Happy Thursday Critters! This week we have an interview with debut author Jonathan Stutzman. I’m so excited to share his work with you all— his debut picture book, TINY T. REX AND THE IMPOSSIBLE HUG, illustrated by Jay Fleck, is already a favorite in our household and has become a regular request at bedtime.
So without further ado…please welcome Jonathan Stutzman!
Where do you live?
I live right outside of Hershey, Pennsylvania (the land of chocolate!).
When did you know you wanted to write picture books?
I love telling stories, I think I always have, and I’ve been tinkering with different ways of doing that since I was a child. I wrote my first comic book when I was 9 or 10 and my first picture book when I was 11. I tried making one with a friend again while I was in film school, but it wasn’t until I met my fiancée (illustrator Heather Fox) that I really dove into picture books. I worked on a school project with her (which we self-published) and it was SO MUCH FUN. I started spending a lot of time in the kids section at my local library and the bookstore, reading a bunch of the classics as well as popular current titles. I connected with them instantly. The mix of words and images, the page turns, it reminded me a lot of filmmaking, which I studied in college and grad school. The visual storytelling of picture books held a similar power and poetry for me.
Tell us about your road to publication, what did that involve for you?
So my first published writing was actually some “Tiny stories” I wrote for Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Tiny Book of Tiny Stories Vol 1-3. I submitted to his collaborative online company Hitrecord, they liked them, and a handful ended up in all three volumes of the series. It was such a fun experience collaborating with people I never met. And then finding those books at bookstores, seeing my words on the page, it lit a fire in me. It’s mind blowing and humbling to know that strangers all around the world are reading something you wrote. There is magic to it, a reminder that we are all connected, and it only deepened my love of storytelling.
A year or two later I met Heather. As I mentioned before we self-published a book together on a whim, and we had such a blast doing it we thought, why don’t we try to find an agent and do this full time? So we spent many many hours researching, both the nuances of picture book storytelling as well as the publishing industry. I will always repeat this to anyone who dreams of being published: we had no idea what we were doing. We just made it up as we went. It’s ok if you are as lost and naive as we were.
I’m very passionate about things I like. So when I fell for picture books I fell hard. I wanted to know everything. I read STACKS of books. I bought too many. I acquired library fines. I began writing a bunch of stories from the ideas building up. Of course, I thought the ones I wrote were absolutely terrible, but thankfully Heather was there to encourage me and push me to just maybe… take a chance and submit queries. We worked together to tighten up our WIP (Butts Are Everywhere), Heather made adorable illustrations to go with it, and I compiled a list of the top agents to query (which I found just looking online). I kept tinkering away at the story and would probably still be doing that to this day if not for Heather, who with a swift and firm “Send it NOW, Jonathan”, pushed me to hit send.
Can you share a bit about your process?
Well I think being inspired is always first, and there are many ways to be inspired. For me they often come when I’m reading or watching a movie or listening to music. Something will trigger a new idea or a character or a title. I’m weird, I often think of titles first and then dive into characters. Do other people do that? Once I have the idea I write out the story. Spend time reworking it, reading it out loud over and over, trying to feel out the page turns and momentum of the story. Often I’m writing multiple at one time. I jump from idea to idea. Whatever is feeling exciting at the moment. For me I have to feel something about the story in order to put my time and energy in it.
What do you do to shake the rust off or get new ideas?
This again goes back to being inspired. I rarely “take a break” because I find writing and storytelling to be incredibly fun and so woven into the fabric of who I am. Sure I go hang out with my friends, watch movies, have adventures, and enjoy the world, but the entire time I’m also thinking about stories. Reworking them in my head, piecing things together. I think most writers or creative people work that way. If you are finding joy and life in the people and the world around you, creative inspiration will be hitting you from all sides.
Anything you can’t live without while you write?
Coffee. Also, I love being surrounded by books while I work.
Any authors and/or illustrators who inspire you?
There are so many. I’m constantly amazed at the writers and illustrators working today and all the amazing books being made. Not to mention all the brilliance of the past. Neil Gaiman is my favorite author, and Jacqueline Woodson is magic at everything she does. I love comic strips, so Schultz’ Peanuts, Larson’s The Far Side, Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes really inspire me. For kid lit, there are too many to name them all, but here are a few creators working today that inspire me: Isabelle Arsenault, Dan Santat, The Fan Brothers, Corinna Luyken, Kazu Kibuishi, Ame Dyckman, Christian Robinson, Carson Ellis. And Heather! She’s my creative partner in crime and she inspires me daily. I feel so lucky to make such silly and fun books with her!
Dream project to work on?
Every project feels like a dream project. That sounds cheesy, but it’s true. I can’t believe I get to write stories that get made into books, let alone having a chance to work with incredible illustrators that create beautiful, adorable art for my words. I work with Heather every day on so many fun books. I have a series with Jay Fleck. A book coming out with Joseph Kuefler. And one with Dan Santat. Like I said, every one is a dream project. It still doesn’t seem real to be able to be making books with such talented creators.
Tell us about your debut book.
TINY T. REX AND THE IMPOSSIBLE HUG is the first book in a picture book series with Chronicle Books. It follows the diminutive, but plucky Tiny T. Rex who is determined to find a way to cheer up his best friend, Pointy. Tiny decides hugging is the way to go, even though his tiny arms (as is the t-rex way) make hugging very difficult. Tiny asks his family for advice and overcomes many obstacles to show that the biggest hugs come from the biggest hearts. I wanted a character that kids could cheer for, but also encouraged them to remember their own agency. That they too can make a difference in the world, and in someone’s life, no matter the odds stacked against them.
What’s up next for you?
I have so many exciting projects coming up, a few I mentioned before. The next twp picture books are with Heather, Llama Destroys the World (May 7th, Macmillan), and Don’t Feed the Coos (January 2020). Book 2 of the Tiny T. Rex series comes out next spring, as does another silly picture book with Heather, Butts Are Everywhere (Putnam/Penguin).
And last, but not least, favorite 80s movie?
OH That is difficult. There are so many great ones. I guess I’d have to Empire Strikes Back or E.T. Extra Terrestrial, which are two of my favorite movies ever.
Thanks so much for stopping by Critter Lit today Jonathan! We can’t wait to see all your amazing books. Huge congrats on all your success!
Jonathan Stutzman is an award-winning filmmaker and writer. His short films have screened at film festivals all over the world and on television. He lives outside Hershey, Pennsylvania.
FOR MORE INFORMATION about Jonathan and his work visit him online here or follow him on Twitter @dustdancestoo or Instagram @thedustdancestoo.
TO ORDER Jonathan’s books, ring up your local bookstore or click here.
Want a chance to win a copy of TINY T. REX AND THE IMPOSSIBLE HUG?! Comment on this post or share it on Twitter. One lucky winner will be selected Thursday, April 4th! US addresses only please.
What's up on deck? Tune in next week for an interview with debut author and illustrator and husband and wife team Megan + Jorge Lacera!