An arrogant paper straw with “a great thirst for being first” brags to his slower-moving pals after emptying his glass in a flash—but eventually discovers the benefits of slowing down. This is the peppy protagonist of Straw, the final volume of a picture book trilogy that began with Spoon (2009) and Chopsticks (2012), written by the late Amy Krouse Rosenthal and illustrated by Scott Magoon. With the publication of Straw in February, the trilogy will have a combined 240,000 copies in print. PW spoke with Magoon about his collaborations with Rosenthal, who wrote more than 30 children’s books—including a number of perennial bestsellers—before she died of ovarian cancer in 2017 at the age of 51.
How did you come to collaborate with Amy on Spoon?
I had seen her Little Pea a few months before Alessandra Balzer, who was then an editor at Disney-Hyperion, showed me the manuscript for Spoon. I loved her work right away, and I was excited to bring my own style to her sensibility, which incorporates so much humor and wordplay. I was confident I could bring in some visual play as well, and I knew I wanted to dive in—just like Spoon wants to dive into a bowl of ice cream—so I didn’t hesitate at all. The pictures arrived fully formed in my imagination. I didn’t know how a story that felt so classic hadn’t been done before—it struck me as such low-hanging fruit!
Is it challenging to work with simple story concepts, and give personalities and meaningful facial expressions to such basic objects as a spoon, chopsticks, and a straw?
Amy’s texts have a deceptive simplicity—and an ultimate sophistication. It was our priority with these books to keep them simple, but still have them carry a powerful message. I often think of da Vinci’s advice to artists: simplify, simplify, simplify. In these three books, and particularly in Spoon, the art doesn’t get in the way of the storytelling; the two become a united front.
Drawing the characters, I basically tried to react to and capture what Amy expressed in the text. I owe a debt to James Marshall, who could draw expressive characters with a few basic lines. He was able to make a subtle tip of an eyebrow enough to support an entire spread. It’s amazing what you can get out of squiggles—eye shapes, mouths, eyebrows. It’s almost a visual typography.
Given Amy’s illness, did your collaborative process work differently for Straw?
Amy shared Straw with me very early on in the process. She flouted the usual practice of having a book’s editor serve as the liaison between author and illustrator and sent it to me at the beginning to see if I thought the straw concept could, well, hold water. We started working on the book in 2015 and worked on it right up until she passed away. With Spoon and Chopsticks, she looked at all the sketches along the way. She was not alive to see the interior sketches for Straw, but I was happy that I was able to show her a cover sketch.
I had a sense, at the end of our time working on the book together, that she was struggling to put on a brave front on the phone. To hear her tell it she was doing well—she always put a positive spin on things. It was not until I read her letter, “You May Want to Marry My Husband,” in the New York Times’s Modern Love column just days before she died, that I knew how dire her situation was—but I did have a suspicion.
Connecting with others—through her videos, promotional appearances, and of course her books—was obviously very important to Amy. Did you feel a strong connection with her while collaborating on the trilogy?
Amy was passionate about connecting with people through her ideas, and about having her ideas bring people together. That was Amy in a nutshell. We connected well and collaborated very closely. She made it a point to call me and brainstorm ideas for all three books, and we’d talk for long periods of time. She made me feel that she believed in me and wanted my input on what our books should be, and I was greatly flattered by that. Amy warmed my heart and cheered me on. She didn’t have to do that—and I loved that she did.
Straw by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illus. by Scott Magoon. Disney-Hyperion, $16.99 Feb. ISBN 978-1-4847-4955-5