He’s back. Rocket, that is. And many readers will be happy to see him.
In 2010, author/illustrator Tad Hills brought picture-book readers the joyous tale of Rocket, a white dog who learns to read—and his teacher, a little yellow bird—in How Rocket Learned to Read (also in App form). This story, a genuinely touching, never cloying tribute to reading and the people who inspire it, became a New York Times bestseller and garnered all kinds of glowing reviews and awards to boot, including the Irma Black Award.
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Many readers probably wondered if they’d see Rocket again, and fortunately, he’s back in Rocket Writes a Story, to be released this July. This time his pencil is poised in paw, and he wants to write his own tale. And when he finally does, he gets to share it with a new friend.
Hills is also the creator of the beloved and bestselling Duck & Goose picture books and board books, the ongoing stories of the antics of two feathered friends, all laid out on Hills’ cheerful, bright and summery-green palette.
I interrupted Tad’s play with Rocket—yes, he’s got his own real-life Rocket, pictured here—to ask him about this sequel and what’s next.
How Rocket Learned to Read was so well received and loved by readers. Did you feel any pressure when creating this sequel?
For me, writing a sequel is generally more difficult than writing the original. The first book usually begins with a story into which I place characters. These characters develop along with the story as it takes shape.
A sequel is tough because the characters are fully formed, but they need something to do. I've spent so much time with the characters and know them so well that—while I am trying to come up with a worthwhile story for them, and the reader, something that's exciting and fun—I can hear them muttering in my ear, "No, that's not a good idea" or "Are you serious? You want us to do THAT?"
In Rocket's case, since he had learned the alphabet and to spell and read, it felt natural that the next step for him was to put his passion for words to good use and write a story of his own. I have visited countless schools across the country, reading my books and talking to kids about writing and illustrating books. I am always struck by even the youngest kids' enthusiasm to write and draw stories and to create their own books.
The little yellow bird is such a wise and patient teacher. When I read the two books, I find myself wondering if you have special teachers in your life that perhaps inspired the character.
I have had some truly wonderful teachers in my life. Of course, teachers come in all flavors and are not always found in schools. I guess the Little Yellow Bird is a combination of the many teachers and people who have inspired me and made me feel that I was capable and had some talent. She is patient and wise and just gently forceful enough to make you listen and think.
You typically work in oil paints and colored pencil, yes? I'm not an artist, but it seems an interesting combination. What are the challenges, if any, of working in both?
Yes, I use water-soluble oil paint for many reasons. I like that they have the rich feel and consistency of oil paints and, since they don't require mediums and turpentine, I can work at home (at my kitchen counter) without filling the house up with stinky fumes.
After the paint has dried, I go in with colored pencils to sharpen some details and add a bit of texture or make a line more interesting.
I would say that the only drawback to working with oil paints is that they sometimes take too long to dry. I'm often on, or past, a strict deadline and am wishing they'd dry quicker so I can get them out the door.
What's next for you? Any more Duck & Goose books in the works?
I am working on a few things now, but the next thing we'll see on the bookshelves—after Rocket Writes a Story—is a Duck & Goose board book called Goose Needs a HUG!
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books.
Photo of Tad Hills and Rocket used courtesy of Schwartz & Wade Books, 2012.
ROCKET WRITES A STORY. Copyright © 2012 by Tad Hills. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Schwartz & Wade Books, New York.