Juggling careers as a paramedic as well as an author and illustrator of more than a dozen picture books, Dave Horowitz drew from both vocations to create Emergency Monster Squad, which follows the “amboolance” rounds of a paramedic (a freckled-face human girl) and an EMT (a blue creature with three googly eyes) as they respond to calls from otherworldly patients. On a busy shift, the pair zooms to the aid of a zombie with chest pains, a skeleton who loses some bones, and a pregnant kraken whose eggs prematurely hatch. Labeled images of EMS equipment and procedures and a glossary of medical terms help ground the story in the real world. PW spoke with Horowitz from his home in New York State’s Hudson Valley to ask how he came to create his newest picture book—and about his dual careers.
At what point did you, as a successful picture book creator, decide to become an emergency medic, and why?
About seven or eight years ago, I was between interests, and I saw a sign at my local volunteer agency that ambulance drivers were needed. I was drawn to that idea, and when I started driving, I saw all that the EMTs were doing in the back of the ambulance, and I said, “I could do that!” I got certified as an EMT, and then the same thing happened again, when I watched paramedics at work. So, I decided to go to medic school and got that certification as well.
At the time, I was writing and illustrating picture books full-time, and I had reached a point where I felt I had done everything I could do without repeating myself. I did not want to be doing books just because I needed a project—that’s a terrible place for an author to be. I only want to do books that mean something to me. And I thought that I would probably do well to have a steady job and a regular paycheck, since I do have to eat. I was drawn to the idea of public service, and that was a good decision for me. I need to do work that I really want to do. I really love my job as a paramedic—it is a job you cannot do if you don’t love it.
What inspired you to write a picture book based on your ambulance experience?
After I had finished Never Satisfied, which came out in 2018, I knew I wanted to do another book, and I was thinking of maybe doing an anatomy-themed story, since that’s something I relate to. One day Nancy Paulsen, who has been my editor for most of my career, and I were having one of our usual sushi lunches and kicking around some book ideas, and we began talking about an EMS-related book. As I thought about doing one, I realized it would be quite a challenge, in that EMS work is pretty grim, and I began thinking about trying to find a way to do a picture book that would be interesting and appealing to kids without being horrifying.
Is that when the thought of creating monster characters surfaced?
Yes. I knew I wanted the book to be realistic, but also funny. If a story is set in the human world, and you have a person falling off a bike and breaking his femur, it is not funny. But if you have a skeleton lose a bone and a zombie fall ill, you can make it funny. It’s one step removed from realism. Still, it was important to me that the monster characters have EMS experiences that are medically accurate and close to real-life situations. My humor is sometimes accused of being too adult—but I try not to talk down to kids. My books are cartoonish, since that is my style—yet if I’m drawing an ambulance, I’m not going to make it look like an ice cream truck.
Given your connection to the storyline of Emergency Monster Squad, would you describe this as your most deeply personal book?
Well, I know this sounds like a cliché, but I can honestly say that all of my books are personal in some way. Five Little Gefiltes, for example, is about Yiddish culture and it’s about how I grew up—that story came from a really honest and personal place. I’d describe Emergency Monster Squad as a book with more purpose to it. I hope it raises awareness of the jobs that EMTs and paramedics perform, and lets kids and grownups know what it is that we do on an ambulance daily. And how much we do.
Although these are very stressful times for everyone, I am grateful that I still have a level of normalcy in my life since the pandemic began. My wife is a classical violinist, and her work has disappeared, since no one is filling music halls anytime soon, so she has had to reinvent herself and is doing some teaching online. But I am still able to get up every day, put on my uniform, and have pretty much a normal day in the ambulance, which is something I find very comforting.
Emergency Monster Squad by Dave Horowitz. Penguin/Paulsen, $17.99 Aug. 25 ISBN 978-0-399-54850-5