Monkey & Robot: Friends and Neighbors is a new book by writer and illustrator Peter Catalanotto that was published by Creston Books in the Fall of 2019. Monkey & Robot: Friends and Neighbors is a charming graphic novel for children ages six and up that contains four stories focusing on the unlikely duo’s sweet daily adventures.
Monkey & Robot was inspired by journals that Peter wrote when his daughter was growing up. Initially, the stories were about a father and a daughter but Peter decided to change them to a monkey and a robot to give himself more creative freedom. Their backstory is as charming as their depictions: Monkey and Robot have been the best of friends ever since they both worked for NASA. Their warm, accepting friendship transcends their differences; kind and gentle Robot possesses the logic and sensibility of maturity while silly Monkey is run by his emotions
Peter wrote the first two books with four stories each featuring vignette illustrations. Publisher Marissa Moss suggested an early graphic novel for the third book; an idea that Peter loved because he could show so much more of the physical humor and the characters’ nuanced expressions.
Peter has illustrated 48 books for children, of which he has written 18, including Ivan the Terrier, Matthew A. B. C., Question Boy Meets Little Miss Know-it-All, Monkey & Robot, More of Monkey & Robot, and Emily’s Art. His book, The Painter, was featured on PBS’s Storytime and he was commissioned by First Lady, Laura Bush, in 2008 to illustrate the White House holiday booklet. Peter currently teaches the first children’s book writing course offered by Columbia University and Pratt Institute and he had gone to thousands of schools to read his book to adoring legions of young fans.
Peter recently discussed his experiences as a writer and illustrator via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you get into writing and drawing and which passion came first?
Peter Catalanotto (PC): Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved the possibility and potential of a blank piece of paper. As a child, everybody tells you what to do. When you write and draw you can make whatever you want happen–it’s a wonderful power! Drawing was the more natural way for me to express myself, writing was a struggle. When my third-grade teacher noticed this, she suggested I draw first when I wanted to write a story. I became more confident as a writer because the story was laid out in front of me as I wrote–I simply added words to my pictures. This was the same advice an editor gave me twenty years later when I was writing my first picture book, “Dylan’s Day Out.”
MM: How did you break into the industry and what have been some of the coolest projects you’ve been involved with?
PC: A few years after graduating from Pratt Institute, I was illustrating young adult book covers for a variety of publishing houses. After I painted the cover for a Judy Blume novel, the editor, Dick Jackson, asked if I’d be interested in painting a picture book. It wasn’t something I had ever considered but I’m a huge believer in saying yes when an interesting opportunity arises. Dick gave me a story written by Cythia Rylant titled, “Mr. Griggs Work.” After completing several sketches, the editor and the writer agreed I wasn’t the right illustrator for the story–they wanted a more whimsical touch. I was still a ‘serious painter’ from Pratt and not ready to think whimsically. I was disappointed that it didn’t work out; I liked working with the editor and felt I has missed out on a chance to expand as an artist. Dick Jackson told me that Cynthia had really liked my sketches and she wanted to write a story with me in mind as the illustrator. I thought, sure. Then the Beatles will get back together because they want me to paint their album cover. But a month later he sent me a story titled, “All I See” which became the first picture book I illustrated.
As I worked with Dick Jackson, he noticed I extended written stories with my art work. He liked how I would not simply illustrate what the writer already wrote but rather the essence of their writing. My pictures would stray from the words but never from the story. Because I was a visual storyteller, he suggested I write my own stories. When I confessed having struggled with writing as a child, he simply said, “Start with your pictures.” So, I did.
Some of the coolest aspects that involved my career were visiting Mesa Verde to illustrate “Dreamplace”; going deep into a working coalmine to research “Mama is a Miner”; being commissioned by First Lady, Laura Bush, to illustrate the White House Holiday booklet, and teaching writing workshops in Kashmir (where I rode on an elephant) and Rwanda (where I was chased by an elephant).
MM: What themes have your books touched upon?
PC: I was once asked in an interview if there was a common theme that ran through the books I wrote. My initial reaction was, no–all my books were very different from each other. But when I really thought about the question, I realized being seen and heard; accepted and recognized for who you really are is a strong theme in a lot of my work from “Emily’s Art” where Emily simply wants to be an artist without the pageantry of contests and awards to “Ivan the Terrier” where Ivan just wants to be part of a story to every Matthew in “Matthew A.B.C.” who are unique yet embraced by each other. The theme of acceptance is strongest in my “Monkey & Robot” books as the two best friends couldn’t be more different!
MM: What was the process of creating Robot and Monkey like?
PC: “Monkey & Robot” was inspired by a slew of journal writing I did while my daughter was growing up. I initially wrote father-daughter stories based on things that had happened between us while she was in pre-school through third-grade. But because the entries were over a period of years, I kept bumping into the issue of at which age would she know what? A four-year-old and an eight-year-old know vastly different things. When I changed the characters to a monkey and a robot, it freed me as a writer because no one could say when or what a monkey would or wouldn’t know.
MM: What have been some of the most memorable reactions people have had to your stories?
PC: I love the letters I receive from children when they tell me something I wrote or painted made them laugh or something that happened to Monkey happened to them, too! A huge part of the joy of reading is discovering a character who thinks or behaves just like you; especially if you feel different from others in your real life. Some of the most touching letters I received were from adults who wanted to share with me their experience of what Emily went through in “Emily’s Art.” How in childhood, some adult had diminished a passion of theirs with a thoughtless comment or insensitive act and how it affected them throughout their lives.
MM: How did you find Creston Books?
PC: When my editor of twenty-eight years retired, I spent a few years writing and painting without publishing. I didn’t want to enter a new relationship immediately as letting someone into your writing and painting process is intimate and can make you feel vulnerable. When I felt I was ready to get back into publishing, a fellow presenter at a conference suggested Creston. When I sent my latest “Monkey & Robot” stories to the editor, Marissa Moss, she suggested presenting the stories in an early reader graphic novel. I loved the idea because it allowed me to show so much more of the physical humor and the characters’ nuanced expressions.
MM: What will happen to Robot and Monkey next? Can you give any hints as to the upcoming plots?
PC: Its fun carrying these two characters around in my head. When I see or hear something a child says or does while I’m visiting an elementary school, I’ll think; that’s something Robot would say or Monkey would do! In one of the new stories I’m writing, Monkey learns what real bravery is when he decides to become a superhero.
MM: How do you hope your career continues to evolve over the next five years?
PC: For the past thirty years I’ve worked as a writer and illustrator. I’ve visited over 1600 elementary schools in forty states. My plan is to stay the course. I love the contrast of my career; working alone in my studio or presenting in front of 300 students. To wish for anything more feels greedy! However, as my daughter now works as a writer for television and movies, it would be so much fun to collaborate with her on a project!
MM: Do you have any events or releases coming up or anything else that you would like to discuss?
PC: The first weekend in November, I’ll be joining over forty authors and illustrators at the Rochester Children’s Book Festival where we’ll be signing books, reading excerpts, and putting on presentations. I’ll do a demonstration on creating a character; how to draw a face. The following weekend, I’ll be presenting at the Mazza Gallery, which houses the largest collection of children’s book art in the country. My new “Monkey & Robot” book is coming out in October, 2019–I think they are their funniest adventures yet!
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To learn more, visit the official website of Creston Books.
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