“'There's cold chicken inside it,' replied the Rat briefly; 'coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrench

'O stop, stop,' cried the Mole in ecstacies: 'This is too much!'”
-- from
The Wind in the Willows

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

SPIKE: The Mixed-Up Monster ▪ Picture book (non-fiction)

SPIKE:  The Mixed-Up Monster
by Susan Hood  illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Available now   Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books   Ages 3 - 8
Meet Spike, a lovable monster—and a real-life salamander—who’s looking for friends in this lively picture book that includes Spanish vocabulary.
Highly Commended for the 2013 Charlotte Zolotow Award (presented annually to the best picture book text by the Cooperative Children's Book Center)
Story:  Spike is a scary-looking salamander who keeps trying to frighten other animals—until he finds that using fear is not the best way to make friends. And since Spike lives in Mexico (he is an endangered species called the axolotl), this story is peppered with easy-to-understand Spanish words. In addition to a charming tale of friendship, this picture book contains nonfiction information about the axolotl and a Spanish/English glossary.  As the Bulletin for the Center for Children's Books writes, "use this in a lesson on unusual animals, Mexican fauna, or possibly include it in a monster-themed storytime to throw a nonfiction twist into that popular theme."
The Story Behind the Story: I spoke with Susan and Melissa and they have LOTS to share about the making of this book.  Plenty of background that will be helpful in showing students what goes into the thinking of making of a book.  Per author Susan Hood:  "One day I stumbled upon this photo in a book about baby animals. I was dumbfounded! I couldn’t believe this pink Muppet-like creature with its blue eyes, feathery spikes and slight smile was real.  I discovered it’s a type of Mexican salamander.  And the more I researched, the more I was fascinated.
One Home In the wild, this impossibly cute critter lives in only one place in in the world—Lake Xochimilco in Mexico City, the capital of Mexico and its largest city.

The Peter Pan Effect Axolotls never grow up—just like Peter Pan! While most salamanders lose their gills and develop lungs for a land-based life, the axolotl never goes through metamorphosis. It lives its whole life and even has children as a teenage water baby.

Superpower  Axolotls has long been studied by scientists because of their amazing regenerative powers. Just as a sea star can regrow a lost arm, the axolotl can…get this!...regrow a lost limb, its tail, internal organs, even parts of its brain and spinal cord.  The fact that the axolotl is a vertebrate like us has enormous implications for science and medicine.

Ecological Peril Unfortunately, the lake where the axolotl lives is now a major tourist site called The Floating Gardens, and according to the Washington Post, a crashing ecosystem. A recent article in The New York Times reports that as result of this pollution, the axolotl is
critically endangered, about to go extinct.  And with extinction would go our window into the axolotl’s amazing biological traits.

Fan Base Given this backstory, I knew I wanted to write about the axolotl, but was convinced I would find a glut of children’s books on Amazon. Here’s what I found:

Pet Owner Guides: It turns out that many, many people keep axolotls as pets (see axolotl.org).
They have more than 9,000 fans on Facebook!
A Mad Magazine connectionAxolotl” was one of the odd words Mad frequently used in comic strips, along with words like “potrzebie,” “furshlugginer” and “veeblefetzer.” Mad also published a poem about axolotls —a take-off on William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.”
An Adult Short Story: Like the narrator in Julio Cortázar’s “Axolotl," I was transfixed by this little guy

So, I started writing. You might wonder why Spike is “a mixed-up monster.”  The name “axolotl” comes from the native Aztec language (Nahuatl) and means “water monstrosity,” “water sprite” or “water dog” after the Aztec god Xolotl. 

I thought Spike might have a little identity issue. In the story, he believes he’s a monster, given his slithery tail, spiky crown and stumpy teeth. So he acts monstrously, trying to scare all his friends. There’s only one little problem. Spike is no bigger than a lily pad. So no one is afraid of Spike. Then one day, when a real monster appears at the lake, Spike discovers his true nature and what it takes to make a friend.

The book uses a few Spanish words to reflect the Mexican setting, and includes a glossary. It also includes all the facts about the axolotl and the other animals in the back for the book.

I’m hoping that SPIKE can help call attention to the plight of the axolotls and support the efforts of Dr. Luis Zambrano, a biologist who is trying to save them."

And, if that wasn't fascinating enough, wait until you read (and see!) what illustrator Melissa Sweet has to share: "Susan and I had worked together a long time ago when I did illustrations for Nick Jr. When I got the call that she had written this book, I wasn't at all sure I could fit it in, but I was intrigued.Then I read the story, saw the picture of the axolotl, (who was preposterously cute!) and I was smitten with both.

Usually I do quite a bit of research for picture books, especially one with a nonfiction slant. 
Axolotls come in various colors and we decided that, since they are green in the wild, Spike would look best this color. The other animals in the story are also true to their species, but in my artistic style and anthropomorphized so they can have a lot of emotion and expression. The sketches in my dummies are notorious loose. It's hard to plan a collage--you just have to start."

"Sometimes when I set out to find the collage materials something shows up that will set the tone of the book. In this case, I found a paper with colored squares arranged in a grid in gorgeous, earthy-hues. That paper is used on the endpapers and throughout the book, even in the stem of the flower below: 

Our art director, Lizzy Bromley did such beautiful job with the book design.I was over the moon when I saw how she used the type on the jacket.  The hand-lettering in the book is done separately but I create it by drawing, painting and cutting out each letter. All books are huge team effort, and on this one everyone went the extra mile. We just wrapped up the Activity Guide for SPIKE which will be available on our websites. (Crafty kids, get your scissors out!).

Check what reviewers are saying: EarlyWord, Kirkus, 5 Minutes for Books, Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Booklist, among many others.