What’s a boy and his pal to do when carrots won’t satisfy the hunger pangs and the cookie jar is out of reach? Why, invent a gargantuan robot helper, of course—CookieBot! Author Katie Van Camp freely admits that she takes her inspiration for this and her first title about the indomitable duo (Harry and Horsie) from her years as an au pair to a boy named Harry with a best friend named Horsie.
Find more great picture books to ignite the imagination among our 2011 Best Books for Children.
Here she discusses not only the seeds of this superhero-style adventure, but also the importance of allowing children a chance to solve their own problems.
What gave you the idea for a King Kong–size cookie monster?
[Illustrator] Lincoln [Agnew] and I have a collaborative style that brings out all sorts of fun and exciting ideas. We throw them in a pot and see which one floats to the top. Some are far-out and completely crazy concepts. But others, such as CookieBot!, stand out—or really float—and I can often tell it’s something worth developing once I start writing.
It was Lincoln who came up with the idea of a King Kong–size cookie-grabbing robot, and I absolutely loved it! Lincoln and I balance each other really well. He can sometimes come up with some pretty wacky ideas, which give us a very creative world in which to play. Then I usually ground the idea in ways children can relate to.
You establish the bond between Harry and Horsie so swiftly. Is that the hardest part, figuring out your way into the story for the two of them as a pair? Or is that the easy part, and the story unfolds from there?
What comes first, the chicken or the egg? Sometimes the first few lines drive the entire story. Other times I write the middle and the end then go back and figure out what these two were up to when their imaginations were suddenly triggered. Given the larger-than-life nature of CookieBot!, I wanted to start these two off in a very normal situation. Working with children, I’ve always been amused at how they figure out a situation. Something as ordinary as getting a snack can become an adventure of massive proportions.
In CookieBot!, the true magic lies in the moments before the adventure begins, when Harry and Horsie are putting their heads together in order to solve their problem in a creative way. Their craving for cookies ignites their imaginations, and, from there, the story unfolds.
You turn this universal childhood experience—the quest for the cookie jar—into a sci-fi superhero-style adventure when Harry and Horsie create CookieBot. Do you want to emulate that sense of wonder that children of this age experience as they discover the world around them?
What captures me, as an adult observing the world of a child, is that their world knows no bounds. I love the book Not a Box, by Antoinette Portis (2006), for that reason. Something as simple as a box or a stick can be anything. So I guess my hope—and Lincoln's, I'm sure—is to take that "anything goes" mentality and reflect it in the book. I'm constantly thinking of different things Harry and Horsie can get up to on any given day. Kids use their imaginations for many different reasons, but in most cases it's to entertain themselves.
In both books, there’s that moment when a completely benign mission goes haywire, but then Harry and Horsie save the day. Is there a message here about how children can work out their own problems if they put their minds to it?
I find children, consciously and unconsciously, need to get themselves into a pickle in order to get themselves out of it. I feel that we’ve become a little too overprotective in some ways. Of course it’s difficult to see children upset, and of course we want to comfort and soothe them, but it's also important that we leave them the room to have the experience and grow from it. It's crucial to their development that they not only rely on the adults around them to solve their problems, but that they also attempt to do things on their own so they can learn healthy tools on how to cope with all that the world will bring them.
I do tend to give Harry obstacles to overcome, whether it’s on his own or through Horsie (who may or may not be an extension of himself). Horsie, to me, is Harry’s soft place to fall. He’s there for Harry in a time of need, but he’s not hard on him for having made a mistake. He’s a loving friend who will hand him a glass of milk after a sugar crash and through that gesture say, “You’ll know better next time.” By experiencing things in this way, Harry is learning his boundaries, all while showing himself love and forgiveness.