For her first standalone picture book in eight years, author-illustrator Laurie Keller has created a brand new character, an exuberant spud named Potato. His quest to find appropriate attire during a big sale provides, well, the meat and potatoes of Potato Pants! (Holt/Ottaviano, Oct.), arriving this fall. In an exclusive first look at the book’s jacket, Potato’s excitement at the prospect of purchasing a perfect pair of pants is palpable.
“I had tried some things with potato stamp lettering first, but it wasn’t quite working,” said Keller. “The book’s designer, April Ward, came up with the idea of Potato with a really excited look on his face. She thought of him in front of the store, shopping with other potatoes.”
But how did Potato get to a pants store in the first place? “It started as a conversation I imagined a few years ago between a goofy pickle who wanted pickle pants, and a storeowner,” Keller recalled about the spark for her tale. “It wasn’t really that much of a story, but I couldn’t let it go.” After auditioning a bunch of other characters in the pants shopper’s role, she said, “Finally, I thought, ‘a potato!’ I started sketching it and I started loving Potato even more than Pickle. It was just a snippet of an idea; this odd character popped in my head having an earnest discussion with a snooty store owner, and it evolved from there.”
In the book, Potato can’t wait to get to Lance Vance’s Fancy Pants Store for a one-day sale on potato pants. His enthusiasm turns to upset, however, when he spies an eggplant who has been rude to him, inside the store. “It’s about exploring misunderstandings and forgiveness; that’s really at the heart of this story,” said Christy Ottaviano, Keller’s longtime editor at Henry Holt Books for Young Readers.
Though it’s been a while since her last picture book (Birdy’s Smile Book, 2010), Keller has not been idle. As the idea for Potato Pants! was gestating, she was occupied with various other projects in recent years, including creating a series of chapter books starring another carbohydrate character, Arnie the Donut, at Ottaviano’s suggestion. Mastering that longer format was a process that was time-consuming for Keller, whom Ottaviano described as a perfectionist. “It’s very exciting to have a standalone picture book with her now after a decent span of time,” Ottaviano said.
The publication of Potato Pants! signals another professional milestone as well: it marks the 20th anniversary of Keller and Ottaviano working as a team. “I was an associate editor back in 1997,” Ottaviano said. “There were very few agents, Holt was a smaller company, and as editors, you had to find your own material. You really had to go after it.” In that vein, she had seen a greeting card featuring Keller’s work, and, taken with the illustration style, pursued the artist. “It was so fresh and funny and inventive, and I called her up based on the card,” she noted.
Keller remembers the card well. It was a sample she had left behind at Holt when she met with a design assistant there after cold-calling for an appointment. “I was living in Kansas City at the time, and I naively called some publishers in New York when I thought of my first book idea,” Keller said. “I didn’t meet with Christy, but I met with a design assistant, and she put one of the pieces of art that I left behind up on her door,” where it caught Ottaviano’s attention.
“I wasn’t home when she called,” said Keller, “and this was in the time of answering machines. She left me a wonderful message, and I was just so excited; I still have the little cassette recording of it somewhere. And when I finally got to talk to her, she and I clicked right away.”
That first phone conversation yielded more than Ottaviano had imagined. “Laurie was already working on a manuscript and it turned out to be The Scrambled States of America [then known as Aloha, Kansas, according to Keller].” Ottaviano recalls that she was eager to buy it. “It reminded me of Schoolhouse Rock; I was a huge fan of that as a child,” she recalled. “The sensibility of it struck a chord with me and it felt so fresh and different than anything that I was seeing at that time. We’ve been working together ever since.”
Twenty years of projects has resulted in a comfortable working rhythm for Keller and Ottaviano. “I have to be pretty excited about something if I want to talk to her about it,” Keller noted. “I let her in right away before I even go very far with an idea.” Ottaviano says the duo does a lot of brainstorming along the way to a finished book. “We’ve gotten really close over the years,” she noted, “and I think that my job with Laurie, who is an idea machine, is to help her winnow through those ideas to try to find the most market-viable idea, but also an idea where she can bring her sense of humor to the subject matter with her inventive eye.”
Their collaboration has a more personal side, too. “As you work with someone over time you learn a lot about what inspires them,” says Ottaviano. “One of the things I love to do with Laurie is, if she seems stuck between books or in a book, I will send her funny things like YouTube or SNL skits we both love, or shared favorite movies, or suggest, ‘You’ve got to see this art show that’s in town,’ because she absolutely finds inspiration in other art forms. I find that she’ll come back from that and something will have ignited a new idea.”
One of the passions that Keller and Ottaviano share is a certain type of music. “We’re both closet disco music lovers,” said Keller. “We found that out right away when we started working together. So in every book, I take a snippet of a disco song or an 80s funk song [such as ABBA and Rick James] and I change it to be a dedication to her. Authors and illustrators typically get all the attention for the books, but there are so many people behind the scenes that work on it. I just like to give a shout-out to them to say thank you.” In Potato Pants! Keller says she honored a request from Ottaviano who asked her, “Can you do one for ‘September’ by Earth, Wind, and Fire?” Readers can find the tribute on the book’s copyright page.
Though Keller has not yet settled on an idea for her next picture book, she has discovered over the past few years that she really enjoys working on several projects at once. To that end, she is illustrating a picture book by Adam Rex, Pluto Gets the Call (S&S/Beach Lane, 2019), about Pluto’s demotion from planet status; an early reader version of Arnie the Donut; and illustrations for her third Marty Frye, Private Eye title by Janet Tashjian.
In the meantime, Keller and Ottaviano will be finding time to celebrate their working anniversary and friendship, though no plans are set yet. And when they get something on the calendar, you may just see Keller doing the robot, a dance skill she also gave to Potato in her new book. It’s literally her happy dance. “The idea of how the story of Potato Pants! was going to unfold popped into my head and I just started doing the robot,” she said. “I don’t even know how to do the robot, but I was compelled to start doing it because I was so excited.”