With the previous school year cut short and the start of the next one still too nebulous to hang your hat on, the charm of COVID-compliant family time has started to wear thin for many parents. Whether they are toddlers or teens, cooped-up children are a ticking time bomb, and having a finger ready to lunge at the mute button during video conferences was not on any parent’s bucket list.
Still, on the roller coaster that is parenting, there are always highs that make it all worthwhile, and parents all along the track will find themselves in good company with Baby Monster: a charming children’s book about two scientists who create a literal—yet still lovable—monster. Parents and little monsters alike will delight in the watercolor illustrations of splattered lunches and incurable tantrums, all leading to a well-earned peaceful goodnight.
With the help of Blue Manatee Press, we got in touch with author Andrea Pfeiffer and illustrator Erin Barker for an interview. We hope you enjoy the conversation!
Andrea, while we’re sure many parents feel they’ve created a “monster” sometimes, what inspired you to take that idea in a literal direction for this book?
Andrea: The decision that this character is a literal monster really came out in the writing process. I wrote the first draft when my daughter was about four months old. I wasn’t sleeping well, feeding wasn’t going exactly to plan, and I felt very overwhelmed with how difficult motherhood felt. Everyone was saying to me “Oh, it’ll pass.” But as a parent, I really did think “What if it’s always this hard? What if I have the ONE KID that never sleeps through the night?” I think that’s a pretty common anxiety for parents. So while I was writing, I was putting a lot of these fears on paper and finding a way to laugh a bit about them. The result was a lovable but destructive monster.
One of the things we enjoy about your illustrations, Erin, is the subtle detail you use to set the tone and scene—such as the gradual unraveling of the mother’s sleek bun or the titles on the books. Do you brainstorm these small touches, or do the illustrations spring to mind more or less fully formed?
Erin: As a kid, I noticed that my mom’s favorite picture books to read to us tended to be ones that had subtle jokes for the parents as well as the kids. Because this story is just as much for the parents as it is for the children they’ll be reading it to, I wanted to make sure those little touches were present. I loved the concept of these two very intelligent, precise, neat and tidy scientists slowly becoming undone by this tiny little baby, and pretty much from the get-go I had the idea for the mom’s hair being an indicator of that. Some details came easily (like the hair) and others had to be dragged out with lots of effort (I agonized over the To-Do List in the background of the lab, and had to brainstorm with several friends to get the wording right). I revel in those details. Books like Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes and Olivia by Ian Falconer were big inspirations for Baby Monster—those authors brilliantly utilize little things like book titles and subtle art/film references that add humor and further meaning to their stories. I really wanted the spirit of those types of books to live in the illustrations of Baby Monster, and to bring Andrea’s words to life as successfully as possible.
Andrea, this is a debut publication for you, and, Erin, we understand this is your second children’s book collaboration and third children’s book overall. How was your first time through the publishing gauntlet different than what you expected, Andrea? Erin, what would you say was something unique about the process of this project for you?
Andrea: I think because I have worked as a bookseller, I had a vague idea of what publication would be like. There weren’t too many surprises. I knew (for example) that my first draft was WAY too long, so cutting didn’t feel as difficult as it might have. I also felt like I was in great hands with Erin, so anything we ended up cutting from the text really found a home in the illustrations. I was incredibly grateful for how open to collaborating Erin was throughout the process. I truly valued her opinion as someone who had been through it before. I think the real shock really came with marketing this book. We were pretty set with a plan of action and then we found ourselves in the midst of a pandemic! Of course, I had daydreamed about getting to travel and do book signings, but I’m confident we’re doing as much as we can to get this book in the hands of young readers.
Erin: I really loved the feeling of collaboration I had with Andrea on this project. We brainstormed together a lot during the editing process, trying to find just the right way to have the text and pictures work together in tandem. I didn’t have much contact with the author of my first book, and it was a much more straightforward process of simply putting pictures to words. My second book was entirely my own, so I had a ton of freedom to make my own decisions and shape the story the way I wanted, but I also felt a ton of (self-imposed) pressure to get it perfect because it was my own story. With Baby Monster, I felt like there was more of a push-and-pull energy between Andrea and I that I really appreciated, and I really wanted to do the work justice because this story is so personal to her. She was patient with me as I threw different visual ideas at her, and I enjoyed going back and forth on how best to tell it with words, and how best to show it with illustrations. In my opinion, the most successful picture books are ones that have a symbiotic relationship between text and image, and I think that was reflected in the way our process worked.
The detail about the baby monster’s first word being … awkward in both content and setting (shall we say) was very funny, but also felt like a personal touch. Was this or any other detail, either in the text or illustrations, inspired by personal experiences with baby monsters for either of you?
Andrea: Of course! I have a salty vocabulary. And I really didn’t realize how much my daughter was picking up until we’d be out in public somewhere and she’d let a curse fly. I’m always pretty proud that she seems to use the words in the correct context. But it is terribly embarrassing sometimes! And I just have a million examples of her “telling on me” in some way.
Erin: I don’t have kids, but I have friends who do, and I was a daycare teacher for a few summers during college. I’ve heard a lot of wild stories. I crack up laughing every time I think of those stories, so it was a joy to be able to illustrate a few of those moments. The sequence of the parents trying to pick up the monster while crying is a combination of several things: stories my friends tell about their kids’ wriggling when they don’t want to be held, photos of my sister pulling my mom’s hair when she was a toddler, and my own personal memories of trying to get daycare kids to go to sleep during naptime. I had a ton of fun with those illustrations in particular.
Finally, are either of you working on anything currently you can talk about, or have a project you’d like to tackle next?
Andrea: I definitely have more to say about Baby Monster and I hope to check back in on her and the scientists. I also loved middle grade and YA as a bookseller, so I have the start of an idea for older readers. I tend to think about what I want to say for a very, very long time before I feel ready to write. But I’m excited to take on a larger writing project.
Erin: I have a couple ideas I have simmering on the back burners, but nothing I’m currently working on in earnest. I would love to work with Andrea again—that would be a blast. I’ve also been thinking about doing a sequel for Mr. Pumpkin’s Tea Party, my previous book. Mr. Pumpkin holds a special place in my heart, and I don’t think I’m done telling stories about him. I suppose we’ll have to see what the future holds.