Since 1994, Patrick McDonnell has created the Mutts comic strip, which has earned him numerous awards and now appears in more than 700 newspapers in 20 countries. The strip’s stars—Earl the dog and Mooch the cat—have also appeared in a handful of picture books. McDonnell has also written and illustrated other children’s books, among them Me... Jane, a portrait of a young Jane Goodall, which is a 2012 Caldecott Honor book.

McDonnell was at BEA to promote The Monsters’ Monster, his latest release from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, the story of three diminutive rascals—Grouch, Grump, and Gloom ’n’ Doom—who decide to build a monster that’s big and bad. Their creation turns out to be big but hardly bad, and the sunny fellow teaches the little monsters a lesson about being grateful.

“After Me... Jane, I wanted to do something different, so I started drawing characters in my sketchbook, and these little monsters appeared,” McDonnell says. “They weren’t the most vicious-looking monsters, and I wondered if they really were monsters at all—or did they just think they were? So I had them create a monster that is much bigger than they are, but is so happy and thankful to be alive that he eventually gets under their skin. The story is about the importance of gratitude and taking a little quiet time to appreciate the world around us. That’s a theme that runs through my books, and it’s an important message, I think.”

Though Mutts preceded McDonnell’s children’s books, growing up he aspired to both careers. “I always wanted to do both comic strips and children’s books,” he says. “The comics keep me pretty busy, but I wanted to make time to do books as well. They’re similar in the sense that both tell stories with words and pictures, yet comics are just three pen-and-ink panels and are quite self-contained. I enjoy the freedom I have with children’s books and love to play with the story and art. But with both comics and picture books, you have limited space and have to get to the heart of the story quite quickly.” For his next book project, McDonnell notes, “There are a few ideas starting to speak to me, but I don’t know which one will win yet.”