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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Caron Levis and Charles Santoso + Review of Feathers Together

It is so exciting to be able to interview this dynamic duo who teamed up before to create the amazing picture books 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 enjoys writing fiction and plays for children, teens, and adults. Caron is a professor at NYU and The New School's Creative Writing MFA program where she is the advisor for the Children/YA concentration. Caron has an LMSW and has facilitated young people's loss and bereavement groups. After many years as an arts educator, Caron now loves using acting and writing to teach social, emotional, and literacy skills to students of all ages through her author workshops. Having trained in acting and dabbled in playwriting, Caron also enjoys turning theatre techniques into writing tools for groan-ups through her workshop Act-Like-A-Writer and helping shy writers unearth their public speaking voices through Page-to-Stage.

She is also the author of several picture books including Mama's Work Shoes (2019); Stop That Yawn! (2018); May I Have A Word? (2017); and Stuck with the Blooz (2012).

Please see our earlier interviews for additional information about Caron (here)and (here).

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.

Their newest picture book collaboration, Feathers Together, releases October 4th.

Welcome Caron and Charles, thank-you so much for stopping by to talk about your newest book and writing.

Tell us a little about yourselves. (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?)

CHARLES - I’ve been living in Singapore for several years now and work in my small home studio here. I’m surrounded by books that I love and have enough room space to do stretching when I take a break from sitting down for too long. I’ve been drawing for as far as I remember but I started illustrating picture books in 2014.

I love when I get a manuscript that moved me on my first reading. Funny ones are fantastic but emotional ones are rare to come by, so it’s very special when I get them.

CARON – For the last few years, I’ve written both in my Brooklyn home and in a spot in woodsy central New York where I have a long-distance relationship with two long dogs–dachshunds–who are very special to me (and their kind human pet too.) The worlds are very different and feed my writing in different ways. While my first conscious inspiration for Feathers Together was the storks themselves and the circumstances of kids I’ve known, it became very clear this story was important to me because in the last decade-ish many of the creatures dearest to me–my niece & nephews for example­––are not nearby. I think writing this story allowed me to explore some of my own big feelings about relationships that have patterns of partings, missing, reunions. (and then there are the friends who live so far you haven’t even met them in person yet…like Charles!)

It's so nice to get know a little bit about you both. What do you both like to do outside?

CHARLES - I often visit bookstores and libraries. I spend hours just browsing books, sometimes art-related but also lots of random ones to spark new ideas in my brain. I just love being surrounded by books for some reason. I also recently tried indoor climbing. I’m practicing slowly and loving it.

CARON – I enjoy taking long walks with no time-constraints (definitely no phone) whether that is in the city, woods, or beach. On the beach I love searching for shells and rocks—I’ve started collecting rocks. I keep some hand sized ones on my writing desk which I pick up and hold when I’m feeling stressed or am just working something out in my head.

Those days sound like heaven to me. Indoor climbing is fun and I too have some special rocks and shells in my workspace. Can you share the name of an author, illustrator, and/or perhaps a book that made an impact on you as a child?

CHARLES - As a kid, I really love Smurfs books by Peyo. I also remembered copying lots of illustrations from books. I found a really cool illustrated dinosaur encyclopedia book in my school library and was so happy to be able to get photocopies of some of the pages for me to keep.

CARON – I have a usual answer to this (possibly in our last interview!) but today the Encyclopedia Brown books have popped into my head--which I haven’t thought of in a while but absolutely loved as a child. I’m recalling the joy I got from diving freely into choosing my adventures. Through play, I think these books helped me unconsciously recognize the agency I would have over my life. As an adult writer and human, making choices can be super challenging and anxiety provoking for me—my tendency to instantly consider things from multiple angles serves as both a superpower and kryptonite. I think I’m going to re-read some Encyclopedia Brown and conjure up that sense of excitement and lightness of making a choice and the rush of flipping the pages.

Charles, I would not have guessed the Smurfs. Good luck finding that lightness again Caron. So, as you will be asked many times, what was your inspiration for Feathers Together?

CARON – Well, my Aunt sent me, “a cute video about these ducks.” Which turned out to be an incredible story about two storks, Malena and Klepetan, who were forced to separate on different continents each year during migration season. Malena, was discovered unable to fly with a broken wing, in Croatia, by Stjepan Vokić who took her in and cared for her. Klepetan and she would live together in the nest the man built atop his house from spring to early fall; then Klepetan would migrate over 8,000 miles with the flock to South Africa every winter while Malena stayed and adventured with Stjepan. Every spring, more and more people would watch for Klepetan’s arrival with nervousness and excitement.

As with Ida, Always, and This Way, Charlie I saw beautiful reminders that non-human animals experience strong bonds and a range of emotions—and that we can experience similar events in our lives. The stork’s story made me think instantly about kids whose families have separation as a constant part of their lives whether that be due to military, immigration, or the modern day spread of families. I also thought about how physical and mental differences (temporary or long-term) can force us to experience parts of life separate from people we love, and how this can prompt big feelings for all involved. By the time I had finished this story, the pandemic arrived—and so in the final revisions, I was of course inspired by the ways everyone around the world was staying connected from a distance.

Distant family and the struggle for connection is something almost everyone can relate to on some level. I adore that you find wonderful examples of the range of animal emotions, many that kids can identify in themselves. Charles, what about the Feathers Together manuscript appealed to you as an illustrator?

CHARLES - Caron’s stories have never failed to grab me (teary eyes, sobbing, etc) on the first reading. She also never failed to give me a new challenge (in a good way) every time she writes a new story. These reasons are why I mostly say yes almost automatically after reading her manuscript.

That is perhaps one of the best compliments an author can receive. What's something you want your readers to know about Feathers Together?

CHARLES - I tried different ways to make sure readers could differentiate between Malena and Klepetan. I wanted something subtle, not too stylized, but also clear. I ended up with more ruffled feathers on Klepetan's head and a slight difference in beak colors for each of them.

Something that I was fascinated about was how big a Storks’ nest is. It’s amazing to have that on top of Stjepan’s house. Also, I hope reader can see a migration route map from Croatia to South Africa on the house wall (on a page with Stjepan watching TV).

CARON – Something I’d love to share is that the scene in the book that show Malena and Klepetan acting grumpy with each other before Klepetan migrates, came from Stjepan’s real life observations of their behavior about three days before Klepetan would leave each year. This is definitely something that happens with other non-humans and humans! Personally, I often have moments of uncomfortable anticipation before parting with my niece & nephews and a couple of special dachshund friends.

I love the amount of research and the true facts and emotions which you both embedded in the book. Charles, you’ve got a wonderful range of styles, with realistic animals, fantasy, and cartoon-like illustrations. Do you find any style harder than another? Do you prefer to illustrate more emotional stories (This Way or A Boy Called Bat) or the humorous ones (Peanut Butter & Aliens or Dandy)?

CHARLES - Thank you for the kind words. I let the story drive the direction of the illustration style. I try to really understand the feel of the story from my point of view and try (or think of) different styles until one clicks best. Some styles are more time-consuming to do but they all have their own challenges. To lift them to the best quality they could be is the hardest part of the process. I personally don’t have a preference; it all depends on whether I like the story in the first place on not.

Well, we love your illustrations and can't wait to see more! Caron, what was the toughest aspect of writing Feathers Together? How long did it take from the idea for Feathers Together to publication?

CARON – Oh dear. Feathers I think has the thickest stack of revisions thus far. While I know better, when I first learned the real story I actually said to myself—"oh, this one will come together swiftly! It totally writes itself.” HA, HA, SOB. The fact that the real life story was so rich is exactly why it was so challenging for me to write—there were really hard choices to make (see above note on Encyclopedia Brown!) The real story had about four important areas I very much wanted to explore—but as it turns out I couldn’t responsibly to do them all justice in one picture book. Still, I spent a lot of time stubbornly trying to fully delve into all aspects, before I finally let my wise editor help me let some of them go. Everything gets touched upon in some way, but the focus is on the experience of forced separation, which is what drew me to the story first. The idea was sparked in March of 2019, a finished-not-final draft went to editor via agent around January 2020, offer/contracting happened during the lockdowns of 2020 spring, and it flies to shelves October 4th, 2022. (which is the best present ever for my birthday week. 😊

Yeah! A dual birthday party! 🥳 Charles, many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in Feathers Together? Could you share one or more with us?

CHARLES - I didn’t put many illustration “surprises” in this book as I was focusing on the composition and story flow a lot there. I did enjoy painting the cat on most spreads though.

The cat is a fun, light-hearted addition, which kids will enjoy hunting for. What was it like to get to collaborate on a third picture book together?

CHARLES - It’s been a wonderful collaboration and friendship so far. We are collaborating on the 4th book at the very moment. As I mentioned before, Caron never failed to give me a good challenge. Ha! I love it.

CARON – Dreamy. This Way, Charlie was an idea long tucked away, that surfaced when it did because I was hoping to make a second book with Charles. Getting to make these books with him is very special for me. He’s a gem on the page and off.

I totally agree to the ‘gem’ aspect on the page! He’s amazing. Charles, now that your ears are burning, how was your experience as an author/illustrator? Was it easier or harder when you got to control the words, too? What do you like about illustrating other’s books?

CHARLES - I love writing and illustrating my own stories but the writing part was so tough! I think many people might not realize this but writing picture books is really really hard if you want to do it right. With writing and illustrating, it took me LOTS of time to completely write and rewrite my words even after I started the drawing, which makes the need to change the drawings.

I like working with others’ manuscripts as I can go straight to the problem-solving part and be the other-half maker of the book. It’s much more effective as I trusted that the editors and writers have done their best to make sure the words are the best as they can be.

I would love to write and illustrate again as I have some ideas written out but I’m also really happy collaborating with wonderful writers.

Well I for one can't wait to see any and all of your next creations! Caron, when you first saw Charles’s illustrations did anything surprise or amaze you? What is your favorite spread?

Text © Caron Levis, 2022. Image © Charles Santoso, 2022.

CARON – I remember exactly where I was when I first saw the color images of Ida, Always because I had already been walking around just in love with the black and white sketches—and hadn’t even thought about how even more exquisite his colors would make it. The richness, the layers….it gives young readers exactly what they need for an emotional story—this gorgeous place of peace and play. It’s been the same way ever since. I’m never surprised yet always astounded.

In Feathers Together, I marvel at how Charles created the personalities of each stork visually, and as for spreads. I cannot possibly choose a favorite, but I am moved to the moon by the spread depicting the first moment of their reunion. Charles captures the beautiful complexity of their joy, relief, and awkwardness. It’s something so many of us are experiencing now and Charles just honors it so beautifully.

Charles, is there a spread you are especially proud of? Which is your favorite spread?

Text © Caron Levis, 2022. Image © Charles Santoso, 2022.

CHARLES - The goodbye spread with many many storks flying out was one of my favorites. I also love the spread when they meet again. It’s a quiet spread with many spaces around. I hope readers could really “feel” the emotion of both characters in that spread.

Both of these spreads are stunning and so emotionally packed. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

CHARLES - Mighty Muddy Us is the name of our next book together! Lots of elephants there, which are much harder to draw than horses. Ha! Wish me luck. [🍀]

CARON – Well, I am now in the super fun stage of our fourth book together—waiting as Charles finalizes art! It’s called Mighty Muddy Us, and is inspired by the real story of a pair of elephant siblings. I am also working on a new idea that I hope will be Charles’ next challenge from me (please cross fingers.) And I’m splattering down other book ideas always. [🤞]

And I remember how much fun you had drawing a herd of horses - good luck! It will be so exciting to have another collaboration from the two of you. I can't wait. Last question, what is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?

CHARLES - I love this little park in Sydney, Australia called Giles’ Park. I used to cross it every day to go to work. I got the ideas for many books there, Ida, Always’ clouds was one of them.

CARON – Pretty much every day I’m at home I wander into Fort Greene and Prospect Park in Brooklyn which gives a sense of peace and energizes me. I’m so grateful for the abundance of grand trees in my city neighborhood. I just today read about the rocks in Lake McDonald at Glacier National Park in Montana, so now I want to go there. And certainly I’d love to visit Amboseli National Park and where the elephants who inspired Mighty Muddy Us live.

Thank you Caron and Charles for stopping by and sharing with us. It was wonderful to chat with you both.

To find out more about Caron Levis, or contact her:

To find out more about Charles Santoso, or contact him:

Review of Feathers Together

A huge fan of Caron Levis and Charles Santoso, and especially their collaborative works, I am deeply honored to share this preview of their newest picture with you! Be sure to get it October 4th - before it flies off the shelves.

Feathers Together

Author: Caron Levis

Illustrator: Charles Santoso

Publisher: Abrams Books for Young Readers (2022)

Ages: 4-8



Friendship, birds, migraton, emigration/immigration, separation, and feelings.


Best friends Malena and Klepetan always adventure together! The two excitedly prepare to fly thousands of miles for the flock’s annual migration to a warm winter. But when Malena is injured, she stays in Croatia while Klepetan goes to South Africa—and the pair must navigate the turbulent winds of separation for the first time.

Being apart is hard. Malena and Klepetan miss each other achingly, and they have big feelings about adventuring on their own. But even over the vast distance, the two brave explorers discover ways to enjoy their separate seasons while keeping their hearts connected—and their hopes aloft that spring will bring them back together.

Opening Lines:

Rain or shine, Klepetan and Malena explored every season together.

When spring bloomed and hopped,

he inspected everything closely - klep, klep, hmm -

and she jumped into it all with wings wide open.

What I LOVED about this book:

This opening text and illustration is stunning. Magical. Touching. And hopeful. Did you notice, tucked in background on the lake's edge "the featherheaded man" (aka Stjepan) and his special cat (mentioned by Charles above) sitting with him as he fishes and watches the storks.

Text © Caron Levis, 2022. Image © Charles Santoso, 2022.

I adore that the fictional story, based on real-life, is told in third person from the storks' perspectives. As it offers us a chance to feel connected and invested in their adventures and hardships. And allows Caron Levis to create a wonderful catch phrase for the storks -"Whatever the weather. We'll weather it..."/"Feathers together," Charles Santoso's gorgeously realistic, digital illustrations masterfully draw the reader into the characters' personalities and emotions. The storks spend a fun summer, exploring, plotting, and practicing, preparing for the fall migration. Until "Malena got hurt."

Text © Caron Levis, 2022. Image © Charles Santoso, 2022.

Though never specifying texturally or visually stating the cause of Malena's injury, this spread is so poignant with the caring concern of the man and local children. And those two floating feathers are heartbreaking. How is a stork who can't fly going to nest with her mate and most importantly survive a cold Croatian winter alone, when her flock migrates South to Africa?

In the story, as in real life, the man's creativity and dedication found a way - from building a ramp to his roof and relocating their nest, to making them a part of his family. In turn, they adopted him and the cat into their flock. I adore the gorgeous and occasionally whimsical images of the storks together, settling in for the night - telling jokes and bedtime stories, and enjoying swimming, fishing, and gardening.

But soon, it was time for Klepetan to migrate south. In a super touching scene, the storks exchange feathers and promise to, "send jokes in the clouds and stories in the stars./Being apart will be our new together." It's such a heartbreaking moment full of affection and acceptance that many readers will identify with, especially after these past couple of years. I am so impressed with the way Caron and Charles deal with the dread, angst, and snappiness that can occur before departures (or big changes) and the ingenious way "the featherheaded man" smoothed everyone's feathers.

Following multiple types of ingenious split panels (Klepetan's in rectangles and Malena's in ovals) across multiple spreads, we join Klepetan's long journey and adventures in Africa and follow Malena's adventures with "the featherheaded man" during Croatia's winter.

Text © Caron Levis, 2022. Image © Charles Santoso, 2022.

While their loneliness initially overwhelms everything, the two storks slowly.... well, suffice it say that Caron's lyrical text gently captures the range of emotions and physical sensations which can accompany the passage of time spent apart, Together, with stunning spreads and continued variations of the storks' catch phrase, Caron and Charles weave the story of Klepetan and Maleana to a wonderfully satisfying ending. The author's note offers information on the real-life storks.

This an amazing story for bird lovers, for anyone separated (for any length of time) from loved ones, for chosen families, and immigrants. And most especially for friends - the ones who are always there no matter the distance and who feel like you saw them yesterday no matter the length of time you're apart. It's a

great book for discussing compassion, kindness, frienships, and our impacts (good and bad) on this world. A wonderful book for everyone's library!


- make your own pair of storks (easy directions).

- using the Flat Stanley Project as an example, create two flat characters, storks, or other animals. Draw, take photos, or write stories about their adventures. Then send them back and forth to a friend or family member, like Malena sent joke clouds to Klepetan.

- explore the live bird migration maps of Cornell's Lab of Ornithology (Bird Cast) or the Audubon Society (Bird Migration). Or check numerous species of birds, including the white stork, on the Eurasian-African Bird Migration Atlas.


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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