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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview w/Bob McKinnon, Thai My Phuong, Review of America's Dream

Bob McKinnon is a writer, designer, podcast host, children’s author, and teacher. What unites all of his work is the desire to help others move up in life – just as others have helped him.

Author Photo of BobMcKinnon

Bob directs the Moving Up Media Lab, a non-profit organization whose mission is to inspire Americans to reflect on who and what has contributed to where they end up in life. Their latest project is the PBS distributed podcast, Attribution with Bob McKinnon.


He is an adjunct professor at both the Parsons School of Design and the Colin Powell School of Civic and Global Leadership where he teaches courses on social mobility and the American Dream. Bob lives in a small village north of New York City, near a train station with his wife, dog, and three engines...err daughters.

Book cover - Three engines on three tracks converging in the center of the cover.

Bob is the author of the NY Times Bestselling children’s book, Three Little Engines (2021), (a modern retelling of the beloved The Little Engine That Could). He also writes the Moving Up Mondays newsletter and edited the book Actions Speak Loudest: Keeping Our Promise for A Better World. His work has been featured in The New York Times, Esquire, The Boston Globe, PBS, NPR, Fast Company  and the Huffington Post.


Thai My Phuong a Vietnamese illustrator who loves phở, boba milk tea, and homemade coffee from her husband.

Illustrator photo of Thai My Phuong.

She graduated with a BFA in Interior Design. Working in publishing as part-time jobs, she slowly loved illustration and storytelling careers more. Because of this, she made a big decision to come to Brighton, UK to study for MA in Sequential Design/Illustration with a partial scholarship. Since then, she has been working with a deep passion for visual storytelling and teaching for international publishers, magazines, brands, and universities.


Currently, she’s living and working in Los Angeles.


Phuong’s debut and Bob’s newest picture book, America’s Dreaming, releases on June 4th.


Welcome Bob and Phuong,

 

Tell us a little about yourselves. (Where/when do you write or illustrate? How long have you been writing or illustrating? What is your favorite type of book to write or illustrate? )


BOB - I’ve been writing all my life. My first “published” book was, “My Autobiography,” which I wrote in 4th grade and made copies for my friends and family. In that book, there was a chapter called “My Life’s Ambition” where I wrote about my desire to take my mom to Disney World when I grew up because she never got to go as a kid herself. I achieved my life’s ambition - and her dream - several years ago, when I was able to take my mom and our entire family there for a trip of a lifetime.


Being a children’s author, however, was not part of the original plan. It happened almost by accident when several years ago, a friend shared  an article from The New Yorker that inspired the idea for my first book, Three Little Engines.


That book as well as my new book, America’s Dreaming and the one I’m working on now, America Gives Thanks, all share a desire to address important questions for kids (and adults).  Not by providing them with the answers but by asking questions and allowing the reader to reflect and see themselves in the situation of the characters.


PHUONG - I have drawn most of my life, from before kindergarten. However, I have loved illustration specifically since my first part-time job in college. Before graduating with a BFA in Interior Design, I worked on some children's books with publishers in Vietnam. I love how my imagination can be shared on each page, and land in children's hands in affordable ways. This feeling gave me a stronger direction to switch my career from Interior Design to Book Design. After working a few years as an Art Editor and Illustrator for a reputable publisher in Vietnam, I had the bigger turn to go to the UK to pursue an MA in Sequential Art and Illustration. Since then, I have become a professional illustrator (and author sometimes) with picture books published in Asia, Australia, and Europe. I also taught Illustration and Comics at the University of Architecture HCMC for 5 years.

 

I love working on fiction books, children's books, and silent picture books. Partly because those types of books made my childhood so much happier compared to playing with toys. The most important reason is that working on picture books gives me a chance to create a whole imaginative world or visual journey in which readers can have meaningful memories, connect themself with relatable characters, or happily enjoy story messages.


Thank you both for sharing a bit about yourselves. What is one of the most fun or unusual places where you’ve written or illustrated a manuscript?


BOB - Well, all three children’s books were written in different places.  The first I wrote in bed, grabbing my notebook from my bedside table and jotting down the first draft of Three Little Engines.


The second book, I wrote my first draft in a bookstore, Scattered Books in Chappaqua, NY. I was there signing books all afternoon and was inspired to be surrounded by so many children and books.  So, during some downtime, I took out my notebook and started writing.


My third book was written on an Amtrak train.  I love writing on trains. I had just gone down to Washington DC which is the setting for the third book.  Inspired by my day, I put pen to paper and wrote my first draft.

So, a bed, a bookstore, and a train.  Who knows where the next one will be written.


PHUONG - I recall that I was working on America’s Dreaming across continents. I worked partly on the manuscript when I was in Los Angeles, then continued sketching on airplanes to Vietnam, and worked continuously on the remaining sketches in Ho Chi Minh City. And then coloring all when I was back in the US. So, to me, the most unusual place was on an airplane, it was a fun and peaceful working experience in some ways - among passengers who were sleeping or watching entertainment stuff.


They all sound like fun places to write and sketch books! Bob, what was your inspiration or spark of interest for America Dreaming?

Book cover - eight kids gathered at the bottom of the cover with the flag, Statute of Liberty, rainbow, and other US icons.

BOB - When I was younger, my family moved from Boston to rural PA.  I looked and sounded different from the other kids.  I was teased a little and didn’t feel like I belonged.  While at the time, I felt all alone in the world, I only later realized that this same feeling is shared by millions of kids.  Some change schools like me, others feel like they are never seen or worse yet, not worth being seen. 


In researching the book, I also discovered that many famous Americans also shared this experience.


In naming the main character, America, yet never actually showing them, it recognizes this universal feeling.  While at the same time, also making the point that all children deserve to be seen and made to feel welcomed. 


Our hope is that this book helps them feel that way AND inspires us all to do a better job making sure that happens.


I share this hope, too. Phuong, what about the America’s Dreaming manuscript appealed to you as an illustrator?

Title page - wagon full of books against a page of pink clouds.

PHUONG - I felt immediately connected to the manuscript because it reminded me of every 'first time' I was in a new place, starting a new chapter in my life - on a train to a big city to study college, on an airplane to the UK to study Illustration, and then across half of the world to live a new life in the US. All the beginning moments in my life were challenging, especially adapting to new communities, cultures, and experiences. Mr. Downs in the story, reminds me of each important person in my life who gave me their hands, with hopes and encouragement, to help me enjoy the challenging journey more: my friends, my teachers, my agent, my husband, my neighbors, and my cats. I felt I was already a part of the story, and that gave me a lot of depth in my feelings to illustrate the book.

 

I love the idea of "every 'first time' ." We all have a lot of firsts in our lives, and many are accompanied by change. You captured this feeling beautifully in the book. What is the hardest or most challenging thing for you about writing or illustrating America’s Dreaming?  What was the most fun?


BOB - A few things.  Given how universal the experience is, discovering and narrowing down the list of historical figures who visit and inspire America was both awesome and a bit of a challenge.


And of course, writing a book from the perspective of the main character, knowing that the reader will never see them, also came with its own set of challenges like how to phrase dialogue and describe the action. 


Finally, while there is a scene where children aren’t as welcoming as they could be and some may even see it as a form of bullying, I didn’t want to make any child seem like a villain. They were just making knee-jerk comments that are unfortunately all too common when we don’t know how to respond to someone who may look or act differently than we do. It was important that they had a moment of realization, maybe redemption too.

 

PHUONG - The hardest thing is that all the cast members are the main characters. And there is no revealing main character in all spreads. So, all is set with unique perspectives so the reader can feel as if they are the main character. I worked on many revisions on some challenging angles. And luckily, with the guidance and feedback from the team, I’m happy with the final results.

 

The most fun part is all the double pages about dreams that happened in the character’s rooms or classes. This gives me the feeling that I’m living in the same place as the character, and we are watching our cinematic dreams together.


That was indeed quite a challenge for you both to tackle! And I agree, it turned out amazing. How many revisions did America Dreaming take for the text or illustrations - from first draft to publication?


BOB - Funny, I originally thought it was three, but my wonderful editor, Elizabeth Lee at Penguin, reminded me it was closer to 5 or 6 😊  Either way, it was a pretty wonderful and seamless process, and the feedback each round only served to make the writing more lyrical and the story stronger.

 

PHUONG - Usually, we had three revisions for each part: sketches and rendering. In total, we had 5-6 revisions. I was struggling with the cover, so I worked on more than 5-6 revisions on cover concepts and rendering. And I’m grateful to learn a lot during the revision process.

 

Bob, when you first saw Phuong’s illustrations in America Dreaming, did anything surprise, amaze, or delight you? Which is your favorite spread?


BOB - I must admit I was blown away when I saw the first round of illustrations. I know I had not made Phoung’s job particularly easy by giving her a story where she never gets to show us the main character.

She obviously rose to the challenge.  The creativity with which she was able to show America - not through what they looked like - but what they were seeing and feeling was stunning.

Internal spread - gathering of kids and teachers heading into school.

Text © Bob McKinnon, 2024. Image © Thai My Phuong, 2024.


My favorite spread is the opening one.  The first line reads, “Have you ever felt all alone in a crowd?”  By showing only America’s tiny shadow amidst a sea of students and teachers entering a school, Phuong reminds of how that must feel and grounds us in the story immediately. 


Another favorite illustration is when we see America’s dejection through the prism of a single teardrop that falls to the ground.  Just so powerful. And finally, the spreads where the historical characters come to life to inspire America are just so magical and uplifting.


I could obviously go on and on.  


It's obvious how much the illustrations affected you. They are stunning and so powerful. Phuong, is there a spread that you were especially excited about or proud of? Or perhaps one which is your favorite spread?


PHUONG - I would say I’m proud of every page since they are all the result of the teamwork with Bob, Elizabeth, Taylor, and other teammates.

Internal spread - looking from the bed, characters rise out of their books in start of a dream sequence.

Text © Bob McKinnon, 2024. Image © Thai My Phuong, 2024.


I am personally more excited about pages 18-19 when a dream starts with so many possibilities, in which America has time to 'hang out’ with amazing guests and impactful messages. I wish the book had many more pages to draw those dreams, as I wish to have amazing and inspirational dreams like that often, even when I'm a child or an adult.


I am so impressed with this amazingly imaginative image! Phuong, many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in America Dreaming? If so, could you share one or more with us?


PHUONG - I’m not sure if my Pencil Sweeping and warm lighting can be considered ‘treasures’ or my elements. In the past, my artwork was mostly with traditional techniques such as pencil drawing. Thanks to new digital devices, I’m able to use so many digital brushes to work on digital illustrating. Still, I love how pencil sweeping can bring movement, warm texture, and soft lighting in rendering anything, so I still adapt this personal favorite pencil technique to my digital art. I hope those 'treasures' bring to a story a cozy atmosphere and sometimes, familiar emotions to readers.


I think they qualify as treasures. Thank you for sharing about them. What's something you both want your readers to know about America’s Dreaming?


BOB - That we all deserve to be seen and we should feel like we belong wherever we go.  Every classroom, community, city, and country should be one that makes us all of us - particularly our children - feel welcomed. 


PHUONG - I guess I’ll let readers experience and feel the story by themself. The book has a universal theme, and I hope everyone can see themself somehow in the book. 


Are there any new projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?


BOB - I’m excited that we will get to see the world through America’s eyes again. My next book, America Gives Thanks, shares their experience on a field trip to Washington DC.  It provides a new spin on the value of constructive  “complaining” by showing us how others stood up for what they believed in to ensure a better future for all. We see new historical characters popping up to inspire America although we still don’t see America. Yet again, making Phuong’s job tough. Don’t worry though, the first round of illustrations are equally if not more inspiring.


PHUONG - I’m working on the second story of America’s Dreaming, named America Gives Thanks. It is another inspiring story written by Bob, which I’m happy and grateful to have the opportunity to work on. The story is set in Washington DC with many more impactful historical figures who inspired America during the journey. Everything is in the stage of sketches now, and I can’t wait to go through upcoming revisions to bring the best reading experiences for little readers.


Ooh, how exciting! I'm looking forward to this book. Last question,  what is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?

Photo of the Grand Canyon © Maria Marshall

BOB - I have never breathed air more fresh, clean or pure than when I have visited the Muir Woods.  I could just stand there and take deep breaths for hours.  A few years ago,  my wife and I took our three kids to several parks out west, including Yellowstone, Craters on the Moon, and Grand Teton. All were magnificent. Really looking forward to taking them to the Grand Canyon soon and at some point getting to see the Northern Lights.  What I love most about all of these places is the sense of awe they provide. They make us feel small, in the best way possible, like being a kid again, where all the world is a wonder. 

Photo of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

PHUONG - I love this question! I was fortunate enough to have big road trips across almost every US state (except Hawaii) and approximately 80% of the National Parks. I personally love the Olympic (Washington), Lassen Volcanic (California), Black Canyon (Colorado), Theodore Roosevelt (North Dakota), and most national parks in Utah, Arizona, Louisiana, and California.


To me, I love how gorgeous and striking nature can be created, and how I can have a true time connection with nature, to feel so free and peaceful (and a bit scary sometimes). Most importantly, in the huge scene of national parks, there is no need for digital devices or the internet, I had just myself, sketchbooks, watercolors, some books, simple food, companions, sleeping in the van or tent, hiking for hours, saying Hi to random hikers, and sometimes, just having quiet eye contact with deer, bison, alligators, and other local animals. What amazing worlds we have on this Earth!


Thank you, Bob and Phuong for sharing with us a bit about yourselves and your new picture book.


To find out more about Bob McKinnon, or to contact him:


To find out more about Thai My Phuong, or to contact her:


Review of America's Dreaming


Moving, changing schools, adjusting, and adapting to new places can feel daunting and unnerving. This book encourages both the child making the change and the rest of their classmates to exercise bravery and compassion and work to make everyone feel seen and welcomed.

Book cover - eight kids gathered at the bottom of the cover with the flag, Statute of Liberty, rainbow, and other US icons.

America's Dreaming

Author: Bob McKinnon

Illustrator: Thai My Phuong

Publisher: Penguin Workshop/Penguin Random House (2024)

Ages: 4-8

Fiction


Themes:

Change, inclusion, bravery, history, dreams, and being welcomed.


Synopsis:

Have you ever felt alone? Have you ever desperately wanted to fit in? America understands how you feel.


America dreams of adventures, making new friends, and being strong. But America’s first day at a new school turns out to be a nightmare.


Fortunately, America’s new teacher introduces the Welcome Wagon—a cart filled with books about real-life historical figures who also had trouble feeling accepted. When America falls asleep that night, Amelia Earhart, Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King Jr., and Emma Lazarus jump off the pages to share their stories—inspiring America to return to school the next day and make their dreams come true.


While we never see America, Bob McKinnon’s lyrical writing and Thai My Phuong’s unique, sweeping art helps readers see the world through America’s eyes and encourages us all to be as kind as we are brave, because everyone always deserves to feel welcome.


Opening Lines:

Have you ever felt all alone in a crowd?

You try to stand tall, but on the inside, feel small?

Everything is so loud . . . but you don't hear anything

except the bum-da-dum inside your chest?

And all you really want is to fit in and be your best?


I have felt this way, too.

I an America. This is my story.


What I LOVED about this book:

Beginning with a probing, heartfelt series of questions directed at the reader, this book takes the unusual tact of not introducing the main character to the reader. The illustration's perspectives and shadowing further play this up and result in the reader effectively filling the role of the main character. I found this tantalizing and so unique. Instead of merely "seeing themselves" in another's actions and thoughts, the reader becomes the narrator; a shadow sandwiched in a crowd heading into school.

Internal spread - gathering of kids and teachers heading into school.

Text © Bob McKinnon, 2024. Image © Thai My Phuong, 2024.


The sidelong glances of the two teachers on this opening spread and the three kids on the next spread, (almost a bit eerily) seem to be looking directly at the reader. On this first day of school, America trips on their own backpack and freezes when the teacher says, "Please introduce yourself. Just say your name and share something you love to dream about."

Internal spread - on the left, America stands facing a row of desks (only America's shadow is visible). On the right, a swirl of classmates faces and mean comments spin around America's shadow.

Text © Bob McKinnon, 2024. Image © Thai My Phuong, 2024.


What a poignant image. As the reader experiences America's hesitation "I am . . . um . . .uh," comments from the rest of the class "clumsy...dressed funny...making us wait" swirl about the room. I love how neither McKinnon nor Phuong attribute any of these mean comments to a particular child. Not making any of them "bad," while still enabling the reader to feel America's emotions at their cumulative, swirling laughter and mean comments. The next spread, where a single tear drops toward the shadow and the teacher reaches out with understanding, is so raw and emotionally charged. Remembering his own childhood, the teacher introduces America to the 'Welcome Wagon' - "a wagon with books to remind us that all kinds of people had trouble being accepted. He said borrowing a book is like inviting these famous friends over for a playdate."

What a wonderful way to think about books!


That night, America drifted off to sleep with the most amazing dreams. Stunning illustrations play across America's room as Amelia Earhart, Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King Jr., and Emma Lazarus emerge from their books to offer ideas about new adventures, humor, and possibilities. The illustrations are imaginative, captivating, and inspiring. Bringing condensed snippets of biographical information to life for these individuals who fought for themselves and others to be seen.

Internal spread - looking from the bed, characters rise out of their books in start of a dream sequence.

Text © Bob McKinnon, 2024. Image © Thai My Phuong, 2024.


The ending is encouraging and gorgeous. A note shares the author's experience and his hope that no matter where a child comes from or "their gender, race, or class ... they should always feel welcome." Cameo portraits accompany mini biographical summaries of the five historical figures. A delightful story for encouraging empathy and acceptance, this stunningly illustrated book is thought provoking both personally and as a society as a whole.


Resources:

  • like America, write down or draw an image of two things "you love to dream about." The first, a dream you could achieve, and the second a fantastic one that's just fun to imagine;


  • what is your current favorite historical person? Why? What about their life or the things they overcame appeals to you?


  • can you suggest and help create a welcome wagon for your classroom, school, library, and/or community center? What books would you put in this wagon?


  • pair this with The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig, illustrated by Patrice Barton and Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E. B. Lewis.

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Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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