A small Tyrannosaurus rex named Penelope has just started school. She wears pink overalls, she has 300 tuna sandwiches in her lunchbox, and she thinks human children are delicious. The problem is that when you eat your classmates, it’s harder to make friends with them. Only when Penelope experiences being eaten herself does she realize how it might feel to others. Higgins has worked on a series of laugh-out-loud picture books starting with Mother Bruce, but his new book, We Don’t Eat Our Classmates, is his first foray into delicate social situations. PW spoke with Higgins about what it feels like to begin kindergarten, the challenges of designing a T. rex snout, and cruel goldfish.
Is this the first story you’ve written about a specific problem?
Yes, and it was also the first story that I wrote because of something that was happening in my life. My son was getting ready to start kindergarten. He was nervous, and I remembered being nervous when I started school. Nobody goes to school and eats their classmates, of course, but the story is about making friends, and treating people the way you want to be treated.
Did you have to make any adjustments to the way you typically approach the artwork because it was a different kind of story?
I had to treat the whole book a little differently. With the Bruce books, the audience is supposed to laugh at Bruce’s misfortune. With this book, there are funny scenes, and I wanted the kids to see the situation and laugh at it, but I also wanted them to put themselves in Penelope’s shoes.
Did you decide that on your own?
Well, my editor is Rotem Moscovich, and we worked it out together. She’s great at making me think about things. I presented her with the story and a couple of sketches and we sat down and talked about it. We went back and forth getting Penelope just right. Penelope has big, black, almost watery eyes, so when you look at the page, that’s where you go first. The kids just have little pin-dot eyes. I tried to make the kids cute, but not super-relatable. And we started the story in Penelope’s house, and all the other scenes [that aren’t in school] are in Penelope’s house, too.
An idea Phil [Camaniti, the art director] had, or maybe Rotem and Phil together, was that the backgrounds could be sort of monochrome, which was really neat to me because I’d never done anything that way.That changed the look of the book dramatically.
Making a T. rex cute is a tall order. What did you do to make Penelope less threatening?
It took like two months of figuring how to make her cute without making her annoyingly cute. I made 3-D models in clay—prototypes. It was really fun! I have one on my desk. She was more dinosaur-like at first, and then I ended up rounding her out, making her as stumpy as possible, and giving her those cute pink overalls.
Another thing was that I put her eyeballs way down on her face. The lower down you put eyeballs on a face the more it looks like a baby; it automatically makes something look cuter. I rounded her teeth, too. Everything is rounded off to make her as unscary as possible.
One problem was that her head was so big that it would get in the way. Like the scene where she’s painting. The paintbrush would have to be, like, two and a half feet long. That’s why she’s standing by the easel. We had to cut out gym class, too, because she can’t hold a soccer ball.
Were there any parts you had to ditch?
One of the ideas that I toyed with was trying to make kids not delicious to Penelope, but that was a bad idea. I went around asking people, “What don’t dinosaurs like? What don’t they like the taste of? Broccoli?” But if the story had gone that way, Penelope wouldn’t learn anything. She wouldn’t grow. When she gets eaten herself, she has that experience, she has empathy, she understands what it’s like.
Was the eating the children part tricky?
Oh, yeah! The actual action of eating a child, drawing it, that was weird, so we had to be careful. You have to walk a fine line, and there are some fine lines in this book! We wound up with bulging cheeks and the shoelace dangling out, but there aren’t any body parts or anything.
Where did Walter [the goldfish who chomps on Penelope’s finger] come from?
That took me a very long time to figure out. The story was mostly written, but it didn’t have an ending. It was a real-life situation that gave me the idea. In my son’s nursery school class there was a biter. I was fascinated! I wanted to know everything about this kid. What was going on? Was he still biting? How were his parents dealing with it? Then one day [in school] someone bit back—and he stopped biting!
In the story I couldn’t have it be a kid. It would be funny if it were the least likely character, so I thought, what about a goldfish? Walter is a re-creation of a goldfish that my brother and I had. He lived by himself because he killed everything we put in there with him. He killed other goldfish. He killed snails. He was a bully. He was a common 25-cent goldfish who was only supposed to live a year. But he wouldn’t die. He just didn’t want any company. So I brought him back and named him Walter.
Have you read the book to any kids yet?
Yes! I got to read it at my son’s school last week. It was really entertaining watching the reactions. The teacher hadn’t primed the kids or anything, it was the first time they’d heard the story, and when Penelope ate the children, they didn’t laugh. The teachers laughed, but the kids didn’t. They were shocked! The story’s moving along just fine and then, when she swallows them, those slack jaws and big eyes! Then, when she spits them out, then they laughed!
When I read it to them a second time, they knew what to expect. They really enjoyed it the second time.
How do you know what kids will think is funny? Is it instinct or experience?
I put things in books that entertain me. I’m basically just a 34-year-old fourth grader. The jokes that entertain me are the ones that kids like the most.
What are you working on now?
I’m working in a different format with Bruce and one of the mice... but which mouse and what the book is about will remain a secret. And after that book is done, my next project is something really top secret. But my next few projects after the very top secret one involve more Bruce. I hope I get to work with Bruce and the gang until I’m a shriveled old man.
We Don’t Eat Our Classmates by Ryan T. Higgins. Disney-Hyperion, $17.99 June 978-1-136800355-1