Ethan Long is the author and illustrator of a number of books for children, including the Geisel Award-winning Up, Tall and High!, as well as Tickle the Duck!, Fright Club, Valensteins, Fangsgiving, and more. He is also the creator of the Emmy-nominated animated series Tasty Time with ZeFronk. Due out next month, his forthcoming picture book Hello, World! (Holt/Ottaviano) kicks off the Happy County interactive picture book series for preschoolers. The second installment, Sun and Moon Together, hits shelves in August. We asked Long and his editor, Christy Ottaviano—publisher of her eponymous imprint at Henry Holt—about their new collaboration.
Ethan Long: Christy! It’s so great to sit and chat with you. Last time we saw each other it was over lunch in NYC. Remember? You had a tiny house salad and I had a giant plate of Flintstone-style Brontosaurus ribs and when the waiter set them down in front of me, the table tipped over. Good times!
Christy Ottaviano: That was a terrific lunch. We talked about everything from what’s on deck for Happy County in books three and four [Cars, Lines, and Porcupines, on transportation, and a book about the seasons] to our kids, to those giant ribs you ate. Plus, the fries were amazing.
Long: It’s always great seeing you and catching up. Today we’ve been asked to talk shop about Hello, World and the Happy County series. Do you think I can act serious for five straight minutes?
Ottaviano: Probably not.
Long: Good call. But seriously, right off the bat, we knew you were a good fit for the Happy County series—which was once called County 109—because you were extremely excited about it and had so many ideas to make it better. Plus, we are about the same age, so our sensibilities and experiences were very similar. We both grew up with Rubik’s Cube, the Bee Gees, and Pop Rocks!
Ottaviano: And let’s not forget Bubble Yum and Now and Laters! It was such a treat to get the initial submission from [agent] Paul [Rodeen]. At that time you had conceived it as a series of episodic easy readers. I adored the characters and scenarios, and felt that they might work more effectively in their own world—one you could develop more significantly in a Richard Scarry-style longer format. I was delighted when you wanted to give this preschool approach a try. And it truly was in your wheelhouse because right from the start you had so many on-point early childhood themes and concepts you wanted to explore.
Long: It is in my wheelhouse, mainly because I still act like a child and can relate to everything that a child relates to.
Ottaviano: True. But you use that to your advantage in creating such a busy world that is full of landmark early childhood subjects: first words, colors, numbers, shapes, school, simple maps, and even naps— Mr. Rhinehorn. Is it really true that you take a nap every day after lunch?
Long: Yes, I am proud to say that is true. Mmm. Naps. I am the original Mr. Rhinehorn. But back to your idea of giving the characters and stories their own giant world—it was something I hadn’t really done a deep dive into yet, but you nudged me that way. That’s when everything started to click and come to life. It’s been so easy to work on, and easy to work with you.
Long: Our working relationship resembles life on old Viking ships. You crack the whip and I row really, really hard.
Ottaviano: Haha. It feels more modern than medieval, with lots of trust, honest discussions, and teamwork. To use another analogy—it’s like the graceful duck gliding across a pond. When we are working best, just the image of the duck on the pond is visible, not the intense pedaling that goes on under the surface of the water.
Long: You give amazing feedback but also allow me freedom to try new things. Thank you for that. It gives me a lot of confidence knowing that my editor has my back and I can speak up about new ideas.
Ottaviano: Of course! We both have a strong work ethic and I think that helps us stay in synch, especially when it comes to publishing two 48-page picture books in a year. I actually count on your prompt and funny emails reminding me that I owe you feedback. You hit your studio early, as many of those emails are clocking in at 5:30 a.m.!
Long: Early bird gets the worm! No coffee needed here. This series caffeinates me perfectly. My goal is for the books to inspire readers, give them belly laughs, and make kids want to read them over and over. Like Richard Scarry’s collections, readers can pore over Hello, World! and find things they didn’t discover the first time.
Ottaviano: Let’s talk about Richard Scarry a bit. He was such a genius at capturing a child’s world. When my three children were young, I remember bringing Cars and Trucks and Things That Go on vacation and watching with amazement how three different ages could find one book so satisfying—my two-year-old loved identifying all of the objects on a page, my four-year-old was intent on finding every Gold Bug and Lowly Worm, while my six-year-old was eager to read all of the silly scenarios of Huckle and friends.
Long: So fun. Richard Scarry was a master. Not only are Scarry’s books enjoyable to look at, they both directly and indirectly synthesize a great deal of information and make it accessible to kids. This elevated the books to another level. It’s my hope that the Happy County books work in a similar way.
Ottaviano: Agreed. Scarry’s books provide a wealth of educational content but always within a thoughtful, amusing framework. Can you talk about your own Richard Scarry influences and how you brought a modern sensibility to your approach with Hello, World! and Happy County?
Long: Well, Richard Scarry books were always in my life, whether at school or at home. They brought me lots of joy and were a big influence on me and my training as an artist. The architecture, the costumes, the way in which the text and art worked together—all the illustrations were well-researched yet drawn in a simple, relatable way. But they were also created during a time when ethnicities and gender roles were often stereotyped and before inclusivity was treated with sensitivity. With Hello, World!, I was eager to create a diverse community that reflects a modern world sensibility.
Ottaviano: Yes, this aspect is of key importance for the series as a whole. Another element I love about Hello, World! is how the flow is structured. There are panorama spreads showing the goings-on around town juxtaposed with anecdotal skits of characters doing everyday things.
Long: My thought here is to show people doing things in a community that one would see in their respective communities—going to the grocery store, the gas station, to school. You may not know the community members personally, but you are familiar with them. Then one day, you meet them and hear a story about their day and how it relates to what they do. Maybe they had a pipe burst at their house, or maybe they’re telling you about their favorite places to eat. Sometimes you are generally involved—watching the action at a construction site, and sometimes you are up close and personal with certain community members. Happy County is about your community and the people in it.
Ottaviano: Yes, I love how you showcase the universality of everyday experiences through Happy County—it’s very much a celebration of community. So tell us what’s coming next after Hello, World?
Long: Book two in the Happy County series introduces, of all things, Sun and Moon Together: how the sun and moon function in tandem, and how this affects our daily life. We are currently in development of books three and four, which will showcase cars, signs, the weather, the seasons, as well as some fun-loving porcupines!
Ottaviano: Indeed. All good things to come. Thanks so much for chatting, Ethan.
Long: See? I can be serious for five minutes!
Ottaviano: It’s a miracle. Now go take your nap.
Long: Mmm. Nap.
Hello, World! (Happy County #1) by Ethan Long. Holt/Ottaviano, $18.99, Mar. 3 ISBN 978-1-250-19175-5
Sun and Moon Together (Happy County #2) by Ethan Long. Holt/Ottaviano, $18.99 Aug. 11 ISBN 978-1250191748