everything grows with love

Stories about My Experiences with Writers & Illustrators Who Bring Light into the World…by Bonnie Ingber Verburg

Archive for Kathleen Westray

Eat Spam, You Dumb Bunnies! Dav Pilkey and the Funny “Good Night Moon” Room Story



A friend who loves Dav Pilkey’s funny books about the Dumb Bunnies recently asked me how we were able to get permission to use the famous Good Night Moon room on the cover of the first book, The Dumb Bunnies. Her question reminded me of a wild and unexpected series of events that happened as we created that cover. It makes me laugh now, but at the time, I was not laughing.

Dav sent me the dummy for The Dumb Bunnies long ago before The Adventures of Captain Underpants made him a household name. I put the dummy in my work bag and took it home. I remember it was raining, because I was standing in my NJ kitchen in my wet, black raincoat when I pulled the package out of my bag and put it on my kitchen counter. I was still wearing my coat when I read the whole thing.

You probably don’t know my sister JoAnn, but one of the things we share is a passion for Jim Marshall’s picture book The Stupids Die. A million years ago when we both lived in Boston, we used to read that book together, over and over, with peals of laughter. I had the same kind of laughter when I read The Dumb Bunnies, and I knew my sister would love it. I had tears streaming down my face, and I called her on the kitchen phone to tell her about it.

In-house we had many discussions about this controversial book. Other than Marshall’s The Stupids Die and the other Stupids books, I’m not sure this kind of humor had seen the light of day very often in children’s books. But Jean Feiwel and Barbara Marcus both understood great humor and both had a wonderful sense of what appeals to children. They could see what was appealing about the book, and they both backed Dav and me–so we were able to proceed.

We were in a meeting talking about marketing and publicity one day when Barbara came up with the idea of putting a sticker on the cover—a gold sticker that would be the kind we use when one of our books wins an award. It was her suggestion that the sticker should say something to this effect: This book is too dumb to win an award.

Geniuses, both of them. So we found a nice spot on the side of the front jacket for the sticker and proceeded to have them manufactured.

Meanwhile I was biting my nails because we still needed permission to use the famous Good Night Moon room on the cover of the book. Good Night Moon is about as sacred and treasured a classic as any children’s book can be, so I was hyperventilating about getting permission from both Harper and the Hurd estate to use Dav’s funny parody of it. I had been Editor-in-Chief at Harcourt prior to coming to Scholastic, and it was my private opinion that at Harcourt I would not have had a prayer of getting approval to use that cover parody. Jean assured me that Scholastic had very good relationships with Harper, in part because of our book clubs and book fairs, and that she didn’t think they would object. Another major difference between Scholastic and every other children’s publisher—I was constantly being amazed by the contrast.

Time passed, and the job of designing The Dumb Bunnies was given to Kathy Westray, who was either freelancing or had just joined Scholastic full-time after designing From Sea to Shining Sea. Her office was a cubicle, and she brought the finished mechanicals to my desk and left them for me to proofread. She’d done a lot of innovative, interesting things with the cover and interiors, and it was the first book of mine she’d designed. I could immediately see her brilliance—in my opinion, she is the best living book designer in the world—and after I carefully checked the mechanicals, I went to her cubicle, dazed.

“In all my years of being an editor, this is the very first time I have ever received a set of mechanicals that is perfect,” I said. It was true. Every design choice she’d made on the book enhanced it. For more than a dozen years, I was used to designs that had to be done again and again with typeface changes, margins off, ugly borders, unreadable titles…and The Dumb Bunnies was perfect in every way. (I would soon ask Kathy to become the Art Director for my imprint, the Blue Sky Press, and more than twenty years later, she still designs all my books…and I am thankful every day.)

Not long after, I got the amazing green light from Jean Feiwel that she had gotten approval for me to use the Good Night Moon room parody on the cover. So we went to press.

And I am trying to remember when exactly it was that I saw I had made a very big mistake on the book cover.

It was so big a mistake that I have probably blocked it out of my mind.

There, on a table next to the fireplace, was a can of Spam.

Yes, Spam.

     A trademarked can of ham—or something like ham–manufactured by Hormel.

And had I gotten permission from Hormel to use Spam on my book cover?


     I was so occupied with getting permission from Harper and the others for the Good Night Moon room parody that I hadn’t even thought about the Spam. There it sat, and the book was printed—not shipped, but printed—and I dashed out a letter to Hormel and politely gave them all the reasons why it was an excellent idea to have Spam featured on the cover of The Dumb Bunnies.

     I was very, very, very worried about getting permission, but I could not imagine that they would deny it. Surely they would see the humor, and there wasn’t any harm in it, and it was a relatively small print run of a book by a relatively new talent….

Permission denied.

Hormel did not see the humor in the way its “food product” (I quote) was presented on the cover of my book.

I drafted more letters. Made phone calls. Begged. Pleaded.

Permission denied.

     I believe we shredded 30,000 posters that featured Spam on the cover of the book. We used to make a lot of posters back then, and I remember that our Marketing/Publicity Director, Doris Bass, was sympathetic. But what to do about the cover?

Barbara Marcus had saved the day with her idea of a sticker on the book. The sticker looked great, and miraculously the glue on the sticker was like cement. Once pressed onto the cover, it would not come off.

And although we had not planned to place the sticker so close to the center of the book jacket, it did a terrific job of eliminating the can of Spam. (This isn’t a great reproduction, but you can see where the sticker was placed on this first edition/first printing. As well, you may be able to see that the author, Dav, called himself “Sue Denim,” and it was always interesting that a vast number of people wanted to know about “Sue”–I hope you get the joke. If you don’t, think about it. In later editions the credits both went to Dav Pilkey, and the display type was changed to match The Adventures of Captain Underpants.)


So that is why, if you are lucky enough to have a first edition/first printing of The Dumb Bunnies, you now know that under that sticker is hidden a can of Spam. “This book is too dumb to win an award” is the perfect gold medal to cover it up, don’t you agree?

We removed the Spam in the second printing, and the third and fourth and fifth and who-knows-how-many since; all these years later the book is still fresh and popular–because Dav had created a magnificent book that gave millions of children (including my sister and me) many more opportunities to laugh.

And I was—and still am—the happiest Dumb Bunny of all.

How Do You Publish How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night? Snapshot of Working with Jane Yolen and Mark Teague


When my son was a toddler, I read sixteen picture books to him each day—eight in the morning and eight at bedtime…and often more. I had stacks of “good night” books but only four that I could tolerate reading again and again. And that is why I needed to come up with a new “good night” book. The concept came to me one morning while I was brushing my teeth.

I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror with suds flowing down my chin, and for some reason this made me think about a little Tyrannosaur Rex and his father, who was standing over him to make sure he brushed those gigantic teeth properly. Who could write this book for my little boy?


I called Jane Yolen and asked her to write “Dinosaurs Say Good Night” with Mark Teague in mind because he had just painted the most magnificent dinosaur in the final pages of Audrey Wood’s The Flying Dragon Room. Faster than lightning, she sent me a warm and funny manuscript about the Tyrannosaur’s bad behavior and then his good behavior. She also had him misbehaving for Mama and then for Papa. We worked on it editorially and then sent it to Mark.

What I got back from him was a complete surprise. Instead of the Tyrannosaur family I had imagined, he had sketched a different dinosaur on every spread. And the parents were all…human.

     The humor of the enormous dinosaurs acting out while their comparatively tiny parents pulled out their hair set up a really humorous tension and gleeful sense of children out of control. It was spectacular, and it was far better than what I had wanted.

Mark had created a jacket sketch with a tyrannosaur on the cover, and my  concern (having a young son who was now beginning the dinosaur phase) was that children and parents would see that engaging T-Rex on the cover and be disappointed when they opened the book to see that the entire story was not about that character.

Hmmmm. The dummy was remarkable—energetic and wild and very funny! The range of dinosaurs inside was fantastic. But how could we let readers know about them?

My father was a scientist, and in his spare time he used our basement as a laboratory, building solar heating units and photocopy machines and recycling silver out of film.  I loved being his best helper, and the process of taking things apart, putting them back together, and solving the puzzle of how to make a better solar unit was great training for making good books. Essentially you are doing the same thing. As a team, the author, illustrator, editor, and designer assess any problems and try to come up with the solutions that will solve them. Or at least hide them or minimize them.

We often use the back cover, endpapers, front and back flap copy, and front matter to address issues we can’t solve within the book—or add information This would be the key to solving the one-dinosaur perception. If you want to know how to make picture books, this will be part of what you’ll learn, because the problem-solving process is what takes a good book and turns it into an outstanding book. The best editors all do this in their own ways. Books rarely arrive exactly the way they end up being published.  The idea is to end up with a perfect book—one that flows at an even pace without a bump and feels as if it fell off the tree and into your hand like a ripe apple…effortlessly. (And as a side note, I have also watched as marketing and salespeople take over a publishing company with no concept of what editors do, and they assume the books arrived in neat packages exactly the way we publish them, with no concept of all the work involved to get them to be the magnificent final books they are; and editors are laid off or fired, again with no concept of how deeply involved they are in the process, and that string of bestsellers and award winners the publisher has had goes away when the editor goes away. It is a sad thing and unfortunately increasingly common.)

In How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night? I asked Mark why he chose do draw a variety of dinosaurs rather than the one T-Rex family, and he simply told me it had been too boring to draw the same dinosaur over and over again. So he didn’t. And he came up with an absolutely brilliant concept that was far more compelling!

We used all those places—flap copy, back cover, title page, and endpapers to signal to the buyer (and the child reader…always most important) that this would be a book about many kinds of dinosaurs. The tyrannosaur on the front cover had a curious, mischevious, and inviting expression, and it was an outstanding image for the book, so I was thrilled with that. I asked Mark to draw a different dinosaur (he chose a triceratops) for the title page, so the variety of dinosaurs would be clear up front. And then I realized that if the endpapers were peppered with all the dinosaurs in the book, it would be most obvious that this was not a tyrannosaur story. As well, Mark had cleverly hidden the names of the dinosaurs within the interior art, so endpapers would give us a place to present all the dinosaurs with their labels—in case our young readers couldn’t find the names. And the children would also have fun using their visual, endpaper dictionary to go look up the dinosaurs inside…because so many children do love dinosaurs and learn their names and take great pride in accumulating vast knowledge about these diverse and larger-than-life reptiles. They are pretty unbelievable.

Last we used the back cover to add yet another dinosaur, and then the whole thing fell into place and was clearly a book that presented an entire world of dinosaur children and their human parents, a book I absolutely loved and hoped other people would love, too. There were issues—as there almost always are—with the text being bumpy in places, and the transition from mother to father wasn’t working, but Jane is superb at tackling these things, and in the end the book feels as if it has always been in existence. How could it ever be any different?

The final challenge was with the cover, and it wasn’t the art but the title. All along I had thought of the book as Dinosaurs Say Good Night, and that’s what my outstanding art director, Kathy Westray, mocked up. She took it a step farther (she always does) and curved the type and made it out of a kind of reptilian skin with texture, which worked really well and involved a great deal of trial-and-error on her part. But the title was not as interesting as the image of the giant T-Rex and the funny look on his face…contrasted by a parent who clearly had nightmares dealing with her oversized child. And I realized that although the visual image was compelling and drew me into the book, the title wasn’t doing that in equal measure. One day, when I walked into my home office and looked at the mocked-up comps of the cover, I realized that I could increase the drama if I changed the title into a question. It would ask the reader something, and that would draw the reader into the book more effectively. So we changed the title to How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night? I am happy to report that readers immediately loved the book, and it has gone on to become a perennial classic. It holds up to repeated readings and never gets boring.

We followed it with other dinosaur books, and at the moment, How Do Dinosaurs Say I’m Mad? is for sale in hardcover, and coming along in proofs is How Do Dinosaurs Stay Safe? Now that the series is set and overwhelmingly popular (not a bad book in the lot, I promise, and each one has a purpose: table manners, being able to say “I love you,” how to behave in school, and so on) I feel more comfortable tackling serious issues we have to address as parents. Anger is a tricky thing—handling your child when he is angry–and handling your own parental anger. I had stepped into that snake’s nest when I published Molly Bang’s When Sophie Gets Angry…Really, Really Angry, and that book was a Caldecott Honor and has really helped a lot of parents. It’s something that needs to be discussed, but parents are so often baffled about how to deal with temper tantrums and “terrible twos,” and seeing anger in their children is frightening. It was also pointed out to me by a preschool teacher that the anger they feel often scares the children themselves. So there is a need for these books, and my hope is that they present the beginning of a discussion that goes further than what we can comfortably cover in our books.

How Do Dinosaurs Stay Safe? is a topic I’ve wanted to publish forever, because to my surprise, when I had my son, my joy was accompanied by my fear for his safety. I was surrounded by graphic stories about children who had been stolen or kidnapped and tortured and killed, and as parents know, the terror of those thoughts is very real. We also need to discuss important safety issues with our children, yet it is an uneasy, uncomfortable conversation. Who wants to talk about all the horrid things that can happen to your child? On the other hand, she needs to know that when Uncle David puts his hand up her dress, it is not OK, and she needs to tell Mommy immediately. So again I am hoping that when the book comes out, it will spark discussions between parents and children so parents cover all the really important safety issues I could never put in a funny, light-hearted “How Do Dinosaurs” book…but for the good of our children, we need to talk about it. My hope.

Once again, Jane and Mark have created a delightful book overflowing with laughter, and on the “stranger danger” page, Mark drew an adorable old man as the “stranger” and a ferocious, enormous dinosaur as the child, and once again it isn’t remotely frightening; it will be up to the parent reader to choose to discuss talking with strangers and going off with them. There isn’t anything frightening in this book at all.

It’s been very important to me, as the guardian angel of this enterprise, to also do two additional things. One is to make crystal clear—as is true in the case of every book I’ve published—that the behavior might be unacceptable, but the child is always loved. The attitude of the parent is this:I do not like it when you throw a book across the room, but it is the behavior I do not like. I always love you. This is something I strive to make clear in my own parenting, and when my son was little, one of the four good-night books that stood up to repeated reading in our home was Mama, Do You Love Me? My son is 18 now, and he will still occasionally ask me if I would love him if he put salmon in my mukluks. Of course I would. (And I do have mukluks.) I wouldn’t be happy about it, but I would still love him. Which he knows.

The second thing is this. I have wanted to build a dinosaur library where every book is of very high quality, and every book contributes something helpful in the parent-child relationship. I have known parents who could not say “I love you” to their children, and in turn, their own parents could not say “I love you” to them. Having a love fest is always feels wonderful to me, but in How Do Dinosaurs Say I Love You? I hoped that parents who have that difficulty could use the book to help them say those precious words. And now as we step away from issues such as table manners and going to the doctor and step into issues that are more challenging such as how to handle anger and safety, I feel confident that we are building a library of books parent can trust—meaning that if you see the book features Jane and Mark’s dinosaurs, you can be assured that you will have a good experience with it—and if the subject matter is anger, for example, you know you can trust a book in this series to handle it well.

It’s 5:53 in the morning, and I wrote this because I couldn’t sleep. Earlier today I was explaining all of this to my new editorial assistant in New York—why we’ve made the decisions we’ve made, and when I got off the phone it occurred to me that other people might find it interesting…to go behind the scenes and see how the first book came together.

Jane has extraordinary talent and an ability to zero in on what the most common and potentially funny issues are in a topic, and Mark takes off and invents a visual world I find irresistible. The parents, their reactions, and the homes and yards and neighborhoods Mark creates are beyond what I could ever have imagined. The angles he chooses, the facial expressions of everyone involved, and the wild collection of dinosaurs—he’s never repeated himself—is also remarkable. He manages to put a human parent and an enormous dinosaur in a room together in such a way that it feels believable to me. Yet the impossible nature of it all is almost hidden. Repeatedly I have asked him about some detail of something in a picture, and he’s laughingly pointed out that what the real issue the parent would have is dealing with a 30-foot raging dinosaur. Sometimes I forget about that.

Which is perfect.

%d bloggers like this: