In his first picture book since his Caldecott Honor homage to Jane Goodall, Me…Jane, author-artist Patrick McDonnell invents The Monsters’ Monster, starring a trio of “little terrors,” a group of tiny monsters who aspire to invent a monster to beat all. But when they unveil Monster, a towering, green-complected, Frankenstein-looking fellow, he’s not fearsome; he’s…grateful!

Here, McDonnell discusses how his work on the MUTTS comics has informed his picture books, and the inspiration for his latest creation.

See our full 2012 Halloween picture-book round-up.

Did it feel a bit like going from the sublime to the ridiculous (in a good way), to move from your Caldecott Honor book Me…Jane to The Monsters’ Monster?

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It was an interesting puzzle—how to follow a book about Dr. Jane Goodall?  I presented 10 ideas to my editor, Andrea Spooner.  All were quite different than Me…Jane. The Monsters’ Monster won out. Sublime to ridiculous is a nice way to put it.       

This collection of small characters—or “little terrors” Grouch, Grump and Gloom ’n’ Doom—with big aspirations feels more in keeping with the books starring your MUTTS characters, in that they feel like real kids in their fight and spirit. How did you come up with Gloom ’n’ Doom—the two-headed terror? We liked how the stripes on Grouch’s horns echo the pattern on the long-sleeved T-shirt Gloom ’n’ Doom wears, and also how his two horns echo the two heads on Gloom ’n’ Dloom.

Since I think visually, I usually begin my book ideas by sketching.  This time, I started drawing little monsters. Grouch appeared first.  I began to think: “What makes a monster a monster?”   The answer I came up with was—his thoughts. Thus the book was born. Gloom ’n’ Doom were inspired by a Tony Sarg–designed balloon from the very early days of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.

How has the pacing of your comics influenced your longer works? For instance, there’s that terrific page leading up to the building of “a MONSTER monster,” where each “terror” gets his moment, gathering glue, goo and a smelly old shoe. Then a full page of their assembling of the giant creation, and the bolt of lightning gets a full spread. Then in the final pages, it’s almost like that pace in reverse, slowing things down, calming the little terrors. Do you create storyboards first? How did you accomplish that frantic buildup and lulling wind-down?

Comic strips and children’s picture books both tell stories with words and pictures. For me, the mediums inform and inspire each other. And I’m a drummer by hobby. I love playing with rhythm and timing in telling a story whether in three panels or in 32 pages.  

The pacing of The Monsters’ Monster is at the heart of the book, meant to show the trio’s initial frantic thoughts and actions, and transitioning to the calming of their minds.  

All my books are laid out initially as storyboards, and later presented to my editor as complete little dummy books.

So much of the humor of the book comes through in Monster behaving the opposite of how you’d think he would. Did you give a lot of thought to what his first words should be?

I knew from the start that his first and only words would be “Dank you.” Like any newborn, his mind is a clean slate. He is just happy and grateful to be alive. One of my favorite quotes is Meister Eckhart’s “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was thank you, that would suffice." 

Your palette evolves, brightening little by little until Monster and little terrors hit the beach, and the sunrise lights up the sky. Even your endpapers contrast the dark cloud with the sunrise. Do you plan out your colors as carefully as your pacing?

I wanted the colors to represent their evolution:  dark gray monster thoughts turning into light, bright calmness.  It’s subtle, but the book’s typeface also gets less and less stressed as you get to the final pages.

In all of your books, there’s an undercurrent of kindness, and a respect for animals—in your books featuring your MUTTS characters, and Jane in her devotion to chimps. We could also argue that the little terrors set out to create Monster as their “pet,” and, like all pets, Monster teaches them the most important lesson: about the gift of being alive and in the moment. Is that something that you believe?

You said that beautifully, and yes, that’s my belief. I was fortunate to be able to collaborate with Eckhart Tolle on that very topic. The book is entitled Guardians of Being, with the guardians (and teachers) being our furry companions.