The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Katy Tanis and Review of Love in the Wild
Katy Tanis is a children's book writer and illustrator, surface/pattern designer, and jungle explorer. She is a masters student in zoology at Bronx Zoo/Miami University, which likely explains her slight obsession with her nieces, nephews, and many other small primates. Katy is a wannabe nomad who spends most of her time in California & NJ.
She’s illustrated for SCBWI, Bananagrams, and Aquila Magazine. Katy's the illustrator of I Am The Jungle (Sounds True 2020) and Animal Olympics (Ivy Kids/Quarto 2020).
Her author/illustrator debut board book Love in the Wild, released yesterday.
Welcome Katy, tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? How did you get started? What is your favorite type of book to write?)
I started my career in fashion. I wanted to use fashion as a vehicle to raise awareness for wildlife conservation issues. At some point, I decided to self-publish an alphabet book about lesser-known mammals. I had some followers interested in buying the book (mostly zookeepers) but print-on-demand books were still very pricy at the time. I wanted to learn about the process of getting published traditionally and took a children’s book class through City College of San Francisco. Once I was in the class it seemed so obvious that this is what I should be doing. It was a much better vehicle for sharing my interests than fashion was.
I wrote that book in 2009, so I guess I’ve been writing for 11.5 years. My income comes primarily from illustration work. That work is very deadline driven and always takes priority over my own writing. I do the opposite of the good writing advice I always hear and generally only write when inspiration strikes. I usually write on my couch. Occasionally I wake up in the middle of the night and have to write a few lines on my phone. Often inspiration strikes in the shower, so I ended up running down to my computer in a towel to write.
My favorite types of books to write involve taking a lot of other people’s research and weaving them together in new ways to make an interesting book, usually wildlife and ecology concepts. Even when I write fictional stories, it often has a tie in to an ecological concept.
Katy I think we are kindred spirits. Though, I just keep a pad & pen in the bathroom. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
When I was younger and first learning to spell, I kept asking my parents why ‘Mommy,’ ‘Daddy,’ and ‘Jenny’ (my sister) were all spelled with ‘y’s but ‘Katie’ was spelled with an ‘ie.’ They made the same sound so it didn’t make sense to me. They could not give me an answer I found satisfactory and got sick of me asking, so one day my mom just said, “Katy is spelled with a Y now.”
I love your mother! Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
Back in the day before Katy Perry, “Katy” was not a common spelling, so I was pretty thrilled by Katy No-Pocket by Emmy Payne and Katy and the Big Snow by Virginia Lee Burton solely based on their titles. I also loved Jennie’s Hat by Ezra Jack Keats, which I first took out of the library because of my sister’s name. Corduroy by Don Freeman really tugged at my heart strings, I checked that one out of the library all the time. And I thought There's a Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone was pure brilliance.
What was your inspiration for Love in the Wild?
My younger cousin came out as trans few years ago, and gay a few years later. I wanted to make him something to celebrate the news and started researching LGBTQ+ animal behaviors. I hadn’t realized how prevalent homosexual behavior and non-binary genders were in animals. Scientific findings about homosexual behavior in animals were often ignored, hidden, or explained away because of social attitudes towards homosexuality in the past. Only in the last few decades, are we really starting to learn about all these behaviors. I found many of the stories and behaviors so interesting, and I wanted to share that with more people.
Many people have heard at some point that homosexual behavior is not ‘natural’ because it doesn’t happen in animals. Even though I wasn’t aware of how common it was, I was well aware this statement was false, due to many news stories about same-sex penguin couples adopting eggs. I assumed that most of the general public had a similar understanding. But when people ask me what my book is about I am surprised by how many respond with “but there aren’t gay animals” or they assume I wrote a fictional story. So I hope the book can help correct the misinformation that is out there.
While I'd heard about the penguins, I didn't know about the other animals, either. Is there something you want your readers to know about Love in the Wild?
Even though the text is simple and I took a lot of liberties with the colors of the animal illustrations, the text shows accurate portrayals of specific, real-world animal behaviors. For example, in rhesus macaques (monkeys), only females courting other females play hide and seek. You can read more detail about the behaviors and the specific species here: www.mudpuppy.com/LoveInTheWild.
What about the manuscripts of I Am The Jungle and Animal Olympics appealed to you and made you want to illustrate them?
Jungles are my favorite ecosystem. When I say jungle, I am referring to tropical rainforests. (Jungle is not a scientific word and there is not a clear consensus of what that means, especially in children’s books.) I’ve been to tropical rainforests in 8 different countries now, so I was excited to explore jungle ecosystems in art with a more in-depth project. I also really loved the concept that the kids were using yoga in their everyday lives to take them to an imaginary jungle. So I liked thinking of ways to illustrate this imagined adventure world mixed into everyday kid life. My siblings and I spent most of our childhood exploring an imagined jungled island we created in our NJ backyard, so I was able to draw on my own childhood experiences. 😊
For Animal Olympics, I thought the book was a clever way to explore different animal adaptations and behaviors. I liked that the hook was interesting enough that it could introduce children to some lesser-known animals in a way that would still make them exciting to kids. Like who would have thought I could be impressed by a flea?
I really enjoyed both of these books. Many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in I Am The Jungle or Animal Olympics? Could you share one or more with us?
Image © Katy Tanis, 2021.
In the Animal Olympics book, I tried to use colors from a country’s flag that overlapped with the animals’ ranges. I would look at previous Olympic uniforms if they were available. Bruce Baumgartner, a 4-time Olympic wrestling medalist, is a family friend. I used one of his Olympic uniforms for inspiration on the wrestling spread. [I loved your end pages with the animals in the stadium seats!]
Text © Melissa Hurt, 2021. Image © Katy Tanis, 2021.
For I am the Jungle, there is a hint to the next spread in each page. Most of the background animals are ones I saw on my trip to Uganda and Rwanda. The publisher, Sounds True, put out a story kit with a wildlife checklist so you can find all of the background animals. https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0253/2822/2307/files/MKT-BK05843-IAmtheJungle-StoryTime-Kit-LowRes.pdf?v=1598382593&fbclid=IwAR2AjviMCxgvnfJAaKBwSBa24PRIYo8MvccT0hIA57HT7peIL8wE2XXrrgA.
Which was the hardest book to illustrate? Either because of the medium, amount of research you had to do, etc.
Good question. Each book had its own set of challenges. The Animal Olympics one was probably the hardest for me. I don’t usually put clothing on animals I draw, so that was a bit of a challenge. Also some of the perspectives and points of view that the designer and art director wanted for animals in action were quite challenging. And that mantis shrimp! It was hard to figure out what was going on with that creature’s anatomy from reference images. It has sooo many appendages!
It is fun and amazing to think of a mantis shrimp boxing! What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (either as a child or now as a writer.)
I am always inspired by nature. The fact that life exists at all, on this floating rock circling a giant fireball is amazing on its own. But all the different ways in which life has adapted to exist on this planet is endlessly fascinating. There are always new and exciting things to learn about when exploring the history of life on earth.
My niblings (nieces and nephews) are also a good source of inspiration. I have a newish interest in cephalopods and dinosaurs due to their obsessions.
There's nothing like kids to help spark ideas! Do you prefer being the illustrator or the author/illustrator? Why?
Since I am so driven by concepts, I am usually more excited about author/illustrator projects. I am also a really slow illustrator, so I have to really love a manuscript to want to put that much time, energy, and heart into it.
But that’s not to say I don’t like doing illustrator only projects, too. There is something really satisfying about working within an existing structure and seeing the best ways you can push and heighten the book with the illustrations.
Do you have a favorite illustration in Love in the Wild?
Text & Image © Katy Tanis, 2021.
It's interesting, I thought the penguin & flamingo spread were a bit boring when I first drew them, but after seeing them printed in the book, I now think they are two of my favorites. I really don't know the answer for this book. I like different spreads for different reasons. The boldness of the butterfly spread and how you can sort of make the wings flap with the book is pretty fun. I had trouble getting the composition right for the elephant spread, but then thought it turned out really nice in the end.
The setting sun and the heart between them is such a beautiful image. For Love in the Wild, which came first, the text or the images? What is the hardest thing for you about writing and/or illustrating children’s books?
The images, kind of. I had already created artworks that were very close to the lions, monkeys, otters, giraffes and ringtails that ended up in the book. The originals were hand painted, but the art director wanted the artwork to be a bit cleaner, so the artwork in the book is digital. Some of the ones I listed are almost exactly like the originals, others are tweaked for better page compositions. I finished the writing before illustrating the remaining spreads.
The hardest part for me is editing. I always want to include too many stories/facts/illustrations/concepts in a book. I get attached to little jokes, or word play, or a specific image or animal I really wanted to include. You have to strike the right balance to not overwhelm the reader with too much. You don’t want them to get lost in all the extras and miss the overall book themes or content. It’s important to keep the right pace for the book and only use the best content to serve the story.
Probably one of the hardest parts of this job for everyone - killing those precious darlings. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I don’t have any other book contracts right now. I do have one project on submission. I am currently developing a quilting fabric collection for Free Spirit fabrics and I will be doing a new legging print for Smarty Girl soon.
That sounds cool. I'll have to look for those. Good luck with the book. How did you, or are you, staying creative? Are there certain things that you do to “prime the well”?
Finding new ideas comes very easily and naturally to me. Staying focused on one idea to actually complete a project is where I struggle. I wish I could just turn the well off sometimes.
I think many would have enjoyed having that problem, this year. What is your favorite animal? Why?
You really like the tough questions don’t you? (Sorry!) I have so many favorites, but if I have to pick one it is probably gorillas. They are playful, curious, gentle giants and it’s so interesting to watch their family antics.
I totally agree with you there. Thank you so much for coming by to talk with me Katy. It was a pleasure getting to know you.
To find out more about Katy Tanis, or get in touch with her:
Review of Love In The Wild
Although I normally review picture books, I was intrigued by Katy's Love in the Wild board book, with its colorful cover and a basis in scientific observations of animal interactions. With bold colors for babies, fun animals for young toddlers, and imbedded concepts of acceptance and compassion for the caregivers, this rhyming board book will appeal to many youngsters and the adults who read it again and again and again.
Love In The Wild
Author/Illustrator: Katy Tanis
Nature, rhyming, same-sex couples, adoption, non-binary gender animals, acceptance, and compassion.
The sweet rhyming text in Mudpuppy's Love in the Wild Board Book highlights the many different types of love that can be found in the animal kingdom! This colorful celebration of love is based on scientists' observations of same-sex couples, adoption, non-binary gender expression and more.
holding hands on stormy seas,
nuzzling necks in leafy trees,
What I Liked about this book:
Many people, my self included, have heard about the two male penguins - Roy and Silo, at the Central Park Zoo, whose story of hatching an egg and raising a baby as a pair was immortalized in the picture book And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell. But I would be willing to bet that few knew that same-sex rearing of young happens throughout many animal species.
Katy Tanis' bright, bold illustrations and gentle rhyming text explore many instances where "animals have shown acceptance and compassion to other species and members of their own species who look or behave differently."
Text & Image © Katy Tanis, 2021.
Like a hermaphrodite butterfly,
Text & Image © Katy Tanis, 2021.
a spotted zebra, or squirrels and flamingos who also have same-sex couples raising young. She also shows other instances of animals showing caring and compassion to each other, their young, and other species. As in the whales who swam with a misshapen dolphin.
Additionally, on nearly every two-page spread, Katy symbolically works in a rainbow. Although she admits taking liberties with the colors of the animals, important distinctions of habitats (sea otters floating among kelp) and physical characteristics (slit pupils of alligators or the varied stripes on each zebra) heighten the educational nature of this informational book. One that is also a colorful, gentle, affirming board book that will hopefully encourage a bit more acceptance of differences.
- make a paper bag puppet of your favorite animals and put on a play.
- draw a picture of what love means to you.
- check out the research information and resources (LoveintheWild_info2.indd (shopify.com)).