Welcome to #SeasonsOfKidLit, everyone! We have an extremely talented guest on the blog today. Erin Barker is here! She is the author and illustrator of Mr. Pumpkin's Tea Party, and illustrator of Baby Monster (author Andrea Pfeiffer) - two positively delightful reads for the season. Want to know more about Erin and her beautiful books? Read on...
Q: Hi, Erin. Thank you for joining #SeasonsOfKidLit! I’m thrilled to have you as I’m a huge fan of your books! Your style of writing and illustrating is simply timeless. It truly brings so much life to your characters. For those who haven't had the pleasure of meeting you, can you share a little more about yourself and how you became an author and illustrator for children?
A: I'm an illustrator who loves stories (and who also happens to have a BA in fine arts). As a kid I loved to draw, but even more than that I was a voracious reader - I devoured any books around, particularly fantasy stories. I was one of those kids who had trouble focusing in class because I would daydream all the time. I've always loved picture books and kept reading them at the library even after I was supposed to have "grown out of them". In 5th grade I took a creative writing class and for a couple years considered myself a "novelist" (when in reality I had only written two short stories that were 4 pages long). I like a lot of things and have fairly broad tastes/interests that don't seem to go together - like rollerblading, Jane Austen, bluegrass music, the X-Files, and Japanese food, to name a few.
Q: Your book Mr. Pumpkin’s Tea Party is absolutely exquisite. It follows Mr. Pumpkin as he hosts a ghoulish soiree for all his friends. How did you come up with such a unique story and characters?
A: I have to answer this in two parts. I promise they go together.
First off, I am a warm-weather person. I love summer. I thrive at the pool. But you know when the leaves start to turn color, there's a crisp breeze in the air, you pull out your warm sweaters and flannel shirts for the first time, and all you want to do is curl up in front of a fire with some tea and a good book? We call that season Denimtober, and my hipster friends came up with the term about 10 years ago (when the denim jacket was making its comeback). At the time, we weren't aware of the concept of hygge (the Danish word for coziness) but that's essentially what it is, just during autumn. My buddy Ian would throw these grand Denimtober parties at his beautifully restored 1920s era home where we all got together with good food and good company (bonus points were awarded to the person wearing the most denim). Everyone would bring something to share, and there was always enough to go around. It became about hospitality and community, and those memories are some of the most cherished ones I have.
With that said, in the fall of 2016 I participated in Inktober, which is an annual challenge to draw something with ink every day in October. On a whim I drew a skeleton and a skinny pumpkin-headed guy having tea, dressed in dapper clothes and acting like proper English gentlemen. I immediately fell in love with these two characters. My editor saw it months later and said, "I think we could make this into a great picture book". Somehow during the development of the story, the memories with my friends subconsciously seeped through, and one day I looked at it and said, "Holy crap, this is just a Denimtober party". I had even based the characters loosely on my friends (Lord Wolfington is my friend Leslie, Dr Cairo is my buddy Keaton, etc). The book has become incredibly dear to my heart, and I think will always be my favorite, no matter what books may come after.
Q: What are some of your favorite spreads and scenes from Mr. Pumpkin’s Tea Party?
A: It's hard to pick, to be honest - I like them all. I really loved putting in small details for kids to find, like the black cat hidden on every page (his name is Winston, in case you were wondering). If I had to pick some top faves, It'd probably be the opening spread where we establish the setting, the sun is just starting to go down, and Mr. Pumpkin is putting the final touches on the table. We get to see the house, the tree, and the whole setup. I also love the no.8 spread with all the teacups shown. I had so much fun designing each teacup with subtle Halloween motifs.
I'm also partial to the frog serenade :)
Q: You also illustrated the picture book Baby Monster, which follows a couple of scientists who create and care for a new monster. This book hilariously shines a light on how chaotic a new addition to a family can be. What was your favorite part about illustrating this fun story?
A: I made this book the year after Mr. Pumpkin, and I really enjoyed the challenge of finding a different visual tone for this story. Each book requires something different, and I wanted this one to be more loose, more chaotic, and more overtly humorous (which wasn't hard, because Andrea's text was already so fun and silly). I loved finding the right look for the two scientists - I wanted them to be opposites but still complement each other. I ended up landing on designs that were actually very extreme versions of my parents (my mom is tall and lanky, and my dad has a shorter, stockier build). The mom's shirt is blue, the dad's shirt is yellow, so naturally the monster they make together is green. I also did a ton of research on old monster horror films and made the back cover to be a parody of several Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff movie posters.
Q: What makes both of these books the perfect read for fall?
A: Mr. Pumpkin takes place in the fall, and I think embodies the magic of friends enjoying a meal together. It has all the fun Halloween characters, but they aren't scary, which is great for younger readers. Halloween can be a tough time for little ones who are more sensitive/easily scared, so I like that this book can be a safe place for those kids.
Baby Monster is a fun read for any time of the year, but it seems to have more effectiveness around Halloween because of the monster aspect. And it helps parents laugh about times that can be really hard, which is a great way to cope with stress. We all need a good laugh sometimes!
Above all, I think fall is the perfect season for reading in the first place, so any book is a good choice to me :)
Well said, Erin! Thanks again for joining us. It was a pleasure!
Q: Would you like to leave a Trick or a Treat for the readers?
My trick for creators: be willing to be flexible in your process, and open to changes if they are better for the story.
In my original sketches for Mr. Pumpkin's Tea Party, Sir Bones brought lemonade instead of cider (I think "lemonade" went perfectly with the rhyme I had written at the time). It was my brilliant editor Amy who suggested we do apple cider as a more seasonally appropriate option (at that point I was kicking myself for not thinking of it sooner), but I had to rewrite those pages to make the rhyme work.
Lord Wolfington's name used to be Lord Lupine, and Lady Nightshade originally brought tomatoes from her garden instead of mysterious jam, but both shifted into better versions that ultimately helped the flow of the story.
Also, as we were developing the format of the book, the original plan was to count up to 10 the way most counting books do, but later we decided it would be more fun to count to 13 (the spookiest number of course). I had to write more characters and figure out how to get it to all make sense together, which was frustrating at the time.
There were lots of small tweaks we made that shaped the book, little by little, into the final version. I had to cut a lot of lines that I loved, had to make some last-minute changes I wasn't certain about at the time, and had to be open to making sacrifices in order to make the book the best story it could be:
Thanks for the extra terrific trick, Erin! Everyone, please leave a comment below and thank Erin for stopping by.
Reminder: Those who leave a comment on all posts will be eligible to win one (1) of ten (10) Rate Your Story Speed Passes.
About Erin Barker:
Erin is an illustrator and author based in Ohio. She mainly specializes in watercolor, and her picture book Mr. Pumpkin’s Tea Party was a 2019 Kids’ IndieNext List pick. As a former bookseller (and storytime lady!) at an independent children’s bookstore, she is passionate about storytelling in all forms, and loves helping kids get in touch with their own creative voice. Now she illustrates full time and continues to pour her knowledge of children’s literature into her work.
For more about Erin, check out the below links:
To purchase Erin's books, or to leave a review, click here!