The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Artie Bennett and Review of The True Story of Zippy Chippy
Artie Bennett is “the executive copy editor for a children's book publisher and he writes a little on the side (but not the backside!). He grew up in Brooklyn, New York—born and fled, he likes to say—hightailing it to Georgia,” where he earned a degree in journalism at the University of Georgia. For seven years, he worked “for the local broadsheet, the Athens Banner-Herald, cheek by jowl with Kate Pierson of the B-52s, who was a paste-up artist there before her ship came in.” Following a year on a Galilean kibbutz, he returned to the States, where “he and his wife, Leah, live deep in the bowels of Brooklyn, New York, where he spends his time hunting for a parking space (to satisfy the unremitting demands of alternate-side-of-the-street parking) and plotting revenge against his neighbors.”
He’s the author of 10 books, including What’s Afoot!: Your Complete, Offbeat Guide to Feet (2019), The Universe’s Greatest School Jokes and Rip-Roaring Riddles (2019), The Universe’s Greatest Dinosaur Jokes and Pre-Hysteric Puns (2018), Peter Panda Melts Down! (2014), Belches, Burps, and Farts—Oh My! (2014), Poopendous! (2012), and The Butt Book (2010).
His most recent picture book, The True Story of Zippy Chippy: The Little Horse That Couldn’t, released February 25, 2020.
Welcome Artie, thank you so much for stopping by to talk about your books and writing.
Thank you, Maria, for giving me the opportunity to talk about my books and writing—and ice cream.
Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? What is your favorite type of book to write?)
I write in stolen snatches of time, usually on weekends. Sometimes when I feel the itch to write, I’ll take a vacation day or two and hunker down. I have a fairly consuming day job, as an executive copy editor, so I don’t usually have occasion to write on weekdays. And because I wake up with the chickens in order to squeeze in my daily exercise, I generally lack the nimbleness of mind in the evening to write. Though sometimes I surprise myself.
I write wherever I can. Space is at a premium here in Brooklyn, New York, so I don’t have a private writing place, a little nook of inspiration, to repair to when the muse strikes. But I can dream, can’t I?
My first “mature” work, The Butt Book, now something of a picture-book classic, came out in January 2010, but I’d been writing for a while. I was an assistant news editor for the Red and Black, the student newspaper at the University of Georgia, where I embarked on my writing career. It’s a circuitous journey from Clarke County Commission meetings to Belches, Burps, and Farts—Oh My!
I’ve tried to resist typecasting and enjoy writing a variety of books. Of course, I love funny, educational, nonfiction picture books in verse. Who doesn’t? But I also took great pleasure in writing my newest, The True Story of Zippy Chippy: The Little Horse That Couldn’t, my first picture-book biography in prose. Likewise, I had gobs of fun writing a more traditional rhyming storybook with a recurrent refrain (Peter Panda Melts Down!). And I have to say it was a gas to create my two joke and riddle books, each with over 650 jokes, some of them funny.
You seem to be having a lot of fun. What is something no one knows (or few know) about you?
Few know this shameful secret, but in this leave-no-stone-unturned interview, I will reveal all. It pains me to fess up to a grave addiction, but fess up I must. I’m afraid I have a major ice cream habit—we’re talking twelve-step caliber!—and I must have three scoops of the irresistible treat every night before lights-out. I’m not proud. It’s a terrible thing this Chunky Monkey on my back. But it’s my only vice, so I’ve learned to work around it. To keep my cholesterol from skyrocketing, and to keep from ballooning beyond the bounds of our modest apartment, I now alternate my daily intake of real ice cream with “ice cream” made from soy milk, coconut milk, almond milk, and rice milk. And I’ve even embraced sorbet. This way I can continue to indulge my debilitating habit free from the clutches of guilt.
Ha! I love ice cream, but that's quite an addiction! Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
As a child, my favorite author just happened to be my favorite illustrator, Dr. Seuss. He gave me my first taste of the magic of language and my first dip into the absurd. His zany artwork matched his words in inventiveness and creativity. I’m sure his books helped shape my personality. I can recall how my excitement would bubble over whenever I stumbled upon a new Dr. Seuss book—or at least one new to me—at my local library, for I knew it would take me to the outer limits of imagination.
I actually wrote The Butt Book with his wacky anatomical books in mind—The Foot Book, The Eye Book, The Tooth Book, The Eyetooth Book, etc. I loved these books as a lad, and I still do. In fact, I dedicated Poopendous! to him (“to Dr. Seuss, my meuss”). I think he might’ve enjoyed that little pun.
Another book that made a huge splash with me was A Fish Out of Water, by Helen Palmer, who was married to Dr. Seuss. It’s a cautionary tale of what can happen to a boy who fails to follow instructions. He overfeeds his little fish, Otto, who grows to gargantuan proportions. Otto even outgrows the town pool. The pet store owner who sold them the fish is urgently called in. Something must be done immediately. The proprietor descends into the pool with a boxful of tools. After some suspenseful moments, he emerges with Otto, restored to normal size, ensconced in a fishbowl. P. D. Eastman’s illustrations are a delight. I’m sure this book taught me that untoward things can befall a boy who doesn’t listen. As a consequence, I was a good boy—and never overfed our guppies.
Good thing you figured out how to apply the message in your own life! *smiling* When I first say the title, I expected “the little horse that could” and was enthralled by the word “couldn’t” and the incongruity with a winner’s wreath. What was the inspiration for The True Story of Zippy Chippy: The Little Horse That Couldn’t?
It was inspired by my affinity for underdogs. And Zippy’s story touched my heart. It goes back to my boyhood. As a street urchin growing up in the urban wilds of Brooklyn, I participated in a parade of pickup sports, including two-hand-touch football, softball, stickball, basketball, Wiffle ball, street hockey, punch ball, and much more. Because I was blessed with a measure of athletic ability, I often got to captain one of the two teams. My first duty, of course, was to choose up sides. Sure, I could have picked the ablest available athletes for my side. But what fun would that have been! I would regularly pick the kids who would languish until almost everyone else had been chosen—or who might not be chosen at all if we had an oversupply of players. A couple of these kids even had physical impairments. I figured that if our ragtag team won against such insuperable odds, it would be that much more satisfying. Anyone could win when the deck was stacked in your favor. But when it wasn’t . . . Ah, that’s a triumph! [Where were you during my PE classes?]
Though Zippy Chippy, who ran 100 races and lost every one, never got to pose in the winner’s circle, the wreath he wears on the book jacket is well deserved. We see in his story how losers can ultimately be winners. We read how his popularity soared toward the end of his career—and how he got the last laugh.
There are invaluable lessons for youngsters in Zippy’s inspirational tale. Here was a racehorse who was expected, based on his pedigree, to accomplish great things, but he never did, at least not on the racetrack. There was a time when his owner, Felix Monserrate, a horse trainer from Puerto Rico, decided to retire him. But Zippy became depressed and refused to eat. Felix had to bring Zippy back to the track. Racing was in his blood. He just wasn’t very good at it. Zippy teaches us that we all have different strengths, and that’s okay. We mustn’t let fear of failure keep us from trying. And he also teaches us to hold fast to our dreams.
He definitely was an unusual horse. What a great story to find! Would you say that there is an overarching theme to your books? Perhaps a tongue-in-cheek irreverence?
Oh, I was afraid you’d said “irrelevance.” [HA!] That’s an interesting question. My picture books about poop, butts, and farts seem to bear that out. In fact, I have a verse in The Butt Book that is a classic example: “Butts have cheeks just like our faces, though they’re found in different places.” So yes, there is a tongue-in-cheek irreverence to much of my work—and a strong sense of the absurd. My books teem with humor and wordplay. But I’ve also tried hard to add a dollop of heart and charm because I’m, at bottom, an old sentimentalist.
Interesting - absurdist books with heart! What a great category. How did your experience writing, and/or publishing, The True Story of Zippy Chippy differ from your other books? What was the toughest aspect of writing this book?
This book was a bit of a stretch for me. My five previous picture books are all written in verse. To do justice to Zippy Chippy’s story, I would have to write in prose. But I had never written a picture book in prose. “Could I?” I wondered. Curiously, I think the fact that the horse’s name is itself a rhyme made the transition easier and helped to purge my urge to rhyme. [Mostly....]
The toughest part was winnowing the notebook-full of information I had accumulated, from everything I had read and from my visit to Zippy’s retirement facility in upstate New York, to fit the somewhat stringent requirements of a picture book. Fortunately, I was able to include two pages of fascinating information, which didn’t make it into the story itself, in an author’s note at the end of the book. This will supplement the reader’s understanding of the life of Zippy Chippy. I didn’t want to leave this trove of Zippy-ana on the cutting-room floor.
[Artie and Zippy, with his companion Red Down South, @ Old Friends at Cabin Creek Farm, in upstate New York]
I learned so much in your Author's note! I'm glad Zippy "got the last laugh." Is there something you want your readers to know about The True Story of Zippy Chippy?
One thing that readers may find of interest is that I’ve sprinkled in a goodly amount of under-the-radar wordplay. Here are a few examples: We learn that when Felix tried to retire the horse, Zippy “bridled at the change.” And we read that “his losses continued to mount.” We see how Zippy tried “to add a little horsepower” and how he was derided as “a running joke.” And we find out that due to off-track betting, Zippy often ran as the favorite, despite his spectacular lack of success, as “fans across the country ponied up.”
I’ve also tried to use a rich vocabulary in telling Zippy’s remarkable story. Among the nuggets you’ll find are “ballyhooed,” “emblazoned,” “hapless,” “heyday,” “nuzzled,” “pedigree,” “rambunctious,” “shenanigans,” “vanquishing,” “wafting,” “zaniest,” and more, colorful words not often found in a picture book. These are words that are fun to say and they enrich the tale. And I hope young readers will make them their own.
Such an awesome way to expose kids to wordplay and expanded vocabulary! Having worked with numerous illustrators, did the amount of contact or input differ with this book? Did any of the illustrations in The True Story of Zippy Chippy surprise you?
I’d say that there wasn’t a great deal of contact prior to publication. You know, publishers generally discourage authors and illustrators from communicating directly. They prefer to be the brokers. However, I did reach out to Dave Szalay, the book’s brilliant illustrator, early on to tell him how much I loved the preliminary sketches and how excited I was for our collaboration. One lovely surprise came out of the blue when Dave, who lives more than 400 miles away, emailed me, two short weeks before the book published, to tell me that he was in the neighborhood and ask if I would I care to meet. You bet I would! And we did. Often the author and illustrator never meet—in fact, never even communicate. It’s a sort of arranged marriage, where the parties are paired up by the editor or art director. But Dave and I had a natural chemistry. I love his artwork. He’s endowed Zippy Chippy with personality-plus, just like in real life.
Text © Artie Bennett, 2020. Image © Dave Szalay, 2020.
One illustration, in particular, surprised and delighted me. We learn at the outset about Zippy Chippy’s appetite for mischief. How he would snatch the hats off passersby, returning them partly chewed. We see the shock on a racing enthusiast’s face when Zippy grabs his hat and chomps on it. Only to have Zippy return it with a sizable piece missing from the brim. Now, what Dave did was to bring back this character—and his partially chewed hat—to the stands at the very end when the winless wonder runs his very last race. So, we see that Zippy’s fans were fans for life, even when he took a nip out of their favorite chapeau.
With a little crafty magic, I can show the readers what you mean. What is your favorite spread?
If I had to pick a favorite illustration, I would choose the one in which Zippy is playing hide-and-seek with little Marisa, the daughter of Felix Monserrate. I love the tenderness on display as Zippy cranes his neck around a tree to find her.
Text © Artie Bennett, 2020. Image © Dave Szalay, 2020.
Their relationship is one of the joys of this book. What, or who, is your greatest source of inspiration?
One of my greatest sources of inspiration is found in my audiences. Watching their rapt expressions, seeing their smiles, hearing their laughter at my appearances uplifts my spirits and gives me reason to continue writing. And having youngsters gobble up my books at festivals fills me with both jubilation and humility. Sadly, we writers have been deprived of much of this deep wellspring of inspiration these days. But life and laughter will return once more.
I'm loving your optimism. How are you staying creative? What things are you doing to “prime the pump”?
Exercise primes my pump. I’m a big proponent of regular exercise. I believe it’s the one true panacea. Exercise can loosen writer’s block and spur creativity. For me, exercise takes many forms. But foremost among them is getting in the swim of things. Swimming pools in this area have finally reopened after being shuttered for more than six long months. In fact, I swam this morning, enabling me to work on this interview. Things are now going swimmingly. I find that swimming clears my mind, opening it up to inspiration. And while I often dread some other physical activities—oh no, not the treadmill!—I never balk at my morning swim.
Interesting. What has been the most frustrating aspect or period of time as a children’s writer for you? Any advice for unpublished authors?
The most frustrating thing for me—and for many writers—is rejection. It’s often hard to find a publisher, even when you have a record of success. Every writer experiences rejection, some more than others. All the greats had drawers stuffed with rejection slips, even Dr. Seuss. And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, his first children’s book, was rejected 27 times before it was acquired by Vanguard Press. What if he had thrown in the towel after his twenty-seventh rejection?! What if he had told himself that this line of work may not be for him? Publishing is a capricious business. But like Zippy Chippy, unpublished authors should never give up on their dreams. If you have an original voice and you have something to say, you’ll eventually break through. Who knows? You could be the next . . . Artie Bennett!
Ha! Love it. Is there one thing you can’t do without?
Vegetables! I’ve never met a vegetable I didn’t like. But it wasn’t always so. Growing up, my family had little regard for vegetables. A vegetable was an insipid thing that came from a can and sat, uncomfortably, at the edge of your plate. It could be creamed corn or peas and carrots. Or, perhaps, lima beans. But going to college down South opened my eyes—and tummy—to the joys of vegetables. There were things I’d never encountered before, like okra, kale, collards, turnip greens, mustard greens, field peas, crowder peas, squash casserole, and more. I was an adventurous eater and receptive to their charms. They were all farm-fresh and so delicious. Boy, do I miss hushpuppies. Since my Georgia sojourn, I’ve never needed to be admonished to eat my vegetables!
Adventurous eater, indeed. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I’m afraid that I can’t go into too much detail, but I’m doing research now for a new picture-book biography. One thing I can say is that the protagonist will not be a quadruped, like Zippy Chippy. There, that narrows it down. Any guesses?
A bird? Okay, so what is your favorite animal? Or animal you are enamored with at the moment. Why?
I would have to say that my favorite animal is the aoudad. Just kidding. But I’ve always loved that word. The aoudad is the Barbary sheep from North Africa. The real answer is . . . why, horses, of course. They’re such magnificent beasts. Doing my research for The True Story of Zippy Chippy: The Little Horse That Couldn’t filled me with an even deeper love for equines. And my time spent at Old Friends at Cabin Creek Farm, where Zippy lives in comfort and dignity, clinched it. Many years ago, I visited Assateague Island on a birdwatching trip, and seeing the wild ponies of Chincoteague was a special highlight. While living in Georgia, I had occasion to go camping on Cumberland Island. As I walked the pristine beach in the early morning, I chanced upon some wild horses frolicking along the shore. It was a sight to behold. Horses rock!
Wow! Chincoteague and Cumberland Island are both on my bucket list. You're so lucky! Thank you, Artie, for stopping by and sharing with us. It was truly wonderful to chat with you.
The pleasure was all mine, Maria. Thank you!
To find out more about Artie Bennett, or get in touch with him:
Review of The True Story of Zippy Chippy: The Little Horse That Couldn’t
When I asked to review this book, I was immediately intrigued the cover. The incongruity of the "horse that couldn't" and the winner's wreath around Zippy's neck. And his name - Zippy Chippy - what child wouldn't love that run around chanting "Yippee, Zippy Chippy!", perhaps while carrying their own recently renamed stuffed friend?
I've loved horses my whole life and had the pleasure of having a sweet, though opinionated, equine friend. One I could ride bareback, as long as no one let the dog out. One who like Zippy loved to run, and occasionally jump, when the whim struck him. He was one of the smartest, tenderest souls I've had the pleasure to know. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about this rascally character who loved being a racehorse, even if he couldn't win a race.
The True Story of Zippy Chippy: The Little Horse That Couldn’t
Author: Artie Bennett
Illustrator: Dave Szalay
Publisher: NorthSouth Books (2020)
Follow your dreams, acceptance, persistence, and courage.
Zippy Chippy is descended from the leading legends of horse racing. He is destined for greatness and glory.
But . . . when the starting bell rings, it’s anybody’s guess what Zippy will do. Will Zippy go for a gentle trot around the track or stop and smell the roses? Or, perhaps, never even leave the starting gate?!
With mischief in his makeup, he’s known to stick his tongue out at people and chew up the hats of passersby. And he’s always trying to break out of his stall. What’s an owner to do? Try and try again! After all, he believes in Zippy—and, besides, the horse is now a part of the family. But as Zippy’s losses mount, a funny thing happens. People start to take notice of the hapless, cupcake-eating horse. Could it be that they’re betting on Zippy to win?
This remarkable story of the famed racehorse who lost every race is sure to win your heart!
Zippy Chippy was a racehorse, descended
from legends that ran like the wind.
He was destined for glory - and would follow in
The only problem was, when Zippy ran . . .
What I liked about this book:
When, despite his impressive bloodlines, Zippy Chippy loses "nineteen races in a row," his owner decided to sell him. Fortunately for Zippy, Felix Monserrate believed that he just needed the right trainer.
Text © Artie Bennett, 2020. Image © Dave Szalay, 2020.
I enjoyed how Artie Bennett and Dave Szalay beautifully capture this quirky thoroughbred. The text describes him as an easily distracted, "devilish prankster," "accomplished escape artist," and "temperamental" horse who actually loved being a racehorse. The only problem was that after losing seventy straight races, refusing to even leave the gate for the last three, Zippy was banned from racing.
Text © Artie Bennett, 2020. Image © Dave Szalay, 2020.
The illustrations expand on Zippy's personality, showing us his utter delight in stealing & chomping on a race attendee's hat, dangling his owner by the shirt, and leading farm hands in a game of chase across a field. But my favorite illustrations involve the one thing that convinced Felix to fight for Zippy's chance to be a racehorse. The tender, sweet connection between Zippy Chippy and Felix's daughter, Marisa.
Text © Artie Bennett, 2020. Image © Dave Szalay, 2020.
With Felix's help, Zippy continued to race for a number of years. Amazingly, we learn in the back matter, up to the age of thirteen. When most race horse retire at the age of five. And even though he continued to lose, he developed a fan club - reporters, crowds, and gamblers. It seemed the more he lost (0-100), the more popularity he gained. With a sweet ending, Bennett reminds that "It takes guts to compete . . . [a]nd courage to dream," regardless of hwether you win. Even though he never won a race, Zippy won many hearts. A detailed two-page author's note fills in a lot of Zippy & Felix's information. It is a fun nonfiction for horse lovers, those who admire a strong soul, and anyone chasing their dream.
- check out the teacher's guide (http://www.artiebennett.com/Zippy_Guide.pdf)
- write down, or draw a picture, of your current dream.
- make your own Zippy Chippy horse puppet, and/or a couple of horse puppets and have your own races. (https://www.dltk-kids.com/animals/mbag-horse.htm)