Greg Pizzoli won two SCBWI Portfolio Honor awards before publishing any books at all, so it wasn’t a complete surprise when his first book out of the gate, The Watermelon Seed, scooped up the 2014 Geisel Award for the most distinguished book for beginning readers. In addition to the three titles that he’s written or illustrated since then, he has two new books coming out this spring. Tricky Vic, a biography for older readers that looks at one of history’s most audacious con men, appears in March, and Templeton Gets His Wish, about a cat who wants his annoying family to disappear, comes out in May. PW spoke by phone with Pizzoli in his studio in Philadelphia about the Eiffel Tower, the importance of historical accuracy, and hiding artwork under dust jackets.

Where did you first bump into the story of Tricky Vic, the con man Count Lustig?

The very first place? To be honest, it’s a little fuzzy. In grad school my studio-mate sent me a link – to the article in Smithsonian, maybe? All these books have been written about Lustig; most prominently, The Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower, published in 1961. They all call him things like “The most successful con man in history!” Once you get the basic framework down, you can go on to find the real meat – the old newspaper articles. He did actually escape from prison by tying bedsheets together. It sounds like a B movie, but he actually did it.

There was quite a gap between the time you first found out about Lustig and when you finally turned to creating a story about him.

Right. I was in grad school, I heard the story, I didn’t do anything with it, I just sat on it. I remember pitching it to Steve [Malk, his agent]. I had come back from SCWBI, I was jazzed. I said, “I’ve got two book ideas. One, I have a nonfiction idea about this guy who sold the Eiffel Tower. Then I have a book about a crocodile who loves watermelon.” And he said, “The crocodile idea sounds funny!”

So Tricky Vic got pushed to the back burner. After three years I was still super interested in the story. I had the impression that it might be too dark or taboo for a publisher, and I thought about making it a zine. I talked to Mac Barnett about it. We were talking about nonfiction picture books – he had just finished President Taft Is Stuck in the Bath. He told me I had to do it. People don’t know this about Mac. He’s the guiding hand on so many books! Jon Klassen talked about it in his Caldecott acceptance speech, about how people don’t realize it, but all these picture book makers are on the phone to Mac all the time.

So I made the zine, and sent it to Steve. My original pitch wasn’t that compelling, but once I had spent some time with it and showed him this 16-page zine, he said, “This could be something,” and within a month I had a contract with Viking.

What happened when you took the zine to Viking?

They said, we’re not worried about pictures at all. We don’t want to see any of that now. Let’s get the story right. Which is not my usual way of working, but it was fantastic, because in the end, when it came time to do the pictures, I was just, like – I could go wild. Now we had a structure that I could build off of.

And it grew from a 16-page zine into a biography.

I worked with Ken Wright and Leila Sales, and they helped me flesh it out, to give it more of a context. In terms of shaping the story, I knew it would be episodic. And I wanted to give a sense of how the con works, like with the Romanian money box [a box that appears to be a money-printing machine but is in fact a scam itself]. I pulled back the curtain. I thought, here are the interesting cons, and I want to walk people through them. They thought of adding the sidebars – like explaining this idea that the Eiffel Tower could be sold to anyone for scrap. The idea that anyone would tear down the Eiffel Tower is unfathomable now, but at the time, it wasn’t. The idea then was that it would be there for only 20 years anyway.

It’s a very different style of illustration from your other books – it’s crisp, editorial-style artwork.

Right, I did approach it more like editorial illustration. The other books I’ve done are all designed to be read from the back of a classroom, with big, bold, bright graphics. This story carries a more nuanced approach. My art director, Jim Hoover, was great about helping me narrow in, and about helping me to get the look right. In the zine, Lustig arrives at the Eiffel Tower in a limo, and I just drew this kind of random Pizzoli-mobile. Jim said “No – you have to find out what a limo looked like in 1925. You have to get the costuming right.”

You said before that you thought that the story might be too dark, or might have taboo elements. Did you have to change anything?

We did very little sanitizing of the story. There were some things like, for instance, the Lustig’s Ten Commandments for Con Artists. In the commandments, we changed talking about sex to talking about romance. But that was the only thing. I didn’t want to shy away from the fact that this guy destroyed people’s lives. He took their life savings. But there’s something in just the chutzpah that he could get away with it that makes it fascinating.

The reception that it’s gotten has been pretty amazing. There were times when I worried that people were going to reject it outright because of its subject matter. But the back cover has a quote from Lane Smith on it. He’s one of my heroes. Whatever else happens, that is so meaningful to me – that someone that I revere said something nice about the book.

You seem to come at picture books with a strong designer’s sense; you explore every aspect of the book.

At the University of the Arts I was in the book arts and printmaking program. I had a strong background in silkscreen; I had been making a lot of band posters. One of the things that I learned in grad school is that a book is not a vessel. The form of the book, the shape that it takes – it’s not just a blank thing. Every part of it has meaning. The paper stock, the ink choice, the font, the trim size: everything about it contributes to the meaning of the story. That’s something that I try to bring into my work. When there’s an opportunity to do something special, like hiding the Ten Commandments for Con Men under the back flap of the book, I jump on those opportunities.

Let’s turn to Templeton – which is a great naughty-boy book.

You know the spread in the book that says, So he did something bad, and got something good in return. The first time I read that out loud in a classroom, I could feel the collective breath of the teachers and the parents draw in. I wanted to say to them, “Hang in there with me! He gets what’s coming to him!”

It all depends on the age of the kids who are listening to it. With second through fourth graders, they’re all in. They’re rubbing their hands together. “Yes! This is it! Our moment has arrived!” With pre-K through kindergarten kids, some are on board as he gets the Magic Diamond and he wishes his family away, but some of them are just aghast. “That’s insane!” It took a couple of readings for me to get the hang of it. You have to change the tone with them. You have to read it, like, “Can you believe he’s doing this? Look at what this guy is up to!” You’re on the same team and you’re watching these events.

With older kids, we have a conversation afterwards about what happened. The thing about Templeton – and it’s my favorite part of the book – is that when his parents come back and his mom says, “You need a bath,” and his dad says, “Clean up this mess,” nothing has changed. It’s his attitude that’s changed, how he approaches these difficulties. All families are going to be annoying at some point. It’s still better to have them around than not. “So, is everything OK now?” I ask the kids. “What’s made it OK? It’s not the Magic Diamond. Templeton himself has changed.”

Here, too, you’ve hidden something underneath the dust jacket.

When you write a book about your main character wishing his family away, you have to dedicate the book to your family. So for Templeton, if you take the jacket off, you see the package that the Magic Diamond has arrived in. It’s covered in stamps. Each of those stamps has the name of someone in my family and a little drawing that represents something personal. My feeling is that my books are made for three-to seven-year-olds. The dust jacket is going to be destroyed, so the case cover is going to be the cover.

And what’s coming down the pike?

I’m on the writing part of the next book for Viking. It’s coming out later next year. I haven’t started on the art yet. It’s about an explorer who’s looking for a lost city in the Amazon. It’s got mystery and survival stories and jungle stories and exploring and mapmaking and all my childhood fantasies packed into one book. And I’m also working with my wonderful editor at Disney-Hyperion, Rotem Moscovich, who found my work at SCBWI, on another book that will come out next May. That’s all been dummied already. I’m starting on the final art now. And I’ve just turned in the final art and jacket for a book by Kelly DiPucchio called Dragon Was Terrible, which is from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. I’ve read that book on many school visits and she’s a hilarious writer. I get uproarious laughter from beginning to end.

Tricky Vic: The Impossibly True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower. Greg Pizzoli. Candlewick, $17.99 ISBN 978-0-670-01652-5 (Mar.)

Templeton Gets His Wish. Disney-Hyperion, $16.99 ISBN 978-4847-1274-0 (May)