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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Mike Ciccotello

Mike Ciccotello received a BFA with a concentration in painting from Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. He's created a series of short videos, Draw With Mr. Mike, geared toward drawing with 3-7-year-old kids (here).

Mike is the author-illustrator of the picture book Twins (2019) and the illustrator of Treemendous: Diary of a Not Yet Mighty Oak by Bridget Heos. (3/2021).

His newest picture book, Beach Toys vs. School Supplies, releases tomorrow.

Welcome Mike! Thanks for coming to talk about your newest book.

Tell us a little about yourself. Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing?

Thanks for inviting me, Maria. I dream of having a writing schedule, but for now, my day-to-day doesn't allow it. I write when I have time. During the day, I'm an art and design director for Telos Corporation. So, I write and illustrate at night and on the weekends. I'm a dad too, which is the most important job of all. Somehow, everything gets done. I write wherever and whenever it's quiet. I like quiet. Did I mention that I'm a father of two boys? I miss quiet. I've wanted to write for many years but only got the courage to start about six years ago. I've played with stories for a long time but never took my writing seriously until I learned about SCBWI six years ago.

I wish I could tell you it gets quieter as they get older. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

Well, now all of you know that I like quiet. Let me think of something else. I like watching the plants grow in my garden. It's one of my favorite things to do in the spring and summer. I take breaks from work and walk around, checking to see new flowers or where I need to weed. I don't pull the weeds, of course, but I do think about it. I save the weeding for when it's scorching hot out and inconvenient for the whole family, and it usually takes a full day to do.

I love that plan. I think I might have to adopt it as well! What was your inspiration for Beach Toys vs. School Supplies?

I wrote about this over on Tara Lazar's blog (here), but to quickly sum it up, my twin boys inspired me. I was looking at their toy shovel, and it was looking right back at me— [Oh those cheeky shovels!]

By the way, if you want to see the genesis of shovel and early illustrations of them all, check out Kathy Temean's post. So, how different was the experience of writing Beach Toys Vs. School Supplies and Twins?

Going from two characters in Twins up to twenty-three characters in Beach Toys vs. School Supplies was a difference. Juggling all of the personalities was fun. You hear that each book is a different experience, and I'm finding that to be true. I'm going into each project with no expectation of doing it, just like the last one. The only thing I can control is that my technical workflow improves with each book. By that, I mean the way I'm prepping, backing up, and delivering the final artwork.

Uh oh. Improving "backing up" sounds like you've had something disappear. Yikes! Is there something you want your readers to know about Beach Toys vs. School Supplies?

I think they can show us all a thing or two about working together. Even though the school supplies come from a place generally associated with work, and the beach toys are associated with playing, they still find common ground.

I like that. Especially since, sometimes, "work" can be play. And vice versa. How many revisions did Beach Toys vs. School Supplies take? What was the most challenging part of writing this book?

So. Many. Revisions. All of it was challenging. At one point, there were two versions of the book, with two different types of competitions. It may seem obvious to pick the sandcastle contest as the competition, but there were some other things I needed to figure out before I got there. Eventually, it became apparent, which was the stronger story. And when that happens, it's easier to let go of other ideas you spent so much time on.

Interesting. So, here's a 'chicken & the egg' question – which comes first for you, the text or the images?

It's a dance between text and pictures. I started with a sketch of all the characters, and then I began drafting. When I hit a wall, I switch gears and jump to drawing again. I go back and forth until something interesting starts happening.

I am beginning to understand your desire for peace! Did any of the spreads surprise you in their ease, difficulty, or perhaps the way they turned out? Which is your favorite spread? Why?

© Mike Ciccotello, 2021.

My favorite was the one that started this whole idea. The spread with all the characters staring each other down with Whistle tweeting in the middle. I love the expressions and the tension.

I like that spread, too. And are you sure they learned about working together? How are you, or have you been, staying creative during these times? Have you found anything that helps you "prime the well"?

Well, as you can tell, there's a party going on in my head all the time with these two, but having an opportunity to create and being on a deadline has helped keep me going. The most challenging thing has been adjusting my schedule to find the time to create. My wife and I were fortunate to be able to start working from home in March of 2020. Our kids have been switching between virtual school, in-person school, and a hybrid of that. There has been a lot of schedule juggling, but we are rolling with it as best we can.

This has been the craziest two years! If you could meet anyone real, literary, or imaginary, who would that be?

That's a tough one. Like many creators, it would be amazing to meet one of my characters in real life. Just think of the conversations we could have. But I have to admit, I've always wanted to meet Mr. Snuffleupagus.

I can honestly say that is the first time Snuffy has featured in one of my interviews. He would be fun to meet. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

Bookwise, I'm currently working with author Bridget Heos and the team at Crown/PRH on three nonfiction picture books for the Science Buddy series. And I am also working with author Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen and the team at Aladin/S&S on Cheese and Quackers, two graphic novels for young readers. On top of that, I have a drawing show, Draw With Mr. Mike, geared toward kids 3-8 years old. It's available on my website, and it's also on Vimeo.

I'm having a virtual launch party for the book on June 15th on Facebook Live. You can get to the free virtual event (here). And I will be performing a show at the Count Basie Center for the Arts. The theater performance has a narrative and will involve participation from the kiddos in the audience. Tickets are available (here).

Wow! Too bad I'm on the West Coast. That sounds like so much fun. Last question, what is your favorite animal? Or the one you are currently enamored with? Why?

I'm a big fan of cats. And dogs. But I also like hedgehogs. And don’t forget giraffes. And pigs. Ooh and CHICKENS! But wait, goats are cool too. Cows are pretty funny, so we need to add them. I once met this llama, so rude. Ah, but the fluffy bunny at that farm in WNY was so adorable. I guess I dig lots of animals.

Oh Shovel!

Thank you Mike, and you too, Shovel and Ruler, for sharing with us insight into your new book.

Be sure to stop back by Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Beach Toys vs. School Supplies.

To find out more about Mike Ciccotello, or get in touch with him:

Join Mike for the Virtual Book Launch:

Online with Facebook Live

Tuesday, June 15, 2021 at 12:50 PM PDT

Price: Free


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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