Going to school is an adjustment for any child, but for the heroine of Ryan T. Higgins's picture book We Don't Eat Our Classmates (Disney-Hyperion), learning the rules of school comes with a unique set of challenges. Penelope Rex is an adorable T. rex who wears an anxious expression and pink overalls—she also needs occasional reminders that she shouldn't gobble up her new friends.
Higgins (author of the Mother Bruce series) began his career as an aspiring comics creator strongly influenced by Calvin and Hobbes, Krazy Kat, and Pogo. "It was my life's ambition to have a nationally syndicated comic strip," Higgins says. "I submitted dozens of different comic pitches to the major syndicates and received rejections from every one of them." Then he happened to stumble upon a picture book at a friend's house. That book was Mo Willems's Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! "Here was a cartoon for kids," Higgins says. "It might not have been a newspaper comic, but it was a very close sibling. The doors swung wide open to a whole new creative outlet for me, and I hit the ground running with a new purpose."
His idea for a book about a T. rex who wants to fit in at school but also thinks children are delicious was inspired by circumstances close to home. "I made this book just as my son was about to enter kindergarten," Higgins says. "He was a little nervous about starting a new experience, but my wife and I were very nervous about our first child starting school. This book was my way of dealing with the anxieties we had about our son transitioning successfully into school life."
School can be scary—and so can a T. rex—so Higgins wanted to make Penelope as nonthreatening as possible. "I was very concerned that a few readers might get a little too scared about children being ‘eaten' if they related to the kids more than to Penelope," Higgins says. "That meant Penelope had to be as cute and innocent-looking as possible, with a more expressive face." After experimenting with different looks for his protagonist, Higgins "settled on a big boat-shaped head with eyes down low on her face." Higgins says, "Bringing the eyes lower on a character automatically makes it look more like a baby. Adding spunky pink overalls gave her more character—and Penelope was born."
Penelope's classmates are a bit less distinctive. "They have dots for eyes and little lines for mouths," Higgins says. (Spoiler alert: while Penelope does eat her classmates a couple of times, she spits them out in a slobbery mess, a little the worse for wear but not permanently damaged.)
Penelope's story (and perhaps that of her classmates) is a relatable one—after all, some kids are biters. But it's really meant to represent more commonplace occurrences. "I think it can be a metaphor for treating others the way you want to be treated, putting yourself in their shoes," Higgins says. "The story focuses on how to make friends, and that is by not eating them! Or just being nice."
Higgins has some advice for parents whose children are heading to school this fall: "Their anxieties about entering school are fears of the unknown," Higgins says. "Once they know what to expect, they can start to look forward to their new adventure!" After all, even if they do encounter a dinosaur in pink overalls, chances are she is just looking for friends, too.