Stephen Shaskan, PIZZA AND TACO

Stephen Shaskan, PIZZA AND TACO

Zibby Owens: Welcome to day two of the second week of the July Book Blast. This is the seventh day in all of my ten-day July Book Blast with episodes I recorded throughout the quarantine, some quarantine related, some not, all of which deserve to see the light of day before the summer comes to an end. Today is Young Readers Day. I have a collection of children’s books and middle grade and all sorts of stuff that your kids might like. How interesting to hear from children’s book writers, which is exciting to me because I actually sold two children’s books to Penguin Random House that will be coming out in the next year or two. I have a personal affinity for children’s book authors. Enjoy these episodes.

Stephen Shaskan is the author and illustrator of several picture books including Big Choo, spelled C-H-O-O, Toad on the Road, Max Speed, The Three Triceratops Tuff, A Dog Is a Dog, and the new graphic novel series which, by the way, my littlest guy is obsessed with called Pizza and Taco. He also illustrated the picture book Punk Skunks and the graphic novel series Q and Ray, both written by his wife, Trisha Speed Shaskan. Stephen and Trisha live in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and love visiting schools and libraries, reading their stories, and inspiring young authors and illustrators.


Stephen Shaskan: Hi. How’s it going?

Zibby: Good. How about you?

Stephen: Going good.

Zibby: Awesome. Thanks for joining today.

Stephen: Thanks for having me. This is really great.

Zibby: Are these all your books in the back? You want to give me a little tour of some of these books?

Stephen: I have The Three Triceratops Tuff picture book that I wrote with Simon & Schuster. A Dog Is a Dog, the one right here in the middle, this one right here, that one’s my first book that I ever wrote. That’s with Chronicle Books back in 2011. Then Toad on the Road is with HarperCollins along with my books with my wife, Trisha Speed Shaskan, Punk Skunks, which is over here. What else? The Q and Ray series also, I wrote with Trisha. That’s been a lot of fun too. Those are my books. I worked as an educational assistant and an after-school art teacher for about eight years in the public schools here in Minneapolis. From there, I went on to be working in preschools for about twelve years. I was a preschool teacher for twelve years. Then I slowly transitioned over here into making books for kids. I went to Rhode Island School of Design for illustration, but that was a long, long time ago. That’s what my original intent was. I made a lot of my own comics when I was in my twenties, and poster designs for bands and other things like that, but just started focusing on working on creating books for kids the past ten years or so.

Zibby: Wow. That’s exciting. Tell me the story of publishing your first picture book for kids.

Stephen: A Dog Is a Dog was a real fun one. It was while I was working as a preschool teacher. I was coming up with ideas for different books. I always put in a lot of fun things in books. This one’s going to be backwards, obviously, because of the Instagram thing. Dog Is a Dog, a fun thing about this book is I always put a little bit of nonsense in my books. You can tell by Pizza and Taco being two characters that are just kids, that type of thing. It goes “A dog is a dog, whether it’s naughty or nice, whether it suns on the beach or glides on the ice. A dog is a dog if it’s skinny or fat. A dog is a dog unless it’s a cat.” This goes on having a lot of different animals coming out in costumes and so forth until it comes back to being a dog. I like putting humor in my books. I like doing that. This book came about, I did drawings for it and I sent it out. It took a year to have a response to it. I had nine rejections from different publishers. Then a year after I sent it out, Chronicle Books contacted me. They really liked it, but they didn’t like the art, and so I had to work on the art more. I don’t have an example. I should have an example of my original dummy, but it changed a lot. I really am happy with the end result. That’s the story of my first book. Then from there, it was just trying to figure out what comes next. Then what came next was The Three Triceratops Tuff. I got that idea from three kids in my preschool who were pretending to play the Billy Goats Gruff as dinosaurs. I was like, wow, that’s a really good idea. Of course, it made absolutely no sense the way they were doing it. I had to make it make sense.

Zibby: When you were young, when you were a little kid, were you drawing all the time? Was that your thing? Did you always know you wanted to do that, and the kid thing came later, basically?

Stephen: Yes, that’s all I did. I drew all the time. It was my favorite thing to do. I always wanted to be an artist. After going to art school, I realized that not everybody who likes to make art was supported by their parents, but my parents were always really big into it. My dad was a stockbroker. My mom was a stay-at-home mom, but she also did accounting for things and other stuff. They both really supported my art. My dad actually, even though he was a stockbroker, painted on the side. He did oil paintings, landscape paintings in the basement. He always had setups for his art. Right now, he sells his art at art fairs. He’s retired. He’s eighty-six now. He’s down in Florida. He puts on art shows and art fairs and things. They’ve always been really super supportive of my art. That was a lot of fun growing up and always having supplies. That was something that they never had a problem with me doing. I always loved making art. I also loved comics growing up. Reading comics was my main thing to read. I was considered a reluctant reader. At the time, I probably read like three thousand comics. I started thinking about how many comics. I would go to the comic store at least once a month with my dad and spend all my allowance on my comics. Back then, it was sixty cents a comic. My allowance wasn’t that much. Still, over the course of a month I would save it all up and be able to get something.

With Pizza and Taco, what was really cool was when I was a kid, I just loved comics so much. I had a group of friends in elementary school. I grew up in Syracuse, New York. I had a group of friends there. We all made comics. We all drew comics and loved to make art and talk about comics and everything. It was just a really cool thing. I grew up on all the Richie Riches and Casper the Friendly Ghost and Underdog and all those kind of goofy ones. Also, then I got into superhero comics like the X-Men and the Teen Titans and those books and collected — I still have quite a number of my collection, but not all my collection. Over time, things kind of whittled down. I think I went from collecting comics to collecting albums in high school. When I was working on this book, it was a lot of fun because I just delved back into reading comics. I had been making picture books for so long. Suddenly, I’m working in this medium that I just loved. I’m sitting there at my desk working and just laughing and having so much fun creating this. When Q and Ray first came out, there was this joy just because it was like, wow, I created a real comic. Like I said, in my twenties, I made a bunch of my own scrappy, Xerox-copied comics into independent adult comics. Still, this was like, wow, this is a real thing. I was really excited. That’s what brought me to create Pizza and Taco.

Zibby: Tell everybody more about Pizza and Taco because it is so fantastic. It’s sort of like an advanced Elephant & Piggie of sorts. It’s these new characters blasting on the scene. Tell me how you came up with it and all the rest.

Stephen: This is the book right here. We do a lot of school visits. With Q and Ray especially, when we utilized school visits, we would create characters of kids, original characters, original comic characters, and show kids how they can create their own. One of the big rules is to keep it to simple shapes because you’re drawing these characters over and over and over again hundreds of times in just one book. You’re drawing each character. That was a really important thing to get across to kids, to just use simple shapes and that type of thing. Then we give some background to the characters before. Before you start writing a story, you want to have a little bit of a background and think about, who are these characters? What do they like to do? What are they afraid of? all these types of things. One of the things is, what’s their favorite food? Every school that we went to it was either pizza or tacos, was their favorite food. It’s funny because my favorite food is pizza. Trisha’s favorite food is tacos. It kind of made sense. I was like, oh, there’s that weird nonsense of, why don’t I just make this into a — why aren’t pizza and taco best friends? We had characters like Pizza Man because every once in a while somebody would pick a triangle head.

Then I started thinking about, how simple could I draw a piece of a pizza and a taco? Pretty much a triangle and a half circle. You can see, it’s just a half circle here and then the triangle shape, just trying to keep it as simple as possible so I can draw them over and over again. I was really also inspired by the Narwhal and Jelly series. I just loved that. Trisha and I also teach week-long comic classes at the Loft Literary Center here in Minneapolis. It was really cool to see. Kids would come in and they’d be drawing all the Narwhal and Jelly characters. Just seeing that, I wanted something that kids could draw easily themselves because I think that’s really powerful for kids. I’ve been doing that with different things where I’ve had a couple school visits this past week online and showing kids how to draw Pizza and Taco, but also showing them how to draw other characters that might be food-related comic characters. The kids are immediately drawn to it and just drawing immediately and showing me their drawings. It’s really cool to see that kind of thing. There was one kid who already had created — because they knew that I was coming, they had created a whole book on Spaghetti and Meatball.

Zibby: Awesome. I love how Hamburger and Hot Dog have cameos in your book. Those are important best supporting actress and actor. Actually, I think they’re both boys.

Stephen: They’re not very nice to Hamburger and Hot Dog. Some people had pointed that out. One of the things about Pizza and Taco is that they’re kids. They have flaws. They’re not perfect. They’re going to be jerks sometimes. Even in this book, they’re kind of jerks to each other. That just happens. You can’t have a best friend without having a best friend fight. You can’t grow up without having kids around that you’re not that friendly with. It just happens. You can’t be friends with everyone. It’s an unrealistic adult perception of childhood. If you think back to when you were in kindergarten and first grade, there are kids that you liked and there are kids that you didn’t like. There are kids that you wanted to play with and kids that were like, god, do I have to play with that kid again? I’m not saying that that’s good. I’m just saying that that’s real. Flaws in characters are real. These characters have a lot of flaws. They’re not perfect characters.

Zibby: How is it collaborating with your wife? What is that like? How has the coronavirus impacted your work together?

Stephen: I’m actually working on dummying out a picture book that she just wrote while I’m working on — I just finished dummying out the third Pizza and Taco. The second Pizza and Taco comes out next year. It’s Pizza and Taco: Best Party Ever. They throw a party. I just finished dummying out the third book, which is where they make a that she just wrote. We work really well together, actually, which is really nice. She’s written probably three or four picture books since working on something collaboratively last time. Most of them are things that I wouldn’t work on. Now this last project, I was like, I really like this project. I think I could work on this project. When we work on projects together, it’s typically something that we’re both invested in. We’re not forcing it. It’s something that we both really like and want to do. That’s really important. We’re also really respectful of each other. We have fights, but when it comes to writing and creating books together, we try to make the best book we can. We’re really working on doing that. It’s funny because I think we rub each other a little bit more wrong when it’s a book that we’re not working on, when it’s one of our own things, our own projects, and we’re critiquing our art. I’ll be critiquing something that she’s working on that I’m not working on with her or she’ll be critiquing something that I’m working on that she’s not working on with me. We tend to be not as good friends.

For me, one thing that was kind of crummy with all the coronavirus stuff is that we basically ended up canceling probably eight different events, school visits and so forth. For us, March 14th I think was when we started shutting down here in Minneapolis. We had three events the next week at different schools to go to and different things like that and ones that hadn’t been figured quite out for May and June. That was kind of tough. We work from home anyway. We both have a studio in our house. We both have places where we work. That really hasn’t affected. Luckily, I was on deadline, so I just focused on that. Then I’m on deadline again. For me, I really enjoy working at home and being isolated. This is how I focus. With all the school visits that we had, I don’t think I would’ve been able to finish the second book and dummy out the third book all in this time as well.

Zibby: Do you have any parting advice for aspiring illustrators, artists, children’s book writers?

Stephen: My advice is for kids more than for aspiring. If you like something, just keep doing it. I talked about how I had those friends in elementary school that I made comics with. Out of that group of kids, I think there were five of us, only two went on to be artists. That’s me and another friend. He does fine art. I do comics and picture books. I was, out of those five friends, probably as talent goes, like fifth, but I just kept doing it. Nowadays, if those kids who are now adults would be drawing again, they wouldn’t be as strong of an artist as I am because they just stopped doing it. They’re having very happy lives doing what they’re . Still, just keep doing it. Don’t let other kids get you down. If you see somebody else being a better artist than you, that’s great, just keep working at it. You’ll get better and better. If you like music, if you like science, if you like anything, just keep working at it. That’s my advice for kids.

Zibby: I’m going to play this for my kids later. Thank you.

Stephen: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Thanks for coming on. I really appreciate it. Thanks for the hours of entertainment you’ve given us during this quarantine with Pizza and Taco. I’m really grateful. Thank you.

Stephen: Thank you.

Zibby: Take care. Bye.

Thanks so much for listening to Young Readers Tuesday, part of my July Book Blast. I hope you’ve enjoyed it.

Stephen Shaskan, PIZZA AND TACO