When author and illustrator Peter Brown was younger, his mother found him trying on her makeup. He recalls that she reacted with a smile and helped him apply it properly, like an artist would. Peter explains to Zibby how he used this moment as inspiration for his latest picture book, Fred Gets Dressed, why he loves creating both picture and chapter books, and his advice to encourage creative children.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Peter. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Fred Gets Dressed and all your other amazing works. We’re joined here, maybe, by my son who’s six years old.

Child: Do you say this to every person you interview?

Zibby: That I’m joined by you? No, only the ones I actually am joined by you.

Child: But do you say all the rest of things to everybody else?

Zibby: I say welcome.

Child: But do you say the same things that —

Zibby: — No, everybody writes a different book.

Peter Brown: Hello, both of you. It’s nice to be here. Thank you.

Zibby: Fred Gets Dressed, we saw on Instagram that it was inspired by a moment you had with your own mom. Could you share the moment and the inspiration for the picture book?

Peter: When I was a little kid, when I was about five years old, I was exploring through my house. I wandered into my parents’ bedroom. I started playing with my mom’s makeup. As a little kid, I was really artistic. I loved drawing. Like most kids, I loved drawing, painting, all that kind of stuff. I had always been curious about the color that my mom put on her face. That day when I found myself there in their room alone, I started experimenting with her makeup, naturally. Eventually, my mother walked into the room. She found me like that. Her reaction was really sweet and simple and lovely. She just smiled. I had makeup smeared across my face at that point. She just cleaned off my makeup. Then she showed me how she put on makeup. I kind of followed along. We had this sweet, little moment together, a fun, playful moment just playing around with makeup together. It wasn’t a big deal. It was just a quick little thing. We had fun. That was that. That memory always stuck with me. Later in life when I look back on it, that memory, it just seemed like a great moment of parenting on my mom’s part. I really felt like, wow, she nailed it. There could’ve been any number of different reactions to finding me like that. Her reaction was just to be there with me and join me and share the moment with me and answer questions. Obviously, I was curious about her and about how she presented herself with makeup. I was also curious about her clothing. I remember trying on her high-heeled shoes at times and playing around with her jewelry on other occasions. I just really loved that moment and my mom’s reaction to finding me like that. I thought there was something in there for a book. I wasn’t quite sure what it would turn into, but that was the starting point for my idea for Fred Gets Dressed.

Zibby: Aw. Then I was so sad to hear that your mother passed away a few years ago. I’m so sorry to hear that.

Peter: It was sad, obviously. The one nice thing was I had already started working on Fred Gets Dressed, so she and I had a chance to talk about the book, about that moment. She knew I was working on it. I’m glad. I wish, of course, she had seen the finished product, but I’m glad she knew that I was choosing to highlight a moment from our own experience together in a book form. I think she really was excited about that.

Zibby: That’s so sweet. How did you get started? I know you mentioned you had been an artistic kid and everything. By the way, I don’t think everybody is super artistic. They don’t all go on to be —

Peter: — Sure. No.

Zibby: Perhaps you were on one side of that spectrum. How did you get started with this as a career, illustrating? I know you’ve done illustrating and writing, number-one best sellers and all this great stuff. Where did it begin? How did you get into it?

Peter: I will say this. I do think most kids are artistic. I think most kids are creative in one form or another, whether it’s drawing or painting or dancing or dressing up. They like using their imaginations. I talk to kids a lot when I visit schools. I just say to them, the difference between me and other kids was that I loved making art so much that I just kept making art. Then over the years, I got better at it. Like with anything, the more time you spend doing that thing, the better you get at whatever it is. I think most kids love making art or being creative, but some of them choose to stick with it, like me. Others focus on other things as they get older. I stayed with it. I always loved drawing. I think part of that was because my grandfather was an artist. He wasn’t really a professional artist. He studied art at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art when he was a young man and then went into another field altogether and then in his retirement, took up painting again. When I was a little kid, I’d visit my grandparents. I would see my grandfather at his desk making drawings and paintings. I think that helped also. I had an artistic role model who kind of showed me that I could make art for the rest of my life, and so that’s what I did. I just drew all the time.

I took art classes in school and extracurricular classes and anything I could find, community college classes as I was in high school. I was taking figure drawing classes at the local community college. I had some great art teachers in high school especially. I had an art teacher named Dr. O’Boyle who was just an incredible, life-changing teacher. A lot of those things kind of fell into place for me to get to a point where my skills were good enough to get into art school. I went to art school. I took some children’s book classes and realized that that’s really what I wanted to do, writing and illustrating. I’d always liked writing also. I really just loved using my imagination, coming up with stories and characters and worlds. Children’s books seemed like a really great way to combine all of my favorite things. There’s only so many jobs where you can write and draw and have some creative freedom. Picture books and children’s books seemed like a great one. Once I was in college, then I got really serious about making children’s books and worked on my portfolio. Then I moved to New York City where most books get published. I met an editor and an agent. Before long, I had my first book deal. I’ve been making books ever since.

Zibby: Sorry for the interruption. My son has snuck in again.

Peter: They do that, don’t they? I know about sneaking. I was sneaking into my mom’s room when I was a little kid.

Zibby: Yes, exactly. I try to have him come and do it with me. Interestingly, this morning, he was — he is really into art. He came out and handed me his iPad. He’s like, “Can you download this thing?” It was Skillshare or skill something or other. He’s like, “It’ll teach you how to draw anything you want.” I was like, “Okay, I’ll download that app.” Next thing you know, he’s like, “I need the markers. I need paper.” He was learning how to draw I don’t even know what for a while. I was like, “You know what? Go for it.”

Peter: That’s great. When I was growing up, of course, there were no iPads. I’d go to the library. I would get out these How to Draw books, How to Draw 50 Animals, How to Draw 50 Houses, How to Draw 50 Trees, whatever. Those books are actually really helpful. I bet there’s apps basically doing the same thing as those books were doing when I was a kid. I learned. It’s the step-by-step instruction of how to draw different things. If you actually follow those instructions and you do it over and over again, pretty soon, you can do it from memory. Pretty soon, you can change the drawings in your own way. It’s great. I kind of want to see what app this is out of curiosity to see what it is that’s available today for kids.

Zibby: I think it was called Skillshare.

Peter: I think Skillshare teaches all sorts of different things. It’s not just about art.

Zibby: I think one of them was art. Often, he and his sister watch YouTube drawings where they try to draw a poodle. You can search by what you want to learn how to draw. Then they sit there and do it along with it. We also have some of those books about, learn how to draw. Some books have that in the back as well. It’s all about repetition. The thing about practice that you were saying — yesterday, I got my husband this cornhole set for Father’s Day. I have four kids. We were all out there playing. I have to say, I was better than anybody, but that’s okay. As we were throwing, I was like, wow, imagine how good we’re all going to be at this by the end of the summer if we keep this up. It was just one of those moments where it’s like, we all start at whatever skill we have, but it’s whoever’s going to practice the most is going to be the best at cornhole by the end of the summer. It’s sort of a life lesson. Whoever does it the most is going to be the best.

Peter: More often than not, that’s the case. Obviously, there’s occasional people who are naturally gifted and there’s just no denying it.

Zibby: Yeah, like me.

Peter: Like you with playing cornhole. By and large, if you put in the time, you’re going to get better at sports, at art, at whatever it happens to be. That’s a good lesson to share with kids, of course. Put in the time. You’ll improve. There’s really no doubt about the fact that you’ll definitely get better. Will you be the best? Maybe not, but you usually don’t need to be the best to really enjoy it and get something out of the experience.

Zibby: As long as you see some improvement. I mentioned earlier, one of our favorites is the Creepy Carrots! series, if you will. Are there more of those in the works by any chance? I also interviewed Aaron Reynolds, by the way.

Peter: Yes, we’ve got a third one coming out. I think this fall in time for Halloween will be Creepy Crayon! Jasper Rabbit, you know the basic idea is Jasper finds this cool crayon, and it ends up haunting him. Exactly how the story unfolds, I’ll leave that for when the book comes out. I just finished up the artwork for that a few weeks ago. Stay tuned for Creepy Crayon!

Zibby: All right, awesome. What other projects are you working on with the writing as well?

Peter: I have a chapter book series called The Wild Robot. The sequel to that is The Wild Robot Escapes. Recently started working on the third Wild Robot book called The Wild Robot Protects. That’s going to take a while. The chapter books take, usually, a year and a half, two years for me. I’m hoping to speed things up a little bit this time around now that it’s my third book. I’ve done a few of these. I’m hoping it’ll happen a little faster. That’ll at least take the next year of my life. Beyond that, I have other chapter books I’m going to be writing. I have another picture book I’m going to write and illustrate. They’re a couple years off, so I’m not talking about them too much. There’s a lot in the pipeline that I’m excited about. It’s been nice since I wrote The Wild Robot chapter books. I really feel like now I kind of have freedom to just basically do whatever I want, whatever story I want to come up with. If it’s a picture book, great. If it’s a chapter book, great. Maybe someday I’ll write for teens. It’s hard to imagine me ever writing a book for adults, but I won’t rule it out. Maybe in twenty years. Maybe after I have a few more chapter books under my belt, I’ll write something for an older audience.

Zibby: The Wild Robot, by the way, was on my — I have older kids too who are now fourteen. It was on their required reading list.

Peter: Cool. That’s great. Nice.

Zibby: We had those as well. You covered all the kids in my house, so thank you.

Peter: It’s been nice. A lot of authors will do school visits, will spend a day at a school talking to kids about writing, illustrating, stories, all that stuff. It’s pretty great now that I have the chapter books because I can really go to an elementary school and talk to everybody at their level. I can talk to the kindergarteners, first graders about my younger picture books. I can talk to the second, third graders about maybe my older picture books or maybe The Wild Robot books. Then fourth, fifth graders, I can obviously talk to them about The Wild Robot books. Earlier in my career, I would have to talk to fourth, fifth, sometimes sixth graders about picture books. I still think a lot of them like picture books and I want to talk about picture books, but it does feel like The Wild Robot books are a little more relevant to them overall than my picture books. It’s kind of a cool thing to have something for everyone when I walk into a school.

Zibby: Your whole career is just based around efficiency here. You can just do one place.

Peter: It kind of is. I do want to make something for everyone. I want to check all these different boxes. I may not make the same kind of story over and over again because I want to move on to other subjects, other themes.

Zibby: I still am thinking about, in Fred Gets Dressed, about why it is that men’s clothes are so much harder, in general, to put on as a kid. What is it with neckties? Why are they so impossible?

Peter: When I was a little kid, I’d look at my parents’ closet. Not only was my dad’s clothing more complicated with lots of little buttons and laces and neckties, but it was also less interesting. Maybe that says more about my dad than about men’s clothing. He wore khaki pants and brown loafers and a button-down shirt basically every day. In the summertime, he had shorts. His wardrobe was very limited. Juxtaposed to my mom’s side of the closet or my mom’s closet, hers was so much more colorful. There were patterns and different textures. The materials were fun to touch. They were silky smooth, some of them. She had hats and different sunglasses and different shoes, so many different kinds of shoes. It didn’t make any sense to me. I was just more curious about my mom’s stuff in part because it was more interesting and more varied and more colorful. A lot of kids like color and pattern and texture. I certainly did. For me, there was no comparison. My dad’s side of the closet was boring. My mom’s side was interesting. That was where I gravitated, which is why in Fred Gets Dressed — I mentioned earlier how I had tried on my mom’s makeup and that was sort of the inspiration for Fred Gets Dressed.

I wanted to go further than that and have Fred really get dressed up like his mom in her jewelry, in her clothing. I never did it to the extent that Fred did, but I tried all these different things at different moments. I decided to combine them into one moment for this particular story because I just remember being so curious about all the different things. Trying to walk around in my mom’s high-heeled shoes, I never really could do it. I still don’t really understand how people do it. Her stuff was just — there was so much more variety that I wanted to capture that feeling in Fred Gets Dressed of dad’s side being a little boring, fine, but not particularly interesting. Then he turns around and he sees his mom’s side of the closet. It’s an explosion of color and patterns and textures, bright colors, so that the reader can really understand what I felt when I was a little kid looking at my parents’ stuff and what Fred feels when he looks at his parents’ stuff. I wanted to make it really clear and really obvious. Actually, Fred’s mom’s clothing, her wardrobe is probably a little crazier that my real mom’s clothing because I wanted the impact and the high contrast between the two parents’ wardrobes.

Zibby: I had the same thing as a kid. My dad has rows of suits. They were all gray. That’s still what his closet looks like. My mother — even now, I’m obviously a grown woman with my own kids. My closet, maybe it’s interesting to them. Although, doubtful. Hers was just — as a child, the wonder of it. Would this be something that I would have as a grown-up? Is this what being grown up even meant? Oh, my gosh, I can still feel her pleated skirts and the beads on these fancy dresses. I don’t have pleated skirts or beaded dresses now, or fur coats or all these things. They’re not even around anymore.

Peter: The world has changed too. I do feel like when we were growing up, fashion was different. Everybody just carried themselves different. I watch a lot of movies and TV shows including period pieces where it could be turn of the century. You just watch these people wearing — it’s summertime, and they’re wearing suits. It looks like they’re wool suits. They got hats. I just think, how uncomfortable that must have been, but everybody did it. Now, of course, I think over time, people have started dressing more casually and more comfortably. I understand it. There’s still people out there who really seem to have fun with their clothing. I admire them. I’m not one of them. My wardrobe is about as boring as my dad’s was when I was a kid.

Zibby: I was going to say, you are sitting here in a black T-shirt. No judgement or anything.

Peter: It’s funny. I sort of let my work do the talking. I try to make books that I’m really proud of that can show off my sensibilities. When it comes to how I dress, I really just want to keep it simple because I want to spend my time drawing and writing and illustrating. I don’t want to spend that much time shopping. I don’t want to spend that much time thinking about what I’m going to wear. I kind of have a uniform. In the colder months, I wear a button-down and usually dark jeans and maybe boots. In the summertime, I’ll wear a simple T-shirt and maybe shorts or light pants or something. I want to spend my energy on different things. When I see people who clearly want to spend their energy on their wardrobe — you see people, men and women, walking around in these amazing outfits. Their hair is amazing. Maybe their makeup is amazing. I’m like, wow. They’re like works of art, in my opinion, people who take the time to really get the details right. It’s pretty cool. I doubt I’ll ever be one of those people, but I do admire them.

Zibby: I think that’s what makes your book so appealing, because most people, I think, are like you and me. We look at other people with this admiration, and particularly our parents and also just the tactical pleasure of all that stuff that was there for us to explore. Your book evoked that feeling of wonder and awe and fun. Thank you for that. It was pretty awesome. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Peter: Aspiring authors, just as I was saying earlier how when I was a kid, I practiced drawing a lot and then I developed my skills, I feel like the same is true with writing, of course. First, you have to love to write. If you love writing, then hopefully you want to spend time writing. Hopefully, that comes pretty easily to you. The more time you spend, the better you get. I also like to tell kids that to be a good writer, you really have to be a good reader. I learned so much by reading. I learned so much about writing from reading my favorite authors, the way they turn a phrase, they way they structure a story or even a chapter, their vocabulary. Right now, I’m reading a book by Kurt Vonnegut. I’ve read most of his books. The way he puts a sentence together is just so charming. Some of that is hard to replicate, but it’s good to be aware of what speaks to you. Maybe you want to nudge your artwork in that direction or your writing in that direction. I read a lot. I learn a lot from the writers that I love. That’s another good piece of advice for aspiring writers, is to read and take note of what appeals to them, what they really like. At this age, if they’re young, if they’re kids, you’ve got to develop the tools in your toolbox. It’s really about exploring and experimenting and putting in the time and the energy and hopefully having fun. If it’s not fun, then maybe you don’t want to be a writer. That’s okay too. It could be hard. I’m a professional author and illustrator. I don’t always want to write. I don’t always want to illustrate. There are times when I want to do anything but those things. That’s okay too. Obviously, when you’re younger, you still have to develop those skills in the first place. You got to find a way to put in that time and energy. There’s some advice.

Zibby: That counts. That was really great. That was great. I’m sorry that my son kept making cameos and that there’s all this background noise. This is my least professional interview in a while. I’m sorry about all of that, if you can even hear it.

Peter: No, I didn’t hear any background noise.

Zibby: Okay, great. Then never mind. Forget I said anything. Anyway, thank you. I will be thinking of you in my closet next time my son tries on my pajamas because I have nothing more exciting to try on. Thank you for Fred Gets Dressed and for entertaining literally all my kids and so many kids in so many places. Keep it up. I’m so excited for Creepy Crayon!

Peter: Stay tuned. Lots more Peter Brown books in the future. Keep an eye open for those.

Zibby: I will, for sure, a hundred percent.

Peter: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Peter: You too. Buh-bye.



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