We sat down with Andrew Cangelose, author of This is a Taco! and This is a Whoopsie!, to learn about his creative processes and inspiration, humor, and of course, tacos.
What led you to write picture books?
I’ve been working hard to make kids laugh since 4th grade, when I moved schools and out of desperation discovered being funny was an effective way to make friends. Luckily those skills were transferable beyond elementary school, so when I met Josh (illustrator) at an internship years later, we became fast friends. We immediately knew we wanted to work creatively together, although the aim of that collaboration changed frequently (as evidenced by my google drive full of half-started ideas).
Fast forward 10 years and five new humans created, we were both suddenly engrossed in the world of picture books, a format we had little reason to interact with before. One evening we were talking about some of our favorites to read, which quickly turned into a conversation about making our own picture book. From that conversation Taco and Whoopsie were born. Josh and I quickly fell in love with the work. We enjoyed the challenge of the format, the sneakily complicated interplay of visuals, words, and the mechanism of reading aloud. And for me, I found myself back in familiar territory trying to make 4th graders laugh again (which if I’m being honest was probably the peak of my comedic life anyway).
Telling your own story, forging your identity, shaping the narrative of your life—those are rather weighty concepts to bring to young readers. How did you go about distilling those ideas?
One of the wonderful lessons I have learned working with students, is that they are full of complication and nuance even at a very young age. I have not found some marked age of maturity, like a light switch, that indicates when kids are finally ready to be exposed to all of our wise worldly secrets we adults hold. From the moment they are born, they are people in process, and their brains are ready to start digesting the world.
Now, developmentally these weighty concepts will be expressed and communicated differently as they mature, but students are absolutely ready to understand their world and who they are in it. To know that their story is important, to learn how to tell it, and to understand it is requirement to do so, because they were not meant to be alone. And to the same end, learn how to hear the stories of others.
So while Taco and Whoopsie are for sure silly characters in silly stories, they are also characters learning to tell their own story in a book (world) that often feels antagonistic to that. So my hope is that children will find a kindred spirit in those characters, a model for how to be known. Whether they find their own circumstances are pressing upon them, like for Taco, or because they don’t feel they are worthy to tell their story like Whoopsie, they are learning, even in subtle ways, the importance of breaking through that noise.
What was the inspiration for the structure of the book, and what was your approach to mixing fact and fiction?
Josh and I set out to do something playful with the format of the picture book. We found ourselves drawn to these kinds of books as parents. Books that worked on different levels, and were enjoyable for children as well as the adults. We talked about breaking the 4th wall, and about self-aware characters, and became excited about the potential of playing around with those ideas.
As I was looking into potential animal characters, I kept coming across these bulleted lists of facts about each animal. What if our character found himself at odds with these facts? What if the conflict in the book was a self-aware animal vs. the content of the book he found himself in? What would happen then? Answering those questions became the 1st draft of This is a Taco!
Dealing with fact and fiction can be a tricky prospect with kids (and adults come to think of it). When it is taught early on, it is expressed in very stark contrasts, real vs make-believe, truth vs lie, or fiction vs non-fiction. And in many cases this dichotomy is absolutely appropriate and should be reinforced. But in other cases the idea of truth appropriately becomes more complex, and perhaps the work becomes where and how to see it more clearly. So when considering people (or squirrels and moose), truth flourishes in specificity, and generalizations presented as facts start to break down upon further examination. So, it is true that squirrels eat tree bark, but not Taco. So now what? And I think that’s a great question for students to start interacting with.
How do you inject humor when shaping your message? What powers does humor have in storytelling?
I think humor is highly relational, and humor done well resonates with readers because of that. So when crafting a story, once an intriguing situation and a relational conflict is developed, if those ideas are strong enough, the humor really starts to take shape pretty naturally. So in Taco for instance, once we decided that the conflict was a squirrel vs the book he finds himself in, well as they say – the jokes wrote themselves. “What if the book says THIS, but then Taco does THIS?” Taco and the book are really just another rehash of The Odd Couple come to think of it.
What books and authors inspire you? Who are your picture book idols?
Mo Willems comes to mind. His books seem simple, but they get so much done in humor, and heart, and relational story telling. Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen, together and separately. Extra Yarn is one of my favorite picture books. I love the expressions Jon Klassen pulls from his characters faces.
How did you work with Josh to establish your shared vision for the book and bring it to life?
I’m not sure how other author/illustrator relationships go, but Josh and I developed these books in tandem pretty much from the ground up, from ideation to final draft. Our books have a lot of interplay between the book text, character dialog, and illustrations which required us to work out solutions together as much as possible. Basically the process goes like this: 1) Josh and I have a funny conversation and think it would make good content for a book; 2) I go off and write a (very rough) first draft; 3) we come back together, work through the story, work out some visuals, try some new jokes; 4) I go off and write a new draft (hopefully) better than the previous; 5) repeat steps 3 and 4 indefinitely, while becoming increasing suspicious that we may be talentless frauds; 6) take a deep breath and eat BBQ to celebrate someone actually liking the book enough to publish it.
You’re an educator and a dad—how does that influence your writing?
I certainly know my audience well. I am around kids ALL THE TIME! I wake up –kids. I go to work – more kids. I eat dinner – kids. At this point my only reprieve is in the restroom. So by the time I sit down to write the draft of a book, I’ve already unintentionally tested out lots of ideas and jokes, and have received lots of very candid feedback on what resonates with kids. Kindergartners don’t give out a lot of courtesy laughs, and are quick tell let you know if something is boring. Ultimately, I think all of that experience has taught me how to genuinely speak to kids, with depth and sincerity and humor. Hopefully that translates onto the pages of these books.
What advice would you give a reader who’s unsure of how to tell their own story?
Like everything else, it takes practice, but getting good at sharing yourself with others is so important to developing real connections with people and communities. It’s a risky undertaking because it leaves you exposed and vulnerable, and that will hurt sometimes. To that end, resiliency and reconciliation are skills that need practice as well. But I am convinced that healthy relationships are built upon these kinds of teachable skills – empathy, listening, self-awareness, emotional regulation, etc. Find healthy people, find healthy communities to risk telling your story and practice being known.
What animal do your kids want you to write about next?
A whale who wants to be a ballerina, but everyone tells him he’s too big.
Finally, what do you like on your tacos?
From Choco Tacos (ice cream) to fish tacos, I don’t think I’ve run into a taco I didn’t like. That’s the great thing about tacos, they are just the best delivery system for whatever creativity you want to put in them. Kind of like picture books!