Author Interview: Philip Yates on Ten Little Mummies

Ten Little Mummies by Philip Yates, illustrated by G. Brian Karas (Viking, 2003). From the catalog copy: “For the first time in prehistory ten adorable mummies are painting the town red. But what is there to paint in ancient Egypt? Find out in this refreshingly funny counting book, where the counting goes backwards from ten down to one little mummy. (Hint: some of the fun involves pyramids and a sphinx!) With a minimalist approach and a deep, distinctive palate, G. Brian Karas tickles the funny bone in this debut counting book…” Ages 4-up.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

Mummies have always cracked me up, especially when I’m driving and there’s one in the middle of the road! In the summer of ’96 I had just married and moved to Austin and, since I was out of work, I had more time for writing. That period there was lot of rhyming stories popping into my head, especially lots of monster poems since I have always been infatuated with monsters, even the ones that moved real slow–like mummies.

Up to then I had published, with my co-author Matt Rissinger, five books of humor with Sterling Publishing, including World’s Silliest Jokes and Best School Jokes Ever. In every book there was a chapter on vampires and monster puns. I had stuff like “What do you do when a mummy rolls his eyes at you?” “You roll them right back.” And “What kind of underwear do mummies wear?” “Fruit of the Tomb.” Terrible jokes like that!

Ten Little Mummies came out of those riddles. I got to thinking how would mummies survive in the present day? My picture books always start with questions like “What if?”. Anyway, the mummies go out to play and all kinds of horrible things happen to them that I thought was very funny: they unravel in revolving doors, a steamroller flattens one into an Ace Bandage, one gets lost in a museum and ends up on display, and so on.

You know something’s good when you a laugh at it when you’re writing the damned thing. And fifty drafts later I thought I had something genuinely worthwhile and hilarious. My other thought—these were harmless, cute little mummies and kids would love them and not be frightened of them and want to read their exploits to figure out how they would survive in the modern day world.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

Spark to publication was seven years. The story evolved in the summer of ’96 and I sent it out to nearly 40 publishers. In the Spring of 2000, I had just about given up hope. Well, the truth was I was writing lots of other picture books and plays and I never thought Ten Little Mummies would go anywhere. I just sent it out because having something out there in the slush pile gathering dust or, hope of all hopes, just being in an editor’s hands, makes a writer feel likes he’s accomplishing something. Still, I had no idea it would be published.

The last publisher I sent it to in April 2000 was Penguin Putnam (Viking). I sent it on a Saturday by priority mail and it came back the following Wednesday by Express. I knew something was up because what kind of editor sends your manuscript back by Express Mail?

So I did what I always do. I freaked out. Maybe it was so bad they mailed it back as quickly as they could. Like it was a virus. So I tossed it in the trunk of the car like I do all rejections.

Of course, the next day, I always look to see what happened. This time, after I tossed it in the trunk, I went back after a few hours and opened it. The first words from Judy Carey, the Viking Editor, was, “I have never laughed so hard in my life at a new picture book.” Well, I didn’t have to read the rest of the letter. The story, she said, was practically perfect, but…….

She felt it would benefit as an educational tool as well as a counting book if I stayed in Ancient Egypt and used the backdrops, ie, the Sphinx, the Pyramid of Giza and so on as the mummies playground. I was against it at first and I told Judy so, but when she told me to just try it, I did and it worked perfectly. Ancient Egypt for these mummies was like a magic wonderland. They could swim in the Nile, have chariot races, hang out with the baboons. The story truly came together then, though it was only 250 words long. But to get to that moment took four years and sometimes spending as much as a month on two lines!

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

I buried myself (the puns again!) in Mummy lore. I bought toy mummies, I ate mummy gummies, I had a toy mummy you took part and removed the heart and brains from. I read zillions of books on Ancient Egypt and the whole process of how to make a mummy. I watched Mummy movies, the great old Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr. films. Basically, I wrapped myself up in the whole history until I knew everything there was to know about mummies.

Now of all this research I probably ended up using about 80% of what I read. There was not time to give a scenic tour of Ancient Egypt, the story had to move quickly and the setting became merely a place where mummies could play, but, at the same time, we would discover Egypt’s historical significance. Still, reading all about Ancient Egypt gave me the atmosphere to work with.

The challenge was creating different ways of dying—-getting eaten by crocodiles while swimming in nile, having heat stroke, etc. The unique and challenging slant was to give variety to the mummies play moments while keeping it Ancient Egypt-like. So I had to come up with unusual facts that would stir kids to laugh and learn about Egypt. For example, Baboons thrived in Ancient Egypt and I didn’t know this. I had to use it because juxtaposing a mummy and a baboon seemed hilarious. At first I had them all dying and not reuniting at the end, which is very grim, which I like, but not realistic or logical for a mummy.

My editor, wise one that she was, indicated that “The little mummies are already dead to begin with, stupid,” so why bother killing them off? So I came up with the ingenuous idea of getting rid of the mummies one by one, but not killing them, just making them conveniently disappear one by one. “One swims away from a crocodile,” “One is arrested for painting the Sphinx,” “One blows away in a sandstorm.” We think these cute little mummies are gone, but not for rotten, I mean not forgotten. In the end, I had to have them come back.

“Duh,” my editor wasn’t afraid to say. “They have to come back because they are dead, anyway!” I also thought it would be cool to have a girl mummy be the survivor, though this is very subtle in the end.

The biggest literary hurtle I faced was worrying about the right illustrator. The editor, thankfully, gave me a choice——they had an illustrator who could do the illustrations in two months and the book would come out in a year. Or, I could go with G. Brian Karas of Saving Sweetness (by Diane Stanley (Putnam, 2001)) and Kathi Appelt‘s Incredible Me (HarperCollins, 2003), and wait three years. I loved Karas’elonogated playful humans in his previous books so I went with him. Sometimes three years is the right choice to wait for a book if you know the illustrator will make a difference.

The most heartrending psychlogical hurdle I faced was the impending death of my mother. She was so proud of the book, and I was so afraid she wouldn’t see it or read it before she left us. Thankfully, the day before the stroke took her, I received the first copy of the book and read it to her as she lay in her bed. I think she stayed alive to see the book. She couldn’t talk, but she did smile and nod her head. The next day she was gone. Waiting seven years was just fine with me just to see the smile on my mother’s face.

Finally, the last great thing about the mummies is I was able to dedicate it to all ten members of my family (six brothers, two sisters) so now I don’t have to worry about dedicating any more books to them.

Enough. As one of the mummies would say, “I’m so tired I’m dead on my feet.”

Cynsational Note

Ten Little Mummies is now available in paperback.

Cynsational News & Links

Other recent interviews with picture book authors/illustrators include: Kathi Appelt and Joy Fisher Hein on Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers: How A First Lady Changed America (HarperCollins, 2005); Varsha Bajaj on How Many Kisses Do You Want Tonight? (Little Brown, 2004); Kelly Bennett on Not Norman: A Goldfish Story (Candlewick, 2005); Anne Bustard on Buddy: The Story of Buddy Holly (Simon & Schuster, 2005); Melanie Chrismer on Phoebe Clappsaddle and the Tumbleweed Gang (Pelican, 2004); Carolyn Crimi and John Manders on Henry and the Buccaneer Bunnies (Candlewick, 2005); Dottie Enderle on The Cotton Candy Catastrophe at the Texas State Fair (Pelican, 2005); Jean Gralley on The Moon Came Down on Milk Street (Henry Holt, 2004); Kelly Milner Halls on Wild Dogs: Past and Present (Darby Creek, 2005); Jan Peck on Way Up High in a Tall Green Tree (Simon & Schuster, 2005); Lupe Ruiz Flores on Lupita’s Papalote (Arte Publico, 2002); Anastasia Suen on Red Light, Green Light (Harcourt, 2005); Jerry Wermund on The World According to Rock (Rockon, 2005); and Kathy Whitehead on Looking for Uncle Louie on the Fourth of July (Boyds Mills, 2005).

The subject of MFAs in writing for children (or children and young adults) was discussed of late on These appear to be the current programs: Vermont College/Union Institute & University (where I teach); Spaulding University; Seton Hill; Hollins; Chatham College; and Western Connecticut State University.

Friends, Leaders Remember Rosa Parks’ Life from YahooNews. The character “Rosa” from my short story “Riding with Rosa,” which was published in the March/April 2005 Cicada, was inspired by Rosa Parks. The story is about harassment of a gay boy and students at an Indian college by football players on a team bus on Kansas 10 highway.

The Texas Library Association sponsors several lists of recommended books for young readers: the 2×2 for age two through 2nd grade; the Texas Bluebonnect Award for third through sixth grade; the Lone Star for sixth through eighth grade; and the Tayshas for high school students. Nominations for the 2×2 list must be submitted by November 15 (only 2005 books are eligible); the in-the-running list for the Bluebonnet Award has already been posted (“final choices will be made October 22”); nominations for the Lone Star (books from the last three years are eligible) and Tayshas (books from the last two years are eligible) appear to be ongoing. The committees welcome outside suggestions.