An interview with Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham
The Children’s Book Review
In this episode of the Growing Readers Podcast, I talk with bestselling superstar duo Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham about Itty-Bitty Kitty-Corn, a delightful kitty and unicorn story that celebrates the magic of friendship—and being exactly who you want to be!
Is there anything that this pair of incredible women cannot do? Besides the multitude of books they have created individually, they have collaborated on a middle-grade graphic novel series (Real Friends), an early chapter book series (The Princess in Black), and now a picture book series. In this conversation, we take a deep dive into the adorable Itty-Bitty Kitty-Corn and how their friendship led to its creation and allowed them to make a truly meaningful picture book.
Listen to the Interview
About the Book
Publisher’s Synopsis: Kitty thinks she might be a unicorn.
She feels so perfectly unicorn-y! “Neigh!” says Kitty.
But when Unicorn clop clop clops over, sweeping his magnificent tail and neighing a mighty neigh, Kitty feels no bigger than a ball of lint.
Can this unlikely pair embrace who they are, and truly see one another?
In their first picture book together, the magical, bestselling team of Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham put their horns together for the most heart-bursting, tail-twitching, fuzzy-feeling, perfectly unicorn-y story imaginable.
Buy the Book
About the Creators
Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham are the team behind the bestselling graphic novels Real Friends and Best Friends, and, with Dean Hale, the early chapter book series The Princess in Black. They’ve made a bunch of other books, too. They are also both moms of genius kids, wives to book-creating husbands, caretakers of cats, and believers in unicorns. LeUyen lives in Los Angeles, Shannon lives in Utah, and they visit each other as often as geographically possible. BFFs 4EVA.
Visit Shannon Hale at https://shannonhale.com
Visit LeUyen Pham at https://leuyenpham.com
Read the Interview
[Shannon Hale] I am Shannon Hale. I want to introduce my best friend, LeUyen Pham, who is Pham-tastic (trademark)!
[LeUyen Pham] Oh, my Gosh! [laugh]
[Shannon Hale] LeUyen has illustrated over 120 picture books. She is a giant in the world of children’s illustration. She won a Caldecott honor for illustrating Bear Came Along. She wrote and illustrated several books like the amazing Outside, Inside; The Bear Who Wasn’t There; Big Sister, Little Sister; A Piece of Cake; and many others. I just love all her books so much. We’re huge fans here in our house.
LeUyen and I have also been working together for many years. She illustrates the series The Princess in Black, and she illustrates the graphic novel memoirs Real Friends, Best Friends, and upcoming Friends Forever. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two sons, a cat named Sardine and a gecko named Cumquat.
[LeUyen Pham] I don’t know your cats’ names. I can’t do as good of a job. But here we go. All hail, Shannon Hale! Shannon is phenomenal. I was fan-girling over her before we’d ever met. She’s one of those writers who you are just super lucky if you ever get to work with her. She has written over 40 books.
She’s written many amazing books. The first book that she ever wrote that I just fell in love with was The Goose Girl. And I knew the minute I read that that I thought if I ever get a chance to work with this lady, I’m going to take it, even if it’s just to paint a book cover, because [novels were] all she was doing back then.
She has since branched out. She writes terrific novels. She writes books for adults and young adults. Her Austenland was made into a movie, an excellent movie starring the great Keri Russell—I love her.
Shannon conquered the adult world and the young adult world, and then the kid world. She’s done Squirrel Girl with her husband, Dean Hale. She started going even younger with the Princess in Black books that she also does with Dean. And now she’s tackling the picture book world with me!
[Bianca Schulze] So the latest picture book will be Itty-Bitty Kitty-Corn, am I right?
[Shannon Hale] Yes, yes. It’s my first ever picture book that I get to do with LeUyen, and it’s her like one hundred and thirtieth picture book. So that’s amazing. It’s like no big deal for her, but for me, it’s like, whoa!
[LeUyen Pham] No. You know what? I’m going to make something clear here. This is really like a very special situation that you and I have got going. And because I’ve done so many picture books, I get to say it with all my history behind me. This is not the same as most picture book situations. Getting to do this not only with a really incredibly talented writer, someone you can drop two words at, and she turns it into a script in three seconds. There’s something to that where Shannon brings something to it that I’ve never really experienced with other writers. And it means that I get to bring my A-game—making a picture book with someone who’s just so talented and then is such a good friend of mine. I have no fear of making mistakes in front of her or anything and she has no ego—like zero egos. I have to step down my ego just to match her zero. It’s not a normal situation—believe me.
[Bianca Schulze] Well, so this makes complete sense because your book is a celebration of friendship ultimately. Having two friends create a book about friendship—that completely explains just why the book works so well. Is it true that you both came up with the idea while you are on tour for your book that you collaborated on, Best Friends?
[Shannon Hale] Yes. It’s like LeUyen was saying; the way this book came about is just a completely different circumstance than normal. But just in case your listeners don’t know how different a situation this was, usually, a picture book author writes a manuscript and revises it. And once it’s all done (If then they sell it to a publisher, if they’re lucky enough, they’re extremely hard to sell a picture book manuscript. Extremely hard. There are very few that they’re acquiring. And because people like to buy their old favorites a lot and it’s because they’re shorter, I think more people write them than any other kind of book. So anyway, like, I don’t even know, less than one percent of picture book manuscripts would get published.), at that point, the editor would pick an illustrator, and then the illustrator would illustrate it. The writer and illustrator, most of the time, never even talk to or meet each other.
[LeUyen Pham] You know it’s preferred by most editors to keep them separate. You know, there are good reasons for all of it, but it’s mostly to allow the illustrator to do what they want to do to it and not hear the voice of the author in their head, which can be great sometimes. And then other times, you just long to listen to that other voice that created this. And you want to know a little bit more about where it came from for them.
[Shannon Hale] But it can’t be a complete collaboration because the writer and illustrator are separated; there really aren’t changes to the text. Once the illustrator gets involved, it’s not like the illustrator can then come in and say, well, I think that it would be more interesting if this character was explored more, for example, and the writer would be like, yeah, let’s do that more. That never happens that the illustrator can work the magic to bring out their thoughts through the illustrations.
[LeUyen Pham] It can happen, but it’s usually the illustrator becomes a sort of diva when they do that—when they’re requesting too much—and then nobody wants to work with that illustrator. And it’s sad because it means the story loses a little bit because [they don’t] have that ability to interact and exchange.
[Shannon Hale] And then the other side of it is the illustrator can become a drawing monkey where there’s the editor or writer on the other side saying: no, we don’t like the way you’ve done it, do it like this. They start micromanaging every little thing and every bit of the illustrations. And so there are a lot of attempted picture books and so many great, amazing picture books, but there’s also a lot of picture books that, you know, if you could see behind the scenes, were kind of miserable ventures.
So creating Itty-Bitty Kitty-Corn was actually just a joy from day one. It was us working together. It was never only one of us coming with the idea; we were side by side, just pitching back and forth.
[LeUyen Pham] Honestly, I don’t think we were even thinking of making a book.
[Shannon Hale] It was a game.
[LeUyen Pham] It was a game. We were sitting in a coffee shop. We were supposed to be working on something else. It was in between school visits when you get some downtime. We were chatting, and, you know, I can’t remember how it started, but we began tossing ideas back and forth. And Shannon said something that instigated me, like, you know, it’s not that easy for a writer to make a picture book in the way you’re thinking.
[Shannon Hale] Yeah. She was like, here we are at the top of our game—I think you had just received a picture book manuscript submission from somebody in your email—and you’re kind of looking at it, and you’re like, why don’t we ever do a picture book together? And I was like, it’s not that easy. You can’t just say, write a picture book. I’ve tried. I’m terrible.
[LeUyen Pham] I just remember her saying that and I kept thinking like, this doesn’t make sense. She’s a fabulous writer. And you know, I’ve done one hundred and twenty books, like there’s some experience between the two of us that we could probably find something that would work. And isn’t it strange that we worked together for as long as we have and we’ve never done a picture book before? We just never sat and thought, hey, let’s come up with something between the two of us.
It was an accident and a game. And then, because there were no stakes involved—because we weren’t thinking that we were going to sell this in any way—we just had fun. And she tossed out an idea, and I tossed out an idea. And, you know, we were laughing. And then she went back to typing. And I went back to drawing. Unknown to her, I was sketching what we just talked about. And then, unbeknownst to me, she was typing what we had talked about. Ten, fifteen minutes later, we looked at each other sheepishly over our devices, and like, you know, we both said I think I have something to show you. And it was the same thing. It was kismet. I can’t describe any other time where something came together so well as that moment in that coffee shop. It was crazy.
[Shannon Hale] It was crazy. And, you know you have an idea when it won’t leave you alone. You see, it was exciting and fun. And we were never thinking about it as a book. Well, of course, we were thinking about it as making a book, but just for ourselves.
We started with the characters. What do these characters want? What do they yearn for? What’s their connection? And throughout our book tour, we kept working on it, and then we went home and didn’t want to stop working on it. And we kept calling and texting, and LeUyen came out and visited. I think you came out for a Raina Telgemeier event. Was that what it was?
[LeUyen Pham] Yeah.
[Shannon Hale] You stayed with me. Didn’t you stay with me?
[LeUyen Pham] I did.
[Shannon Hale] She’s come out a couple of times, and we would sit side by side at the table, and she would be sketching and I would be writing—everything that we could do together.
But then we eventually had a dummy of the book. LeUyen had drawn some of the characters in full color. She had laid it all out and sketched it out, the whole thing, with the words we worked on and the pictures. And then we weren’t going to do anything with it, but I had it on my computer. And every time I was around a kid, I was like, I have to show you this. And I would read it, just the sketch version, mind you, of this book to the kid. And every single time, the kids looked like their faces were going to fall off from smiling so hard. They just loved it so much. And every single time I would get to a specific line, I would have to stop because I would choke up from emotion. That’s when it ceased just to be a game because it meant something. It brought joy to everybody I read it to, but it was also so full of genuine heart.
And then I started to say, to LeUyen, I think we need to do something with this. And LeUyen was like, no, no, no, no, I’m uncomfortable. Let’s just keep it between us. It’s joyful, but let’s just keep it between us.
[LeUyen Pham] I keep saying that I wish I’d known Shannon when I was nine years old because we would have made thousands of books by now. I’m pretty sure half of them would not be published. There is something just nice about it that we didn’t have to answer to anybody. I was just trying to please Shannon, and she was trying to please me. And, you know, we were talking earlier about that tricky balance that’s found when you’re publishing a picture book that an author gets matched with an illustrator and the illustrator can’t talk to you. There were none of those boundaries in this particular project. I mean, she sat next to me, and my great fear is being a drawing monkey, and her great fear is being forced to write something. And there we were just willingly saying, do you want me to make Kitty fuzzier or do you want bigger eyes? And, you know, we were just exchanging these things, using each other’s talents, like just foisting it on to each other, but knowing that we weren’t doing it for any other reason than we just wanted to take this one idea as far as we could possibly go with it.
[Shannon Hale] We wanted to please each other. I mean, jumping forward, we sold it as a three-book deal. And so we’ve been working on the second and the third. LeUyen commented on the second one; I repeated a particular phrase two or three times, and was there a different way to say that? And I went and wrote an epic poem that’s not going to be in the book, but just to please her.
I spent hours and hours looking into sources of all the different iterations of this kind of word, spending hours finding rhyming words to write with. I wrote this enormous ode that will never be used for anything. But I shared a stanza and made LeUyen laugh. So I was like, I’ll do more!
[Bianca Schulze] Do you remember any of it off the top of your head?
[Shannon Hale] It rotated around the word patootie. It’s an ode to the unicorn’s bum.
[You can hear Shannon Hale read her poem in the podcast episode.]
You know, I started writing because I found joy in it, and I found identity in it—and the same for LeUyen with her drawing—and then you get into publishing, and it’s your career. It’s your job. You’re still doing it, but it is different. It’s a business. There are expectations, there are deadlines, and there are people who need things from you. Some publishers are hoping not just for you to express yourself but to meet a quota or to fill a hole in the market—publishing is lovely, but it is a business. And I think what LeUyen and I found is we’ve gotten back to just that primal joy of creation without having to think about how it’s going to perform in the market or what sales are going to say about it. I don’t know who sales are, but they always have opinions about everything.
[LeUyen Pham] Itty-Bitty Kitty-Corn is like what we would have written at the age of nine.
[Shannon Hale] Yeah.
[LeUyen Pham] And maybe we’re a lot better at doing it now, but the essence of it would be exactly the same
[Shannon Hale] Absolutely.
[LeUyen Pham] The story of this very silly little kitty that’s just adorable and wants to be something more than what she is. I think what’s really nice about this story is that there’s an essence of truth to it that gives it the value that takes it from beyond just a ridiculously adorable cat. That was my job to make a ridiculously adorable kitty, fuzzy, silly, or whatever. Still, if she had nothing to stand on and she didn’t have that kernel of I want to be something more than what I am, if that truth didn’t exist, then I don’t think the story would have had as much heart. It would have just been a really cute emoji that we would have done and given up for free, you know. But that’s where our friendship came in, the thing that I think actually makes it a really good picture book. The something that I think kids really seem to respond to beyond the big fat eyes, you know.
[Bianca Schulze] Yeah. And if you think about it too, I mean, what makes a friend? I think for me, when I have a true friend, it’s usually because I feel seen by them and I see something in them, too. And when you form that connection and feel seen by somebody, you know, your friendship blossoms. I loved the essence of Itty-Bitty Kitty-Corn that it showed that—I see you. The picture book itself is just delightful and fun. And like you said, the kitten is fluffy and gorgeous and pink and has giant eyes. And both of you delivered. There’s a lot of white space in LeUyen’s artwork, and it allows the characters to pop with their color. And then, Shannon, the text is so minimal, but it’s perfect, and it just delivers gorgeously.
[Shannon Hale] Oh, thank you. And I want to say that, although it says copyright text, I really feel like we’re co-creators of this whole thing together. We don’t know who ho wrote what or who said what, but LeUyen is definitely part of the text as well.
[LeUyen Pham] I want to say we added curlicues to each other’s work. Maybe we each did some of the major baking, but it was all kind of done together.
[Shannon Hale] It was so integrated. We’re not worried about who did what. I mean, obviously, I did not create the pictures. [Laugh.] Let’s be clear.
[LeUyen Pham] I’m going to teach you how to do it.
[Shannon Hale] I know she is. We actually had an idea at one point. She was going to teach me how to draw, and then I would have an illustration in there, too. But there was just no reasonable way to make it work; it would have been very clearly not the same illustrator.
[LeUyen Pham] You know, it’s funny that you said the line I see you. That was the heart of it from the very beginning. I mean, when we were working on the idea going back and forth about this kid who wants to be a unicorn—it seemed like such a silly idea. And then it kept going and going. And I want to see that within that first conversation we had that line, we said, I see you. I remember when the words were spoken, and Shannon’s eyes went all like, Oh!
[Shannon Hale] Yeah. You said the words.
[LeUyen Pham] And then from then on, oh, my gosh, game change.
[Shannon Hale] I knew immediately. I got goosebumps as soon as you said it. I was like. That’s it; that’s what the story is. It’s such pure love. And like you said, that’s what friendship is. When you really see the other person as they see themselves, that’s where growth starts.
We’re both eighties kids—born in the 70s but grew up in the eighties— the weirdo generation X and the generation that doesn’t exist. We were raised in that kind of sensibility that you’re never enough because if you’re ever complimented or praised, then that means you’ll stop trying, and you won’t ever become anything. But the actual truth is the opposite is the truth, that kids are growth-oriented. Humans are growth-oriented. And when we can accept each other as being enough, we’re more likely to grow.
And that’s what I think is missing and that I want to give to kids more: You are beautiful and perfect enough exactly as you are. When they feel secure and loved, then they grow.
[Bianca Schulze] So you mentioned the sales team. Sometimes the sales team may dictate what an editor is seeking because they see what’s moving in the bookstores.
[LeUyen Pham] For me, that was part of the reason why I wanted to keep it so much between Shannon and me for so long. When there are just two voices in the room, it’s a lot more genuine what you come up with. It becomes a lot more frightening when someone comes in who, you know, all with good intentions. It’s like salespeople sometimes come off as bad people just trying to move your book, but they’re trying to move your book as best as they possibly can. Unfortunately, it means that you often compromise what you think the message is because it might not be a message that sells as well.
I want to say that this time around, I think because we presented such a complete package and because Shannon and I sort of came on as a force unto ourselves. We were very lucky that this was coming following many successful projects that we had, that it gave us a level of clout that we probably wouldn’t have had ten years ago. Given all that, I think it moved us into a place where we felt safer. And I want to say this time around; I don’t hear other voices as much. Abrams has been really amazing with this, and they’ve kept a lot of those outside voices out. And all we’ve heard is we love this. We love this. Just keep going. Just keep going. And part of it is because we packaged up a really cute little character. She’s adorable, and she’s cute, and kids go gaga. And that helps! It’s like the spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. She’s the lump of sugar. And the story that’s coming across is being untouched because the lump of sugar is so pleasing to the eye. And I think somehow that’s made this whole project a lot more hands-off, such that we’ve started working on the second book.
And I think there was so little interference on them in any way about what we were supposed to do, so much so that even I got a little freaked out, like, what should the second story be? Oh, my gosh, what are we going to do? How do we follow this up? And I think it was Shannon who was just like, you got to calm down. It’s still just us. It’s still just us. What do we write about as friends? What do we do? And settling back into that mindset of let’s go back and return to when we were nine-year-old girls? What was the story that we wanted to hear when we were nine-years-old? That has actually kept me from going a little bit too crazy about all of this.
[Shannon Hale] Why there was a bit of craziness was because our agents sold this book at auction. I mean, I think it was one of the biggest auctions of a picture book of all time in children’s books. I mean, it was a record-breaker. It was alarming … there were like twelve different publishers clamoring for it and trying to one-up each other on advances. … We were so scared and overwhelmed by it.
LeUyen and I are very similar personality-wise… we’re very much kindred spirits in every sense of the word. And it’s so funny to be working with a partner with the same reaction—that we just get each other. We both know we should be celebrating ourselves. We are strong, independent women … and then as soon as anybody says you’re amazing, we were like, well, hang on, just take a step back.
But that was kind of overwhelming when that was happening. And we were like, I mean, I think we were having, like, panicked conversations for like an hour before we were like, oh, wait, maybe we should pause and just be grateful. But then, because of that, there was a lot of pressure to really deliver for the second and third books now. But what we did was we’re like, let’s just get together like we did last time. Next time we’re at a conference or a cafe again, and it’s only the two of us … we just started talking again and telling stories to each other.
[LeUyen Pham] There’s something about picture books. I think it’s nice that you can solve problems visually. We had sort of a complicated idea. The germ of truth was there, but the idea was too complex to pull off as a person. And I think the only way it could have been solved (and again, a perfect example of why it would take both the writer and an illustrator working together to make this work) was for the illustrator to visualize this element. It makes the whole story smoother and then everything clicks into place.
[Shannon Hale] It’s funnier. It was funnier now.
[LeUyen Pham] It became funnier after you got your hands on it.
[Shannon Hale] And you too. Now you were able to embody like … unicorns movements made more sense, and you had more room to make him funny at that moment. It was amazing. And it’s not like we hadn’t tried to simplify in other ways. We had. But it’s sometimes just the right simplification.
[LeUyen Pham] If you look at the book, it’s a really simple book. There are so few elements in it. It’s against a lot of white space. And so, really, it’s like you’re taking what can be a lovely, giant tree, and you’re shaving it down to just the bare essentials. And that’s what Kitty-Corn is, which means that those bare essentials have to be very, very strong. And it’s also a massive challenge because it means you have to be so economical in what it is that you choose to portray. And that moment of figuring out what do I say, what do I draw is what makes the picture book a very, very difficult medium to get. And we winnowed it down to so little that those stories are just so infinitely much harder to figure out where these stories are supposed to go.
[Shannon Hale] So, I think some people assume that longer books are harder to write because there are more words, but the fewer words are more complicated. You know, and what wasn’t working in the earlier draft—it was about 600 words long—by taking something out, we could get the words down to four hundred and fifty, and it’s harder to do it shorter. But by simplifying it, we didn’t need as many words. The pictures can do more of the heavy lifting. And it made more sense. It was funnier. There’s more room for the illustrations. There’s also more room for the reader. You don’t want one word longer than it needs to be.
[Bianca Schulze] Can we touch a little bit on Geko and Parakeet? While they are not the book’s leading stars, they’re integral to the storytelling. You know, they help drive your stories. So can we talk about them, and will we see them in the upcoming books?
[Shannon Hale] Yes. So they started when we were first coming up with these ideas. Initially, we thought it would be Kitty’s family members. I have a draft of it where she’s got siblings and a mom and a dad who are telling her that she’ll never be a unicorn. And that just felt so mean. We wanted the people telling her she couldn’t be a unicorn to be [more like] the Greek chorus. That’s what they are. The Greek chorus who are the truth speakers and saying what they see and saying what is. By making them her family members, to me, it just felt too mean and personal. We’re really saying that we do not want to blame because Kitty’s a stand-in for kids. We don’t want to say specifically these are the people in your life who keep you back. We’re saying, you know, just in general, sometimes some voices tell you who you can and can’t be. And so Gecko and Parakeet are the Greek chorus.
[LeUyen Pham] And I’m going to say that choosing those two animals was purely selfish on my part. … My son had gotten an orange gecko for Christmas a couple of years before. Her name is Kumquat, and she’s adorable, and she’s very funny looking because her tail is the same size as her head.
And I didn’t know this; it’s a survival thing that a gecko’s tail looks like their head so that if there’s a predator in the wild, it can attack its tail thinking it’s the head and the gecko will be able to get away. So a very healthy gecko has a very fat round head. It looks like a kumquat on the end of her tail, and I’ve never seen that before. And I remember thinking it was funny. And I remember when Shannon said, just draw what you want to draw.
I thought, oh, my God, I really want to draw Kumquat the gecko. And again, I did not think it would go through because I kept thinking people would look at it and say, what is that thing? It doesn’t look like a gecko and only true gecko people would know that it was a gecko. But I did it and nobody argued. Nobody in sales said, what is that? [Laughs.]
I don’t remember how Parakeet came about. Maybe you asked me to do a bird or something?
[Shannon Hale] At one point, I remember saying a duck. And you had already done ducks—you did a lot of ducks. So maybe we were just thinking bird, I don’t remember. But it was the most marvelous fat parakeet—the body shape of it was so glorious. I fell in love immediately.
[LeUyen Pham] Whenever I’m doing sketches of characters—especially with Shannon, I mean, we do other books, and I try not to do it because I don’t want Shannon’s voice in my head all the time—I was just like Shannon, what do you think? Fatter, bigger, fluffier? And I think Parakeet, it was precisely that; I just kept thinking if I draw a standard parakeet, she’s not going to laugh. So let’s make something that’s really, really silly and funny.
[Shannon Hale] wings that can’t possibly hold her up, tiny little wings and a big rounded middle and huge eyes that just stare. It’s just got so much personality.
[LeUyen Pham] I think those characters are sort of like the pushy little kids on the playground but that have good natures behind them. They’re not really going to hurt you, but they do sort of aggravate your life a bit, but they don’t destroy your life. They’re actually quite, quite a lot of fun. And I think that’s how I see those two characters. It’s just they’re, you know, like a little brother or sister. They want to be unicorns in the end, too.
[Shannon Hale] Exactly. They are in the end pages—oh my gosh, the end pages are amazing. You see this whole story—there could be an entire book of just Gecko and Parakeet.
[LeUyen Pham] I think Gecko’s the more earnest of the two characters. Parakeet is the snotty one.
[Shannon Hale] Yeah. Yeah, definitely.
[Bianca Schulze] So do we get any hints on sort of where the story will go next, or are we just honoring this moment of Itty-Bitty Kitty-Corn right now?
[Shannon Hale] I think I mean, it’s safe to say it’s a friendship series. It’s really about these two characters’ friendship and how they support each other and just be who they are. And that’s the element from the first book that I think will carry over. We have already been working on the second and third. And it’s incredible how there’s more to say about this. I feel blessed…, it feels like we have really precious and fresh, sweet ways to keep exploring this idea that excites me.
[LeUyen Pham] I’m going to say to you that this past year, being such a crazy year and everyone under quarantine and, you know, relationships have been tested like crazy this past year has made me feel strangely closer to Shannon. I check in a lot more with her. I know that the growth of our friendship will always be seen through these books. That’s where I’m starting to get the idea that we’ve got so much more to say because our friendship keeps growing. And it’s not growing in the way of like, oh, let’s check in on each other on Facebook. It’s growing in the sense of, oh my gosh, are you OK? How are you doing?
We’ve gone through such a difficult time this past year that we’ve just had to stretch and find ways to connect with one another in ways that we hadn’t before. And that’s where these books will grow because you discover, even at the age of 40-something, that it’s not a state in your life. You constantly have to feed it, motivate it, and make it go in different ways—go into areas that maybe you’re not terribly comfortable talking about, but that, you know, you need to be able to go there to help the other person. All of those things are going to feed these stories.
I think the second book was a lot like this. We sort of wanted to see how we can tell a story that moves from the first book, and it becomes pretty natural. And now I’m looking towards future ideas of stories. We haven’t had a chance to sit down and talk about books four, five, and six. But I just know that there are so many places for these characters to go because our friendship keeps growing—and that comfort is great. It’s like preserving, again, that sense of being a kid and writing these books.
When you were a kid with your best friend, you just felt safe with that fourth grade best friend, safer than you do now. You know, the friends forever sort of thing, that those are the ones that are going to last forever.
[Shannon Hale] Yeah, that’s it. I think we had a moment of panic when the book sold and we hadn’t yet talked about book two and three.
[LeUyen Pham] Yeah.
[Shannon Hale] But once we got past that and had, you know, we have such confidence in each other as co-creators and as best friends that it just feels like we can do this forever. And not only with these books. We also do the Princess in Black books, a totally different creative process when we do those books together. We do graphic novels together too, which is another totally different creative process. I don’t know that there’s anybody else in the business that has this the same way. There are many collaborators, but LeUyen and I now have three different series together that are entirely different—we have a middle-grade graphic novel series, an early chapter book series, and now picture books. That’s crazy. That’s really unusual. And I think that part of it is that LeUyen and I, outside of each other, have so many different styles of the kind of art that we do. We really enjoy stretching ourselves and trying new things.
Many people don’t realize how prolific LeUyen is just because her style is not easily identifiable, because she does so many different styles in so many different books. And I write for adults and young adults and middle grade and younger children.
[LeUyen Pham] You’re exactly the same. But in the writer form.
[Shannon Hale] Yeah.
[LeUyen Pham] She writes about heroes and the princess books and then for adults, Jane Eyre, Jane Austen, a memoir and screenplays and graphic novels and novels and all different kinds of things.
[Shannon Hale] And that’s very natural for me and feels good. And honestly, if sales were involved in that decision, they would tell me just to stick with what people expect of me and do only that. And LeUyen has resisted that her whole career, too, and just done what she’s pulled towards. So we ended up forming ourselves as professionals outside of each other but becoming friends slowly over time. And then when we did come together, it was like we were perfectly matched for everything.
[Bianca Schulze] I wholeheartedly agree with that. I mean, anything that you have both done together well and separately is just it’s amazing. We have a lot of your books here on the shelves and in my home. My kids love them. I am always telling first and second graders they need to grab the Princess and Black series. Well, oh, my gosh, what an honor to talk to both of you. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
The transcription of this interview with Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham has been condensed and edited for readability.
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