In hindsight, it seems like it was only a matter of time before Emma Straub, the bestselling author who is co-owner of Books Are Magic Bookstore in Brooklyn, would venture into the world of children’s publishing. Her debut picture book, Very Good Hats, illustrated by Blanca Gómez, explores how everyday objects—acorns, raspberries, bowls, even pajama pants and cats—can be transformed through the power of imagination into headwear. Very Good Hats will be released next January by Penguin’s Rocky Pond Books; its cover is being revealed here for the first time.

Despite having written six bestselling novels for adults, Straub insists that picture books are her “favorite books in the world.”

“I read a fair amount of books for grownups,” she said, “but I still read more children’s books, every single day, just because I have two small children. I read them with my children, and I read them on my own. The children’s room at Books Are Magic is my favorite part of the store. It’s where I am most likely to sit down, stop whatever I am doing, and just pick up a book and read.”

Straub ascribes her love for children’s literature to a childhood spent in a home full of books with book-loving parents. Her father, Peter Straub, is a novelist who writes horror and supernatural fiction for adults, and her mother ran an early childhood literacy program. “The house I grew up in was always filled with picture books,” Straub recalled. “And my mother was friends with children’s authors and illustrators. To me, there is nothing more important in the world than a picture book.”

While Straub has always harbored these strong feelings for picture books, she wasn’t pushed into realizing her dream of actually writing one until the pandemic—primarily, she said with a laugh, because it’s “easy” to write a novel, but not so simple to distill everything you want to communicate in a few lines of text on each page of a 32-page book. “I think poets and picture book writers are the best writers in the world,” she said, “because they are so good at keeping it short. It is so much easier to go long.”

When her children couldn’t attend school at the height of the pandemic, Straub was unable to work on her next novel due to having to keep them entertained at home. She thus pivoted to writing Very Good Hats—with the collaboration of her children. “I made it like an art project we were doing together on those endless days that we had at home,” she explained. “I would write something and say, ‘Check this out!’ or ‘What do you think about this?’ ”

Straub decided to focus on hats because, she said, she loves them—and also, as Very Good Hats demonstrates, “anything can be a hat. An empty cup of Jello pudding could be a hat. A leaf could be a hat. A bag can be a hat.” As for the broader concept—hats are both practical and amusing—Straub points to the “massive pool of children’s literature featuring hats,” such as Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina and Jon Klassen’s Hat trilogy, to name just a few.

“There are so many books on hats. They’re irresistible, expressive, inherently humorous, and just delightful fun,” she noted, sharing an anecdote about her young son being inspired after watching a video in which singer Harry Styles wore a hat. “Miles immediately went into an old hatbox I have and found a vintage baby blue tulle hat from the 1950s; he put it on and wore it to summer camp.”

But hats are more than simply beautiful things that one can put on one’s head, points out Straub’s editor, Lauri Hornik: a picture book that explores how so many common objects can be transformed into headwear can “inspire kids to be imaginative and to see things in new ways. That activity of just imagining that anything can be a hat if you want it to be is so perfect for very young kids.”

Picture Book Illustrations Are Magic

Hornik said that Straub’s text required “bright and bold and graphic” illustrations, the kind of exuberance that Spanish artist Gómez is renowned for, having illustrated such picture books as City Moon by Rachel Cole and One Family by George Shannon, among others. Most recently, Gómez, who lives in Madrid, wrote and illustrated a picture book inspired by a childhood memory, Bird House, which Straub said is one of her “recent favorites.”

Gómez said that she approached the task of illustrating Very Good Hats by thinking of it as “a fun game,” an “invitation to play and to use your imagination.”

Before creating the sketches that ultimately served as the illustrations for Very Good Hats, Gómez said she started off by making “some very basic cut-outs to find the tone of the book—and I also made a picture of my hand with acorns on my fingers.”

The project, like the finished product itself, Gómez said, was “playful and fun,” but at the same time, a serious endeavor. “You learn to see the world around you in a new way using your brain and your imagination,” she told PW in an email. “You learn new words like haberdashery—English is not my first language, so I learnt this and others too!—and new beautiful, accurate adjectives.”

Straub insists that “99% of the time, the pictures are what make a book sing,” and that without appropriate illustrations, a picture book “just doesn’t work.” She describes herself as “over the moon thrilled with Gómez’s illustrations.

“I love her style,” she said. “I find the illustrations to be warm and funny and completely engaging. On every page, there is something to talk about. Like a parent’s naked tush in the shower. For my children, that’s their favorite part.”

Hornik acknowledges that she was a big fan of Straub’s work even before it landed on Rocky Pond’s list. While Hornik has high expectations for anything written by Straub, she said she still was “so blown away” when she read the manuscript.

“It has such a feel of a classic book that is going to be one of these essentials on the nursery shelf,” Hornik said. “It felt so right, and that’s not typical for someone who’s been writing for a different audience. I would think being in Books Are Magic all the time and really living in the picture book space and with her kids has been the education that got her there.”

Hornik compared Very Good Hats to Sandra Boynton’s books, saying, “Blanca brought a lot of humor into each of the visuals, and also a variety of moods, which was not an easy task with a text that is so simple. She really brought it to life.”

With an announced 100,000-copy initial print run, it’s clear Penguin Young Readers is confident that Very Good Hats will find a large audience. “We certainly have high hopes for it being a mainstay,” Hornik said. “I really think it has such everyday, every-kid appeal to it.”

As for Straub, who already has two more picture books in what Hornik calls “the hopper,” she will consider her initial foray into children’s publishing a success if Very Good Hats “ends up [living] in the bottom of a stroller, covered with crushed goldfish, and pulled out when it’s needed. That’s my dream; that’s the dream.”