Exclusive Interview About Her Journey and Process as a Writer
by Traci Swain
“Mostly, I hope [Potato Pants!] gives [readers] a good laugh. And, if they get a little lighthearted reminder about not assuming the worst about someone, not taking things personally, and the whole apologizing/forgiveness thing, then that wouldn’t be all bad.” —Laurie Keller
Forgiveness can be tough sometimes—whether you’re a kid, an adult, or a potato!
With a shopping frenzy at Lance Vance’s Fancy Pants Store’s one-day-only sale as the backdrop, the laugh-out-loud-funny Book of the Week, Potato Pants! by Laurie Keller, charmingly offers a lesson about forgiveness and a reminder not to assume the worst about someone.
We were inspired to learn more about Laurie and how she created Potato Pants! (along with her other kid-favorite books, including Do Unto Otters and Arnie the Doughnut). Please share this exclusive interview with your students to learn more about Laurie’s journey as an artist and how she thinks one of her other characters would get along with Potato!
How would you describe yourself as a child?
I was kind of a mix between a tomboy and a girly girl. I’d spend many recesses, weekends, and summer vacation days playing softball, kickball, marbles, building forts, and riding bikes with my friends, or have hours of focused alone time doing art projects and drawing in my sketchbook, practicing baton twirling and gymnastics, playing with Barbie dolls, and reading and playing games with my mom.
I was also the kid who was always organizing neighborhood talent shows and going door-to-door trying to sell something (“What are you selling now?” was a common response). Once my visiting Canadian cousin and I mixed everything we could get our hands on in a bowl—bread, toothpaste, spaghetti sauce, mouthwash, spices, pudding, etc.—and knocked on doors just to see if we could get people to taste it.
You were originally a dancer. Has that influenced your creative process?
I didn’t start dancing “officially” until I was in college (before I switched tracks and went to art school). I loved it so much, and it helped me come out of my shell creatively, constantly having to push myself in terms of exploring movement, improvisation, and self-expression. I know that what I learned through dance gave me the courage and confidence to “put myself out there” with going to art school and my eventual writing and illustrating career.
In dance, everything is all about energy and motion, and I see writing and illustration the same way. One small “move” or change somewhere affects everything else—lots of parts working together. On a practical level, I use what I learned in dance all the time as far as figuring out body positions or expressions of a character and how a subtle line change can make all the difference. And on a big-scheme-of-things level, as in anything, writing and illustrating are all about being yourself and “moving how you move.” We all have our own style, and I try to encourage kids at school talks (and aspiring writers/illustrators) to have the confidence to share that with the world!
You’ve said in a previous interview that you like working on several projects at once. How does doing that aid your creative process?
Working on multiple projects is something I’ve been trying to do more over the years, and that practice is still a work in progress. I don’t usually have two illustration projects happening at the same time; it’s usually book illustrations with some writing happening for my next project or two. When I’m on a tight deadline trying to finish illustrations, I usually fall off the multi-project wagon for a while, but I feel best when I can have a couple of things (in varying stages) in the works.
I think stepping away from any main project and working on a “next” project, or even working in my sketchbook, helps me not be so precious and cautious with the thing I’m working on. My goal is to have a continuous cycle, going off illustrating one project and by the time I’m done also have my next story written and ready to go. So far, it’s not a very well-oiled machine, but I’m working on it!
How does your creative process differ when you are the writer and illustrator from when you are bringing someone else’s text to life?
I’m more nervous when I illustrate for other people because I don’t want to ruin their project! That feeling is always there, but I’m always so honored when I’m asked to illustrate an author’s story. They usually want me to add lots of expression to the characters and to make something more humorous (especially nonfiction topics), so I try to focus on that and it helps me relax into it more.
With my own projects, I think I’m more willing to take risks with the art, making it a little grungier like I gravitate toward at times. When I’m writing and illustrating something, I constantly make changes in both parts, so that can be frustrating, but I enjoy the excitement and spontaneity of working that way too. Fortunately, my editor, Christy Ottaviano, is very patient with my crazy process!
What celebrity would you want to do a read-aloud of Potato Pants! for a story-time video and why?
Steve Martin would be amazing, but I think I’d have to pick his best buddy, Martin Short. He’s a comic genius and the characters he creates are so outrageously absurd and hilarious: lovable Ed Grimley, slimy lawyer Nathan Thurm, and my favorite—clueless celebrity interviewer Jiminy Glick! I would love to hear Martin Short’s interpretation of Potato and, of course, the potato pants-creator himself, Tuberto!
How do you think Potato and Arnie the Doughnut would get along?
I think they’d be the best of spud-bud pastry-pals! They both have such a zest for life, and I think they’d constantly be challenging each other to try something new! And I can just imagine the Robot/PO-bot/DOUGH-bot dance parties!
What are you hoping that students take away from Potato Pants!?
Mostly, I hope it gives them a good laugh. And if they get a little lighthearted reminder about not assuming the worst about someone, not taking things personally, and the whole apologizing/forgiveness thing, then that wouldn’t be all bad. And, last but not least, to take some time to make some fancy pants for their favorite tubers! Every day can be Potato Pants Day if we all work together, people!
Do you know another teacher or reader who would enjoy this exclusive interview with author and illustrator Laurie Keller? Please share on Facebook and Instagram using the hashtag #ScholasticBookClubs.
In addition to writing Potato Pants!, Laurie Keller is the bestselling author-illustrator of many other books for kids, including Do Unto Otters, The Scrambled States of America, the Geisel Award–winning We Are Growing!, Open Wide: Tooth School Inside, and the Adventures of Arnie the Doughnut chapter book series.
Growing up in Michigan, Laurie always loved to draw, paint, and write stories. She earned a BFA at Kendall College of Art and Design, then worked at Hallmark Cards in Kansas City as a greeting card illustrator for seven years. One night, the idea for a children’s book popped into her head, and after showing the story to several publishers in New York City, she quit her job and moved there. The following year, that story idea was a published book—The Scrambled States of America. Laurie loved living in NYC, but she returned to her home state, where she lives in the woods along the shores of Lake Michigan. Find out more at lauriekeller.com.
This Book Is Available from Scholastic Book Clubs