Join the conversation with author Josh Funk as he discusses the unique nuances between Dear Dragon and its super fun spin-off, Dear Unicorn.
In this lively discussion, Funk taps into the concept of duality in relationships—how a balance between positivity and negativity can facilitate growth. Discover the intricate details in the book’s illustrations, and learn how asking questions and staying curious can bring color and excitement to life. This conversation encourages readers to appreciate art, celebrate their differences, and learn to connect more deeply with others.
Listen up and be inspired to channel your inner creativity and keep an open mind in your day-to-day interactions.
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Hello, Josh Funk. You’re officially a two-timer on the Growing Readers podcast today.
Thanks, Bianca. That sounds kind of like a negative thing, though.
No, it’s not. No, I don’t mean it that way, but it’s your second time on the show, which is amazing.
Yeah, I’m excited to be here. Thank you.
And I’m really grateful that you’re here. So, what’s really fun about being a two-timer is that I get to send our listeners back to our episode that dropped on September 12, 2022, and they’ll get to hear all about what guides you and drives you in creating children’s books. But what that means for today is that we get to dive right into your new book, Dear Unicorn, which makes me feel so happy. But we can’t talk about Dear Unicorn without talking about your picture book, Dear Dragon, which is a huge fan favorite of teachers for use in the classroom. So why don’t you kick us off by telling us why you chose to do a Dear Dragon spin-off?
That’s a great question. So, Dear Dragon came out in 2016, and it’s illustrated by Rodolfo Montalvo. It’s about a boy and a dragon who are pen pals through a school class writing program throughout the year. And they’re writing letters to each other, and they’re also writing letters to each other in rhyme. And part of the reason that they’re writing in rhyme is because, towards the beginning of my writing career, I only wrote in rhyme. That’s sort of why I did it. It turns out that this was an added benefit because it’s got a lot of things going for it, especially for use in the classroom.
It’s done very well in schools, and it might be my best-reviewed book to date. It’s got letter writing, it’s got poetry, and it’s also got something that I didn’t really intend. It’s the boy and the dragon. They’re writing letters to each other, but they don’t realize they’re writing to a different species. So, George the human, he says, oh, I was a knight for Halloween. And the dragon thinks that’s scary. And you see, here’s what George is. George is actually just dressed as a Halloween. But then you have the dragon, which is imagining a scary night. And then the dragon says, my father won our local fire breathing contest, and obviously, he’s talking about his dad. The dragon—Blaze is his name—and the human is George—is imagining a circus performer winning a fire-breathing contest.
So, there’s a lot of misunderstandings. And I just thought that was going to be funny to see. Like, oh, one of them thought one thing, and you visually see it’s a picture book, what one of them thinks, and then on the other page, you see what really happened. And I thought it would be entertaining and humorous.
But when teachers got a hold of it, they started finding things that I never really intended. Number one, they thought, wow, it’s great that these two characters from completely different backgrounds have these two characters with completely different backgrounds. They become friends through writing letters, and they never even see each other. Spoiler alert: They become friends at the end. It’s a picture book. It’s been out since 2016. If you haven’t read it by now, that’s on you.
And I thought, wow, that’s cool. They become friends. And you could give this to people from arguing factions and be like, look, you have different backgrounds, but you can still become friends. And I never really thought of that. I was like, oh yeah, I guess that’s true. And then more teachers started saying, we can talk about how you might make assumptions about somebody, about who they are and based on their words, but you might be wrong in some of those assumptions. And I thought that’s true also. I guess that’s right. I never really intended it to be used that way, but I think that’s a lot of how books often are. You don’t always intend the way you can’t know how readers are going to interpret your books, and hopefully, they find even more in it than I meant to put in it. And that’s definitely what happened with Dear Dragon.
And it was always meant to be a standalone book. I never thought of it as a series, or what are we going to do next with George and Blaze or their teachers? Maybe the next year, they’d have a new crop of students or something. That wasn’t something that I ever really had any thought that would be the right thing for extending the Dear Dragon universe. But a few years after the book came out, I was in line at the Slinky Dog roller coaster at Disney World. And I was with my oldest, their name is Percy. And they were in line with me. And we were in this—it was a really nice day, but pretty hot. And the line was so long, and I was like, oh my God, this line is never going to end. And I was all negative about it. And then I was like, but I’m in Disney World, and that’s awesome. And then we turned a corner, and we thought we were about to get to the front of the line. It turns out that the other side, around the corner, had twice as many people in line waiting still. They just hid that from you.
So, if you know the Slinky Dog roller coaster, I think it’s at Hollywood Studios in Florida. That one. I’m pretty sure we started way past where the line actually started. It was basically at the beginning of Toy Story Land. That’s how far back it so it turned a corner, and we were in this other horrible like more people were there. I was like, oh my gosh, this line is really never going to end. And I was like, but we’re going to go on a roller coaster soon, and that’s going to be fun. And so, I kept going back and forth with these two ideas of positive and negative. And I thought I’ve always liked perspective-active picture books. And I was trying to think of how I could do a picture book where somebody’s really negative, but somebody’s also really positive, and you can see things from a different light at the same time. And I thought, well, I have a picture book that has two different perspectives. Dear Dragon has a boy and a dragon who are pen pals, and they see the world differently.
But that book isn’t so much about how they see the world. It’s about more of who they are and the assumptions they make about the other person. And I thought, well, what if I took another stab at this pen pal thing? But instead of focusing so much on the two of them and becoming friends and misinterpreting each other’s words, I thought, what if it was one of them was really positive and one of them was really negative? And I thought, well, what would be a good fantasy creature that’s super bubbly and positive? And the first one that came to mind was a unicorn. I’m sure there are others—fairies could be super positive. There’s lots of fantasy creatures out there. A goblin could be very negative if I wanted to go in that direction. But I felt like the human should be the negative one because that allows for more growth in a story.
And so, I started writing Dear Unicorn while I was in line for the Slinky Dog roller coaster. In fact, I wrote the entire first draft of Dear Unicorn while in line at the slinky dog roller coaster with my oldest, Percy, helping me by my side on my phone. And that is how it started. So, for the whole first draft, I did write in line at the slinky dog roller coaster, which is kind of silly but also true.
I love that. My first picture book was Don’t Wake the Dragon. And I also wrote it during a long wait. So, mine was on an airplane with my youngest, who had just fallen asleep, and he was so cranky because he wasn’t feeling well, and we just didn’t want to wake him up. And my husband said, don’t wake the dragon. But again, I was stuck on the plane, not wanting to move, hoping the flight attendant didn’t come down with the loud cot serving drinks. But I think that’s such a when you have a sort of creative thought to put those long wait times to use is excellent.
Yeah, that’s probably the only time that that’s happened to me where I was forced to be doing nothing. I could have a conversation with my oldest, of course, but I thought they’re creative, too. They write and draw. They were all in on helping me brainstorm. What could it be about? How would it look? How would it be similar to Dear Unicorn? Sorry, Dear Dragon, but how would it be similar to Dear Dragon? But how would it also be different?
That’s a really good question. I don’t want to cut you off, but why don’t you explain to listeners how it is different from Dear Dragon?
So, in Dear Dragon, the characters are sharing poetry with each other. And I thought, well, I don’t want to have to just do poetry again, there’s no rules here. But I thought, let’s try to make it different. What else is a way that characters can express themselves and how they’re feeling?
And I thought sometimes art could be a really interesting way to do that. So, in Dear Unicorn, they are sharing art with each other. So, along with each letter, which are written in prose, they are sending a piece of art that they drew and that goes along with the letter. And I think not only does the art express how they’re feeling, but in the very first one, when the human is feeling rather negative, they draw something very blue and thunderstormy. And in the second one, when they lose their soccer championship by only one goal, it’s all black and white sketches and very serious, and they take art very seriously. And the unicorn is all bubbly and positive, so they have sparkles, and they use different tools, formats, crayons, and markers. And they’re very the kind of art that seems more kind of exciting and blurry and flashy. And so I thought that could be a fun way to have the two connect through the story by introducing not poetry but art.
And something else that obviously was very important was the whole positive and negative aspect. So, while I didn’t originally intend Dear Dragon to have this whole, we can make assumptions about each other’s characters thing going, I realized that that was something teachers liked. So, I thought, is there anything well teachers, readers, and children they all could like? So, I thought maybe there was something similar. And that’s where the positive and negative, which really inspired the whole story, came. And it also allows for growth. Now, the unicorn is very positive, but the unicorn has to grow a little bit, too.
And so, the unicorn started to grow in their art styles. They start to become a little fancier with their art. Throughout the book, the two characters, I don’t want to say, merge their art styles towards each other, but they definitely encourage each other to pursue different avenues of having fun with art and being a little bit more serious with art. And spoiler alert, it ends with them collaborating together, making a giant mural at the Pen Pal Art Festival at the end of the year.
Yeah, we’ll definitely have to dig into the illustrations in a minute, too, because I love that mural page. So, for me, books can be one of the most important tools in shaping young minds. So, do you want to elaborate more on the kind of takeaways that you imagine kids will get from reading Dear Unicorn? For me, the unicorn is more positive, and Nic, the unicorn, and Connie, the kid, is definitely grumpier. What goes into, you know, obviously, it’s okay to be negative and have feelings, but to what point do you become too negative? And then, on the flip side of that, you can be overly positive and not allow somebody who’s having big feelings to have those feelings, right?
So, I feel like your book does this beautiful dance. At first, every time Connie says something negative, Unicorn puts a really beautiful, positive spin on it. But I feel like it starts to kind of mesh together by the end, where they’re just kind of a little more in tune with each other, and Connie becomes a bit more positive. And Nic just—she’s still obviously always going to be looking on the bright side. But I don’t know if it’s because Connie just improves with her positivity that it feels like unicorn meets—you tell it—
I don’t think I intended Unicorn to necessarily become more negative because I didn’t think that. But I do see your point about sometimes you have to let people have their down moments and just work through it. I definitely have those moments, and there’s really nothing anyone can say to make it better in those times. But I agree that now that you’re mentioning it, I’m realizing there are some parts in the book. There’s— at one point where the unicorn does get a little negative. She bashes dragons jokingly. But there are some things like she’s not always positive about everything. But I think sometimes it comes with people becoming closer to each other and knowing each other.
A lot of times, your outward personality, what you post on social media, is going to be all the happy stuff. You’re not going to post when some small negative things annoy you. And even if you do, hopefully, you do it. I usually do it in a joking way, but every time someone cuts me off in traffic, I don’t post about it on social media, obviously, because I’m driving. But also, it would serve. No. So I think once you start to get to know someone, you can be a little bit more of yourself. Now Connie doesn’t have a problem being cranky, or what did Publishers Weekly call it? I think they hold on; I’m going to look this up. I’m going to rephrase it for you. They said it in a funny way.
So, publishers weekly described Connie as a detail-oriented artist who vents about nearly everything. And I’m like, yeah, you got it. That’s what she’s doing. She’s just venting in her letters about everything, whereas bright pink Nic is a unicorn with a fluffy purple mane. And she, on the other hand, sticks with cheery graphics and remains unfailingly upbeat. I think that’s a good way to put it. As Publishers Weekly said, but there are times when you get a little closer to someone, you can be a little bit more of yourself, and you break down that whole, know, let’s talk about the weather. Hey, everyone, everything’s happy? Kind of.
I don’t know if this would be, like, a good time. Would it be okay to read a page?
Oh, yeah, please.
Maybe I can read a page, and then I’ll be Connie, the human, and you could be Nic, the unicorn.
I would love to, but just as a forewarning, I haven’t practiced any unicorn voices.
You sound just like a unicorn to me right now.
This is not the beginning of this story, so I’m going to play the role of Constance Nace-Sayre. It’s a hyphenated last name: Constance Naysayer. And you will be Nicole Sharp. Bianca. November 1. Dear Nicole Sharp, All Day baking? Ugh. I had to do chores all day yesterday, too. Last week, my soccer team lost in the championship by one goal. Can you believe it? My birthday is July 21, so I never get to celebrate in school. When’s yours from Constance, but everyone just calls me Connie.
December 1. Dear. Connie. Wow. You made the championship and almost won? Congrats.
My birthday is a leap day, February 29. I only get to celebrate every four years, but when I do, it’s the best party ever. Bad news. I broke my horn. It’s going to take six weeks to mend. On the bright side, I have more time for art. Like my dad always says, life is all glitter and cupcakes if you look at it right. Question: What’s your favorite book? Yours truly, Nicole. But my friends call me Nic.
So, there’s a lot going on on this page, especially in the illustrations. So, Nicole ended with Nicole, but My friends call me Nic. The next page starts off with Dear Nicole. She does not call her Nic on the next page. There’s a lot of hidden little things that happen in this book. In fact, on the next page, that’s when Connie ends up visiting the animal shelter with cats all day, and she looks all cranky because she’s trying to paint while she’s in the animal shelter. And there’s a million fluffy cats that I think a lot of kids would enjoy that, but some might not. And I understand.
And one of them ends up getting a paw print on the painting— and this is not in the story that I wrote. I mean, it’s not in the story. It was not anything I wrote. It was not an illustration note. It was all Charles. She adopts that cat, and he’s in all the rest of the pages. And there’s so many little hidden things that he added just like that, that build throughout the year that these characters are. It’s awesome. It’s very layered. I was really pushing to get specifically Charles to illustrate this book.
Yeah. Well, when we were talking last year about my pet feet, and you mentioned that Dear Unicorn was coming out this year, and you said Charles was the illustrator, I inside totally flipped out because he’s just, hands down, one of my favorite children’s book illustrators. So why don’t you tell us about it if you really wanted him—how did that all work out for you?
So, I knew that the illustrator had to be able to illustrate multiple different art styles. And while I’m pretty sure most of Charles Santoso’s work is digital, if not all of it, he has so many different styles of picture books throughout his catalog. He’s obviously illustrated a lot of book covers. Books like Wishtree by Katherine Applegate and a handful of others. But he’s also illustrated books. Like, one of my favorites is IDA Always. He’s got a whole series with Caron Levis of animals, and the newest one is out this October, although I actually bought it in a bookstore in Boulder in August, which is amazing that it was there early. And it’s okay. Don’t worry. It’s allowed. I checked with booksellers, but it’s called Mighty Muddy Us, and that one’s about two elephants. But there are four books that he’s done, and they look like they’re paintings. They look like paintings you would put on the wall of a museum, even though I think they are done digitally.
And then he’s got books that are sort of comic-bookie like Peanut Butter and Brains, and they look like they could be coming out of a graphic novel or something like that. A lot of pencil sketch-type things with the way it’s colored. And then he has other books like Dandy by Amy Dyckman and many more. But he has so many different styles and distinct styles. Or maybe it’s just a range of styles over a spectrum, but I knew we needed to have somebody who could draw, obviously, the style of the book itself, right? How is the book illustrated? How are the characters drawn? But it also needed to have at least two other distinct styles, one being Connie’s art, the fancy art that belongs in a museum kind of art, and also a fun, bubbly, sparkly style that is Nic’s art and Nic’s art. It’s going to be a completely different style, and then they’re going to merge over time. Merge, or maybe they just evolve over time.
And each of them has you can even see in the very last picture that Nic draws; Nic sends a picture of a castle. And because Connie had mentioned that there’s going to be a bouncy castle at the Pen Pal Art Festival, and Nic is not familiar with bouncy castles, as you would expect a unicorn to not have experience with bouncy castles. Yes, we do see at the very end what happens when a unicorn goes into a bouncy castle, but she draws this picture of a castle—and it’s got a little pointillism to it, and it’s definitely Nic’s style, but it’s also a little bit more of a fancier style. You can tell how each of the characters, in their own ways, has evolved as an artist throughout the year and how they’ve each encouraged and affected each other’s art styles. And to be able to do that, we needed somebody who had the ability to draw that many different art styles in the same book.
And I kept mentioning to my editor we need someone kind of like a Charles Santoso type, a Charles Santoso type. And after saying that enough times, she said, well, what if I just asked Charles Santoso? And I was like, oh, that would be a great idea. I’ve never met him. He, I believe, lives in Singapore. He’s maybe spent some time in. So, I’ve never met him face to face. I’ve never spoken to him, as I’m sure your listeners know that many authors and illustrators don’t speak. I still have not heard his voice. That’s not true. I’ve heard his voice when he does Instagram Lives, or he did at some points.
But I knew him from social media. I had tweeted to him how much a big fan I am of IDA Always and Dandy and a handful of his other books over, so he had responded to those. So, I think at least my name might be familiar to him. I think he knew some of my titles, possibly. But with the online social media interactions, hopefully, I’m sure he gets lots of people to ask him to illustrate their books. And hopefully, having heard the name Josh Funk before might have made him a little bit more open to illustrating Dear Unicorn.
Well, let me ask you this. You mentioned while we were looking through the illustrations a moment ago that he obviously bought some things that weren’t from your words in the text and that you didn’t provide illustration notes. So, were there any illustration notes provided at all? And also, what was the most surprising thing that he added to the book that you didn’t expect?
Okay, I’m going to have to look through for a second. I tend not to use too many illustration notes, but some books require illustration notes. And there were definitely some places where, let’s see, there are definitely some places where I had some. And there were even some places where we kind of went back and forth once the art was done, and not directly. It always goes through the editors and the art directors. One of the things that I think the cat surprised me the most and the fact that she adopted the cat; I mean, I didn’t realize that until maybe the 6th or 7th time I read the book. I think a reader who wasn’t so focused on the text and what do you think about the art, maybe would notice that much sooner. But that’s really what I think struck me the most.
But there’s so many things that he added, like the way the unicorns paint. They have attachments to their horns to paint. That’s one of the ways sometimes they actually paint with their hooves. But you can see that when Nic does that, she is usually wearing some sort of slipper, like a paint slipper. Nic the unicorn has a ton of slippers—pairs of shoes that there’s four of which I think was also very entertaining. I mean, there’s a ton of little things.
One of the things that I actually asked to be added later on in the story was—during the pandemic, which hopefully is trailing off, and I did a lot of story times in 2020 on social media, I think mostly Saturday mornings because I have a day job. And so, I did a lot of story times. And after a couple of them, I had done them on Instagram and Facebook at the same time, and I was reading my books, and a friend of a friend asked, hey, would you have any interest in having an ASL interpreter on? And I thought, yeah, that would be great. I absolutely do. How much do they charge? And they offered to do it for free. Don’t worry, I sent them all of my books.
But starting, I think I did each of my books twice, and at the time, there were twelve of them. So, I did 24 weeks in a row, almost half a year. And I had an ASL interpreter that joined and helped me do it for all but the first three. And it works great on Instagram because you can do the little split screens. I’m not well connected with the deaf and hard of hearing community, but I thought that that was something that I learned more about during that process. And lots of I connected her with other authors, and they did some book launches, especially when everything was virtual.
And then I was at a book signing last fall, and a little girl was there. And I had met them once before at this same bookstore earlier, and they said to me, hey, they have diabetes, and they had a little patch on their arm that injected stuff in their arm. And I’m not familiar with diabetes in the diabetes community, but they said, would you ever put a character like that in one of your books? And I thought, I don’t feel comfortable doing that only because I don’t know enough about that. But I was a little bit connected with the deaf community during the pandemic, and I thought I would love to put some incidental representation.
And so, if you look closely on, I guess, the second page, when you see the unicorns classroom, they added one of the microphones that you put over your neck that the teacher wears and not they, Charles. And I asked him if it was okay and the editors if it was okay, and they put a little microphone in the ear of one of the unicorns. And so, I was excited about that. Maybe next time, I will ask the illustrator to put a diabetic patch on one of the characters in my book. And I think it’s cool that it’s a unicorn, too. It could have been one of the kids, but I thought it would be more fun to have a deaf unicorn in the story.
And if you are doing story times, especially virtually, if you’re able to secure an ASL interpreter, I highly recommend doing that. Yeah, you can message me directly if you want my contact. I don’t want to put them out there in case they don’t want to.
Yeah, and you have a contact form on your website, which is Joshfunkbooks.com, so anyone can reach out to you there.
Yeah, you can always reach out to me there. I think that it’s something that accessibility is something that we don’t always think about enough, and I want to make sure that I try to do that when I can. And whether it’s adding something incidental like this. This is not a book about a deaf character, but I think that it’s something that hopefully the. People that need to see it, they’ll enjoy it. And I also think accessibility, I mean, I’ve been having some hip problems lately. I’m getting old, man. And I think about the fact that, hey, would I be able to get into this building in 20 years if I have hip problems? Or whatever? It’s just something that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.
Yeah, well, I have two things I want to say about all of that. So, the first thing is the light and fluffy thing is that I just think what you pointed out there is why picture books are so amazing. Because often, obviously, there’s the main story, there’s the text, there’s the beginning, the middle, and the end. There’s the problem that needs to be solved. But when you have a picture book, and you sit there, and you read it over and over, you end up finding those little nuggets of unexpected things like the cat getting adopted. That isn’t necessarily part of the story, but it is a story within the illustrations. And having representation and inclusivity in the other characters as well is just; I think there’s so much that you can take from a picture book.
When I first saw the cat that was adopted on my 6th or 7th read, I got chills. I mean, I was like, oh, my gosh, I didn’t even realize that the cat was there. And just the fact that she’s scowling almost at this cat on the previous page and the next one, it’s at her leg. You can feel the character growth. And that’s not something that was in the text. That’s 100%. Charles Santoso. Adding that in. And the fact to see a book that I helped create and to have something blow my mind like that doesn’t always happen. It doesn’t always happen.
Yeah. I just love those little magic nuggets, the separate side stories going on inside the illustrations. I just think it’s such a great opportunity to add some inclusivity and special moments of representation in there, too. So, I love that. The second point that I wanted to make is that something I really appreciate about you is that you really push for inclusivity and representation. And I was lucky enough to see you read stories here in Colorado at the Wandering Jellyfish in Niwot, Colorado. And even though you were there to read your stories. You made a point of recommending—there were other authors in the audience. You pointed out that there were other authors and suggested that the families there check out their books. And then, you also shared books by other authors that were diverse and offered great representation. And so, I really respect and appreciate that you make sure that you use your platform to share the work of others.
Well, first, I think I got that— I have to credit Kate Messner for giving that inspiration. Not to be inclusive? Yes, to be inclusive, but not that. But I’ve been to a lot of author events, and Kate every time shares books by other authors, often by underrepresented communities, by authors and illustrators from underrepresented communities. And after having seen her do that a bunch of times, I thought that’s one of the many reasons Kate Messner is so amazing. But that’s something that I can do. I can use the privilege that I have. The fact that I’ve been asked to visit this bookstore in Colorado, or I have a connection with them, and they’re interested in hosting me, I can use that platform to make sure I use it wisely and share books that I love. And if it happens to be that they’re by people of color or about diverse topics, LGBTQIA plus, then cool. But it just happens to be books that I love.
And I think that’s important because where do you even start? It’s important that everyone sees themselves in books. It’s important that everyone sees other people in books so they can understand as best they can the experiences that other people have that they might not have. I grew up a white kid in the suburbs in the upper middle class. I had the ability to go to college, and I didn’t have a ton of debt coming out of UMass Amherst. And I got a day job, and I have a 40-hour weekday job where I have weekends that I can spend going to book events and doing things like that. Not everybody only works 40 hours from nine to five. And I recognize that I’m very privileged to be in this situation. And so, I try to use my privilege wisely.
And to me, that means when I do a book signing, especially locally in the Boston area, I’ll try to invite a friend to join me. And we can both, I mean, it helps with publicity. I don’t have to do all of it myself. Well, the bookstore will, too, of course, but yeah, I like to try to make sure that everyone is getting the attention that they truly deserve because there are so many great books that are published all the time that don’t get the attention that they deserve. And there’s a lot of people out there that don’t have the ability to spend their weekends and their money going to conferences like I did, and they may have to work two jobs or work on weekends. They may not be able to afford to spend money traveling to New York or LA to an SCBWI conference or even their regional ones.
So, I’m just trying to make this as accessible for all authors and creators as possible. But also, it really comes down to the kids. The kids need to see themselves and others in books. The whole you need to have windows and mirrors and sliding glass doors and skylights and all the things.
Well, on that note, do you have some picture books or any kind of books that you would love to share?
Yeah. Let’s see a couple of books that I’ve been really into lately. I mean, there’s a lot, okay, so this one here, it’s called Gibberish by Young Vo. This is one of those picture books that has to be a picture book. You can’t tell it in another way or a graphic novel or whatever, but it has to be illustrated. It is brilliant. It is a book that is about a kid who sets sail on a boat, and it’s going to be their first day in school. Their name is Dat. But when people speak. So, this is Dat, but when he’s illustrated in a particular style. But all the other kids in the neighborhood, they all kind of look like Disney characters from 1930, like whatever the cow’s name is and stuff, like really old school black and white, like Mickey.
Mouse, Steamboat Willie, kind of exactly.
And they aren’t those characters. They’re all kind of silly, goofy creatures. But the point is that Dat doesn’t understand what they’re saying, and Dat eventually, so the great thing about this is all the other characters speak in symbols. And at first, all of the symbols are just symbols, and they mean nothing, and they’re talking in speech bubbles. But there’s a universal language of play that the other kids are like, they want to play. Let’s go play on the seesaw and jump on a rope and things like that. And slowly, Dat learned some of the letters. And when you get to the end of the book, and I did this, you can map out every single thing that was said earlier because you can figure out what each letter was based on other things you learn later on.
Slowly, he learns the language, but it shows you the experience of what it’s like to come to a country and not understand a single word. And slowly, you learn, but to be able to do it in picture book form, you got these symbols here, and then that means duck because they’re drawing a picture of a duck. And I went through and did it like a puzzle and figured out every single word based on which letters were which. Eventually, those silly cartoon character-looking characters turn into more of the same art style that Dat was drawn in originally. And he’s able to sort of figure things out with the language. And anyway, it’s brilliant. And it’s one of those books like the Remember Balloons, which is one of my favorites of all time, that you can only do in a picture book. It had to be done this way.
And that’s the best kind of picture book, not the best. I mean, there’s lots of different great kinds of picture books, but one of my favorite kinds of picture books is the kind where you couldn’t have written a novel like this. Like, sure, you could have. You could have said that the character didn’t really understand. It was sad. Oh, but they still got to understand that they were playing together. But in a picture book, you see it all. And to me, that’s brilliant.
And then another one that I recently discovered. It’s not super new, and there’s at least a second one. This one is called Take a Breath by Rim, and it’s about a bird named Bob. And Bob is always busy. Bob is always busy. He never stops. He never has time to stop. And his other friends are like, okay, well, you got to slow down a little. Really? And it’s super hilarious and illustrated, and it does kind of give you it’s not like an overly didactic moral, but he’s trying to learn to fly. He can’t fly. And so sometimes you just have to take a breath and relax and let it come to you. And let me pause because there is a sequel that’s just as good that just came out.
By the way, I go to a lot of bookstores, even ones where I’m not doing signings. Sometimes, it’s when another author has a signing, but sometimes, I just visit bookstores, and I always ask the booksellers what their favorite picture books are, and that’s where I get some of my best suggestions. So definitely do that if you’re an author, if you’re a teacher, consumer, whatever. Booksellers know their stuff; they’re probably not going to recommend Goodnight Moon or The Very Hungry Caterpillar to you, which is nice because every baby already has twelve of those, so don’t buy them for baby showers. But yeah, Take a Breath, it’s a really cute book, and there’s already a sequel to it, Take a Chance.
Yeah, and then what are you working on right now? What’s the next book that’s going to come out after Dear Unicorn? And I know you’re working on stuff, but I don’t know what you’re allowed to share and what you’re not allowed to share yet.
Yeah, the next book I still can’t share, which is weird, but I’ll tell you, it’s the 6th book in the Lady Pancake and Surf French Toast series. Officially, I know the release date, but it’s too early to go up for preorders, and it’s not available online anywhere. So, I’m going to keep the title a secret. I will say, though, that Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast is my most popular book series. The first one had a great publicity job by the publisher, which I’m very fortunate that happened and that allowed it to get on booksellers’ radars and educators’ radars, and I was fortunate enough that they were happy to make more.
In each one of those books, I try to change up the genre, and I also try to think about what is a fridge problem that could be solved. And so, while I can’t tell you the title or show you the cover, I can tell you the genre and the fridge problem. So previous genres have been a race, we had a mystery, we had an action-adventure spy thriller, we had a Sci-Fi comedy, magical Body Swap, kind of like Freaky Friday or Big Meets Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.
And then the most recent one, The Great Caper Caper, was a heist. The food problems in all of those books were the first one was, I always ask kids, I’m like, have you ever fought with a sibling over the last bite of something pizza cake? In this case, the last drop of syrup? Well, that’s the fridge problem in the first book. In the second one it’s, have you ever opened the fridge and smelled something kind of funny? Well, that’s The Case of the Stinky Stench in the next one, it’s, have you ever opened the fridge and things started to freeze over a little bit too much? And in that case, that’s not a case—that one is Mission Defrostable when the fridge starts to freeze over.
And then the next one is they start to go stale. So, has anyone ever opened the fridge, and things start to go stale? Well, that’s what happens in Short and Sweet. And then the fifth one, the newest one, the Great Caper Caper, is, has anyone ever opened the fridge and the light bulb was out? So, the fridge problem for book six, title redacted, is, have you ever opened the fridge and left something in there that didn’t belong there by accident? Like that time I left my keys in there with my iced coffee, and I couldn’t find them for the weekend. It was really annoying. I had to walk everywhere. Anyway, so that is the fridge problem, and the genre is alien invasion.
I love it. I’m so excited. I’m so excited for this next book. My kids are huge fans of Lady Pancake and Sir French toast. Well, we can’t leave our conversation today without circling back to Dear Unicorn. And it’s a question I ask everybody when readers, and I’m not just talking about kids, but readers as in teachers, readers as in parents, readers, and kids when they’re done reading Dear Unicorn, what are your hopes for it? What do you hope they take away?
There was a long pause on purpose because I’m thinking, but I don’t really think I should say what people take away. I think people can take away whatever they want to take away. I think with this book in particular; there’s so much that they can take away, whether it’s that, oh, it was cute illustrations, or whether it’s I want to have a pen pal of my own someday, or I want to draw a mural on the wall. It could be that I didn’t like unicorns before, but now I do. Or it could be I want to go to an amusement park because that one Sparky’s World looked fun.
I don’t think it’s really up to me to say what people take away from the book. I really hope that while they’re reading the book, they really soak up every page and spend some time on every page looking at all the details that Charles Santoso put into this. And I don’t mean details like the brushstrokes. I mean details like the page where the two characters when Nicole Nic the unicorn get it. Nic. You Nic Corn. When Nic goes on vacation and is with her friend Abe in the mountains, and she says I love rolling giant snowballs into men—when you’re when you’re rolling giant snowballs into men, you’re making a snowman or a snow person, but when they’re rolling giant snowballs into men, they’re really rolling giant snowballs down a hill into people skiing. Into humans. Men skiing. And I want you to see that. I want you to pick up on things that aren’t explicitly said.
I didn’t mention it in here, but similar to Dear Dragon, the two characters don’t realize they’re writing to a different species. I think that was maybe sort of a given because that was the case in the first book. But it is the case in the same in the book here. Not only do they do that in a way where they don’t mention it in their words, but they have to not draw a picture of anything human or anything unicorn-related in each of the pictures. And that’s something that it took a lot of cleverness on Charles’s part to make sure that that didn’t happen, and it worked out brilliantly. And so I just want people to enjoy it while they’re reading it, and I want them to go and read another book because they love reading so much. That’s what I want them to take from it.
I love that, Josh. And I am going to say that I have some hopes for your book that readers do take away, even though it’s none of my business what they take away. Like you said, they can take away whatever is most important to them, whether it’s just plain fun or whatever. So, some things that I hope they take away is that it’s okay to ask others questions, to get to know them. Ask questions. Be curious about other people. Don’t just think about yourself. Get to know people. Ask questions. So, I hope that readers take that away. Let’s see. I also made a note of, well.
So that’s something that I don’t want to say I didn’t know. I mean, that’s not something I thought of or planned when I was writing this book, but that’s something you took away, and that’s great. That’s a perfect example of a reader taking away something that meant something to them. And you as a parent, an educator, that’s something that maybe you want to inspire others to be curious, and that’s something that you care about, and you feel strongly about, and you saw that in this book through your lens, even though I’ve never seen that before. Not that you’re wrong. You’re right. But that’s not something that was intentional, but that’s okay. That’s great. I love that you took that away. And it’s okay that you take things away from other people, yeah, absolutely. Very cool.
Well, you want to know something else I took away that I hope others get, too? I love Nic. I love Nic the unicorn. I love that she always looks on the bright side. And I love that even though it was subtle, and whether you had intended it or not, that she subtly drew back. She never became negative. She still always looks on the bright side. But she connected with Connie and allowed Connie to be who she was so that Connie also started to look on the bright side. And so, I just love that whole bright side message, look on the bright side, that it’s a unicorn and it’s sparkly and rainbows, and it’s just so enjoyable.
And I’m going to share my final hope. If books like The Day the Crayons Quit and Dragons Love Tacos can be number one New York Times bestsellers, I just hope that Dear Unicorn can get there, too, because this honestly is such a great book for classrooms, know schools, and homes, and I can imagine preschool teachers teaching kids to have pen pals. They may not have the literacy and writing skills yet to write, but this book shows them that you can communicate through artwork and, write pictures and share with your art.
And then all the way up to upper elementary—that pen pals, they can still communicate through art, and now they can also communicate through words. And I don’t know everybody. I love this book, and I hope that Josh gets to add New York Times bestselling author to his bio because I think he deserves it with this book. It’s so fun.
Well, thank you so much. That’s very sweet. I always hope that, too, but it’s a long shot with any of that. But I do think that you brought up something that I never thought about, which, again, is that you could be pen pals in preschool by drawing pictures. You could be pen pals at the age of two once you can start scribbling with a crayon and be like, hey, this is from so and so, and we mailed it across the country. That never occurred to me.
I mean, all these things that you’re saying are brilliant, and it’s not my intention; obviously, me being a New York Times bestseller someday is this is that’s the power of picture books is that everybody sees things, different things in them, everybody sees the capabilities of them and know, hopefully, people find it. That’s the best thing about your podcast is you’re helping to share great books. And that’s something that all books could use a leg up, especially ones that you enjoy. So, thank you.
Yeah. Absolute pleasure, Josh. And thank you so much for coming back on the show. I really appreciated having you. I love your books and really enjoy our chats. So, I hope that you’ll be back again for a third time.
Oh, absolutely. I’m happy to be here. Thank you again for inviting me, and have a great rest of your great rest of your—I don’t know what day this is going to air. Thank you very much. I’m so glad to be here.
About the Book
Publisher’s Book Summary: Two pen pals receive the shock of a lifetime in this giggle-inducing ode to friendship, art, and keeping an open mind!
Connie’s art class is partnering up with pen pals this year, and she loves exchanging letters with her new friend, Nic, even though the two of them are polar opposites. Connie takes her art seriously and thinks things like kittens are nothing more than a distraction, while Nic has a more whimsical approach to painting and knows the value of a good cupcake. But both are eagerly awaiting the end of year pen pal art festival where their two classes will finally meet.
But they’re in for quite the shock…
Connie doesn’t know Nic is a unicorn. And Nic has no clue that Connie is a human.
It turns out, though, that even this surprise can’t get in the way of true friendship. Through their letters, they see that their differences are their strengths–and that they lave a lot to learn from each other.
With Josh Funk’s signature laugh-out-loud humor and Charles Santoso’s explosively fun illustrations, Dear Unicorn is a celebration of new friends, art, and stepping outside your comfort zone.
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About the Author:
By day, Josh Funk writes C++, Java Code, and Python scripts as a software engineer, which he’s been doing for the last twenty years. In his spare time, he uses ABCs, drinks Java coffee, and writes picture book manuscripts, such as How to Code a Sandcastle, Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast, The Case of the Stinky Stench, Dear Dragon, and more. Josh graduated from the UMass Amherst Commonwealth College with a degree in computer science. He is a board member of the Writers’ Loft in Sherborn, Massachusetts, and the co-coordinator of the 2017 New England Regional SCBWI Conference.
You can find out more about Josh Funk at https://www.joshfunkbooks.com/.
Josh Funk talks about:
- The inspiration behind his previous book, Dear Dragon, and how it unintentionally became a hit with teachers for its themes of friendship and challenging assumptions.
- How he came up with the idea for Dear Unicorn while waiting in line for a roller coaster at Disney World and wrote the entire first draft on his phone with his child’s help.
- The difference between Dear Dragon and Dear Unicorn
- Using art to communicate and express emotions.
- Takeaways for kids reading Dear Unicorn.
- Balance between positivity and negativity in relationships and how it can lead to growth.
- How getting to know someone allows for more authenticity
- The characters of Connie and Nic, the unicorn, express themselves differently.
- Josh and Bianca read a page from Dear Unicorn.
- Using his platform to share the work of other authors and push for inclusivity and representation