves to be immortalized on the web.

You’ll be able to see the actual event in which Moose burst in and messed up Zebra’s plans for the book cover if you wait until my Z is for Moose trailer comes out. Normally a trailer is finished before the book is published, but in this case the trailer was my idea, and my handiwork, and I am not an animator. So it was taking a very long time, and may never have happened at all if Greenwillow had not taken pity on me and hooked me up with a real animator to make things work correctly. The finished trailer should be out in a couple of weeks. It’s a behind-the-scenes interview with director and cast members, and it features quite a stellar cast list of voices. Look on my website , on the Greenwillow blog, I suppose on YouTube, and I hope in a lot of other places.

I'll have to wait, but it won't be easy! Moose, calm down or you'll break something!

Kelly and Paul, I really appreciate having you both join me (Sorry, MOOSE, join US). And MOOSE, thank you for your help in preparing questions and in allowing Kelly and Paul to have their moment in the spotlight uninterrupted. (Yes, I will remind readers to add their thoughts about the book AND YOU in the comments.

Disclaimer: I met Paul many years ago, worked with him in school visits, and consider him a friend. None of that influenced me in any way. I purchased this book myself and am utterly infatuated by both the writing and the art.

I've never met Kelly (except through this cyber-interview) but hope to some day. I am in awe of the creativity and execution of her thoroughly original ideas.

Aw-w-w, MOOSE, what have you done?

Sorry, Kelly and Paul, but it's my guess this has happened to you before.

If you missed it, last week's post has a detailed review and links about Z IS FOR MOOSE.


  1. It’s really interesting to hear from a picture book author and illustrator at the same time. I hope these two collaborate again. Z IS FOR MOOSE is one of my favorite books of the year. I agree that it’s one that will stand the test of time.

    1. happy to have you share your thumbs-up comments on Z IS FOR MOOSE. It was a rare and special privilege for me to have both Kelly and Paul participate in this interview, and I can't thank them enough. Of course, any visit with Moose is memorable. Here's hoping you'll help us all spread the word on Z IS FOR MOOSE.


Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.