Jasper Rabbit has not had an easy go of it. In 2012’s Creepy Carrots!, written by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Peter Brown, a bunch of cranky carrots stalk the ravenous bunny after he repeatedly raids the carrot patch. Brown picked up a Caldecott Honor for that picture book, which was followed in 2017 by Creepy Pair of Underpants!, chronicling Jasper’s battle with a persistent pair of glow-in-the-dark undies that reappears each time he tries to dispose of them. Together, the two titles have sold more than one million copies in the U.S. alone.
In Creepy Crayon!, the rabbit's third misadventure, the beleaguered hero confronts a new nemesis—a know-it-all purple crayon that aces all of Jasper’s schoolwork, but refuses to quit despite the conscience-plagued student’s desperate attempts to dispense with it (even melting it in the microwave and flushing it down the toilet). Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers has announced an August 2022 pub date and an announced 500,000-copy first printing for Creepy Crayon!, whose cover is pictured here for the first time.
In the trilogy, Reynolds combines spine-tickling and spine-tingling elements, a mix he appreciated as a young reader. “I loved being creeped out by books, but not terrified,” he said. “Balancing dark and creepy with funny and ridiculous is key when you’re writing a horror story for the picture-book audience—which is kind of a weird goal to begin with! The concept of something following you in the dark is scary, but the fact that it’s carrots, glow-in-the-dark underpants, or a crayon is hilarious and diffuses the creepiness. How to give kids the willies but keep them laughing—that’s the balance I wrestled with.”
Reynolds also grappled with creating the ideal protagonist when he initially conceived of the notion of fusing funny and frightening in a story. “I started to think about classic kids’ book tropes, and I wanted to find one that I could spin on its ear,” he recalled. “I thought the concept of a cute and adorable bunny stalked by something ridiculous would be funny, and I struggled to come up with a story I could wrap my arms around. At one point I considered the idea of a squirrel stalked by acorns—but then landed on a bunny stalked by carrots.”
Setting the Stage and Mood
Brown, who also writes and illustrates his own books, was immediately drawn to the Creepy Carrots! manuscript when he received it from Justin Chanda, S&S BYR senior v-p and publisher. “My first reaction was that Aaron had come up with an idea that never would have occurred to me, and that was exciting,” Brown said. “And my second reaction was that Aaron’s story reminded me of a paranoid thriller—in the vein of The Twilight Zone or Hitchcock—and images began popping into my head of a noir world, with spooky shadows, and Jasper’s mind playing tricks on him. My creative gears were already turning on my first reading—that’s a very good sign.”
For Creepy Carrots! and its sequels, Brown gravitated toward a new medium for him, creating art drawn in pencil and composed and colored digitally. Evoking a film-noir sensibility, the images feature subdued tones, with splashes of a single bold color—orange in Carrots, green in Underpants, and purple in Crayon. “The art in most of my books is colorful, so not having color as one of my tools was disorienting to me,” the illustrator said. “It was a process, and I did a lot of storyboarding. The first book involved more heavy lifting since I had to style a new world.”
Like Reynolds, Brown strove to strike a good balance between comical and scary and “figure out how creepy is too creepy.” It was a task that entailed some trial and error, he explained. “I realized that the designs for some of the carrot characters went too far. I shared them with Justin and with [executive art director] Lizzy Bromley, the books’ designer, to get their feedback, and we discussed how their facial expressions at times made them a bit too creepy.”
As a result, Brown said, “I changed some of the carrot faces to look a little more goofy and grumpy rather than scary. And I added black edges around the panels, which helped with the creepy, so the pictures ended up in the right balance. It took a long time, but it was a fun job.” And ultimately a rewarding one, given Brown’s 2013 Caldecott Honor for Creepy Carrots!, an accolade that “surprised and thrilled” him and for which he "is very grateful.”
Reynolds is pleased with the logistics of his and Brown’s collaborative process, which he says is smoothly coordinated by Chanda. “After I write a story, Justin and I hammer it out, and he takes it to Peter,” Reynolds said. “One of the things I love about picture books is seeing what happens when writers go off and do their best work, and illustrators go off and do their best work, and when the two meet in the middle, a kind of alchemy happens that is very magical.”
Also thankful for the easygoing creative rapport with his collaborator, Brown added, “Aaron and I stumbled upon a happy situation and our sensibilities aligned perfectly, which isn’t always the case. When it happens it is fun and awesome. I feel very lucky.”
Creepy Crayon! by Aaron Reynolds, illus. by Peter Brown. Simon & Schuster, $18.99 Aug. 2022 ISBN 978-1-5344-6588-6