At the 2012 SCBWI Midwinter Conference in New York City, two very big things happened to a fictional elephant named Elliot. First, agent Brenda Bowen of Sanford J. Greenburger Associates slipped her card into the portfolio of Elliot’s creator, Mike Curato. Then, Curato’s drawings won the conference’s showcase prize.

Today, the polka-dotted, cupcake-loving Elliot is the star of a three-book series, which launched this fall with Little Elliot, Big City (Holt, Oct.). And Curato, who also got married and left a successful career in graphic design in Seattle to move back to New York (he grew up just north of Manhattan), is feeling not unlike his little hero: overwhelmed but ultimately very happy.

Writing a children’s book is something that Curato has been working toward since he was a member of the target audience. It all started, he says, when his mother gave him Tibor Gergely’s Great Big Book of Bedtime Stories. “I was just fascinated,” he recalls of the legendary Golden Books illustrator’s work. “I felt like his book became a language for me—the illustrations became icons for different words. So you’d say ‘car’ and I’d think of the car he drew.”

Gergely’s influence is also partly responsible for Little Elliot’s midcentury setting and aesthetic—although Curato adds that placing his character in a predigital New York also gave him more options for action. “Elliot has to be engaged directly in the world,” he says, adding with a laugh: “He can’t order his cupcakes on Seamless.”

But Elliot was still a character in search of a story when Curato signed with Bowen. Early comments Curato received about Elliot’s appealing diminutiveness jogged a memory: “I was running an errand for my mom and I was too short to be seen over the deli counter,” Curato says. “Just thinking about myself as a child in that situation, it really clicked. I knew where this had to go now.” He credits his editor at Holt, Laura Godwin, with keeping him from “getting caught up in all the cute things that I wanted Elliot to do” and further developing his storytelling chops.

Curato has also embraced his role as Elliot’s promoter. “I’ve tried investing as much time as possible,” he says. “I know it pays off.” Curato hooks audiences by telling them that Elliot is based on a “true story”—his deli counter experience—and never tires of the reaction when he shows the picture of Elliot earnestly washing dishes by sitting in a sink. “The kids just crack up,” he says.

In October, Curato won the Society of Illustrators 2014 Founder’s Award for Best New Talent. And he’s reveling in his ever-expanding professional circle as a member of New York’s publishing and kid-lit community. At a 92nd Street Y event last month, he met Chris Van Allsburg (with whom his work has been compared)—a “fanboy” experience that Curato says left him “a little starstruck and probably a bit incoherent.”

The proofs for the next installment, Little Elliot, Big Family, should hit Curato’s desk in January. The book is slated for fall 2015, and he promises it will include “tons” of references to friends and family (the first book’s visual shout-outs included portraits of the kids who were in his wedding party, a bus with a destination sign that reads “Danhattan,” for Curato’s husband, and an image of the Flatiron Building, where his publisher is located. The concept for the third book is approved, but Curato is taking a short break while he works on the pictures for Worm Loves Worm, a Balzer + Bray book by debut author J.J. Austrian.

And in yet another sign that he’s made the big time, Curato recently finished his contribution to What’s Your Favorite Color?, Holt’s follow-up to the popular Eric Carle–and-friends compilation What’s Your Favorite Animal? He demurs on details, although he did disclose that his color is mint and that it features another character he’s been drawing “forever,” a raccoon named Ricky. “He’s based on a stuffed animal I’ve had since I was four,” he says. “He still sits next to me on my nightstand.”