interview with John Himmelman, author and illustrator of Tudley Didn’t Know

Interviewed by Cheryl Rainfield

Tudley Didn’t Know
written and illustrated by by John Himmelman
Publisher: Sylvan Dell Publishing
Pub Date: May 2006
ISBN-10: 0976494361, ISBN-13: 978-0976494362

Synopsis: When a hummingbird drops a piece of lichen into the pond near him, Tudley picks it up and flies it back to the hummingbird. The hummingbird is appropriately shocked, and tells Tudley that turtles can’t fly—which Tudley didn’t know. A similar thing happens with a firefly (Tudley makes his tail glow to call the other fireflies), a frog (Tudley hops to reach the mother frog), and a katydid (Tudley rubs his arms together to make music), but Tudley just keeps doing the impossible. When he finds himself stuck on a pile of rocks, the creatures he helped try to help him back, and when they can’t, they keep him company until the turtles arrive. The turtles show him what turtles can do—retreat into their shell—so it won’t hurt when he falls back to the ground. Tudley learns to do that, but he keeps flying—and after a while, the other turtles wonder if they can’t do that, too.

Tudley Didn’t Know is an inspiring, wonderful fantasy. If you haven’t read it yet, find yourself a copy; you won’t regret it! It is one of my top favorite books.

John Himmelman

What inspired you to write and illustrate Tudley Didn’t Know?

[jh] I was driving past a pond when I saw a little turtle stretched out on a log. I remember thinking it looked as if it was trying to fly and I pulled over and did a quick sketch of it on the spot. The sketch sat on my drawing table for 3 years before I came up with the theme of the story. It finally came to me that the idea of a flying turtle appealed to me because turtles
DON’T fly. I then asked myself, “What else don’t turtles do…?”

Tudley Didn’t Know feels like an inspiring metaphor that if you believe in yourself, you can accomplish your dreams or whatever it is you think of. Did you ever do something that other people thought wasn’t possible, or that went against great odds?

Tudley Sketch by John Himmelman

[jh] To this day, I think making a living by drawing pictures and making up stories is going against great odds.

I agree!

I love the fantasy aspect to Tudley–the way he can suddenly fly, or light up his tail, all because he sees another animal doing it and thinks it’s possible. I also love the humor. Did you dream a lot as a child? Do you dream now?

image from Tudley Didn’t Know

[jh] I think all children dream, as do most adults. The difference is when an adult dreams, it’s more like going to the movies – they enjoy the escape but know what they’re experiencing cannot happen in real life. For children, that “movie” can be more inspiring. I do most of my dreaming just before falling asleep. It takes my mind off of things that would keep me
awake all night.

What was the hardest thing for you to write in this book (a character, the beginning or ending)? Why?

[jh] The hardest thing was coming up with a problem this little turtle couldn’t solve. I hated to do that to him, but it was important to me that he be reminded, and grateful, that he is a turtle.

What was the hardest thing for you to illustrate? Why?

[jh] This was a different style for me. I wanted to capture the details of the different animals while giving them human expressions. The first page or two are always the most difficult. They set the style for the whole book, and yet, they are completed before I’m “warmed up”. I do a LOT of sketches beforehand, though, and that helps.

I love how you weave facts so deftly into the text of your book, that they feel like a part of the story–they’re entertaining, not preachy. Did you have to work hard at it to accomplish this?

[jh] Thank you – in this story, however, there was not much need to sneak in the lesson. Tudley did things that he wanted and needed to do and that alone is something children can relate to. I don’t set out to illustrate a lesson. I write what I think is interesting and if there is a lesson in there, great! If it’s a good lesson, even better. Lessons can be found in just about every story, but they are most interesting when the story comes first.

As for the facts in the story, I am a naturalist and spend most of my free time exploring the natural world. I’ve met – in person – and spent quite a bit of time observing the creatures in this book.

I think it’s wonderful you don’t set out to illustrate a lesson; I think the way you write is the most appealing to children.

What was your favorite part about writing or illustrating Tudley Didn’t Know?

image from Tudley Didn’t Know

[jh] I enjoy painting puddles and drops of water and had fun with making the firefly look wet. I also visualized a very specific look on the frog’s face when she first saw her tadpole with legs – I wanted a look of pure joy and pride and I think I captured it.

I think you did, too.

What are you working on now?

[jh] I just finished “Katie Loves the Kittens” (Henry Holt). It’s about a little Jack Russell Terrier that loves the new kittens so much, she can’t contain her excitement and keeps scaring them away. I’m about to start work on a sequel to Chickens to the Rescue – Pigs to the Rescue. I also finished writing a field guide to the night singing insects of the northeastern US. This is for adults and is a book on identifying the crickets and katydids of the area. There will be a CD containing their calls in the back pocket of the book.

That’s exciting you’re writing a sequel! I love Chickens to the Rescue! I’ll keep my eye out for Pigs to the Rescue.

What are some of your favourite picture books or children’s books?

[jh] I worked in the children’s book section in the Commack Library (New York) while going to art school. This exposed me to a lot of work and showed me how I could combine my love of words and pictures in a single medium. I was most inspired by Arnold Lobel’s “Frog and Toad” books – love the way he mixed his browns and greens, and the simple tales of friendship.
My favorite book to read as a child was “The King and Six Friends” – I ordered a copy from the internet and talk about it when I visit schools.

I also grew up on Dr. Seuss. My mother had enrolled me in the Doctor Seuss book club and I received a new book every month. It became something I looked forward to.

I loved Dr. Seuss, too.

Is there anything you would like to tell readers?

[jh] I enjoy visiting schools to talk about the writing/illustration process. Info can be found at my website – Stop in and say hello.

Thank you, John, for a wonderful interview. I really enjoyed hearing what you had to say.

You can read my complete review of Tudley Didn’t Know here. Tudley Didn’t Know is one of those books that feels so good to read–every time. It’s an inspiring, entertaining book that encourages readers to believe in themselves, to dream, to do what feels right, and to not accept limitations that they or anyone else place upon them. It also promotes kindness, compassion, and a sense of community–all while providing an entertaining story. I highly recommend it!

About Cheryl Rainfield

I write the books I needed and couldn't find as a teen. I write teen fiction--paranormal fantasy and gritty realistic fiction. I'm the author of SCARS (WestSide Books, 2010) #1 ALA QuickPicks, and Governor General Literary Award Finalist, HUNTED (WestSide Books, Oct 2011), STAINED (Harcourt, 2013), The Last Dragon (HIP Books, Sept 2009), and Walking Both Sides (HIP Books, 2011). I also enjoy drawing, surfing the web, connecting with people I like, doing crafts, and being with my dog.
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