The creator of close to 80 books for children, Tedd Arnold is best known for his Fly Guy series of early readers, which spotlights the adventures of a bug-eyed boy named Buzz and his pet fly. Since its 2005 debut with Hi! Fly Guy, this paper-over-board series has added 12 installments, spawned the nonfiction Fly Guy Presents series, and has more than 8.5 million copies in print. Now Arnold gives Buzz and Fly Guy their first picture book outing with A Pet for Fly Guy. The author took a break from his drawing board to chat with PW about launching his almost three-decade children’s book career, how Fly Guy got off the ground, and his new picture book.
What first piqued your interest in creating children’s books?
I was working in advertising and graphic design, and doing some illustration as well, and my wife Carol was a kindergarten teacher. She had been collecting picture books for her classroom, and we talked quite a bit about children’s literature. As I looked at her books, I thought back to being a kid and drawing comics, which is basically putting words and art together, and it occurred to me that picture books might be fun to try.
Did your initial books come easily to you?
Not exactly! It took about six years from my first attempt to put something on paper to actually get it right. I created a lot of different stories during that time, and sent them in to publishers as unsolicited manuscripts, and they were all rejected. Whenever I got a rejection, I’d feel a little defeated, but I’d try another idea. Still, I kept my day job.
What was your breakthrough moment?
Well, two things happened actually. I had the good fortune to meet a gentleman named Peter Elek, who became my agent and was my agent for many years, until he passed away. And at about the same time, I caught our oldest son, Walter, jumping on his bed. We were living in an apartment at the time, and a leak had caused the ceiling in his bedroom to cave in. So I told Walter that he’d better be careful, because his jumping might cause another cave-in and he could fall through the floor. My first book, No Jumping on the Bed!, came from this confluence of events, and from my being in the right place at the right time.
Have subsequent books also been inspired by your family?
Yes, I’d say that’s pretty much inevitable being a parent. But as a writer and artist I am lucky to have a place to put those ideas. I made my younger son, William, the star of No More Water in the Tub!, the sequel to my first book. And since Carol was a teacher, I was also lucky to have a chance to get an inside look at how my books were working with children in the classroom.
How did you conceive of Fly Guy?
Fly Guy goes back to one of my book ideas that got rejected early on, a collection of nonsense poems about colors. Later, I pulled one of those stories and turned it into a picture book, Green Wilma, about a girl-turned-frog who eats bugs and chases a fly through her school. From that point on, I always had in the back of my mind that it might be fun to have a fly as an ongoing book character.
And how did that prospective character morph into Fly Guy?
Some time after that, my wife and I were on a road trip, and I’ve found that the car is great place for brainstorming. She was driving and I was doodling in my sketchbook, and for whatever reason, a fly had flown into the car and was buzzing around the windshield. It was kind of a distraction, and I started remembering my notion of doing a fly character, so I began to draw this fly. It suddenly hit me that the one word a fly can say is “buzz,” and that that was also a boy’s name. Once that idea came up, I knew it was too good to pass up.
What inspired its early-reader format?
I submitted the first book, Hi! Fly Guy!, as a traditional picture book. I give full credit to Grace Maccarone, who’s now at Holiday House but at the time was my editor at Scholastic, for the brilliant idea of breaking up the story into three little chapters. I had come to trust her thinking and to appreciate her understanding of kids, and her vision turned out to be a phenomenal one. I can’t tell you how many third and fourth graders have told me that the Fly Guy books are the first ones they’ve wanted to read on their own.
What made you return to the idea of making Fly Guy a picture-book hero?
Ken Geist, who is now my editor at Scholastic, always encourages me to grow Fly Guy, and we’d talked about doing a picture book. But I was lost in the wilderness about exactly what a Fly Guy picture book would be. There comes to be a cozy comfort with a series, when you’ve established a format. So it took me years to come up with a picture-book idea. I probably did six or seven more Fly Guy chapter books before I did.
So you eventually decided to have Fly Guy adopt Buzz as his pet. How did that notion gel?
Actually, I went back to the very first Fly Guy book. I took a copy of Hi! Fly Guy off the shelf and paged through it. In the story, Buzz adopts Fly Guy as his pet and takes him to a pet show, where I’d made all the other pets – like a bear, octopus, and giraffe – outlandish just for fun. So I started thinking that since Fly Guy got started with a pet concept, how could I return to that and make it work in a picture book? And it hit me that the foundation of the whole series is the relationship between Buzz and Fly Guy. I think that children do relate to their pets as friends, as real people. And I realized that Fly Guy is an entity, is a real person – but he didn’t have his own pet. So that opened up an avenue for me.
So thematically you seem to have come full circle.
Very much so, and quite happily so. And it was refreshing to think that this picture book format allows me to expand as an artist. In the Fly Guy chapter books I minimalize the details, but the picture book format lets me add more detail and embellish the art a bit more.
Will Fly Guy make a repeat picture-book appearance?
Yes, I’ve completed a second picture book and have another in the works. I’m certainly open to doing more. Now I’m working on the 15th chapter book, Prince Fly Guy, and we’re ramping up the Fly Guy Presents nonfiction series. Scholastic has published Dinosaurs, Space, and Sharks, and Firefighters will come out in August.
So you’re juggling picture books, early chapter books, and nonfiction – and in 2007 you published a YA novel, Rat Life. Do you find these very different creative processes?
Very different, but I don’t find it that hard to switch gears. Nonfiction is such a totally separate mental process, and picture book writing is really a shorthand way of writing in many ways, since you’re letting pictures tell much of the story. I wondered if I could be a writer without using pictures, so that’s why I wrote Rat Life. The opportunity was there, since I was in a writing group with some great authors, and had a chance to get their feedback and support. I was very pleased when the novel won an Edgar Award that year, but for me venturing into long-form fiction was more of an experiment, not a pursuit. Right about the time that Rat Life came out, Fly Guy was taking off. So I’ve let him take my life over.
A Pet for Fly Guy by Tedd Arnold. Scholastic/Orchard, $16.99 Apr. 978-0-545-31615-6