Matthew and Mara Van Fleet have created interactive books separately, but in Mermaid Dance, they joined forces for the first time. PW spoke with the couple about the collaborative process, and they revealed that there’s a family Easter egg in the book: the redheaded and blonde merboys are a tribute to the couple’s sons in their youth. “They’re 26 and 21 now,” Matthew says with a laugh.
Where did the idea for the collaboration come from?
Matthew: The text is based on my book Dance. We were trying to think of doing something with mermaids because Mara’s book Three Little Mermaids is doing fairly well, and it just kind of fit.
Mara: It was our Covid project.
You’ve noted before that you each work on opposite sides of your house. Did that continue with this book?
Matthew: We’re in my office now [laughs]. I had to design the mechanics first and get them to work in my office. For me to finally finish the whole design of the mechanics could be a year or longer, but this one was pretty fast—maybe half a year or a year to get all the mechanics designed and the thing written. Then Mara was basically painting this thing for months and months in her office.
Mara: Because the mechanics were all figured out ahead of time, I could have a lot of fun with it.
Matthew: Anything that’s moving is done as a separate piece of art. So she doesn’t paint the whole spread—it’s a background and the moving pieces. I scan it and Photoshop it and get it to work with the mechanics in my office.
There were a lot of adjustments on the final popup. When we got the printer’s sample back, the penguins’ arms were catching, so that entire thing had to be redone. All the characters had to be moved and simplified—we didn’t want a kid to open this and shut it and have the popup be crushed. The foreground was much more complicated when we started.
What differences might readers notice between Three Little Mermaids and this book?
Matthew: We didn’t want it to be a girls-only book. Dance was about animals, so it was gender neutral.
Mara: The style I used is a little more free-flowing than the mermaid book. The mermaid book was oil pastels, and this book was watercolor pencils.
Matthew: Oil pastels take way too long and I wanted this done [laughs]. And when she does oil pastels the pieces are really large, so there’s a lot of adjustment to make the pictures work. The watercolors are a little bit brighter. The oil pastels are pretty and have their own look, but they aren’t as bright and cartoony.
Textures [touch-and-feel elements] made sense on Three Little Mermaids because it was a counting book, but in this book, it didn’t make sense to have them. And in Mermaid Dance, there’s a mechanical on every page, so if you combined textures and mechanicals it makes the production more complicated and expensive.
Is there another collaboration on the horizon? Other plans?
Matthew: Not at the moment.
Mara: We haven’t really talked about it.
Matthew: I’m working on another alphabet book. Doing another ABC seems like it would be easy until you sit down to write it. It’s at that stage where I’m sketching it. It’s been dragging on for a year [laughs].
Mara: I have folders and folders of ideas that I keep going back to, and I am trying to flesh out another book idea. I have a side business for the Northern Westchester Artists Guild doing oil pastels of animals. Mermaid Dance is really fun to do as a book reading. I’m looking forward to doing more of that when the book comes out. At the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival in October, I put on a bit of music, we swished and danced. I think everyone was desperate to get out and do something like that with their kids.
Mermaid Dance by Matthew Van Fleet, illus. by Mara Van Fleet. S&S/Wiseman, $21.99 Jan. 18, 2022 ISBN 978-1-66590-491-9