Though author-illustrator Andrea Tsurumi views the creation of her debut picture book, Accident! (HMH, Oct.), as somewhat, well, accidental, the book is the product of years of picture book appreciation. “I’ve basically always been drawing and writing. I’ve loved combining words and images since I learned to read,” she says.
Tsurumi backed up her early passion with strong credentials, graduating from Harvard in 2007 with a degree in English. She then returned to her native New York City, where she earned an M.F.A. in illustration from the School of Visual Arts. During that time, she immersed herself in the publishing world, working as an assistant to literary agent Liza Voges and in Penguin’s mass market art department. Meanwhile, she was working on several picture books, but, she says, “I had no idea which would be appealing or find an audience.”
Soon after graduation, Tsurumi met agent Stephen Barr of Writers House through a mutual friend, and the connection was immediate. “Stephen is so insightful about books and images and stories,” she says. “I work alone a lot, so it’s very meaningful to meet people who understand me and my work.” The two agreed to develop an idea together before formalizing their partnership.
The idea crystallized in 2015, when Tsurumi and a group of fellow SVA alumni gathered at Books of Wonder in Manhattan for an “illustration jam.” During these get-togethers, each person would write down a word inspired by the surrounding books and pass it to a neighbor as the impetus for a drawing. At this particular jam, illustrator Nina Frenkel gave Tsurumi the suggestion, “accident.” Tsurumi’s immediate reaction was, “Oh my God, that’s perfect! Hilarious!”—and then she put pen to paper. Barr later encouraged her to develop her sketch into a picture book for submission.
Over the course of the next six months, the single drawing grew into the story of Lola, an accident-prone armadillo who sets off a chain of mishaps in her town, beginning with a spilled pitcher of juice and escalating to outlandish heights. According to Tsurumi, the book combines “utter bonkers chaos and jokes with that cringey feeling of panic and worry I totally had as a kid.” After landing on the structure, she says, the rest flowed quite organically. “I gave myself room to improvise and riff. I composed intuitively based on shape and rhythm.”
In winter 2016, the project was acquired, after a six-publisher auction, by Kate O’Sullivan, executive editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Tsurumi says of working with her editor, “She embraced the humor of it, and she also understood the sincere point behind it. She helped me in balancing the two different energies.”
Tsurumi is thankful for the support of her agent and the team at HMH, saying, “I’m not sure it’s possible to overemphasize how terrifying it is when you’re starting out.” Fear gave way to delight when Tsurumi saw her book make its way into the hands of readers. “It’s so cool to see kids reading it; of course, that was the hope all along.”
At the same time that she was working on her solo children’s debut, Tsurumi was illustrating Girls Who Code (Viking), Reshma Saujani’s nonfiction coding book for girls. She also contributed work for the Toon comics anthology Little Nemo’s Big New Dreams in 2015. (Her “Little Nemo in Slumbraland” places Winsor McCay’s iconic character in a lingerie shop.)
Tsurumi is currently illustrating two books due in 2019: a picture book titled Not Your Nest by Gideon Sterer, for Dial, and an untitled chapter book by David Goodner, about two friends and a group of strange creatures on an island, for Disney-Hyperion. She remains open to ideas from all directions, saying, “Accident! took me by surprise. It was a happy accident to make that book.”