The author of Goosebumps and the creator of Arthur sharing picture-book credits? Sounds far-fetched, yet the names of R.L. Stine and Marc Brown will both grace the cover (revealed here for the first time) of The Little Shop of Monsters. Liza Baker, executive editorial director of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, recently acquired world rights for the July 2015 title in an agentless deal. The serendipitous meeting of the author and illustrator a decade ago set the stage for their collaboration, which marks Stine’s picture-book debut. It all began in the air – on Air Force One. Here’s how the rest took flight.
In 2003, Stine and Brown, along with Peter Lerangis, accepted then First Lady Laura Bush’s invitation to represent America at the first Russian Children’s Book Festival, and traveled to Moscow with her on the presidential jet. During their stay, Stine and Brown bonded over a bowl of borscht, and then kept in touch after returning to the U.S. In early 2012, while dining together with their wives, “there was a pause in the conversation,” Brown recalled, “and I broke the silence by wondering out loud why Bob and I couldn’t work together on a book.”
The artist, who has long admired Stine’s ability to connect with kids, recalled buying one of his joke collections, written under the name of Jovial Bob Stine, for his son many years ago. “He really liked that book, and began naming all our gerbils after comedians,” said Brown. “And my kids also loved Bob’s scary novels. They’d come downstairs to read in the kitchen, to be with my wife and me, because his writing was a little too spooky to read alone in a bedroom.”
Stine reported that he was initially taken aback by Brown’s suggestion of a collaboration. “I remember saying to him, ‘Why would you ever want to do that?’ And he talked me into it. I was, of course, delighted!”
The two met with Baker, Brown’s longtime editor, and brainstormed on ideas. “I love nothing more than brainstorming – that’s when magic happens,” said Baker. “We had the creative, editorial, and design points of view represented at the meeting. As always, Patti Ann Harris, our executive art director and picture book whisperer, brought a great deal to the meeting. We started talking about books we love – like The Monster at the End of the Book and Mo Willems’s Pigeon books – where the story directly addresses the reader to create interplay between the characters and the child. Since we knew we wanted it to be a spooky story, the subject of monsters came up naturally.”
Bringing Monsters to Life on the Page
The premise that the brainstorming team settled on was that of a pet store where one can buy monsters. Stine took the idea and ran with it, but not without encountering a few bumps along the way. Though no stranger to things spooky, he had no experience writing for a picture-book audience.
“This was a whole new thing and I had a lot to learn,” he said. “I had to figure out how to write for this group, and Liza did a great job guiding me. I also had to keep it fun and add a little bit of nastiness to it. I don’t like sweetness – it’s just not me. I did several versions before coming up with one that Liza and Marc liked. And then Marc came through with great monsters and made sure that it was definitely not a sweet monster book.”
That wasn’t too tough a task for Brown, who noted that he had “flirted on and off” with the idea of creating a book about monsters early in his career, but aardvarks won out. “Writing the Arthur books was a wonderful ride, but in recent years, I’ve given myself permission to get out of the aardvark world and have fun with other things,” he said. And he found that he easily slipped into the world of monsters. “As I read Bob’s final manuscript, I immediately illustrated it with rough little doodles,” he said. “It was what I pray for in a manuscript – to have it so visually exciting.”
As Brown created the art with colored pencils, watercolor, spray paint, and gouache, he found inspiration for the individual monsters. “Their images came to me almost way too easily,” he said. “I suddenly realized all these monsters were hideous people from my past. I didn’t intend that – I’m not a spiteful person by nature. But it was a cleansing process and a wonderful bonus to the book. They’ll know who they are!”
True to form, Stine hasn’t slackened his pace since wrapping up The Little Shop of Monsters. He’s working on six new Fear Street hardcovers for St. Martin’s Press (“I’m going to kill off more teenagers. That’s always fun, right?”); he’s in his 22nd year of writing Goosebumps novels; he’s gearing up for the summer 2015 release of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s film based on that series, directed by Rob Letterman and starring Jack Black; and – most importantly – he is spending time with his five-month-old grandson, whom he anticipates might provide the author with inspiration in the future (“He can’t do much now – smiling is his only trick – but he’ll be helpful to me later”).
And the author is clearly happy with the results of his and Brown’s collaborative efforts. “I was shocked when Marc suggested we work together,” he said. “Then when he began painting monster after hilarious monster for our book, I realized they had been waiting inside him all this time. We definitely belong together in a picture book.”
The Little Shop of Monsters by R.L. Stine, illus. by Marc Brown. Little, Brown, $17 July 2015 ISBN 978-0-316-36983-1