Author-artist Matthew Van Fleet has spent some two decades putting innovative spins on novelty elements in picture and board books. Though the concepts he introduces in such works as Tails, Heads, DOG, CAT, and MOO are simple, their interactive formats are sophisticated—and, with combined sales of three million copies—obviously pleasing to child and parent alike.
While he has experimented with increasingly complex interactive features since publishing his first touch-and-feel offering, 1995’s Fuzzy Yellow Ducklings, one quality of Van Fleet’s work has remained the same. “I have always wanted my books to have a purpose and to actually teach kids something, rather than randomly giving them things to feel,” he explains. “I wanted different textures to have a logical reason to be there, and to have a close connection to the text. Too many people don’t take novelty books seriously, and think they’re all about the format and not the content, but it is actually the reverse.”
Looking for an inventive way to introduce the days of the week, the author broke new creative ground with 2010’s Monday the Bullfrog, a “huggable concept book” that is an amalgam of puppet, plush, and board book. Now, Van Fleet has created the similarly formatted October the Octopus (S&S/Wiseman, Aug.), presenting a multihued plush octopus whose mouth opens to reveal touch-and-feel board-book pages introducing the months of the year and a host of sea creatures with tactile appendages—a felt lobster claw, a rough-textured sea turtle flipper, a shimmery goldfish tail.
Van Fleet, who has a biology background and loves reading about animals, invariably spotlights them in his books. He didn’t have to look far to find the inspiration for the character of Monday the Bullfrog. “At the time. I kept bullfrogs we’d raised from tadpoles in an aquarium in my office, and I spent my days looking at them,” he says. “So it was an obvious choice.” He doesn’t own an octopus (though he says since learning that there is a freshwater octopus species, “I’ve wanted to get one”), but when his teenage son came up with the idea of featuring an octopus in the new book, the author decided to go with it.
Van Fleet is now working on This Color Dog, a photographic book, in the vein of DOG, CAT, and MOO, and notes that he likes “going back and forth between the photo books and the others.” But this week, he’s taking time off to attend BEA and will sign copies of Heads today, 1–1:30 p.m., at Table 11 in the Autographing Area. “It’s so great to be here and have a chance to see all the new titles that are coming out,” he says. “And I like meeting booksellers and learning what they’re selling, and what does or doesn’t work. That’s really interesting to hear.”