The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Caron Levis and Charles Santos + Special Print Giveaway
This dynamic duo has done it again! Caron Levis and Charles Santoso have teamed up before to create the amazing, award winning picture books Feathers Together (2022), This Way, Charlie (2021) and Ida, Always (2016) - which The New York Times Book Review called, "an example of children's books at their best."
Caron Levis (MFA; LMSW) is the Coordinator and a Professor for The New School's Writing for Children/YA MFA program, as well as an alum.
As a social worker she has facilitated loss & bereavement groups for children and caregivers. Caron has over 20 years as a Creative SEL/Literacy skills educator and uses a blend of drama and writing techniques to create a variety of interactive workshops for children and adults. Caron was born, raised, and currently lives in New York City. Writing short things takes her a long time. One of her favorite adventures was flying in a hot air balloon at sunrise.
She is also the author of several picture books including the award-winning picture book Mama's Work Shoes (2019); Stop That Yawn! (2018); May I Have A Word? (2017); and Stuck with the Blooz (2012).
Charles Santoso loves drawing little things in his little journal and dreaming about funny, wondrous stories.
He gathers inspiration from his childhood memories and curiosities he discovers in his everyday travels. He worked at Animal Logic as a concept artist/art director and was involved in various animated feature film and tv commercial projects.
Charles Santoso’s work has been exhibited in Sydney and also internationally in North America and France.
He’s the author/illustrator of Happy Hippo (2021). And the illustrator of several picture books, including Feeling Grateful by Kobi Yamada (2022), Wombat Underground: A Wildfire Survival Story by Sarah L. Thomson (2022), Finding Muchness by Kobi Yamada (2021), The Bookstore Cat by Cylin Busby (2020), Dandy by Ame Dyckman (2019), Watch Out for Wolf! by Anica Mrose Rissi (2019), Peanut Butter & Santa Claus by Joe McGee (2019),Dragons Get Colds Too by Rebecca Roan (2019), Penguin & Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime by Cate Berry (2018), No Boring Stories! by Julie Falatko (2018), The Snurtch by Sean Ferrell (2016), Peanut Butter & Aliens by Joe McGee (2017), I Don’t Like Koala by Sean Ferrell (2015), Peanut Butter & Brains by Joe McGee (2015). He’s also illustrated a number of middle grade novels, including Odder by Katherine Applegate, (2022) Willodeen by Katherine Applegate (2021), A Boy Called Bat series by Elana K Arnold (2018), and Wishtree by Katherine Applegate (2017) - a New York Times bestseller.
Please see our earlier interview for additional information about Charles (here).
Their newest picture book collaboration, Mighty Muddy Us, releases on October 3rd.
Welcome back Caron and Charles, thank you so much for stopping by to talk about your newest book.
What is one of the most fun or unusual places where you’ve written or illustrated a manuscript?
CARON – For several years, I was fortunate to spend time in a secluded woodsy spot amidst croaking, twittering, wind through trees quiet and beauty. While writing Feathers Together, I was sitting on the porch when suddenly the baby wrens leapt from their nest in a hanging planter and were awkwardly fluttering and hopping all around me—their first attempts at flight. One bopped right around me and my computer. Wonderous. While revising Mighty Muddy Us (in a down to the wire way) the power went out and I worked by headlamp, pretending I wasn’t afraid to be alone in the woods in total darkness.
CHARLES - I mostly illustrate in my apartment studio and I love it here. There were times when I had to do work outside, like various libraries and cafes. Nowhere unusual, except for a couple of times when I have to catch deadlines in Japan's snow lodge. I do enjoy having white noise from public places when I work outside.
That porch and the snow lodge sound like amazing spots to work! Caron, what was your inspiration or spark of interest for Mighty Muddy Us?
CARON – Elephants had been floating in my mind—and in Charles and our editor’s too. I then happened to be spending time down the road from the extraordinary Katy Payne, bioacoustics researcher and founder of The Elephant Listening Project at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I read her work and learned far more about elephants than I had known before.
When I decided to start actively searching for a Feeling-Friends elephant story, I had planned to ask Katy about her stories—but I wanted to do my homework first. I came across the materials by Dr. Moss and Martyn Colbeck about Ely and Enid and Echo and it just rang all the bells for a Caron and Charles book. It aligned with two emotional sibling experiences I’d been wanting to explore: One striking real life moment became the seed of the story. After many hours of Echo and Enid working to help the perseverant Ely stand and live, Enid finally began heading off to find water, but when Ely cried out, she turned and ran back, staying until he finally stood.
Another spark came when Katy Payne graciously took me into the cabin where she keeps some of her original research folders. She took out a folder labeled, “Wet Elephants.” Yup, it was as delightful as it sounds, and it helped me discovered a way into the story and the title.
Your research sounds like so much fun. I'm really glad you found a way into these elephant's story! Charles, what about the Mighty Muddy Us manuscript appealed to you as an illustrator?
CHARLES - Having to illustrate elephants was something that I couldn’t resist. I love them! It was also a new challenge (Thanks, Caron! Ha!) and as always, I loved the manuscript!
*Smiling* What's something you want your readers to know about Mighty Muddy Us?
CARON – For young readers, it’s your story now! I’d also like them to know there is so much to discover about elephants and also each other as we grow.
For the grown-ups, I’d like them to know there is a lot of great information about real-life elephants. An amazing creative non-fiction picture book is How To Be An Elephant by Katherine Roy. There are also resources out there for families navigating unexpected birth events and developmental differences which can affect the whole family. I’ll be putting some activities and resources on my website.
CHARLES - Might Muddy Us illustrations were about dust, mud, and the changing of times and weather in Kenya as much as the elephants. I hope readers can feel those when they read the book.
There is so much to love about this book - elephants, Kenyan climate, and families! Caron, what was the toughest aspect of writing Mighty Muddy Us? How long did it take from the idea for Mighty Muddy Us to publication?
CARON – From spark to pub day, I think it was about two-ish years?
The toughest sentence level challenge in this book was common to all of the Feeling-Friends books: finding a way to frankly, gently, and clearly communicate the “tough” event in as few and as accessible words as possible. Mighty Muddy Us’ particular challenge was that the elephant’s real-life medical situation was complex and involved multiple layers of knowledge about pregnancy and birth for both elephants and humans. It sent me in revision circles. I’m still not fully content with it, but I am content that I did my best.
Another challenge was departing from some of the research in order to serve the main story. For example, I wanted to stay as true as possible to the sounds that have been named, catalogued and correlated to behaviors and relationships. Elephants rumble, squeal, cry, scream, bark, roar, snort, groan, grunt, trumpet! Earlier drafts included far closer to the research names: “Baroo-Rumble” for example, but for sake of word count and clarity, this got pared down, and for sake of rhythm and read-aloud I made my own versions of sounds.
A personal challenge was that while writing this I developed severely painful and debilitating sciatica that had me feeling incredibly un-mighty! The writing gift was that it prompted me to think more about Ely’s pain and look for a way to acknowledge it despite it not being the main challenge of the story. Our visceral empathy can grow with every challenging experience. And when I feel overwhelmed, I try to think, like Enid does, how Ely, “when it was hard, when it hurt, he always pressed on.”
Thank you for your honesty and insight in this answer and I hope you are doing better. Do you have plans to collaborate on another picture book together? If so, can you share any information about it?
CARON – The answer is always yes, always brainstorming! The “publishing is a tough biz” answer (because I want to be as honest here as I aim to be in my books) is that I submitted a proposal for a next Feeling-Friends book I was so excited about (Charles and the editorial team were also.) However, we were told acquisition would depend on early sales of Mighty Muddy Us because Feathers Together had not sold well enough. While I typically roll with rejection fairly well, this one is rough. I love making these books so I’m still holding on to hope. Otherwise, I shall just have to find another kind of story to tempt Charles with—he’s too amazing!
CHARLES - There are always plans for Caron and me to collaborate on something. Stay tuned!
I really do hope they acquire more of these amazing Feeling-Friends books! Caron, when you first saw Charles’s illustrations did anything surprise or amaze you? What is your favorite spread?
CARON – Walking around in my ordinary life, knowing Charles is busy turning the manuscript into an extraordinary story is the most incredible gift. I walk around on a trampoline of joy. People often ask if I get nervous waiting to see the art—nope. With all the artists I’ve worked with, it’s the happiest waiting ever!
I cannot choose A favorite, but one of the first delights I fell in love with in Mighty Muddy Us made it on to the case cover—so maybe one of your readers might post and reveal which one it is! Be sure to tag Maria, Charles, and me if you do. 😊
Okay readers, there's your challenge. Figure out the spread the cover is based upon and post it on social media. Don't forget to tag Caron Levis, Charles Santoso, & me when you do. Charles, is there a spread you are especially proud of? Which is your favorite spread?
Text © Caron Levis, 2023. Image © Charles Santoso, 2023.
CHARLES - My personal favorite spread was one where Mama Echo kissed Ely (he got all the attention from her). It was a complex emotion to portray and I’m quite satisfied with how it turned out. Enid was proud of her brother, also a bit jealous but all she could do was hold Mama’s tail.
What a gorgeous, intimate, and complex image. Are there any projects each of you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
CHARLES - I just sent the final illustrations for a picture book with lots of sleepy and cuddly animals. There’ll also be some other picture books with human characters too! They’ll be out sometime in 2024!
CARON – I’m enjoying working on both a revision of an old idea and an early readers series that is very different from what I’ve been publishing so far. I’ve also been pulling together drafts and notes of a chapter book/middle grade I’ve been mulling for a long time.
I can't wait to see what you both create next!❤️ Last question, What is the best advice you’ve ever gotten - whether it’s regarding writing, illustrating, publishing, or not?
CHARLES - “You must do something to make the world more beautiful.”
This was from Miss Rumphius.
CARON – "I love the idea that there can be one gem on every page of a book. It can be an image, an idea or a piece of dialogue --- anything. If there's one gem on every page of a hundred-page book, that's a hundred good reasons to read it.” - Markus Zusak
Again, I can’t choose “The” best, but recently I’ve shared this with the writers in my MFA class at The New School. I also alter it when revising a story I cannot let go of, but feels like an absolute lost-cause mess. “…one gem is a good reason to revise a hundred times.”
I adore both of those quotations. Especially the reason to keep revising! Thank you Caron and Charles for stopping by again and sharing your time with us. It was truly wonderful to chat with you both.
Be sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Mighty Muddy Us!
To find out more about Caron Levis, or contact her:
To find out more about Charles Santoso, or contact him:
Extra Special Limited Edition Print Giveaway
Awesome news! The amazingly talented Charles Santoso and Caron Lavis are offering two lucky readers a limited edition special print which he made of the three elephants from Mighty Muddy Us!
- Simply comment below and/or on the Friday #PPBF post to be entered in the random drawing on October 13th.
- Be sure to say where (if) you shared the post (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Bluesky), and I'll add additional entries for you.
- *Sorry US Residents only.*
If you're in the area, check out the links to these events with Caron Levis:
OCTOBER 2nd NYC 6pm - Books of Wonder: Picture Book launch gathering! Four picture book creators share our stories, answer your questions, and sign your books at this iconic, lovely store! And you'll receive a Mighty special print present created by Charles Santoso when you purchase your copy at this lovely store! https://booksofwonder.com/blogs/upcoming/october-picture-book-launches; OCTOBER 7th NYC/NJ - Glen Rock Book Festival 11-3 Mighty STORYTIME at 1:20! https://2023.glenrockbookfest.com/ ; OCTOBER 21st 11:30am - Greenlight Bookstore, Brooklyn! Join me for my 8th storytime at my beloved, supportive, cozy local indie! Storytime, activities, chatting, signing, and a mighty special print present created by Charles Santoso with your copy of Mighty Muddy Us (while they last:) https://www.greenlightbookstore.com/event/story-time-caron-levis-9 ; NOVEMBER 1st 6-7pm at The New School, NYC: A Mighty Conversation with Susan Van Metre, executive editor of Walker Books. Link to come with all the details! In person, open to all, free registration; and
NOVEMBER 12th, 11-4pm - The Brooklyn Museum Book Fair! Soooo many children's book authors will be signing books and chatting with you! https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/calendar/event/brooklyn_childrens_book_fair_nov_2023.