Five questions for Ryan T. Higgins

In young dino Penelope Rex’s picture-book debut, she learned that We Don’t Eat Our Classmates. Now the pony-loving T. rex is back in Ryan T. Higgins’s We Will Rock Our Classmates (Disney-Hyperion, 4–7 years). Readers discover her equally passionate love of rock ’n’ roll when she signs up for the school talent show — then loses (and finds) her confidence. The story incorporates humorous details throughout for those about to rock. Don’t miss the under-jacket cover art — and, per Shoshana Flax's request, if anyone has any tips on getting that “We will / rock our / CLASSMATES” earworm out of one’s head, send it our way.

1. Where did the ideas for this book and its predecessor (both reminders of simpler school days pre-COVID-19!) come from?

Ryan T. Higgins: The idea for We Don’t Eat Our Classmates started to germinate during a school presentation, where I was talking about the first book I remember making. It was a bunch of little drawings of dinosaurs and went something like this: This is a T. rex and it is very cool. This is a velociraptor and it is also very cool. This is a triceratops and it is not as cool, but I still like it. This is a pachycephalosaurus and it is very hard to spell. I felt like I was starting to bore the audience, so I decided to spice it up: “THEN THE T. REX WENT TO SCHOOL AND ATE ALL THE KIDS!” This got a laugh, and I put that little story nugget in my pocket. Years later, when our eldest son was entering kindergarten, we were worried about all the things parents worry about when sending their kid off to school. That’s when the former story nugget and current parent worries came together for a book idea.

Fast forward a few more years to We Will Rock Our Classmates. This idea came from my children wrestling with whether or not to enter the school talent show. It seemed like Penelope could really use a story about finding the courage to be herself — and showing her classmates that she rocks!

2. Your Penelope books, like your Bruce books, rely on humorous interplay between words and images. Regarding text and pictures — do you work on one first then the other? Or are you working on both at once?

RTH: I’m a visual thinker. I first see my stories play out as animated shorts in my mind. Then I translate them into picture books, starting with the text — and lots of illustration notes. Not that I believe I have a miniature movie theater in my head or anything. I mean, that would be weird. How would I buy tickets? Who would vacuum up all the popcorn left on the floor? Did I leave that popcorn there?

3. Is there a story behind the name of Penelope’s band?

RTH: I wish I could tell you it was the name of my childhood cat or something. In reality, Penelope just really likes mustard — so of course her band had to be called Penelope and the Mustard Seeds. It sounds like a name Penelope would come up with. Also, I’ve invested a lot in mustard seed stock.

4. Are Walter and Penelope frenemies now that they’re playing music together?

RTH: Penelope and Walter’s relationship is fraught with tension. Yes, he is in the band, but I don’t imagine he interacts much with the rest of the group. He mostly broods in the corner. I put Walter in the band for a couple reasons. First, it’s funny to imagine a goldfish flopping around the drum set to bang out a tune. And second, I felt like a lot of this book is about showing others that there’s more to everyone than meets the eye. Penelope shows she is more than just a T. rex. Walter shows he’s more than just a ferocious goldfish.

5. If you start The Wizard of Oz at the same time as Penelope’s (fictional) album, at what point in the film would we hear “Some Pony to Eat”?

RTH: I’m glad you asked. There is a little-known scene that was cut from the original Wizard of Oz where the Cowardly Lion eats a sandwich. I would never go so far as to say it is a pony sandwich, but they never say it isn’t. If you listen to Penelope’s album in reverse while watching the original movie — including the sandwich scene — you will hear Penelope talking about the Cowardly Lion’s (maybe) pony sandwich at the moment the song “Some Pony to Eat” is played.

From the August 2020 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Elissa Gershowitz and Cynthia K. Ritter

Elissa Gershowitz is editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc. Cynthia K. Ritter is managing editor of The Horn Book, Inc.

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