An Interview with Tony DiTerlizzi
By Chloe Grant, Read to Them Staff
Hello, friends! We hope you’re been enjoying the opening chapters of Kenny and the Dragon. We thought the perfect way to gain a deeper appreciation for this rich tale would be to offer insight from the man behind this story, Tony DiTerlizzi. In addition to being a talented writer and illustrator, Tony is also a wealth of knowledge. He offers many great nuggets of wisdom in our interview below, check it out!
What was your relationship with reading like growing up?
My love of reading began when my parents purchased a set of encyclopedias, which I would pore over for hours. I loved natural history—prehistoric life, insects, sea creatures, birds—basically all the wildlife that I saw in my backyard in south Florida (including prehistoric life). My mom read fairy tales to us DiTerlizzi kids at bedtime. I still recall her laughing at Eeyore and Piglet while reading House at Pooh Corner. These shared experiences became the foundation for a love of books, reading and storytelling that continues to this day.
How did you find your way to becoming a writer?
I was the kid who mumbled sound effects while I drew, because I was never sketching a single picture, but more a scene from a story unspooling in my imagination. Storytelling is in my DNA. I just needed to hone my skills to access it. I’ve been drawing since I was a toddler and started writing in grade school. I wrote and illustrated silly poems, comics and limericks that would entertain my friends and family. I continued with badly-written poetry in college, but managed to pen a few picture book manuscripts by my late 20’s. I made the rounds to the New York publishing houses in the 1990s, to find work as an illustrator. An editor at Scholastic Books, named Kevin Lewis, saw the potential in me as a writer and encouraged me to develop my stories. That validation was all I needed to set forth on, what was for me, a coveted career path.
What was your inspiration for writing Kenny and the Dragon?
This book is a retelling of Kenneth Grahame’s short story, The Reluctant Dragon, first published in Dream Days back in 1898. At first, I set out to re-illustrate Grahame’s original text, but my editor suggested I try retelling the story with a modern reader in mind. I was unsure at first... After all, this book was a classic from my childhood! I struggled with finding a unique take on the story, that is, until my manager suggested I try telling it with a cast of anthropomorphic animals (à la The Wind in the Willows). It was then that I knew I might be able to create something special.
What can we learn from Kenny?
Don’t judge a book by its cover.
Grahame is quite a unique dragon, what prompted you to make him such an endearing character?
If you’re going to have a dragon as your best friend, they need to be magical in all aspects. Grahame is charismatic, and a bit dramatic. His personality is built upon the character in the original 1898 story; however, I wrote him as a bon vivant. He’s cultured, worldly and wise, which contrasts with the younger, naïve Kenny Rabbit. Those sorts of friends—who brighten your day when they’re around—are those I cherish in my own life.
Kenny and the Dragon teaches us the importance of friendship, especially unlikely ones like Kenny and Grahame’s. What can the friendship in this story teach us?
Although my intent is not to teach in my stories, my hope is that I may create a thought-provoking tale. The reader may glean a concept that aligns with how they see the world, or the story may open their eyes to other possible viewpoints and ideas that they had yet to consider.
Kenny and the Dragon is just as much about prejudice as it is about friendship. How the various characters cope with that prejudice is my attempt at illustrating how some may address it in our real world. Kenny comes to understand that there are no simple answers and not everyone is willing to change their opinion, even when the truth is revealed. It is the sort of book that I would have enjoyed as a kid because there are a lot of big questions swirling about just below the surface of the story.
What is something you hope families get out of reading Kenny and the Dragon with Read to Them?
Spending quality time together. I understand that, for some, this is tough to do but reading the same story then talking about it, is the sort of activity that can strengthen the bond of a family. It’s a different experience than watching television or a movie together—where the story is visualized and told to you. You have to engage with a book to get the treasure out of it. Each reader interprets the text uniquely and has differing ideas and opinions on the various aspects of the story. That is when discussions can happen, which I’ve found to be a good skill to have in my family.
We’re thrilled to be getting lost in Kenny’s story this month. What stories have you been getting lost in, and how have you been filling your time at home during COVID?
My daughter has returned to some old favorites, like Raina Telgemeier’s Smile and Sisters. We also listened to Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book on audio, which is terrific. As for recreational reading, there has been a lot of Dungeons and Dragons gaming going on in the DiTerlizzi household so we’ve been re-reading the rulebooks, adventure modules... even creating a few new quests of our own to get lost in.
What advice do you have for young writers & illustrators?
I was once asked by a friend to give advice to a young, aspiring artist. Although these suggestions are aimed at art, they apply to writing as well. So here is what 50-year-old Tony would say to daydreamy-kid Tony:
Don't stop drawing or writing. It's a talent that takes years to refine.
Listen to what people say, even if you don't agree with them. Teachers, friends and family usually offer advice from the heart and their experience.
Copy every artist you love. If you want to learn how they did it, you have to be them.
Being afraid is okay. But pushing yourself past the fear leads to realizing what you're capable of.
Failure is part of success. I never get it right the first time, EVER. There are times I never quite figure it out, but I take what I learned and apply it to my next endeavor.
Success isn't money and it isn't fame. It is a feeling of accomplishment and creating something that didn't exist before.
Satisfy yourself first. If you love what you do, others will too. And, of course, good luck!
We will certainly be taking Tony’s advice, and we hope that you do, too. As you continue to delve deeper into the story of Kenny and the Dragon, don’t forget to check back on Friday for our Reconnect. We’ll see you then to close out our first week with Kenny. Happy reading!