The Picture Book Buzz - Interview w/Tony Piedra, Mackenzie Joy and Review of One Tiny Tree Frog
I have the absolute pleasure to interview the newly-wed, duo of author/illustrators about their collaboration on the stunning nonfiction picture book One Tiny Tree Frog : A Countdown to Survival.
Tony Piedra is an author/illustrator who lives, works, and plays in the beautiful San Francisco Bay Area. But as a kid, he grew up in hot, humid Houston, TX, catching lizards in the backyard and capturing great adventures in his sketchbook. Not much has changed, just the location.
In a previous chapter of his life, Tony was a Sets Technical Director at Pixar Animation Studios. For nine years, he collaborated with some of the most talented artists and storytellers in the world to help realize the environments in films, such as, Up, Cars 2, The Good Dinosaur, Inside Out, and Coco, as well as several of Pixar's short films, including The Blue Umbrella.
Now, Tony’s taking the skills and experiences from his time working in the film industry and putting them to use as an author and illustrator of children’s books.
He’s the author/illustrator of The Greatest Adventure (2018).
Mackenzie Joy is a lot of things. A nerd and a doodler. A lifelong bookworm and volleyball-playing athlete. A passionate teacher and a wedding-dance-floor rock star. She loves playing with words, solving puzzles, and reading stories aloud at bedtime.
She loves to scribble and paint on non-traditional canvases like shoes, grandfather clocks, and matryoshka. As a writer, she enjoys feeling the rhythm of sentences and finding the perfect sounds and words. As a storyteller, she wants to share stories that are quirky, hopeful, and make you think. Makenzie truly believes listening, learning, and helping people be their best selves can make the world a better place.
Mackenzie's debut book and their first collaborative picture book, One Tiny Treefrog: A Countdown to Survival, releases on February 14th.
Tony and Mackenzie, thank you so much for stopping by to talk about your book, writing, and illustrating.
Hi Maria! Thanks for having us on your blog!
First, tell us a little about yourselves. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? What is your favorite type of book to write?)
TONY – My first thought when answering this question is that I don’t see myself as a writer…yet. I feel more comfortable calling myself a storyteller. And I make that distinction because I define a writer as someone who possesses the ability to use words and language alone to transport a reader, while I rely on illustrations and words to do so. That being said, for the past five years I’ve worked from home, writing and drawing at a small desk tucked between our living room and dining table. (Although that is on the verge of changing because Mackenzie and I are two months away from completing construction on our very own backyard art studio!). I’m most productive in the mornings, so if there’s any sort of major writing I need to do or if I need to start a new illustration, I like to do that when my brain feels most alert. I have been writing and drawing with the goal of learning the craft of picture book-making since 2013, so about ten years of active storytelling. I’m most attracted to telling stories that allow me explore subjects and concepts I’m curious about. Sometimes it can be as simple as asking the question, “why do frogs lay so many eggs?” as Mackenzie and I ask in our picture book, One Tiny Treefrog.
MACKENZIE – While Tony doesn’t see himself as a writer (yet!), I think I have always thought of myself as a writer and have been writing as long as I can remember, from little stories to poems and just anything that came into my brain. I even wrote more than 10 stories about a main character, Charlene, a time traveling scientist-doctor-business woman that my mom printed out and made into books for me that I still have to this day.
Today, I like to write at my desk, on a cozy chair, or lying on the ground. I use my laptop or pencil and paper and usually write early in the morning or late at night.
So far, I love writing many types of stories. I think the most fun story to craft is a mystery because there are so many moving parts and you have to keep them all in mind and introduce them at just the right moment. I think the most important topic to me is inclusion and belonging, because I feel like stories have the power to connect us to each other and that’s what I want to do with my stories.
It's wonderful to get to know you both. Now, as your collaboration is a bit unusual, tell us how you met and started working together.
TONY – Mackenzie loves to tell this story, so I’ll let her share how we met.
MACKENZIE – Thanks Tony! How I remember it, we met at a children’s book meet up (credit to SCBWI – the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). Tony had the first print run of his amazing book The Greatest Adventure on the table, and I was so impressed. We started talking and ended up meeting up several times to talk about children’s books, and found out we have a lot more in common. Actually, one of the things we have least in common is how we want to create children’s books. I was always begging Tony to just play around with what it would be like to work together, even just for fun, but he didn’t think it was a good fit!
TONY - Like Mackenzie says, she was the one who suggested we explore what it would look like to come up with stories together without being precious about the results or having any concrete goals. But my gut reaction to her offer was, no. I told her that I didn’t think we had the same taste in stories, and I shared I was protective of my picture book career because of how hard I had worked to break into publishing. I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of writing and drawing without the pursuit of getting it published. But over time, my perspective began to shift as our relationship developed and as I worked on letting go of being overly precious with my work (which I’m still working on).
MACKENZIE - So fast forward a couple years, we were traveling home from Tony’s family reunion in the Bahamas and we got stuck in an airport for over 8 hours. Finally, my efforts paid off and we started doodling together on the back of napkins. Before we boarded the plane, we had four stories we wanted to pitch to then Tony’s (now our!) agent Kevin. One of those ideas became, One Tiny Treefrog.
Well, that was a great use of 8 hours in an airport! And you do make a great team. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or your favorite book as a child?
TONY – As a kid, and to this day, I adore a series of now out-of-print natural history books for kids called Album of.... My favorite of the series being Album of Sharks! These books were published by Rand McNally & Company—I think in the 70’s and 80’s— and written by Tom McGowen and illustrated by Rod Ruth (one my all-time art heroes!). Album of Sharks through Ruth’s illustrations and McGowen’s histories of sharks thrilled me. I can’t tell you how many times I checked this book out of our local library as a kid.
MACKENZIE – I think my parents served me an amazing diet of traditional children’s book classics. I think I loved books about adventure that could be read aloud with fun voices. My favorite books from growing up are The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne, The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch, Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear by Ken Kesey, and Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox. All the versions of these stories I owned had beautiful illustrations: Michael Hague (The Hobbit), Ernest H. Shepard (Winnie-the-Pooh), Michael Martchenko (The Paper Bag Princess), Barry Moser (Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear), and Julie Vivas (Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge). I can still picture my favorite illustrations from each book before I turn the page: the incredible dragon Smaug guarding his treasure, when Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet try to catch a heffalump, when Elizabeth calls Prince Ronald a bum and they don’t get married after all, the first time we meet Big Double the Bear in his incredible outfit, and every single illustration of Wilfrid and his adventures helping Miss Nancy find her memory.
I love discovering new (to me) books! What was the inspiration for One Tiny Treefrog: A Countdown to Survival?
TONY – This book came about largely because Mackenzie had been encouraging me to try my hand at telling a simple, unlabored story. So, I thought back to my childhood and remembered how much I had loved watching tadpoles metamorphose into tiny froglets, and I thought this is the perfect subject for a counting book or actually a countdown book! Then the line: zero tiny tadpoles, one tiny treefrog, hopped into my head, and I knew we had a book. I asked Mackenzie to take a pass at writing a manuscript and the rest is history :)
MACKENZIE – Tony was the real inspiration behind this story! He read a scientific paper and discovered some amazing facts about red-eyed treefrog tadpoles before they hatch. He came to me saying, “I think I have an idea for a countdown book. Would you help?” I could have done backflips. Instead, I started writing. I think I did a couple of passes at the manuscript counting down from ten, but it was missing something. And I decided that the missing thing was sounds and onomatopoeia! Once I added in the wiggles, wriggles, plinks, and more in, we started collaborating.
Interesting that you started with the final line. Did you share in the writing and illustration of One Tiny Treefrog or did you break down sections or tasks?
TONY – I would say Mackenzie lead the writing effort and I did the final illustrations, but along the way we shared a lot. After Mackenzie wrote the first draft of our book, I wrote a second, and we handed off the manuscript back and forth until we landed on the book you’re reading now. On the illustration side, although Mackenzie didn’t work on the finals, she helped tremendously during the “dummy” phase of the book coming up with beautiful sketches. For your readers who don’t know, a dummy is a mockup of an entire picture book laid out with black and white sketches and text.
MACKENZIE – We definitely shared in both writing and illustration, but we also definitely had to breakdown sections and tasks to share effectively. I think of it as a baton race in a triathlon of children’s book creation. The three events are: illustration, writing, and overall story. Tony and I both have our best events.
For illustration, he’s the most incredible illustrator, a master of light and character and world-building. Credit where credit is due, Tony owned taking all our illustrations to final (so much work!). But I have talent in figuring out compositions and pushing the envelope of how an illustration can be approached. So we have many illustration-baton hands offs early on.
For writing, I am a naturally quick writer. I enjoy playing with words and have a sense of cadence and sound, especially for read aloud. But I also can only look at my own words so long. Tony doesn’t think in read aloud so he forces words to make sense in a different way, and where I can be wordy, I think he is much more concise and pushes us to cut words and let the illustrations tell the story. So lots of baton hands offs there as well.
Then we are both creative storytellers, with different styles and approaches, but I think we both deeply understand the story is the most important event in the triathlon. The illustration and the writing are all in service of the story. And with a push and pull of our differences, our constant baton hand offs, negotiations and compromises, we create something neither of us would nor could have created alone.
I love the allusion to a baton race, playing to each of your strengths. What is the most fun or unusual place where you’ve written a manuscript or done an illustration?
TONY – It’s gotta be in a box with a fox! [but were you other eating green eggs?]
I’m a pretty meat and potatoes artist…I haven’t drawn or written anywhere I would describe as unusual or surprising. Although I was tickled to bring some watercolors on a recent flight to Kaua’i and pull off some fun illustrations on the plane. Does that count? [definitely! 😊]
MACKENZIE – I think my favorite place to work is at home feeling super cozy, but if I am ever losing steam, changing my location can infuse more creativity into my work. I love working in a cozy coffee shop, but have had amazing breakthroughs in airports, parks, backseat of cars, trains! Tony and I will draw before we get our food in restaurants. I think we always try to have something to write or draw with.
I imagine you'd have had great diners at Cucina Cucina with their paper tablecloths. What was the toughest part of writing and/or illustrating One Tiny Treefrog? How long did it take from the first draft to publication?
TONY – I think the trickiest part of the book was visually the final three spreads of the book. From the outset, we knew what the last line of the book would be, but getting there and making it feel surprising, suspenseful, and hopeful was tough. Let’s see, we pitched this book to our incredible agent, Kevin Lewis, back in the summer of 2019 at the LA SCBWI conference, so from first draft to publication it has taken about three and a half years!
MACKENZIE – I think the toughest part of creating books so far for me, including One Tiny Treefrog, has been the hurry-up-and-wait stopping-and-starting. Both Tony and I balance fulltime jobs, and sometimes life gives you amazing downtime and there’s just nothing you can do to make progress on your book. Then you have a busy time in work and family life, and the deadline comes up! My partnership with Tony, as well as having other supporters, is so critical to me being able to meet deadlines because I need support, energy, cheerleaders, mentors, and so much more.
The most surprising thing about creating children’s books for our friends and family is how long it takes behind the scenes. I think our first computer file from One Tiny Treefrog is from August 2019 and we were working analog long before that. We got the offer we accepted in March 2020 but didn’t finalize the contract until November 2020! And now our book is coming out February 14, 2023.
That’s at least 1354 days or more than 3 years and 8 months. (June 2019 in the airport to February 14, 2023 book birthday!)
So, 'Murphy's Law' applies to children's books, too. What's something you want your readers to know about One Tiny Treefrog?
TONY – Oh man, that’s a tough question! There are so many things I want to share. I’m such a science/nature nerd that I have facts galore that I’m bursting to share, but I will constrain myself to my favorite adaption of the red-eyed treefrog:
While red-eyed treefrog embryos developing in their eggs seem helpless, glued precariously to a leaf overhanging a puddle of water, they have the amazing ability to detect the vibrations in their environment and prematurely hatch if they determine a predator is causing the vibration! Using an enzyme they excrete from their head, they are able to hatch suddenly and take their chances in the water below! [Wow, that's amazing!]
MACKENZIE – Tony always delivers with the fun science facts! For me, I really hope readers, especially young readers, take away something really important about science. “Science” gets thrown around like a thing or almost like a person, “science says…” or “science shows…”. I think it’s so important to understand science is a systematic and logical approach to discovering how things work. Science is a method and a process, not an existing container of knowledge. And on top of that, there are so many things we don’t know about how things work! I remember growing up with such a deep respect for science and scientists and I assumed that most things were known. But most things aren’t known! Even the scientific details we included in this book are based on a very limited number of scientific studies in very specific places. Red-eyed treefrogs are hard to observe. They are nocturnal (active at night) and arboreal (living mostly in trees). All this makes it difficult for scientists to run scientific studies in the field. And there are so many things like this, all around us. [😊]
I hope kids feel inspired that they can be a part of and contribute to science. Find something you are interested by, care about, are curious about, and know you can not just learn but discover new things too!
I think this will definitely inspire some kids to explore and discover new things. Many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did either or both of you do this in One Tiny Treefrog? If so, could you share one or more with us?
TONY – I don’t know if you would consider this a treasure, but something that was important to us was subtly reminding the reader that although we are presenting a story set in a remote wet forest of Costa Rica, human beings are an ever-present part of our world. That is why we added a cellular tower to a background mountain in the final spread of the book, and an airplane in the opening title page.
MACKENZIE – I love when illustrators weave in little treasures! Tony put some amazing ones in his debut book The Greatest Adventure with Scholastic. Because our book is non-fiction and set in Costa Rica, we didn’t want to alter the physical environment just to hide something fun. The main thing we wanted to do, as Tony said, was be honest about human presence and impact. Tony and I love nature documentaries, but most people who watch nature documentaries assume they are watching “truth” because it’s real video recordings. But all movies use ‘movie magic’ and that ‘magic’ is often acts of deception to achieve a better shot, sound, or story. Sometimes this magic is used in service of truth, and sometimes it’s not. (Learn more about this on one of my favorite podcasts 99% Invisible: Episode 256 Sounds Natural at https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/sounds-natural/)
As filmmaker Chris Palmer shares in the podcast episode, “One form of deception that he’s concerned about is the tendency to portray the natural world as if it doesn’t have problems. Too many nature documentaries show a world divorced from human civilization, he believes. There are seldom shots of the nearby city, or the coal mine encroaching on habitat. To leave out any mention of these environmental challenges, says Palmer, is misleading.”
And these are the treasures that Tony and I tried to hide in the illustrations: evidence of human civilization. See if you can spot a plane, a bit of litter, and a radio tower.
You've done such a great, subtle job of setting it in reality. Is there a spread of which you are especially proud? Which is your favorite spread?
Text & Image © Tony Piedra & Mackenzie Joy, 2023
TONY – I’m most fond of the spread with the dragonflies because it exemplifies how Mackenzie and I collaborate. She drew this lovely, scratchy sketch of dragonflies flying over a pond, and I thought it was perfect. Mackenzie’s sketch became the backbone for the final illustration. This is the only spread in the book that did not change from dummy to final.
Text & Image © Tony Piedra & Mackenzie Joy, 2023
MACKENZIE – I’m still blown away by every spread! Tony absolutely brought life and joy to all of them. I think as someone who cannot wait to read this aloud to kids, I love the spread where the tadpoles hatch early and PLUNGE into the pond below. This requires the reader to turn the whole book and we hope that interaction is fun! Also, there is a page turn where we go from four little tadpoles to three. If you look closely, their eye directions show you which three of them are paying enough attention and are quick enough to escape, and which one is not.
I adore your dragonflies and love the hint in the eyeballs! Are there any new projects you are jointly or individually working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
TONY – I’m super excited and proud of our follow-up to One Tiny Treefrog, which we are currently hard at work on. It doesn’t have an official title yet, but the book tells the story of the recent extinction of a small bird on the island of Kaua’i. Mackenzie shared this story with me a few years ago and wrote such a beautiful, moving manuscript that I knew this had to be our next collaboration, and thankfully, she said yes.
MACKENZIE - Oh, my goodness! I am bursting to share about all our upcoming projects. I will go in order of how soon they could possibly come out.
First, my debut solo book Wallflowers is set for release February 21, 2023, just a week after One Tiny Treefrog! It’s a book I wish I had when I was growing up, an ode to the quiet among us. Instead of having to get loud or change who we are, I hope Wallflowers illustrates for some how you can be true to your quiet self and still pursue big, exciting dreams. And for others, if you are naturally louder, I hope it demonstrates how you can learn to listen.
Then, Tony and I are working hard to deliver the next book in our three book deal with Candlewick Press and follow up to One Tiny Treefrog, a story about the last song of the Kaua’i ‘ō‘ō (the one he talked about above!). We are finalizing the manuscript and the illustrations are coming to life! We were able to visit Kaua’i and hike to the last place this now-extinct endemic bird was observed. We are so proud of the work we are doing and cannot wait for it to be out in the world, hopefully inspiring readers to learn, share, and know more. We are hoping for release in 2024!
Then Tony and I are working on another idea: an exciting read aloud with a twist, and I have some other projects on submission, including the story of a young and highly unique detective!
These sound amazing and I am excited to see them. Last question, what is the best advice you’ve ever gotten - whether it’s regarding writing/ illustrating or not?
TONY – I think it comes from my father-in-law, Chick. And it goes something like this:
It’s always easy to look at someone else’s career or life, especially those who are successful, and see a plain direct near-inevitable path from start to finish, but that is seldom if ever true. A life is like walking through a corn field. When you are in it, you will sometimes not know whether to turn right or left, proceed forward or turn back. It is not until you have exited the corn field and look back that the path you have taken is marked clearly for all to see.
So I try to remind myself of this when I feel a bit lost in my life or my career, and I’m not sure how to proceed.
MACKENZIE – One of the best pieces of wisdom I have ever read (it wasn’t given directly to me, but I take it that way) was a quote from Bill Nye, “Everyone you ever meet will know something you don’t.” I think remembering this has helped me in so many ways. If you approach each new person you meet with genuine curiosity about what they know that you do not, it starts you out from a place of respect and allows you to form a connection. I trust the lived experience of others and lean into curiosity. My whole life, I have felt shy and introverted, but I found a different perspective and energy when I shifted my approach to learn from someone and take the time to listen to their story and trust what they share and know. This is important to me; the reason why I tell stories (writing and illustrating) and why I try to encourage others to tell stories too.
Excellent advice. Thank you Tony and Mackenzie for stopping back by to share with us about your collaboration and your newest picture book.
To find out more about Tony Piedra, or to contact him:
To find out more about Mackenzie Joy, or to contact her:
Be sure to check out their process “from sketch to final art” in their Mak & Tea blog post. And for an extra special treat, Tony & Mackenzie got married a few months ago and filmed a honeymoon studio tour, showing their process and how they collaborated on one illustration from the book.
Review of One Tiny Tree Frog :
A Countdown to Survival
This is an exciting look into the lifecycle of a red-eyed tree frog in a Costa Rican rain forest. It's part counting book, part environmental STEM and totally delightful.
One Tiny Tree Frog: A Countdown to Survival
Author/Illustrator: Tony Piedra & Mackenzie Joy
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Tree tree frogsfrogs, lifecycle, Costa Rico, survival, STEM, and metamorphosis.
The red-eyed treefrog of the Costa Rican rain forest stars in this bold and visually arresting countdown book, which is both a captivating read-aloud and a resource.
Deep in the tropical forest of Costa Rica, ten sticky frog eggs cling to a leaf. Only nine eggs hatch. Only eight tadpoles wind up in the water below. What will it take to survive the countdown to adulthood and begin the cycle again? This beautifully designed, color-drenched introduction to frog metamorphosis peeks at this animal’s habitats and predators as it illustrates competition and natural selection. Cocreators Mackenzie Joy and Tony Piedra have crafted a dazzling spin on the life of one of nature’s darlings, the red-eyed treefrog. Back matter invites budding naturalists to discover even more treefrog facts, revisit the pages to spot other Costa Rican species, and check out a bibliography.
Ten tiny tadpoles
grow in their eggs.
Nine alert tadpoles
begin to wiggle free.
What I LOVED about this book:
This gorgeously illustrated, sparsely worded, nonfiction picture book is an amazing ode to the red-eyed treefrog and a peek into a bit of its secretive life. All wrapped into a counting book format.
Text & Image © Tony Piedra & Mackenzie Joy, 2023
Starting with 10 lightly glowing frog eggs on a tree leaf, we are immediately drawn into the rich green hues and varied textures of the tropical rainforest of Costa Rico. Tony and Mackenzie masterfully intertwine the full life cycle of these tiny nocturnal treefrogs and the fauna of this forest. This is an accurate and honest look at why such a tiny frog lays "close to forty eggs."
While the countdown in tadpoles is accompanied by images of their predators, with both their scientific and common name given, except for a snap near the end, the reader doesn't directly see the tadpole vanish. There is just one less. For younger kids this will be a wonderful counting book and look at beautiful animals; familiar and exotic. For the slightly older reader, who can fill in the blanks, it will be an honest look at nature.
Text & Image © Tony Piedra & Mackenzie Joy, 2023
"Eight wriggling tadpoles" become "Seven wary tadpoles [who] learn to hide" as a wolf cichlid exists stage right. We never see the fish eat a tadpole, but one does drop right in front of it in the previous spread. Likewise, on this spread we see the eyes of the mostly hidden tadpoles peering around the seagrass. Except for the one looking straight at a carmine skimmer ("dragonfly nymph"). turning the page we see the mature dragonflies and one tadpole straying from the others, as "six little tadpoles peek above the pool."
The luminous and lively digital illustrations showcase the environment and Costa Rican species (not all predators) found in the treefrog's habitat as the text counts down to ... a tiny bit of a surprise. Befitting a tiny treefrog. A note discussing the treefrog's eggs and a bit about Costa Rica accompanies a wonderfully illustrated graphic of the "Costa Rican species that appeared in this book." The back matter follows each stage and more fully explains what it takes to "become a treefrog." This is a wonderful book that combines counting, a nonfiction adventure in a Costa Rican rainforest, and the life cycle and struggles of becoming a red-eyed treefrog.
- make your own red-eyed tree frog peeking from a leaf. Maybe even add some eggs to the leaf.
- or make an origami jumping frog.
- pair this with National Geographic Little Kids First Big Book of the Rain Forest by Moira Donohue and The Frog Book by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page.