In 2010, Tom Angleberger splashed onto the children’s book scene with The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, centering on a sixth grader who communicates through the voice of his origami Yoda finger puppet. The author followed with five additional Origami Yoda titles before publishing The Qwikpick Papers and Inspector Flytrap trilogies, the latter illustrated by Angleberger’s wife, Cece Bell, who won Newbery Honors for her 2014 graphic novel, El Deafo. Origami Yoda fans rallied around these series as well, bringing Amulet’s sales of Angleberger titles to a current 5.5 million copies. This month, the author introduces yet another unconventional hero in Didi Dodo, Future Spy: Recipe for Disaster, which debuts a spinoff series of Inspector Flytrap and has a 75,000-copy first printing. Illustrated by Jared Chapman, this chapter book series stars a roller-skating dodo bird who’s an aspiring young spy specializing in food-related mysteries. PW asked Angleberger about his latest projects, sources of inspiration, and his collaborative process with illustrators.
You’ve created some comically wacky characters—including Didi Dodo. Where do you find your inspirations?
Every idea comes from such a different place—often from Cece’s and my strange conversations! It’s so much fun to write about these silly characters, and sometimes it’s hard to leave them behind. So when I realized that I couldn’t give up Koko Dodo from the Inspector Flytrap books, I decided to bring him back. And I knew that I wanted every adventure to begin with young spy Didi Dodo crashing into Koko Dodo’s cookie shop on roller skates. This is a familiar universe for me, and in a lot of ways I’m picking up where I left off. There are no real rules in this world, so I can do whatever I want. It’s all so much fun!
This was your first time working with illustrator Jared Chapman. Did his vision match yours?
The manuscript for this first book in the series was finished when I approached Amulet with it, and though I’d known Jared online for a long time, we hadn’t met in person. When I saw his illustrations, I was really, really impressed. His drawings look like animated characters—he’d thought them out and designed them so well that they could even become the stars of another series.
What was it like collaborating with your wife on the Inspector Flytrap books?
It’s very interesting collaborating with Cece! So often, there is no interaction between an author and illustrator—but obviously that wasn’t the case with us. With the second Inspector Flytrap book, she came over to me and said, “This won’t do.” And I said, “Which part?” And she said, “The whole book.” The novel was already written, and had been edited, and I remember thinking, “At this point I should be on vacation!”
But that just didn’t happen. I rarely get requests for even minor changes, but in this case, I went back and re-created the foundation for the story. There are rules and there are Cece’s rules, and I have to say—hers really do work well. She’s spilling over with ideas and does a great job bouncing them around, but she lays down the rules. That doesn’t happen often with authors and illustrators, and for us it’s the best thing possible.
Your books have been widely praised for getting non-readers reading. Is that rewarding to hear?
I have a lot of sympathy for reluctant readers. There was a time when I was young when I couldn’t get into any book—there was a lot of peer pressure to be reading, but I just could not get anywhere. I remember my peers were reading Dune, but I was definitely not ready for Dune. And then I rediscovered Jan Wahl’s picture book, The Furious Flycyle, which I’d read earlier, when it was age-appropriate. But when I picked it up again, it rebooted my love of reading and really made all the difference.
Do your own childhood reading experiences affect your writing style?
Yes. And I also spend a lot of time talking to kids about my books. They rave about the pictures and tell me that without them they couldn’t get through a paragraph. When I write, I always try to prevent them from getting stuck—I don’t want to lose any reader. I can’t slow them down with description—I have to keep the action moving. In the Didi Dodo books, no one ever stops moving—they just keep going and going—and eat cookies at the end! In the same way, I want to keep readers rolling and rolling through the story.
What’s next on your children’s book docket?
I have a picture book, Bach to the Rescue!!!: How a Rich Dude Who Couldn’t Sleep Inspired the Greatest Music Ever, coming out this month, from Abrams. The inspiration for this came from a completely different place from any other book I’ve done. I love Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and I read about how he came to compose them—which involved a completely gonzo story about how Bach wrote them as lullabies for a rich guy who couldn’t get to sleep. I became obsessed with telling this story, and I was determined to illustrate it myself—but that was a disaster. I knew Chris Eliopolous from the internet, and I wrote to him to ask if he was interested in illustrating the book, and he sent me a little cartoon picture of Bach—and that is all it took. I immediately said, “Wow! This is it!” It was perfect.
Your books have frequently received kudos for appealing equally to kids of any gender. Was that a goal when you began writing novels?
No—I guess it just happened, and I’m so happy about that. When I was in elementary school, neither boys nor girls had much interest in what I had to say—and now it blows my mind that kids are interested in reading my stories. I am so thankful that they are, because I absolutely love telling these stories and immersing myself in a world where roller skating dodos can save the day.
Didi Dodo, Future Spy: Recipe for Disaster by Tom Angleberger, illus. by Jared Chapman. Abrams Amulet, $12.99 Mar. ISBN 978-1-4197-3370-3
Bach to the Rescue!!! How a Rich Dude Who Couldn’t Sleep Inspired the Greatest Music Ever by Tom Angleberger, illus. by Chris Eliopolous. Abrams, Mar. $17.99, ISBN 978-1-4197-3164-8