Ten Years and Counting

Ten Years and Counting

The other day, at approximately the same moment, Robbi and I glanced over at the calendar, saw that it was 2016, and did a bit of math.

It turns out we have been in Chestertown for ten years now. Even though it seems like we got here five minutes ago.

After the shock subsided, Robbi and I launched into a reminiscence of that day, about eleven years ago, when we realized we were sad. We had what we were supposed to want: great jobs at a fancy design firm, a row house in trendy Baltimore neighborhood, an elegant blue dog named Iggy.

But we didn’t have time to make stuff together. And all we really wanted to was make stuff together.

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And so we decided to make a change.

Plan A was grad school (MFA in fiction) for me. Robbi had gotten a lot out of her MFA. Maybe if I got one, too, we could go somewhere and teach together, and write and make art and that would make us happy. We were full of hope as I sent out my applications.

But the powers that be had other plans. Plan A was a bust.

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And so we came up with Plan B: quit our jobs, sell our house, and move into the hayloft above Robbi’s mom’s pottery studio. Our parents did not think this was a good idea. They were probably right. We were chucking our jobs and our health insurance for the prospect of certain financial ruin.

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But it didn’t matter. We knew we needed to try something different. And so we took a long, hard look at the hayloft in question. On one hand, it was unoccupied. On the other hand, it was full of 30 years of dusty stuff: lumber, broken pottery, cardboard boxes, various branches, old tires, ancient furniture, and other glorious debris Robbi’s dad (the ultimate pragmatist) couldn’t bring himself to throw away.

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And yet we had a plan. And the will. And Robbi’s parents’ permission to proceed.

So we spent our weekends for the next six months clearing out junk, one van-load at a time. Eventually we could see the floors and walls. And so we hung some insulation and some sheetrock.

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And made ourselves a brand-new home.

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The heart of Plan B was to make books until we ran out of money. To make sure we’d actually do it instead of lying around watching TV, we set up a subscription service. People gave us money and we promised to make and send them 10 books in the year to come. We had no idea what we were doing. We had no idea how to make books or publish books or sell books. But we decided to do it anyway.

We gave our venture a name. It was a terrible name. It was our name.

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Armed with our terrible name, we rolled up our sleeves and made some books (https://shop NULL.robbiandmatthew NULL.com/).

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(We made them on our dining room table.)

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We sent them out into the world. We had no idea if they were any good. But we were having a good time.

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Making books was the end of our plans. We had zero expectations or even hopes of anything beyond the making.

But things started happening.

For example, local painter Marc Castelli (http://www NULL.marc-castelli NULL.com/) showed our books to local bookseller Tom Martin (http://www NULL.bookplate NULL.biz/), who started carrying our books in October and asked us to do our first public presentation in December.

Suddenly, we were standing in front of a (admittedly tiny) crowd who expected us to have something to say. (We had nothing to say.) We mumbled and fumbled and yammered, and afterward sold a few books and even signed our names. It was at that moment we discovered that beyond the pleasure of MAKING books is the pleasure of sharing them with people.

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We got an opportunity to do more of the same a few months later when Carla Massoni of Chestertown’s own Massoni Gallery (http://www NULL.massoniart NULL.com/) included us in a group show of young artists.

Our central piece was a narrative mural that rose up from one of our books and wound its way up one wall, across a ceiling, and back down the opposite wall. But we also showed some framed illustrations from our books and some of Robbi’s clay monoprints. The show put our work in front of a bunch of new people. It made us feel like actual artists. Also, we sold a lot of books. We doubled our subscribership. We met some amazing fellow artists.

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One of them, a painter named J.T., asked to us paint a mural on the wall of a gallery in DC. We arrived on a Friday afternoon, brought sleeping bags, and painted and slept throughout the weekend, finishing in the wee hours Sunday morning. It was a panel from our book For the Love of God (https://shop NULL.robbiandmatthew NULL.com/products/for-the-love-of-god). It was extremely large.

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We reached our goal of making ten books together that first year, but (as we had anticipated) we pretty much burned through our savings. It was time to contemplate a return to the “real” world.

But then, at just the right moment, I got a miracle of a phone call from my old boss Clifford, asking if I might like to come back to work half time, from home, as a writer.

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I said yes. (I might have said “hell yes.”) Suddenly fortified with a predictable income, we kept on making books. Because we hadn’t yet run out of ideas.

Inspired by the fun we’d had with our first halting performance at Tom’s bookstore, we started refining our act and taking it on the road. As it turned out, we DID have something to say. We were living a story that people found interesting. And slowly we figured out how to tell it.

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Part of telling our story was finding ways to meet other people who cared about the kind of work we were making. Our Idiots’Books titles are best described as “odd, commercially nonviable picture books for adults.” They are not comics, but we found an approximate relevance and kinship at a couple of small press and comic shows.

About nine months into our adventure, we applied for (and were miraculously granted a table at) the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Arts Festival (https://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/MoCCA_Festival) in NYC. The first day, we charged way too much for our books and sold almost none of them. The second day, we made minor adjustments and fared much better. But the real takeaway from the show was that there was this army of other people who were also interested in combining pictures and words in unexpected ways. We were excited and energized.

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Another part of telling our story has been sharing it with students who are, themselves, interested in being creators of some sort. In the winter of 2008, we returned to our alma mater for our first joint teaching gig, where we spent January leading six writers and six visual artists through a monthlong exploration of collaborative book making. They made astonishing stuff. Stuff that they probably would not have made if we hadn’t been there. Our mission evolved from just making books to figuring out ways to empower other creators to make books (or really any creative product), too.

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Feeling bold (and somewhat lonely), we hosted a festival, Subscribers that Rock (http://www NULL.thebarnstorming NULL.com/archives/2007/11/subscribers_tha NULL.html), and invited our talented creative friends to come do their thing. Thanks to Drew, Brian, Rich, other Brian, Victor, Aidan, and Jim for making the trek and dazzling Chestertown with two days of literature, music, stand-up comedy, and string theory.

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Feeling even bolder, we decided to embrace responsibility and welcomed the first of our three (and soon to be four) children into the barn. Alden was extremely small. Every time I carried her to the changing table, I feared that I would break her. The good news: I did not break her.

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Time passed. We changed a lot of diapers. We kept making books. We kept finding new ways to share them. We kept telling our story whenever and wherever people would listen.

People started asking us to do stuff. People who worked in the real world of books. An editor named Liz asked us create a series of DYI, single-sheet recombining narratives (http://www NULL.tor NULL.com/2009/03/09/one-page-wonders/) for the Tor.com website. We called them One-Page WondersI remember getting her email asking if we’d be interested in taking on the project. I remember running around whooping with Robbi, so thrilled were we with the opportunity.

Not long after, essayist named Kim, who we met at a literary conference, asked us to speak at a symposium celebrating the essay.

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We gave a 12-minute talk with lots of illustrated slides. We were sharing the stage with a bunch of real-live writers who had published real-live books and won real-live awards and actually gotten their MFAs. But we made the audience laugh and even inspired a person or two (or so we were told).

After that, we really got the speaking bug. And so we were thrilled when an illustrator named Jaimie stopped by our table at the Small Press Expo and asked us to speak at the illustrious ICON7 (http://www NULL.theillustrationconference NULL.org/). ICON is a huge, international illustration conference where the biggest names in the field convene to share ideas and swap nicely drawn business cards. Based on our (utter lack of) contributions to date, we had NO BUSINESS speaking at ICON, but Jaimie was on the board, and there was an effort afoot to include “up and coming” creators alongside the titans and legends. And so we came and told our story. And made a bunch of new friends.

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It was around that time that an editor named Dan (who we’d also met at SPX), decided to include us in the New York magazine Approval Matrix (placing us, to our delight, in the Brilliant and Lowbrow quadrant).

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(Because who wants to be despicable and highbrow?)

It became our unofficial motto.

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Doing our best to live up to our adopted quadrant, we kept making books. And sharing them with people.

The merry men of Bombadil (https://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Bombadil_(band)), who we met one night after one of their gigs, visited our studio, checked out our stuff, and asked us to create the art for their next album. We felt like the people rock stars turned to for their album art. Because, suddenly, we were those people.

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The same editor named  Liz (she of the One Page Wonders fame) wrote us again and asked us to create chapter illustrations for the online release of Cory Doctorow’s book Makers. This was our biggest commission to date. It was a vast and audacious project to begin with, but we saw an envelope and wanted to push it. Liz indulged our idea to design the illustrations as 81 interchangeable “tiles” (http://boingboing NULL.net/2010/01/19/makers-tile-game-the NULL.html) that recombine in more ways than there are atoms in the universe.

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Our friend Joshua Wolf Shenk, who was then the director of the literary house at Washington College, commissioned us to create a mural on the ceiling and four walls of the Rose O’Neill Literary House at Washington College. Called Six Degrees of Frances Bacon, it was a huge web of literary greats (and Kevin Bacon), each connected with satirical phrases. It became the anchor for a profile about us in Baltimore Magazine (http://www NULL.baltimoremagazine NULL.net/old-site/arts/2010/07/nobodys-fools).

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On perhaps the most coincidentally important day of our lives in books (though we had no idea at the time) a guy named Jesse, who worked for Disney, bought one of our self-published mix-and-match books at a small press show in New York City. Instead of forgetting about it, some many months later, he shared it with an editor named Erin who worked at Little Brown, and who called us up and asked us if we might like to make a book with her.

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No matter that it was a book about kid-friendly superheroes who aren’t allowed to do anything more untoward than glare at one another. This was our proverbial “big break.” I wish I had a video of the jumping and yelling we did that day.

Working within the narrow creative parameters of the Disney/Marvel universe, we rolled up our sleeves and made the best book about pacifist super heroes that we possibly could.

This book provided the occasion for a writer named Lela Moore at the New York Times to write a little piece (http://artsbeat NULL.blogs NULL.nytimes NULL.com/2010/11/10/the-idiots-guide-to-publishing/) about Robbi and me, Idiots’Books, and our first foray into commercial publishing.

And it gave us a chance to show our editor Erin that we were willing to work our butts off, that we always met our deadlines, and that we were fun to collaborate with.

It was around this time that Bridget, an editor at Chronicle Books—yes CHRONICLE BOOKS (http://www NULL.chroniclebooks NULL.com/)—offered to publish a gorgeous hardcover version of our self-published book Ten Thousand Stories (https://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Ten-Thousand-Stories-Ever-Changing-Happenings/dp/1452114072/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1474818851&sr=8-1&keywords=ten+thousand+stories).

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About which, Pulitzer-prize winning book critic (and all-around stellar human being) Michael Dirda wrote a glowing review (https://www NULL.washingtonpost NULL.com/entertainment/books/ten-thousand-stories-an-ever-changing-tale-of-tragic-happenings/2013/12/11/9d664514-60fd-11e3-bf45-61f69f54fc5f_story NULL.html) in the Washington Post.

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In what is perhaps the peak moment of her past decade, Robbi had the opportunity to interview the legendary Robert Crumb, live, on stage, a block from our house. Apparently unaware of Crumb’s reputation as a difficult interview, Robbi did her research, came loaded for bear, and stood toe-to-toe with this legendary creator. While winning his heart in the process.

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We kept making books, but without making it our explicit mission, we also started spending more and more time on stage talking about them. Through our appearance at ICON7, we met illustrators Melanie Reim and Anelle Miller, who gave us the ultimate honor of presenting the keynote address at the Society of Illustrators (https://www NULL.societyillustrators NULL.org/) Educator’s Symposium.

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One day at the AWP conference (https://www NULL.awpwriter NULL.org/awp_conference/), we met a guy who, after leafing through our Idiots’Books offerings, suggested that if we were to offer a subscription-based book club for kids, he’d buy ten club memberships on the spot. We thought about that for a while (our initial thought was, “no way, that’s too much work”) and launched Bobbledy Books. (Our subsequent thought was “this is too much work, but we will find a way.”)

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Bobbledy gave us the opportunity to ask our friends Drew Bunting and Brian Slattery, genius musicians and songwriters, to pour their heart and soul and musical wizardry into three incredible children’s albums.

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And the chance to collaborate with composer, actor, singer, songwriter, puppeteer, and one-man-band Jordan Allan White (http://jordanallenwhite NULL.com/) on a fourth. (For anyone in the Atlanta area, Jordan’s musical puppet show Loggerhead Island is about to open at the Georgia Aquarium. It’s amazing. Check it out.

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Another notable project came from fellow Williams College alum Ashley Weeks Cart (http://blogalacart NULL.com/), who commissioned us to create a poster-sized illustrated bucket list (https://shop NULL.robbiandmatthew NULL.com/products/ephropology-101-the-williams-bucket-list) of the Williams College experience.

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It was an extraordinary amount of work, and we’ll probably never do anything like it again, but it was an opportunity to push ourselves in yet another creative direction. (If you are keen to get your hands on one of these, we still have a few left (https://shop NULL.robbiandmatthew NULL.com/products/ephropology-101-the-williams-bucket-list).)

The election of 2012 came around. The cast of characters seemed too odd and problematic to resist the opportunity for satire. And so we created a three-panel mix-and-match book that allowed the reader to recombine the physical characteristics and position platforms of the ten most prominent candidates into 1,000 possible candidates. Our good friend Josh created a slick interactive version that you can still play today (if you are nostalgic for days when folks like Herman Caine and Rick Santorum were the leading edge of nutty.)

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And then there was our letterpress adventure, a flurry of exploration of an entirely new medium in partnership with our friend and printer Jodi Bortz. We made cards and invitations and family trees and stationery. Even though Robbi and I are taking an indefinite vacation from the letterpress game, Jodi has created her own enterprise, Blue Canary Letterpress (http://bluecanaryletterpress NULL.com/), which still offers many of Robbi’s designs in addition to plenty of Jodi’s own. Her shop is about a block from the barn, and you can swing by to see the Chandler in Price in action most days.

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We must give thanks to Elise, who gave us a chance to take the stage at TedX. (If you decide to watch the video of our talk (https://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=Vqx7qMPyYG0), take heart to know that my microphone issue gets sorted out about a minute in.)

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And to Gabby Blair of Design Mom fame, who asked us to come speak at Alt Summit (http://www NULL.altitudesummit NULL.com/), and who recently paid us the ultimate compliment of featuring our picture book Babies Ruin Everything (https://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Babies-Rudrin-Everything-Matthew-Swanson/dp/1250080576/ref=sr_1_1?s=instant-video&ie=UTF8&qid=1469307003&sr=8-1&keywords=babies+ruin+everything) among her Four Picture Books You’ll Love column (http://www NULL.designmom NULL.com/category/childrens-lit/).

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The blogger, innovator, and conference creator Laura Mayes saw our dog and pony show at Alt and asked us to come speak at Mom 2.0 (https://www NULL.mom2summit NULL.com/).

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It was there that, wandering around the exhibitor halls one afternoon, we found our way onto the TODAY show set and accidentally discovered that we enjoy sitting together chatting on video.

And then there’s design director, Lisa Kelsey, who we also met us at ICON7 (see what a big deal THAT turned out to be, thank you Jaime Zollars (http://www NULL.jaimezollars NULL.com/)!), and offered us the opportunity to be profiled (http://www NULL.familycircle NULL.com/family-fun/relationships/modern-life-matthew-swanson-and-robbi-behr/) in an issue of Family Circle magazine.

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And let us stand up and shout from the rooftops about how much we love and trust and would be nowhere without our magnificent advisor/truth teller/literary agent Meredith, who has (so far) boldly sold five of our book projects to Macmillan.

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And this seems like the perfect moment to (re)introduce our (very nice) editor and publisher Erin Stein (she of Super Hero Squad fame), who a few years ago started her own imprint at Macmillan and, in a dramatic flourish of believing in us, promptly acquired five of our book projects.

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Erin gave us the thrill of publishing our first hardcover children’s book (https://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Babies-Rudrin-Everything-Matthew-Swanson/dp/1250080576/ref=sr_1_1?s=instant-video&ie=UTF8&qid=1469307003&sr=8-1&keywords=babies+ruin+everything) this past July.

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Erin gave us the thrill of making and anticipating the arrival of our second hardcover picture book Everywhere, Wonder (https://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Everywhere-Wonder-Matthew-Swanson/dp/1250087953/ref=pd_sim_14_1?ie=UTF8&pd_rd_i=1250087953&pd_rd_r=FX8AB8XKTBXFFK5Z0RG6&pd_rd_w=xQJOn&pd_rd_wg=ukjd8&psc=1&refRID=FX8AB8XKTBXFFK5Z0RG6) this coming February.

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And she has given us the truly mind-boggling thrill of working on and publishing our first illustrated novels, a middle grades series called The Real McCoys, the creation of which is currently occupying the lion’s share of our waking moments (and plenty of our non-waking ones, as well), and which will arrive on bookshelves sometime next fall. Here are the main characters, Milton and Moxie. 12378001_10207973449206382_7050087709629606737_o (http://robbiandmatthew NULL.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/12378001_10207973449206382_7050087709629606737_o NULL.jpg)

Beyond the books and gourmet donuts (Erin really knows how to host a production meeting), Erin won our hearts during our first official visit to the Macmillan offices in the Flatiron building (yes, the Flatiron Building that we always stop to gaze up upon and take pictures of ourselves in front of and wonder what’s happening inside of) by taking us on a private tour of the 18th-floor balcony and letting us know we have a second home in New York.

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What started out as a desire to not be sad has turned into an decade-long avalanche of creative opportunity. The range of things we’ve had the chance to make and do and experience over the past ten years defies belief, let alone my ability document them all.

In an attempt to remember, I just looked up at the shelf of stuff we’ve made. 70 books (https://shop NULL.robbiandmatthew NULL.com/) and counting. Four children’s albums. A handful posters and broadsides. A line of t-shirts and onesies. Various cards and postcards and invites and business cards and logos and websites and original art.

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A bunch of nice write ups in various newspapers and magazines.

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Dozens of talks and workshops and class visits and critique sessions on colleges, schools, conferences, and libraries across the country.

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It’s impossible to hold in our heads at one time. And so we wrote it down here. To remind ourselves that it happened. To remind ourselves that it’s only the beginning.

A million thanks to the people mentioned throughout this post, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. Without the rest of you, we probably wouldn’t have made it past the first few projects. Our creative lives have been possible because of the army of other people who supported our adventures these past ten years by:

  • subscribing to Idiot’sBooks or Bobbledy Books
  • buying our books at shows and online
  • hiring us to do do custom books and illustrations
  • reading our blog
  • watching our children
  • making us dinner
  • helping us stuff envelopes
  • sending us care packages
  • giving us hand-me-downs
  • putting up with our nonsense
  • helping us fish in Alaska
  • simply showing up and living this story with us

Thank you, thank you, to all of these people.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably one of them.

How to Make a Children’s Book

How to Make a Children’s Book

This is a long story, but I’ll try to make it short. Or at least entertaining.

Way back in 2003, Robbi and I made our first book together. Kind of accidentally. She needed some words to illustrate for her grad school application, and so I showed her some of my strange little stories.

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Robbi illustrated my words. A book (http://shop NULL.robbiandmatthew NULL.com/products/a-bully-named-chuck) emerged. We had a ton of fun.

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And so we decided that making books together was the thing we wanted to do one day. When we grew up.

But it wasn’t quite time yet. First, Robbi got her MFA.

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Then we got jobs at a design firm and learned about branding and page layout and publishing and production schedules and printing and the other things you need to know in order to run a small publishing company.

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We did that for a few years, but then we got sad, realizing that we were spending all of our best energy making stuff for other people.

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And so we quit our jobs, moved into our barn, and started making books for ourselves. Over the years, we’ve made a LOT of books (65 and counting).

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And we’ve sent them out to anyone who seems to be interested.

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One of our early titles was After Everafter (http://shop NULL.robbiandmatthew NULL.com/products/after-everafter). It’s a mix-and-match book that lets the reader recombine parts of ten illustrated stories to make 10,000 separate permutations.

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Another of our early efforts was Babies Ruin Everything (http://shop NULL.robbiandmatthew NULL.com/products/babies-ruin-everything),  a satirical book about an older sibling’s frustrations upon the arrival of the new baby. It doubled as a birth announcement for our son Kato.

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One day back in 2008, I think, we were at a book fair in NYC. It looked a little like this.

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We didn’t even know it at the time, but a guy from Disney came by our table and bought a copy of After Everafter.

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About a year later, he shared it with an editor who worked for a major publishing company.

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As it turns out, SHE was looking for someone to make a mix and match book about super heroes. She called and introduced herself to us.

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Erin, who is very nice, asked us if we’d like to write and illustrate a book about the Super Hero Squad series (http://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Super-Squad-Flips-Marvel-Hardcover/dp/0316176273/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1441559117&sr=8-1-fkmr0&keywords=super+hero+squad+series+flips+out) (which is a little kid version of the Marvel Super Heroes). We said yes, of course. It was a huge opportunity to get our foot in the door.

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The Super Hero Squad Flips Out (http://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Super-Squad-Flips-Marvel-Hardcover/dp/0316176273/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1441466663&sr=8-1&keywords=super+hero+squad+flips+out&pebp=1441466663792&perid=1BB3PETM1J4Y3GJ757Y5) did not turn us into overnight sensations, but it did let Erin know that we knew what we were doing, worked very hard, and always met our deadlines. When the super hero dust settled, Erin was interested in doing another book with us.

We had shared our self-published stuff with Erin, and she thought that Babies Ruin Everything might make an excellent children’s book—with major revisions and entirely new illustrations, of course.

The Idiots’Books version of Babies Ruin Everything was written as a satirical piece for adults, and so some aspects of the original material was not exactly children’s book fare.

The terrifying moment when bloodthirsty spiders threaten the baby for example.

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And that heartwarming passage when the baby pees all over himself. Actually, the baby pees all over himself on pretty much every page of this book.

 

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Or that moving episode during which our protagonist fantasizes about riding on a pony as it poops on the head of her sworn enemy, Nancy.

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Needless to say, some tweaks were needed to make it appropriate for the children’s picture book market, and so Erin and I set to work in revising the manuscript.

Erin_M2_collaborating_BRE (http://robbiandmatthew NULL.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Erin_M2_collaborating_BRE NULL.jpg)While Erin and I worked on the words, Robbi sketched and painted and developed the characters.

A spunky little girl…

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…her menace of a baby brother…

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…and the girl’s trusty sidekick, best friend, and totem animal, Leonard the Hamster.

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Robbi also created one full scene—just to give a sense of how the characters might look when placed in a colored layout.

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Months passed. (Things happen not terribly quickly in the trade publishing world.). One day, we got a call from our agent, Meredith.

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Erin had made an offer on Babies Ruin Everything! In fact, it was to be the very first picture book published by her brand-new imprint at the Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. And in case you are wondering, the imprint’s name is…wait for it…Imprint (https://twitter NULL.com/ImprintReads)!

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We did a lot of leaping and hollering. This was the “big break” one dreams of, and we had been dreaming of it for a long, long time. We spent a few minutes pinching ourselves…

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…but then it was time to get to work. And so we did.

There was more revising to do, and so I did it.

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But most of the work that remained was Robbi’s, and so she rolled up her sleeves and got down to business.

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Her first job was refining the characters, in particular the protagonist. One of the great things that happens when you illustrate a book with a publishing company instead of with your husband in in your living room is that you have access to people with great experience and great ideas. Our editor Erin and our art director Patti Ann thought it might be worth exploring what would happen if the girl’s eyes were simplified from the version in our pitch.

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They suggested that Robbi model the eyes of our Babies Ruin Everything protagonist after those of the main character in our independently published children’s book My Henderson Robot (http://shop NULL.robbiandmatthew NULL.com/products/my-henderson-robot). Here’s how her eyes looked.

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And here’s what Robbi came up with for the new version of Babies Ruin Everything heroine.

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Simpler, sweeter, more expressive. More Robbi. We loved it. Once the girl was in hand, Robbi did more studies of the baby.

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And trusty sidekick Leonard.

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The next step was seeing what these characters would actually be doing as they made their way through the story. Instead of starting at the beginning and figuring the book out a page at a time, Robbi sketched out the entire thing by creating thumbnails. This is the illustrator’s version of creating an outline before sitting down to write a paper.

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The thumbnails allowed Erin and Patti Ann to get a sense of the visual pacing of the book and whether there was a good balance of fully developed scenes and simple illustrated spots. There was a bit of back and forth at this stage, but once Erin and Robbi were both happy, Robbi started creating more fully fleshed out sketches on her computer—still not final art, but a clearer sense of how the actual pages and spreads would look.

Here are a few examples.

The girl’s bedroom.

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The baby being hoisted over mom’s shoulder.

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Girl and baby scribbling not very carefully in the corner.

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Once the entire book was sketched out like this, Erin and Patti Ann took another close look and made more suggestions for refinements before Robbi took the huge next step of developing the final artwork.

First, she took out her pen and ink and brushes and painted all the final line work for the characters, using her light table so that she could use the sketches as a guide.

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Once the lines were inked, Robbi stopped briefly to set up a photogenic tableau and admire her handiwork. Admiring is an often overlooked, but utterly indispensable, moment in the creation of any book.

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Then it was time for the painting.

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Painting, from what I can gather, is immensely gratifying.

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It’s the moment when the characters escape from one flat, monochromatic plane of being.

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And leap suddenly into another.

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Suddenly, they are utterly alive and unleashed, for better or for worse.

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When the painting was done, Robbi placed the inked and painted characters in the layout and built fully rendered scenes around them, using cutouts of sampled of watercolor washes like pieces of collage, adding shadows to create texture and depth. It’s a long and technically complicated process, but the end results are pretty satisfying.

Here’s what the three scenes I showed you in sketch form look like as finals.

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Apples and oranges. Day and night.

Once the insides of the book were done, the tricky and essential process of creating the perfect cover.

In this process we were aided by the talents of the book’s designer, Liz Casal. Liz’s lineup of gorgeous cover designs speaks for itself (http://www NULL.lizcasal NULL.com/), and so we knew we were in very good hands. But no matter the talents of those at the table, the process of testing and exploring and lamenting and weeping and finally rejoicing on the way to finding the perfect cover is a long one. But a hugely important one. As it turns out, people really DO judge books by their covers, which is why there are people who specialize in knowing what works and what does not when it comes to covers. Fortunately, the team at Macmillan really knows what they are doing. And so I am happy to share with you, for the first time, the actual, real-live cover of Babies Ruin Everything.

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We are over the moon about this cover. We love everything about it, from the general concept to the helpless and offended look on Leonard’s face to our wonky handwritten names.

Just the other day our appreciation for the cover rose to yet another level, because just the other day our proofs arrived.

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The proofs are the actual artwork printed on the actual paper stock with the actual finishing techniques. In the case of our cover, all that delicious red ink will be covered with a varnish, which is laid down in a subsequent run through the press after all of the images are in place. The varnish creates a deligthful gleam, and a texture that you can deliciously appreciate by running your finger across the page. Those scribbles literally rise up from the stark white.

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We got seriously geeked out. Not only is the quality of printing head and tails above anything we can manage in-house, but such techniques as varnishing are just beyond our scope as DYI publishers. Another first with this book: the dust jacket. Here it is in full, stretched-out glory. The front flap (on the right) introduces the characters and teases the story. The back flap (on the left) has our bios and author’s photo, or author’s illustration, as the case may be.

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But that was just the cover. The interiors were equally stunning. The kids joined us in perusing the proofs. They have been hearing about Babies Ruin Everything for so long and were excited to finally have a look.

Apparently, they like it. All except August, who (as the closest thing we have to a baby in this family) was insistent on living up to his role and ruining the shot.

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Every day brings us closer to the release date, but that date is still not even sort of close. Trade books have a long gestation period. The book will hit the shelves on July 21, 2016. Between now and then, the Macmillan sales team will do their best to sell the book to bookstores and create excitement among people who love and promote and review books.

But the cover is just about to be officially unveiled, and so we figured it was high time to bring you up to date.

Until then, our protagonist waits not quite patiently on the magnet board above my desk, biding her time.

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I want to take a moment to give a shout out to the core of our Babies Ruin Everything team. Although so many others have contributed to this book’s long gestation (thanks to Jesse Post, Nicole Otto, Patti Ann Harris, Mary Kate Gaudet, and Liz Casal, and Bridget Watson Payne among others), we want to give particular thanks to our incredible agent Meredith Kaffel Simonof (https://twitter NULL.com/mere215) (red dress), whose smarts and savvy and expert stewardship helped make this project a reality, and to our visionary editor Erin Stein (https://twitter NULL.com/arbiteroftaste) (far right), who took the leap of faith to give us this opportunity and feeds us donuts and makes our ideas so much better.

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We have always loved the Flatiron Building, long before we had any idea that it housed the Macmillian offices and long before we knew that we and Macmillan would one day be in cahoots. But these days, we feel even more attached to the place, and so grateful to have a creative home there, in the eighth floor conference room—where tiny seeds of ideas grow into full-grown books and reckless dreams become reality.

IMG_3267-copy (http://robbiandmatthew NULL.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/IMG_3267-copy NULL.jpg)

Since you can’t yet go out and buy eleven copies of Babies Ruin Everything, perhaps you’ll do the next best thing and like the Babies Ruin Everything (https://www NULL.facebook NULL.com/BabiesRuinEverything?ref=hl) Facebook page, which is launching today. We’ll use it to keep you up to date on the milestones yet to come, including the book’s release next summer.

And that’s all. Just an ordinary post for a Tuesday morning. Thanks for coming along for the ride.

Full Circle

Full Circle

Not long ago, we spent the day (http://robbiandmatthew NULL.com/in_the_family_circle_way/)with a photographer from LA and photo stylist from New York. They were in town to snap photos of our tiny tribe for a feature in Family Circle Magazine (http://www NULL.familycircle NULL.com/family-fun/relationships/modern-life-matthew-swanson-and-robbi-behr/).

Some weeks have passed since then, but we were vaguely aware that the issue with our family’s story would be coming out this summer. It being June, Robbi thought to have a look at the magazine rack while we were shopping yesterday (a kind of miracle, frankly).

And look what she found!

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There we were in the table of contents. Which kept us from the desperate scramble to thumb through every page attempting to find ourselves (a quest we have not yet completed in 40 years of trying).

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The children were excited. Or was it horrified? I couldn’t quite tell.

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Kato immediately proclaimed that his appearance fee was going to double.

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August made an esoteric comment about the surprising quality of the printing.

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We bought a few copies and brought them home, where we exhausted ourselves trying to get a decent selfie with both of us and the magazine. We gave up, eventually. Here is the least conspicuous failure. If only Ari (the Family Circle photographer) had been on hand to document the moment.

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Here is the online version, (http://www NULL.familycircle NULL.com/family-fun/relationships/modern-life-matthew-swanson-and-robbi-behr/) which includes the entire interview.

And here is the print version, with an embarrassing pull-quote about my lack of taste in music (that I fully admit to having said) and more photos of hard-hitting family action. 

Family_Circle_1 (http://robbiandmatthew NULL.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Family_Circle_1 NULL.jpg) Family_Circle_2 (http://robbiandmatthew NULL.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Family_Circle_2 NULL.jpg)

For those of you who are desperate to buy a copy for archival preservation and/or framing (thanks, Mom!), here’s the cover to look for.

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It seems only fitting that it features a truly gratuitous strawberry shortcake, which is, if you are not aware, one of our many family traditions.

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Thank you, Family Circle, for giving our family this opportunity. That’s you, Lisa Kelsey and Suzanne Rust! And you Tina Anderson and Ari Michelson!

Not only was this incredibly fun, but it gave us an excellent excuse to clean our damn house. And to get a few new shirts. Maybe you guys could come around every six months or so to keep us in line?

Or at least threaten to?

Smaller Than Life

Smaller Than Life

Ever since joining forces with Macmillan, we have felt an even greater fondness for the Flatiron Building. It had always been one of our favorite New York City landmarks, but now it is a second home of sorts. And so, when I found myself in the Lego Store with the kids yesterday afternoon, I simply could not resist the allure of the tiny Lego Flatiron. It was if it had been placed there for the express purpose of emptying my wallet.

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I can try to justify the purchase in a number of ways. For example, included is a colorful brochure that outlines the building’s history. If I am to write books for Macmillan, it is critical that I know the history of the Flatiron, from construction to present day, right?

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Or, I could argue that the purchase was made entirely worthwhile by the fact that the tiny Lego Flatiron came with a Lego brick separator. Why the dozens of other Lego sets I have acquired throughout my life did not come with a brick separator is a puzzle to me. Of course I had to buy the tiny Flatiorn. Of course I did.

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But none of these explanations is quite accurate, I think. The reason I purchased the tiny Lego Flatiron boils down to one simple thing.

To enjoy my building experience.

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And how could I not? The prospect of 471 deliberately interlocking pieces lured me to the flat table instead of to my bed, where I would otherwise have been in the post-children hours of Sunday night. I was too excited.

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As was my co-conspirator, she who shares my emerging fondness for the actual, non-tiny Flatiron. As construction began, she was the designated “presser together of small plastic bricks.”

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I was the “holder of instruction manual” and “supplier of bricks needed for subsequent step.”

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As with any building, our tiny Lego Flatiron required a sturdy foundation.

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But unlike the actual Flatiron, which took more than an hour to erect, our tiny version creeped quickly upward.

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At a critical moment, we were directed to turn one of the seemingly parallel outer walls inward. The Flatiron is triangular, after all.

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At another moment—and perhaps I should spare my co-conspirator the embarrassment of reporting on this detail, but will not for the sake of hard-hitting journalistic integrity—Robbi installed some of the tiny windows sideways and was forced to use the Lego brick separator to pry them loose.

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You might think she would have leapt at the opportunity, and yet…

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The windows adjusted and the side panel complete, we started enhancing the tiny Flatiron central core with its grand facade.

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Whoever designed this set had to make difficult decisions, distilling fine detail down into gestures that suggest the feeling the building evokes. Which is majesty and style. I love the design of the molding around the top of the building, the way it curves gently outward like a subtle crown.

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Once the Fifth Avenue side of the building was complete, we started working on the back (which runs up against East 22nd Street).

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And then the Broadway side.

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The final step was the roof. Look how ingeniously it fits into the little couplings inside. I loved Lego then and I love it just as much today. I love how it keeps evolving as I do.

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Many thanks to the co-conspirator.

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And thanks to the tiny Flatiron, for giving me reason to break through the decades-long hiatus from buying Legos for myself. We have yet to decide where it will live, but know that it will be a place of highest honor.

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Thanks also to the actual Flatiron, which has recently invited us to come inside.

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Here is the 8th-floor conference room, where we recently met with our editor Erin and our agent Meredith to discuss books present and future.

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In the box were ridiculously large and delicious donuts (one of which was glazed with hibiscus-flavored frosting, lower left).

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Out the window…

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Was the whole wide world.

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While the kids caught up on the latest direct-to-DVD classics…

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…we joined forces with book-wise friends in the pointy conference room.

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After our meeting, Erin showed us her office, which is kind of like a wonderland

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Alden tried to pose for the photo below. She really, really tried, but there was just too much to look at.

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How can a seven-year-old book enthusiast be expected to stand and mug when such bounty was on hand?

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Including, in case you missed it, down there in the corner, a few titles our most loyal readers might find familiar.

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Erin’s tour included a magical book of the pop-up variety. (In the doorway is Erin’s excellent assistant Nicole, who has already saved our butts on several occasions.)

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Beyond big donuts and a sojourn in the pointy conference room, Erin saved the best surprise for last. A trip to the 19th floor to visit the Flatiron’s only balcony.

It was like standing on the prow of the Titanic, were the Titanic to be anchored in the middle of Manhattan. Here, the view was even grander. Whether looking out…

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…or up.

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The kids have no idea how lucky they are to have had the chance to stand in that spot.

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And frankly, as hard as we try, neither do we. We try as hard as we can to keep a firm grasp on the enormity of our good fortune, to be grateful at every moment for the wild turns of this ever-unpredictable journey in books and making stuff together.

But then stuff like this happens.

It is good that our Barn is but two stories tall. The view from the 19th floor of the Flatiron is the sort of thing that should only be sampled in tiny bites, and only every once in a while.

Making Our Mark

Making Our Mark

For months we have not been sharing some very exciting news, because for months we have been existing in a state of sworn secrecy. But now the moment has arrived, and we can finally spill the beans.

Our longtime editor (and, dare I say, friend) Erin Stein, formerly of Little Brown Books for Young Readers, left her old post in December to start a new imprint at Macmillan. For those of you not in the know, an imprint is a sub-division of a publishing house, a curated collection of titles with a particular editorial sensibility. Erin, who has long been a fan of our work, decided to include our book Babies Ruin Everything among the titles in her first “list,” which is the group of titles offered by an individual editor or imprint.

We are extremely pleased. Not only do we love working with Erin (who was editor for our surprising journey into Spider Man’s psyche, The Super Hero Squad Flips Out) (http://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Super-Squad-Flips-Marvel-Hardcover/dp/B00A19Y3FS), but the thought of being a part of something that is just getting started appeals to our entrepreneurial sensibilities.

The reason we are telling you this today is that the something that we are a part of was just officially launched (http://www NULL.publishersweekly NULL.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-industry-news/article/66631-erin-stein-making-an-imprint-at-macmillan NULL.html). Erin’s imprint will be called…wait for it…Imprint!

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Here’s the story in Publisher’s Weekly (http://www NULL.publishersweekly NULL.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-industry-news/article/66631-erin-stein-making-an-imprint-at-macmillan NULL.html)(including brief mention of Robbi and me and Babies Ruin Everything).

As for the book in question, Babies Ruin Everything is the trade picture book version of our old Idiots’Books title of the same name (http://shop NULL.robbiandmatthew NULL.com/products/babies-ruin-everything).

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The original is a satirical piece with sophisticated language and NSFK illustrations and intended for adults. Version 2.0 is still lighthearted and funny, but definitely meant for kids. Specifically, it is targeting the market niche defined by families having second babies (apparently, this is a robust and viable group of book-buying people). The book helps build empathy with kids who are feeling a bit put upon by the arrival of the younger sibling. You might buy it for your kid if your kid is worried about the new baby. Or as a shower gift. Or because you enjoy stories involving ruin.

Here is the unwitting protagonist of Babies Ruin Everything, shown here in the series of sketches we submitted to Erin in the process of developing the character.

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And here is the insurgent, upstart baby in question. He who ruins everything. He whose disarming affect and perpetual grin makes him impossible not to root for, to the constant consternation of our heroine.

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And here is our protagonist’s trusty, loyal sidekick, Leonard the hamster, always by her side in good times and bad, not a fan of babies, to be sure.

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If you ask Erin, Leonard is the actual protagonist of Babies Ruin Everything. Beyond her love of books, Erin has great affinity for all things small and cute and fuzzy.

And who is this this towering, hamster-loving scion of the publishing universe, you might ask?

Here she is (far right), along with our (amazing) agent, Meredith Kaffel (http://www NULL.defioreandco NULL.com/about/meredith-kaffel) (red dress), at the Imprint offices in NYC last week.

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There is much more to be said about this book, about Imprint, about our Macmillan adventures to this point, but for now I will leave you with the view from the 8th story conference room of the Flatiron Building, which is Macmillan’s home. It was an inspiring backdrop for a creative brainstorm.

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We gathered that day to discuss the making and marketing of Babies, which, contrary to the usual terms of gestation, will not be delivered until about a year from now.

Fortunately, Robbi’s obligations are a little bit different this time around.

More Dreams Come True

More Dreams Come True

We have some extremely exciting news.

About six months ago, we got an email from our literary agent saying that she had just gotten an email from an editor at LB Kids (http://www NULL.hachettebookgroup NULL.com/kids/) with an offer to publish one of our books.

This is how the email made us feel.

We were pleased for the obvious reason: that another of our books is being acquired by a major publisher.

But we were particularly excited in the photo above because that email was a pivotal moment in a journey that began long ago, and which will continue for several more years, at least.

Only the most astute among you will remember this post from November of 2011, reflecting on our visit to New York City to visit with “the titans of the publishing world.”

At the time, we were purposefully coy about the identity of our hosts and the true purpose of our visit (not wanting to jinx ourselves, you know), but today we are delighted to say that the gorgeous glass elevator and towering atrium of that monument to the gods of publishing was conveying us to the offices of none other than the Hachette Group, home of the esteemed Little, Brown and Company (http://www NULL.littlebrown NULL.com/).

Back then, Robbi was in a very different state of mind and body.

Back then, I was nervous out of my mind at the thought of sharing our work with the titans. Robbi had to ply me with herbal tea to calm me down.

Back then, we had yet to start making and publishing children’s books through Bobbledy (http://www NULL.bobbledybooks NULL.com/blog/). But our heads were already swirling with ideas, and with the help of our agent, we set up a meeting with an editor and art director at Little, Brown’s children’s book imprint LB Kids (https://www NULL.hachettebookgroup NULL.com/kids/) (This editor, whose name is Erin, is the same person who hired us to do the Super Hero Squad book back in the fall of 2010). We brought a bunch of Idiots’Books and a handful of potential children’s book manuscripts with us and spent an hour or so sharing our work and presenting our ideas.

The meeting was a pleasant blur, and we left having no idea whether or not it would lead anywhere. A few months later, Erin reached out to say that she had really liked our stuff, and that one manuscript in particular had captured her imagination. She and I passed it back and forth for a while without coming up with a satisfying draft.

But Erin had another idea, which was to adapt our Idiots’Books title Babies Ruin Everything (http://store NULL.idiotsbooks NULL.com/ProductDetails NULL.asp?ProductCode=IB028-01) into a children’s book. The original is an open lament on the part of the older sibling upon the arrival of the new baby. It’s a book for adults, with an adult sensibility, but there were kernels that Erin thought might translate to the children’s market.  Apparently, there is a niche for books that one might gift to parents expecting a second child. Again, Erin and I passed a manuscript back and forth. Last  spring we went back to New York to meet with her and discuss possible edits.

This time, Robbi was not pregnant (thank goodness), and I was somewhat less nervous (though nervous still).

We both still felt like fish out of water in that big, bad city.

When we got home, I noodled with the manuscript a bit more, and when I was finished, sent it back to Erin. Last summer, she pitched to her colleagues, who were, apparently, enthusiastic enough to make an offer.

And so the exciting email.

And then began nearly six months of contract negotiations between Erin and our agent. Not that there was any great controversy, mind you. These things just take a good long time to sort themselves out.

But in the middle of last week, we finally got the green light from our agent. The details had been sorted out, and we were free to start talking about the book itself.

And so this past Friday morning, we loaded everyone into the car and drove north. We left the kids in Brooklyn with an extremely kind and generous friend and headed back to the LB offices for the third time.

This time, Robbi was still not pregnant and I was far less nervous. After all, we were no longer selling ourselves. We had our foot in the door. It was time to make a book.

And so we met with Erin and the art director, PattiAnn and discussed the work ahead—everything from trim size (how big the book will be) to whether or not the book should have endpapers to character studies to cover ideas to timeline.

And, because it was Valentine’s Day, we shared cupcakes decorated in the colors of the day. I suppose I might have taken a photograph before Robbi got her hands on them.

Two whirlwind hours later, the meeting ended. It was a thrilling creative brainstorm. We learned a lot. Even though we’ve been making books together for a long time, this will be the first time that we’re making a new book, from scratch, with an editor and art director. We have a lot to learn. Which is a big part of what we’re looking forward to.

This time we had the presence of mind to get a photo of us with Erin, who has been an amazing champion of ours. Through more than two years of fits and starts, edits and revisions, she has had the patience and vision and belief in us to make this crazy dream a reality. We just can’t thank her enough. 

Among the perks of being an LB Kids author and illustrator: free mugs!

And free books!

Lots and lots of free books.

Now we are home and trying to figure out how to wedge yet another project into an already full creative docket.

And so our adventure continues…in a completely new direction. A completely overhauled version of Babies Ruin Everything (with 100% new illustrations by Robbi) will be published by LB Kids in the spring of 2016.

For anyone who is counting, it will have been more than four years between that initial meeting with Erin and the time when the book hits the shelves. That’s just how it goes in the commercial publishing world. The funny thing is that, in that same time period, Robbi and I will have published more than 30 books of our own.

But we’re talking about apples and oranges, and lucky for us, we don’t have to choose between them.

We have a feeling this orange will be pretty special. The excitement has yet to subside. It continues to be kind of nutty in the barn.

Just wanted to share the good news. We’ll post about the rest of the adventure as it unfolds.