After nearly 20 novels for young readers, a Newbery Honor, and a National Book Award, Polly Horvath found herself writing her first picture book. Not a Smiley Guy follows the early years of a child named Ernest, who feels pretty good about life aside from the lack of elephants. Yet his anguished parents worry: why doesn’t Ernest ever smile? In desperation, they get him an elephant named Marcia. Further negotiations ensue before Ernest’s parents, Ernest, and even Marcia the elephant come to a shared understanding. PW spoke with Horvath from her home in British Columbia about picture book pacing, Boris Kulikov’s illustrations, and not being a smiley person.

Where did Ernest come from? Do you know an Ernest?

One day, Ernest just showed up as I was taking a hike with my dog. It was less Ernest than it was the cadence of the picture book. It started like a lot of my middle readers, like The Canning Season or The Trolls; the first chapter has these short, choppy sentences. It’s attention-getting; it tells the reader, “I’m telling you a story now.” [But] what I was getting was a picture book, which surprised me. So I went home and I wrote it down, and I rewrote it, and I sent it to Margaret [Ferguson], and she liked it! Boris had done the cover art for The Canning Season and I loved his cover. She brought him on board, and he added a whole new dimension to the book.

What changed as you worked on it together?

Margaret had to think in terms of the pictures and the text and how that would fit together. I had to start thinking in terms of smaller sound bites, and so things were rearranged a bit because of that.

It sounds as if thinking about the pacing of picture books was new for you.

I wasn’t thinking about [what’s on] the page, and then turning the page. I never think about the audience when I write! And that’s a problem for me with middle readers, too. I think we’re all an age in our outlook, and mine seems to be the middle reader age. I don’t seek out stories. I sort of wait for them to come to me, and I capture them.

My biggest problem is that I’m working from a place of being nine and an adult at the same time. I might be nine and an adult. And you have to be true to both of them. You have to work from some authentic place. You can’t decide you’re going to be only nine. And that’s probably a problem for me doing picture books as well. I’ll want to do what I want to do. And the audience… the vote is not in yet.

What was it like to see the artwork?

When Boris came on board, the elephants came much more to the fore. For me it had been something that happened later in the book, and was just this funny little quirky thing, but he started hiding elephants on every page. Margaret was worried I wasn’t going to like that, but I loved it. I thought kids would have a great time finding the elephants where he had cleverly hidden them, and I loved the fact that he had done another book within the book. You didn’t even need the text, really. What he really did—without showing a smiling Ernest—was to show something that was making Ernest happy. He captured Ernest’s joy that way. I thought that was the best of collaborations. He did his own thing entirely and I just loved it.

The story reads a little like a middle reader in some ways; was that the intent?

I do think that the great picture book text writers are people who have the minds of five-year-olds. They see the world that way and they capture that world in their text. And then there is another way to tell that story, and that is to be telling a story to a five-year-old.

When I used to read to my kids, we read Arthur Yorinks’s books. His cadence—although he’s much better at this than I—to me it was reminiscent of that type of storytelling.

Is there a little Borscht Belt in there?

Absolutely! My husband is Jewish, my mother-in-law spoke Yiddish, and I’ve been immersed in that [world] for my whole adult life. I hear that in the background all the time.

Did you have a picture in mind of what the characters looked like? When you finally saw Boris’s work, was it sort of a jolt?

The way he contributed with the elephants, I did love that immediately, and, as you say, there’s a sort of a Borscht Belt mentality to the story, and in his pictures, all his people look sort of Eastern European, or Russian, and I thought that worked well with the text, too.

Actually, when I saw the illustrations that Sophie Blackall did for the bunny books [Mr. and Mrs. Bunny—Detectives Extraordinaire and Lord and Lady Bunny—Almost Royalty! ], I had a set idea of what the bunnies should look like, and she did it very differently. I didn’t have a good reaction to it immediately, but I came to see how brilliant she was. You have to let go of your own vision of things and take in somebody else’s. Which is not something I’m usually good at.

You often write about orphans—and Ernest feels a little like an orphan, too, because he’s so emotionally distant from his parents. Did you have that sense?

Oh, for sure. Whenever someone isn’t typical, there is that sense of, they’re on their own a bit, and I understand that.

One of the things I discovered when I started doing book tours [was that] Zoom is terrible, because you’re watching your face all the time, and I realized I don’t smile very much. Particularly in front of children, there’s a level of expectation that you’re going to arrange your face in a way that didn’t come naturally to me. I had to work on doing that so I appeared to be friendly and welcoming—even though I was friendly and welcoming! I identify with Ernest.

People think that happiness has to be expressed in an effusive, boisterous way. Ernest is kind of a pot on simmer; he’s contented and not effusive. I do understand how his family would be worried, because he’s not expressing it in a way that’s understood. Too often, children are made to believe that if they don’t express their happiness the way that other people do, it’s not OK. I like the idea that his parents stop worrying about him.

Was Marcia there from the beginning?

No! It was sort of a throwaway, the idea that he wanted an elephant, but then I became interested in Marcia as a character. And were I to do another book with Ernest and Marcia, it would probably include more of Marcia. That’s the interesting thing about writing; you sort of fall in love with your characters and then they expand themselves and you get interested in their lives, even in the elephants’ lives, and it goes from there.

Can you see yourself writing more picture books?

I would like to do more of these books, more Ernest and Marcia books with Boris, and someone else it would be great to do a picture book with is Sophie Blackall, who illustrated the bunny books. Those characters were weird alter egos [for my husband and me]. She didn’t know us, but she managed to include all kinds of things that we hold dear; pickles, cuckoo clocks… they were in the illustrations. It was almost as if she was sort of psychic.

What are you working on now?

Well, [middle reader] Library Girl comes out in September. And I’m working on another middle reader novel. I’m only four chapters in. I never talk about them when I’m working on them. I feel like if I talk about it, the magic leaks out.

Not a Smiley Guy by Polly Horvath, illus. by Boris Kulikov. Holiday House/Ferguson, $18.99 Apr. 2 ISBN 978-0-8234-4987-3