Author-Illustrator Interview: Mélanie Watt on Scaredy Squirrel

Scaredy Squirrel by Mélanie Watt (Kids Can, 2006). Scaredy Squirrel feels safe in his nut tree–safe from germs, poison ivy, and sharks. He’s prepared for danger with his antibacterial soap, Band-Aids, and parachuchute. But what happens when he’s suddenly forced out of his tree?! A rare funny book about fear. Ages 4-up.

Mélanie Watt is from Montreal, Quebec. She has a college degree in graphic design and a bachelors of arts in graphic design from the Université du Québec à Montréal. Visit Kids Can Press. She describes Scaredy Squirrel as “the nutty adventure of a neurotic squirrel who faces his fears of the unknown.”

Could you tell us about your path to publication–any sprints or stumbles along the way?

My first story Leon the Chameleon came to life in an illustration class at the University of Quebec in Montreal in 1999. My teacher Michele Lemieux encouraged me to send it to Kids Can Press, and they contacted me shortly after to publish my book. I never knew that one day I would be writing and illustrating books for children, but now I can’t see myself doing anything else.

Congratulations on the publication of Scaredy Squirrel (Kids Can Press, 2006)! What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

Myself, and a few family members… It began to be clear to me that being too careful and never taking risks can stop you from discovering your capabilities or talents. We often find ourselves getting too comfortable in our lives and therefore have no need to get out of our comfort zone, just like Scaredy Squirrel in his safe and familiar tree.

Do you have any phobias? (I’m afraid of heights, enclosed spaces, germs, and lettuce).

Of course! I wasn’t kidding about the sharks! Since I saw “Jaws” as a child, I’ve had trouble swimming in a pool! I’m not too crazy about germs either…

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

I’ve had the idea in my mind since 2000. I knew I wanted to write a story about a squirrel that doesn’t know he’s a flying squirrel because he never leaves his nut tree. It took five years before this idea actually came together. It’s humor that finally made Scaredy what he is now. And writing humor was not something I knew I was able to deliver.

I sat down one day and decided to approach this story in a new way, by being as ridiculous as I could. Then, ideas started popping in my head. When I sent my squirrel mockup to my publisher, we made a few changes and things moved forward really quickly. I had a wonderful time and a lot of laughs developing this character!

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

I think the biggest challenge for Scaredy Squirrel was to keep things simple. Especially when there are graphics, exit plans and lists. I didn’t want to confuse kids with too much information, but at the same time I wanted this book to be different than a traditional picture book. One of the advantages of being both an author and illustrator is that you can work on two levels to communicate ideas; there are no limits to your imagination! In some cases, the visuals came first and in others it was the content. I’m thrilled with the results, I love how every page is so different from the next.

The book includes a fold-out page. How did this evolve?

Since this was a key moment in the book, I wanted to emphasis it by prolonging the suspense. It also created a nice visual transition from falling to gliding.

For those unfamiliar with your work, could you talk briefly about your other titles?

My first book, Leon the Chameleon (Kids Can Press, 2001), is a colorful story about being different. Leon always turns the opposite color of his surroundings. Kids learns about complementary colors as they follow Leon’s adventure and discover that being different has its advantages.

Where Does a Tiger-Heron Spend the Night? (Kids Can Press, 2002), which I illustrated, was written by Margaret Carney. It is a lift-the-flap book of questions and answers about a variety of different birds.

I wrote and illustrated a series of five concept books entitled Learning with Animals (Kids Can Press, 2003). More than seventy-five different animals help kids learn about numbers, the alphabet, opposites, colors and shapes in different environmental settings.

Bearcub and Mama (Kids Can Press, 2005), which I illustrated. It was written by Sharon Jennings. It is a story about a mother’s and child’s bond in moments of learning about life’s troubles.

This fall, my new book, Augustine (Kids Can Press, 2006), will appear in bookstores. It’s the story of an artistic young penguin that moves from the South Pole to the North Pole. She expresses her feelings of dealing with her new school through illustrations inspired by famous paintings.

What advice do you have for beginning author-illustrators?

My advice is to follow your instincts and keep pushing your ideas. I have always found that making mockups of my stories with illustrations helps me test out my ideas. I am a visual person and therefore find that this allows me to get a better sense of why something works or doesn’t.

As a reader, what are your favorites and why?

I love funny and witty books. Mo Willems is one of my favorite author-illustrators. His pigeon books really inspire me.