The Picture Book Buzz - Interview w/Corinne Demas & Penelope Dullaghan + Review of The Perfect Tree
Buckle up for a fun interview with amazing Corinne Demas and Penelope Dullaghan as they share about their beautiful new picture book collaboration - The Perfect Tree.
Corinne Demas is the award-winning author of thirty-six books including five novels, two short story collections, a memoir, a collection of poetry, and numerous books for children, as well as two plays. She is a professor at Mount Holyoke College and a Fiction Editor of The Massachusetts Review.
Corinne’s picture books, include The Grumpy Pirate w/ Artemis Roehrig, illustrated by Ashlyn Anstee (2020), Do Jellyfish Like Peanut Butter? Amazing Sea Creature Facts book, w/Artemis Roehrig, illustrated by Ellen Shi (2020), Do Doodlebugs Doodle?: Amazing Insect Facts w/Artemis Roehrig, illustrated by Ellen Shi (2018), Are Pirates Polite? w/Artemis Roehrig, illustrated by David Catrow (2016), Does A Fiddler Crab Fiddle? w/Artemis Roehrig, illustrated by John Sandford (2016), Here Comes Trouble! illustrated by Noah Z. Jones (2013), Pirates Go to School illustrated by John Manders (2011), Halloween Surprise illustrated by R.W. Alley (2011), Saying Goodbye to Lulu illustrated by Ard Hoyt (2009), Always In Trouble illustrated by Noah Z. Jones (2009), Valentine Surprise illustrated by R. W. Alley (2007), Two Christmas Mice illustrated by Stephanie Roth Sisson (2005), The Disappearing Island illustrated by Ted Lewin (2000), and The Littlest Matryoshka, illustrated by Kathryn Brown (1999).
Penelope Dullaghan is an accomplished, acclaimed artist/illustrator with a penchant for expressing joy through form and color. She works in children’s publishing, editorial, and advertising, and dabbles extravagantly in any medium she can find — especially printmaking, paint & cut paper. No matter the method, though, she creates images that are distinguished by simplicity and guided by curiosity.
Penelope works from her studio in Indianapolis, where she lives with her writer husband, artist-in-training daughter, and probably one too many pets, if we’re being honest.
She’s the illustrator of Puppy Talk: How Dogs Tell Us How They Feel by Jess French (2022), Cat Chat: How Cats Tell Us How They Feel by Jess French (2021), The Good Song by Alexandria Giardino (2020), Crocodiles Need Kisses Too by Rebecca Colby (2020), and Max Attacks by Kathi Appelt (2019).
Their newest picture book, The Perfect Tree, released October 4, 2022.
Welcome Corinne and Penelope, thank you so much for coming by to talk about yourselves and your newest picture book.
Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you illustrate? How long have you been illustrating? What is your favorite type of book to write or illustrate?)
CORINNE - I’ve published a wide range of books in numerous genres - picture books, early chapter books, leveled readers, YA novels, adult novels, memoir, and poetry—and I enjoy the variety. While I’m deep into working on a long adult novel, it’s wonderful to take a break and turn to something short and concentrated, like a picture book.
PENELOPE - I have been illustrating full time since 2004. I’ve worked from my home studio for all those years and love the freedom it affords me to work when I feel inspired. Whenever I feel a whisper of an idea, I can pop in and see if it has anything more to say. I don’t necessarily have a favorite type of book to illustrate. Instead I look for a story that I connect with. The Perfect Tree was one of those stories. I related to Bunny asking friends for help finding the perfect tree, but it turns out each friend suggested only a tiny part of the perfect ideal. They needed to come together to make it complete.
Reminds me a bit of the blind men describing an elephant. What’s something few people know about you?
CORINNE - I’ve shared many secrets of my life in my memoir, Eleven Stories High, Growing Up in Stuyvesant Town and on the biography part of my website where I’ve gone public with some of the things that kids like to know: my favorite color (purple!) and the fact that I actually like lima beans.
One thing that few people know about me is that I live right near a Christmas tree farm, and one year I tagged a tree that turned out to be too tall. We brought it into the house, but couldn’t get it upright. We had to saw a piece off the bottom, right there in the living room, so it would fit!
PENELOPE - Few people know that I am a minimalist and love neatness. I often feel flustered and overwhelmed with too much stuff around. It’s chaotic to me, and is just too much visually. So I keep things pretty streamlined.
I'm afraid I have to join the "Wait, how tall IS the ceiling?" club! Can you share the name of an author, illustrator, and/or perhaps a book that made an impact on you as a child?
CORINNE - T.H. White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose is a favorite, still. I’m fond of Lilliputians!
PENELOPE - Mary Blair really stood out to me when I was a child. I was fascinated by the vibrant colors she used, the sweetness and imagination of her characters, and the emotions she evoked with tiny details. I poured over every detail in her book I Can Fly story when I was little.
Yeah, two 'new' books to find! Corinne, what was the inspiration for The Perfect Tree?
CORINNE – When my daughter was a child I started a tradition of writing a book as a gift for her every Christmas, and the tradition has carried on to my grandchildren. I wrote The Perfect Tree as a Christmas present for my granddaughter, Morgan, when she was a little girl.
What an excellent tradition! Penelope, what about The Perfect Tree manuscript appealed to you as an illustrator?
PENELOPE - I loved that it felt like a classic story in the making, and that it was set in winter. I think snow makes everything magical, and I was eager to play with that feature in the imagery while reaching for a timeless aesthetic.
I totally agree about snow, especially just before it starts to fall. What's something you want your readers to know about The Perfect Tree?
CORINNE - I illustrated my original story with my own rather naïve watercolors and hand-sewed the book.
That really sounds interesting. And how exciting it must be to be able to present Morgan with a hardcover copy of her story. Corinne, what was the toughest aspect of writing this book? How long did it take from the idea for The Perfect Tree to publication?
CORINNE – This book was a total pleasure to write. Several of the books I’ve written for members of my family were later turned into published books and required some tough editing. But my editor at Cameron Kids, Amy Novesky, was so in tune with the story that it was fun to work on this together.
It took twelve years for my original story to become a published book!
Wow! I'm glad you kept working with it. Penelope, you’ve illustrated picture books and board books. What do you find most challenging about illustrating picture books? Is there a difference with board books?
PENELOPE - Sketching out ideas to narrow the visuals down to a single idea is something I find challenging. I usually start with super loose, sketchy blobs on a page just to get a feel for the flow. And slowly it all starts to become clear. It’s like a giant lump of clay at first, gray and full of possibility, and I form it into different shapes until the right one appears. Board books are much the same, but the board books I’ve illustrated didn’t have a story flow. The wording is more choppy, so it was a challenge to get the books to feel cohesive using only color and composition.
I love that imagery and your honesty with the challenge of some board books. Corinne, when you first saw Penelope’s illustrations did anything surprise, amaze, or delight you? Which is your favorite spread?
© Penelope Dullaghan, 2022.
CORINNE – I absolutely fell in love with Penelope’s illustrations. She brought Bunny to life and captured the mood of my story. It’s impossible for me to choose just one spread—they’re all charming. The daytime scenes have a bright, cheerful quality, and the night scenes are magical. The endpapers are so beautiful I wish I could have them for wallpaper for a room in my house.
Penelope, is there a spread you are especially proud of? Which is your favorite spread?
Text © Corinne Demas, 2022. Image © Penelope Dullaghan, 2022.
PENELOPE - I am particularly fond of the spread where Bunny ends the search and turns back to head home. I love Bunny’s expression - she’s tucked her chin into her scarf and has her hands over her heart like she’s shielding herself from disappointment (and the wind of course!). And the hill slopes downward toward the next page, giving the spread a subtle sense of defeat. But right at the end of that slope, Mouse is there, turning back and waiting for Bunny. A tiny act of compassion.
I really like your capture of the swirling winds and snow, too. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
CORINNE – I have two new books coming out in the spring that I’m excited about: a picture book, Once There Was, illustrated by Gemma Capdevila, and an adult novel, The Road Towards Home. The PW announcement describes it as: "a humorous and poignant love story between two delightfully unconventional retirees."
PENELOPE - I just finished up another book that’s coming out in the spring called Thank You Day. I’m excited about this one because 1) it’s written by my friend Charlie Hopper who is fantastic and I think kids will love his quirky wording. And 2) I limited my color palette pretty significantly and I love how the artwork plays within those parameters and then surprises us at the end.
What is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?
CORINNE – I live on Cape Cod part of the year so it shouldn’t be surprising that my favorite National Park is the glorious Cape Cod National Seashore. It’s part of the setting for a number of my books, including two of my picture books, The Boy Who Was Generous with Salt and Hurricane! , my YA novel, Returning to Shore, as well as my forthcoming novel, The Road Towards Home.
PENELOPE - I really love Zion National Park. I’ve visited twice and have been awe-struck both times. The scale is so majestic. I’d love to hike the Narrows Trail at some point. It sounds challenging, but amazing.
Thank you Corrine & Penelope for joining me to discuss your writing and illustration and the creation of your new book.
To find out more about Corinne Demas, or contact her:
To find out more about Penelope Dullaghan, or contact her:
Review of The Perfect Tree
Oh, I can remember wandering the woods as a child helping look for the perfect tree. 3 kids, 2 adults, 1 dog and so many opinions on the "perfect" Christmas tree. Nowadays, you'd think hunting at a tree farm would be easier....right? Ultimately, whether hunting for that "just right" tree, pumpkin, turkey, watermelon, or fireworks display, each of these holidays all come down to the special time spent with family and friends. This wonderful picture book involves discovering what really makes "the perfect" Christmas tree.
The Perfect Tree
Author: Corinne Demas
Illustrator: Penelope Dullaghan
Publisher: Cameron Kids (2022)
Christmas trees, friends, community, and collaboration.
Bunny searches for and finds the perfect Christmas tree in this perennial holiday tale.
Bunny is looking for the perfect Christmas tree. Her forest friends tell her that the perfect tree is one that is just her size, bushy as Squirrel’s tail, perfectly pointy on top for a star, the greenest green, and smells like Christmas. But sometimes the perfect tree is the one surrounded by friends.
On the day before Christmas, Bunny made a string of red
berries and cut out a shiny star.
Then she put on her muffler and mittens and set out to
find the perfect Christmas tree, one that was just her size.
What I LIKED about this book:
I love the hope and promise exuded by this softly colored opening spread. While I've not put off getting a tree until the day before Christmas, I have discovered that the 20th of December is considered very late. But Bunny confidently sets out to find a tree "just her size." It's a great measurement; since she can get through the door and stand in her house - the tree should too. No marks on her ceiling or extra inches to chop off the bottom. (not that any of us will admit to that problem).
Text © Corinne Demas, 2022. Image © Penelope Dullaghan, 2022.
Did you notice the mouse in the tree watching Bunny? Although it's not a named (or acknowledged) character, it plays an important role in the illustrations and kids will love hunting for it throughout the book. Unseen by Bunny, but always remaining close, Mouse follows along sneakily collecting white berries. Which adds a very special touch to the ending.
As Bunny ventures out, she runs into friends who define their idea of a perfect tree based on their own physical characteristics. Squirrel (making acorn ornaments) sends Bunny to the meadow after a "bushy tree...just like my tail." Mole sends her to the far field after a "pointy tree...like my nose." And Cardinal sends Bunny to the stream looking for the "greenest green" tree.
Bunny's frustration grows as she finds trees that are the right height, but not bushy. The right height and bushy, but not pointed. And then, by midday Bunny finds a tree the right height, bushy, and pointed, but not the greenest green. I love how in this spread, although openly floating down the river in a paper boat, Mouse is still unseen by Bunny. And then simply returns to collecting white berries behind Skunk's house.
Text © Corinne Demas, 2022. Image © Penelope Dullaghan, 2022.
Adults will likely find it ironic that it is Skunk who tells Bunny that the perfect tree "should smell like Christmas" and sends her up the mountain. After a long climb, Bunny finds an "almost perfect" tree. It checks off everyone's requirements, except for the smell. As the sun sets and a chill wind blows, Bunny heads back, exactly following the route she took in reverse. This is a powerful spread. Look back in the interview at Penelope's choice of a spread to highlight and notice once again Mouse is in the open (though still unseen) waiting for Bunny. It reminds me of the saying that "good friends are always there, even if we don't see them."
The next four spreads are magical as Bunny makes a discovery and faces a huge decision. Which interestingly, is the one spread where Mouse is not present. Ultimately, Bunny and her friends discover what really makes a tree the "perfect" Christmas tree. This is such a sweet story ending in a joyous celebration of community, friendship, and collaboration, with a small hint of environmentalism. The illustrations beautifully reflect the colors and symbols of the season with evergreens, holly, snowberries, red rosehips, and scarf bedecked animals framed by a gentle snow storm. It is a wonderful addition to any Christmas collection.
- what do you think makes the "perfect" Christmas tree? Why? Make a list of the characteristics or draw a picture.
- try making one or more of these Christmas tree crafts.
- have you ever tried making strands of popcorn or cranberries for your tree? How about stringing a cranberry garland and making Christmas special for the birds?
- create a unique Christmas tree ornament for friends and family.
- pair this with Pick a Pine Tree by Patricia Toht, illustrated by Jarvis and The Christmas Tree Who Loved Trains by Annie Silvestro, illustrated by Paola Zakimi.