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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview w/Dori Hillestad Butler and Review of King & Kayla and the Case of the Downstairs Ghost

I'm starting off the interviews and reviews for 2024 with an easy reader series and a ghost written by a remarkably talented friend of mine!

Dori Hillestad Butler is the author of more than 60 books for young readers including the two-time Geisel Honor award winning King & Kayla series and the Edgar award winning Buddy Files series.

Author photo of Dori Hillestad Butler

She grew up in southern Minnesota, spent 19 years in Iowa and now lives in the Seattle area. When she’s not reading or writing, Dori enjoys hiking, board games, teaching her dog new tricks, and playing classical mandolin. She loves visiting schools and libraries all over the country and is eager to share her love of story with readers and writers of all ages. She’s served as a judge on multiple Edgar Award committees, an SCBWI Regional Advisor, a therapy dog partner, and mentor to many young writers.

Collage of the 60 covers of Dori's books.

Dori is the author of the chapter book series King & Kayla (illustrated by Nancy Meyers), Dear Beast (illustrated by Kevan Atteberry), Treasure Troop (illustrated by Tim Budgen), The Haunted Library (illustrated by Aurore Damant), and The Buddy Files (illustrated by Jeremy Tugeau). As well as picture books, ABC books, Middle Grade and Whodunit? 

Her newest picture book, King & Kayla and the Case of the Downstairs Ghost, was released on January 2nd.

​​Welcome Dori, thank you for sharing with us about your writing and your newest book.

Thank YOU, Maria. I’m happy to be here.

Tell us a little about yourself. (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?)

I’ve always wanted to be a writer, so I feel lucky that I’m living my childhood dream. I’ve published more than 60 books, but I can’t tell you which is my favorite. That would be like asking me to choose between my children. I write almost every day, usually after some yoga and/or a nice long walk with my dog. And I’ve been doing this for more than 30 years.

Definitely sounds like a dream come true. What do you like to do outside?

Everything! I love to be outside. I walk my dog several miles every day, rain or shine. I like to read and write outdoors. I like to hike—especially in the woods. And I really like to hunt for sea glass.

You've found the perfect place to live, close to mountains and beaches. What was the inspiration or spark of interest for King & Kayla and the Case of the Downstairs Ghost?

Book cover - dog and girl, whose holding a flashlight, peering through a circular opening, with tree branches behind them.

This is the 10th book in the series. When I started brainstorming ideas, I realized King & Kayla hadn’t yet solved a mystery involving a ghost. That surprised me. I love ghost stories. How did I get to book 10 without writing about a ghost? That was the initial spark.

That's so funny! Although they are fictional, does your chapter book series require research? If so, what was the toughest part of the researching and/or writing of King & Kayla and the Case of the Downstairs Ghost? 


Sometimes. But I think the research Nancy does for her illustrations is far more interesting than the research I do. I don’t know what she did for this one, but I know that when she started on the art for book 4 (King & Kayla and the Case of the Lost Tooth), she tossed a handful of Cheerios in the backseat of her own car and then let her dog go and get them while she took a bunch of photos. Those photographs helped her imagine how to draw King when he grabs some Cheerios from the back seat of Kayla’s car.


Ha! 😊 We often focus on what was hard about putting together the research and writing of a book. What was the most fun or fascinating part of researching and/or writing King & Kayla and the Case of the Downstairs Ghost?


It’s always the conversations I have with my editor in those later stages of revision. Each King & Kayla book has its own “thing” that we go round and round about. With this book, it was “basement” vs. “downstairs.” I didn’t use the word “basement” in my first draft; I used “downstairs.” But I unknowingly snuck a few of “basements” into later drafts and my editor called my attention to it. Did I really want to use both “basement” and “downstairs”? Should we pick one? Which one? What exactly is a “basement?” How are basements different regionally? Are basements scary? Too scary when we’re talking about ghosts for this age group? How would Kayla and Jillian refer to that space? This was a conversation that went on for several days, resolved, then returned to a few months later.


Who knew "basements" were such a loaded idea. But thinking on it, there are a lot of houses with downstairs that aren't officially 'basements.' Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or your favorite book as a child?

Book cover - a prancing pony in the snow with a leafless tree in the background.

Well, what age are we talking? J If we’re talking about when I was 6-7, the age of most of my King & Kayla readers, I had two favorites: A Duck for Keeps and A Pony for the Winter. Both were written by Helen Kay. I remember my grandma reading them to me again and again. I still have those well-worn paperbacks, too!


What a gorgeous cover. Thank you for a new (to me) title! You mention on your website that you want to do a school visit in all 50 states. How many states do you have left to visit?


28! Almost halfway there.


That's exciting. But I think you're over halfway! How long did King & Kayla and the Case of the Downstairs Ghost take from idea to publication?


Close to 2 years. My writing journal tells me I began it in March 2022. I shared it with my critique group mid-April 2022. The first draft was due May 1, 2022 (I turned it in a day early!). My editor and I had some back and forth on the story throughout the summer of 2022, then Nancy started work on the illustrations, and I didn’t do anything more on the book until early 2023. Once the sketches were in and we could see how the story laid out on the page, my editor and I had another few rounds of revision on the text. And a few more rounds once the art was final. That’s my favorite part of the whole process—the final back and forth, making sure every word is exactly right. We wrapped up in mid-July 2023 and the files went off to the printer. Books should be available late January 2024.


Good news, it actually released yesterday! 😊 Is there anything you want your readers to know about King & Kayla and the Case of the Downstairs Ghost?


It won’t be the last King & Kayla book! There will be at least two more, and I’m hoping for many more beyond those. I believe in knowing when to end a series (well before you get tired it!), but I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of writing this series.


That's great news. I really enjoy these two detectives. Although you and Nancy Meyers have created 10 King and Kayla books, did anything surprise or amaze you when you first saw Nancy’s illustrations in King & Kayla and the Case of the Downstairs Ghost? Which is your favorite spread?


Yes! Apparently, Jillian lives in the house I lived in in Rochester, MN. Well, actually a mirror image of it. My editor had a hard time envisioning the layout of this house because of all the “upstairs,” “downstairs” and mentions of stairs in different places in the text. I told her it was a split entry house, and then I sent her a link to my Rochester, MN house from Zillow. She passed that link on to Nancy, and Nancy drew a mirror image of that house. I had no idea she was going to do that.

Internal spread - girls and mom in the downstairs area trying to wash Thor in tomoato juice, as King watches from the doorway. All are startled by a spooky noise.

Text © Dori Hillestad Butler, 2024. Image © Nancy Meyers, 2024.

I love every spread in this book. Nancy’s art always adds so much to the stories. But I think my favorite spread would have to be pages 42-43. My editor and I were both so eager to see that illustration long before we knew what page it would be on. And it was as wonderful as we knew it would be.


Pages 32-33 and 34-35 are a close tie for second place. Maybe even a three-way tie for first. I love the perspective of 32-33. And I love how Nancy shows the skunk spraying Thor on p. 34 and King bathing with a rubber duck on p. 35.


That's a nice surprise from Nancy for you! Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?


I’m working on a chapter book spin-off to King & Kayla. (Note: King & Kayla is an early reader spin-off of my Buddy Files chapter book series, but this will be a completely different chapter book series.) I don’t want to tell you the series name just yet because it’s already changed a couple of times and it could change again. But it centers around a doggy day care and readers will see all the dogs they’ve gotten to know in King & Kayla from a whole new perspective. That series will launch in 2025 (I think).


How exciting! We'll have to keep an eye out for it. What is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why? 

My favorite National Park is Olympic National Park because that’s where Hurricane Ridge is and I think Hurricane Ridge is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been.

Photo from Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park.  © NPS Photo / C. Bubar

© NPS Photo / C. Bubar

And I’ve been to Austria, Switzerland, and Norway. I love the hike up Hurricane Hill. There was a mountain goat on the trail the first time I did it. That was soon after I moved to the Pacific Northwest. As a Midwestern girl, I’d never seen a mountain goat before.

Photo of Denali National Park, Alaska - © NPS Photo / Daniel Leifheit

© NPS Photo / Daniel Leifheit

The National Park I long to visit is Denali. Why? More mountains! Wilderness.

You were so lucky to see the mountain goat. I hope they rebuild the visitor center that burned down last year. Last question, is there a plant or flower you love growing, or wish to grow, in your yard or garden?


I love to grow fresh herbs. Especially basil. I don’t have an outdoor garden right now, but I do have a large indoor garden window and I grow all kinds of herbs in there. Sometimes I even have lettuce and cherry tomatoes growing.


Sounds delicious. Thank you, Dori, for stopping by for this interview. It’s such a pleasure talking with you.

To find out more about Dori Hillestad Butler, or contact her:

Review of King & Kayla

and the Case of the Downstairs Ghost

Strange sounds, especially at night or when you're alone in the woods, can be very scary. I remember hiking in Yosemite and being told the noise I kept hearing as the wind in the trees. At the end of the day, when we described the noise to the Ranger, he said it was the sound of a black bear following us. We were very glad we had used a bear container for our lunch! Although we never saw the bear, it's a sound I won't forget soon.

Book cover - dog and girl, whose holding a flashlight, peering through a circular opening, with tree branches behind them.

King & Kayla and the Case of the Downstairs Ghost

Author: Dori Hillestad Butler

Illustrator: Nancy Meyers

Publisher: Peachtree

Ages: 7-9



Detectives, sleepover, ghosts, dogs, and mystery.


Jillian thinks there’s a ghost in her basement. King and Kayla know that ghosts aren’t real, but what is making that dark shape and that scary noise?

King and Kayla are going to a sleepover at Thor and Jillian’s house. King LOVES sleepovers. They’re his favorite thing! And he particularly likes Jillian’s basement, because animals are allowed on the furniture. But Jillian and Thor are afraid to go downstairs because there’s big, dark blob that goes “Whoooooo!” and chases her around the basement.

Kayla’s not worried; she wants to know what’s happening downstairs. With her intrepid co-detective, she investigates the weird sights and sounds and solves the mystery—but not before an encounter with Cat with No Name and a run-in with a skunk.

Opening Lines:


My name is King. I am a dog.

This is Kayla. She is my human.

Kayla and I are going to a sleepover

at Thor and Jillian's house. I LOVE

sleepovers. They are my favorite thing!

Hey, what's that over there?

What I LOVED about this book: Even though this is the tenth King & Kayla book, you don't have to have read the others to enjoy it. Dori Butler has such a great way of capturing the voice and personality of King. And just look at that face! Nancy Meyers creates such fun, loveable dogs in her illustrations. King's friend Thor, a little black and white dog, is so adorable. The reader is captivated from the first page.

Internal spread - on left, cameo of King. On right, King and Kayla at the gate looking at Jillian's house.

Text © Dori Hillestad Butler, 2024. Image © Nancy Meyers, 2024.

This is a mystery and like all good mysteries, there is foreshadowing, red herrings, and dubious characters. After an excited welcome from Jillian and Thor, King and Kayla quickly discover Jillian believes there is a ghost downstairs. After all, she's seen a scary shape at night and heard an eerie "Woooooo!" both day and night.

Grudgingly agreeing to go downstairs, Jillian shows them the ghost.

Internal spread - on the left, the two girls cowering from a spooky shadow. On the upper right, the dogs cowering from a spooky noise and on lower right, Jillian pushing up the light switch.

Text © Dori Hillestad Butler, 2024. Image © Nancy Meyers, 2024.

With the lights back on, King & Kayla pop into detective mode, applying logic and their senses to the case. Although the dogs jump to the wrong conclusion - mistakenly accusing someone, with a large dose of humor in the text and illustrations and a startling twist, the foursome figure out that the ghost is .... you didn't really think I'd tell you, did you? I hope you check out this great mystery book and the others in the series.

This young chapter book is well paced and exciting, with a great emphasis on reasoning and deduction. The soft, pencil illustrations weave in a fun dose of humor and suspense. It's a really fun ghost story and a wonderful addition to a masterful early reader detective series. Resources:

Photo of kids enjoying treats at a sleepover. ©
  • check out some of these fun activities on your next sleepover.

  • why did the skunk spray Thor? Have you ever smelled skunk spray? Describe where this happened in a story or a picture.

  • what is the scariest sound you've heard? Did you discover what it was? Was it what you thought it would be? Draw a picture or write a description of what you thought it was and what it turned out to be.

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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