Tony DiTerlizzi was a successful fantasy artist before he fulfilled a childhood dream of writing and illustrating books for children. His spooky picture book "The Spider and the Fly" (2002) was a Caldecott Honor Medal winner and New York Times best-seller, and "The Spiderwick Chronicles" series (Simon & Schuster, 2003-2004), co-created with Holly Black, is based on an idea he had in the works for 20 years. DiTerlizzi's latest project, "Kenny and the Dragon" (2008), marks DiTerlizzi's debut as a chapter book writer. He is also the illustrator of "The Wyrm King "(2009), the final book in the Beyond the Spiderwick Chronicles series co-created with Holly Black. DiTerlizzi lives in Massachusetts.
Previous National Book Festival Appearances
From the 2009 National Book Festival
Your newest book, The Wyrm King – will be the last book in the Beyond the Spiderwick Chronicles series. How does it feel to know that the series will end?
I suppose it is a bittersweet feeling. Holly and I have had a great time creating the stories, promoting the books, and receiving the warm admiration from our readers. It is what’s kept me going throughout the years.
I feel very proud in what we’ve created in the Spiderwick stories. And, frankly, I am glad we are ending the series on a high-note. With the success of the film and books, I think we accomplished what we set out to do in the beginning: which was to create modern stories with modern kids having grand adventures in the ancient, mysterious world of the faerie-folk.
How do you think that your fans will feel? Will you be collaborating with Holly Black on any future projects?
I hope our readers enjoy the ending. In many ways, this second story (comprising the three Beyond The Spiderwick Chronicles books) is richer and deeper than the original five. The collaborative process that I share with Holly is very unique and is forged on our solid friendship. In fact, I am not sure I could ever go back to the traditional “You write and I’ll draw” method of making books again. So I hope she and I can do it again in the future. We both have lots of stories to tell.
What sparked your imagination for Kenny and the Dragon?
I was a tremendous fan of the original Kenneth Grahame short story, The Reluctant Dragon. I just loved that story as a kid, and I wanted to retell it so that it may enter the fairy tale chain of retellings that we often see with stories like Puss in Boots or Snow White. Of course, having started my career as an illustrator for the game Dungeons & Dragons, I am a big lover of all things dragon as well. Originally, I was going to retell the tale with humans, but set it in the 1950’s. Somehow I couldn’t work out all of the story points. Then, my agent mentioned making the protagonist an animal, and everything clicked into place for me. There are so many dragon stories out there, but I hadn’t seen any set in an animal world.
Can you tell us how you go about collaborating with another author?
As I mentioned earlier, with Holly it’s a different working relationship when compared to how books are traditionally made. Usually an author writes a manuscript that is handed into the editor. The editor will then work with an art director to find just the right illustrator for the job and off they go. Many times the illustrator and author never meet. I’ve always thought that, perhaps, that process robs the book of some unused talent – especially if the illustrator also happens to be an author. Such was the case of Spiderwick: I came at it as a picture book writer and illustrator and Holly as a young adult novelist – the Spiderwick stories are where we meet in the middle.
Back in 2001, I had pitched the idea to my editor, Kevin Lewis at Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, for a lavish, naturalist’s field guide to faeries. As he and I began to develop the story of Arthur Spiderwick, the man who created this field guide, we realized there was more here than we initially thought. It was developing into two separate books. Enter Holly, whom my wife, Angela, and I were close friends with. In fact, Angela and I had helped get her first book, Tithe, published. Since Holly and I had this constant dialogue about the story and plot in books that we’d read, or films we’d watched, it was easy to slip into creating a story of our own. We sat down in 2002 and began mapping out the tale of the Grace kids together. Along the way I offered ideas for scenes and characters, and she informed me on exactly how she visualized them. Our roles were blurred as we worked towards creating the best story possible. That’s why there are no “Written by” or “Illustrated by” credits, we collaborated in the truest sense of the word and on every aspect of the book.
What challenges do you face in your writing and illustrating process? How do you overcome them?
There are many challenges I face while working on a book. Working within deadlines and schedules is certainly one of the bigger ones for me. I want to create the best possible book I can for my readers with words and pictures – and that takes time to get it just right. Working within a deadline helps in keeping me motivated on a project, but the stress of completing it (to my satisfaction) in time can take its toll on me. In some ways, I overcome this by constantly creating. I always have a handful of stories in various stages of completion in my mind and on my drawing board. Some of the books I am working on currently have taken years to work and rework to get the story and art just right.
What authors and artists have inspired you?
I always look backwards to go forwards when embarking on the creation of a new book. There are so many great contributors to children’s literature that I don’t have to look far for inspiration. Of course, I am huge fan of the old fairy tales by Hans Christian Anderson, Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm. Those stories have stuck with me my entire life. And I love many of the artists who have illuminated them. Illustrators like Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Kay Nielsen and Ernest Shepard all worked during the “Golden Age” of children’s illustration, and have had a prodigious impact on me. With my daughter, I am rediscovering other artists who I grew up with and have also influenced me. Author/illustrators like Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein and Richard Scarry were favorites of mine growing up. It is amazing to see that their work still delights children today. I could be so lucky.
What tips or advice can you share with young students who hope to start writing or illustrating?
My advice would be the same for both ventures: write/draw every day, whenever you can, and from life as much as possible. Stories, even the most fantastic ones, have a thread of reality for us readers to cling to as we travel through the pages of a book. So observing life is crucial.
I would also add some advice to parents, teachers and librarians of children who seem interested in writing fanciful tales or creating imaginative drawings: I am the product of a support system that started with my parents, extended into my family, friends and teachers. All of which saw that I had a talent for coming up with whimsical worlds and fantastic stories. Their encouragement was the key to my success. You would not be interviewing me if my parents, or teachers didn’t tell me to “keep doing what I do” as a child.
Sadly, I don’t see a lot of this in schools today. As I travel on book tour and meet with lots of kids, parents and teachers, I am always shocked and saddened to hear that budgets for art classes have been reduced down to nothing. One school I visited only had an “Art cart” where the teacher went from room to room with a handful of art supplies for the students to use.
Ironically, one of our biggest enjoyments, as Americans, is storytelling. Whether it is reading a book, watching a movie, or playing a character in a video game – we love a great story. And we need visionaries to continue to create them for us. Who will nurture the next generation?
Can you suggest a fun writing or drawing exercise to get them started?
Sure. Here is a simple exercise that simplifies the questions I asked myself when I created the picture book, Ted (one of my personal favorites).
- Conjure up an imaginary friend – even if you are too old for such things. Wait, ESPECIALLY if you are too old for such things.
- What is it? A person? A monster? An object? Food? A robot? A sock?
- Are you still pals with this imaginary friend? Why?
- Have you ever had a fight or argument with it? What was it about?
- What does your friend like to do for fun? Eat? Swing? Race cars? Time travel?
- Where does it sleep?
- Can anyone else see it? If so, what happens when they do?
- How does it get around? Fly? Swim? Run? Hop? Walk? Evaporate?
- Does your character have a name? What happens when you say it? What happens when someone else says it? What if you say it backwards?
- Based on all of this, what does your imaginary friend look like? Draw a picture of it.
- Now, can you come up with an adventure with you and your imaginary friend?
What is your list of favorite children or teen books?
This can be a long and ever-changing list for me. Here are some all-time favorites:
- Peter Pan and Wendy – J.M. Barrie’s classic has surly pirates, bloodthirsty native Americans, a hungry crocodile, feisty faeries and flying kids with weapons...what more could you ask for?
- Watership Down – Richard Adams takes you on an incredible quest from a home colony that’s completely eradicated to Shangri la. On the way, there are monsters, villains, allies, oh, and a fascist leader trying to seize the hero’s new home...and it’s all told with rabbits. You read that right – rabbits.
- The Mouse and The Motorcycle – Mouse buddy + toy motorcycle = Awesome!
- The Lorax – In my mind, this one of Dr. Seuss’s undisputed classics. Sadly, we need the Lorax now more than ever.
- Lafcadio: The Lion That Shot Back – One of Shel Silverstein’s lesser known titles, but one of my all-time favorites. Actually, I learned about this one when my younger brother read it for school and had me help with his book report. It is one of those stories that you will always remember.
If you weren’t creating children’s books, what do you think you would be doing?
Someone who teaches and encourages kids to read, write and draw. An “Imagination Coach”. Yeah, that’s it.
What is your advice to parents for passing the joys of reading on to their children?
Lead by example. Read. Read to yourself and read to your children. Sharing a book with your kids, snuggled up in their bed, is one of the joys of parenting. Even today, my mom and I will exchange books then dig into a discussion about it. These talks often lead to other things, like life, our family, etc.
Can you tell us about any new books you are working on for the coming year?
I’ve got a new series of silly little picture books, titled Adventure of Meno, which I created with my wife, Angela. It is about a space elf that comes to Earth and befriends a near-sighted jellyfish and a wish-granting sprite. Seriously. The books were inspired by our love of old 1950’s cartoons, toys and Little Golden Books. We wanted to make a funny, simple series to read aloud to our little girl. After that, I’ll be launching a new trilogy. The first book is titled The Search for WondLa. It’s a futuristic adventure teeming with aliens, robots and monsters – a fairy tale for the twenty-first century.
Do you have a website where young people can learn more about you and your work?