Posts Tagged illustrators

Author Spotlight: Stephan Pastis

You’re in for an extra-special treat, Mixed-Up friends! Today, Stephan Pastis, the author/illustrator of the wildly popular and critically acclaimed New York Times bestselling Timmy Failure series—which was lauded by Kirkus as: “Wittier than the Wimpy Kid”—as well as the creator of the syndicated comic strip Pearls Before Swine, is here to chat about his latest illustrated MG novel, Looking Up. It’s out from Aladdin/S&S on October 10. (Spoiler alert: It’s AMAZING!!!) For a never-before-seen sneak peek at Stephan’s illustrations, read on…

Summary of Looking Up

Living alone with her mother in a poorer part of town, Saint—a girl drawn to medieval knights, lost causes, and the protection of birthday piñatas—sees the neighborhood she has always known and loved disappearing around her: old homes being torn down and replaced by fancy condos and coffee shops. But when her favorite creaky old toy store is demolished, she knows she must act.

Enlisting the help of Daniel “Chance” McGibbons, a quiet, round-faced boy who lives across the street (and whose house also faces the wrecking ball), Saint hatches a plan to save what is left of her beloved hometown.

Interview with Stephan Pastis

MR: Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Stephan. So happy to have you here!

SP: Thank you for inviting me! And for all the kind words!

MR: First and foremost, I gobbled up your novel faster than a pint of Cherry Garcia ice cream—and that’s saying a lot. I absolutely LOVED it. Can you tell us what inspired you to write this story?

SP: Well thank you! I wanted to write a Don Quixote-type story, but instead of with a man fighting giants, mine would be about a little girl futilely fighting against the redevelopment of her neighborhood. Also, I had never done a middle-grade novel with a little girl as the main character, so I liked that challenge.

The Saint Comes Marching In

MR: Saint, the big-hearted, piñata-rescuing 11-year-old protagonist is, hands down, one of the most lovable and unconventional characters I’ve encountered in middle-grade fiction. How did you capture the essence of this wonderfully quirky character, and lay it out for readers on the page?

SP: Hahah thank you! I think I had just read Catcher in the Rye before writing it, and I loved Holden’s voice, how he talked directly to the reader, so there’s a little bit of that influence in there — maybe mixed in with the slightly delusional perspective of Don Quixote. I like characters who are overwhelmed by their surroundings and ill-equipped to deal with change.

Word Up!

MR: A discussion of Saint wouldn’t be complete without a mention of her impressive vocabulary. Saint uses such words as: “mendacity,” “depravity,” “sanctity,” “pilfered,” “germane,” “critical juncture,” “legal ramifications.” This is a bold move, considering it’s common wisdom for middle-grade writers to employ vocabulary that most of their audience is familiar with. Your thoughts?

SP: I think I did that with Timmy Failure too. Maybe it’s just the appeal of words like that coming out of a little kid’s mouth. The incongruity of their age and the maturity of the words makes me laugh. I think I pilfered “mendacity” from the Burl Ives character in a Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He shouts it over and over.

The Truth About Turtles

MR: As a follow-up, can you tell me about Saint’s love for her pet turtle and “life partner,” Dr. Rutherford B. Hayes? There’s a ton of fascinating material to unpack here…

SP: Well, she doesn’t really have an active adult in her life. So I needed someone who could be the voice of reason, and give Saint perspective and wisdom. Of course, he’s also a blowhard, not to mention curmudgeonly, so he’s not the best at that. Plus, I liked the metaphor of the turtle—someone who retreats from the world into their own shell. 

Promises, Promises

MR: Let’s move on to Saint’s relationship with her mother. You set up the story with Saint’s declaration that: “My mother breaks all her promises.” How does this affect Saint’s life overall, and what does this say about promises—and promise breaking?

SP: Yeah, that’s a complicated relationship. I think Saint needs a lot more than she’s getting from her mom, especially at the point of her life she’s in. And since she’s not getting what she needs, she’s lashing out. I don’t know if Saint’s mom breaks any more promises than the average mom; I think Saint’s just at a breaking point and can’t take any more disappointment.

Only the Lonely

MR: Loneliness is another prominent theme in your book. Both Saint and her across-the-street neighbor, Daniel, suffer acutely from loneliness. Without sharing any spoilers, can you tell us how Saint’s loneliness manifests itself in her life? What about Daniel’s?

SP: Well, without an active parent in her day-to-day life, she copes by making friends with turtles and piñatas (which she rescues from kids’ birthday parties), and by living mostly in her imagination. I think her imagination is her coping mechanism. Daniel’s as well.

Invasion of the Latte Sippers

MR: Looking Up also explores the issue of neighborhood gentrification; specifically, when one group of residents feels intruded upon by a new, unfamiliar population. What were you aiming to say about gentrification, and displacement in general?

SP: Well, you see a lot of it in the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods of New Orleans, where I spend a lot of time. And when it happens, the neighborhoods slowly lose what’s unique about them—namely, long-time residents who really are what give the city its personality.

The Juggler

MR: In addition to being an author of illustrated middle-grade novels—including the über-popular Timmy Failure series—you are the creator of the syndicated comic strip Pearls Before Swine, which appears in over 800 newspapers. You’ve also cowritten the Disney+ movie Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made. How do you juggle everything without dropping the ball? I can barely walk and chew gum!

SP: Thank you! Well, I work pretty much seven days a week, but because I love it, it never feels like work (or very rarely). That’s the real key—loving what you do. It’s cliché, but true. I had a truly stressful job as a lawyer for 10 years, so this never feels like work compared to that.

Timmy Failure: The Movie

MR: Speaking of the Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made movie, how much time did you spend on the set? And, maybe more important: Did you get to meet Wallace Shawn? 🙂 Also, is there a Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made sequel in the works? Rumor has it that you’ve been working on the script.

SP: I was on set every day for the entire four months of pre-production and filming, half in Vancouver and half in Portland. 

And yes, I did meet Wallace Shawn! I talked to Wally whenever I could. I wrote the script for the sequel, but I’m not sure if it will get made. Would be great if it did, though.

Stephan’s Writing Routine

MR: What does your writing/illustrating routine look like? Do you have any particular rituals?

SP: Crazy ritual.  I turn off all the lights (I just have the light of the computer screen), light incense, and play really loud music.

MR: What are you working on now, Stephan? Enquiring Mixed-Up Files readers want to know.

SP: A book of all my travel adventures. I travel a lot and have been to a lot of unique places. [For more on how travel opens our eyes as writers and readers, check out this article from the MUF archives.]

Lightning Round!

MR: And finally, no MUF interview is complete without a lightning round, so…

Preferred writing snack? Those little pretzels stuffed with peanut butter.

Coffee or tea? Coffee for sure. I wouldn’t trust anyone who said tea.

Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay? Yea.

Superpower? To shut out all distractions when I write. 

Favorite comic strip (besides Pearls Before Swine)? The Far Side.

Favorite place on earth? New Orleans, Louisiana.

If you were stranded on a desert island with only three things, what would they be? Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. The Joshua Tree by U2. Tacos.


MR: Thank you for chatting with us, Stephan. It was an absolute pleasure, and I’m sure MUF readers will agree!

SP: Thank you!

All About Stephan

Stephan Pastis is the creator of the syndicated comic strip Pearls Before Swine, which appears in over 800 newspapers. He is also the creator of the Timmy Failure Book series and the cowriter of the Disney+ movie Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made. He lives in Northern California with his wife and two kids. Learn more about Stephan on his website and follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

An Illustrated Novel For The Spooky Season – NO PLACE FOR MONSTERS – Interview With Kory Merritt

‘Tis the #spookymg season, Mixed-Up Files Family! I’m excited to welcome Kory Merritt, author and illustrator of a super creepy new novel, NO PLACE FOR MONSTERS, for an interview, today.

Willow and HeckbenderMeet Willow & Heckbender ~ Monsters

This is one of the first images I saw related to NO PLACE FOR MONSTERS. Just look at these two character monsters! And they’re reading books. 💚#thud-lud, #thud-lud

Kind of explains the reason I couldn’t resist chatting with their creator, right?

But I must warn you. Be patient as you scroll through this interview for more illustrations await you – even a page or two from within the book. It’s amazingly written and illustrated with all the shrills and shrieks the October season beckons for . . . and spooky readers adore.

Let’s take a peek, shall we?



In this spellbinding, lavishly illustrated story that Diary of a Wimpy Kid author Jeff Kinney calls “wildly imaginative and totally terrifying,” two unlikely friends face down their worst fears in order to stop their small town—and themselves—from disappearing.

Levi and Kat are about to discover a very dark side to their neighborhood.

Nothing ever seems out of place in the safe, suburban town of Cowslip Grove. Lawns are neatly mowed, sidewalks are tidy, and the sounds of ice cream trucks fill the air. But now . . . kids have been going missing—except no one even realizes it, because no one remembers them. Not their friends. Not their teachers. Not even their families.

But Levi and Kat do remember, and suddenly only they can see why everyone is in terrible danger when the night air rolls in. Now it is up to Levi and Kat to fight it and save the missing kids before it swallows the town whole.


Welcome to our Mixed-Up Files home, Kory! We’re excited to have you stop by. I have to start by asking you: NO PLACE FOR MONSTERS has all sorts of spookiness oozing from the pages. Did you like spooky stories as a kid? If so, why do you think you did? Any favorites?

Oh, yes! I’ve always loved spooky stories. As a kid, my favorite book characters were always the creatures—Gollum from The Hobbit, the sea-rats from Brian Jacques’s Redwall series. Even as an adult, I still love reading books with strange and imaginative monsters: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, The Jumbies series by Tracey Baptiste, numerous classics by legends like Stephen King and Tananarive Due. Now more than ever, it’s fun to escape to monster land.

Would you give us a peek into this story in five words?

“Lost kids battle memory monsters.”

Ooh . . . now, what made writing this story spooky and fun, but also important to you?

Much of the story revolves around stolen memories and forgetting—or being forgotten by—loved ones. My grandmother, who died two years ago, suffered from Alzheimer’s, and it was horrific to see the disease steal her memories and entire identity. NO PLACE FOR MONSTERS is mostly creepy-fun (I hope), but there is that memory-loss angle that is a bit deeper, I think. So that was important.

I’m very sorry about your grandmother.Mending Heart I’m sure many families will relate to this.

Did you set out to create an illustrated middle grade book? Did the images come first, the writing, the characters . . .? Briefly share this process, please. We’d love to know!

I used to be an elementary school art teacher, and I wrote and illustrated stories and comics for fun. They were published on a syndicate site called GoComics. The creatures and basic story that became NO PLACE FOR MONSTERS originally appeared on GoComics in 2011 and 2012. I think the creatures came first—they usually do. I was obviously inspired by Stephen King books I’d read as a kid, plus the Neil Gaiman stuff I was reading at the time. I met the amazing superstar agent Dan Lazar through my work with the game site Poptropica and its book series. He encouraged me to try my own spooky kids’ story. So I dug up the old GoComics stories and he and my awesome editor helped me shape them into what would become NO PLACE FOR MONSTERS.

Wow, this is super interesting! What an author/illustrator’s journey you’ve had. It’s well-known that middle grade readers love stories that scare them. But there needs to be more to create a successful story. What’s the more in NO PLACE FOR MONSTERS?

I hope the memory-loss angle hits hard. Family members forgetting you can be a terrifying concept. Also, I like that the two main kid characters, Levi and Kat, are not friends at first—they have issues. Both of them have social trouble, and they both have to work together because of circumstance. They have a lot of difficulties with each other.

There’s plenty of mystery going on in Cowslip Grove, the location of this story. What would you say makes the mystery these kids have to solve unique?🔍

I guess the mystery becomes extra difficult for the kids because no one remembers them, their own town is no longer welcoming and views them as strangers, and familiar faces and places are now strange and untrustworthy. And they are being stalked by bogeys that no one else can see.

Creative FunCrayon

I must go back to the artwork. It’s fabulously done! What is your favorite part of illustrating in general and then for this story?

Thank you! Oh, I love drawing strange creatures, wildlife, old trees, rocks. I tried to squeeze a lot of tiny details into the rocks. Some of the book’s unanswered questions are actually answered (or at least hinted at) through tiny hidden fossils and lichen shapes in the rocks.

(*#Teachers, #Librarians – your students are going to totally fall for this book.) Here’s a few illustrations:


Would you please share a little about your main characters and why you believe middle grade readers will relate to them.

The two main kid characters, Levi and Kat, both have a lot of social interaction difficulties. Levi is very introverted and doesn’t like leaving his home or being with anyone but his sister. Kat has trouble controlling her emotions, has outbursts, and frustrates most people around her. They aren’t friends at the start, but are quickly forced out of their comfort zones when strange things happen to their lives. They make a lot of mistakes along the way. They’re brave, but also scared. I think a lot of middle grade readers could relate to one or both of them.

What do you hope readers take with them once they’ve finished the book?

A little strangeness can be a good thing. Appreciate weird creatures. And excessive lawncare is ridiculous—stop using weedkiller.

Haha! Perfect.

For our writing readers, any advice for writing spooky stories?

Read, write, and draw as much as possible! Read lots of books: prose books, books with lots of pictures, books with no pictures. Books by a wide variety of authors. Books outside your comfort zone. Write and draw and try to get things published locally. You’ll write and draw stuff that will be embarrassing in a few years, but hopefully you’ll have developed and honed your style. And have fun! You should love writing and drawing even if only a few people see it.

For scary stuff . . . I don’t know. I guess think about the stuff that creeps you out and try to create your own twist on it?

A silly scenario:
a. You’re in a dark alley with monsters lurking toward you. You notice a small box at your feet. Opening the box, you find chalk in all colors. What do you draw to get you out of this mess?

Oooh! I take out the chalk and start to draw an elaborately detailed cephalopod that will no doubt awe the monsters and inspire them to drop and worship the Supreme Chalk Squid. But as usual, I get carried away with the details, miss my window of opportunity, and the monsters eat me before I finish.

Oh my! This is hilarious. *snorts . . . then apologizes*

Lastly, do you have any upcoming projects you care to share with our readers?

I’m doing another book with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for Fall 2021. It’s a follow-up to No Place for Monsters, with some of the same characters, and plenty of new creatures. It’s set in a haunted school. As a former art teacher, I find the school setting easy to write about. Much of it is told through “found footage”—illustrations seen through the view of cameras and phones. Sort of like an illustrated Blair Witch Project. It’s experimental. Hope it works!

This sounds fabulous! Thank you  for sharing your monsters and humor with us. Your wisdom and joy for reading and writing is inspiring.

All the best from your Mixed-Up Files Family.

About the Author

Kory MerrittKory Merritt—a former public school art teacher from Rochester, NY—enjoys drawing and writing (and reading) strange stories, strolling through old forests, and peeking under rocks for weird creatures. Keep up with Kory: Website | Instagram | Twitter



As Promised . . . two pages from NO PLACE FOR MONSTERS!

Want more illustrated or graphic novels for middle grade readers? Here are a few past posts that will help! LINK & LINK

Share your thoughts on Kory’s new book! We’d love to know.

Book Festivals: Are They Worth the Time and Travel?

Photo by Laura Hays Hoover

Take a look at that picture. There’s a lot happening there. A lot. It was taken at the annual Ohioana Book Festival, held each April in Columbus, Ohio. Featuring 150 authors from all genres, it’s a flurry of literary hoopla.

Book festivals happen in major cities and small towns across the country each year. Fall seems to be a particularly popular season for book festivals, so I decided to devote a few minutes to dissecting the costs and benefits of book festivals – for authors and consumers alike.

So what’s in a book festival for…

Teachers and Librarians?  Uh, well, books!  It’s no secret that teachers and librarians love books. They love to read and collect them, and they, above all others, are usually interested in learning what’s new in world of literature. In order to remain fresh and interesting, most book festivals only offer slots to authors who have a new book, released within the past year, or sometimes two. Book festivals are a great way to see, hold, and peruse the newest releases.

Teachers and librarians who are looking to hire authors to speak at their venues can do a little reconnaissance at a book festival. Talking face-to-face with a potential speaker can provide lots of good information about their enthusiasm and their potential to captivate with your audience – something that’s hard to gauge from a website.  Sometimes, teachers and librarians might connect in person with an author they already know via social media. It was great to meet the real Ms. Yingling from Ms. Yingling Reads, a favorite middle-grade book blog, which you can find HERE.

Can you see the mutual admiration?

Parents and Families?  Most book festivals are family friendly, with kids corners and teen scenes and reading rooms and roaming storybook characters and face painting and food – of course, there must be food. I love watching families come by my table. I eavesdrop and hear young readers tell their parents “I read that at school” or “I love that author!” I hear families talking about what books to read together and what books to add to wish lists. I see parents getting a better understanding of their child’s likes and dislikes when it comes to reading. And I see lots of tigers, butterflies, and dragons on faces where the smile didn’t need to be painted.

Young readers get artsy making thaumatropes at the Buckeye Book Fair in Wooster, Ohio.

Authors and Illustrators? While attending a book festival is usually free for consumers, the cost of participation may vary for authors and illustrators.  Most book festivals don’t charge authors a fee, but participating authors are carefully selected by the organizers in order to reflect a wide variety of genres. Authors and illustrators are sometimes invited and sometimes they apply. If invited or accepted, authors must consider the cost of an entire day away from their work and travel and, sometimes, lodging near the venue. Some authors find that only a handful of their books were sold after hours of sitting behind a table, engaging in lively conversation with potential consumers. It can be exhausting. But, creators must consider the benefits of attending a large book festival, and there are many. Authors and illustrators often work alone. It’s good to get out of writing caves and interact with the very people for whom we write.  Meeting our audience gives us connection and puts faces to the vague terms “readers” and “middle-graders” and “consumers.” I also have to say that connecting with fellow authors is inspiring and refreshing. I look forward to several festivals a year because I know I will see other authors. Finally, I’ve been invited to many a school or library after meeting a teacher or librarian at a book festival, so often the benefits more than outweigh the cost of travel and lodging.

Nancy Roe Pimm, Julie K. Rubini, Cynthia A. Crane, and Michelle Houts participate in a Middle-Grade Biographies Panel Discussion at the 2019 Ohioana Book Festival

Catching up with children’s nonfiction author Mary Kay Carson at Books By the Banks in Cincinnati












It would be impossible to list every great book festival in the U.S. here, but I’ll start us off with a few that I’ve attended or hope to attend someday. In the comments below, please add more! And whether you’re a teacher, librarian, parent, author, or illustrator, I hope you’ll consider spending a day at a book festival near you. You just never know who you’ll meet!

Who knew Darth Vader was a Charley Harper fan?

A Short List of Book Festivals – add more in the comments below!

Ohioana Book Festival –  April – Columbus, OH

Southern Kentucky Book Fest – April – Bowling Green, KY

Hudson Children’s Book Festival – May – Hudson, NY

Claire’s Day – May – Toledo/Maumee, OH

Chesapeake Bay Children’s Book Festival – June – Easton, MD

Sheboygan Children’s Book Festival – September – Sheboygan, WI

Princeton Children’s Book Festival – September – Princeton, NJ

Books by the Banks – October – Cincinnati, OH

Warwick Children’s Book Festival – October – Warwick, NY

Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival – October – Chappaqua, NY

Texas Book Festival – October – Austin, TX

Twin Cities Book Festival – October – St. Paul, MN

Buckeye Book Fair – November – Wooster, OH

Kentucky Book Fair – November – Lexington, KY

Rochester Children’s Book Festival – November – Rochester, NY

Wordstock – November – Portland, OR

Western New York Children’s Book Expo – November – Buffalo, NY